Friday, April 11, 2008

Fr. Neuhaus on Benedict XVI and the "Human Face of God"

During the papal visit, Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus will be joining Raymond Arroyo cohosting the live coverage of all the events on EWTN. In between appearances he will also be blogging at First Things' "On the Square". Today's post, "Listening to Benedict" is largely the text of a talk he gave at a panel discussion this past week, sponsored by The Crossroads' New York Cultural Center (with Dr. David Schindler, Carl Anderson, H.E. Celestino Migliore, and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete). Here's a snippet:

A few weeks before he was elected pope, Joseph Ratzinger said at the funeral of Luigi Giussani, founder of the renewal movement known as Communion and Liberation, “Christianity is not an intellectual system, a collection of dogmas, or a moralism. Christianity is instead an encounter, a love story, an event.” Of course Christianity is also a rich intellectual tradition, some of us would say the richest in the history of the world, and Benedict is a master teacher of that tradition. And Christianity also entails dogmas and doctrines, vigorously defended and articulated by Benedict. It is also and very importantly a way of living in the truth, including the moral truth. But all of that is ancillary to and dependent on the fact that Christianity is a love story, an encounter with “the human face of God,” Jesus Christ.

The phrase the human face of God is much favored by Benedict. In my homily at Columbia University last Sunday, I told the students to watch for the appearance of the phrase during this visit. And, sure enough, there it is already in his preparatory statement setting out the theme of "Christ Our Hope." This is closely related to an important fact about Ratzinger/Benedict: He is an Augustinian.

In the Church’s theological and philosophical tradition, there are two great luminaries around whom most schools of thought gravitate: the fifth-century St. Augustine and the thirteenth-century St. Thomas Aquinas. Some say Benedict is an Augustinian Thomist and others say he is a Thomist Augustinian. I would say he is an Augustinian who is in sympathetic conversation with Thomas. The great guide in this connection is Aidan Nichols’ The Theology of Joseph Ratzinger, even though that study is now twenty years old. Just out from Oxford is Tracey Rowland’s Ratzinger’s Faith, which is a remarkably insightful study, even if she does let herself be distracted by the mainly Anglican project known as Radical Orthodoxy and is rather too insistent that Benedict is, after all, a Thomist, albeit a very Augustinian Thomist.

As a Platonist, or Neoplatonist if you will, Augustine during his wayward years was persuaded of the inherent human aspiration toward the Absolute. Thus what are probably his best-known words: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” But, no matter the intensity and inescapability of that aspiration, how do human beings achieve union with the Absolute? The great breakthrough for Augustine, and the pivot on which his conversion turned, was the Incarnation. In short, the human face of God in Jesus Christ.

While Benedict is well known for his sympathetic engagement with the theology of Martin Luther, his Augustinianism is very different from Luther’s denigration of human nature and of reason in particular. And it is even more distant from Calvin’s version of Augustine that, with relentless logic devoid of the humility induced by grace, leads to catastrophes such as the doctrine of double predestination. In Calvinism, Benedict sees a Protestant rendition of the neoscholastic Thomism—with its rigorously logical extrapolations from presumably unchanging truths—against which he so strongly protested as a young theologian. Benedict’s Augustine is the champion of an authentically Christian humanism. With Augustine, his life is driven by the discovery “How late I knew you, Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” This is the truth he proposes to the Church and the world with the theme "Christ Our Hope."