A Brief Theology of the As If

In 1980, Ulrich Hommes, a Catholic philosopher and public intellectual who taught at the University of Regensburg, produced a program for German television under the title, “In Search for Meaning.” Among those whom Hommes interviewed was a youngish Joseph Ratzinger, then archbishop of Munich. What would the archbishop tell those who, in the wake of modernity, cannot accept the idea that the meaning of life is something we receive, rather than being able to generate it autonomously? Ratzinger’s reply has a spontaneous, personal quality:

I do believe that someone who attempts to prove his way into the faith, with pure theory, will not succeed. In fact, we grasp all the essential things of our lives only in an interplay between acting and thinking, between a lived experience and that which we learn from it. This means that if one refuses the experience and does not even begin, then the insight cannot dawn. And so my suggestion would really be this—how do I get into the faith, how do I get into this possibility of meaning: my suggestion would be that one begin to act as if there were this meaning. When one assumes in one’s life: “I act as if I were wanted, as if the other people were wanted, as if there were an eternal meaning behind it that carried [me],” and [when one] tries to act with this template, as it were, then one will have new experiences, one will see that larger possibilities open up, that life becomes more precious, richer, and how what one attempts to do in this manner proves itself. And this means that, through the experiment of experience, the fact that there is truth behind [this assumption] will show itself.[1]

At first, Ratzinger’s reflection may remind one of Pascal’s Wager. There are in fact similarities. Most importantly, both thoughts are products of, as well as responses to, the modern age, in that they reckon with unbelief not only as a theoretical possibility but as a reality in people’s lives. Yet the fundamental tenor of Pascal’s Wager remains that of an argument, even an argument of a calculative nature: would it not be totally unreasonable to wager one’s life that God does not exist, thus foregoing the possibility of infinite happiness? What has one to lose? Ratzinger’s reflection attempts both less and more than his famous predecessor’s wager: less, because Ratzinger immediately dismisses any attempt to “prove one’s way into the faith”; more, because the future pontiff’s “as if” describes the beginning of a journey that will bear fruit, promising a gift of meaning and happiness even in this life.

The Hermeneutic Circle

Ratzinger’s “as if” has the characteristic structure of the hermeneutic circle, the paradoxical idea according to which, in order to know something, we must already know it—in some implicit fashion. Aristotle faces this paradox in the third chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics when he muses that young people—young in age or young in terms of maturity—who do not act rationally will not profit from discussions of ethics: the theory both presupposes knowledge of ethical behavior and aims at it. There is an “interplay,” in Ratzinger’s words, between theory and practice, so that in the absence of practice, the theory cannot take hold.

The Platonic tradition, too, works with a version of the hermeneutic circle. In the Meno, the slave boy who, at Socrates’s prodding, is able to recollect the basic truths of geometry illustrates Plato’s claim that learning is a process of anamnesis, of recollecting knowledge hidden in the depths of the soul. In Christian Neoplatonism, anamnesis takes the form of a divine illumination theory. As Augustine argues in the De magistro, all human instruction does is make us aware of the Teacher who speaks within us, but whom we must learn to hear.

The hermeneutic circle continues to play an important role in contemporary philosophy, where it found an influential proponent in Martin Heidegger. Far from being “vicious,” Heidegger emphasizes in Being and Time, the hermeneutic circle describes the necessary structure of all human understanding. Metaphysics, as Heidegger conceives it in 1927, is a painstaking making-explicit of the implicit understanding of Being that belongs, part and parcel, to human existence. The issue, Heidegger remarks, is not how to avoid the hermeneutic circle, but how to enter into it in the right manner: how to “leap into” it, “primordially and wholly.”[2]

This is precisely what, in his 1980 interview, Ratzinger invites the non-believer to do—enter into the hermeneutic circle of the Christian faith. At the beginning of this journey, there may be nothing more than curiosity, a vague attraction to the faith: to the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or to the example of a friend’s Christian life—nothing amounting to firm belief in God’s existence and offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet, this may be sufficient to gain entry into the circle, by beginning to act “as if” there were a promise of meaning. For Ratzinger, at the heart of this promise stands divine providence, that is, the sense that I am “wanted,” that my existence is not the result of a series of historical accidents but, rather, forms part of a larger plan that carries me. God bestows meaning upon my existence even in moments when I fail to make sense of my life. I will begin to see a pattern, new avenues will open up, and life will gain in richness and depth. The initial decision to enter into the circle will be validated in that my new way of life will bear fruit.

One may wonder how this journey continues. Is it possible to leave the hermeneutic circle behind, such that acting “as if” a divine providence existed is gradually superseded by certainty that my life is, in fact, carried by God’s grace? It seems clear that faith is able to grow, to progress in strength and depth. However, as Ratzinger writes movingly in the first pages of his Introduction to Christianity, the believer “has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith.” Indeed, he finds himself “choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth.”[3] Remarkable words from the pen of a future pope. So, perhaps, the Christian is able to enter ever more deeply into the hermeneutic circle, in which repeated, more fervent attempts to live “as if” there were a divine meaning are rewarded by experiences that it all makes sense, that the “as if” grants access to truth. Yet, as long as this life lasts, the circle remains the fundamental structure of Christian existence.

The “As If” at the Heart of the Christian Faith

The notion of the “as if” is, in fact, scriptural. It appears in the context of Paul giving advice to the Corinthians on how to prepare themselves for the Kingdom. What is the proper attitude toward life in this world, in light of the expectation of the life to come? The “as if” provides the key:

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 29–31).

It is interesting that, in this passage, the “as if” appears in its negative form, as an “as if not” (ὡς μὴ). The Christian expectation of the return of the Lord and the discovery of the fullness of meaning in the world to come negates our activities in this life; at the same time, Paul is already adapting the radical, transgressive nature of the Christian vocation to the realities of everyday existence. The “as if” passage from 1 Corinthians is very different in tone from a pericope like Luke 14: 25–33, where Jesus tells the large crowds following him not to underestimate the cost of discipleship:

Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple . . . So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Passages like the one just quoted still make homilists sweat. Rather than putting their audience off the Gospel—or indeed risking complaints to the bishop—with a sermon that is too difficult and disruptive, they interpret Jesus’s words away, disingenuously, to make them acceptable to the average 21st century churchgoer. “Of course,” I heard a priest declare recently as he was preaching on a similar pericope, Luke 12: 13–21, “this does not mean that Jesus hates money!” Phew. Glad to know that. I thought for a minute that Jesus called me to radical conversion.

Yet, there is the reality that most of us—those who are not martyrs or monks—must live the Christian vocation in our everyday lives as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends, bosses, employees. This is where Paul’s “as if” plays its role, putting our ordinary lives under erasure, as it were, as we await the world to come. Our eschatological hope transforms the way in which we view the world, enabling us to see through it, to treat it as an icon that leads us to the Lord rather than as an idol that arrests our gaze.

Whereas in 1 Corinthians, we human beings appear as the agents of the “as if”—sustained by God’s grace, to be sure—in Romans, Paul associates the “as if” with God’s own actions. The presence of the “as if” is, unfortunately, lost in many translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, where Romans 4: 16–17 reads as follows:

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

The New International Version is superior in the way it renders the final part of verse 17:

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.[4]

The context here is Paul’s argument in Romans 4 that God’s covenant with Abraham was meant to include all his children in the faith, Jews and Gentiles alike. Scripture scholars have found verse 17b challenging to interpret; N. T. Wright regards the transition to a new topic after the dash as “a bit abrupt,” but then suggests that the phrase in question—about calling things that are not as though they were—could be a reference to Gentiles brought to faith “out of nothing,” unlike the Jews.[5] In a completely different vein, Jean-Luc Marion uses Romans 4:17 in his argument that God lies beyond being: God, whose foremost name is goodness rather than being, treats the difference between being and non-being as indifferent.[6]

Perhaps the clue to interpreting verse 17b can come from a comparison with a similarly worded phrase in the famous discourse on the foolishness of the Cross in 1 Corinthians 18–29:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.

Here, God is portrayed not as calling things that are not as though they were (καλοῦντος τὰ μὴ ὄντα ὡς ὄντα), but as choosing that which is not (τὰ μὴ ὄντα) in order to annihilate that which is (τὰ ὄντα). Clearly, the topic of this verse is not metaphysical; the creatio ex nihilo is not what is at stake. Rather, Paul depicts God’s call (τὴν κλῆσιν) to faith as creating a new world, a counter-world, in which a transvaluation of all ordinary values occurs. Just as suffering and dying slave-like on the cross does not signify shame but salvation, so God negates the values of the world by choosing the weak and lowly as his people—social nobodies whom God’s grace transforms into his children. This must be what it means to call things that are not as though they were: already in this life, God places a new world on top of the old which is destined to wither away; but this new world is accessible only to those who see with the eyes of faith and hope. These are people who are able to live married as though they were not married; to mourn or rejoice as though they were not mourning or rejoicing; to buy and sell as though they had no possessions. They live in the world without being of the world. It is God’s very own “as if” which allows them to accomplish this.

At the beginning of our reflections, the “as if” to which Ratzinger refers in his 1980 interview appeared as a crutch to help non-believers into the faith. However, as we entered into the hermeneutic circle more fully, letting ourselves be drawn into its dynamic—which is the dynamic of grace itself—we discovered that the “as if” stands at the very heart of the Christian faith. For the “as if” signifies our hope that the present world will pass away, being superseded by a kingdom in which the lives that we are already attempting to live “as if” they were possible will have become a full reality.     

The Heresy of the “As If”

Immanuel Kant was the creator of a secular philosophical version of the “as if,” which fulfills an important function in both his theoretical and his practical philosophy. Kant believes he can demonstrate that knowledge concerns only that which is empirically given. When reason is brought to bear on the raw data of sense experience, which it processes and gives form in a framework that is itself not empirical—comprising a priori elements such as space, time, and notions such as substance and causality—then genuine experience and knowledge ensue. This fundamental Kantian move immediately cuts us off from knowledge of anything that is not empirically given, except the a priori forms of the understanding itself. Most importantly, responsible rational inquiry must bracket the “things in themselves,” that is, reality as it may be outside the framework of human understanding. Likewise, there is no empirical access to our soul, human freedom, or God. Yet, Kant does find a place in his system for the realities of traditional metaphysics—though without regarding them as realities. His ingenious move works like this:

The ideal of the Supreme Being is therefore, according to these remarks, nothing but a regulative principle of reason, which obliges us to consider all connection in the world as if it arose from an all-sufficient necessary cause, in order to found on it the rule of a systematical unity necessary according to general laws for the explanation of the world; it does not involve the assertion of an existence necessary by itself.[7]

In other words, working on the assumption that there is a God who created the universe allows us to explain the latter more satisfactorily and completely—namely, as a coherent totality—even within the empirical realm. For this regulative idea to be effective, the reality of God’s existence is irrelevant; in fact—to repeat—for Kant there is no way to know or prove that God exists.

The “as if” (als ob) has other important applications in Kant’s philosophy, not least in ethics. Since following Kant’s “Copernican revolution,” as he likes to term his critical approach, we no longer have access to metaphysical realities, nature cannot serve as a source for moral principles. These have to be generated autonomously by reason itself, as universal maxims that are binding precisely because reason presents them so. In one of its formulations, the categorical imperative reads like this: “Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends. The formal principle of these maxims is this: So act as if your maxims were to serve at the same time as a universal law (for all rational beings).”[8] Of course, the principles of my actions will never become universal law; however, in order to act ethically, I must behave “as if” this were possible—“as if” the rules of my conduct could become the foundation of an ethical kingdom.

In Kant’s own philosophy, there is little indication of any desire to subvert religious belief. Put differently, Kant’s denial that proofs of God’s existence are possible combined with his move of positing God as a regulative idea does not mean that Kant espoused atheism. His thought is nevertheless ultimately incompatible with authentic Christian belief—not so much because of the implications of Kant’s theoretical philosophy as because of his ethics. Kantian morality is explicitly founded upon the autonomy of the human will, which must elevate itself into the position of a (hypothetical) universal lawgiver. To Kant, the idea of inserting oneself into a hermeneutic circle, to discover there a meaning that is graciously received rather than autonomously generated, is positively repugnant. In this absolute refusal of heteronomy, Kant is a thoroughly modern, secular thinker.   

Followers of Kant took the “as if” into a more blatantly atheist direction. Hans Vaihinger’s work was at one point extremely influential in this regard: his massive Philosophy of “As If,” which in is original comprised over 800 pages, was even issued in a “people’s edition” to make it more widely accessible.[9] The subtitle of Vaihinger’s tome already makes clear into what direction his work takes Kant’s thought: “A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind.”[10] In this philosophy, the “as if” loses the positive meaning that it still held for Kant. Instead, it needs to be revealed as a self-contradictory construct that separates us from reality. Kant himself would have been horrified by Vaihinger’s conclusions: “The whole framework in which we place what is perceived is only subjective; subjective is fictional; fictional is false; falsehood is error.”[11] “All that remains is sensations, which exist, and are given, and out of which the whole subjective world is constructed.”[12]


It is reasonable to assume that Ratzinger was speaking spontaneously, but not naively, about the usefulness of the “as if” in his interview with Ulrich Hommes. A scholar as learned as the pope emeritus must have had Aristotle, Plato’s Meno, the hermeneutic circle, St. Paul, and Kant at least at the back of his mind when he formulated his answer. And who knows, he may even have heard of Vaihinger’s strange Philosophy of As If. What the present essay has shown is that, interpreted in an orthodox manner, the “as if” can serve as a bridge into belief. Initially nothing more than a humble invitation to the non-believer to experiment with the possibility of meaning, the “as if” becomes much more, leading to the very heart of the Christian faith. Conceived differently, however, the “as if” encapsulates some of the most serious problems of modern thought. Taken to an extreme, it generates the kind of radical skepticism that forecloses the possibility of belief.

[1] I have transcribed, and then translated, Ratzinger’s reply from an extract of the TV program that is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HN_wy8KlXPA.

[2] Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 363.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990),19-20.

[4] The quotation here is of the NIV in its original version; later revisions have sadly replaced “calls things that are not as though they were” with “calls into being things that were not.”

[5] N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 497.

[6] See Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1995), 83–102.

[7] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 498 (A619/B647). The emphases are in the original German text.

[8] Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 43 (Ak 438).

[9] Hans Vaihinger, Philosophie des Als Ob. System der theoretischen, praktischen und religiösen Fiktionen der Menschheit auf Grund eines idealistischen Positivismus. Mit einem Anhang über Kant und Nietzsche, ed. Raymund Schmidt, 2nd ed. (Hamburg: Meiner, 1924). This is the “people’s edition” (Volksausgabe).

[10] Vaihinger, The Philosophy of “As If”: A System of the Theoretical, Practical and Religious Fictions of Mankind (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1935).

[11] Ibid., 108.

[12] Ibid., 77.

Featured Image: Photo by AngMoKio, St. Paul statue in front of St. Peters Basilica, (Sculptor: Adamo Tadolini), taken 16 August 2006; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5.


Philipp W. Rosemann

Philipp W. Rosemann holds the Chair of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He is most recently the author of Charred Root of Meaning: Continuity, Transgression, and the Other in Christian Tradition.

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