At one poignant moment in Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise, Abraham Gordon, a distinguished Jewish scholar with a skeptical cast of mind, muses on one of modernity’s discontents while walking through Central Park with Reuven Malter, a brilliant, Orthodox rabbinical student: “Of course, that’s the problem … How can we teach others to regard the tradition critically and with love? I grew up loving it, and then learned to look at it critically. That’s everyone’s problem today. How to love and respect what you are being taught to dissect.” In that elegiac passage, written almost forty years ago, Potok defined precisely the problem that Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, addresses in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth. “Everything” in Christianity, the Pope writes, depends on building an “intimate friendship with Jesus.” That was true in first-century Galilee; it is just as true in the twenty-first century. But twenty-first century believers have a problem that their forebears didn’t face: the many issues posed by modern methods of reading ancient texts. Now, after two centuries of reading the Bible according to the historical-critical method-“dissecting” the biblical text, as the fictional Abraham Gordon might put it-many Christians are “in danger of clutching at thin air” in seeking this friendship with their Lord. Or so the Pope worries.
And not without good reason. Caricatures notwithstanding, Benedict XVI is no reactive anti-modern. He readily and gratefully acknowledges that, thanks to historical-critical scholarship, we know much more, today, about the different literary genres of the Bible; about the ways in which a Gospel writer’s intent affected his portrait of Jesus; about the theological struggles within early Christianity that shaped a particular Christian community’s memory of its Lord. The difficulty is that, amidst all the knowledge gained in the biblical dissecting room, the Jesus of the Gospels has tended to disappear, to be replaced by a given scholar’s reconstruction from the bits and pieces left on the dissecting room floor. And that makes “intimate friendship with Jesus” much more difficult, not just for scholars, but for everyone.
Joseph Ratzinger was a world-class theologian long before he became the Roman Curia’s official defender of Catholic doctrine, and then the pope. In Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger reveals the core of his personality as he invites his readers into the classroom of a master teacher — one who has absorbed the best that modern biblical scholarship has to offer and has yet emerged from that encounter with his faith intact and enriched. At the outset, Ratzinger asks us to join him and to “trust the Gospels,” to read them both critically and with love. Both attitudes are necessary, he suggests, if twenty-first century readers are to understand how each Gospel writer (and the Christian community from which and to which he wrote) explains the Church’s Easter faith: the conviction that “Jesus really did explode all existing cate gories and [can] only be understood in the light of the mystery of God.”
Reading the New Testament through a lens ground by decades of study and reflection, Ratzinger shows us how texts that may have become dulled by familiarity can regain their edge. There are, for instance, the well-known stories of Jesus’s temptations in the desert, read throughout Christendom on the First Sunday of Lent, every year. How many preachers explain these temptations as dramatic variations on the perennial human temptation to utopianism, to a self-sufficiency that “pushes God off the stage”? That utopianism, Pope Benedict writes, comes at a great spiritual cost, for the “arrogance that would make God an object and impose our laboratory conditions upon him” renders us incapable of finding the God we seek. The human costs of self-constructed self-sufficiency are also steep. The tempter asks Jesus to make himself superior to God; Jesus’s rejection of that temptation, Ratzinger suggests, reminds us that “to do that is to abase not only God, but the world and oneself, too”-a suggestion confirmed by the murderous depredations of those twentieth-century totalitarians who made ultramundane gods out of themselves.
Then there are the Beatitudes: When was the last time you heard a sermon in which these eight familiar injunctions were described as “a sort of veiled interior biography of Jesus, a kind of portrait of his figure” — and thus “a roadmap for the Church, a model of what she herself should be”? Here, as throughout the book, Benedict XVI unpacks the New Testament with the help of his profound knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Why is it the meek to whom the Beatitudes promise the inheritance of “the land”? Because, explains Ratzinger, drawing on the imagery of the Exodus, “the land was given [to the people of Israel] as a space for obedience, a realm of openness to God that was to be freed from the abomination of idolatry.” Why is it the pure of heart who will see God? Because, as the Old Testament psalms teach, “the organ for seeing God is the heart. The intellect alone is not enough … ”
In Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict-the-theologian also shows himself to be a man of deep prayer, which has the interesting effect of making his book an invitation to Christians to pray more intelligently. One of the book’s finest sections is a lengthy exposition of the Lord’s Prayer. There, the Pope asks us to consider why Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father” rather than to “My Father.” The answer, he suggests, touches both the uniqueness of Jesus and the indispensability of the Church for the Christian life: “Jesus alone was fully entitled to say ‘my Father’ because he alone is truly God’s only-begotten Son … Only within the ‘we’ of the disciples can we call God ‘Father,’ because only through communion with Jesus Christ do we truly become ‘children of God.’ In that sense, the word our is really rather demanding: It requires that we step out of the closed circle of our ‘I’. It requires that we surrender ourselves to communion with the other children of God. It requires, then, that we strip ourselves of what is merely our own, of what divides. It requires that we accept the other, the others — that we open our ear and our heart to them. When we say the word our, we say ‘yes’ to the living Church in which the Lord wanted to gather his new family.”
These are themes that Joseph Ratzinger has been developing for almost half a century. In that sense, Jesus of Nazareth (and its promised successor volume) is a great summing-up of a lifetime of learning, refined into insight and understanding by a lifetime of praying the New Testament as well as studying it. If, amidst some familiar Ratzingerian themes, there is a new chord struck with particular force, it is Benedict XVI’s insistence, repeated several times, that a Christian Church faithful to its Lord cannot be a Church of power. Benedict does not quite describe Christianity’s alliance with state power as a Babylonian captivity. Still, he comes very close when he writes that “the temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in various forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.”
Those words are a sharp challenge to those Catholics who still seek a confessional state, either along the lines of the old regimes in Europe or according to a more contemporary, liberation theology model. It is also, if subtly, a summons to a new dialogue with Islam on the necessity of separating religious and political authority, precisely for the sake of acts of faith freely offered to the God of Abraham.
For almost two thousand years, as Benedict XVI writes, Christianity has claimed that Jesus “explodes all the categories.” Yet that claim, as it emerges from the stories and teachings of Jesus in the New Testament, has been obscured in recent centuries by an approach to biblical interpretation that so stressed dissection that an encounter with the category-exploding meaning embedded in the biblical text became more difficult. Joseph Ratzinger tries to lift that veil of obscurity in this very personal search for what he terms “the face of the Lord.” He now shares that search with the world through a book in which he returns time and again to the theme of his first encyclical as pope, the plenitude of God’s love. Scholars argue about the historicity of the miracle of the wedding feast at Cana; Benedict XVI puts the edge back on the story by proposing what the story means: through his action on behalf of an embarrassed host, Jesus is telling us that the sign of God’s presence in history is “overflowing generosity.” The overflowing water-made-wine, this “superabundance of Cana,” is the first signal that “God’s feast with humanity, his self-giving for men, has begun.”
The extraordinary comes to us through the ordinary. The Gospels, read both critically and with love, show us “reality’s translucence to God.” That is the claim of Jesus of Nazareth, posed with conviction and compassion by a pope writing very much as the teacher he always wanted to be.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.