Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Faith in God Today

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

After all we have said, what does it mean today when a man says, in the words of the Church’s Creed, “I believe in God”? Anyone who utters these words makes first and foremost a decision about values and emphasis in this world that is certainly comprehensible as truth (and, indeed, in a qualified sense must be regarded as a decision for the truth) but in the last analysis can only be attained in the decision and as decision. What thus takes place is also a decision in the sense that a separation is made between various possibilities. What Israel had to do in the early days of its history, and the Church had to do again at the beginning of her career, must be done afresh in every human life. Just as in those days the verdict had to be delivered against the possibilities symbolized by Moloch and Baal, against custom and in favor of truth, so the Christian statement “I believe in God” is always a process of separation, of acceptance, of purification, and of transformation. Only in this way can the Christian confession of faith in the one God be maintained in the passing ages. But in what directions does this process point today?

  1. The Primacy of the Logos

Christian faith in God means first the decision in favor of the primacy of the logos as against mere matter. Saying “I believe that God exists” also implies opting for the view that the logos—that is, the idea, freedom, love—stands not merely at the end but also at the beginning, that it is the originating and encompassing power of all being. In other words, faith means deciding for the view that thought and meaning do not just form a chance by-product of being; that, on the contrary, all being is a product of thought and, indeed, in its innermost structure is itself thought.

To that extent faith means in a specific sense deciding for the truth, since, to faith, being itself is truth, comprehensibility, meaning, and all this does not simply represent a secondary product of being that arose at some point or other but could have no structural, authoritative meaning for reality as a whole.

This decision in favor of the intellectual structure of the kind of being that emerges from meaning and understanding includes the belief in creation. This means nothing else than the conviction that the objective mind we find present in all things, indeed, as which we learn increasingly to understand things, is the impression and expression of subjective mind and that the intellectual structure that being possesses and that we can re-think is the expression of a creative premeditation, to which they owe their existence.

To put it more precisely, in the old Pythagorean saying about the God who practices geometry there is expressed that insight into the mathematical structure of being which learns to understand being as having been thought, as intellectually structured; there is also expressed the perception that even matter is not simply non-sense that eludes understanding, that it too bears in itself truth and comprehensibility that make intellectual comprehension possible. In our time, through the investigation of the mathematical construction of matter and the way it can be conceived and evaluated in mathematical terms, this insight has gained an amazing solidity. Einstein said once that in the laws of nature “an intelligence so superior is revealed that in comparison all the significance of human thinking and human arrangements is a completely worthless reflection.”[1]

This surely means that all our thinking is, indeed, only a rethinking of what in reality has already been thought out beforehand. It can only try in a paltry way to trace over that being-thought which things are and to find truth in it. The mathematical understanding of the world has here discovered, through the mathematics of the universe, so to speak, the “God of the philosophers”—with all its problems, as is shown when Einstein over and over again rejects the concept of a personal God as “anthropomorphic”, ascribing it to the “religion of fear” and the “religion of morality”, with which he contrasts, as the only appropriate attitude, the “cosmic religiosity” that to him expresses itself in “enraptured wonder at the harmony of the laws of nature”, in a “deep faith in the rationality of the structure of the world”, and in the “longing for understanding, if only of a pale reflection of the intelligence revealed in this world”.[2]

Here we have before us the whole problem of belief in God. On the one side, there is the transparency of being, which as being-thought points to a process of thinking; on the other, we have the impossibility of bringing this thinking of being into relation with man. It becomes easy to see the barrier to equating the “God of faith” and the “God of the philosophers” constituted by a narrow and insufficiently pondered concept of person.

Before we try to make any progress on this point, I should like to cite another similar statement by a scientist. James Jeans once said: “We discover that the universe shows traces of a planning and controlling power that has something in common with our own individual minds, not, so far as we have yet discovered, feeling, morality, or aesthetic capacity, but the tendency to think in a way that, for lack of a better word, we have called geometry.”[3] This is the same thing all over again: the mathematician discovers the mathematics of the cosmos, the being-thought-ness of things; but no more. He discovers only the God of the philosophers.

But is this really surprising? Can the mathematician who looks at the world mathematically find anything else but mathematics in the universe? Should not one rather ask him whether he has not himself at some time or other looked at the world in a way that is other than mathematical? Whether, for example, he has never seen an apple tree in blossom and wondered why the process of fertilization by the interplay between bees and tree is not effected otherwise than through the roundabout way of the blossom, thus including the completely superfluous wonder of beauty, which again, of course, can only be understood by cooperation, by relying on that which is already beautiful even without us? When Jeans opines that this kind of thing has so far not been discovered in the mind of which he speaks, one can confidently say to him that it will indeed never be discovered by physics and cannot be, because in its investigations it abstracts, in accordance with its nature, from the aesthetic feeling and from the moral attitude, questions nature from a purely mathematical point of view, and consequently can also catch sight only of the mathematical side of nature. The answer depends quite simply on the question. Yet the man who seeks a view of the whole will have to say: In the world we find present, without doubt, objective mathematics; but we also find equally present in the world unparalleled and unexplained wonders of beauty, or, to be more accurate, there are events that appear to the apprehending mind of man in the form of beauty, so that he is bound to say that the mathematician responsible for these events has displayed an unparalleled degree of creative imagination.

If we summarize the observations we have strung together in a sketchy and fragmentary fashion we can say: The world is objective mind; it meets us in an intellectual structure, that is, it offers itself to our mind as something that can be reflected upon and understood. From this follows the next step. To say “Credo in Deum—I believe in God” expresses the conviction that objective mind is the product of subjective mind and can only exist at all as the declension of it, that, in other words, being-thought (as we find it present in the structure of the world) is not possible without thinking.

It may be useful to clarify and confirm this statement by inserting it—again only in broad strokes—into a kind of self-criticism of historical reason. After two and a half thousand years of philosophical thinking it is no longer possible for us to speak blithely about the subject itself as if so many different people had not tried to do the same thing before us and come to grief. Moreover, when we survey the acres of shattered hypotheses, vainly applied ingenuity, and empty logic that history shows us, we might well lose all heart in the quest for the real, hidden truth that transcends the obvious. Yet the situation is not quite so hopeless as it must appear at first sight, for in spite of the almost endless variety of opposing philosophical paths that man has taken in his attempts to think out being, in the last analysis there are only a few basic ways of explaining the secret of being. The question to which everything finally leads could be formulated like this: In all the variety of individual things, what is, so to speak, the common stuff of being—what is the one being behind the many “things”, which nevertheless all “exist”? The many answers produced by history can finally be reduced to two basic possibilities. The first and most obvious would run something like this: Everything we encounter is in the last analysis stuff, matter; this is the only thing that always remains as demonstrable reality and, consequently, represents the real being of all that exists—the materialistic solution. The other possibility points in the opposite direction. It says: Whoever looks thoroughly at matter will discover that it is being-thought, objectivized thought. So it cannot be the ultimate. On the contrary, before it comes thinking, the idea; all being is ultimately being-thought and can be traced back to mind as the original reality; this is the “idealistic” solution.

To reach a verdict we must ask still more precisely: What is matter, really? And what is mind? Abbreviating drastically, we could say that we call “matter” a being that does not itself comprehend being, that “is” but does not understand itself. The reduction of all being to matter as the primary form of reality consequently implies that the beginning and ground of all being is constituted by a form of being that does not itself understand being; this also means that the understanding of being only arises as a secondary, chance product during the course of development. This at the same time also gives us the definition of “mind”: it can be described as being that understands itself, as being that is present to itself. The idealistic solution to the problem of being accordingly signifies the idea that all being is the being-thought by one single consciousness. The unity of being consists in the identity of the one consciousness, whose impulses constitute the many things that are.

The Christian belief in God is not completely identical with either of these two solutions. To be sure, it, too, will say, being is being-thought. Matter itself points beyond itself to thinking as the earlier and more original factor. But in opposition to idealism, which makes all being into moments of an all-embracing consciousness, the Christian belief in God will say: Being is being-thought—yet not in such a way that it remains only thought and that the appearance of independence proves to be mere appearance to anyone who looks more closely. On the contrary, Christian belief in God means that things are the being-thought of a creative consciousness, of a creative freedom, and that the creative consciousness that bears up all things has released what has been thought into the freedom of its own, independent existence. In this it goes beyond any mere idealism. While the latter, as we have just established, explains everything real as the content of a single consciousness, in the Christian view what supports it all is a creative freedom that sets what has been thought in the freedom of its own being, so that, on the one hand, it is the being-thought of a consciousness and yet, on the other hand, is true being itself.

This also clarifies the heart of the creation concept: the model from which creation must be understood is not the craftsman but the creative mind, creative thinking. At the same time it becomes evident that the idea of freedom is the characteristic mark of the Christian belief in God as opposed to any kind of monism. At the beginning of all being it puts not just some kind of consciousness but a creative freedom that creates further freedoms. To this extent one could very well describe Christianity as a philosophy of freedom. For Christianity, the explanation of reality as a whole is not an all-embracing consciousness or one single materiality; on the contrary, at the summit stands a freedom that thinks and, by thinking, creates freedoms, thus making freedom the structural form of all being.

  1. The Personal God

If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, faith in the preexisting, world-supporting reality of the creative meaning, it is at the same time, as belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, whose being-thought is represented by the world, is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness but rather freedom, creative love, a person. Accordingly, if the Christian option for the logos means an option for a personal, creative meaning, then it is at the same time an option for the primacy of the particular as against the universal. The highest is not the most universal but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being. And here once again it is the option for the primacy of freedom as against the primacy of some cosmic necessity or natural law. Thus the specific features of the Christian faith as opposed to other intellectual choices of the human mind now stand out in clear relief. The position occupied by a man who utters the Christian Credo becomes unmistakably clear.

Moreover, it can be shown that the first option—for the primacy of the logos as opposed to mere matter—is not possible without the second and third, or, to be more accurate, the first, taken on its own, would remain mere idealism; it is only the addition of the second and third options—primacy of the particular, primacy of freedom—that marks the watershed between idealism and Christian belief, which now denotes something different from mere idealism.

Much could be said about this. Let us content ourselves with the indispensable elucidations by first asking what it really means to say that this logos, whose thought is the world, is a person and that therefore faith is the option in favor of the primacy of the particular over the universal. In the last analysis, the answer can be put quite simply: It means nothing else than that the creative thinking we found to be the precondition and ground of all being is truly conscious thinking and that it knows not only itself but also its whole thought. It means further that this thinking not only knows but loves; that it is creative because it is love; and that, because it can love as well as think, it has given its thought the freedom of its own existence, objectivized it, released it into distinct being. So the whole thing means that this thinking knows its thought in its distinct being, loves it and, loving, upholds it. Which brings us back to the saying to which our reflections keep leading: Not to be encompassed by the greatest, but to let oneself be encompassed by the smallest—that is divine.

But if the logos of all being, the being that upholds and encompasses everything, is consciousness, freedom, and love, then it follows automatically that the supreme factor in the world is not cosmic necessity but freedom. The implications of this are very extensive. For this leads to the conclusion that freedom is evidently the necessary structure of the world, as it were, and this again means that one can only comprehend the world as incomprehensible, that it must be incomprehensibility. For if the supreme point in the world’s design is a freedom that upholds, wills, knows, and loves the whole world as freedom, then this means that together with freedom the incalculability implicit in it is an essential part of the world. Incalculability is an implication of freedom; the world can never—if this is the position—be completely reduced to mathematical logic. With the boldness and greatness of a world defined by the structure of freedom there comes also the somber mystery of the demonic, which emerges from it to meet us. A world created and willed on the risk of freedom and love is no longer just mathematics. As the arena of love it is also the playground of freedom and also incurs the risk of evil. It accepts the mystery of darkness for the sake of the greater light constituted by freedom and love.

Once again it becomes evident here how the categories of minimum and maximum, smallest and greatest, change in a perspective of this sort. In a world that in the last analysis is not mathematics but love, the minimum is a maximum; the smallest thing that can love is one of the biggest things; the particular is more than the universal; the person, the unique and unrepeatable, is at the same time the ultimate and highest thing. In such a view of the world, the person is not just an individual, a reproduction arising by the diffusion of the idea into matter, but, precisely, a “person”. Greek thought always regarded the many individual creatures, including the many individual human beings, only as individuals, arising out of the splitting up of the idea in matter. The reproductions are thus always secondary; the real thing is the one and universal. The Christian sees in man, not an individual, but a person; and it seems to me that this passage from individual to person contains the whole span of the transition from antiquity to Christianity, from Platonism to faith. This definite being is not at all something secondary, giving us a fragmentary glimpse of the universal, which is the real. As the minimum it is a maximum; as the unique and unrepeatable, it is something supreme and real.

From this follows one last step. If it is the case that the person is more than the individual, that the many is something real and not something secondary, that there exists a primacy of the particular over the universal, then oneness is not the unique and final thing; plurality, too, has its own and definitive right. This assertion, which follows by an inner necessity from the Christian option, leads of its own accord to a transcending of the concept of a God who is mere oneness. The internal logic of the Christian belief in God compels us to go beyond mere monotheism and leads to the belief in the triune God, who must now, in conclusion, be discussed.


[1] A. Einstein, Mein Weltbild, ed. by C. Seelig (Zurich, Stuttgart, and Vienna, 1953), p. 21.

[2] Ibid., pp. 18-22. In the section entitled “The Necessity for an Ethical Culture” (pp. 22-24) there are signs of a loosening of the previously intimate connection between scientific knowledge and religious wonder; his perception of the specifically religious seems to have been somewhat sharpened by previous tragic experiences.

[3] Quoted in W. von Hartlieb, Das Christentum und die Gegenwart, Stifterbibliothek, vol. 21 (Salzburg, 1953), pp. 18f.

From Introduction to Christianity By Joseph RatzingerIgnatius Press, 2004

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