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The Challenge of Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | August 11, 2010 | Ignatius Insight

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"Jesus attaches great importance to being in continuity with the Scripture, in continuity with God's history with men. The whole Gospel of John, as well as the Synoptic Gospels and the entirety of the New Testament writings, justify faith in Jesus by showing that all the currents of Scripture come together in him, that he is the focal point in terms of which the overall coherence of Scripture comes to light—everything is waiting for him, everything is moving toward him." -- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (Ignatius Press, 2008; paperback edition), 246.

"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eye-witnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was born to him by the Majestic Glory, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased' we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain." -- 2 Peter, 1:16-18.


Ignatius Press announced recently that it will publish the English version of the second volume of Benedict's book on Jesus of Nazareth in the coming spring. In lieu of the fact that Schall has no advanced text or a copy of the Italian translation, it seems worth while again to take a second look at the first volume. This volume, I must confess, left an indelible impression on my soul. I found it frankly breath-taking in its implications, yet it was presented so calmly and clearly.

Jesus of Nazareth was nothing less than a challenge thrown down to our times. But our times take special care not to listen, never really to consider what Benedict is saying. It is too dangerous to the culture to do so, and not just Western culture. Not considering or denying its pertinence is the protection which modern men must have to continue to do what they are doing. That they "will not listen" is, indeed, their only defense.

Once anyone grasps what Benedict is saying, he will see, in Peter's words, that the pope is not speaking of "cleverly devised myths." He too relies on the reports of eye-witnesses, on those who have seen and heard. As Benedict puts it:
For it is of the very essence of biblical faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing supra-historical truths, but is based history, history that took place here on earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est—when we say these words ("the Word became flesh"), we acknowledge God's actual entry into real history (xv).
The key words of this book are these: "God's actual entry into real history." This fact is the central event of human history towards which all things flow and from which they proceed.

Catholicism is not based on a story, or a philosophy, or a theory. It is based on an event for which credible witnesses can be found. This witnessing grounds its utter realism and the philosophic premises that support it. This blunt truth explains why, to undermine this witness, scholars and prophets have to deny the credibility of the witnesses, to question the authenticity of records, or to develop a theory by which we cannot know what is said in other cultures, ages, or languages.

Benedict's book systematically deals with the incoherence of each of these efforts to make belief in the historicity of the Christ-events indefensible. It would be difficult to think of an argument against the feasibility of Christian revelation that has not been proposed at some time in history. The record of these proposals and the Catholic response to them is the history of heresies. It is, in its own way, an integral part of the faith for it provides the occasion of further clarification of the deposit of faith. Catholicism is a faith that wants to know the arguments against the truth. This desire is essential to its own credibility. This too is why it recognizes the importance of philosophical realism.

During the summer, Benedict does not give many public discourses or audiences. L'Osservatore Romano, English, in the editions of July 21st and 28th, for instance, is filled with pieces by people other than the pope. They are alright, but they do not somehow have the depth or sharpness that we find in this pope. In these two editions, only two short Angelus homilies by Benedict himself appear. At Castel Gandolfo on July 18th, Benedict explained: "This is the period in which schools are closed and the greater part of the holidays are concentrated. Even the pastoral activities in parishes are reduced and I myself have suspended the Audiences for a while."

So I thought it might be of interest to take another look at the first volume. The first words of Benedict's "Foreword" are: "This book about Jesus ... has had a long gestation." It represents a lifetime of reflection, prayer, scholarship, and philosophical insight. When the book first came out, I wrote essays for Ignatius Insight about the Foreword ("God Made Visible", June 18, 2007), the section on the Temptation in the Desert ("God Is The Issue", June 29, 2007), and the final chapter ("The Self-Revelation of God's Reality in History", September 6, 2007).

The first volume covers the early part of the public life of Christ. Presumably, the pope will cover the infancy, the rest of the public life, the passion and resurrection narratives in coming volumes. But already in the first volume, Benedict has laid down the direction of his presentation. "God is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn't he? Is he good or do we have to invent the good ourselves? The God question is the fundamental question, and it sets us down right at the crossroads of human existence" (29).

But the "God question" involves the Christ question. If Christ is God and if He dwells amongst us, the crossroads of human history are set in terms of the actual life that Christ lived and what He left for His followers to accomplish. Christianity is not first a series of doctrines or beliefs. Every one of its "dogmas" is an effort to state just who Christ is. He is the man-God who actually lived in a certain time and place. We must know what He accomplished. The proper statement of what Christ was is itself a matter of great concern; for to get this wrong eventually leads to getting our lives and destinies wrong.


Again we note, that the pope writes as a scholar but also as a man interested in the accounts of Christ's deeds and words. He invites disagreements if there is evidence. He specifically says that it is not a dogmatic tractate or an official papal statement. This leaves the reader in the strange position. The pope has done a pretty thorough job in dealing with the objections proposed during the modern era against the fact of the Incarnation of the Son of God. These are arguments designed to show how impossible the central Catholic belief and teaching is. Benedict is very patient, but also incisive and thorough. He displays the great quality of the Catholic mind. He understands that revelation is addressed to reason, that hard facts are welcome, that revelation causes us to think, not to escape thinking.

The spirit of Benedict's presentation was, I think, to be as objective and frank as possible. He took the evidence against the truth of revelation seriously and the opposing arguments critically. No book that I know will give a better and more thorough presentation of the arguments against the divinity or humanity of Christ. This approach too is a typical aspect of the Catholic mind. Catholicism wants to know what evidence is presented against its truth. The arguments or evidences against a position of revelation or reason are known and considered in this volume. It does not take long to realize that the arguments against the divinity of Christ are not all that persuasive.

Such arguments and theses must be gone through carefully, of course, which Benedict does. Why are they not accepted? There often seems to be a blindness hovering about the evidence for the divinity of Christ as it is presented in Scripture. Paul spoke in 2 Corinthians 3 of a veil or blindness that covered the eyes of those who heard the prophets and Christ but did not believe them. That blindness is still prevalent. Indeed, it becomes virulent and dishonest the more it is aware that in fact that logical, concise, and persuasive arguments exist for the divinity of Christ in His mission in the world. In short, Christ is sent to save us from our sins. He teaches us that our final personal destiny is eternal life. It is not some reformed world order engineered by those who presume to present an alternative to our real destiny.

The basic thesis of Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth can be stated clearly: the man we call Jesus of Nazareth, both in what He did and what was said of Him, was in fact the Son of God. The development of the Old Testament leads up to Him. What He did and said in the Gospels affirms that this divine and human status is how He thought of Himself. The subsequent history of man is a long struggle either to reject or to accept this fact that the Second Person of the Trinity, true God and true man, did appear and dwell among us. This fact changes everything. It explains what went before and it explains what followed His life in subsequent history.

"The highest things, the things that really matter, we cannot achieve on our own; we have to accept them as gifts and enter into the dynamic of the gift, so to speak. This happens in the context of faith in Jesus who is dialogue—a living relationship with the Father—and who wants to become Word and love in us as well" (268). Does this emphasis on the fact that the highest things are first given to us at all undermine the nobility of what it is to be human, with our own minds and deeds? Not at all. Rather, it enhances it.

There is nothing wrong with the final realization that the longing for meaning to our existence that we all experience in our souls cannot be concocted by ourselves. This effort to form a purely human salvation is what the modern world is about. In rejecting the gift, it must provide an alternative which turns out to be, as Benedict shows in Spe Salvi, something far less noble and human than what we are designed and give to be.

But, in conclusion, let me again state what I take to be the abiding meaning of Benedict's book on Jesus of Nazareth. It is simply this: The man, Jesus, born in Bethlehem, when Caesar Augustus was Emperor of the Romans, was in fact the Son of God, the Word, the second Person of the Trinity. He bridged the enormous gap between divinity and humanity in his one person. He was spoken of by the prophets. He told those who witnessed His life and words to go forth and teach all nations. All nations need to know what human life is intended to be. What He did not do was to force or coerce us. Since He is Word, He is the truth and the life. We are free to reject Him in our thoughts and deeds. Many do.

Since He comes as a gift, He comes as something more than we might expect. We can get some understanding of what this further destiny is to which we are called from His words and from His life. We can learn too from the fact that He came into His own and they received Him not. He was arrested, crucified, buried. He rose again. He indicated that each of us will follow his example--then the judgment. For our lives are not just indifferent. We are held responsible for how we live, be we politicians, philosophers, executives, cabinetmakers, mothers, rich or poor. This pope never budges on this issue of the reality of the last judgment for each of us.

The pope's book states that the Son of God, the Son of Man, did enter into and exist in the world at a definite time and place. Because of it, the world cannot ever be the same. We individually cannot be the same because of it. We can deny that this divine coming happened. Our efforts to deny it will always end in incoherence. What we cannot do is avoid the fact that God in the person of Christ was in this world and He did leave us a memorial that is the one sacrifice worthy for our worshiping His Father, as He told us. This is what Benedict told us. He could not have been clearer.

Biography of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
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Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.

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