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Posted July 12, 2005

Joseph Ratzinger on Uncertainty and Doubt

from An Introduction to Christianity


First of all, the believer is always threatened with the uncertainty which in moments of temptation can suddenly and unexpectedly cast a piercing light on the fragility of the whole that usually seems so self-evident to him.  A few examples will help make this clear.  

That lovable saint Teresa of Lisieux, who looks so naive and unproblematical, had grown up in an atmosphere of complete religious security; her whole existence from beginning to end and down to the smallest detail, was so completely molded by the faith of the Church that the invisible world had become not just a part of her everyday life, but that life itself. It seemed to be an almost tangible reality that could not be removed by any amount of thinking. To her, “religion: really was a self-evident presupposition of her daily existence; she dealt with it as we deal with the concrete details of our lives.  Yet this very saint, a person apparently cocooned in complete security, left behind her, from the last weeks of her passion, shattering admissions which her horrified sisters toned down in her literary remains and which have only now come to light in the new verbatim editions. She says, for example, “I am assailed by the worst temptations of atheism”. Everything has become questionable, everything dark. She feels tempted to take only the sheer void for granted. In other words, in what is apparently a flawlessly interlocking world someone here suddenly catches a glimpse of the abyss lurking – even for her – under the firm structure of the supporting conventions. In a situation like this, what is in question is not the sort of thing that one perhaps quarrels about otherwise – all of this becomes absolutely secondary. What is at stake is the whole structure; it is a question of all or nothing. That is the only remaining alternative; nowhere does there seem anything to cling to in this sudden fall. All that can be seen is the bottomless depths of the void into which one is also staring.  

Paul Claudel has depicted this situation in a most convincing way in the great opening scene of the Soulier de Satin. A Jesuit missionary, brother Rodrigue, the hero of the play (a worldling and adventurer veering uncertainly between God and the world), is shown as the survivor of a shipwreck. His ship has been sunk by pirates, he himself has been lashed to a mast from the sunken ship, and he is now drifting on this piece of wood through the raging waters of the ocean. The play opens with his last monologue:  

Lord, I thank thee for bending me down like this. It sometimes happened that I found thy commands laborious and my will at a loss and jibbing at thy dispensation. But now I could not be bound to thee more closely than I am, and however violently my limbs move they cannot get one inch away from thee. So I really am fastened to the cross, but the cross on which I hang is not fastened to anything else. It drifts on the sea.

  Fastened to the cross – with the cross fastened to nothing, drifting over the abyss. The situation of the contemporary believer could hardly be more accurately and impressively described. Only on a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink. Only a loose plank connects him to God, though certainly it connects him inescapably and in the last analysis he knows that his wood is strong than the void which seethes beneath him and which remains nevertheless the really threatening force in this day-to-day life.

This picture contains in addition yet another dimension, which indeed seems to me the really important thing about it. This shipwrecked Jesuit is not alone; in him there is a sort of advance reflection of the fate of his brother; the destiny of his brother is present in him, that brother who considers himself a non-believer, who has turned his back on God because he sees his business not as waiting, but as “possessing the attainable . . ., as though he could be anywhere else than where Thou art”.  

We do not need here to follow the intricacies of Claudel’s conception, to see how he uses the interweaving lines of these two apparently antithetical destinies as guiding threads, up to the point when finally Rodrigue’s fate touches that of his brother, in that the conqueror of the world ends up as a slave on a ship, a slave who must be glad when a ragged old nun with a rusty frying-pan take him too with her as a worthless chattel. Instead, we can return without any more similes to our own situation and say: If on the one hand the believer can only perfect his faith on the ocean of nihilism, temptation and doubt, if he has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith, on the other hand the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as mere man without faith. Just as we have already recognized that the believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void, so now we can discern the entangled nature of human destinies and say that even the non-believer does not represent a rounded and closed existence. However, vigorously he may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses, and now accepts only what is immediately certain, he will never be free of the secret uncertainty whether positivism really has the last word. Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the non-believer is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world which he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. He can never be absolutely certain of the autonomy of what he has seen and interpreted as a whole; he remains threatened by the question whether belief is not after all the reality which it claims to be. Just as the believer knows himself to be constantly threatened by unbelief, which he must experience as a continual temptation, so for the unbeliever faith remains a temptation and a threat to his apparently permanently closed world.  In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man. Anyone who makes up his mind to evade the uncertainty of belief will have to experience the uncertainty of unbelief, which can never finally eliminate for certain the possibility that belief may after all be the truth. It is not until belief is rejected that its unrejectability becomes evident.  

It may be appropriate at this point to cite a Jewish story told by Martin Buber; it presents in concrete form the above-mentioned dilemma of being a man.  

An adherent of the Enlightenment [writes Buber], a very learned man, who had heard of the Rabbi of Berditchev, paid a visit to him in order to argue, as was his custom, with him too and to shatter his old-fashioned proofs of the truth of his faith. When he entered the Rabbi’s room he found him walking up and down with a book in his hand, wrapped in thought. The Rabbi paid no attention to the new arrival. Suddenly he stopped, looked at him fleetingly and said, “But perhaps it is true after all”. The scholar tried in vain to collect himself – his knees trembled, so terrible was the Rabbi to behold and so terrible his simple utterance to hear. But Rabbi Levi Jizchak now turned to face him and spoke quite calmly: “My son, the great scholars of the Torah with whom you have argued wasted their words on you; as you departed you laughed at them. They were unable to lay God and his Kingdom on the table before you, and nor can I. But think, my son, perhaps it is true.” The exponent of the Enlightenment opposed him with all his strength; but this terrible “perhaps” which echoed back at him time after time broke his resistance.  

Here we have, I believe – in however strange a guise – a very precise description of the situation of man confronted with the question of God. No one can lay God and is Kingdom on the table before another man; even the believer cannot do it for himself. But however strongly unbelief may feel itself thereby justified it cannot forget the eerie feeling induced by the words “Yet perhaps it is true”. The “perhaps” is the unavoidable temptation which it cannot elude, the temptation in which it too, in the very act of rejection, has to experience the unrejectability of belief. In other words, both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide away from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt, for the other through doubt and in the form of doubt. It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer; for one it is his share in the fate of the unbeliever, for the other the form in which belief remains nevertheless a challenge to him.