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God exists  

But what does this mean for my life?


The question of God has long been the great theme of his life. Whether as professor, bishop, or pope, Joseph Ratzinger has always sought to keep the question of God alive in an increasingly secularized world. Why is this so important, one might ask, and what does the question of God have to do with my life? In a 1973 homily, Ratzinger takes up the great question of God, and he gives answers. Short, clear, and easy to understand, the text reads like a pocket-sized catechism.

Joseph Ratzinger, Professor für Dogmatik und Dogmengeschichte an der Universität Regensburg, am 4. Januar 1971 in Würzburg.

Why do we make the sign of the cross? Why is faith in the triune God the most decisive element of the Christian existence? What does this have to do with baptism? What does it mean to say that God is relationship? Why do we speak of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit? How are we to understand this? Is it possible to enter into contact with God? And how does that work? Joseph Ratzinger gives the answers in the following piece:

How often have we made the sign of the Cross and invoked the name of the triune God without thinking about what we were doing? In its original meaning, each time we perform this action, our baptism is renewed. We take on our lips the words through which we were made Christians, and we consciously accept into our personal life something that was bestowed on us in baptism without any active contribution or reflection on our part. On that occasion, water was poured over us, and the following words were spoken: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Church makes a man a Christian by pronouncing the name of the triune God.

In this way, she has expressed since the very beginning what she considers the most decisive element of the Christian existence, namely, faith in the triune God.

Der Kölner Kardinal Joseph Frings (r) nahm den jungen Theologieprofessor Joseph Ratzinger als Berater mit zum Konzil nach Rom (undatiertes Foto).

God is. What does this mean in our daily life?

This disappoints us. It is so far removed from our life. It is so useless and so incomprehensible. If some brief formula must be used, then we expect something attractive and exciting, something that immediately strikes us as important for man and his life. And yet the essential point is precisely what is stated here: the primary concern in Christianity is, not the Church or man, but God. Christianity is not oriented to our own hopes, fears, and needs, but to God, to his sovereignty and power. The first proposition of the Christian faith and the fundamental orientation of Christian conversion is: “God is.”

But what does this mean? What does it mean in our daily life in this world of ours? Let us begin by saying that God exists and, consequently, that the “gods” are not God. Accordingly, we must worship him, no one else. But, one might ask, are not the gods long since dead anyway? Is this not perfectly obvious, and hence, an empty affirmation? But one who looks attentively at reality must counter this response with a question of his own: Has idolatry really ceased in our day? Is there really no longer anything that is worshiped alongside God and against God? Is it not rather the case that, after the “death of God”, the gods are ascending once more from the depths with a terrifying power?

Have not money, power, prestige, public opinion, and sex become powers before which men bow down and which they serve like gods? Would not the world look different if these gods were to be deposed from their throne?

Has God abdicated his role, or does he act even today?

God is—and, therefore, that which is true and right is superior to all our goals and interests. That which is worthless in earthly terms has a worth. The adoration of God himself, true adoration, exists, protecting man from the dictatorship of goals. Only this adoration is able to protect him from the dictatorship of idols.

God is—and this also means that all of us are his creatures.  Only creatures, indeed; but precisely because we are creatures, we have our true origin in God. We are creatures whom he has willed and whom he has destined for eternity. This is also true of my neighbor, the one beside me whom I may not find at all sympathetic. Man is not the product of chance. He is not the outcome of a mere struggle for existence that ensures the victory of that which conforms to some goal or other or of that which is able to get its way at the expense of others. No, man owes his origin to God’s creative love.

God is—and here we must underline that little word is. For God truly is: in other words, he is at work, he acts, and he can act. He is not a remote origin, nor is he some indeterminate “goal of our transcending”. He has not abdicated in favor of his world-machine; he has not lost his own function in a world where everything would function autonomously without him. No, the world is and remains his world. The present is his time—not the past. He can act, and he does act in a very real way now, in this world and in our life.

The Trinity: Why does it have to be complicated?

Do we trust him? When we make plans for our life, for our day-to-day existence, do we see him as a reality? Have we understood the meaning of the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, which is the truly fundamental challenge to human life, in keeping with the first three requests of the Lord’s Prayer, which take up this first table and seek to make it the fundamental orientation of our spirit and our life?

God is—and the Christian faith adds: God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three and one. This is the very heart of Christianity, but it is so often shrouded in a silence born of perplexity. Has the Church perhaps gone one step too far here? Ought we not rather leave something so great and inaccessible as God in his inaccessibility? Can something like the Trinity have any real meaning for us?

Well, it is certainly true that this proposition is and remains an expression of the otherness of God, who is infinitely greater than we and transcends all our thinking and our existence. But if this proposition had nothing to say to us, it would not have been revealed. And as a matter of fact, it could be clothed in human language only because it had already penetrated human thinking and living to some extent.

Mutter Teresa (links im Bild) und Kardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Erzbischof von München und Freising, während des 85. Deutschen Katholikentages in Freiburg am 17. September 1978.

The crisis of fatherhood: Is this the death of God the Father as well?

What, then, does this mean? Let us begin at the point where God himself began. He calls himself Father. Human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is; but where fatherhood no longer exists, where genuine fatherhood is no longer experienced as a phenomenon that goes beyond the biological dimension to embrace a human and intellectual sphere as well, it becomes meaningless to speak of God the Father.  Where human fatherhood disappears, it is no longer possible to speak and think about God.

It is not God who is dead; what is dead (at least to a large extent) is the precondition in man that makes it possible for God to live in the world. The crisis of fatherhood that we are experiencing today is a basic aspect of the crisis that threatens mankind as a whole. Where fatherhood is perceived only as a biological accident on which no genuinely human claims may be based, or the father is seen as a tyrant whose yoke must be thrown off, something in the basic structure of human existence has been damaged.

If human existence is to be complete, we need a father, in the true meaning of fatherhood that our faith discloses, namely,  responsibility for one’s child that does not dominate him but permits him to become his own self. This fatherhood is a love that avoids two traps: the total subjugation to the father’s own priorities and goals, on the one hand, and the unquestioning acceptance of the child as he is, under the pretext that this is the expression of freedom, on the other. Responsibility for one’s child means the desire that he realize his own innermost truth, which lies in his Creator.

Is God also Mother?

And naturally, a fatherhood of this kind is possible only if one accepts one’s own status as a child.  If men are to be fathers in the correct way, they must assent in their heart to the words of Jesus: “You have only one Father, who is in heaven” (Mt 23:9). This has nothing to do with a domination that makes others one’s slaves. It is a responsibility born of truth: because I have freely handed myself over to God, I can now free the other to be himself, without egoism, free for the God in whom he has existence.

Here, of course, another point is important: the fact that the primary biblical image of God is the “Father” also means that the mystery of motherhood, too, has its origin in him and has exactly the same potential as fatherhood either to point to God or, when it is distorted, to point away from him.

Here we can grasp what it means in real and very practical terms to affirm that man is “the image of God”. Man is not God’s image as an abstraction—for that would lead in turn only to an abstract God. He is God’s image in his concrete reality, which is relationship: he is God’s image as father, as mother, as child (“son”).  This means that when we apply these words to God, they are “images”; but they are images precisely because man is an “image”, and therein lies their claim to reality. They are images that require “the Image”, and this means that they can be the realization of God or his “death”.

We cannot separate man’s becoming man and his knowledge of God precisely because he is ‘the image’ of God. Where his humanity is destroyed, something happens to the image of God.

We cannot separate man’s becoming man and his knowledge of God precisely because he is “the image” of God. When his humanity is destroyed, something happens to the image of God. The dissolution of fatherhood and motherhood, which some would prefer to relocate in a laboratory or at least reduce to a biological moment that does not concern man qua man, is linked to the dissolution of childhood, which must give way to a total equality from the very beginning. This program of hubris, which at one and the same time wants to remove man from the biological sphere and enslaves him completely within it; this hubris reaches into the very roots of human existence and into the roots of the ability to think of God, for where his image no longer appears, it is no longer possible to think of him. Where human thought employs all of its power to obscure the image of God, no “proof of God’s existence” can ever have anything to say.

Naturally, we must not indulge in wild exaggerations when we criticize the age in which we live. To begin with, we must not forget that there are exemplary fathers and mothers even today, and that great figures such as Janusz Korczak and Mother Teresa demonstrate in our age that the reality of fatherhood and motherhood can be achieved even without the biological dimension.

Besides this, we must always remember that the utterly pure realization of the image of God has always been an exception: God’s image in man has always been stained and distorted. This is why it is empty romanticism to plead: “Spare us the dogmas, the Christology, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity! It suffices to proclaim God as Father and all men as brothers and to live this without any mystical theories. That is the only thing that matters!”

Can we trust fathers? When they are in a good mood, they are quite nice, but otherwise they are unpredictable. Is it the same with God?

This sounds very plausible, but does this really do justice to the complicated being called man? How do we know what fatherhood is or what it means to be brothers and sisters? What entitles us to put so much trust in these realities? There are indeed moving testimonies in early cultures to a pure trust in the “Father” in the skies, but subsequent development mostly meant that religious attention very quickly moved away from him to concentrate on “powers” that were much closer at hand; in the course of history, the image of man, and hence also the image of God, everywhere took on ambiguous traits. 

It is well known that the Greeks called their Zeus “Father”. But this word was not an expression of their trust in him! Rather, it expressed the profound ambiguity of the god and the tragic ambiguity, indeed, the terrible character of the world. When they said “Father”, they meant that Zeus was like human fathers– sometimes really nice, when he was in a good mood, but ultimately and egoist, a tyrant, unpredictable, unfathomable, and dangerous.

And this was how they experienced the dark power that ruled the world: some individuals are courted as favorites, but this power stands by indifferently while other individuals starve to death, are enslaved, or go to ruin.  The “Father” of the world, as he is experienced in human life, reflects human fathers: partisan and, in the last analysis, terrifying.

Does God play with the world, or can we rely on him to love? How do we know?

People today bid farewell to the world of the fathers and sing the enthusiastic praises of “brotherhood”. But in our de facto experience, is brotherhood really so unambiguous, so full of hope? According to the Bible, the first pair of brothers in world history were Cain and Abel; in Roman myth, we find the corresponding pair Romulus and Remus. This motif is found everywhere and is a cruel parody—but one written by reality itself—of the hymn to “brotherhood”.

Have not our experiences since 1789 contributed new and even more dreadful features to this parody? Have they not confirmed the vision that bears the name “Cain and Abel” rather than what the word “brotherhood” promised us?

How, then, do we know that fatherhood is a kindness on which we can rely and that God, despite all outward appearances, is not playing with the world but loves it dependably?

For this, it was necessary that God should show himself, overthrow the images, and set up a new criterion. This takes place in the Son, in Christ. In his prayer, he plunges the totality of his life into the abyss of truth and goodness that is God.  It is only on the basis of this son that we can truly experience what God is.

Why is Jesus necessary and what difference does he make?

The nineteenth-century critics of religion claimed that the religions came into being when men projected their own best and most beautiful characteristics onto heaven, in order to make the world more bearable for themselves; but since they were only projecting something of their own selves onto heaven, this took the name of Zeus and was terrifying. The biblical Father is not a heavenly duplicate of human fatherhood. Rather, he posits something new: he is the divine critique of human fatherhood. God establishes his own criterion.

Without Jesus, we do not know what “Father” truly is. This becomes visible in his prayer, which is the foundation of his being. A Jesus who was not continuously absorbed in the Father and was not in continuous intimate communication with him would be a completely different being from the Jesus of the Bible, the real Jesus of history. Prayer was the center our of which he lived, and it was prayer that showed him how to understand God, the world, and men.

To follow Jesus means looking at the world with the eyes of God and living accordingly. Jesus shows us what it means to lead the whole of one’s life on the basis of the affirmation that “God is.” Jesus shows us what it means to give genuine priority to the first tablet of the Ten Commandments. He gave this center a meaning, and he revealed what this center is.

Papst Johannes Paul II bei Kreuzweg

Father and Son, but then why the third one all of a sudden?

At this point, however, a question arises. Jesus lives in an uninterrupted prayerful communication with God, which is the foundation of his existence. Without this, he would not be the one he is. But is this communication equally essential to the Father whom he addresses, in the sense that the Father, too, would be someone else if he were not addressed in this way? Or does this prayer pass him by without penetrating him?

The answer is that it is just ass essential to the Father to say “Son” as it is essential to the Son to say “Father”.  Without this address, the Father, too, would not be the same. Jesus does not merely touch him from the outside; he belongs to the divinity of God, as Son. Before the world was made, God is already the love of Father and Son. He can become our Father and the criterion for all fatherhood precisely because he himself is Father from eternity.

In Jesus’ prayer, the inner life of God becomes visible to us: we see how God himself is. Faith in the triune God is nothing other than the exposition of what takes place in Jesus’ prayer. In his prayer, the Trinity is revealed. The next question is: “Why a Trinity? We have grasped that God is two—after what you have said, this makes perfect sense. But where does this third Person suddenly come from?

I will devote a meditation specifically to this question; here, I simply wish to indicate where the answer lies. It is impossible for a mere “twofoldness” to exist. Either the contraposition, that is, the fact that there are two, will endure, so that no genuine unity comes about; or else the two will melt into each other, so that they are no longer genuinely two.

Baptism: Doesn’t it take away a child’s freedom to decide for himself?

Let me try to put it in less abstract terms: The Father and the Son do not become one in such a way that they dissolve into each other. They remain distinct from one another, since love has its basis in a “vis-à-vis” that is not abolished. If each remains his own self, and they do not abrogate each other’s existence, then their unity cannot exist in each one by himself: rather, their unity must be in the fruitfulness in which each one gives himself and in which each one is himself. They are one in virtue of the fact that their love is fruitful, that it goes beyond them. In the third Person in whom they give themselves to each other, in the Gift, they are themselves, they are one.

Let us return to my earlier point: in Jesus’ prayer, the Father becomes visible and Jesus makes himself known as the Son. The unity that this reveals is the Trinity.  Accordingly, becoming a Christian means sharing in Jesus’ prayer, entering into the model provided by his life, that is, the model of his prayer. Becoming a Christian means saying “Father” with Jesus and, thus, becoming a child, God’s son—God—in the unity of the Spirit, who allows us to be ourselves and precisely in this way draws us into the unity of God. Being a Christian means looking at the world from this central point, which gives us freedom, hope, decisiveness, and consolation.

This brings us back to the starting point of these reflections. We were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit before we knew what was happening to us. Today, many people doubt whether this is a good thing. We have the impression that decisions are being preempted and imposed on the person that only he himself can properly make. Such presumption seems to us a questionable limitation on human freedom in a central sphere of life.

Papst Benedikt XVI spricht in ein Mikrofon, hat ein Blatt in der Hand und macht eine betonende Geste mit seiner Hand

The Church—an association that makes bothersome rules to follow. Is that wrong?

Such feelings express our profound uncertainty with regard to the Christian faith itself. We find it a burden rather than a grace—a burden that one may accept only for oneself. But here we are forgetting that life, too, is something determined in advance for us—we are not consulted beforehand! And life entails so much else as well: when a person is born, not only his biological existence is determined in advance, but also his language, the age in which he lives, its way of thinking, its evaluations. 

A life without “advance gifts” of this kind does not exist; The question is what these advance gifts are. If baptism establishes the “advance gift” of being loved by eternal Love, could any gift be more precious and pure than this? The advance gift of life alone is meaningless and can become a terrible burden. May we determine in advance the life of another person to lead? This is defensible only if life itself is defensible, that is, when life is sustained by a hope that goes beyond all the terrors of earthly existence.

Where the Church is regarded only as an accidental human association, the “advance gift” of faith will be questionable. But one who is convinced that it is a question, not of some human association, but rather of the gift of the love that already awaits us even before we draw our first breath, will see his most precious task as the preparation of another person to receive the advance gift of love—for it is only this gift that justifies passing on the gift of life to him.

This means that we must learn anew to take God as our starting point when we seek to understand the Christian existence. This existence is belief in his love and faith that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— for it is only thus that the affirmation that he is “love” becomes meaningful.   If he is not love in himself, he is not love at all. But if he is love in himself, he must be “I” and “Thou”, and this means that he must be triune. Let us ask him to open our eyes so that he becomes once again the basis for our understanding of the Christian existence, for in this way we shall understand ourselves anew and renew mankind.