Book 10: Truth and Tolerance

I was planning on finishing my series on the ten books that most influenced my thought with Joseph Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance, not because it is the greatest, most influential book I’ve ever read, but for the more mundane reason that I stole the title as the name of my blog and figured it would be a fitting way to end.

As luck would have it, just as I was flipping through the book to refresh myself on its content, Joseph Ratzinger (a.k.a Pope Benedict XVI) made international headlines by announcing his retirement from the Papacy, which complicates my blog. I really do not want to get into a discussion of Church politics.

I generally keep politics at arm’s length, and Church politics at two arms’ length, so I know (and care) very little about what people consider the successes or failures of the Ratzinger/Benedict papacy. Like Presidents, Popes are probably best judged after a few decades of historical perspective. For what it is worth, my general (and probably erroneous) perception of the Pope is that he didn’t want the job in the first place, made some naive attempts to start dialogue with people who (whatever they might say) have no interest in dialogue, and started some reforms of the Vatican bureaucracy that he was too old to see through to the end and which will have to wait for some other Pope. His “legacy” as Pope will probably come down to how his writings are studied by the next generation. If you want more on Church news, check out the blog of John Allen Jr, resident adult among the spiteful kids over at The National Catholic Reporter. He is a rare Catholic journalist who is neither a conservative (hero-worshiper) nor a liberal (hater), and one of the few I can stand to read anymore.

But since I find Ratzinger’s theological writings rich and thought-provoking, I thought I would mark his retirement by dedicating two or three blog posts to his work rather than just one.

Well, onto the book!



Truth and Tolerance is a collection of essays and talks by theologian Joseph Ratzinger that were gathered into book form in the year 2000, dealing with the problem of whether humans can recognize truth, how truth relates to religion and culture, and how culture and religion relate to one another. Even though Ratzinger is a professional theologian, the book deals mainly with philosophy and history, because he is asking questions that do not simply refer to the Christian tradition, but which involve everyone in today’s globalized world.

Rather than give a complete overview, I’ll just pick out some salient points.

The opening essay (from 1968) deals with the panoramic of world religions and points out two oversimplifications most of us make about the variety of religions. The first oversimplification is to think that the variety is so great, so dizzying and complex, that no real comparisons can be made among them. The second oversimplification is to think that underneath the apparent variety they are all pretty much the same once you get past all the symbolism.

The truth is somewhere in between. Historically, religions have undergone change and upheaval. We cannot know much about man’s primitive religious experience except that it was eventually expressed in myth. The general movement was to organize the myths by making genealogies of the gods and inventing stories about the birth of the cosmos. The problem with myths is that eventually people got fed up with the dream-like quality and contradictory nature of myth. For whatever reason, the myths stopped making sense to them the way they had made sense to their ancestors. This was a serious cultural crisis, and there are three historical reactions that people took to it.

The first reaction was mysticism, a conservative approach which argued that the myths and the gods had value as symbols which were vehicles for coming into union with a deeper, unknowable, and impersonal foundation of reality. Some special individual, a monk or guru for example, might have come into mystical contact with the unknowable and realized the inner unity of all things, but the rest of us are stuck with the symbols and stories. This religious attitude is still typical of many Asian religions, but it could also be found in late Greco-Roman religion, or even among some Christians today.

The second approach was revolutionary monotheism: the myths are false. At best they are preparations for the true revelation of God, but for the most part they are obstacles blocking knowledge of the true God. This revolution came about in Israel with the Prophets, and ancient Iran, with the teachings of Zoroaster. It is easy, especially for us moderns, to dismiss these claims as simple cultural chauvinism (my god is better than yours), but it is a real reaction to the alienation people felt towards the old mythologies and a serious claim that the ultimate foundation of all reality is, in some sense, a person.

The third approach was rationalism, typical of ancient Greece, which saw the myths as nice stories that might serve some social function, but nothing more. The nature of the world, of man, and of God were knowable by reason, or not at all.

Looking at it this way, there is neither a myriad of unrelated religions, nor one basic religion, but three underlying religious attitudes: the mystical, the monotheistic, and the rationalist. Now, all three elements can come to play in any one religion, but only one of the three elements can be absolute. Some Hindu traditions are monotheistic, but their one God is not really absolute: he still serves as a symbol of an underlying unity of all things which the mystic tries to experience. A Christian can have a mystical experience of God, but that union is utterly secondary to faith, which is an attitude of interpersonal trust. A rationalist, like Plato or Aristotle, can sit around contemplating the idea of God, but for him that is the only valid way to know and experience God. For most of European history, the rationalists and monotheists have hitched their wagons together, but the wheels started coming off some time back in the 18th century, and rationalists today are more likely to be linked up with mystics in a critique of monotheism.

Typically, Ratzinger does not think that any one of these three attitudes can be disproved.  Each can account for human religiosity in its own way without contradicting itself. But there are consequences to each system of belief: since the mystic is basically a pantheist for whom all distinctions are illusions, he cannot account for the value of the individual person; the rationalist finds that the sphere of what he considers “rational” is ever shrinking, and the monotheist must account for the evil found in a world created by a good God.

Next time I will take up another them Ratzinger explores in this book, that of faith and culture.


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