Monotheism and History.
I said that today I would talk about Ratzinger’s view faith and culture, but looking at yesterday’s post I see an area of Ratzinger’s thought that needs more fleshing out. In the first essay it is clear that his main concern is to contrast mysticism, a religious attitude which sees all the world’s religions as symbols for some deeper, impersonal reality, and monotheism which sees the deepest reality as a personal being, God.
Mysticism tries to preserve the old myths by calling them symbols, while monotheism gives the myths a provisional value at best, and at worst condemns them as lies. The mystic is basically a pantheist trying loose his identity in the divine being, while the monotheist sees God as an eternal “other” with whom he has a personal relationship based on faith. For Ratzinger, one of the main contrasts between the mystic and the monotheist is the role of history: the mystic sees history as being of little value, while the monotheist sees history as the place where God and man interact.
For example, Jews will soon be celebrating the Passover which recalls the escape from Egypt, which pious Jews see as an act of God. The escape from Egypt is the historical event (even if you might not believe all the particulars about the ten plagues) which is at the heart of Jewish ritual, faith, and identity. In a few weeks, Christians will be celebrating Easter which recalls the Resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is the founding event of Christianity: if you read the New Testament with any mental alertness, you can see that the whole thing boils down to the Apostles’ emphatic claim that Jesus really, historically, rose from the dead. Without the Resurrection, the none of it makes any sense. Monotheistic religions have their roots in events, in the interaction between God and real men at real times: God spoke to Abraham, Jesus rose from the dead, Zoroaster had a vision of Ahura Mazda, etc.
Mythology (and the mysticism that evolves from it) is not about history. Myths take place in some “time before time” or in a golden age of gods and heroes long before written records. If you read the book of Genesis you will notice that the first eleven chapters are essentially mythology: there is a creation story, stories about angels (gods) mingling with men, and Noah’s ark. Much of the material of these chapters is borrowed from Babylonian mythology. But when you arrive to chapter 12 of Genesis the whole tone changes: the narrative is no longer about the golden age before the flood, but about a historical person, Abraham, who is convinced that a god is personally speaking to him. Abraham is both the father of monotheism and ground zero of biblical history. History starts when God speaks to a man. The Jews were historians and biographers long before Herodotus and Thucydides, because they were monotheists.
Next time I hope to develop some of Ratzinger’s ideas on religion and culture.