The first book of Benedict XVI’s formidable oeuvre on the life of Jesus of Nazareth deals explicitly with the political life of Christ, or what Benedict in the preface modestly terms His “public activity.” Although not explicitly terming Christ’s activity as political, Benedict XVI does tell us that he regards this “public activity” as the more “urgent” activity, in contradistinction to the childhood of Christ. What Benedict XVI initially and modestly calls Christ’s “public activity” is eventually unveiled as political activity and treated as such for the duration of this considerably difficult tome. This essay review will aim to validate the latter claim, elaborate it and explore Benedict XVI’s political teaching to the extent that it is made visible in the first part of his biographical rumination on Jesus Christ.
Before proceeding, it is necessary to elucidate certain presuppositions which form the groundwork of this essay, in order to avoid misunderstanding. First and foremost, this essay does not make the audacious claim to concern its self with the political philosophy of Jesus Christ, nor with the political philosophy of Benedict XVI. Rather, the aim herein is to extrapolate what appears to be a rather esoteric teaching on political philosophy encapsulated in a broader work; Jesus of Nazareth. Benedict XVI’s book on Christ eludes, as a whole, any easy categorization. It is a work of history while also being a work of theology. The two are linked by a thread of philology. Within the work, there appear all the virtues of mythology, poetry, and philosophy. Methodological political philosophy appears nowhere explicitly; political science is absent. Their absence in any methodological or scientific sense portends their presence in common sense, as befits classical liberal arts. The book is, in short, a classical text written in modern times. It thus transcends modern categorization. To those unfamiliar with classical scholarship, the book may appear inadequate rather than transcendent.
Turning to this possible inadequacy, in the spirit of Thomistic disputation; a modern critique of the book may well go something like this: Though it pretends to history, it is not methodological enough to be accurate history. Though it pretends to theology, it relies too heavily on historical fact. Though it pretends to academic scholarship, it condenses too much in the name of popular evangelization. In other words: because it cannot be compartmentalized to fit the narrow confines of the modern social sciences, and at the same time cannot be said to be authentically “classical” as it was written recently, it is therefore worthless. For even if we were to grant that it is stylistically and organizationally “classical”, the modern social sciences seldom admit of the notion that classical texts are important beyond their historical value as “old” texts, or windows into the past.
By way of analogy, one of the best examples of this phenomenon is the treatment of The Beowulf as described by J.R.R Tolkien in his 1936 lecture, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.”. The modern social sciences, incapable of allowing that pre-scientific civilization had anything of value to teach us about ourselves, presumed (according to Tolkien) to treat The Beowulf as at best a historical account testifying to particular cultural traits of Germanic tribal society. Likewise, had Benedict XVI written his book on Jesus five hundred years ago, it may have historical value now. As such, being a contemporary work executed in the classical style, it may border on irrelevance in the view of modern social sciences. Benedict XVI himself does not think his book irrelevant. In fact, he feels the “public activity” of Jesus, which according to the Pope commenced with His baptism, of “urgent” importance for modern audiences. By demonstrating this relevance, Benedict XVI not only defends the political relevance of Christianity, but of the classical liberal arts as a means of seeking for and presenting wisdom.
Finally, it would be the height of folly—particularly for Catholics—to treat this book as if it were written by a mere academic. It is written by the Pope. Benedict XVI addresses this matter esoterically when he tells us in his preface that the book is not to be treated as a statement of dogma ex catedra, but rather is the result of his path towards the face of God. We as readers, the Pope tells us, are free to disagree—he asks only for a bit of sympathy “without which understanding is impossible.” This exoteric liberal magnanimity has an esoteric undercurrent to it: if the Pope, who is the political authority for the Catholic Church and who aspires to be a moral authority for the lay, having the powers he has, decides not to dictate dogma, but rather invites disagreement, asking only sympathy, then those who aspire to abide by his example as Catholics ought to comport themselves likewise towards their fellow men. If the Pope refuses to exercise the authority of his station, preferring instead to share his personal path and ask for sympathy in an attempt to understand—what Catholic can approach the subject of Christ in a manner less charitable to eventual disagreement than this? The Pope, with his modesty and academic openness has in a sense limited the acceptable range of deliberation to modest academic openness. No room has been left for narrow dogmatism or appeals to the authority of station over the authority of argument and—above all—of dialogue. When we consider that the Pope, for Catholics, is Christ’s vicar on Earth, we realize that his political comportment in this matter is also a prelude to the political philosophy of his entire oeuvre; of Jesus of Nazareth.
The political philosophy of the oeuvre can be seen implicitly in a great many portions, but there are three explicitly political points of reference which somewhat anchor said political philosophy. The first of these is Benedict’s enumeration of the ”contradictory” partisan factions constituting the political environment into which Jesus ventures (aged around 30, which is the age when a man ”gains the right to public”, ergo political, “activity”). Benedict identifies these factions as Caesar on one end, Christ on the other, and between them the Zealots, the Sadducees, the Pharisees and the Qumran. Benedict takes care to note that the contradictory opposites find their way ultimately to Jesus, as Christians eventually would spring from all of these partisan backgrounds. The partisans identified by Benedict do not represent a unique or melodramatic archetype in human affairs. Caesar is the epitome of the good and evil of the human political arts, the Zealots are in strict opposition to these arts as a (universally) human thing in favor of the political arts as a Jewish thing, or in the service of Judaism. Where the Zealots are romantic and populist, the Sadducees are realistic and pragmatic, as are the Pharisees. The Qumran, whom Benedict describes as ”essentialist” (I,26) and who consider themselves The Authentic Israel (IV,78) are somewhat akin to Epicureans or, to use a more contemporary comparison, to the private life of the spirit. All of these factions are not melodramatic nor unique; their corresponding archetype can be located wherever politics can be located, which is to say wherever Man can be located. The only unique and melodramatic element in this mix is Jesus. Yet even this melodramatic presence is not limited to a moment in time, since if Jesus is indeed God, then He is present eternally, and thus eternally abreast the essentially permanent constitution of political natures inherent in humankind. As such, Jesus is in Benedicts view a pure historical phenomenon—pure, in the sense that He is God, historical in the sense of being located in a particular time, and phenomenological in the sense of the combination of Godhood and historical location resulting in a transformation of the nature of History. The incarnation is thus, in many ways, akin to a recreation of the World, of History itself.
Addressing the more mundane view of Christ which contrasts with the melodramatic view illustrated above, Benedict explicitly cautions against the “liberal” presumption that Jesus was previously apolitical and underwent a vocational transformative experience during his baptism, calling these presumptions “illusions of erudition”. Jesus was not and is not, according to Benedict, a revolutionary figure entering politics from a previously humble, normal life. He is, on the basis of scripture as a whole, “above our psychologies ” and an “internal unity…from the first moment of his life to the Cross and the resurrection”. (I,26-35) It is worth noting here that Benedict explicitly takes care to go beyond the juxtaposition between Caesar and God, and the question of rendering unto each what is owed. While Benedict does acknowledge the natural harmony between the two, disturbed only when Caesar usurps Godhood, he focuses our attention away from this lofty political generalization towards a broader appreciation of the partisanship of Jesus’ day—and subsequently partisanship in all times as it relates to the historical dialectic of “contradictory” oppositions in a tension that moves them towards the Absolute and Universal.
The second explicitly political point of reference can be found in the second chapter, during the ruminations on the second temptation of Christ. There, Benedict elaborates on the explicit political “alternatives” that the Jewish people were given the right to choose between: Jesus and Barabus. Noting on the basis of etymological shrewdness that Barabus was effectively a political revolutionary on the side of the Zealots, Benedict points to the striking fact that Barabus’ name means “Son of the Father” and that he was known as “Jesus Barabus” (Jesus, Son of the Father). Thus, in choosing between Jesus and Barabus, the Jews were making a political choice between two alternative forms of messianic thought. Both men were messiahs, albeit with a very different vision of the nature of political salvation and the means by which to achieve it. Barabus, like Satan posing as a defender of the Law during the second temptation, was an “imitator” of Christ. The people of Israel had to discern the true messiah between them. At this point, Benedict elaborates upon the philosophical implications of this political choice:
“If we had to make this choice today, would Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father, have the slightest chance? Do we know Jesus at all? Do we understand Him? Could it be that now, as then, we must use all our strength to come to know him anew? The Tempter is not so unintelligent as to directly propose that we adore the Devil. He proposes that we come out in favor of that, which is rational, of the primacy of a planned world, organized from start to finish, where God has his place as a private affair, with no possibility to interfere with our essential intentions. Solovojov attributes to the Anti-Christ a book titled The Open Road towards World Peace and Prosperity—which will become a somewhat new Bible, the essential content of which is the adoration of prosperity and rational planning…Christian empire or the civil authority of Popes is no longer a temptation. However, presenting Christianity as a recipe for progress and general prosperity, understood as the proper aim of all religions, including Christianity, is a new form of this temptation. Today, it takes the form of a question: what has Jesus wrought, if He has not built a better world? Ought not this be the content of messianic hope?” (II,49-50)
If Christian messianic hope understood as “building a better world” and “a recipe for progress and general prosperity” are in fact a new form of the second temptation of Christ, what then is authentic Christian messianic hope? This leads us to the third pillar of the political philosophy of Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”, namely the Kingdom of God as enunciated in the Sermon on the Mount. This is likely the most explicitly political of Christ’s statements, in contradistinction to the oft perceived consensus that the statements regarding rendering unto Caesar and God what is owed was the most explicitly political of Christs statements. This is so because the Sermon on the Mount illuminates a view of the Kingdom of God, rather than merely being a statement about the relation of the Kingdom of God to the Kingdom of Earth. It is obvious that an illumination of the Highest is of paramount importance relative to a statement of the relation between the Highest and a lower thing. That we are unable to perceive this immediately may be due to our worldly expectations relating to the term Kingdom, and the manner in which the political philosophy of Jesus confounds these expectations. We tend to think of a Kingdom as a commonwealth that has at its core the Monarch, whose character and familial traditions animate the particular nature of the regime. Christ confounds this view of kingdoms by presenting a view that Benedict describes as autobasileia. As Benedict tells us: ”the kingdom is not a thing, nor a realm that is ruled
It is a person.” (III,57)
Autobasileia appears to us as one of the many interpretations of the meaning of the Kingdom of God that has arisen in Church history. As this history of interpretations moved closer to our times, the interpretation itself moved significantly away from autobasileia towards something approximating a worldly Kingdom, until finally in what Benedict characterizes as liberal theological thought, it became a kingdom rather than thekingdom of God. Both of these interpretations are, in Benedicts estimation, inadequate: ”The new closeness of the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks and the proclamation of which constitutes a specific moment in His rhetoric, is He Himself. Through His presence and His actions, God in a completely new way here and now enters history.” (III,66) In Benedicts estimation, this view of the life, death and resurrection of Christ as unique in human history forms the basis for understanding the kingdom of God. It is neither an internal ordering of the soul, nor an external ordering of the commonwealth; it is the historical fact of God intervening in the affairs of mankind through the Person of Jesus Christ. If the kingdom is this novel form of Divine intervention, what implication does that have for political philosophy?
To answer this question, it is worthwhile to step back and look upon the three pillars of Benedict’s political philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth as a whole. In summary, these pillars are the explicit entrance of Jesus into a partisan political arena, the basic choice given to mankind between the true and the false messiah, and the notion of the Kingdom of God as a real historical event; a unique and amazing phenomenon: the life, death and resurrection of Christ. One can immediately see from the resolution into the Absolute Christian life of the contradictory partisan oppositions from the first pillar an excellent illustration of the third pillar: the Kingdom of God. For Benedict described the resolution of the partisan political struggle surrounding Christ in a manner similarly confounding to Christs own proclamation of the Kingdom of God: Benedict calls the crucifixion of Christ contrary to the programs of the zealots (II,26). We may add that the resurrection was contrary to the program of the Pharisees and the Romans as well. That is to say: the entire historical event, as it was played out, ended by confounding all political expectations. Christ did not, in the manner of the Qumran, isolate himself from the politics like the Epicureans, but rather like Socrates the Philosopher went down to the Piraeus, into the City; into the political. Once there, he did not, in the manner of the Zealots, make Israel the aim of His political activity, merely the means (I,33). Contrary to the Sadducees and Pharisees, He proclaimed Himself the Messiah, but did not challenge their earthly rule; as no challenge was necessary (just as it was not necessary to challenge Pilate). ”You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”, Jesus tells Pilate; and in effect, told His Jewish masters. To vie for earthly power is not beneath Jesus on account of His distaste for Earthly glory or a preference for things of the spirit: it is a function of the fact that He is the ruler of the Universe, and therefore has no need to meet the challenge of the gauntlet thrown at his feet by the Pharisees, Pilate or even the Devil in the second temptation.
This entire point may appear bland for two types of person: the fundamentalist believer with access to what Leo Strauss often identified as wisdom stemming from revelation and to the fundamentalist unbeliever who, given that there is no God, is not impressed by a political philosophy at the core of which is the radical novelty that God exists and acts in history. The first type of person will be unmoved by what he would likely consider Benedicts tautological platitudes. The second type of person will be equally unmoved by what he would likely consider an unverifiable, improbable claim that renders the statement absurd. What type of person, then, would possibly be moved by this teaching? It would have to be the person of faith in contradistinction to the people with access to Divine revelation or the people who are recalcitrant and thus closed to the grace of God.
The archetype for this aforementioned person of faith is best exemplified in Benedict’s oeuvre by Rabbi Neusner, who is a man of great faith and at the same time recognizes the weakness of the liberal view of Jesus as a revolutionary or radical interpreter of the Tora. This recognition comes when juxtaposing the commandment to honor thy mother and father with Jesus calling to leave ones’ family behind and follow him. As Benedict tells us, “the liberal interpretation of the Tora would merely be the personal opinion of one teacher, and could not be constitutive for history. It would, in fact, mean the relativisation of the Tora itself, and of its origin in the will of God. All of its words could only be legitimized by the authority of men: the authority of the learned. From such a source there can come no new community of faith. The condition for a passage towards universalism and the necessary freedom for it can only be greater obedience. It can become an effective, creative force in history only when the authority of the new interpretation is not lesser than the authority of the principle text. It must be the authority of God. The new, universal family is the goal of Jesus’ mission, but it is His Divine authority—the communion of Jesus the Son with God the Father—that is the condition which must be met so that entrance into the new and wide could be made possible without committing treason and without licentiousness.” (III,114)
Since Jesus cannot merely be one of many interpreters of the Tora, Rabbi Neusner realizes that His claims must be taken seriously, that piety towards God demands a serious consideration of the teaching of Christ. Without entering into the specifics of the dialogue Benedict concocts between himself and the Rabbi, it must be said that the dialogue itself as literary form is, much like Platos dialogues, an indication of the political philosophy of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. For in this dialogue, one sees the pious Jew and the pious Christian taking one another seriously without resorting to persecution or relativism. Persecution is a vice not unrecognizable to the modern liberal, but relativism is a more subtle and often unrecognized vice. Benedict’s dialogue with Rabbi Neusner is deadly serious without being deadly. It concerns the most fundamental questions of human existence without endangering said existence. It is religion par excellence: the ideal example of true multiplicity of cultures rather than the faux tolerance and multiculturalism of our present age. Benedict does not tolerate Neusner; he engages him. He does so because Neusner, as a Jew, does not tolerate Christ; he engages Him. This is, like Abraham wrestling with God, the proper comportment of the true man of faith and it indicates a preference for a politics where freedom exists as a means towards serious spiritual reflection and action, not merely as an end in and of itself, let alone as a synonym of tolerance.
There is of course a school of thought, or a mode of thinking, likewise considered serious, perhaps too serious for its own good, which confounds our triumvirate of the wise man through revelation, the wise skeptic and the man of faith: namely the man who is ”beyond good and evil”. In treating him, Benedict alludes directly to Nietzsche and takes up the central Nietzschean critique of Christianity as slave morality, rooted in a psychology of resentment. In doing so, Benedict goes beyond Max Schiller’s earlier critique of Nietzsche in Resentment & Morality, where the esteemed German phenomenologist elaborated on the novel, unique nature of Christian agape contra Nietzsches presumptions. Benedict instead makes a political argument against Nietzsche, pointing out that the Nietzschean presumption that weakness, poverty and suffering are vices which ought to be remedied by philosophical will to power is a presumption that is shattered in the face of mass suffering under totalitarianism and total war.
”After experiencing the totalitarian regimes, after the brutality with which people were ground underfoot, ridiculed, enslaved, after the weak were beaten, we begin to once again understand people who hunger for justice; we rediscover the souls filled with sorrow and their right to rejoice. In the face of exploitation of economic power, in the face of the terrible aspects of capitalism which degrade man, making of him a product, the dangers of wealth have been revealed to us, and we once against comprehend what Jesus had in mind when warning of the dangers of wealth.” As if to drive the point home, Benedict notes that even for the Homeric civilization that Nietzsche held in esteem over the presumed corruption of Socratic philosophy, hubris was a paramount vice. (IV,95-97) Benedict does not stop his critique of Nietzsche merely with this point; for there is a second, less direct perhaps even esoteric critique of Nietzsche made on the occasion of the consideration of the Miracle with the Wine. For the student of Nietzsche will recognize that while Nietzsche negates Christianity, Judaism and Socratic Greece, he extolls Homer and Dionysus. Of Homer, we have already noted Benedict’s recollection of the Homeric teaching on the vice of hubris, which overlaps well with Christ’s sermon on the Mount and not so well with Nietzsche’s teaching on Homeric virtues. One may think that to discover a similar conflation of the teaching of Christ with the cult of Dionysus would be more difficult, if not impossible; but apparently it is not for a man of great reflection. For Benedict tells us, regarding the miracle by which Jesus procured more wine during the wedding, that ”in this event we see the illuminating mystery of the Logos and the Cosmic liturgy, in which the myth of Dionysus underwent a fundamental re-valuation which made real the hidden truth of said myth.” (VIII, 226)
Thus the philosophical yearning of Nietzsche, made visible in other philosophers like Schopenhauer and Thoreau, for a philosophical life divided from the politics of good and evil are demonstrated to be unattainable. To seek to be beyond good and evil is to rediscover Aristotle’s definition of political nature; to become a beast, since we cannot become a god. It is with this in mind that Benedict XVI reaches what may well be considered a sort of revelation of the political philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth when he considers the rule of God over the Earth:
”…this rule over the nations of the Earth is absolutely deprived of a political character. This King rules from the Cross, in a completely new way. He realizes Universalism in the humility of a common faith. This King rules through faith and love and in no other way . The term Son of God severs all links to the sphere of political rule and becomes a statement of a special kind of unity with God, embodied by the Cross and the Resurrection. Thus in this moment of history, the claim of the Roman Caesar to be the Son of God clashes with Christian claims that Christ is the true Son of God, that all nations of the Earth are His property and to Him in the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is owed a Divine Cult. A Christian faith deprived, in and of itself, of all political aspects, which does not demand power, but rather submits to governing authorities per Romans 13,1-7, in the title of Son of God inevitably collides with the totalitarian political claims of Caesar and will for all time collide with the totalitarian political powers, compelling the entrance into a state of martyrdom in communion with the crucified, who rules only from the tree.” (X,294-295)
By analogy, it may at first appear that we can come to comprehend the political philosophy of Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth as Socratic insofar as Socrates refused rescue in the Phaedo, exemplifying the virtues demanded by Romans 13,1-7 while at the same time refusing to love the City when the City did not love God, as exemplified by Plato’s Apology. This paradox, or apparent contradiction of a religion and a political philosophy that holds as a moral virtue the simultaneous adherence to earthly Law and to Nature and Nature’s God, even when the two conflict, is made comprehensible to Man not by faith, but by philosophy. Benedict acknowledges as much when noting the “sole philosophical word that entered the credo”—homoousios. (X,280). This resort to philosophy was necessary to ground the Holy Trinity, and subsequently the paradox of God and Man, of Natural and conventional law in a concept within the grasp of Human Reason, in accordance to the Evangelist’s proclamation that upon gifting to them the Holy Spirit, Jesus “enlightened” their “minds.” And yet this is not tantamount to regarding Christianity as a mythology inspired by Hellenistic thought (a subject Cardinal Ratzinger elaborates in a much earlier essay). For Benedict contends for Hellenistic philosophy to be of assistance in helping us understand, there must first be a historical event—a fact of history—calling out for understanding. The fact of history that is the life of Jesus, Benedict tells us, quoting C.S. Lewis, “.… is strange. This whole story of a dying god appears to have in fact really happened at some point in time.” (VIII,240) It is, Benedict concludes—as Cardinal Ratzinger had done in an earlier and shorter work on Hellenism and Christianity—the amazing, unique and novel historical fact of the life of Jesus which is itself the key. For political philosophy, this suggests that Natural Right and History are not opposed, as Leo Strauss feared. For if History is above all the amazing transformation of the biosphere into what Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard De Chardin termed the nousphere by the life and death of Christ, then the philosophical question of Natural right lies at the core of History itself. Scientific history cannot be properly scientific without spiritual reflection on the life and death of Christ. This is a profound teaching which suggests that if the life of Christ has indeed transformed History from material to ethical—it can also transform politics this way.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
The author has used the Polish version of Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, thus all page references and quotes may not be accurate to the English-language counterpart. The quotes were originally translated from German to Polish, and then from Polish to English.