Truth and Tolerance (Part 3 of 3)

Today I hope to wrap up my review of Joseph Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance. The book is ultimately about faith and culture. He basically defines them like this:

  • Culture, for Ratzinger, is the social expression of the perceptions and values that shape the community. Culture shapes how the individual looks at the world, man, and god. But individual experiences also feed back into the cultural patrimony, and shape it over time.
  • Religion is at the heart of culture, because it enshrines the scale of values and expresses how God, Man and the World are supposed to interact. The religion takes the spiritual patrimony of a culture and “projects it back” onto a divine foundation.

Cultural diversity is a lovely thing, because no one human being can live the many valid and beautiful forms of cultural expressions. Yet cultural diversity is not absolute. We can also think of cultures (or even religions) that are sick or misguided. So culture is both a richness, and a limitation. It can help us be more human, or less. The individual not only has a duty to assimilate his cultural patrimony, but also, if he must, move beyond it.

Ratzinger insists we can judge these things because while no human is totally independent of his culture, all humans are capable of exercising reason; all are capable of recognizing truth. This is why cultures change over time: new experiences and new information cause cultural evolution. They can even cause a cultural crisis when the enshrined foundational and religious values seem to be totally out of sync with some new situation.

When some cultural limitation becomes unbearable, it might be healed by going back to the original values, or by trying to take the culture in a new direction, or by borrowing attractive ideals from other cultures.


If religion is at the heart of culture, what sense can we make of religions spread over many cultures like Islam or Christianity? We tend to superficially identify Islam with Arabs and Christianity with Europeans, but in fact most Muslims are not Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim. Christianity originated in the Middle East, and most Christians are not European. We can dismiss the cultural diversity of these world religions as the result of military conquest, the result of cultural imperialism, but counter examples of religions resisting their conquerors abound, as do examples of large scale peaceful conversions.

Since Ratzinger is a Christian theologian, he is mostly interested in understanding Christianity and culture. First, he points out that Christianity is not a set of ideas or a theory about God, but is itself a culture. It has a concrete history, ritual, foundational events, historical evolution,  moments of crisis and renewal. Christianity has (so far) been shaped by the Semetic, Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Slavic peoples and their experiences, and will in the future be increasingly shaped by African, American, and Asian peoples and their cultures as it evolves.

At the same time, Christianity has shaped the culture of many nations. Ratzinger points out that while the nations of Europe have been profoundly shaped by Christianity, and reminds us how, a few centuries ago, many Europeans considered their countries to be “most Christian” nations governed by “most Christian” monarchs. We now look back and shake our heads, seeing how sadly they were mistaken.

So the individual Christian is a member of two cultures, that of his nation and that of his faith, and he should sometimes feel tension between the two cultural identities.

Elaborating on this point, Ratzinger goes back to the nature of monotheism as an interpersonal relationship lived out in history. God “calls” an individual: calls to his conscience, calls him to rise out of himself, calls him to a life lived by faith. Looking back on the Hebrew Bible, we see God call Abraham to leave the land of his fathers for a new land, and God call Moses to abandon his adopted Egyptian homeland. When Israel is a kingdom, God calls the prophets to challenge the state religion. When the Kingdom of Israel is crushed and the Jews spread all over the world, the prophets challenge them not only to keep their faith, but to understand it in a new way: Yahweh is not just the god of Israel, but is God of the world, with something to say to the Greeks and Babylonians who also have much to offer to the Jews.

Ratzinger interprets the biblical history of Judaism as the story of God challenging a people beyond themselves, to transcend their own culture and recognize values in themselves which are universal; a process which Ratzinger believes continues in Christianity.


So, why has Truth and Tolerance been an important book for me? Because it helped me conceive of things like history, culture and religion as living, dynamic things. Also, because Ratzinger is able to appreciate cultural diversity while being honest about how a culture can be inhumane or destructive. Finally, while he acknowledges how culture can limit the human mind, he is also confident in the human capacity for truth, and sees this as the driver of cultural evolution.




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