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March 21, 2011

In the Foreword to the new volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says he wants to lead his readers to both a personal encounter with Jesus and to "sure knowledge of the real historical figure of Jesus." The two goals are compatible, a fact that Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) has long striven to articulate and defend. It is possible to both know and love Jesus.

For much of the last century, that proposition was subject to intense scholarly criticism. The Gospels were sometimes seen as myth unless proven otherwise. In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Ratzinger struggled with the 20th century assumptions, gave good reasons for rejecting them and concludes, "I trust the Gospels." At the same time, he says he wrote not to oppose modern scholarship and he offered his "profound gratitude" for its insights.

Now, in volume two, he reflects on the events of Holy Week. (At this writing, I have not been privileged to read the new book, but have had access to some sections posted online and to comments from those who have read the book.)

Ratzinger's abiding theological concern is with the assault on truth by modern relativism. So it is little surprise that he ponders Pilate's dismissal of the existence of truth. "Pilate was not alone in dismissing this question as unanswerable and irrelevant for his purposes," Ratzinger writes.

The question of truth is a question for every person. One can deny the existence of truth and be a pragmatist. Pragmatism may seem to offer solutions to the world's problems, but for Ratzinger, it is the path "by which the strong arm of the powerful becomes the god of this world." Pragmatists put principle aside for the self-serving road of power, money or glamour.

To follow Jesus means to follow the one who came to bear witness to the truth. "'Bearing witness to the truth' means giving priority to God and to his will over against the interests of the world and its powers."

Such discipleship may mean walking the way to the cross. But if faith means anything, it is more than the simple assertion, "I believe that God exists." Faith calls for a rearrangement of one's life in the light of truth. For Ratzinger, "If man lives without truth, life passes him by." One misses the opportunity to become one's fullest self, to live as though created in the likeness of God. One is a reed blown by the wind of changing desires and the fashions of the day. Ultimately, one stands for nothing.

Ratzinger's books on Jesus — he insists that these writings carry no papal authority — are an opportunity to come to that personal encounter with the Lord and to develop a sure knowledge of who he is. They are a call to live the faith in the midst of a world without truth. It is an opportunity that should not be idly ignored.