Benedict XVI: The Man and the Novel
My April 19 surprise, that the newly-elected pope had chosen Benedict XVI as his papal name, was doubtless surpassed by the shock of the many believers, reporters, and the merely curious who, on hearing the news, had rushed to their computers, googled the name, and were instantly confronted with the offer of a PDF download of the opening chapters of my comic novel, Benedict XVI.
This coincidence was, of course, a fluke of history. But after recovering from the jolt, I searched the Internet for information about the new pope. Having received a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School in its Protestant days, I was especially interested in his writings. And having spent a career in a religious studies department of an American university, concentrating my efforts on the theory of religion and what is variously called comparative religion, world religions, and the history of religion(s), his 1998 article, “Interreligious Dialogue and Jewish-Christian Relations,” caught my eye.
As then-Cardinal Ratzinger reminds the reader, the scope of his article is limited by its circumstance: it was written for a session of the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, the topic having been suggested by a rabbi. Nevertheless, the article expresses some of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent views on the nature of religion, its forms, and the necessity and purpose of dialogue among them. In so doing, it reveals something of his views of history and historiography.
There is, in Cardinal Ratzinger’s opinion, a thing we can call religion as such, which always appears within a specific form (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the like). Religion is necessarily theistic; if it were not, humanity would lack moral standards.1 Moreover, its forms are not seamless; they are subject to schism. Christianity, for example, has divided itself into Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. The forms have value; thus dialogue among them is possible. World peace requires peace among the religions; thus dialogue among the religions is necessary. The premise of dialogue is that the participants must understand each other from within. Its purpose is to achieve truth through free debate, which precludes what he calls “ideological dictatorship.”
There are three possible strategies for pursuing interreligious dialogue: (1) the mystical type of religion (he is thinking primarily of Asia, but secondarily of New Age), which conceives of God as non-personal, accommodates the theistic type (Christianity, Judaism, Islam); (2) the theistic type, which conceives of God as personal, accommodates the mystical type; or (3) pragmatism, the view that the formulas, forms, and rites of the individual religions must recede in favor of praxis. It is clear, says Cardinal Ratzinger, that the pragmatic strategy is flawed: it ignores “reason,”2 or the free debate of dialogue. And to allow the mystical type the pride of accommodation would lead religion to abandon the real world of creation and history, for “God no longer reaches into the world” and we are “left to our own devices when we engage in worldly action.” Without God, everything is allowed. It is left to the three great monotheisms to accommodate the mystical religions into themselves. Not surprisingly, the traditional form of Christianity turns out to be the prime agent of accommodation.
As for Pope Benedict’s understanding of history and historiography, an American cannot but notice his Eurocentricity. He is, of course, a theologian, not a historian, but the historians he relies upon as sources breathe German and French air.
A second trait is his use of typologies. Though Cardinal Ratzinger professes an awareness of the oversimplifications to which typologies are heir, his writing is replete with them. In order to get to his final point, he distinguishes between universal and tribal religions; within the former, between the mystical and theistic types, one of which acknowledges that God is involved in history while the other fails to recognize this. And at least in this article, he offers the debatable judgment that Buddhism is theistic, however deficient this form of theism may be.
There is, however, one typological distinction that underlies this article: the division between the sacred and the secular. The search for truth through dialogue, it appears, is limited to the religious among us. Cardinal Ratzinger does not as much as mention the founders and practitioners of such modern secular disciplines as astronomy, cosmology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, sociology, and geopolitics, each of which has implications for an understanding of human history. In fact, by his reprimand of liberation theologians, he appears to show his distaste for any theology that attempts to accommodate secular thought.
In sum, the former cardinal and now pope, gives us a theology of history. The events of which history is composed are not be interpreted using secular historiographic methods; they must be understood with reference to God.
An alternative to Cardinal Ratzinger’s thought on these matters is to approach them from the point of view of the history of religions, considered as a Wissenschaft, a way of knowing. This discipline is, in Max Weber’s word, wertfrei, value-free, neutral. One need not be a Christian to study Christianity, a Jew to study Judaism, etc. And one need not be a believer and practitioner to study one or all of the religions. In fact, the history of religions distrusts reifications such as “Christianity” or “Judaism,” both as normative concepts and as descriptive categories; one looks primarily at specific data, using religious texts, anthropological reports, and the like.
Does this discipline assume, or lead to, the cardinal’s bete noire, relativism? Or does it allow a place for normative judgments? Though I may be in the minority on this point, I affirm the latter. To the degree that religious truth can be found in time and history, it is, as Pope Benedict XVI has said, through dialogue.(see my book, The Architecture of Religion, chapter 4).
A brief word about my novel, Benedict XVI. It is certainly not a prescient work; the title itself is a quirk of history to which no metaphysical meaning should be ascribed. I conceived it as a picaresque tale, a satirical novel that takes a “picaro,” a rogue playing the part of a comic hero of low estate, through risible circumstances under the formula “local boy makes good.” Con man Benny Good, an Amish foundling, sets out after his excommunication from the Amish community and becomes, in succession, a novice evangelist, an overland trucker, and a radio talk show host, at which point he is discovered by a talent agent with her eyes on the holdings of the Catholic Church. Using her brain trust and state-of-the-art political cunning, she reinvents him and grooms him for the papacy.
What is the significance of this story?
To say that it is a comedy is not to say that it lacks significance, that it is not serious. No less a writer than Hannah Arendt approves of Berthold Brecht’s observation that comedy deals with human suffering in a more serious way than does tragedy. One may venture further and suggest that comedy is akin to the various salvations offered by the religions. And to say that Benedict XVI is a satire is not to say that it is mean-spirited. While the Roman poet Juvenal scorned human defects, his countryman Horace gently mocked them. One may add that whichever method is used to make the point, the purpose of satire can be a moral instruction that is akin to that offered by the religions.
1 The latter clause is made clear in Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2000 Preface to the new German edition of his earlier book, Introduction to Christianity, which contains a long critique of Marxism and Latin America’s theology of liberation.
2 In The Architecture of Religion (1984), which sets forth my general theory of religion, “God” is not a major category. But in An Interpretation of Religion (1989), John Hick holds that every religion is, at bottom, theistic.
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