The Individual and the Whole

Does God dwell in institutions, events or words? As the eternal Being, does he not make contact with each of us from within? To this we must first of all simply say "yes", and then go on to say that if there were only God and a collection of individuals Christianity would be unnecessary. The salvation of the individual as individual can and could always be looked after directly and immediately by God, and this does happen again and again. He needs no intermediary channels by which to enter the soul of the individual, to which he is more intrinsic than he is to himself; nothing can reach more intimately and deeply into man than he, who touches this creature man in the very innermost heart of his being.
For the salvation of the mere individual there would be no need of either the Church, or a history of salvation, an incarnation or a passion. But precisely at this point we must also add the further statement: Christian faith is not based on the atomised individual but comes from the knowledge that there is no such thing as the mere individual, that on the contrary man is himself only when he is fitted into the whole: into mankind, history, the cosmos, as is right and proper for a being who is "spirit in body".

The principle of "body" and "corporality" by which man is governed means two things: on the one hand the body separates men from one another, makes them impenetrable to each other. As a space-filling and sharply defined shape the body makes it impossible for one to be completely in the other; it erects a dividing line which defines distances and limit; it keeps us at a distance from one another and is to that extent a dissociating principle.

But at the same time existence in a corporal form necessarily also embraces history and community, for if pure spirit can be thought of as existing strictly for itself, corporality implies descent from one another: human beings live and depend in a very real and at the same time very complex sense on one another. For if this dependence is first of all a physical one (and even in this sphere it extends from parentage down to the manifold exchanges of mutual daily care), it means for him who is spirit only in a body and as body that the spirit too - in short, the one, whole man - is deeply marked by his membership of the whole of mankind - the one "Adam".

Being a man means being a fellow man in every aspect, not just in the respective past but in such a way that every man also contains the past and future of mankind, which really does emerge, the closer one looks, as one single "Adam". .. One needs only to point to the fact that our mental life depends entirely on the medium of language and to add then that language was not invented today. It comes from a long way off; the whole of history has contributed to it and through it enters into us as the unavoidable premise of our present, indeed as a constant part of it. And, vice versa, man is a being who lives for the future, who continually takes care to plan ahead beyond the passing moment and could no longer exist if he suddenly found himself without a future. We are therefore bound to say that such a thing as the mere individual, the man-monad of the Renaissance, the pure Cogito-ergo-sum-being does not exist.


Humanity comes to man only in the web of history that impinges on the individual through speech and social communication; and the individual for his part lives his life on the collective pattern in which he is already previously included and which forms the scene of his self-realization. It is simply not the case that every man plans himself anew from the zero of his own freedom, as it seemed to the German idealist philosophers. He is not a being who keeps starting again from scratch: he can only work out his own new approach within the framework of the already existing whole of human life which stamps and moulds him.

The Church and being a Christian have to do with man so understood. They would have no function to fulfil if the only thing that existed was the man-monad, the being implied by "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). They are related to the man who is a fellow being and only subsists in the collective entanglements that follow from the principle of corporality. Church and Christianity itself exist on account of history, because of the collective involvements which stamp man; they are to be understood in this plane. Their purpose is to save history as history and to break through or transform the collective grid that forms the site of human existence.

According to the epistle to the Ephesians, Christ's work of salvation consisted precisely in bring to their knees the forces and powers seen by Origen in his commentary on this passage as the collective powers that encircle man: the power of the milieu, of national tradition; the conventional "they" or "one" that oppresses and destroys man. Terms like original sin, resurrection of the flesh, last judgement, and so on, are only to be understood at all from this angle, for the seat of original sin is to be sought precisely in this collective net that precedes the individual existence as a sort of spiritual datum, not in any biological legacy passed on between otherwise utterly separated individuals.

Talk of original sin means just this, that no man can start from scratch any more, in a status integritatis (=completely unimpaired by history). No one starts off in an unimpaired condition in which he would only need to develop himself freely and lay out his own grounds; everyone lives in a web that is part of his existence itself. Last judgement is the answer to these collective entanglements. Resurrection expresses the idea that the immortality of man can only exist and be thought of in the fellowship of men, in man as the creature of fellowship. Finally, even the concept of redemption only has a meaning on this plane; it does not refer to the detached monadic existence of the individual.

Being a Christian is in its first aim not an individual but a social charisma. One is not a Christian because only Christians are saved; one is a Christian because for history the Christian diaconate (ministry of service) has a meaning and is a necessity.

If one is a Christian in order to share in a diaconate for the whole, then this means that precisely because of this relation to the whole Christianity lives from the individual and for the individual, because only by the action of the individual can the transformation of history, the destruction of the dictatorship of the milieu come to pass.

It seems to me that this is the reason for what to the other world religions and to the man of today is always completely incomprehensible, namely that in Christianity everything hangs in the last resort on one individual, on the man Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified by the milieu - public opinion - and who on the cross broke this very power of the conventional "one", the power of anonymity, which holds man captive. This power is now confronted by the name of this individual, Jesus Christ, who calls on man to follow him, that is, to take up the cross like him, and by being crucified to overcome the world and contribute to the renewal of history.

Precisely because Christianity wants history as a whole its challenge is directed fundamentally at the individual; precisely for this reason it hangs on the single individual in whom the bursting of the bondage to the forces and powers took place.

Because Christianity relates to the whole and can only be understood from the idea of community and with reference to it, because it does not mean the salvation of the isolated individual but acceptance of service to the whole, which he neither can nor may escape, for this very reason it is committed to the principle of "the individual" in its most radical form. Here lies the intrinsic necessity of the unheard-of scandal that a single individual, Jesus Christ, is acknowledged as the salvation of the world. The individual is the salvation of the whole, and the whole receives its salvation only from the individual who truly is it and who precisely for this reason ceases to exist for himself alone.

The Principle of "For"

Because Christian faith demands the individual, but wants him for the whole and not for himself, the real basic law of Christian existence is expressed in the preposition "For". That is why in the chief Christian sacrament, which forms the centre of Christian worship, the existence of Jesus Christ is explained as existence "for the many", "for you", as an open existence which makes possible and creates the communication of all between one another through communication in him.

That is why Christ's existence, as exemplary existence, is fulfilled and perfected, as we have seen, in his being opened on the cross. That is why he can say, announcing and expounding his death: "I go away, and I will come to you" (John 14.28): by my going away the wall of my existence is broken down, and thus this happening is my real coming, in which I make a reality of what I really am, he who draws all into the unity of his new being, he who is not boundary but unity.

All man's own efforts to step outside himself can never suffice. He who only wants to give and is not ready to receive, he who only wants to exist for others and is unwilling to recognise that he for his part too lives on the unexpected, unprovokable gift of others' "For", fails to recognise the basic mode of human existence and is thus bound to destroy the true meaning of living "for one another". To be fruitful, all self-sacrifices demand acceptance by others and in the last analysis by the other who is the truly "other" of all mankind and at the same time one with it: the God-man Jesus Christ.

The Law of Disguise

Even philosophy, man's own reflections on God, leads to the realisation that God is the quite other, the absolutely hidden and unparalleled. "As blind as the eyes of night-birds", Aristotle had already said, "are our eyes before what is in itself the brightest thing of all." In fact, on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, we shall reply: "God is the quite other,invisible, unrecognisable. But when he really did appear on the scene, so other, so invisible in regard to his divinity, so unrecognisable, it was not the kind of otherness and strangeness that we had foreseen and expected, and he thus remained in fact unrecognised. But should not that in itself prove him to be the really quite other, he who casts overboard our notions of otherness and thereby shows himself to be the one and only genuine quite other."

However much we may rebel against proofs of the existence of God and whatever objections philosophical reflection may justifiably make to individual steps in the arguments, the fact remains that the radiance of the original creative idea and of its power to build does shimmer through the world and its spiritual structure.

But this is only one way in which God appears in the world. The other sign which he has adopted and which, by concealing him more, shows more truly his intrinsic nature, is the sign of the lowly, which, measured cosmically, quantitatively, is comparatively insignificant, actually a pure nothing. One could cite in this connection the series Earth-Israel-Nazareth-Cross-Church, in which God seems to keep disappearing more and more, and precisely in this way becomes more and more manifest as himself.

At the end there was the cross on which a man was to hang, a man whose life had been a failure; yet this was to be the point at which one can actually touch God. Finally there is the Church, the questionable figure of human history, which claims to be the abiding site of his revelation. We know today only too well how little, even in it, concealment of the divine presence is abolished. Precisely when the Church believed, in all the glory of the Renaissance princedom, that it could strip away this concealment and be directly the "gate of heaven", the "house of God", it has become once again, and almost more than before, God's disguise, with God scarcely to be found behind it.

The Law of Excess or Superfluity

To the Bible, the limits of human righteousness, of human power as a whole, become an indication of the way in which man is thrown back upon the unquestioning gift of love, a gift which unexpectedly opens itself to him and thereby opens up man himself, and without which man would remain shut up in all his "righteousness" and thus unrighteous. Only the man who accepts this gift can come to himself. Thus the proved speciousness of man's "righteousness" becomes at the same time a pointer to the righteousness of God, the excess of which is called Jesus Christ. He is the righteousness of God, which goes far beyond what need be, which does not calculate, which really overflows; the "notwithstanding" of his greater love, in which he infinitely surpasses the failing efforts of man.

Being a Christian does not mean duly making a certain obligatory contribution and perhaps, as a specially perfect person, even going a little further than is required for the fulfilment of the obligation. On the contrary, a Christian is someone who knows that apart from all this he lives first and foremost as the beneficiary of a bounty; and consequently all righteousness can only consist in being himself a donor, like the beggar who is grateful for what he receives and generously passes part of it on to others. The calculatingly righteous man, who thinks he can keep his own shirtfront white and build himself up inside it, is the unrighteous man. Human righteousness can only be obtained by abandoning one's own claims and by being generous to man and to God.

It is the righteousness of "Forgive, as we have forgiven" - this request turns out to be the proper formula of human righteousness as understood in the Christian sense: it consists in continuing to forgive, since man himself lives essentially on the forgiveness he has received himself.

Finality and Hope

The fact that in Christ the goal of revelation and the goal of humanity is attained, because in him divine and human existence touch and unite, means at the same time that the goal attained is not a rigid boundary but an open space. For the union which has taken place at the one point "Jesus of Nazareth" must attain the whole of mankind, the whole one "Adam", and transform it into the "body of Christ." So long as this totality is not achieved, so long as it remains confined to one point, what has happened in Christ remains simultaneously both end and beginning. Mankind can advance no further or higher than it has, for God is the furthest and highest; any apparent progress beyond him is a plunge into the void. Humanity cannot go beyond him - to that extent Christ is the end, but it must enter into him - to that extent he is the real beginning.


The Spirit of Christianity

Man comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts. He must wait for the gift of love, and love can only be received as a gift. It cannot be "made" on its own, without anyone else; one must wait for it, let it be given to one. And one cannot become wholly man in any other way than by being loved, by letting oneself be loved. That love represents simultaneously both man's highest possibility and his deepest need, and that this most necessary thing is at the same time the freest and the most unforceable, means that precisely for his "salvation" man is meant to rely on receiving. If he declines to let himself be presented with the gift, then he destroys himself. Activity that makes itself into an absolute, that achieves at attaining humanity by its own efforts alone, is in contradiction with man's being.

Let us be plain, even at the risk of being misunderstood: the true Christian is not the denominational party-member but he who through being a Christian has become truly human; not he who slavishly observes a system of norms, thinking as he does so only of himself, but he who has become freed to simple human goodness. Of course, the principle of love, if it is to be genuine, includes faith. Only thus does it remain what it is

Without faith, which we have come to understand as a term expressing man's ultimate need to receive and the inadequacy of all personal achievement, love becomes an arbitrary deed. It cancels itself out and becomes self-righteousness: faith and love condition and demand each other reciprocally. Similarly, in the principle of love there is also present the principle of hope, which looks beyond the moment and its isolation and seeks the whole. Thus our reflections finally lead of their own accord to the words in which Paul named the main supporting pillars of Christianity: "So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of them is love" (1 Cor 13.13)