Part 1 Faith – Week 6

Introduction to Christianity:
A provisional definition of belief and the difficulty of faith today (II)

If the first great difficulty – and fragility – of faith lies in the fact that it attempts to bridge the gap between the visible and the invisible, and that it is thus necessarily constituted as man’s adventurous, risky leap out of the tangible world that he is apparently at home and secure in, Ratzinger tells us that in our modern world faith is made even more problematic by a second characteristic: its attempt to also bridge the gulf between the past and the present, between the ‘then’ and the ‘now’. As opposed to taking its stand on the fashionable idea of scientific ‘progress’ that promises a world of untold possibilities, he tells us, faith is far more rooted in history and tradition, in the events that ground man to the past. And this, he concludes, then brings us to the third great difficulty of Christian faith: that it takes its stand on the apparently absurd and contradictory idea that God did indeed enter history, did indeed become man, did indeed become the one whom man was able to see, hear, and touch.


Once one has perceived the adventure essentially implicit in the whole attitude of belief, it is impossible to avoid a second consideration, namely, that of the particularly acute difficulty in believing that affects us today. On top of the gulf between “visible” and “invisible,” there comes, to make things harder for us, the gulf between “then” and “now”. The basic paradox already present in belief as such is rendered even more profound by the fact that belief appears on the scene in the garb of days gone by and, indeed, seems itself to be something old-fashioned, the mode of life and existence current a long time ago. All attempts at modernization, whether intellectual, academic “demythologization”, or ecclesiastical, pragmatic aggiornamento, do not alter this fact; on the contrary, they strengthen the suspicion that a convulsive effort is being made to proclaim as contemporary something that is, after all, really a relic of days gone by. It is these attempts at modernization that first make us fully aware just how old-fashioned what we are being offered really is. Belief appears no longer as the bold but challenging leap out of the apparent all of our visible world and into the apparent void of the divisible and intangible; it looks much more like a demand to bind oneself to yesterday and to affirm it as eternally valid. And who wants to do that in an age when the idea of ‘‘tradition” has been replaced by the idea of “progress”?

We touch here on a specific element in our present situation that is of some importance to our question. For intellectual circles in the past, the concept of “tradition” embraced a firm program; it appeared to be something protective on which man could rely; he could think himself safe and on the right lines if he could appeal to tradition. Today precisely the opposite feeling prevails: tradition appears to be what has been laid aside, the merely out-of-date, whereas progress is regarded as the real promise of life, so that man feels at home, not in the realm of tradition, of the past, but in the realm of progress and the future. From this point of view, too, a belief that comes to him under the label “tradition” must appear to be something already superseded, which cannot disclose the proper sphere of his existence to a man who has recognized the future as his real obligation and opportunity. All this means that the primary stumbling block to belief, the distance between the visible and the invisible, between God and Not-God, is concealed and blocked by the secondary stumbling block of Then and Now, by the antithesis between tradition and progress, by the loyalty to yesterday that belief seems to include.

Indeed, in one sense it is only here that the peculiarity of the specifically Christian scandal becomes visible; I refer to what might be termed Christian positivism, the ineradicable positivity of Christianity. What I mean is this: Christian belief is not merely concerned, as one might at first suspect from all the talk of belief or faith, with the eternal, which as the “entirely Other” would remain completely outside the human world and time; on the contrary, it is much more concerned with God in history, with God as man. By thus seeming to bridge the gulf between eternal and temporal, between visible and invisible, by making us meet God as a man, the eternal as the temporal, as one of us, it understands itself as revelation. Its claim to be revelation is indeed based on the fact that it has, so to speak, introduced the eternal into our world: “No one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18) – one could almost say, in reference to the Greek text, that it has become the “exegesis” of God for us. But let us stick to the English word; the original empowers us to take it quite literally: Jesus has really made God known, drawn him out of himself or, as the First Epistle of St. John puts it even more drastically, made him manifest for us to look upon and touch, so that he whom no one has ever seen now stands open to our historical touch.

At first glance this really seems to be the maximum degree of revelation, of the disclosure of God. The leap that previously led into the infinite seems to have been reduced to something on a human scale, in that we now need only take the few steps, as it were, to that person in Galilee in whom God himself comes to meet us. But things are curiously double-sided: what at first seems to be the most radical revelation and to a certain degree does indeed always remain revelation, the revelation, is at the same moment the cause of the most extreme obscurity and concealment. The very thing that at first seems to bring God quite close to us, so that we can touch him as a fellow man, follow his footsteps and measure them precisely, also becomes in a very profound sense the precondition for the “death of God”, which henceforth puts an ineradicable stamp on the course of history and the human relationship with God. God has come so near to us that we can kill him and that he thereby, so it seems, ceases to be God for us. Thus today we stand somewhat baffled before this Christian “revelation” and wonder, especially when we compare it with the religiosity of Asia, whether it would not have been much simpler to believe in the Mysterious Eternal, entrusting ourselves to it in longing thought; whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance; whether it would not really be easier to ascend out of the world and hear the eternally unfathomable secret in quiet contemplation than to give oneself up to the positivism of belief in one single figure and to set the salvation of man and of the world on the pinpoint, so to speak, of this one chance moment in history. Surely a God thus narrowed down to one point is bound to die definitively in a view of the world that remorselessly reduces man and his history to a tiny grain of dust in the cosmos, that can see itself as the center of the universe only in the naive years of its childhood and now, grown out of childhood, ought finally to have the courage to awake from sleep, rub its eyes, shake off that beautiful but foolish dream, and take its place unquestioningly in the huge context in which our tiny lives have their proper function, lives that should find new meaning precisely by accepting their diminutiveness?

It is only by putting the question in a pointed form like this and so coming to see that behind the apparently secondary stumbling block of “then” and “now” lies the much deeper difficulty of Christian “positivism”, the “limitation” of God to one point in history, that we can plumb the full depths of the question of Christian belief as it must be answered today. Can we still believe at all? Or rather – for the question must be posed in a more radical fashion – is it still permissible to believe? Have we not a duty to break with the dream and to face reality?

Questions for reflection:

Modern times are looking to rewrite history, and cancel long-standing traditions in the name of enlightenment or progress. Christianity has always looked to bridge the gap between the past and the present as well as point the way to eternity. What would it be like if tradition played no part in the lived expression of Christianity?

Have I realized just how radical the claim of Christianity is? Christianity isn’t just a moral or ethical code for right living. And it doesn’t just speak about God either. Rather, it says that God became man – and that everything in the universe, everything in history revolves around this one man, who lived for just 33 years in Palestine some 2000 years ago. That’s a big claim for a religion to make!

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