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The End of Modernism: Joseph Ratzinger’s Dialogue with Love

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Oct 29, 2013

When the Modernists came on the scene in the late nineteenth century, they were abuzz with historical consciousness. There is actually a good reason for this, though the use they made of it was seldom helpful. Nonetheless, by the 20th century, Modernist ideas were having an enormous impact on theology, an impact which grew in the first half of the century, dominated in the second half, and is now at last beginning to wane. It will be very helpful going forward to understand the theological problem at the root of Modernism, and to see how this problem has been effectively resolved.

There was a great growth in what we might call historicity in Europe from the 17th century on. The exposure to new and different cultures, the struggles among competing versions of Christianity, the rise of a commercial business culture, and the achievements of modern science all caused Europeans to focus on the remarkable differences in perceptions and attitudes among different cultures and varying individuals, differences which were obviously in some ways rooted in time and place. And of course we can add to that the idea of differences in “personality”, especially as the study of psychology developed in the 19th century.

Meanwhile, the dominant school of Catholic theology growing out of the conflict with Protestantism tended to focus primarily on the right understanding of faith and morals. Neo-Scholasticism was an intensely propositional school of theology, often rooted in philosophical abstraction, and producing rigorously argued and highly logical formulations of the principles of faith and morals. Unfortunately, these systems generally lacked the intensely human and incarnational sense of tension and dynamism that we see, for example, in Scripture, or even in the approach of the Fathers, who were far more oriented to the lived experience of the human person. Augustine, for example, was an astute psychologist, long before psychology ever existed as a science.

It was perhaps inevitable, therefore, that as modern culture grew more secularized, it also grew less interested in, and less convinced by, abstract theological systems. By the 19th century, at least, many philosophical and theological thinkers outside the mainstream of the Catholic ecclesiastical establishment began to wonder how theology could be adapted, and how Revelation itself could speak effectively, to people in a new situation, living in a new culture, and possessed of a new sensibility. And it is just here that a monumental error occurred.

Reacting to Neo-Scholasticism Instead of to Revelation

In many ways, what occurred was that new and very popular thinkers did not so much engage with Revelation itself as to dismiss Neo-Scholasticism. The initial insight was quite true and quite healthy: Our response to God is very much conditioned by our historical circumstances, our culture, our cast of mind, our sensibilities, and so on. Surely this must be factored into theology. And so, if the reigning theological methodology no longer effectively responded to the particular concerns and biases of modern man, then it seemed to many that theology could be done differently.

Now theology certainly could be done differently. It had been done differently in the past, and it would be done differently in the future. But the mistake the Modernists made was not that they reimagined theology but that they reimagined Revelation itself, making human perception not just a key to theological understanding but the source of all theological specificity. The Modernists took a disdainful look at Neo-Scholasticism and said, “Let us suppose that this is how an outworn age expressed the religious sentiments that everyone possesses, with their odious penchant for static propositions. To them, these seemed almost capable of capturing the Divine Idea.” And then they said, “But we are a different age, and so for us the Divine Idea presents itself in a new way, the way of change, and progress, and growth; the way of human achievement, struggle, and secular enlightenment.”

Suddenly, then, the vagaries of historical culture were called upon to generate their own versions of the Divine Idea. The fact that God had revealed Himself in very specific and even demanding ways was conveniently forgotten. The Neo-Scholastic theological bathwater was thrown out with the revealed Baby. God found Himself no longer the Word that is spoken, but the Idea that men and women must speak. Theology was replanted not in Scripture and Tradition but in human consciousness. Eric Voegelin’s famous expression, “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton” comes to mind.

Certainly there is much that was culturally and personally puerile bound up with all of this Modernist theorizing. There was the desire to be freed from moral constraint, the refusal to be bound by any disclosure from a superior being, an interest in appealing to modern culture and being recognized for that appeal, and a drift from being culturally aware to being just plain culture bound. But we ought not to forget that at the heart of this movement was a very real question. Western thinkers had become acutely aware that man was in many ways historically conditioned, and that this must be an ongoing process. Therefore, he did not respond well to older schools of theology and philosophy which emphasized static abstraction and logic. How are we to deal in theology with this new awareness of the role of time, place and culture in shaping our own religious sensibilities?

Going Back to the Sources

In the midst of the errors and confusions which I have sketched with a very broad and critical brush above, there were other theologians who saw that theology had no real life apart from an actual Revelation originating outside of history, but a Revelation which had to be communicated in history if it were to be communicated at all (as it seemed the Neo-Scholastics themselves sometimes tended to forget). These theologians believed that the solution to the Modernist dilemma was to return to the sources of Revelation, in the books of the Old Testament, the life of Christ and the Gospel in the New Testament, and in the evidence from the early Christian tradition, including the Fathers of the Church, who were the first to offer prolonged reflections on Revelation as understood to be communicated historically through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.

These new thinkers were often at odds with the Neo-Scholastic establishment, and this sometimes got them into ecclesiastical trouble. Some of them, of course, deserved to be in ecclesiastical trouble. But many were simply trying to gain fresh insight into the things of God by rooting themselves in the Revelation itself, and not in the abstract systems which were later built upon it. Among these, men like Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger made enduring contributions. Moreover, after some years of controversy, their contributions were beginning to be recognized by the mid-20th century.

Thus Joseph Ratzinger (later, of course, to be Pope Benedict XVI) was selected as a theological advisor (peritus) at the Second Vatican Council. He and others had a profound impact on the Council’s efforts to ground the Church’s relationship with history, human culture and all peoples in the original saving Plan revealed by God, which was still unfolding in the world. When one reads the Council’s documents with this in mind, one is struck by this sense of the Church’s ongoing mission of speaking anew the Word of God down through history, making it salvifically fruitful for all in the heart of the Church—that Church which is also a people continually formed by Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament, and particularly through the Eucharist itself.

Joseph Ratzinger was among those who most deeply perceived the real solution to the Modernist dilemma, for he recognized that the Word of God is ultimately a Person, disclosing Himself in history, speaking and awaiting a response, joining humanity to God in the Incarnation, and facilitating a pattern of Revelation and response which carries the human person through death and into eternal life. Revelation, said Ratzinger, takes history very seriously. Not only did God enter history to effect the fullness of his Revelation, but he extends this disclosure throughout time and place in the mission of the Church. The Church then benefits from the multiform genius of the human family to enrich the Catholic tradition over time, so that by continuous reflection on these saving realities within the Church, the fullest possible understanding of Jesus Christ might unfold.

A Dialogical Theology

Here then is dialogue writ large. But it is no longer a euphemism, as it was for the Modernists, who took refuge in their historicity by defining “dialogue” as the responsibility of the Church to recognize the equal legitimacy of all their ideas, no matter how estranged from Christ they became. Thus “dialogue” became the mantra for those who, in their rejection of the Church's authority, wished (let us be honest) to recreate religion out of the wholly human cloth of their own misguided aspirations and desires. The theology of Joseph Ratzinger agrees wholeheartedly that our reception and expression of Christianity is inescapably historically conditioned in various ways, that each culture carries within it a unique set of perceptions, preoccupations and concerns, and even that each person does the same. But Ratzinger also knew early on that to emphasize only this is to forget that we are seeking genuine dialogue with God, not merely our own monologue. The Modernist monologue has been running for well over a hundred years—now, thankfully, merely an ebb tide—without drawing us even a single step closer to that union with God signified in the Incarnation of Our Lord and Savior.

In contrast, Ratzinger insists on what we might call the scandalous particularity of genuine dialogue, the scandalous specificity of God entering decisively into human history. Dialogue is not merely thinking about some vague Divine Idea. Dialogue means listening and speaking to a particular person. And the dialogue partner for Christian theology and the Christian spiritual life is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, one of three Persons in the blazing furnace of love that is the Trinity, the Creator of all that is, who wishes to reveal God to us, and who invites us to respond in love to what we come to see in Him. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the same yesterday, today and forever, the beginning and the end (Rev 22:13; Heb 13:8). His self-disclosure is specific, concrete, precise, life-changing and as demanding as only Love can be. In the dialogue that is both the way of the Word with man and the structure of all theology, we are either listening and responding to the Incarnate Son of God…or we are talking through our hats.

As hinted above, ecclesiology—the understanding of the Church—is absolutely critical for this dialogical theology. For it is precisely through His formation of the Church, His constant Presence within it, His building of its body through the Eucharist, and His establishment of its authority to ensure the continuity of the original Revelation down through the ages—it is precisely through the action of Christ in the Church in history that Our Lord brings Himself into dialogue with every time and place, with diverse cultures, and with so many persons with such different casts of mind. Through the mission of the Church, the Revelation which was completed in Jesus Christ is at once the culmination of previous history and the extension of Christ in all subsequent history. The Church, in contact with so many challenges and even enrichments from various human cultures over the centuries, continues to reflect and grow in the knowledge of the Lord, retaining everything that is good in her tradition, until all is brought to the full stature of Jesus Christ (Heb 4:13).

Again and again the Church speaks the Divine Word, which is a Divine Person. Again and again humanity, in one way or another, responds. Those who respond positively live a life of constant dialogue, constant exchange, with this Person-Word in prayer. In conforming themselves to Christ, they see beyond the veil ever more deeply (for “revelation” means removing the veil), and they even participate in the saving mysteries to the point of sharing in the ultimate exchange Our Lord came to effect, that is, by making up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for his body the Church (Col 1:24). The life of the Church, as of the individual Christian, is a constant interchange, a constant holy dialogue, with the One who wishes to speak Himself to us, that He might transform us in His love.

Death is no Barrier

This is the theological framework articulated by Joseph Ratzinger. I have recently been made profoundly aware of this great gift in my reading of a new book by Christopher Collins, SJ, The Word Made Love: The Dialogical Theology of Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI. Fr. Collins is an assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University. I should mention too that the Foreword was written by Tracey Rowland of the John Paul II Institute in Australia, the author of Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, which I reviewed very favorably almost exactly four years ago to the day.

Fr. Collins’ work is the specific inspiration for this essay, which can justly serve as a sort of review and recommendation. It is likely that I am not qualified to take issue with Collins’ interpretation, but neither did I feel any desire to do so as I read. It says something very important, I think, that Collins could write a whole book centered on the notion of “dialogue” without even once raising any of those red flags which have been waved incessantly in the Church’s face by so many who have, over the past fifty years, become so dreadfully enamored of the term.

The Word Made Love is not an easy book, but it pays rich theological dividends. With extensive chapters on Ratzinger’s theological formation, on Revelation as dialogue, on the eternal Logos entering history, on the Church as the center of Divine-human dialogue, and on the Word spoken from beginning to end (that is, from Creation to Eschatology), Collins enables the reader to appreciate the brilliance and depth of Ratzinger’s insight into God’s ways with man, and into our ways with God.

One of many passages which struck me forcibly came when Collins explained the constant juxtaposition and even oscillation, since the rise of Modernism, between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of Faith”. He demonstrated how Ratzinger cuts through this false dichotomy by showing that our relationship (our dialogue) with Jesus Christ completely surpasses even the barrier of death itself:

Situating the question of truth against the backdrop of the final question of the limit of death moves the whole discussion from the speculative to the existential realm. Ratzinger’s argument that “only if truth is a person can it lead me through death” is not, of course, a product of a priori speculation. It is rather the fruit of a posteriori reflection on the experience of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection given in the scriptural witness. He is the person who is revealed to be truth itself precisely because he leads through death—which otherwise would seem to define the limits of the truth of human existence. The experience, then, of the “Jesus of history” who defeats death leads to the understanding of the same man as the “Christ of faith” precisely because of the fact of the destruction of death and restoration of life that occurs in him in history. (pp. 78-79).

This, then, brings Ratzinger’s theology to its fulfillment in heaven. It remains only for me to conclude by proclaiming here and now that Modernism is theologically dead. Historicity is not a refuge from God when we remember that God entered history. Dialogue is not a dirty word when the interlocutors are real, properly identified and, on one side, Divine. Many saw this in the enriching catecheses offered by Joseph Ratzinger while he served as Pope, in his discussions of the relations of faith and reason, in his gentle challenge to Islam in the Regensburg Address, or in his wonderful trilogy of books on Jesus of Nazareth. But if you want to explore it from a distinctively theological vantage point, surveying the entire landscape of Ratzinger’s contribution rather than enjoying only its most accessible fruit, then The Word Made Love is the tour you want. Be sure to choose Christopher Collins as your guide.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 01, 2013 4:03 PM ET USA

    "Joseph Ratzinger was among those who most deeply perceived the real solution to the Modernist dilemma, for he recognized that the Word of God is ultimately a Person..." And how is this sublime concept "energized" even potentiated except by those who endeavor to "carry the Cross...?"

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