Sunday, September 9, 2012

My Life with Christ

Much has been written lately following the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, especially his last interview. Away from controversy, I found this autobiographical article of his particularly interesting.
Cardinal Martini
At the age of 70, I have been asked to talk about the figure of Jesus Christ. This I look upon as a challenge, a way of making me think back to what it has meant to me from the beginning, how the adventure of my journey with him has developed, in what stages and in what places, dark or light.

I find it hard to speak of the figure of Jesus in the abstract, with detachment. Anyone who approaches him is involved with him. If I stayed on a purely theoretical level, I would feel I was saying what I did not feel and not expressing what I did feel. The way I met him seems better served if I deal with it in a personal way, describing a definite progress during which I came to know him in certain stages at certain times.

I will do this by writing a kind of autobiography, as if I were describing a journey, using subjective and objective elements, but without muddling them. The objective elements are historical facts about the life of Jesus; the subjective are part of my own often wearisome progress, through which I have come to know and appraise these facts, to clash with them, to make them a part of my own understanding and the choices of my own life.

So I shall speak in the third person and in the first, in the singular or the plural (“I” and “we”); I shall express something of myself that might be a part of anyone, and describe an adventure that might be symbolic. I hope it will make people reflect or help them to respond.

The adventure could be linked to particular stages in life. I will follow the recently published, much-discussed novel, Susanna Tamaro's Anima Mundi, which speaks of three periods in human life: Fire, Earth, Wind : the time of growth, the time of choice and the time of arrival; and at the same time I will use freely the revelation to the prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb (1 Kgs. 19: 11-13), where God’s presence showed itself mysteriously in fire, wind, earthquake and the murmur of a soft breeze; and thus I will divide my narrative into five parts.


My journey started very early, in childhood and early adolescence. It is the story of a boy who knew Jesus – in the family, at school, in his various surroundings – and was greatly drawn to him, in love with him. The boy knew at once that it was impossible to treat such a figure lightly: either you accept all or you reject all. It was a time of increasing, enthusiastic knowledge: the time of fire. He kept the gospels at hand, astonished by their penetrating words and by the richness of what they said, the strength of the decisions taken, the boldness of the choices made, the coherence of Jesus’ witness. Everything seemed original, basic, new, unexpected, clear, demanding, simple, accessible, and altogether rich in future promise.


This early happy period does not last long, however. A second one follows, which we may call the stage of questioning and doubts: the stage of earth. Questions arise, at first scarcely noticeable, then more insistent. Can it really be so? How could we know that the evangelists were telling the truth, that things happened in that way? What is the historical basis for what these books tell us about Jesus? Why are these pages credible? May we not be building up a figure on the fantasies of fanatics in the past? What is said about Jesus may be all very fine, but is it soundly based?

The boy then decides to read whatever he can find about the historical basis of the figure of Jesus. He delves into libraries and listens to anyone who seems to know more. Yet there is always a certain dissatisfaction, a certain disappointment. The answers he is given prompt new questions, and he has a feeling that those who answer them do so in a rather glib way, as if to avoid a boy’s importunate demands, or else they are trying to defend something that has already been decided, about which they have already made up their minds. The rather hackneyed answers do not entirely satisfy him.


Then comes the time of rage, the time of the wind mentioned in the Book of Kings: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks” (1 Kgs. 19:11). In my case it was around the age of 25 when my longing to discover the truth about Jesus coincided – providentially, because both time and place were right – with the chance to study the origins of Christianity scientifically and in depth.

I studied the languages in which the books of the Bible were written (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), I became familiar with papyri and ancient codices, and learnt about archaeology and the cultures in which the events of the gospels occurred. The work seemed endless. I never paused, and it took a strong will, like that of the strong wind in the Book of Kings, not to quail before the sheer quantity of facts. But the effort was worth it, because from what I call the time of rage and the fierce wind, I have obtained many ideas and the ability to ascertain a great many things and find a great many answers. The adventure was not yet over, though.


The third period had allowed me to see many ancient texts through which I could consider more carefully and scientifically what could be said about Jesus. My searches continue even though I no longer have time to consider them closely. Today we are better able than people were in the past to recognise the authenticity of the gospels. The time of rage had to be followed by a period of testing and questions.

Jesus’ words to Peter came to mind: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Lk. 22:31). This sifting is not accidental, it is providential. According to the Book of Kings, still on the subject of Elijah, “after the wind an earthquake” (1 Kgs. 19:11). This is the time when faith is shaken and put to the test.

I was sifted and put to the test in the following way: studying ancient sources and evidence of Jesus also involved studying ancient and modern interpretations of him, above all those from 1700 until today, that is from the beginning of historical criticism, the Enlightenment and historical positivism until our own time. I set about reading all the books, all the interpretations, devouring them, scrutinising them, weighing them up. I wanted to see who was right.

Such labours often plunge people into a dark night of the soul: will there ever be a way out of this tunnel of critical doubt, out of the systematic questioning of all the facts? All the same I want to express my thanks, my gratitude, to all the most distinguished and demanding supporters of critical rationalism, to all the “masters of suspicion” of the last century and this one, for having put me into direct touch with all the possible objections to the figure of Jesus, even the most extreme: the hypothesis that he may have had no historical existence, the denial of various things in the gospel narratives, the idea that it would be impossible to write a life of Jesus today, the criticism of the supposed reconstruction of his words and actions, doubts on fundamental points of his life, and the rest.

For me, the fact of not avoiding any critical challenge was most fruitful and stimulating; so was allowing myself to be questioned by all the attempts to make Jesus into a mythical or imaginary being, or else to call him the product of subsequent backward-looking ideas.

Systematically, cruelly, and at the same time healthily, I laid myself open to doubt, defenceless in my search for the truth. It was like seeking continuously to keep one’s balance on ground shaken by an earthquake. Apart from the metaphorical, the fundamental question I had to answer was this: were these words, these events and these attitudes in the life of Jesus original, his own, or were they the result of some retrospective elaboration put about by enthusiastic or fanatical admirers or followers, or else the product of the creative efforts of the early Christian communities? And if we must admit, as we cannot fail to, that the early communities had first an oral and then a written tradition in handing on the words and deeds of Jesus, how far is it still possible to know what Jesus really wished, said and did?

Little by little I had a surprising experience: the feeling of uncertainty, puzzlement and unease I was left with when I considered the official defence of the historical reality of Jesus, and the easy answers of so many of its supporters, disappeared when I gradually came to feel sure in the face of the massed opposition of the critics. Trying to weigh up the opposing arguments one by one and comparing them with the texts and with ancient discoveries, I came to see more and more clearly that we cannot avoid the solid basis for what we can know about Jesus, that we cannot reduce his figure to something faded or inaccessible without contradicting ourselves or the ideas that come out of serious research.

In other words, I was feeling that an approach to the ancient sources of knowledge about Jesus could not, without contradicting its scientific ideas, fail to admit that there were significant and decisive sayings and events in his life which could not be eliminated by any criticism, however corrosive it was, or be attributed to the inventiveness of later communities. Either one had to give up, explain the data as they were and stop looking, or else admit that from them the basis of an important number of facts, words and actions of Jesus emerges which is more than enough to move us to the depths of our being. To me, discovering all this in my daily work, and in my efforts to take every possible objection seriously, was of the greatest possible help.


There was a time of loving, a time of doubt and questioning, a time of rage and a time of testing; to these we must add the time when we struggle with Jesus, a struggle which is never-ending. It is rather like the struggle of Jacob by the ford of the Jabbok at night, when “a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (Gen. 32:24). It is a struggle against someone who is stronger, who never gives up the fight, and the dawn of full, unveiled knowledge has not yet come.

In spite of being sure that we are grasping a solid reality – because we are both held by it, and holding it – it is still night-time. It is rather like the experience of Elijah, who after the wind, the earthquake and the fire, heard what seemed like a faint whisper, a small murmur, and covered his face with his cloak: “And after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him, and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (1 Kgs. 19:12).

Going beyond metaphor, I mean to say that the historical knowledge of Jesus is not confined to itself, but ends in a question: Are you prepared to believe in what I say as words that come from God? Are you ready to recognise my mission as a mission that comes from the Father in Heaven? Are you ready to believe entirely and deeply in me, like Peter when he says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16)? 

This is the fifth stage, the one in which we can just hear the murmur of a light breeze, the stage when we have knowledge of faith. This involves a leap which no historical research can make us take, a step which all of us must answer within ourselves, to our own conscience; a step which sets us not before the figure of Jesus, but before the mystery of Jesus, his unique relationship with the Father, his transcendence, his meaning for the history of everyone and of the whole of humanity and his capacity to reveal the face of God. Many new, even harder, questions then arise: why did someone whom we think so near to God, beloved by God, suffer such a cruel fate in his own life? Why did he seem, humanly speaking, defeated? Why did he appear so weak and helpless?

There is, then, a final step in our understanding of Jesus for which the name of Jesus alone is not enough. That is the time of the understanding of faith, which means further questions and an unending search to link the human defeat of Jesus of Nazareth with his intimate closeness to God; the Cross and his death with his divinity.

The scope of these questions widens to include all human experience of pain and death, the meaning of what seems to have no meaning, why God revealed himself not in power and glory but, as Luther incisively put it, sub contraria specie, in the very opposite of what one might think of as God. 

And there is yet another new fact, another surprise. When we consider the mystery of God crucified and God’s weakness, seeing these in Jesus crucified and risen, then the words and actions of Jesus, the parables, the beatitudes, the miracles and cures, the teaching of forgiveness, and his being tortured to death take on a new meaning. Reading the gospels again, one finds in them (and between them and the rest of Scripture) a profound coherence, an unexpected richness of meaning. Everything is linked again in a new understanding of Jesus, which makes it enter the pith of our living experience as weak creatures seeking a hope that will not disappoint us. 

It is this mysterious, enticing journey which I should wish for everyone.