Sermon 1: “God has names”

“The oppressive sense of the absence of God…” (second edition: p. 25 [first edition: p.15])

We are likely better able to imagine how an excessive presence could be oppressive than we can imagine how absence can be oppressive. In the case of God’s presumed absence, though, this has to do with the consistent and unrelenting reinforcement of the sense that no one is there to help. Without God to hear and to respond, the silence of cosmos, of misery in one’s own life, of disorientation and confusion is deafening, even oppressively so. As we will see as Ratzinger’s sermons unfold, Israel’s God is the one who hears his people’s cry from underneath its bondage and who responds, in person. God’s presence liberates.

In the preceding paragraph of this sermon, Ratzinger references the first cosmonaut who returned from space and said he had not found God. We might contrast this to James Dillet Freeman’s poem that presently rests on the surface of the moon, tucked inside microfilm. To the contrary of the cosmonaut’s assertion of absence, Freeman writes in God’s voice: “Do you need Me? / I am there. / You cannot see me … Yet I am there. Yet I hear. Yet I answer. / When you need Me, I am there…”[1] In each case, the direction of a hidden desire is disclosed: for the cosmonaut, the desire to be found independent, on our own; for Freeman (from the moon!), the desire to be caught up in an address, even and perhaps especially when surrounded by silence, with darkness all around. Who plumbs the depths of darkness? God or nothing, to paragraph Robert Cardinal Sarah. In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger writes that “What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing.”[2]

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“Golem” (pp. 25–26 [pp. 15–16])

The most famous Golem in modern literature is Tolkien’s Smeagol. What is this character? He moves into the condition of a devolved human being, who has been un-created by the overwhelming lust for power and the unchecked ambitions of men. He is un-created not in community, but in isolation, where the sour secrets of pride fester, untouched by the inconveniences of the outside world, where other people actually live. The beginning of faith is always tied up with a recognition of one’s own creatureliness, which means fundamental dependence and the need—the desperate and unabridged need—for another. “I am not myself by myself,” as Desmond Tutu has proclaimed.[3] The inscription of “God is dead” is the ultimate claim to fundamental autonomy and therefore the disavowal of a narrative that exceeds you, one that is secured by a person who is not you but, as with God, who loves you. The Golem—the one who lives as though “God is dead”—seeks to make meaning on his own, or otherwise resigns himself to collapsing into meaninglessness. But as Ratzinger argues in Introduction to Christianity, “Meaning that is self-made is in the last analysis no meaning. Meaning, that is, the ground on which our existence as a totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.”[4]

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“Man possesses total power over the world” (p. 26 [p.16])

What has been drained out of a world that is all too efficient, all too purposeful, all too utilitarian is personalism. Anyone who has called their cable company or cell service provider has experienced something like this. It is a world in which God is absent, where the angel choirs are silent, for the song of the angels is the song of a Sovereign God who rules the cosmos through mediations of his own presence. The angelic order is the saturation of creation with the personal presence of God. Nothing else orders.[5]

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“…the knowledge of God is not a purely theoretical matter: it depends on the relationship that a man establishes between himself and the world and between his own self and his life” (p. 27 [p. 17])

This knowledge is first of all an act of trust: do I trust that I am known and loved (Psalm 139, which he will point to soon) or do I remain entrenched in the oppressive assumption that, ultimately, there is no one there? Knowledge, for the Christian, begins in the experience of being known, and it is ultimately a matter of love (as we will see by the end of these sermons). Wisdom is born in the valley of humility.[6] This stands against the “Golem” who is the “self-made man”.

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Psalm 139 (p. 28 [p.18])… “the overcoming of that loneliness that no man can abolish” (p. 29 [p. 19])

This speaks directly to the fundamental experience—the source of one’s knowledge—of being known, well beyond the boundaries of what can be conceptually grasped. This bedrock truth of “being known” will find its furthest approximate echo in Job, later in the sermons. But even these brackets are held within the unfathomable divine brackets of Eternal Sonship and Holy Saturday.[7] Where the psalmist and thus Ratzinger points us is not to the staid, satisfied certainty of this truth but rather to the kindling of desire to seek his face always (Psalm 105:4). It is as if to say, “Darkness is not dark for you…” or, where I have not found you I have not looked, O Lord. Open my eyes so I may see, open my ears so I may hear, open my heart so I may receive your love. This desire is the firm foundation on which the believer stands, because ultimately it is a desire that comes to the believer from the God who already gives well before being sought.

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“Does man want to remain unseen?” (p. 29 [p. 19])

The Fall is our desire to hide from God, to be alone with ourselves (to reference Sherry Turkle’s memorable title about the digitally connected but personally fragmented modern world),[8] to refuse to open up to what we have done and what we have failed to do (see Gen 3:8–9).

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“What does the God of the Bible look like?” (p. 30 [p. 20])

If God is the one who knows and who sees, the key question is Who is this God? Ratzinger moves to Exodus 3, with the echo of the introduction of God at end of Exodus 2, to acknowledge that God is the one who does see, and whose seeing is always mercy, and whose mercy is always efficacious. In response to what he sees as the suffering of his people, God comes, in person. The stable ground of the Christian faith is of the Father, who is always already moving towards us in mercy. God’s movement is, paradoxically, stability, but it is stability precisely because God is absolutely consistent: what God does is the revelation of who God is. Israel comes to know this in and out of Egypt, and the Christian comes to know this in the life of the Church, eucharistically.

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“God is not the prisoner of what happened ‘before all eternity’; he is always presence: ‘I am’” (p. 32 [p. 22])

In other words, it is not that God says “I am here, only here, and forever here, in this one place” but rather, in every place, in every situation, in every moment of need and darkness and desire: “I am here”, the same one who sees, and hears, and is filled with compassion (see Psalm 34:6; cf. Psalm 103:8), and comes to save you.

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“…the seventeenth chapter of John’s Gospel as the high point of the development of the New Testament faith, and this brief text speaks four times of ‘the name of God’” (p. 33 [p.23])

Why is this the high point? Because it is like listening in on the hidden dialogue of the Father and the Son, thus enveloped in the Holy Spirit. What is the desire of God? Only ever for communion: that the communion of Father and Son that is the Spirit becomes the way and the truth and the life of all those who are made one in Jesus. This anticipates the later sermon on the Holy Spirit.

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“This beast, the power opposed to God, has no name, but a number…It is a number, and it makes men numbers. We who lived through the world of the concentration camps know what that means. The terror of that world is rooted in the fact that it obliterates men’s faces. It obliterates their history. It makes man a number…” (p. 33 [p.23])

The power of the beast is no mere hypothetical proposition, even though it remains difficult to see in civilized life on an everyday basis. To help focus our attention, it is helpful to listen to the witness of someone on whom the power of the beast pressed down with unmistakable force, who knew what it was like to be reduced to a number and measured only according to utility. This witness is but one of many who entered into the Nazi concentration camps in the middle of the last century, though he is one of the few who lived to tell about it. The following words come from the Italian Jew, Primo Levi, who recalls what it was like to be processed into the concentration camp:

They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains. … Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraints, for he who loses all often easily loses himself. He will be a man whose life or death can be lightly decided with no sense of human affinity, in the most fortunate of cases, on the basis of a pure judgment of utility. … Häftling [prisoner]: I have learnt that I am Häftling. My number is 174517; we have been baptized, we will carry the tattoo on our left arm until we die.[9]

The fact that Ratzinger explicitly refers to the concentration camps in this section when speaking of the importance of names and the violence of taking away names finds a reverberating echo in Levi, who describes the impression of the number in place of his name as a kind of baptism. Both Ratzinger and Levi, from different angels and radically disparate situations, are highlighting how totalizing the way in which one is primarily known and measured is for every part of one’s identity and life in the world. In the modern age, with social lives often organized by algorithms, sold for marketing purposes, and under various forms of surveillance whether for the interests of the state or of commerce, it is perhaps not too far-fetched to conceive of the names of human beings again being reduced to numbers, though without the sort of brute force that Levi and the other Häftlinge suffered. As Ratzinger himself states the case in this section: “Today, we must fear that the concentration camp was only a prelude and that the universal law of the machine may impose the structure of the concentration camp on the world as a whole” (pp. 33–34).

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“But God has a name, and God calls us by name. He is a Person, and he seeks the person. He has a face, and he seeks our face. He has a heart, and he seeks our heart” (p. 34 [p. 24])

The revelation of God shows us what we are, what God continually makes us to be: we are ones who are named and therefore ones whose identities are not reduced to judgments of utility. Baptism is the sacramental impression of this reality. To have a name means that you are available, it gives the one who knows your name a certain power over you, because now you can be invoked, called upon, even claimed. If this remained one-sided, then perhaps there would be reason to fear domination at the hands of the one who knows all names. But here, the humility of God changes everything, and this is precisely Ratzinger’s point. God has name, and God gives his name. To disclose his name means that God gives his creatures the power to make a claim on him, to call upon him, to seek him and, as it were, bother him. God’s creative love is unbreakably tied to God’s name-giving; even as early as the first creation narrative, God is the one who “calls” all things by their names (God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night [Gen 1:5]) and in the second creation narrative, God gives this same power to his “earth creature” (’adam [man] from ’adamah [earth], see Gen 2:7), to whom the Lord God brought all the creatures to see what [man] would call them (Gen 2:19, JPS). God calls what he creates by name, God gives his creature “man” the power to call things by name, and, in the fullness of time, God gives his own name. In giving his name, God holds nothing back, not even himself.

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“His own name… His Being is salvation” (p. 34 [p. 24])

This is the climax of the whole sermon. Even the “name” is not theoretical or abstract; the name is a person, this person, Jesus, who is God’s name incarnate: I am who am is fully revealed as the one who saves you. The God the psalmist sought has arrived. (For more on the biblical belief in God and ultimately God’s giving of his own name, see Introduction to Christianity, chapter 2, 116–36.)



endNotes to Commentary on Sermon 1

[1] James Dillet Freeman, “I Am There,” Unity, July 9, 2012, http://www.unity.org/resources/articles/i-am-there.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, Second Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 43. For more on the oppressive sense of the absence of God, see Karl Rahner, “Why and How Can We Venerate the Saints?,” in Theological Investigations, trans. Cornelius Ernst et al., vol. 8 (Limerick, Ireland: Mary Immaculate College, 2000).

[3] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 31; See also Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, ed. Aidan Nichols, trans. Michael Waldstein, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2007), 231–32.

[4] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 73.

[5] For more on the loss of personalism in the modern world and the overwhelming personalism in the Christian view of the world, see Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, trans. Elinor Briefs (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 1998). This is particularly important since Guardini strongly influenced Ratzinger not only with his cultural analyses but also and perhaps especially with his liturgical theology.

[6] Consider the words that Catherine of Siena hears spoken to her from the Lord in prayer: “Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is,” ( Raymond of Capua and George Lamb, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena [Charlotte, North Carolina: TAN Books, 2003], 62).

[7] See Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 90–91.

[8] Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2012).

[9] Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, trans. Stuart Woolf (London: Abacus, 1987), 33.

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