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Duc In Altum: Ratzinger’s ‘Ocean of Uncertainty’ and Our Present Epistemological Crisis

In 2006, when I was a seminarian at the Pontifical College Josephinum, the library held its annual book sale. We relished that week each year. The school had a wonderful library; many old gems were removed from circulation, and even more were contributed by alumni.

That year, a then-mentor and teacher of mine, Fr. John McDermott, was browsing at the same time. He saw me and offered to help fill my boxes. What a stroke of luck! Father McDermott had been appointed to the International Theological Commission and was considered around campus to be untouchably smart. For me, even as an undergraduate, he gave a glimpse of a distant horizon of Catholic intellectualism. (He was — and, I assume, still is — awfully human, and witty, too. One time, he introduced me to the late Cardinal Dulles, who was visiting campus and eating in the theologians’ refectory. I was told to bring a knife to the table; I did, and laid it down while managing to emit a strange, “Here you go, cardinal.” McDermott correcting me immediately, and loudly: “Call him your eminence, or my lord… anything but ‘cardinal’!”)

Two boxes of books cost me something like thirty dollars. And I unpacked them with high expectations. A good number of authors I’d never heard of, some mid-century Jesuits. There were a handful of books from “heroic” thinkers like Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. One book especially Fr. McDermott lauded while removing it from a shelf: a small, red, 1970 printing of Bernard Lonergan’s Insight. I don’t recall just what he said, but it stuck in my mind that this was something special.

Over the next few years, I leafed through Insight a handful of times. It seemed dense, and much too hard; I’d close it. It traveled with me to Rome, through two graduate programs, and three or four apartments. Ten years later — in 2016 — I came to appreciate what my mentor knew was hidden there all along. And I’m grateful to him for having the wisdom to saddle me with a fifty cent book that I carried as a paperweight for almost a decade.

* * *

Experience has convinced me that the most significant crisis for Christianity today is not political or moral; it is epistemological. Alasdair MacIntyre explored “epistemological crises” in a 1977 essay; and Ratzinger offered an earlier, equally astute analysis in 1968, in Introduction to Christianity, when he described the circumstances of modern belief. Depicting a scene from Paul Claudel’s play Soulier de Satin, he writes:

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 a loose plank bobbing over the void seems to hold him up, and it looks as if he must eventually sink.

The abyss, here, is the weight of empirical certainty — a temptation to atheism — that modern believers inevitably bear. In such a case, Ratzinger says, otherwise important theological questions become “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. Wherever one looks, only the bottomless abyss of nothingness can be seen.

Ratzinger’s greatest power as a writer lies in these moments of self-awareness, presented plainly and without shame to the reader. What serious Christian, grappling with the basis for his belief, has not at one time or another looked around and seen only the bottomless abyss of nothingness? Or felt lashed to a single plank in a swirling sea of doubt, even as the rest of life passes serenely by?

The author’s wisdom, on the other hand, lies in directing such moments toward a hidden truth. And even to beauty and hope.

If, on the one hand, the believer can perfect his faith only 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 a 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 the nonbeliever does not lead a sealed-off, self-sufficient life, either. […] Just as the believer is choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth by the ocean of uncertainty, so the nonbeliever is troubled by doubts about his unbelief, about the real totality of the world he has made up his mind to explain as a self-contained whole. […] 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 fully 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.

* * *

I turned to Insight as a remedy to my own encounter with “the abyss.” It was and has been for me profoundly helpful.

Mary Ann Glendon summarizes Lonergan’s program in Insight as describing “what we experience as a breakthrough or insight as situated within the dynamic structure of human cognition: the recurring and cumulative processes of experiencing, understanding and judging.” Lonergan insists that the transcendent is evident to us through the mere mechanics of understanding. The unmistakable finality we experience with new insights — and what we know we lack without them — points to something real beyond our minds.

* * *

The Christian “epistemological crisis” is only just beginning. Ratzinger, MacIntyre, and others have done a great service by diagnosing the present circumstances of Christian belief and traditions. But the apparatus to reclaim lost ground — or in Claudel’s metaphor, to recover ground at all — is largely lacking. (During his time as pope, Ratzinger has written especially beautifully of the encounter with the person of Christ, in Deus caritas est, the Jesus of Nazareth series, and elsewhere. This is a more strictly theological approach, though, that seems to me in a different vein than his earlier work, although both phases emanate from the same signature, “narrative Christology.”)

Lonergan introduces a framework for thinking that is uniquely helpful in our day and age. Framing the quest for truth as a “recurring and cumulative”process, rather than as a series of isolated, absolute disjunctives, is an antidote to scientific materialism. At the very least, it makes far more probable the judgment that “belief may after all be the truth.” The underlying intelligibility of being, in strictly natural and quite demonstrable terms, forms the basis for his proof of God’s existence.

Of course, Ratzinger is right: the ocean of uncertainty is the spot we have been assigned for our faith. And it may be that until belief is rejected, its unrejectability remains obscure. Still, a great advantage awaits us if we insist that all men — even those who engender the most doubt in Christians — are not “undialectically” and simply without faith. Cultivating a more human method for securing and assenting to truth is the solution to our present crisis, not only for Christians in need of more sure belief, but also for the work of evangelization and salvation.


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  • Such a timely read, for me. I’ve been staring into the Void as of late (reading Taylor’s “A Secular Age”)…this was refreshing to say the least. 🙂

    • Andrew M. Haines

      Thanks for saying so. I’m glad. Ratzinger can always be counted on for some freshness, I think.

  • jpnelson40

    I found this essay stimulating, and I think useful especially for intellectually gifted young people (high school and college) for whom frank acknowledgment of the existential dilemmas, while disturbing, will keep them from drifting aimlessly away from the Faith, as so many do.
    Jack Nelson, psychiatrist