Theological Fun With Pope Benedict

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Pope Benedict XVI has released his newest encyclical on the theme of Christian hope. Entitled “Spe Salvi” (saved by hope), the work muses on Christian salvation, redemption, and the role of prayer in Christian life, but it wouldn’t be Benedict (the artist formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger) without inflating the triumphal claims of Catholicism at the expense of polytheist forms of religion!

“Paul reminds the Ephesians that before their encounter with Christ they were “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Of course he knew they had had gods, he knew they had had a religion, but their gods had proved questionable, and no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future … Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future… Myth had lost its credibility; the Roman State religion had become fossilized into simple ceremony which was scrupulously carried out, but by then it was merely “political religion”. Philosophical rationalism had confined the gods within the realm of unreality. The Divine was seen in various ways in cosmic forces, but a God to whom one could pray did not exist.”

There are quite a few problems with Benedict’s argument, a primary one is the confusion of mythological stories with the living and breathing religion being practiced at the time. The assumption that Roman polytheists had no hope for a pleasant afterlife, when in fact they had a systematic afterlife that included judgment, rewards, and punishments, and the characterization of Roman religious ritual as a clockwork obligation that had no belief or passion. The bugbear here for Benedict is the specter of “philosophical rationalism”, which along with relativism leads (in his view) to all manner of horrors, including the destruction of Christianity (and which, in his view, drained the life out of Roman polytheism).

Not that we should expect a fair hearing from the Pontiff, after all, this is the same Pope who claims that the Nazis were a “Neo-Pagan” invention, and not a product spawned from centuries of Christian antisemitism. Having said that, there were some other interesting things said in the Pope’s latest missive to the world, including some words on prayer that won’t make certain evangelical Christians very happy.

“He emphasized that prayer should not be isolating and should not focus on superficial objectives. Nor can people pray against others, he said. “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness,” he said.”

It seems very likely that he is pointing his finger at prosperity gospel folks and certain stripes of “prayer warriors”, who “target” people of influence with prayer. It should be interesting if any reporters pick up on this jab at non-Catholic forms of Christianity. As for the Pope and Paganism, you would think that a man as learned as Benedict would hesitate to create religious straw-men to bat down. There are plenty of valid criticism of polytheistic systems, but portraying Roman polytheists as without hope and “lost” to nihilistic darkness is petty and untrue.