Ratzinger’s “as if” has the characteristic structure of the hermeneutic circle, the paradoxical idea according to which, in order to know something, we must already know it—in some implicit fashion. Aristotle faces this paradox in the third chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics when he muses that young people—young in age or young in terms of maturity—who do not act rationally will not profit from discussions of ethics: the theory both presupposes knowledge of ethical behavior and aims at it. There is an “interplay,” in Ratzinger’s words, between theory and practice, so that in the absence of practice, the theory cannot take hold.
The Platonic tradition, too, works with a version of the hermeneutic circle. In the Meno, the slave boy who, at Socrates’s prodding, is able to recollect the basic truths of geometry illustrates Plato’s claim that learning is a process of anamnesis, of recollecting knowledge hidden in the depths of the soul. In Christian Neoplatonism, anamnesis takes the form of a divine illumination theory. As Augustine argues in the De magistro, all human instruction does is make us aware of the Teacher who speaks within us, but whom we must learn to hear.
The hermeneutic circle continues to play an important role in contemporary philosophy, where it found an influential proponent in Martin Heidegger. Far from being “vicious,” Heidegger emphasizes in Being and Time, the hermeneutic circle describes the necessary structure of all human understanding. Metaphysics, as Heidegger conceives it in 1927, is a painstaking making-explicit of the implicit understanding of Being that belongs, part and parcel, to human existence. The issue, Heidegger remarks, is not how to avoid the hermeneutic circle, but how to enter into it in the right manner: how to “leap into” it, “primordially and wholly.”
This is precisely what, in his 1980 interview, Ratzinger invites the non-believer to do—enter into the hermeneutic circle of the Christian faith. At the beginning of this journey, there may be nothing more than curiosity, a vague attraction to the faith: to the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or to the example of a friend’s Christian life—nothing amounting to firm belief in God’s existence and offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet, this may be sufficient to gain entry into the circle, by beginning to act “as if” there were a promise of meaning. For Ratzinger, at the heart of this promise stands divine providence, that is, the sense that I am “wanted,” that my existence is not the result of a series of historical accidents but, rather, forms part of a larger plan that carries me. God bestows meaning upon my existence even in moments when I fail to make sense of my life. I will begin to see a pattern, new avenues will open up, and life will gain in richness and depth. The initial decision to enter into the circle will be validated in that my new way of life will bear fruit.
One may wonder how this journey continues. Is it possible to leave the hermeneutic circle behind, such that acting “as if” a divine providence existed is gradually superseded by certainty that my life is, in fact, carried by God’s grace? It seems clear that faith is able to grow, to progress in strength and depth. However, as Ratzinger writes movingly in the first pages of his Introduction to Christianity, the believer “has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith.” Indeed, he finds himself “choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth.”Remarkable words from the pen of a future pope. So, perhaps, the Christian is able to enter ever more deeply into the hermeneutic circle, in which repeated, more fervent attempts to live “as if” there were a divine meaning are rewarded by experiences that it all makes sense, that the “as if” grants access to truth. Yet, as long as this life lasts, the circle remains the fundamental structure of Christian existence.
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