Salvation: More Than a Cliché?

Redemption is a key word of the Christian faith; it is also one of the Christian words that has been most emptied of meaning: even for believers, it is difficult to discover another reality behind it. When they compare the drudgery of their daily lives, its battles, anxieties, and uncertainties, with the Christian Good News, often it seems to them almost impossible to acknowledge this redemption as something real. Furthermore, the words in which the faith tradition speaks here—atonement, vicarious substitution, sacrifice—have become obscure; all that verbiage produces no true connection with the experiences and insights of human existence today. It has been more than fifty years now since Josef Wittig, the Catholic theologian from Breslau, formulated this feeling in a way that, because of its artlessness and frankness, was felt by many to be a true liberation. At that time, he recounted how as schoolchildren they had received an explanation of the doctrine of redemption and had learned to sing the song, “Getröst, getröst, wir sind erlöst” (“Comforted, comforted, we are redeemed”)—but this pious poetry, which really says nothing to anyone, was suddenly interrupted by the very impudent question of an inquisitive little pupil: What, then, are we actually redeemed from? Answer: From sin—but that did not satisfy the little rascal, because all of religious instruction deals with sin, which means that really we are not totally redeemed from it. The next answer given to the little boy, though, threw the system completely out of gear: Well, we can confess our sins now and receive forgiveness in the confessional. There was no answer to his final thoughtful question: Maybe, instead of redeeming us from sin, shouldn’t Christ have redeemed us from confession?

Basically, such ridicule is still harmless; in Wittig’s case, its primary purpose was merely to suggest a more relaxed way of practicing Christianity, with more trust and candor. Of course, behind it something deeper is noted: we have a sense that, actually, we do not have to be redeemed by Christianity but, rather, from Christianity; there is an insistent feeling that, in truth, Christianity hinders our freedom and that the land of freedom can appear only when the Christian terms and conditions have been torn up. Amid the hopes that sprang up at and around the Second Vatican Council, a very similar mixture of motives was at work. Here, too, initially the expectation of a simpler, more candid, and less regulated Christianity gave wings to the hope that in this way one could again unearth the ruined joy of the Gospel. But immediately it became obvious that behind a loosening of dogma and behind the abandonment of confession, the promised land of the happy freedom of the redeemed does not appear—far from it—but, rather, a waterless waste that only becomes ghastlier the farther one walks. The landscape now on display was mapped by Jean-Paul Sartre with the crystal-clear logic that is characteristic of Gallic wit. In the migration out of the realm of Christian tradition, Sartre had already taken the final step: to him it is clear that the real constraint of all man’s constraints is God; in casting off inhibiting ties, man has not done the decisive deed until he has rid himself of this fetter. God’s nonexistence, he says, is the prerequisite for human freedom, for if there were a God, then indeed the space of human existence would be predetermined by him and obedience would be the inescapable fundamental condition of our lives. Nothing set in advance, but only if there is no God; then there is no idea of man as creation, no nature of man that predetermines for him who or what he is and ought to be. With that, he is then in fact completely free; everyone must invent for himself what he thinks it means to be human, and no standard limits him when he does. “Man is what he makes himself to be”; so the French thinker formulates the quintessence of his philosophy of freedom. But this complete freedom is the opposite of redemption. Man is the unhappy being that does not know what it is, what it is for, what it is supposed to do with itself. In the ocean of nothingness, he must first plan what he wants to be, because the fact that there is no idea of him naturally implies also that there is no meaning. Freedom from God is logically freedom from meaning, too: meaninglessness. The freedom that Sartre discovers is in truth man’s condemnation: animals simply are what they are, and they are happy; man, who must make himself, is precisely for that reason in hell—he himself is hell to himself and to the other.

At this point we can recall again either the point of departure with Wittig or else a remark found in Kurt Tucholsky’s Letters to a Catholic Woman. The woman correspondent, who was appalled by his mockery of what to her was great and holy, had tried to bring him to the point where the Christian message would necessarily affect him, too. She had referred to what in her opinion was the primordial human and inescapable theme of redemption and said: “But, after all, that concerns everyone.” But it was impossible to upset the assurance of Tucholsky’s ironic thinking; quite unimpressed, he answered: “You really have to get used to the fact that there are very contented pagans; that does not concern them at all . . . In me there is nothing that has to be redeemed; I do not feel this culpa [guilt], maybe some other kind . . . Nothing at all concerns me. Nothing.”[1] Let us leave aside here the fact that for Tucholsky himself paganism very soon lost its cheerfulness; after all, that may have been due to a merely external incident. In Sartre’s case, in contrast, the interior migration of paganism, the exodus from the constraints of faith and Church into complete “freedom,” was accomplished down to the last possible boundary, and behold: freedom from God proves to be man’s hell, which, in fact, strangely enough, agrees exactly with the old definition of hell. But might Sartre just have lacked the right program in order to give meaning to this freedom? Certainly, it is no coincidence that, in his bare abandonment in the wilderness of nothingness, he ran across the man who a hundred years earlier had already thought such thoughts and elaborated them into a program for human liberation. In the writings of Karl Marx we read the propositions:

A being is only considered independent once it stands on its own feet, and it only stands on its own feet once it owes its existence to itself . . . A man who lives at the mercy of another regards himself as a dependent being. My life necessarily has a reason outside of itself unless it is my own creation.[2]

The argument that Marx uses here to develop his groundbreaking view of liberation and man’s salvation is altogether sensible: If I have to expect redemption from someone else, I am dependent. If I am dependent, I am not free. If I am not free, I am also exposed to uncertainty. After all, I cannot do the decisive deed myself; whether the other does it is not up to me—it just might not occur. If I am not free and uncertain, then I am unredeemed. Therefore the decisive thing must be to overcome all dependence. Liberation from all dependence—in essence, liberation from waiting for God—must then be the heart of any theory of redemption, which itself, consequently, shows the way for the praxis of redemption and turns into it:

If that is how it is, then redemption can be brought about only by smashing dependencies, by doing and not by waiting or receiving.

Christian faith and logically consistent paganism along the lines of Marx and Sartre thus have in common the fact that they revolve around the theme of redemption, but in exactly opposite directions. It immediately becomes evident that the real difference does not lie in the question of whether redemption is thought of as being earthly or heavenly, spiritual or secular, otherworldly or this-worldly. These alternatives, which usually dominate the field, are far too shortsighted and conceal the real problem. They are only imprecise consequences of the real alternative: Does redemption occur through liberation from all dependence, or is its sole path the complete dependence of love, which then would also be true freedom? Only from this perspective is the true difference made clear in practical decisions. If redemption means that being under orders or indebted in any way must be overcome as a demeaning lack of freedom, then the praxis of emancipating deeds necessarily follows from this immediately; then I must try to bring about conditions in which no one needs to thank anyone anymore but, rather, in which each one now stands on his own. Someone who refuses, however, to let the indebtedness of love be slandered as dependency that is contrary to freedom, someone who sees precisely therein the liberating fulfillment of man—he must walk a different path. He must, first of all, increase man’s interior depth and open him up to true love; he must struggle for the mind and heart of man. This by no means makes his activity merely spiritual and merely otherworldly: it will be much more present to man today, much more directly related to his here and now than the other program, which does have its heaven on earth but in a future that is much farther away from the present than the heaven of faith, which always stands over the earth and takes aim into its today. We must go another step farther. “A being . . . only stands on its own feet once it owes its existence to itself ,”[3] Karl Marx had said. This is logical, no doubt. But is it also true? Can my life ever be my own creation, so that it does not have to thank any other creator? Can the emancipation of man from God, from his Creator, ever lead anywhere but into untruth? And can untruth be freedom? Here we must appeal to the modest authority of common sense: it cannot go well if man tries to claim for himself a freedom that fundamentally contradicts his own truth and if he constructs the program of all his activity on this denial of the truth.

If that is the case, then man’s salvation must look different. In one respect, it will be less simple. It cannot take place in such a way that the good world is produced like a technological working part through planned partisan effort. It will take away from no one the adventure of being human. It will not be programmable at all in advance from outside, because it concerns man personally, in his guilt and in his love. But for precisely this reason, it will not be the endlessly postponed day after tomorrow, either, which can be built only upon the rubble of what went before and is heralded for the time being only through a zeal for destruction. It will have to be more modest and at the same time greater. It will have to mean first, then, that man no longer needs to be afraid of God. As long as the power that reigns throughout the world, that confronts us in the forces of the universe and of the earth, remains unknown and wordless, it is strange, dangerous, sinister for us—also and precisely when it is denied. This power is for man the quintessence of dominion, distance, and, thus, of his own helpless subjugation. Technology is an attempt to banish this dominion of the unknown, to domesticate the power of the universe and to leave no unknown power, no untamed force behind. No longer should the universe rule over man but, rather, only man over himself. But this is precisely the cause of the situation that agitates us most today: man’s dominion over man. When the universe no longer rules, man is abandoned to the rule of man, which can often be much more sinister and allows us to see the abysses of uncontrolled power only from the other side. The first thing that would have to happen, if redemption were to exist, would therefore be this: that God no longer be the Unknown, the Immovable, the Untouchable; that he no longer be the limit of our freedom, the competitor with our own life. He himself would have to be one with us, if we were supposed to be free. Again—the aim of technology and politics is to make man his own god; but there is a desperate illogic in such attempts, as we saw. No. In order for that to work, it would have to come from God himself; he would have to make himself one with us; he would have to stop being the unknown, the overwhelming Lord. Only then would it really work.

A second thing that we must demand in order for redemption to exist would be this: man’s yearning for love would have to lose its uncertainty, the quiet impossibility of ever fulfilling it. Even amid the wreckage of human associations, man would have to be able to know inviolably that he is accepted, that someone says Yes to him. He does not need the undetermined freedom of nothingness—the assurance that no one willed him, no one made him—but, rather, the determined freedom of knowing that he is willed, that he, he specifically, is needed and unconditionally necessary. He yearns for the certainty that love does not lead to emptiness, that we all do not exist separately alongside each other with no possibility of being united, but, rather, that there is a union going down to the foundations that cannot be destroyed and really corresponds to my yearning for fulfillment. Only when man knows that this is how it is with him, that everything fickle, unpredictable, and uncertain in his being-loved disappears, only then is he free. The opposite way, to cast off love so as not to be abandoned to its uncertainty, is an operation, so to speak, that is performed at the expense of the patient’s life: it amputates precisely what makes man human.

When we pace out the dimensions of our life and of its questions, we run into another further realm that cannot be pushed to one side. Solzhenitsyn gave literary expression to it with his characteristic passion in his novel Cancer Ward. He writes:

What do we keep telling a man all his life? “You’re a member of the collective!” . . . That’s right. But only while he’s alive. When the time comes for him to die, we release him from the collective. He may be a member, but he has to die alone. It’s only he who is saddled with the tumor, not the whole collective. “Now you, yes, you!”—he poked his finger rudely at Rusanov—“come on, tell us, what are you most afraid of in the world now? Of dying! What are you most afraid of talking about? Of death! And what do we call that? Hypocrisy!”[4]

What matters to Solzhenitsyn here? The collective, the community of providing, having, and making, sustains man in his work; it sustains him in his life, insofar as it is identical with his work. But this sustaining community abandons him precisely where he would need it most; when his work stops and when he himself is what matters. In reality, the loneliness of death and suffering only uncovers what is already true throughout life. When death finds no meaning, then life, too, becomes brittle. When suffering finds no answer, man is left abandoned precisely where his questioning begins in earnest. Someone who can reply to a person’s suffering only with the prospect that one day it will be over and done with has nothing to say in this decisive matter. On the contrary, with such information, he declares suffering to be utterly meaningless and thus gives it its destructive cruelty. What a person needs would be a community that sustains him even in death and can make his suffering meaningful.

Finally, the problem of guilt remains. One of the depressing aspects in the experience of being human is that our power to destroy is far greater than our power to heal. The outstanding debt of guilt extends farther than the radius of forgiveness and reparation. The irrevocable drilling power of guilt still preys on people today; it leaves psychiatrists and counselors of all sorts ultimately helpless, because guilt cannot be absolved by knowledge or removed by analysis. It calls for an authority of transformation that goes beyond human ability.

With all that, we have said nothing specifically Christian. These are the questions that have beset the history of religion in every age; the questions that show the real explosive force in societal problems. These are the questions on which is based also that despair of our century from which Marxism draws its strength, which in purely logical terms would be utterly incomprehensible: no man by himself can contradict the fear of God. No man can reform the insecurity of our existence that is grasping for love. No collective can intrude upon death. Absolving guilt is not in our power. This is why to so many people the only possibility seems to be to challenge all this from the bottom up and to tear it down, to cast aside God, love, guilt, and death and, instead, to work to create a new world in which all this can no longer occur. But this promise remains illusory, and it only shreds the remnants of what in spite of everything can make life bearable.

Once again: all these questions are not specifically Christian, and, nevertheless, in them we have actually already developed in question form the entire content of the figure of Jesus Christ. Let us go right to the center, to his death. Those who have experienced this death have recognized more and more deeply that his dying was ultimately the act of love that he himself performed, in which he distributed himself, communicated himself completely to his disciples. And this showed that this act of love was in the most profound sense the deed of the love of God himself, in which he, as man, overcame the limits of human love with the power that belongs to God alone. Death, the illogical, the unspiritual and senseless, thus becomes an active spiritual event. Death, the end of communication, becomes here an act of communion pure and simple: of Jesus with everyone and, in him, of everyone with everyone and of God through Jesus with everyone. At the very place that is the concentrated expression of man’s lack of freedom and of his helplessness, which no one can remove, he is liberated; indeed, he actually can be liberated in truth only when the center of alienation itself, the center of his lack of freedom, is transformed and the door is kicked open here: in the realm of the power of death. In it, however, the one who is for him the quintessence of power and of his own helplessness, the mysterious Lord of the world, becomes loving-kindness that distributes itself, that gives itself as a gift. God is no longer the sinister one, the abyss of an ultimate fear that nothing can resolve; he has become “like us”, and he waits in death as love, as the Yes that overcomes guilt and banishes uncertainty in that reliable kindness which alone is freedom.

Now one may say: All that sounds very nice, and if it were true, then that really would be the redemption of the world. But is it true? Can we believe it? Why do we see so little of it? I would like to reply with a statement from above, from the perspective of God’s logic, and with a statement from below, from the perspective of the logic of being human. Viewed from above, this is true: the God who redeems, the God who liberates, cannot act like the God who creates things out of nothing. That in itself would be illogical. God cannot enter into man’s already existing freedom in the form that is ordered to the creation of being but not to the togetherness of persons. This entrance can occur only in the manner in which persons are capable of entering into one another, that is, by way of being for each other and its opening love, which demands faith in advance. Omnipotence here can take effect only in the universal force of vicarious substitution, in the God-man’s Being-for-us. That means, from below, from our own perspective, that one cannot buy redemption, so to speak, ready-made off the rack; one must enter into it with the whole path of one’s human existence. In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon explained this, with an urgency that has scarcely ever been equaled, to the Christians of his time, who had grown impatient. On all sides, he had to listen to rebellion against the Christian message of redemption, against its historical patience and against its human demands.

Rebellion against the drudgery of the process of Christian education, which does not grant the redemptive wishes that man has in mind. In his writings, he recorded the question: Could God not make man perfect from the beginning? Is he not himself responsible for human unhappiness? The succinct answer of the Church Father reads:

Before that they become men, they wish to be even now like God their Creator, and they who are more destitute of reason than dumb animals [insist] that there is no distinction between the uncreated God and man, a creature of to-day. For these [the dumb animals] bring no charge against God for not having made them men . . . For we cast blame upon Him, because we have not been made gods from the beginning, but at first merely men, then at length gods.[5]

And another passage reads: “But if you are ungrateful to Him, because you are a mere man, then you have cast aside His creative power and life itself. For creating is an attribute of God, but becoming is that of man.”[6]

The yearning to become like God has seethed mightily in man ever since his origin; indeed, the yearning to be one’s own creator now and not to be obliged to thank anyone anymore is ultimately nothing but the clamoring demand to have no more God but, rather, to be a god for oneself. About this, Irenaeus says: It is correct that man is supposed to become like God and cannot rest until he has attained the freedom of sonship—that alone can be the freedom appropriate for him; that alone can be his redemption. But he cannot be God; he can only become like him, and he cannot become godlike if he tries to extinguish divinity in a violent grasp for divinity. This is directed against a pedagogy of emancipation that smashes the virtues of a developing, maturing human being; naturally it is directed also against dysfunctional forms of Christian education. When the supernatural is sought, not in promoting human existence, but rather in suppressing it, then it is just as true as at the other extreme: before they are men, they already want to be gods. It is clear for Irenaeus that man is not but, rather, becomes; hence in the individual, there is a process of education, of advancing step by step, of gradual formation, even through failures. Because its goal is maturity, that is, full freedom, the equality with God that is sonship, therefore such education for God can be achieved only by God, and our equality only through his becoming equal to us. For this reason, Christ, God-made-man, is man’s only chance, his true and sole-sufficient redemption. For precisely this reason, however, this redemption is not a magical device, not a wonder drug that one would just have to take in order to be “high” forever, so to speak; it is, as we already established at the beginning, not the renunciation of the adventure of being human but, rather, what makes it possible. Redemption is revealed only in accompaniment [im Mitgehen], and the more we entrust ourselves to it in faith and love, the more deeply and purely we become conscious of its truth.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This full essay is an excerpt from the following collection of selected writings: Joseph Ratzinger, Faith and Politics, introduction by Pope Francis (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2018), 31-44. Used by kind permission of Ignatius Press, all rights reserved. This collection is the first time this essay appears in English. Originally published as: “Erlösung—mehr als eine Phrase?,” in vol. 6.2 of the Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Müller (Freiburg: Herder, 2008), 943–54. Translated by Michael J. Miller.

[1] Kurt Tucholsky, Briefe an eine Katholikin 1929–1931 (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1970), 62.

[2] Karl Marx, Ökonomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Werke, Ergänzungsband I (Berlin, German Democratic Republic: Dietz Verlag, 1968), 465–588 at 544f.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward, trans. Alexander Dolberg (London: Random House, 1968, 2011), 152–53.

[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 38, 4, in ANF 1:522a.

[6] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 39, 2. Translated from German. Cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II, 34, 3, in ANF 1:411b–412a: “But he who shall . . . prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognized Him who bestowed the gift upon him, deprives himself of the privilege of continuance for ever and ever.”

Featured Image: Andrea Pozzo, Triumph of St. Ignatius of Loyola [detail], 1685, church of Sant'Ignazio (Rome), photo taken by: LivioAndronico; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Joseph Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant theologians and spiritual leaders of our time. As Pope he authored the best-selling Jesus of Nazareth; and prior to his pontificate, he wrote many influential books that continue to remain important for the contemporary Church, such as Introduction to Christianity and The Spirit of the Liturgy.

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