Thursday, March 10, 2011

A great book by a great pope

"In the Midst of History": Benedict's Second Volume

By James V. Schall, S.J.

The English translation of Benedict XVI’s second volume of Jesus of Nazareth is being published officially by Ignatius Press today. This volume covers the events of Christ’s life from Palm Sunday to the Ascension. Following the first volume about Jesus’ public ministry, we continue with a careful presentation of the central events of Christ’s life.

We are constantly aware of the enormous scholarship that has gone into efforts to prove or disprove the veracity of those events. The present pope is thoroughly familiar with the body of literature in all its complexity that revolves around “who Christ is.” Benedict is also familiar with the patristic and medieval authors, as well as the Greek and Roman backgrounds to these events. The pope likewise knows the various strands of philosophy – ancient, medieval, and modern – that often lie behind the efforts to prove or disprove the veracity of the events of Christ’s life.

Thus, one reads this second volume of Benedict’s quiet, non-dogmatic effort to present the basic facts and evidence with the assurance that nobody out there knows more about this life than the present pope. Catholics, as I have often said, have no idea of the intellectual strength of their own position. Many have grown up with the suspicion that somehow, out there, the foundations of the faith have in various ways been undermined by science or historical research. It turns out that, if anything is happening, both science and historical research are underpinning the truth that the Scriptures present to us, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is what He says of Himself.

This book, Benedict tells us, is neither a “life of Christ” nor a thesis in Christology. The book has many similarities with the tractate of Aquinas (ST III, 27-59) on Christ, but it is best described as presenting “the figure and message of Jesus.” Actually, Benedict writes, “I set out to discover the real Jesus, on the basis of whom something like a ‘Christology from below’ would then become possible.” A Christology “from below,” as opposed to a Christology “from above” would mean, I take it, that if we look carefully at the events in the life of Christ, they only can be properly explained if He was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Many scholars, Benedict notes, have looked for “the historical Jesus.” But they begin with presuppositions that lack “sufficient content to exert any significant historical impact.” The historical Jesus, in such studies, somehow ends up being merely a nice guy, a revolutionary, a confused Jew, or a dreamer. What we need is a reading of the evidence that includes the reality of Christ’s life as it exists even among us today. The testimony of the Church throughout the ages has preserved the witness of the apostles. It is in their light that we see and read the facts of Christ’s life.

“I have attempted,” Benedict writes, “to develop a way of observing and listening to the Jesus of the Gospels that can indeed lead to personal encounter and that, through collective listening with Jesus’ disciples across the ages, can indeed attain sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus” (xvii). We need to ponder such words.

Early in the twenty-first century, Anno Domini, the pope of Rome writes a two-volume, scholarly, straight-forward book in which he reaffirms that what the Church taught in the beginning was then true and this same understanding of Jesus is still true. None of the massive efforts that have sought to disprove these truths about Jesus have succeeded. They can be understood in their logic and in their scholarship. It is part of Catholicism to know its enemies and deal with them honorably.

But it is also of the essence of Catholicism to insist that the facts are there. In the passion, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, we have a unified narration that is consistent both with the fact that Christ was true man, who suffered, died and was buried, and with the fact that He rose again and ascended into heaven. The pope even explains what Christ’s “sitting at the right hand of His Father might sensibly mean.”

Benedict often says that the problem with our time is its lack of truth. I was especially struck by this passage: “‘Redemption’ in the fullest sense can only come in the truth becoming recognizable. And it becomes recognizable when God becomes recognizable. He becomes recognizable in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history.” (194) It would be difficult to be more counter-cultural than this, or, it must be said, more true. This is a great book by a great pope.

James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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