Joseph Ratzinger and the Divine Project
“And in this He [Christ] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, “What may this be?” And it was answered generally thus, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
Fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich’s oft-quoted attribution of Christ’s attitude toward sin as “All will be well,” is compelling. And unnerving. But the truth or falsehood of that vision isn’t my subject today. Rather, it’s her vision of creation as a hazelnut. It is–well, magnificent.
Discovering it in John Grondelski’s Recovering Passion for the Divine Project, prompted–more accurately, compelled my read of the book. In 1985, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger published a series of lectures: The Divine Project: Reflections on Creation and the Church. Ratzinger asks how we moderns can read Genesis “without doing violence to the text, inquire into its relevance for the present?”
After describing ancient Israel’s place among pagan nations, each worshipping their particular, local god, Cardinal Ratzinger does a deep dive into our recent history, specifically the effects of science and technology upon our understanding and interpretation of the Bible.
In doing so, Cardinal Ratzinger explains precisely why Genesis and much of the Bible is perceived as allegory among priests and many Christian and Catholic faithful.
“Parallel to the rise of the scientific way of thinking came the rise of a historical way of thinking
that attempted to apply to texts and to history more or less the same methods used by the natural sciences on nature. Thus, in accord with its scientific idealism, this emerging form of historical thinking now sought to read each text in isolation, purely in terms of its historically literal meaning…The integrity of the Bible as such is a matter of faith, which has its place and its empirical justification in the way that it roots the path of the people of God. As a purely historical matter apart from this life context, it is not a matter of historical reality, but as nineteenth-century exegesis had it (and which, objectively speaking, is correct in a purely historical sense): it is an extremely heterogeneous collection of literature gathered under a single book cover…various generations—but backward, as defined by the methodology.
This meant always looking for the more ancient source, the true origin, the oldest stage of development, and permitting this alone to be considered valid content for interpretation. The texts were no longer read forward, but backward—not with a view to Christ, but back toward the presumed origin of the text. No longer did one look to the ultimate form to discern the meaning of a text or the nature of a thing; but one looked to the beginning, to its origin. The Fathers’ way of reading in view of Scripture as a totality came to be disparaged as “allegory.”. And because reading in light of the totality of Scripture was mere “allegory”, and thus the very antithesis of the scientific approach, this approach soon just vanished from theology as a scholarly discipline…”
I know woefully little about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict. But the curious reaction of pundits upon his death prompted my search into the why of his alleged ‘rigidity, Islamophobia and racism’ naming just a few of the claims about Pope Benedict. Led to the now infamous Regensberg address, I found that his intellectual honesty, courage along with his consistent searing, soaring discourse startles–even alarms, so thorough is his unambiguous reasoning. Of course, many would hate hearing or reading the words.
This book is no different. The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s approach to those of us schooled in the ‘enlightenment’s’ mechanistic thinking is gracious and compassionate. And inescapably reasonable. Our love of disassembling the whole in order to weigh, measure and examine the parts and its consequences is laid bare, kindly but relentlessly.
It’s a whole fabric–the Bible.
Unafraid of science or the grandiose and beloved scientific method of our culture, Ratzinger draws on scientists like Einstein and Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod to elucidate the evident limitations on our scientific understanding of creation. In doing so, he leads his readers to see that the Bible is “the truth that does not dissipate in a fog of pious pleasantries but remains the firm ground on which we stand.”
Fully aware that I’m doing injustice to Ratzinger’s exegesis, I’ve no choice in this these thousand plus words but to extract titillating excerpts. Like this one:
We are able to recognize in the immense objects that make up the world of the stars and other heavenly bodies a great and powerful Reason that holds the universe together. And as we penetrate ever deeper into the smallest of things, into the cell, into the primordial units of life, there, too, we discover a reasonableness that is truly astonishing, so that today I believe we can no longer say that Saint Bonaventure was merely being pious; rather, he was also being reasonable, when he said—very much in the tradition of the Wisdom Books, I might add—“Whoever does not see all this is blind. Whoever does not hear all this is deaf. And whoever does not begin to worship and praise the Creator Intelligence based on all this is dumb.”
Cardinal Ratzinger’s careful, precise exposition on worship as the purpose of Creation warrants extensive meditation. Just so, the unwillingness of ancient Israel to observe the Sabbath and the consequences of their refusal can’t help but indict the new Israel: you and me, all of us who so weakly and cravenly follow Christ.
But it’s his lectures, Man, the Divine Project and it’s successor, Sin and Redemption that raze the secular nihilism of our day.
What is man?
“Being human is a task that is given to each and every one of us, an appeal to our freedom. Sartre portrayed this quite dramatically as the lot to which man is condemned: that, having no intrinsic nature, it is up to him to invent himself. While we should certainly object to the radicality of this view, even on empirical grounds alone, it remains true that what it means to be human is not something that is just predetermined for us. Rather, it is a question that needs to be explored anew, and each of us must decide who or what we wish to be as human beings. Thus, the question “What is man?” is not a matter of philosophical theorizing but is the most practical question of all, the one that precedes all other questions and in all other questions is asked and answered.”
Given the prevailing intellectual climate in which we currently find ourselves, it makes a certain amount of sense that the topic of sin is one that has been suppressed, yet it nevertheless remains quite real. The symptoms of this are manifold—one that I have noticed has become increasingly prevalent in our society is this aggressiveness where people are always ready to pounce, this ever-ready willingness to insult the others, to blame them for our own misfortune, or to condemn society as a whole and seek to change the world through violence. It seems to me that the only way to understand all this is to understand it as an expression of the suppressed reality of guilt, which man does not want to acknowledge. But since it is nevertheless still there, he has to attack it and crush it. And because man suppresses the truth but is unable to do away with it, he becomes sickened by this suppressed truth. This is why Jesus says that it is the task of the Holy Spirit to “convince the world of sin” (Jn 16:8).
I have to chuckle at myself because more than two-thirds of this book is highlighted, far more than can be discussed here. I hope your appetite has been whetted to read for yourself, Joseph Ratzinger and the Divine Project,
One might ask if all this isn’t just pointless philosophizing?
Of course. That’s a primary point of Ratzinger’s lectures: in this culture, we’re human because of what we do. The notion of being is nullified. Our worth is in our actions-our knowledge and capabilities have no bounds. But for me, this is real, critical and personal. I suspect I’m one of the few people who, upon completing their doctorate at the school of Public Health in Houston sat on the steps of the school and sobbed.
It took close to ten years to complete the course work, the qualifying exams and the dissertation-while working full time. So why not joyous celebration?
A very simple answer. My goal had been wisdom, in undergrad and then the doctoral program. But with each degree I knew less and less. I couldn’t find what I searched for in a classroom or a professor’s theory or the receipt of letters after my name. At the time, it felt that all that study, sacrifice and energy had been an exercise in futility.
Of course this humiliation was ginormous grace from God.
- I had to be flattened to get back on my knees.
- And see there is just one source of wisdom.
- I had to understand there are just two answers to the questions imposed on us in this life:
- Yes or No? [Thank you Bishop Robert Baron for “The Great Yes and the Great No.”]