No one shall be permitted to review a book written by Pope Benedict for major press outlets unless they have read at least 3 other books written by said author (aka Joseph Ratzinger, in case you forgot.)
Benedict dwells long and lovingly on the quest to know God. He insists that God sets no conditions on who may know him, beyond seeking his face sincerely and thirsting after righteousness This mystical knowledge of God, whose capstone is Jesus Christ, is for Benedict at the center of faith. He cites his namesake, Benedict of Nursia as a guide to mystical prayer, and argues his case graciously, deliberately using the homiletic presentation of the Church Fathers, as well as quoting them, to produce a seamless interweaving of historical and theological considerations.
Benedict emphatically sets aside the view that faith amounts to a form of law, and insists that the relationship of the believer to God through Christ defines Christian belief. He does not acknowledge his debt to Martin Luther, but it is palpable. He also says nothing of the priest, Matthew Fox, whom Cardinal Ratzinger silenced for his views on the centrality of the mystical knowledge of God to Catholic teaching. Theology is sometimes a contact sport, and this may be an example of yesterday's heresy becoming today's orthodoxy. A considerable body of non-Catholic biblical scholarship now accepts that Jesus himself taught his disciples mystical union with God, on the basis of the Judaism of his time, so the the position Benedict describes is more widely founded than he indicates.
The second surprise of this rich book is equally stunning. Benedict asserts that because the decisive element of faith is "the underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus," the "political and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transformed to the freedom of man." To be sure, Benedict qualifies that freedom with the human ability "to see the right and the good," so that he distinguishes "legitimate secularity" from "absolute secularism," but he is crystal clear that political authority has an appropriate scope within his Catholic vision of truth, and that the social order "must address changing historical situations within the limits of the possible, but without ever losing sight of the ethical standard as such, which gives law its character as law." There is obviously a high degree of nuance here, but also recognition of basic insights from Liberation Theology, one of whose theologians, Leonardo Boff, Cardinal Ratzinger also silenced.
What do these changes in course mean? In the short term they will not likely lead to radical change. Benedict cautions, in the first place, that he is speaking personally, not in his role as asserting authoritative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. For all his vigor in decrying the ravages of secularist capitalism, he also attacks aid from the West to developing nations because "it has driven men away from God." And finally, although Benedict sees Christ as replacing the Law, in a crisp dialogue with the works of Rabbinic scholar Jacob Neusner, he nonetheless holds fast to the position that this vision of Christ implies ethical imperatives that have the force of law.
Here's the good thing: the review is a rave, so perhaps it will encourage some who might not otherwise have considered it, to read the book.
The bad: as the one excellent comment on the online version of the review points out..er...Benedict isn't morphing before our eyes.
Contrary to Bruce Chilton's assertion, Pope Benedict's XVI's Christology has been consistent throughout his lifetime and it is the Christology that has been taught by the Catholic Church for over 2,000 years. To pretend that Pope Benedict has only now discovered the centrality of Christ is laughable. One only has to read his opus to verify that Christ is central to his teaching.
The point is not the final judgment a reviewer puts on the Pope's book, but a grasp of the context - both in terms of Benedict's own previous work and the real landscape of New Testament and Christian belief.
And you've gotta love the vague appeal to "modern historians." Yep, all "modern historians" agree that the Gospel's description of the baptism of Jesus by John is partially true; that is, John may have existed, Jesus may have existed, and the Jordan River may have existed. Beyond that, we really don't know much of anything because, hey, an unnamed group of men supposedly say so, according to a Newsweek reporter with a bachelor's degree in English. I don't doubt that Miller is a smart lady. I just wish she were smart enough to know when she doesn't know what she pretends to know. Ya know?
As for the statement, "This interpretation may be profound and in keeping with Benedict's Christ-centered message; it is not, many scholars would say, historically accurate," Miller would do well to catch up a bit on the world of biblical scholarship, a field—dare I point out the obvious?—that a certain Joseph Ratzinger has been following closely (and has often been involved in, in various ways) for a number of years now, probably more years than Miller has been alive.
The condescension continues:
"Jesus of Nazareth," then, will not bring unbelievers into the fold, but courting skeptics has never been Benedict's priority. Nor will his portrait join the lengthy list of Jesus biographies so eagerly consumed by the non-orthodox—the progressive Protestants and "cafeteria Catholics" who seek the truth about Jesus in noncanonical places like the Gnostic Gospels. Moderates may take "Jesus of Nazareth" as something of a corrective to fundamentalism because it sees the Bible as "true" without insisting on its being factual. Mostly, though, "Jesus of Nazareth" will please a small group of Christians who are able simultaneously to hold post-Enlightenment ideas about the value of rationality and scientific inquiry together with the conviction that the events described in the Gospels are real. "This is about things that happened," explains N. T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham who is perhaps the world's leading New Testament scholar. "It's not just about ideas, or people's imaginations. These are things that actually happened. If they didn't happen, you might still have interesting ideas, but it wouldn't be Christianity at the end of the day."
Funny that Miller quotes Wright here since he is not among those "many scholars" who would disagree with Benedict's assessment of Jesus' proclamation of "the kingdom," since it is a perspective that he has endorsed and argued for in great detail in a monumental trilogy. And even if Miller didn't have time to read those books (understandable enough), she could have either asked Wright, or peeked at one of his shorter works, such as The Challenge of Jesus (IVP, 1999), in which Wright states: