São Paulo

Christianity as response?

On my way to São Paulo, Brazil, February 15th, 2011

Dear Ignacio,

I am sorry for having left you with your question for so long. But knowing you, I am sure you did not bandon it to the bottom drawer... Sure you took it with you whenever you left to go out to the bar!

How did your exams go? Now you might have a bit more time, please write and let me know how they went.

I was on the go the whole time I was in New York! How can anyone relax in that city? And if you manage to slow down, how is it possible not to be run over by all the people who do not stop? All jokes aside, I had an interesting month. I could catch up with some of my colleagues, whom I have not seen for long time. Sharing ideas, books, drinking a glass of whisky!... We can never forget the friends with whom we have discovered something important for our lives, Ignacio, and coming back to them is as necessary as breathing.

I am just arriving now by train to São Paulo, Brazil. Traveling by train involves becoming aware again that sometimes the journey is the aim.

Where did we leave off? Yes, well, is there a God who intervenes in human affairs?

Look, Ignacio, religions are nothing but proposals for a concrete quest for the ultimate meaning of life. As we said, this search of man is intrinsic to his nature. That is why the history of religions is as old as human existence.

Awareness of this opens up for us a wide range of possibilities. I will be honest with you. I am going to propose a concrete option: Christianity.

There is no need to wait for your next letter for me to anticipate at this point a huge ‘WHY?’, uttered with the vigor you show when you are not willing to take anything for granted (bravo for this!).

The argument I am going to offer you stems from experience. I have already been open to the whole range of what is offered. This statement should not make you skip part of the journey; the intention is only to spare you some of the false starts. (Ignacio, ‘we are like dwarfs lifted up on the shoulders of giants’... allowing oneself to be lifted up, is no lack of rigor but an awareness of one’s own limitation and the necessity of confidence.)

Well, how to start then? You make me return to steps already taken in order to look more carefully at my path. Thank you.

My brother died and I was really angry. He did not deserve to die. Nobody deserves to die, but he least of all. When he died the only thing I desired was to go after him. It was a difficult time.

My only thought at that moment was that life can not be this. The various religious responses, which I had never taken into consideration before, all started to bloom around me like flowers as I approached them. I dedicated myself to study all of them very eagerly to find out how to cross this abyss, the ditch that separated me from my brother. But I could not find the answer by studying. My study was not life, but an enumeration of dogmas, customs, sayings... just like a catalogue of fancy dresses to meet the Mystery. And then I met Augustine.

Up to this point I had never really engaged with the Catholic faith, it was the faith of my environment and I thought I knew it sufficiently... I was not interested. And yet the life of Augustine challenged me. He did not intend to resolve all my problems, or conceal his own lack of answers, but his way of living and his gospel had something significant to do with what then happened to me. He repeated over and over again that his religion consisted in an encounter with Christ. And that is how a question was raised for me that I had never before asked: who is this Jesus of Nazareth? Responding to this question completely changed my life.

And so the search began. All I am doing now is commending to you the discoveries that I made then.

Polytheistic mythological religions involve narratives of ‘apparitions’ of a god in human form, as in the mythological stories of Zeus (or Jupiter), the father of the Greco-roman gods, wandering the Earth and sometimes getting mixed with humans in various actions. Undoubtedly the mythological gods and their deeds stem from the veneration devoted to men of extraordinary human attributes, of the leaders and heroes of ancients peoples. In these cases we have no records of these venerated men claiming for themselves divine honor and adoration; it is rather that they were raised up by the memory of later generations to their altars of glory.

Among the Romans, who were singularly civilized people in the modern sense of the word, Julius Caesar and especially Augustus, founder of the Imperial Rome, were elevated to the rank of the gods. Celsus, in his anti-Christian attack, recollects that ‘ancient myths attributed a divine origin to Perseus, Amphion, to Aeacus and Minos’, and also to ‘the Dioscuri, Heracles, Asclepius and Dionysus, which were first men’, as well as the divinization of other men who met a violent death. But in all these cases, where the mythical origin may well have been rooted in an ancient human hero or a great man, it was not the men themselves who proclaimed their divinity, but rather over time they were deified by their descendants. In these cases, men became gods by their elevation to the rank of immortals of the heavenly Olympus, yet they bear resemblance more authentically to secondary gods or saints than to God Himself.

It is also known that in primitive religions natural phenomena or mysteries are elevated to the category of mythology. Animism and monism fill the world with spirits of deceased ancestors. It is the same with the great Egyptian religion and the cult of Isis and Osiris, or in Japan with Amaterasu. However, none of these divinities have the historical character of a real man whose earthly life was known, and even less do they present their own actions and words.

Nevertheless, in the history of religions there are some great historical men, whose lives can be situated in their time and whose words, even in a written form could be collected. They are the great founders of existing or disappeared religions. Their names are: Moses, who (with Abraham) was responsible for the organization of the religion of the Hebrew people, who lived in the thirtieth century b.c.; Lao Tzu and Kung-Fu-Tzu (Confucius), who lived in China in the sixth century b.c. and laid down the fundaments for the philosophical religion of the Tao (the former) and for the organization of a state religion in terms of morality and family (the latter); Buddha, whose name is Siddhārtha Gautama or Śākyamuni, the creator of Buddhism, who lived in India in the sixth or fifth centuries b.c.; and in Persia Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) who was the religious organizer of the ancient religion of the Persians. Following Jesus, in time we find two other men, whose history is well known: Mani in Persia in the second century, and Muhammad, the founder of Islam in the seventh century, whose influence is great even up to the present time.

In any case, none of them intended to be regarded as a god, even though after their life and death some of them, especially Buddha, who gave rise to a cult in which his image is found on altars in the countries in which his teaching became established.

Where should we situate Jesus of Nazareth on this map? For as pope Benedict XVI affirms, ‘Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’. [v] And this person is Jesus of Nazareth. The only man known to history to whom it is attributed that he claimed himself the faith that belongs to God. The event of Jesus Christ is utterly unique in the history of mankind. And This makes the event of Jesus Christ a historical problem of enormous human and religious scope. It was precisely this ‘claim’ that lead to his death. And paradoxically, this claim is what rescued many people from absurdity. I am one of them. It is from this experience, but also from my constant restlessness, that I speak.

Christianity: a personal relationship with God

Facing the abyss that opened up in front of me, I did not let a moment pass without trying to come to grips with what I was seeing through my studies, my own ideas and in the teachings of others... yet something was still missing. Only by becoming fully immersed in the form of life that Christians proclaimed, could I finally see further.

Then I understood that there are things in life that one does not get to learn by books, and that one of these things was to find the meaning of my life. I could not pretend to make sense of who I was as if it were a mathematical equation. I couldn’t – and this hurt even more – discover why my brother died in the form of an empirical certainty. Only with these people who called themselves Christians did I manage to find a bit of peace. But this peace was not to be found, as had happened in other search attempts, with the censorship of my senses, in the form of a denial of my anxieties. No. It was given through the response of Someone else that was accepting me as I was, in my present state. The answer was in Jesus of Nazareth.

That, in fact, was the only secret of the Christians. It was not their moral perfection or their virtue, but the fact that they trusted this man who lived two thousand years ago, in such a way that Jesus of Nazareth became really present among them. Thanks to them I discovered that the real difference of Christianity lies not in any religious theory, but the presence of concrete men and women. There is nothing else, there is no trick. It sounds simple. Do you know who lived it with all intensity, Ignacio? Your friend Camus, when he affirmed in The First Man: ‘There are beings that justify the world, that help to live with their mere presence’. [vi] This friendly presence is more than just a ‘persuasive argument’, it is a call to the head and the heart.

If you don’t search seriously, you won’t comprehend

I ask you because I have already asked myself before: if Christ were not true, how could human beings like those who awake in us something so deep and profound, live such a lie?

You know it from your own experience, Ignacio. In order to truly understand a person and make an adequate judgment of your position with respect to him, to accept him in friendship or banish him from our world, it is necessary to comprehend how this person manifests himself in his words and deeds, in what he says about himself. This is valid for all men and women. Once you have then grasped what he is and what he offers to your friendship, you can then say whether the judgment was correct, whether he really looks as he seemed and whether his friendship fulfills what it promised. This is how love, friendship and faith are born and mature.

This was my journey with Jesus of Nazareth. The first thing I read of Him (I mean in a serious way neither as a ready-made phrase nor from within my ivory tower) was: ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ [vii] (Jn 8:12). I had the intuition that in some mysterious way these words came to me and were directed to me. It seemed to me that Jesus was talking about life, about my life in a very serious way. Then I discovered that this was not his only proposal; He confirmed it by completely giving himself to death, manifesting in this way the severity and honesty of his offer.

I did not understand anything of this until I stopped making a theory of Christianity and began asking myself how it had something to do with my life. If you approach the Person of Jesus merely with curiosity, without risking anything, you will put yourself in a position that makes it impossible to know Him truly; from this perspective, Ignacio, any action or position you take will be superficial. To understand and assess the claim of Jesus of Nazareth you should take your own life seriously, looking for its meaning, because this is what He talks about and offers with His words and His life.

The train is arriving at the station. Please, think about this. I will write again soon.


Your old professor



[v] Cf. BENEDICTO XVI, Deus caritas es, ‘Introducción’, Editorial San Pablo, 2001, p. 7. Quote from the Spanish edition as translated by M. SZALAY & A. RICHES. For an English edition, cf. ‘Introduction’, in God is Love: Deus Caritas Est, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006.
[vi] A. CAMUS, El primer hombre, Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 2003. Quote from the Spanish edition as translated by M. SZALAY & A. RICHES. For an English edition, cf. The First Man, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[vii] All the biblical passages quoted are taken form the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

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