I am glad I kept tabs on Pope Benedict XVI’s sermons, articles and speeches over the Christmas period and that I now had a chance to read them, as there were some true gems to be found there.
Let’s start with his Christmas Vigil homily, where he summed up the trusting fragility of the Christmas paradox particularly vividly and beautifully:
“Again and again it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms. It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.”
Then, in his article in the Financial Times, he drew out the consequences of God’s becoming man and the love for humanity He thereby demonstrated:
“Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.
Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.”
However, the engagement of Christians in the world is to be done on Gospel terms and here Benedict introduces a (to me) new reading of Jesus’ famous response to the trap some Pharisees laid him: “Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.” He goes beyond a splitting of responsibilities and highlights the wrongful demands that secular powers can lay claim to:
“Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar. From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”
Benedict then takes this central idea of freedom in truth and applies it, in a to me surprisingly bold way, to the topic of inter-religious dialogue, which “is a necessary condition for peace in the world and is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.” He first presents the current rules of this dialogue as, first, “not aim[ing] at conversion, but at understanding” and, second, that “both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.” While he underlines the correctness of not aiming at conversion, Benedict sees these rules as “too superficial” and instead proposes the following to the Christian participant:
“[T]he search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”
This is decidedly not a cautious edging towards compromise, but instead a realization that Christians “can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue.”