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Ratzinger, The Natural Knowledge of God


3. The Natural Knowledge of God. We must now inquire whether there is an an­swer
to such a question for man; and if so, what kind of certainty we are allowed to attain. In his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul
found himself confronted precisely with these problems, and he responded with a philosophi­cal
reflection based on facts presented by the history of religions. In the megalopolis of Rome, the Babylon of
that age, he encountered the type of moral decadence that comes from the total loss of
tradition: people were deprived of that interior evidential character that in other times had
been offered to man from the outset of his life by usages and customs. Where nothing can be taken for granted, everything
becomes possible, and nothing is impossible any longer. Now there is no value capable of sustaining
man, and there are no inviolable norms. All that counts is man’s ego and the present
moment. The traditional religions are merely comfortable
facades without any spirituality; all that remains is a naked and crude cynicism. The apostle offers a surprising response to
this metaphysical and moral cynicism of a decadent society dominated only by the law
of the jungle. He declares that, in reality, this society
knows God very well: “What can be known about God is plain to them.” He then backs up this affir­mation: ”Ever
since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity,
has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” And Paul draws the conclusion: “So they are
without excuse.” According to the apostle, the truth is accessible
to them, but they do not want it, because they refuse the demands that the truth would
make on them. In this context, he says that they “by their
wickedness suppress the truth.” Man resists the truth that would demand a
submission expressed in giving glory and thanks to God. For Paul, the moral decadence of society is
nothing more than the logical consequence and the faithful reflection of this radical
perversion. When man prefers his own egoism, his pride,
and his convenience to the demands made on him by the truth, the only possible outcome
is an upside-down existence. Adoration is due to God alone, but what is
adored is no longer God; images, outward ap­pearances, and current opinion have dominion over man. This general alteration extends to ev­ery
sphere of life. That which is against nature becomes the norm;
the man who lives against the truth also lives against nature. His creativity is no longer at the service
of the good: he devotes his genius to ever more refined forms of evil. The bonds between man and woman, and between
parents and children, are dissolved, so that the very sources from which life springs are
blocked up It is no longer life that reigns, but death. A civilization of death is formed. The description of decadence that Paul sketches
here astonishes us modern readers by its contemporary relevance. However, he is not content merely to de­scribe
this state of affairs. There were many who did so in his days, and
they display a perverse form of moralism that ends in taking pleasure precisely in the negative
behavior it condemns. On the contrary, the apostle’s analysis leads
to a diagnosis and, hence, takes the form of a moral appeal: at the origin of all these
negative things lies the negation of the truth in favor of what is convenient–or rather,
of what is profitable. The starting point in man is a resistance
to the evi­dential character of the Creator that is present in his heart as the sign of
a Being who looks at him and sumnions him. Paul is far from regarding atheism, or an
agnosticism that is lived out as atheism, as an innocent position. In his eyes, it is always the fruit of a refusal
of that knowledge which is in fact offered to man; man is unwilling to accept the conditions
attached to this knowledge. Man is not condemned to remain in un­certainty
about God. He can “see” him, if he listens to the voice
of God’s Being and to the voice of his creation and lets himself be guided by this. Paul knows nothing of an atheism gov­erned
by purely idealistic motives. What are we to say to this? Clearly, the apostle is playing in this passage
on the contradiction between philosophy and religion that existed in antiquity. Greek philosophy had arrived at the knowledge
of the one single foundation of the universe, the Spirit who alone is worthy of the name
of “god”, even if this knowledge existed in contradictory forms and was insuffi­ciently
detailed. But the energy that had sus­tained its critique
of religion soon cooled down, and although this critical attitude was in fact an essential
element in Greek philosophy, it increas­ingly turned to the justification of the worship
of the gods and of the adoration of state power. It was therefore an obvious fact that “the
truth” was “kept a prisoner”. In this sense, Paul’s diag­nosis is well
founded, when we bear in mind the historical situation he is addressing. But despite this, can we really say that his
affirmations possess a value that goes beyond this specific historical constellation? Certainly, we would need to modify the details. Nevertheless, Paul’s words are essentially
painting the picture, not of some particular historical situation, but of the permanent
situation of humanity, of man, vis-a-vis God. The history of religions is coex­tensive
with the history of humanity. As far as we know, there has never been an
epoch in which the question of the One who is totally other, the Divine, has been alien
to man. The knowledge of God has always existed. And everywhere in the history of religions,
in vari­ous forms, we encounter the significant conflict between the knowledge of the one
God and the attraction of other powers that are considered more dangerous or nearer at
hand and, there­fore, more important for man than the God who is distant and mysterious. All of history bears the traces of this strange
dilemma between the non­violent, tranquil demands made by the truth, on the one hand,
and the pressure brought to make profits and the need to have a good relationship with
the powers that determine daily life by their interventions, on the other hand. Again and again, we see the victory of profit
over truth, although the signs of the truth and of its own power never disappear completely. Indeed, they continue to live, often in surprising
forms, in the very heart of a jungle full of poisonous plants. But is this true even today, in a totally
non­religious culture, in a culture of rationality and of the technology it harnesses? I believe that the answer is Yes. For even today, the question man poses inevitably
goes beyond the sphere of tech­nological rationality. Even today, we do not limit ourselves to the
question: “What can I do?” We also ask: “What ought I to do, and who
am I?” There are of course cosmological evolutionist
systems that elevate the non-existence of God to the level of an obvious truth of reason
and claim thereby to demonstrate that the truth is precisely that there is no God. But this type of general theory of knowledge
betrays its own method­ological character in essential points: the enor­mous gaps in
our knowledge are filled by a series of mythological “theatrical props” with a ficti­tious rationality
that will not deceive anyone. It is an obvious fact that the rational character
of the universe cannot be explained rationally on the basis of something irrational! This is why the Logos that is at the origin
of all things remains more than ever the best hypothesis, although this is of course a hypothesis
that demands that we give up a position where it is we who are in charge and that we take
the risk of assuming the position of humble listeners. Even in our days, we cannot say that the tranquil
evidential character of God has been eliminated; but we must admit that it has been made more
than ever unrecognizable by the violence that power and profit inflict on us. In this way, the contempo­rary situation
is fundamentally marked by that same tension between opposite tendencies which runs through
the whole of history. On the one side, there is the interior opening
up of the human soul to God; but on the other side, there is the stronger attraction of
our needs and our immediate experiences. Man is the battlefield where these two contend
with each other. He is not capable of sloughing off God com­pletely,
nor does he have the strength to set out on the journey toward him. On his own, he is not capable of constructing
a bridge that could establish a concrete relatjonship with this God. We can continue to affirm, with .Saint Thomas,
that unbelief is contrary to nature, but we must at once add that man is not able to clear
up wholly the strange chiaroscuro that weighs down the questions concerning the eternal
realities. If a genuine relationship is to come into
existence, God must take the initiative: it is he who must come to meet man and address
him.

Jean Kelley

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1 COMMENTS

  1. InnerPull Posted on March 24, 2020 at 10:19 pm

    Again, thank you. An important meditation.

    Reply
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