In his new book, Jesus of Nazarth, Pope Benedict nee Ratzinger says that Jesus “explodes all categories.” This tack is calculated to preserve the Jesus of faith from being categorized as one of countless historical holy men. It’s a way to duck modernity and relativism, and it’s nothing new. G. K. Chesterton said essentially the same thing in his book The Everlasting Man, defending Christianity against essentially the same affront.
In 1919, H. G. Wells published his Outline of History, in which he popularized the two 19th century advances in learning that were threatening the traditional Church: evolution and the historical-critical assessment of Christianity. These were the two threats against which Pope Leo XIII had defended tradition in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus. Wells took the debate out of the realm of science, academia, and theology, producing an immensely popular history of the world that portrayed humans as evolved mammals and Jesus as a human to be understood historically. Did Wells, a socialist who hoped to see religion crushed and replaced by science, know exactly what he was doing? You bet.
Christians noticed. C. S. Lewis wrote his God-centered Space Trilogy (1938-1945) partly in response to the non-Christian science fiction of Wells and Olaf Stapledon. He even caricatured Wells in the Space Trilogy as an ignorant, anti-Christian professor. G. K. Chesterton also took on Wells, writing The Everlasting Man (1925). Here, Chesterton attacked evolution and the historical view of Jesus. He said that truth was not to be found by “rubbing out the lines,” that is, by formulating a smooth continuity between nonhumans and humans and between non-Christian religions and Christianity. In other words, humans didn’t fit in the category “primates” and Christianity didn’t fit in the category “religions.”
Catholic authorities have, in the last hundred years, become much more amenable to the theory of evolution. The Holy Mother Church has handled major reversals in its teaching before (e.g., geocentrism), and it will handle the upheaval entailed in superficially accepting evolution. But accepting Jesus as a historical figure is too big a trick to pull off. Thus, Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.
By saying that Jesus explodes categories, Benedict dodges the issue. When scholars ask, “How are we to understand Jesus historically?” his answer is Don’t. Don’t rub out the line that the church draws around Jesus to separate him from the rest of the historical world. If historical criticism says that Jesus was a remarkable Jewish rabbi who never sought to establish a worldwide religion, then historical criticism must be wrong.