Sermon 3: “The Creator God”

“Today we understand that what seemed in the past to be dead matter is an entity full of spirit. The more we penetrate into the depths of the structures of solid matter, the ‘mass’, the more full of holes it becomes; under our very eyes, the ‘mass’ eludes our grasp” (2nd edition: p. 49 [1st edition: p. 39])

Without plunging into a full-blown scientific discussion, Ratzinger simply makes an appeal to the imagination here and to the enduring quality of wonder in the human mind, including as the mind studies empirical realities with scientific precision. When we look out into space, we see darkness interrupted only very infrequently by objects that either emit or reflect light, and so we assume that most of the cosmos is in fact empty nothingness. And yet, we detect phenomena that challenge our own empirically based assumptions, since further empirical observations show us that there are massive gravitational forces coming from matter that neither emits nor reflects light, and so we are left to wonder at what this “dark matter” is. Running all through the cosmos is energy that we cannot locate or observe on its own, but only observe according to its effect, and so we pause to wonder about this “dark energy”. Even as our microscopes bring us into smaller and smaller structural realms at the most fundamental level of organisms, the firm matter that we assumed we would see is strangely unstable, and so we are left to wonder at what we thought we would be able to grasp at the subatomic levels of matter. Whether in the farthest reaches of the heavens or in the deepest recesses of the things we hold and analyze, we are bound by wonder on all sides. Where did all of this come from, where is it going, and what holds it all together? These are scientific questions, and yet they are also religious questions. In short, they are human questions.

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“Heisenberg does not hesitate to link the question of the ‘central order’ with the question of the ‘compass’ that we ought to follow when we seek our path through life” (p. 50 [p. 40]).

Structurally speaking, the question about the origin, destiny, and ordering principle of the whole of universe is identical to the question that each individual asks about her own life: where did it come from, where is it going, and what holds it all together? Who hasn’t experienced the discomforting feeling that my life does not make sense, that nothing seems to be holding it together, that I cannot glimpse where I am going? (To wit, Thomas Merton confessed as much to God: “I have no idea where I am going…”) Certainly, most of us operate most of the time under the assumption that my life does make sense—at least in some way—and yet there are both significant and subtle moments of existential anxiety when the questions about the meaning and coherence of the whole project of one’s life arise. This is, as it were, a function of the “uncertainty principle” of every human life. Though he does not reference Augustine here, we might reasonably imagine that Ratzinger does not have too far from his mind the existential anxiety of the man who became the Bishop of Hippo, in the years of his disordered existence before he began to assent to the “central order” that gave meaning to all the fragments and quirks of what he later recognized as a “life of dissipation”. Only when God’s mercy—which came as a gift to him—became his “central order”, was Augustine able to try with any kind of success “to give a coherent account of my disintegrated self.”[1]

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“The Christian faith is not opposed to reason. It protects reason and its questions about the totality of things” (p. 51 [p. 41])

The Christian faith holds to the fundamental belief that meaning is given to human beings, not self-generated by human beings. When we base our reason on what we ourselves deem to be desirable, pleasurable, and advantageous, then we embark on a path that leads inevitably to conflict, hostility, and even violence. Self-generated meaning always comes from and confirms those who hold power, and thus it will inevitably lead to division and domination. As Ratzinger attests 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 totality can stand and live, cannot be made but only received.”[2]

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“Faith makes technical research and questioning possible, because it explains the rational character of the world and the orientation of the world toward man; but it is profoundly opposed to restricting thought exclusively to questions of function and usefulness…” (p. 51 [p. 41]).

It is crucial to remember here what Ratzinger established in the preceding sermons—namely, that God is personal, that the human being is addressed personally, that God never reduces the human being to function or number, and that the only reality that exists is the one that the personal God, who addresses us personally and never otherwise, created. If that is indeed true, then human industries are bound to the truth of creation, which means that it is a violation of the created order to arrange the activities of life, the pursuits of knowledge, and the production of goods according to function and usefulness. All activities of human life are, by creation, personal activities: they come from persons, they are addressed to persons, and they connect persons to one another, whether for good or for ill. Any attempt to try to de-personalize the world by wielding power without responsibility is a sham. Faith, therefore, gives research and inquiry its proper grounding in reality, its proper orientation according to responsibility, and its proper order in alignment with the created order of the world. Behind all this is the decisiveness in the belief in God: the first and most important thing is to heed God on God’s own terms, and then pursue the creativity of human life on the basis of that ground (the Shema is again present here).

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“Marcion” (pp. 52–55 [pp. 42–45])

In what might seem like something of an excursus in the sermon, the focus on Marcion in the middle of this homily emphasizes a fundamental principle of the rationality of Christianity in Ratzinger’s view. The basis of rationality is what is given not made, which is to say that true rationality accords with who “God is” and therefore what God creates and how this act of creation provides order to all that is. Briefly put, the Marcionite heresy concerned the separation of the New Testament from the Old Testament, for Marcion was not interested in heeding Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of the law and the prophets but rather as their replacement. In his vision, the “God” of the Old Testament was one sort of thing while the “God” of the New Testament was something else. In fact, they were incompatible. Rather than first receiving revelation on its own terms, he interpreted Scripture according to what he deemed right and proper. In other words, he made his own criteria: “His God was only love, forgiveness, and joy…” (52). In denying the “old God”, Marcion sees all that “has been” in the unfolding of Israel’s history since the emergence of creation as not only corrected but also functionally abandoned and replaced. Ratzinger relates this to the ever-tempting distrust of the body, which is often seen as something burdensome that we have to lug around with all its historically-conditioned habits of sinfulness and habitual inclinations. It would be better, it is assumed, to just start over with the spirit, leaving the body behind to decay. This is like pursuing research and progress for our own self-asserted purposes: we do not hold ourselves accountable to any kind of claim to the true nature of the world but rather insert our own vision of what will be desirable, pleasurable, and advantageous. To Marcion, the “God of the Old Testament” did not accord with his preferred vision, and so that “God” was dismissed. In all of this lies a metaphysical question: Is there such a thing as Being that makes us what we are and orders the world, or do we make an order and then that becomes what is true? As Ratzinger eventually claims, what the Marcionite impulse induces is “the complete replacement of [the Creator’s] creation by another world that man will build for himself” (55).

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“…in the environmental question, where we see that man cannot live against the earth, for the simple reason that he must live from the earth” (p. 55 [p. 45]).

Seeds of the encyclical Laudato Si penned by his successor in the Petrine Ministry, Pope Francis, are certainly evident here as elsewhere in Ratzinger’s corpus. For Ratzinger as later for Francis, the “environmental question” is always a human question, always a question about the whole order of existence, always a question about the fundamental meaning of creation: its whence and whither, its ordering principle. A common theological progenitor for both popes in this regard is Romano Guardini.

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“…what is involved here is humanitas, the ‘specifically human quality’ of man, who cannot declare the trampling underfoot of creation to be his own liberation without deceiving himself on a very profound level” (p. 56 [p. 46])

The matter of objective truth—a stable, given meaning of the world and of all life that, in the Christian view, flows from who “God is”—is a matter of ultimate security. Without the gift of meaning—“central order” as Ratzinger calls it above, following Heisenberg—those with power (financial, political, industrial, technological, or otherwise) have the means to reshape the world in their own image, which will always come at the expense of those without that same power. For a pluralistic society, this is not an issue of proselytization and forced religious adherence; it is rather an issue that touches on what it means for us to be human together, truly equal not by some idea or ideology but according to our very creation.

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“It is a responsibility for man as a whole, precisely thanks to the fact that his Redeemer is none other than his Creator” (p. 57 [p. 47])

The issues of meaning and order that follow from the belief in the God as Creator are not private concerns for the Christian; indeed, nothing is a private concern for the Christian. To be Christian is to care about the whole: the whole of man, the whole of humanity, the whole of creation—and to care for the whole by being concerned with each part, out of love. To claim Jesus Christ as Redeemer is to claim the truth of creation itself, since the one who redeems us is the one who created us. What is revealed to be true in him about who God is, who we are, and what the world is, is not the private possession of the Christian but indeed the “common good” of all. In the truth of the Redeemer who sets him free, the Christian is therefore responsible for others. This responsibility is broad and means, depending on circumstance, advocating and acting for the good of others (especially those who suffer exploitation at the hands of worldly power), proclaiming what is true about God and the human being and the world (especially to those who suffer ignorance at the hands of worldly illusion), and praying for ongoing conversion for each and all (especially for oneself who suffers the perpetual temptation to care principally for oneself).

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“Is there not a profound fear of the future in the great pains people take to block the path to new human life?” (p. 57 [p. 47])

Following from the Marcionite impulse he traced earlier, the basic decision to construe the meaning of the world and the meaning of life according to one’s own preferred standards leads, in the end, to despairing of the possibility of new human life if that new human life does not conform to what you have deemed desirable, pleasurable, and advantageous. According to this “rationality”, it seems better to block new human life that does not meet the newly agreed upon standards than to hazard existence with such inconveniences. Again, when meaning is not recognized as first of all given, the downfall of humanity begins. Professing belief in God as Creator is the only stable ground.

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“Belief in the Creator is also belief in the God of our conscience” (p. 57 [p. 47])

Belief in God as Creator is a matter of seeing the world aright, but this is not simply a matter of right knowledge or vision. There is also the matter of living consistently, of being consistent. Here at the end Ratzinger once again makes this all very personal: if God is who Christians say God is, then to live as if God is not who Christians say God is means becoming self-contradictory. Meaning leads to responsibility in the arena of conscience: “Conscience means the priority of the truth” (58).

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“I believe in God the Creator. Let us ask him that we may ‘learn’ what this means” (p. 58 [p. 48])

The profession of faith is the beginning, not the end, of understanding. The crucial thing is to ultimately address our questions to God.[3]


endNotes to Commentary on Sermon 3

[1] Saint Augustine, The Confessions, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 25 [II.1.1].

[2] Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 73.

[3] Consider Augustine’s beautiful sermon on questioning the beauty of the earth in relation with this final plea in Ratzinger’s homily Augustine, “Sermon 241,” accessed April 7, 2012, http://www.vatican.va/spirit/documents/spirit_20000721_agostino_en.html.

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