Book Review: I Believe in One God

I Believe in One God

By Pope Benedict XVI

157 pp. St. Pauls. $14.95

Believe it or not (and if you know me at all, you’ll believe it), I did ask Kristen, our press liaison, to request a podcast interview with the Pope Emeritus.  The response from the publisher, in Kristen’s words, was, “You’re kidding, right?”

I Believe in One God is a commentary on some key phrases from the historic creeds of the Church and thus a good read for folks interested in a specifically Roman take on such shared Christian confessions as the creation of the world, the nature of Jesus Christ, the relationship of the Church to the Holy Spirit, and other such central terms.  The book begins with the Father and the Son and the Spirit, following the creeds, but does not leave off there, dedicating sections to ecclesiology, the particulars of the Church’s Sacraments, and the Virgin Mary before ending with a section on the concept of eternal life.  At each turn Benedict does not rest content to review the catechism for Catholics but invites readers like me, a low-church Protestant, to rethink our own ways of conceiving the central confessions of the faith.

Father, Son, and Spirit

“Our fundamental unity” as Christians, Benedict begins, is neither imperceptible nor ineffable but audible: we are Christians when we confess Trinity together (16).  The Father, as the one true God, created the universe not from obligation but entirely freely for the sake of loving the creation (17).  The logos named in John 1, then, is not merely a force that orders matters that it finds or encounters but an inherently “creative reason” (19) that gives things both matter and form.  As one might have predicted, Benedict’s account of creation theology remains within recognizable historical categories, setting before the reader an accessible yet philosophically responsible version of Catholic creation theology.  Notable as he proceeds are an insistence that the creation passages in Genesis are “prophetic” rather than technical descriptions of physical and chemical processes (18) and that, despite the contradictions that arise because of creatures’ abuse of their God-given powers, “creation itself remains good” (20).  Creation, then, is theologically charged in this account of things, always in relationship to a creative God and always open to the possibility of divine love.  The advent of the Son and the outpouring of the Spirit, as explored in subsequent chapters, only make sense in terms of a world that is created, not self-contained, and Benedict’s concept of evil as contradiction means that he avoids simple-minded and ultimately immoral attempts at theodicy, leaving evil contradictory and thus not susceptible to rational explanation.

The love of God that sends the Son to save the world is, according to Benedict, both eros and agape (30).  In Benedict’s somewhat surprising articulation, eros and agape do not stand in tension, as they do in many Christian writers’ versions of things, but “enlighten each other” (31) and keep divine love and human desire in eternal relationship to one another.  Because I spend so much of my time teaching Plato and Boethius and Dante, this move struck me as a wonderful bit of theology: the otherness of God remains, yet knowledge of the divine life comes to us not because we renounce our creaturely desire to unite with another but precisely by means of that desire.

Once sent by the love that both desires and does good-for-the-other as a function of that desire, Jesus exists as “a poor man among the poor and for the poor” (34).  Abolishing the way of kingship that enforces its will with bows and chariots (35), Jesus reigns as king over all nations and thus for the good of all nations (36).  In these moves I noticed and appreciated Benedict’s simultaneous preservation of royal terms and transformation of regal expectation, his Bible-shaped theology that neither discards the world into which Jesus comes nor leaves it unexamined in light of the Christ-event.  Resurrection, in this vision of things, is the moment when the nature of the “Son of God” anticipated in Psalm 2 comes to light (45), and the work of the Christian, as early as St. Paul (42) and as recent as those just confirmed, is to live as a witness to the Resurrection (50) and as faithful and obedient bearers of the good news of the Resurrection (53).  In this section on Jesus and throughout the book Benedict moves effortlessly between accounts of what God has done and is doing and exhortations to the faithful to live in the new creation that unfolds in the wake of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.

The Spirit is important in Benedict’s teaching on God’s nature because “The mysterious God is not infinite loneliness; he is an event of love” (59).  The Spirit, the main gift of God (65), is nothing short of divinity dwelling within the Church and among churches and between any two-or-three-gathered to worship Christ, and that presence of God in the faithful means that Christian unity is no mere internationalism (66) but a mystical bond among the faithful, something as real as the creation that our senses apprehend.

That unity, however, is not to be understood as conformity or nullification of difference.  Benedict insists that “The unity of the Spirit is manifest in the plurality of understanding” (67).  The oneness of the Church, both across continents and across the centuries (68), only makes sense as a negation of other kinds of unity, both the totalitarian unity of global economic power and the dogmatic insistence that the only possible good thoughts about God done already been thunk.  Instead, Benedict imagines the unity of the Church to be rooted in the creation of the Father and the resurrection of the Son and the indwelling of the Spirit, an ethics firmly rooted in confession but which recognizes itself as an ongoing interpretation and dispute over interpretations of the Trinity.

Church and Sacraments

Benedict’s commentary on the clauses of the creeds is really good theology, stuff that I could read as theology, broadly speaking, without thinking too much about the distance between myself, the low-church Protestant, and Benedict, the Pope Emeritus.  I’ll admit that I was surprised when the sections on the Church and on the sacraments had the same broad appeal.

Despite our sinfulness, Benedict asserts, the Church remains an entity which reflects Christ (77).  With the centrality of Christ in mind, Benedict undertakes a commentary on Psalm 22 to illustrate the storied and complex character of the Church: beginning with the cry of the God-forsaken, the Church’s end is a vision, an invitation to all the nations of all the earth to return to God and God’s goodness (82).  (When a Pope Emeritus does commentary on the Psalms, I’m already hooked, folks.)  Just as the priest exegetes the text of the Bible, Benedict argues, Christ himself, walking about in Palestine during the Roman occupation and mystically embodied whenever the faithful gather, stands as an exegete of the unseen God’s true nature (90).  Because God has seen fit to call Church the body of Christ, the Church does not merely employ and send missionaries but is “entirely missionary” in its constitution (93).  Absent here, and noticeably absent for a reader concerned about sectarianism and such, are polemics against Protestants, laments about who left whom during various historical schisms, and other such score-keeping exercises.  For the sake of this book, the point is the theology of the Church: we’re always on God’s mission, we always bear Christ, and we’re always repenting because we’ve screwed things up.

I can get on board with that.

When Benedict turns to the sacraments, he begins by noticing that, because the true God took on a Mediterranean body, many of the sacraments of the Church are Mediterranean in their makeup: we drink wine, not vodka, and we eat bread, not potatoes (119).  And the sacraments of priestly unction and universal extreme unction retain that Mediterranean influence, bearing the oil of the olive just as the dove bore an olive branch to Noah (122).  On the other hand, the water of baptism and the vocal confession of sinful acts and sinful dispositions are more universal in scope, ready for the nations before the nations knew they were ready (119, 139).  With regards to confession in particular, Benedict articulates a “virtuous circle” to the life of the sacraments: we confess our sins because we know the goodness of God and of the life that God has set before us–and which we rejected–and we become more aware of that goodness precisely in the ongoing confession of what we have done and what we have left undone (140).  Once again, read with an eye for unity rather than for separation, Benedict provides a wonderful model not only for reflection on Catholic sacraments but for worship practices from other traditions as well.  We needn’t agree with him on the place of oil-anointing to see a skillful and faithful interpretation of the same, and although Benedict would likely have little use for an altar call or a prayer-request time as American evangelicals do them, my hunch is that he wouldn’t mind our imitating his habits of mind as he examines and interprets the bodily realities of Church life for the sake of good, earthy theology.

Mary and the Life Eternal

Benedict provides a nice modern translation of medieval theology when he discusses the notion of eternal life.  Eternity, for Western Christian theology (I won’t presume to speak for other folks) is not a mere succession of moments that forgets to terminate but, in Benedict’s words, but “the supreme moment of satisfaction” (147), divine goodness not experienced moment by moment and thus at a remove from its real nature but as God is.  I could sense, in this description, an echo, even if not an outright citation, of 1 John’s promise that to see the Son as the Son really is will be to become as the Son really is–to enter into another order of perception must entail the entrance of the perceiver as well into another order of existence.

Benedict’s brief polemic against modern thought is that it lacks depth.  Without reference to an order of existence that transcends the passage of moments, Benedict claims, means to live an existence whose depth is nothing more than what one sees from one moment to another (152).  Thus “following Jesus” always retains both its historically-situated character and its reference to an eternal reality that human language and human thought must always gesture towards, unable to name and to conceptualize the same.

This notion of the Church as a reality pointing beyond itself and ultimately beyond its notions of what lies beyond takes its most profound shape in the life of Mary.  Benedict opens his book by saying that the Church derives its meaning from Mary, who is both Virgin and Mother (13).  The way Benedict describes her, Mary is indeed incorruptible and not susceptible to original sin (both standard Catholic confessions), and that makes her available to us in a way that other mortals are not (104).  Theologically, as the mother of God (before you balk, ask yourself: Is Jesus God?  Who is the mother of Jesus?), Mary stands as a refutation of the common notion that goodness is boring where wickedness presents itself as an adventure (111).  Instead, the Star of the Sea, as an old song calls Mary (114), stands as the one whose mortal existence entered into a relationship with the divine never known before or since, a truly remarkable life among the masses of boring sinners here below.  (I should also note that, in his refutation of the notion that evil is required to live adventurously, he cites Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust (112), reminding us that Benedict remains German and that theology always should have time to nod to really good literary texts.)

I finished with the section that will likely trouble evangelicals like me the most simply to note that, even when Benedict is at his most specifically Roman Catholic, his reflections come across not as attempts to drive wedges between himself and folks like me but as invitations to reflect on our faith, to start with the assumptions we share (like Mary was the mother of Jesus) and go from there.  Overall I commend this book both to my fellow low-churchers and to others who want to read an accessible but smart treatment of some core confessions of historical Christianity.

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