Part 1 Faith – Week 7

Introduction to Christianity:
Faith as standing and understanding

Having explored the inherent difficulties of faith in today’s world – its existential insecurity, the fact that it stakes its claim on the invisible rather than the visible and on the past instead of on the future, and finally on how these three aspects then come together in a particularly powerful way in the Christian claim about the divinity of Jesus, – Ratzinger begins to explain the nature of Christian faith by playing with the relationship between the words ‘to stand’ and ‘to understand’ on the one hand, and their contrast with the binomial ‘to know’ and ‘to make’ on the other. There are, he says, two basic approaches to all of reality, two basic means by which man tries to give meaning to his life. The first is to try and construct that meaning himself, on the basis of his knowledge and ability, on the basis of his achievements in science and technology. The second is to accept that meaning cannot be fundamentally constructed and conquered but instead must be freely received as a gift, and that only by building one’s life on this gift, by taking a ‘stand’ on it, can man truly begin to ‘understand’ who he is and what the purpose of his life is. And this is also why we will never be able to entirely ‘prove’ faith, Ratzinger concludes: for that would be reducing it to just a type of scientific knowledge, trying to take the gift into our hands and become masters of it by subjecting it to our standards of rationality.


In contrasting the two pairs of concepts stand-understand and know-make, I am alluding to a basic biblical statement about belief that is ultimately untranslatable.  Luther tried to capture the profundity of this statement’s play on words when he coined the formula, “If you do not believe, then you do not abide.” A more literal translation would be, “If you do not believe [if you do not hold firm to Yahweh], then you will have no foothold” (Is 7:9). The one root word ‘mn (amen) embraces a variety of meanings whose interplay and differentiation go to make up the subtle grandeur of this sentence. It includes the meanings truth, firmness, firm ground, ground, and furthermore the meanings loyalty, to trust, entrust oneself, take one’s stand on something, believe in something; thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm foothold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the so-called Septuagint) transferred the above-mentioned sentence onto Greek soil not only linguistically but also conceptually by formulating it as “If you do not believe, then you do not understand, either.” It has often been said that this translation is in itself a typical example of the process of Hellenization, of the way in which the Septuagint is less “biblical” than the Hebrew text. Belief, so it is said, became intellectualized; instead of expressing the notion of standing on the firm ground of the reliable word of God, it is now linked with understanding and reason and thus removed to a quite different and completely inappropriate plane. There may be some truth in this. Nevertheless, I think that on the whole the essential meaning is preserved, even if the imagery is different. Standing, as presented in the Hebrew as the content of belief, certainly has something to do with understanding. We shall have to think further about this in a moment.

For the time being we can simply take up the thread of our earlier reflections and say that belief operates on a completely different plane from that of making and “make-ability”. Essentially, it is entrusting oneself to that which has not been made by oneself and never could be made and which precisely in this way supports and makes possible all our making. But this also means that on the plane of practical knowledge, it neither occurs nor ever could occur and be discovered and that any attempt to “lay it on the table”, to demonstrate it as one would a piece of practical knowledge, is doomed to failure. It is not to be met in the context of this kind of knowledge, and anyone who nevertheless “lays it on the table” has laid something false on the table. The penetrating “perhaps” that belief whispers in man’s ear in every place and in every age does not point to any uncertainty within the realm of practical knowledge; it simply queries the absoluteness of this realm and relativizes it, reminding man that it is only one plane of human existence and of existence in general, a plane that can only have the character of something less than final. In other words, we have now reached a point in our reflections where it becomes evident that there are two basic forms of human attitude or reaction to reality, neither of which can be traced back to the other because they operate on completely different planes.

Let us return after this little detour to ask once again and more comprehensively: What is belief really? We can now reply like this: It is a human way of taking up a stand in the totality of reality, a way that cannot be reduced to knowledge and is incommensurable with knowledge; it is the bestowal of meaning without which the totality of man would remain homeless, on which man’s calculations and actions are based, and without which in the last resort he could not calculate and act, because he can only do this in the context of a meaning that bears him up. For in fact man does not live on the bread of practicability alone; he lives as man and, precisely in the intrinsically human part of his being, on the word, on love, on meaning. Meaning is the bread on which in the intrinsically human part of his being, subsists. Without the word, without meaning, without love he falls into the situation of no longer being able to live, even when earthly comfort is present in abundance. Everyone knows how sharply this situation of “not being able to go on any more” can arise in the midst of outward abundance. But meaning is not derived from knowledge. To try to manufacture it in this way, that is, out of the provable knowledge of what can be made, would resemble Baron Munchhausen’s absurd attempt to pull himself up out of the bog by his own hair- I believe that the absurdity of this story mirrors very accurately the basic situation of man. No one can pull himself up out of the bog of uncertainty, of not being able to live, by his own exertions; nor can we pull ourselves up, as Descartes still thought we could, by a cogito ergo sum, by a series of intellectual deductions. Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.


Questions for reflection:

According to Ratzinger, what are the two basic means by which man tries to give meaning to his life?

When you speak of your personal belief, what in your life has ground you in that belief and what have you accepted as a free gift?

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