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  • Writer's picturePeter C. Kaemingk

The Historical Problem of Christianity

1. In the Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger struggles with Christianity’s relationship with modernity to the extent that he even questions whether we should believe that the Incarnation of Christ is good. He states that the Incarnation “which at first seems to bring God quite close to us, so that we can touch him as a fellow man, follow his footsteps and measure them precisely, also became in a very profound sense the precondition for the “death of God”[1]” (Ratzinger, 28). Further on, he asks “whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance[?]” (28). And the questioning of the good of the Incarnation of Christ by a future pope leaves everyone in confusion.

2. This post will examine Ratzinger’s claim that the Incarnation “became in a very profound sense the precondition for the ‘death of God’” (28). In other words, this blog post tries to understand this ‘very profound sense’ to understand how the problem of Christian faith in modernity is paradoxically intensified by endorsing an incarnated God.

3. Now let us begin by stating that, according to Ratzinger, a crucial and fundamental element of belief or faith is that it implies making a leap. “Belief has always had something of an adventurous break or leap about it because in every age it represents the risky enterprise of accepting what plainly cannot be seen as the truly real and fundamental” (25). Every form of belief requires a certain leap in the invisible.

4. Belief in the Christian God certainly requires a leap of the highest degree. “This is simply because there is an infinite gulf between God and man; because man is so made that his eyes are only capable of seeing what is not God, and thus for man God is and always will be the essentially invisible, something lying outside his field of vision” (23-24). God himself is a wholly invisible and infinite entity. Hence, if belief entails a leap in the invisible, Christian belief that worships a total invisible and infinite God requires a ‘total and infinite leap’.

5. Then, does a Christian have no guidance in making such an infinite leap? If that were the case, it would seem like the most strange and unreasonable action. Thus, the answer is also a definite no. Like beliefs in all other religions, Christian belief relies on revelations and testimonies. Without revelations and testimonies, one would be lost when trying to make an infinite and total leap. Human beings, being finite, would be hopeless without some (testimonial) finite and temporal manifestations of this infinitely invisible entity to which they are supposed to make an infinite and total leap. In other words, without historical manifestations or, at least, testimonies [2] thereof present to us historical beings, no religion can proclaim the possibility of making a leap to an infinite and eternal entity.

6. In Christianity, in particular, “[belief] is much more concerned with God in history, with God as man” (27). One could argue that it is precisely due to the essence of Christ’s Incarnation that we can finally know this infinite and eternal God on ‘human’ terms. “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). “Jesus has really made God known, drawn him out of himself or…made him manifest for us to look upon and touch, so that he whom no one has ever seen now stands open to our historical touch” (28). In other words, the coming of Jesus is the ultimate guide for humankind in making this ‘infinite leap.’ There is no historical manifestation of the infinite and eternal God more intense than the Incarnation of the Son of God Himself. The help that a human being, i.e., a finite and historical being, requires to make a ‘meaningful’ leap into the infinite and invisible seems fulfilled by Jesus’ Incarnation, life, resurrection, and teachings.

7. This conclusion makes Ratzinger’s claim that the Incarnation “became in a very profound sense the precondition for the “death of God” (28) more perplexing. If belief entails making a leap (see ¶3) and if a ‘meaningful’ leap requires a manifestation of “God in history” (27), why is God’s manifestation also the precondition of us claiming to have killed him? Jesus resurrects again, so our attempt to ‘truly’ kill him was clearly fruitless. Why then, 2000 years later, do we think that we might have actually killed God? What forces did God initiate when He sent His Son to save us that we now think that we need him less than ever?

8. The answer is paradoxical: God has, by fulfilling our need to be in history, initiated a process lasting about two millennia that led us to think that He is actually historical. In other words, the Son of Man has become literally the Son of Man and not the Son of God. By sending his Son, God has become ‘merely’ a man. God is now a finite being in history like us and ceased being an infinite and eternal being.

9. Now, what is a finite and a historical being is potentially visible. Therefore, understanding such a being does not potentially require a leap, for we stated that a leap happens into something invisible (see ¶3). Howbeit, we stated that belief requires making a leap (see ¶3). So, if we succeeded in making the historical being actually visible, belief ceases to exist. Hence, if God is only in history, then belief in Him might end over time.

10. Even if belief is replaced by a positive statement of the existence of God, the “God of faith [or belief]” (107) will nevertheless be qualitatively different from this purely historical God. In the most favorable scenario, this purely historical God could ‘only’ promise us a better temporal, visible, and practical existence by being ultimately limited to its own historical existence. On the other hand, the God of faith, by being an eternal and infinite being whose historical existence constitutes only an island compared to an infinite sea surrounding it, which constitutes its eternal existence, could potentially promise us infinitely more than temporal, visible, and practical goods. The God of faith’s “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), unlike the purely historical God. Thus, even if one might argue that understanding God as purely historical does not necessarily mean killing Him, the purely historical God has potentially so much less to offer compared to the God of faith that it would still mean that we have killed the God of faith or belief (29). Therefore, being an invisible, infinite, and eternal God, the Christian God will cease to exist for us if we grasp Him exclusively in historical terms.


11. Now we have shown that a purely historical God basically equals a dead God of faith; it remains to show why we have slowly forgotten about the invisible God. It is clear why Christianity is a historical religion, but it remains unclear why this should make us lose sight of the fact that God is primarily invisible, infinite, and eternal. As stated, God’s purpose in appearing in history was rather to assist us in making a leap into His invisible nature instead of losing sight of it. His historical appearance was a “means” rather than an “end in itself.” So, how did this transition from a means to an end happen?

12. Ratzinger claims that at the time of the Incarnation up to the Late Middle Ages, “being itself is true” (31). This understanding of truth implies that the spirit of these times had to go beyond what is physical to come to the truth. It is metaphysics closest to the original Greek meaning of ta meta ta phusika (“the things after the physics”). If we understand physics as the study of the physical, i.e., of the visible, then metaphysics is the study of the invisible that constitutes the visible.

13. Physics can then be practiced for two purposes: on the one hand, it could be practiced for the sake of understanding the physical phenomena, and, on the other hand, it could be practiced for the sake of physical phenomena in themselves.[3] To illustrate these two ways of practicing physics, let us take the example of a body gravitating towards the earth. If we would practice physics in the first manner, our ultimate concern is how this phenomenon of a body gravitating towards earth explains what this gravitating force is. Hence, let us say that we call this gravitating force gravity, then the primary task is to ask: what is gravity itself? The ultimate task then is to understand better the being in itself of, in this case, gravity. So, physics is done for the sake of metaphysics.

14. On the other hand, if we would practice physics in the second manner, i.e., for the sake of physical phenomena in themselves, then our ultimate concern is to discover how a force like gravity explains how bodies move. This task is ideally fulfilled when we can describe a rule or law to the force of gravity so that we can apply this law to trace out how bodies gravitate towards the earth. Of course, we still posit gravity as the force that causes these bodies to move in this or that way, but it is not our primary purpose, or we even refrain from speculating about what gravity is in itself. The question of why a body gravitates is replaced by how a body gravitates. The strife after attaining “real knowledge” or “truth for the sake of truth itself” in coming to an understanding of being itself is replaced for the “practical knowledge” of knowing how phenomena interact and how we can “make” use of them in our own lives (35). Physics is no longer in service of metaphysics but is done to explain the phenomena and ‘manipulate’ the phenomena for the good of our practical lives.

15. One might ask why we made this little detour of laying out the two purposes of physics. It was done not without purpose, for we stated that the human spirit at the time of the Incarnation and up to the Late Middle Ages was, according to Ratzinger, metaphysical (see ¶12). What we did not mention yet, is that the modern human spirit, according to Ratzinger, is the scientific (30). Ratzinger’s understanding of the scientific appears to be completely in harmony with how science is defined by an ordinary dictionary (33). That is, “science is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment” (New Oxford American Dictionary).

16. We should understand what we defined as the second manner of practicing physics, i.e., physics practiced for the sake of practical knowledge, to be in harmony with this definition of science. The definition of science reveals that its primary concern is in the physical and natural world—in what is visible. It does not mention any concern as to what is metaphysical—in what is invisible (see ¶12). Hence, we could draw the same conclusion for Ratzinger’s definition of science as we did for the second manner of practicing physics: it is not in service of metaphysics but is done to explain the phenomena and ‘manipulate’ the phenomena for the good of our practical lives.

17. It is important to note that we understood physics as the study of the physical, i.e., of the visible (see p. 4). Our example of the gravitating body might suggest that we understood it as physics as is ordinarily understood by physics: “the branch of science that is concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy” (New Oxford American Dictionary). However, this is only partly what we understood by physics. We took physics in the very broad sense as the study of the physical. Physics was meant to encompass all the branches of science, i.e., it was meant as science itself.[4] Therefore, our argument also relates to all other branches of sciences, natural and human, such as biology, chemistry, anthropology, and history.

18. This broad understanding of physics/science helps us with our question of why understanding God in history became an end in itself instead of a means to understanding the God of faith (see ¶11). For, as Ratzinger shows, Christianity itself can be understood as a science (Ratzinger, 38). Or perhaps more accurately stated: Christianity allows for an examination of the various branches of science.

19. As we stated, in Christianity, “[belief] is much more concerned with God in history, with God as man” (27, see ¶6). Furthermore, we showed that being in history means being potentially visible (see ¶9). Physics/science task, as the study of the visible, is to make the potentially visible actually visible to us in the manner of showing how something is structured and behaves (see definition of science on ¶15). So, science could also concern itself with Christianity insofar as God is in history.

20. Nevertheless, as defined by Ratzinger, science does not concern itself with what is invisible and understands the visible as an end in itself rather than as a means of getting a better grasp of the invisible (see ¶16). Thus, physics/science ignores the part that God is not only in history but is essentially an invisible entity. Science lets us not make the required leap to the invisible to be inspired by the God of faith/belief (see ¶3). Instead, it obstructs us from making such leaps by deeming them non-sensical since science only treats the visible in our grasp of knowledge. Therefore, understanding science as the be-all and end-all would be reducing God as only historical (see ¶9), which amounts to the same as killing him (see ¶10).

21. In conclusion, we should ask ourselves one more time why we started to see God in history as God itself, rather than seeing God in history as a means to getting closer to the God of faith/belief so that we have killed him. The answer lies in the transition that happened in the human spirit from metaphysical to science (see ¶12). As scientific beings, we have too long concerned ourselves with understanding God in history and thereby have forgotten that God in history was only a means instead of an end in itself. Our scientific narrowmindedness has killed God, so we should remember that we are much more than scientific beings to realize that we can never ‘truly’ kill God as we also realized when we tried to kill his Son.

[1] “Death of God” does here, of course, not imply the Crucifixion, but the idea, famously expressed by Friedrich Nietzsche, that modernity has made the possibility for God’s existence impossible. However, that the atheist makes a pun by using this phrase about the Crucifixion is also obvious. [2]The validity of such testimonies has no necessary importance for this argument. [3] Note that it is possible to practice physics for both purposes at the same time. In a thinker like Descartes, it is, at first sight, not entirely clear for what purpose he practices physics (32-33). Nevertheless, it usually is not hard to see upon which purpose the emphasis lies. [4] We choose the word physics rather than science because it helped us with our argument of relating metaphysics to physics/science since metaphysics, of course, contains the words physics. Starting from the outset with the word science might have obscured its profound relationship to metaphysics.

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