God is With Us
by Regis Martin
Near the end of a long and distinguished life, spanning nearly the entire nineteenth century, John Henry Cardinal Newman (declared Blessed by Pope Benedict in 2010), was asked about something he’d written. Now Newman, who was no slouch by any standard, had written a great many things, all of them of a very high order, both as literature and theology. Whatever he wrote was instantly snapped up by everyone.
Well, almost everyone. It seems that there was this one fellow—a bit of a pest, really—who told the old Cardinal that he was simply too busy to read his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, which has long enjoyed classic status in fundamental theology, and would His Eminence be good enough to provide him with a quick summary. One or two bullet points, as it were, and that should do it.
Newman refused. “Catholicism,” he pointed out, “is a deep matter—you cannot take it up in a teacup.”
Now that’s neatly put, I think. Very clever.
It reminds me of an episode of “Sixty Minutes” I once saw. A famous author was about to retire, having made a fairly big splash in all the usual places, and the interviewer, who had devoted practically every minute recounting all his accomplishments, asked if he wouldn’t mind in the few remaining moments left, summarizing his life and work.
If you can’t summarize a man’s life and work in thirty seconds, how much time would you need to do justice to a religion–the religion, say, of Catholic-Christianity?
Well, you might begin by disclaiming the terms of the question. Christianity is not a religion. It is not the result of human beings attempting to reach God. It is God rather reaching down to reveal himself to human beings. How so? By becoming one himself in that single shattering instant we call Incarnation.
“The absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx,” is how Joseph Ratzinger put it in a trailblazing work written almost a half-century ago; called Introduction to Christianity; it is a book on which a whole generation of aspiring young Catholic theologians first cut their theological teeth. My own choppers, for what it’s worth, have never been the same.
“If faith in the logos,” he explains—which is nothing less than an assertion concerning the sheer meaning and intelligibility of being—if that judgment of faith “corresponds perfectly with a tendency in the human reason,” then it surely follows that to believe in the actual enfleshment of God himself is to proclaim
the absolutely staggering alliance of logos and sarx, of meaning and a single historical figure. The meaning that sustains all being has become flesh; that is, it has entered history and become one individual in it; it is no longer simply what encompasses and sustains history but a point in it.