Kurt Koch par Claude Truong-Ngoc décembre 2016.jpg
Profiles in Catholicism
The (Re)turn to God in the 21st Century

by Cardinal Kurt Koch 

Ben Gurion University of the Negev – Beer-Sheva, 6 November

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Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having read the topic of our panel my first idea was that God always was, is and will be and therefore there is no need to return to God because perhaps it has merely been the case that he was for a certain period absent on holidays and therefore not reachable. In the book of Isaiah God clearly states that he is always present saying: “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name” (Is 65:1). Therefore, there is the legitimate suspect that it is a matter of the human being having the impression that God is absent or he/she is refusing to seek him. When the Eternal One appeared in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush he introduced himself to Moses as the One who is close to his people: “I am who I am” (Ex 3,14). He saw their affliction and heard the cry of his people oppressed by Egyptian slavery and was ready to intervene for them. So it seems merely to be the perception of the human being complaining about the absence of God and feeling abandoned by him. 

It seems that people of the modern era do not need a God when they are healthy, everything works well and they can be masters of their own destiny. It is only in times of distress and affliction when human limits threaten their wellbeing that they seek help by imploring God. What are the challenges and fears in our societies in the beginning of the 21st century? When we look into the situation of the world today and allow ourselves to be moved by man’s growing fear of current social and political developments we encounter a growing egoism, a stronger nationalism and an economic situation that has as its only goal the maximization of profits. The dramatic extent of fears become clearly visible when we take a brief look back into history and the evident trust expressed there in a better future for humanity. Since war always means the defeat of humanity, since the end of the Second World War the conviction that mankind must put an end to war has become entrenched in human thinking, and is repeated endlessly as a litany. At the same time, the absolute priority of politics and diplomacy has been constantly stressed, so that war can no longer be seen, as it was previously, as the continuation of politics by other means, but must instead be condemned as the failure of politics. And in order to better secure world peace and more effectively prevent the escalation of violence and military conflict, people have set great trust in the creation of international law organisations. These have without doubt been the great achievements of humanity in the 20th century. At the beginning of the third millennium, however, these essential convictions seem to have been to a large extent forgotten and unlearned once more, as demonstrated not least by the terrible wars that have become the order of the day. But even the failure of politics and the powerlessness of international laws are becoming increasingly apparent. Humanity has become all the poorer through the loss of this great hope, and its trust in a better future has suffered massive damage. In that we must perceive the result of a creeping and increasingly manifest erosion of those fundamental humane convictions which we had hoped would come to form an abiding good of humanity. The first decade of the new millennium has shown how brittle these convictions are. Military conflicts in so many trouble spots, appalling terrorism, massive migratory flows, and the global financial crisis confront us with major new questions. Above all, we find that many certainties that had previously sustained us have been put into question. We have had to discover that we can no longer rest assured of the political and economic certainties we had taken for granted. We have become insecure and vulnerable, and our trust in a positive future of humanity has been shaken to the core. 

Taking into account these developments which have given rise to many new fears, we cannot ignore the question: what can we still rely on in this world and what can we still trust? Developments in today’s world are to be understood as signs of the times which urge and demand a response of faith. This response can only be: God is the only reality which the most terrible terrorism cannot destroy, and which the greatest wealth in the world can neither buy nor sell. It is therefore fitting to seek and find new trust in God. If we commence to root ourselves in God, we certainly gain new confidence in the human being, who is called to live as the image of God in our world. In the same way, it is natural to respond to the globalisation of the economy and the market in the contemporary world with the religious and ethical globalisation of responsibility and love. 

Let’s have a look at the biblical faith that differs from human trust in that it entrusts itself to the living God alone, and relies solely on him. To take oneself outside of one’s own hands and to allow oneself to fall utterly into the hands of an other, is ultimately possible only with God. Faith in the biblical sense of reliance and trust in God is that steadfastness in God by which man gains a firm hold on life, as the Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg rightly says: “Only trust in God fulfils the full sense of the biblical word faith.”[1]  To what extent man is unable to live without faith and trust is evident from what he sets his heart on. And this in turn is revealed for example by what sacrifices he is prepared to make. Think of the victims of road accidents, the sacrifices states are willing to make in their wars, the sacrifices we humans demand in our exploitation of nature, or the everyday sacrifices we humans make in the name of power, honour and prestige. “God” can obviously be given the most varied names in human lives. In my life “my God” is precisely that in which I ultimately place my trust and on which I set my heart. The German reformer of the 16th century Martin Luther gave a vivid example of this: “Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and, possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, i.e., money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few are to be found who are of good cheer, and who neither mourn nor complain if they have not Mammon. This [care and desire for money] sticks and clings to our nature, even to the grave.”[2] This example has gained new currency in today’s world, more than ever infected with a ‘money–dominated pantheism’, in which money has advanced to become an earthly God.[3] This very example makes abundantly clear that the crucial difference setting such a priority apart from biblical faith does not consist in the opposites of trusting or not trusting, nor even in the opposition of belief and unbelief, but much more radically in the opposition of “god or idol”, and thus of faith and superstition. The crucial question posed by biblical faith is the question: in what do we place our trust, in whom do we have faith? As people of faith, we rely on God to whom we are called because he has already called us to himself.


[1] W. Pannenberg, „Extra nos“ – Ein Beitrag Luthers zur christlichen Frömmigkeit, in: A. Raffelt (Hrsg.), Weg und Weite. Festschrift für Karl Lehmann (Freiburg i. Br. 2001) 197-205.

[2] Die Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (Göttingen 1976) 161.

[3] F. Wagner, Geld oder Gott? Zur Geldbestimmtheit der kulturellen und religiösen Lebenswelt (Stuttgart 1984) 134.