Monday, 5 September 2016

Humor in St. Matthew’s Gospel

Fishers of men

2105 words, 11 min read

The theory of humor is about as much use to humor as ornithology is to birds, to paraphrase Richard Feynman. Instead of setting out a preamble that contrasts Bergson’s attributing the comic to inflexibility with Kant’s focus on strained expectations being transformed into nothing, or with Freud’s view that it is a mechanism for psychological release, or reflecting on the importance of the non sequitur and the absurd, I will just say that what is labelled as humorous in the following is simply what made me laugh, chuckle or smile.

I am certainly not the first (and hopefully not the last either) to find comedy in Scripture, so there is no claim to novelty here. Instead, the following follows from a desire to share what I found when reading St. Matthew’s Gospel, back to back, with the aim of looking for humor in it.1 As a final preambulatory point, and one that ought to be redundant for recidivist readers of this blog, I believe humor to be a profoundly positive and deeply relationship-building trait, as a result of which its roots and its pinnacle are in God and their absence from Scripture would be a joke.

Even though it might not be obvious at first, St. Matthew’s Gospel opens with what to my mind is a very funny bit - the genealogy of Jesus (1:1-16). On the face of it, this is a formal piece, designed to legitimize Jesus’ lineage and rootedness in the people of Israel, since it presents a sequence of forty pillars of the community from Abraham, father of God’s chosen people, to St. Joseph, Jesus’ own earthly father. So far so serious, but what gives this résumé a nice, humorous twist is the mention of four women - St. Joseph’s great-great-... grandmothers:
  1. Tamar, who was mistaken for a prostitute by Jesus’ ancestor, Judah, who subsequently solicits her services and whose immorality is then publicly unmasked by her.
  2. Rahab, who was actually a prostitute.
  3. Ruth, who was a foreigner, a Moabite, member of a tribe with a tempestuous relationship with the Israelites, eventually destroyed by them.
  4. Bathsheba, who was a real looker and whose first husband, Uriah, was sent to his death by king David after he saw her naked, so that he could take her for himself.
St. Matthew could just have presented us with a dry list of the great and the good of Israel’s glorious history. Instead, he very much spices things up and I wonder whether his contemporaries laughed, or at least sniggered at the ladies he chose to parade alongside the gents who otherwise might have projected too much propriety.

Matthew also seems to have a nice, dry sense of humor, when, in Chapter 4 he tells us that Jesus “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.” (4:2) A bit like the Black Knight telling King Arthur “It’s just a flesh wound,” after having both arms cut off in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And it is not only Matthew, who has fun here. Jesus too played games when talking to the disciples and it seems like Matthew was only too happy to record them. In the same, fourth chapter we get this gem:
He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. (4:19-20)
Really? This guy shows up out of nowhere, tells a bunch of fishermen that he’ll make them “fishers of men” and they all jump up and ask where to sign up. What seems much more likely to me is that these guys would have followed Jesus no matter what he said, so he had some fun with them and delivered a line of beautiful absurd humor. “My hovercraft is full of eels.” might have been too much (although it is appropriately fishing-themed), so he went with “I will make you fishers of men.” I can imagine Jesus reminiscing with Peter about it after the resurrection and the two having a great laugh ...

The absurd is also well represented in the various exaggerations that Jesus uses, such as his invitation to schizophrenia when almsgiving:
“But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.” (6:3-4)
To typographical hair-splitting:
“Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” (5:18)
Or to wanton exaggeration in response to reasonable requests (“No, I won’t just count to infinity once, I’ll do it twice!” as Chuck Norris would add):
“If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” (5:40-41)
Jesus’s parables, as recounted by Matthew, are also a good source of humor, like the following one about light:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” (5:14-15)
I can’t help but be reminded of the Sufi story of Mulla Nasreddin looking for his ring:
“Mulla had lost his ring in the living room. He searched for it for a while, but since he could not find it, he went out into the yard and began to look there. His wife, who saw what he was doing, asked: “Mulla, you lost your ring in the room, why are you looking for it in the yard?”

Mulla stroked his beard and said: “The room is too dark and I can’t see very well. I came out to the courtyard to look for my ring because there is much more light out here.””
The parable about the pearls too must have elicited some laughter, simply by virtue of the sharp simile it used:
“Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (7:6)
Neither dogs, who in some cultures today are treated like children, nor pigs, who were the very embodiment of uncleanliness, were epithets that one would have been happy about and their free application to those Jesus was critical of must have made his listeners chuckle.

And, the parable about the camel must also have made them laugh at the ridiculousness of what Jesus was delivering to them, presumably with a straight face:
“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and said, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”” (19:24-26)
Eddie Izzard’s “If you’ve never seen an elephant ski, you’ve never been on acid,” comes to mind.

Jesus also happily used flowery language on another occasion:
“But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment,o and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” (5:22)
And, purely in the interest of clarity, remember that “Raqa” means div, dope, eejit, gobshite, plonker, tool, berk, wally, schmuck, pillock, thicko, numpty, ... - now, don’t tell me that didn’t at least make you smile!

Also, let’s not forget that Jesus quite happily self-applied humor and didn’t shy away from formulating what he perceived was a crowd’s attitude towards him using some choice words:
““To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children who sit in marketplaces and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance, we sang a dirge but you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”” (11:16-19)
Now, Jesus’ pulling his listener’s legs didn’t just end with the use of some juicy words. No, our Lord took it to the next level and wove entire stories to illustrate just how absurdly misguided some of his contemporaries were.

He accused them of being impotent:
“I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black.” (5:34-36)
So self-obsessed as to be dangerous:
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye?” (7:3-4)
So entirely missing the magnitude of what he was presenting to them as to be stupid:
“Another of [his] disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”” (8:21-22)
And, so completely back-to-front that their behavior, when transposed to a familiar scenario, would be criminal:
“Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread,or a snake when he asks for a fish?” (7:9-10)
Situational comedy wasn’t off the menu either, where the best example is a contribution to the universally-rich category pertaining to mothers-in-law:
“Jesus entered the house of Peter, and saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand, the fever left her, and she rose and waited on him.” (8:14-15)
No, no, he didn’t “just” cure her so she’d rustle up a nice dinner, it was for her own good ...

Jesus didn’t shy away from shock tactics either, going more for a nervous than a hearty laugh and intermingled with a sense of fear rather than Freud’s release:
“When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again.” And immediately the fig tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, “How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”” (21:18-22)
If the disciples didn’t think “This guy’s loco,” when Jesus made the fig three wither for not bearing fruit as Jesus passed by, then I’d eat my hat (if I wore one). I wonder whether nervous “ahaha”s filled the air as the tree - an inanimate object without will or the potential for culpability - was “punished” for not doing it’s job and whether some of the disciples took a couple of cautious steps back, away from their Master.

In what can only be seen as a case of Žižek’s post-hoc predestination proof points, applied to the Dead Parrot sketch, Jesus also delivers the following, perfect line:
“When Jesus arrived at the official’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd who were making a commotion, he said, “Go away! The girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they ridiculed him. When the crowd was put out, he came and took her by the hand, and the little girl arose.” (9:23-25)

1 Please, note that nothing could be further from my mind than to suggest that my reading of the following passages from the perspective of humor is a claim to their only meaning or interpretation being from that point of view.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Ravasi: God’s presence in innocent suffering

Autumn rhythm

4092 words, 21 min read

The following is my rough, English translation of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s opening talk, given during the meeting of the Courtyard of the Gentiles in Lecco on 14th June 2016, entitled “Innocent suffering”.

My reflection will be made up of, if you will a kind of diptych, two panels. One dark, sombre panel, and one that is a little bit more luminous, while not being able to remove the darkness altogether. But, before turning to these two, I would like to make a premise, if you will, the binding that holds together the two panels. And, I would like to label this premise with the title of a book by an American writer called Susan Sontag. This American writer, who was a Hebrew non-believer, of non-believing origin, was diagnosed with cancer around 1975. And in 1978 she published a book, significantly entitled “Illness as Metaphor” in which she represented and interpreted in her own flesh, but also in her experience as an intellectual, precisely this event that she has experienced, the event of being ill with a tumor. And the title is significant. [...]

So, illness as a metaphor, that is illness as a symbol, because of which it is not only a physiological, biological, psychophysical question. It is something more. The patient lives through an experience that is existential, sapiential, and also philosophical; it is fundamentally anthropological. Because of which, when facing illness, and more specifically a sick person (illness being an abstract term), what is not sufficient - it is necessary but not sufficient - is medical science. There is a need also for the humanities. Anatomy is not enough, there is a need also for spirituality, understood in the most general possible, non-denominational sense. Therapy is not enough, there is a need also for a more global vision of the person, a metaphor, because it is the representation of the human being that is limited, frail, fragile, imperfect. It is the experience of an entire being. So, this is what I would say is the binding that allows also for a Courtyard of the Gentiles like this one to happen, that has a welfare dimension and a scientific one, but that is - above all - a human experience.

Well, now we arrive at the two panels that I would like to call forth. The first panel, I have said, is the dark one. That is, illness in general. Suffering in general. But above all this: innocent suffering, which brings about a crisis of sense, a crisis of meaning.

It is curious to note, and maybe this is not sufficiently developed, not even among theologians, that theology as such is born as theodicy, which, literally, means to justify God. Why? Because of the question of suffering, of evil, of the world. This was the function of theology, because such an absence of sense is something we see represented very well - and here I will have to appeal more than once to the experience of those witnesses, who are believers or non-believers, who are - I would say - the most profound witnesses, who delve ... poets, writers, who live this experience. I started precisely with Sontag.

You all, I believe, have read that novel, which for this topic is fundamental: “La peste” [The Plague] by Camus.[...] You remember Camus’ La peste, but I would just like to remind you of that moment in which Dr. Rieux holds in his arms the child who has caught the plague, and he says: “I could never believe in a creation and in a creator God for as long as I hold in my arms a child sick with the plague.”1 We could say sick with cancer. The parents who embrace their child, sick with an illness that by then is making their life drip away towards its end, cannot but express this crisis of meaning. As I said, it is precisely like this that theology came about.

I would now like to share the curious witness of a philosopher, whom you all know at least by reputation, Epicurus. As far as Epicurus is concerned, his writings are not preserved, except as quotes or as fragments. Here we have a 4th century Christian writer, Lactantius, who was the tutor of Constantine’s son, quoting this syllogistic sequence, which fundamentally is an irresolvable contradiction, put by Epicurus as follows - and I’ll summarize it here, as it is a bit more articulate in Latin: “If God wants to remove evil, but can’t, he is impotent and therefore isn’t God. If God can remove evil but does not want to, he is “hostilis et invidus” - hostile and envious with regard to us. Third, if he wants to remove evil and can do it - as befits a God - then why is there evil?”2

You can see how the interweaving of these questions is consequential and it is this experience of the absence of sense, of darkness, that can be found, paradoxically for the believer, in the Bible itself. We have a book, like the book of Job, among others, one of the literary masterpieces of humanity, that poses this problem of innocent suffering. Job is caught up in this storm, and his theologian friends, to justify God, affirm the principle that is characteristic of many cultures, not only of the culture of the Bible, of the Old Testament, which is the principle of retribution. You have sinned, therefore you suffer. Crime - punishment. Which is a very simple explanation. But, obviously it clashes with a rising up of reality, with a rising up of this person who is aware of not being guilty. And this brings us to his challenge, and I am quoting from among the many possible pages of this protest against God. “I,” says Job, “would speak3 with the Almighty; I want to argue with God.” (Job 13:3).

You can see how it is courageous that a sacred text, which for believers has the seal of God, presents itself with this attack against God. It is also true that at a certain point, Job, slowly as his dialogue progresses, strays into cursing. And this blasphemy, in that moment, is a paradoxical profession of faith. Because he, once more, returns to that fundamental node, which is a theological node, in fact he accuses God: “But you are like a sadistic archer who pierces me in my heart and my kidneys. You are like a leopard who fixes his eyes on me to devour me. You are like a triumphant general who crushes my skull.” (cf. Job 16:12-14, Job 10:16).

As you can see it is a representation of the divine God as an enemy, as a monster, because of which, in his commentary on Job, and we say this in an ecumenical spirit, Luther uses a phrase that is truly dazzling from this point of view. [...] It is a phrase that is based precisely on Job: “God is pleased much more with the blasphemous cries of a desperate person than with the composed praises of a conformist on Sunday morning during a service.” This phrase is significant, because God listens more to Job than to his theologian friends, those perfect, impassive, impeccable theologians, as will be said at the end. Because, you know, at the end God says: “Job is the only one who spoke rightly about me.” (cf. Job 42:7)

That is why, at this point I think that innocent suffering is the highest, or most profound, point of the silence of God, of the incomprehensibility of the divine mystery. This is the first panel of the diptych.

The second panel, which, as I have said, is more luminous, but without being totally solar [...]. And this panel is that even in such pain, in pain in general, there is a revelation of sense, of meaning. [...] I don’t now want to present the history of humanity that has continuously been clashing against this citadel, this well-defended citadel that is the citadel of suffering, not even thinking of its heart, which is the citadel of innocent suffering. It has tried many explanations, ranging from the totally pessimistic ones, where what in the end becomes difficult to explain is the good and not evil, this being our condition. Here we can think of certain ideas at the margins of Buddhism, for example, where, practically, evil is the fundamental substance by which we are permeated.

On the other hand, there are entirely optimistic perspectives. Here let’s take a look at a very approximate, simplistic example, [...] the Hindu idea where we are part of the great ocean of God, an ocean that on the surface may have storms, but in its abyssal depths there is serenity, there is calm, there is peace. And therefore it suffices to enter into this kind of mysticism of depth.

Then there are these explanations, already in the Greek world, where Aeschylus says: “Wisdom is conquered only through suffering.” But he himself, Aeschylus, in The Persians, puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: “Is there a God who answers from the shadow to the breath of pain that rises from the earth towards heaven?”4 And the question was left unanswered, that is, [the answer was] negative. And then he also maintained that pain has a paideic, cathartic function, but this is very problematic in the case of innocent suffering. I don’t want to enter here into the history of the hermeneutic, the interpretation of pain ...

The book of Job itself, to tell the truth, isn’t an attempt at an explanation of pain. It isn’t. If you pay attention to its conclusion - and I can’t now show what it actually is about - and if you see the last words that Job pronounces, leaving aside the final part which is a framing narrative quoted by the author and which was already known in previous literature ... No, let’s pause above all at the point of the true final poetry. Job is in front of God and God simply tells him: “All you see is just a small horizon of the mystery of being, of existence that is immense, and like one who, when looking at a painting, only sees a detail made of small brush strokes, of colors that don’t make sense, then it is obvious that it doesn’t have meaning.” Only God, and we too, when looking at the painting in its entirety, can succeed in understanding its meaning. Also this is an attempt at an explanation, that, however, has some very specific preconditions for acceptance. But, I wanted to say that Job, at the end, makes a statement that is substantially of another kind, of faith: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

So all is again as before, expect that he had now met God. And this is why it is possible to make a reflection, that I only sketch out here as it is very complex, about the Christology of suffering. That is, about a Christian explanation of suffering, which, naturally, has as its starting point a fundamental given for Christianity. The real, effective, concrete intertwining of the transcendent and the immanent, of the divine and the human. That great masterpiece that is the prologue of the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St. John, as you know, has those fascinating verses [...] from 1:1 to 1:14. The Logos, which is perfect, which is the beginning, which is God, which is the cause of all being ... and the Logos became flesh. Precisely using the verb “to become.” Therefore here we have the specific concept of the entrance of the divine into the human, which is very well represented by the account of the Passion, where you can see that Christ traverses the full, dark spectrum of pain. The full range is there on purpose, from the fear of death (Father, take this cup from me, which in Biblical language means this - I am afraid of dying), then passing through the sweating of blood, then solitude, which is one of the great sufferings, the great pains; the betrayal by his friends, and then also physical torture, and then ascending that hill, ascending the cross, he, as God!, passes through the silence of God (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me), and then - at the end - death. Death, which is our ID card. Together with pain, but above all death, because God - by definition - is eternal, does not die. There, instead, and it is curious that the Gospels of Matthew and of Mark present the death of Christ, unlike those of Luke and John, who see divinity already shining through the corpse, the crucified corpse, they represent the death of Christ as an ugly death. He “cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). The cry of a hand that raises up again and tries to grab the air one last time, while he is suffocating to death.

Here we arrive at the fundamental component of the Christian explanation. [Outside Christianity] God doesn’t die, does not suffer, (The suffering of God is something theologians have elaborated, but it has another meaning.) because these are human characteristics. Christianity says that God isn’t he who bends down like an impassive emperor and holds out his hand towards the suffering person, at times even healing them. Instead it is he who traverses the non-sense of dying. He as God, enters our horizon.

St. Paul has an expression in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, which is very suggestive in this sense, even though it does not refer to suffering: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). You see that he takes on himself another of the fundamental human characteristics: guilt, therefore not only pain but also guilt, and in that moment, naturally, he, when he is reduced to a corpse, when he has finally assumed all our identity, also in that moment he, however, does not cease to be God. And it is because of this that he plants in suffering, in evil, in guilt a seed of the eternal, of the infinite, a seed of redemption. And this is the meaning of the resurrection. It is simply to remember that the passage of God through human reality isn’t a passage that leaves it unaltered. And it is because of this that there is a tension towards redemption which is that of a divine that has traversed, while preserving its identity, our own identity, which is transient and weak.

You have surely heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was one of the famous theologians of the last century and was eliminated by Hitler. Note well the date of his death: 9th April 1945, when the Nazi monster was already in agony and it seems that the order came directly from the top to have him hanged at the camp in Flossenbürg where he was detained. During his imprisonment, he wrote [...] many notes among which there is this one, which is significant and which may seem - at first sight - a bit paradoxical. He said: “God in Christ does not save us by virtue of his omnipotence - otherwise he would remain above, in his prefect transcendence, in his golden horizon - God saves us in Christ by virtue of his impotence, because he enters and takes on also our quality.”

At this point it can be understood also that at the center of the heart of Christianity there is a problem. Certainly, as you see it is an option, an option of faith, to recognize the center of the incarnation, the word that makes itself flesh, flesh that is fragile, transient, weak. And, let’s think of those words, and I’ll only quote a few lines to you from “Il dolore” (“Grief”) by Ungaretti, which he wrote because of the death of his son Antonietto:5

Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself
perennially to rebuild
man humanly
Holy, Holy, Holy6 you who suffer
And it is in this way that brotherhood with us comes about. [...] I would say that all believers and non-believers can take on the subtle, implied component that justifies this Christology of suffering. God does not want to - we can’t say that he can’t, but he doesn’t want to, he does not manage to as the rabbinic tradition says, impede that which is also structurally required. The creature as such must be limited, finite, transient ... [...] Beyond this, in the interior of this incarnation, there is a fundamental dimension which is one that can be put into practice also by us. At the basis there is, as Ungaretti said: “Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself to rebuild man.” There is solidarity. There is love.

And here I would like to remember, above all, a miracle. Usually we look at miracles as if they were magical gestures. Let’s never forget that Christ, instead, requires for them to be done in silence, hiding their spectacular aspect. The miracle I have in mind is that of the leper. Hansen’s disease is an illness like many others, but in the oriental world it is seen as the compendium of all suffering, because it wasn’t only a physical suffering, the flesh that would disintegrate, but it was also a social and moral condemnation. It was an excommunication. The leper had to have committed such a terrible transgression that this is the punishment they received. It was thought to be the most infectious disease - even though that is not true - because of which they had to live separately from the community. The book of Leviticus says that the leper has to signal their presence to others, because it is a polluting presence, and has to shout so that the other would not cross their path. What does Christ do? And this is underlined by the Evangelists. Not only does he go to meet the leper, he goes to speak to him - asking him what he wants - and then Christ touches him and tells him: “I will do it. Be made clean.” (Matthew 8:3). He touches him. You see, it is the gesture of assumption. The gesture of fraternity. The gesture of love. [...]

I’d like to conclude by giving the word to two people, whom I’d ideally summon here, two figures of history, of culture of the last century. Different from each other, one a believer the other a non-believer.

Let’s start with the believer, the poet Paul Claudel [...]. He writes: “God didn’t come to explain suffering, but to fill it with his presence. God, therefore, doesn’t protect us from suffering, but sustains us in every suffering.” Because he too entered there. Also he, with his human impotence, but precisely because he does not cease to be God, sustains us. And the other, and this is why I say that this act of solidarity, can be performed by all and can be a principle of - in quotes - “healing”, not necessarily of physical healing.

When doctors enter a corridor, a hospital, the room of a patient - and it was Susan Sontag who noted this, when she said: “They arrived and all stood there in front of me and I was lying in bed.” You see the profound difference between the two positions, because, standing up is the position of the living, lying down the position of the dead, of the absolutely impotent. It is also true that standing up has been the hallmark not only of the living, but of the greatness of the human person. From evolution we know that it is much more logical to walk on all fours like animals do, also for the distribution of weight. Humans, as a result of evolution, use their posture, that is rather improbable from the point of view of statics - to carry all of their weight on such a small base. But they have done it so that, from this position, they could dominate the horizon of all other living beings and of all being.

So, in that moment comes this profound difference, because of which - evidently - the gesture of love, of solidarity that isn’t just a matter of bowing down but of bringing one’s own understanding and one’s alliance, one’s harmony, one’s closeness, even if the sick person is burdensome and pedantic, because their horizon is deprived of meaning and they are in their world, looking for sense. We must accompany them without sneaking glances at our watches.

So, this act of solidarity is possible for all and it is represented well by the last person whom I’d like to summon here, ideally, and whom I quote often. He is an agnostic, lay, anticlerical writer - Ennio Flaiano, also the screenwriter of some of Fellini’s movies.

During his life it was specifically this topic [innocent suffering] that was before his eyes, because one of his daughters was born with an epileptic encephalopathy. This daughter survived him. He would never speak about her. He also saw her as a metaphor, a symbol of guilt. [...] But, he never spoke about her. After his death, among his papers, they found a text, a rough draft and it wasn’t clear whether it was for a novel or a screenplay.

This text is truly significant, because it is written by a non-believer. He imagines that Christ returns to earth. And, as soon as he returns and the news spreads, he is surrounded by a crowd of the sick who huddle around him and ask for miracles. They ask for healing. And he is uneasy, because now there is something that wasn’t there before - there is television, cinema, the press, advertising, which he doesn’t want. He’d like signs of a different kind and even though he cures them, he does so unhappily. One day he finally manages to free himself from the crowd and retreat along a path. And as he walks along this path to find solitude and pray to the Father, he sees the outline of a strange couple on the horizon. A father who drags his shaky daughter by he hand, as she walks beside him. When Christ sees them, he is ready to perform. He says to himself that he’ll do it one more time, but at least this one is in solitude. However, when this father and his daughter are in front of Christ, and Christ is about to perform his miraculous gesture, that father says: “No, I don’t want you to heal her. I would like you to love her.” And so, Christ takes this little girl, kisses her, and say this phrase, which is the concluding phrase: “In truth, in truth I tell you, this man has asked of me that which I truly want to and can give.”

1 Cardinal Ravasi may be paraphrasing this sentence from The Plague: “I have a different notion of love; and to the day I die I shall refuse to love this creation in which children are tortured.”
2 The full text of that quote is: ““God,” he [Epicurus] says, “either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” Lactantius, On the Anger of God, 13.19”
3 In the Italian translation quoted by Ravasi, the verb is “accuse” or “incriminate” rather than “speak”.
4 Maybe a reference to the following lines:
“Hears the honour’d godlike king?
These barbaric notes of wo,
Taught in descant sad to ring,
Hears he in the shades below?”
5 Since I couldn’t find an English translation of “Mio fiume anche tu” from which Ravasi quotes, this is my attempt at a verbatim translation - a crime when applied to poetry but it will have to do in the absence of anything else.
6 Ravasi here adds an extra “Holy” that is not in Ungaretti’s text.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Marriage after death


1621 words, 8 min read

Last Saturday I attended a wedding during which the priest conducting the ceremony started his sermon by addressing the bride and groom with: “Today is the greatest day of your lives.” While this was undoubtedly well intentioned and said in the spirit of underlining the goodness of marriage and the joy of the occasion, my mind - and I am not proud of this - immediately transformed itself into a hatchet and shredded that statement to smithereens. “Do you mean that it is downhill from here?” “They haven’t even gotten married yet and you are telling them that any attempt at growth and development is doomed?”

Thankfully I then turned to one of my favorite kōans that I reached for with the intention of weaponizing it (not a nice thing to do to a kōan), but whose memory derailed my rage as I remembered it’s beautiful twist.

The kōan in question is about a famous general, who went to see a zen master to ask him for a nice piece of calligraphy to use as interior decoration. The zen master happily agreed and, when the general returned a week later, presented him with a beautifully executed inscription that read: “Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.” The general exploded with rage, drew his sword and, before cleaving the zen master in half, gave him an opportunity to explain himself. The zen master, all surprised, looked at the general and said: “What don’t you like about the inscription? Would you prefer to see your son die and for your father to see both his and your death? What I have written for you is the natural progression of life, which is true happiness and prosperity.” The general, ashamed about his hasty rage, left with his sword unused and grateful for the master’s good wishes.

Suitably calmed, and recognizing a fellowship with the kōanic general, I asked myself what I would have wished the couple to be their greatest day - if I had to, although that is not something that would have come to me naturally. And I arrived at: “May the greatest day of your marriage be the day one of you dies.” Thankfully I wasn’t asked for my opinion and, even if I had been and if I had said what I thought, the bride and groom are, to the best of my knowledge, not versed in martial arts or marksmanship. Nonetheless, if I had been asked and if there had been the inevitable, outraged call for an explanation, I would have pointed to my wish being one for maximum greatness. Wishing for the last day of a marriage to be its greatest is both a wish for continuous growth in greatness and, at the same time, a suggestion that every day of a marriage contains the greatness of all the days that preceded it and that the last day is therefore going to be the greatest by definition.

This lead me to thinking about the end of marriage, which the Catholic Church teaches comes with the death of one of the spouses,1 and to wondering about what that meant. How do I, a married person, relate to my spouse once they or I die? Is that it? In the next life, will we, who are one flesh now, be strangers? If I survive my spouse, will they, who have already passed into life everlasting, be there without being one with me? Somehow that did not seem right at all, since it violates the central Christian understanding of who God is. The God who is Love and who is Three and One. How could the God of Love dissolve the bond of love that marriage effects? How could the God of unity wish for the oneness of husband and wife to be annulled at the point of unity with Him? No, that didn’t seem right at all.

The obvious thing to do was to go back to where Jesus spoke about marriage to the Sadducees, who tried to set him a trap by running a hypothetical scenario past him and asking him a question designed to undermine the idea of the resurrection:

“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother shall marry his wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died and, having no descendants, left his wife to his brother. The same happened with the second and the third, through all seven. Finally the woman died. Now at the resurrection, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had been married to her.” (Matthew 22:24-28)
What a nice, little trap! If Jesus says that she is the wife of all of the brothers, he says that in the next life there is polyandry, which, like polygamy, was against the Law, and he therefore undermines the credibility of the resurrection that the Sadducees denied. Alternatively, if he says that she isn’t anyone’s wife (or only the wife of one of the brothers) then he puts the solidity of marriage into question, which is also enshrined in the Law, and the Sadducees win again.

So, let’s see what Jesus said to them in reply:
“You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.” (Matthew 22:29-30)
Now, the way this is typically read is to say that there is no marriage in Paradise, however, I would like to argue, that such an interpretation is not a particularly close reading of Jesus’ words. Jesus didn’t say “At the resurrection she won’t be anyone’s wife.” Instead, he said: “At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In other words, no marriage is contracted in the next life. And, let’s not forget his admonition: “You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God.” I.e., the way you are looking at marriage is not from God’s point of view.

I believe that there is another reading of what Jesus’ words about marriage mean, which we can get to by the light of St. Paul saying:
“For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave [his] father and [his] mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:29-32)
Notice how St. Paul parallels first, a person’s love for their own flesh, second, Christ’s love for the Church, who is His flesh (body), made up by us, and, third, husband and wife becoming one flesh in marriage. This, indeed is the sacrament of marriage, that the “one flesh” of married spouses is sacrament (“efficacious sign of grace”2) of the “one body” of Christ and us, His Church.

Therefore, I believe that what happens at the death of one of the spouses is that the unity of flesh that previously resided in the created, passes, with the now ever-alive spouse, into the uncreated, where the unity of Christ’s Body dwells. Instead of suggesting that the bond, which ontologically makes the spouses one, breaks at the point of one of their deaths, I believe that Jesus’ and St. Paul’s words point to another reading: that this bond persists; no longer only as a bond between the spouses, but now also as an eternal constituent of the Body of Christ. The bond of marriage, contracted on Earth, remains both the force that made the spouses one here and, at the same time, becomes like the bonds of unity that in Paradise will bind us to Christ and to all other members of his body.

Finally, I also believe that the above reading is consistent with what the Church teaches, since it does not argue for a multiplicity of marriage bonds on Earth, but only for a recognition of their persistence in and subsummation into the bonds that make up the Body of Christ in Paradise. What ends with death is the exclusivity of the bond of one man and one woman, but not the bond itself, which now becomes one with the oneness of Christ and His Church.

So, maybe a better wish for newlyweds would be: “May every day be the greatest day of your lives.” The sequential days of chronos now, and the eternal day of kairos then.

1 “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.” (Can. 1141) This is also related to St. Paul saying the following about death ending the bond of marriage: “Thus a married woman is bound by law to her living husband; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law in respect to her husband. Consequently, while her husband is alive she will be called an adulteress if she consorts with another man. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and she is not an adulteress if she consorts with another man.” (Romans 7:2-3).
2 “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1131)

Saturday, 25 June 2016


Wave particle duality

When I first read Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or, in which he presents a choice between an aesthetic, inward-focused and an ethical life, lived for others, I was filled with joy both by the beauty of his writing and the goodness of the choices he proposed. In some sense, I had already then rejected his either/or perspective by my very reaction to his work. Nonetheless, I could clearly see the importance of the distinctions he presented and the value of making informed decisions about which option to select from among a set of alternatives. In another sense, therefore, I also fully identified with Either/Or. My reaction was a Both+And. I both recognized the importance of what Either/Or was proposing, and I saw the good in the two choices that it pitted against each other.

That was around twenty years ago and what followed has been a gradual emergence of what was initially only an implicit leaning towards Both+And, a Both+And that, I now see, also encompasses the Either/Or and that, with it, forms an infinitely nested structure, where Both+And = Both Both+And And Either/Or, which in turn makes Both+And both finite and infinite.

Forgive me if this is too abstract and, if you like, bear with me as I try to spell out some examples of what this means in more practical terms.

First, choices are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. Given that all that is open to me at any one moment is to choose from among the alternatives in front of me here and now (do I continue to write this piece, or do I get distracted, or do I go and unload the washing machine, or ...), every single choice attains paramount importance. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my choice is one among a myriad as far as I am concerned and infinitesimal as far as humanity, history and statistics go, not to mention God in his infinity.

Second, knowledge is both the greatest good and its pursuit futile. The more I know, the better I understand what is, how things work, what consequences follow from events, the more closely I understand myself, others and the universe, the more fully I am part of existence and the better I can make choices, which - as we have already established - are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my capacity for knowledge is virtually nil and my attempts at attaining anything that may properly be called knowledge are crippled by how I engage with the universe. All I see is tinted with myself and is merely the view through a filthy window (to use Panikkar's metaphor) or through a mirror, darkly (with a nod to St. Paul).

Third, loving others is both the greatest source of joy and a guarantee of suffering. Putting others before myself brings us closer together, triggers joy in the other, triggering joy in me and, challenges, fatigue, self-denial notwithstanding, leads to days lived in fullness and to relationships whose strength and depth exist and persist outside time and space. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, loving others makes their suffering my own and makes a lack of reciprocity even more keenly felt as a wound, a wound that indifference might have even been able to prevent with its padding.

Fourth, beauty is both the highest perfection and the first chip to trade. The greater my communion with beauty, and regardless of whether she displays herself unmediated or whether she hides behind what, at first sight, is wrongly categorized as ugliness, the more fully truth and goodness can breathe in me, unobstructed by the dust that otherwise accumulates on the soul (as Picasso saw so clearly). Beauty, who is both beautiful and beautifully ugly, also builds bonds that transcend language, understanding, context, prejudices and gives rest to all those who labor and are burdened (as Jesus - the Beautiful Shepherd - put it). At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I would give up all the beauty in the world in exchange for the life of a starving child, an abandoned pensioner, a freezing homeless man.

Fifth, faith is both my lifeblood and wholly unnecessary. Having received it as a gift that permeates my every fibre, a life without feeling loved by God is as unimaginable to me as what it is like to be a bat (and here I find Nagel's view to be overly optimistic), and I wish it for every single person in this world. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I see no lack in those who do not have faith, either because doubt takes its place (doubt that is a "both+and" part of faith) or because its place is taken by a sincere conviction that there is nothing beyond this world. Their capacity for love is in no way diminished and I can learn as much from them as from any other fellow human.

Sixth, God is both one and three, both human and divine, both finite and infinite, both interior intimo meo and superior summo meo (in St. Augustine's beautiful words), both all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent and scandalously suffering in abandoned failure.

Friday, 24 June 2016

Zanghí: the person, an individual fulfilled

Klee person

930 words, 5 min read

The question of who I am is at the very heart of philosophy and a failure to answer it was presented by Socrates even as grounds for voiding the very value of his being, when he said his famous “The unexamined life is not worth living.” during the trial that lead to his being sentenced to death. A philosopher who has given this question some very careful and insightful thought is Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, who in his 1980 article entitled “A few thoughts on the person” has looked at the distinction between person and individual.

His starting point is the presentation is a key challenge that we face when attempting to subject the person to scientific enquiry:
“In the humanity common to all humans, the person is precisely that which is not in common, that which constitutes me as me in a shared humanity. How is it possible, then, to objectify the person? If we do that, we can only state what the person is not (not to confuse with, e.g., human nature); but if we want to say what the person is, we won’t find a “scientific” answer.”
By definition, that of which there is only a single specimen can not be subjected to the scientific method, since it does not allow for repeatability, for generalization and for verification (already Aristotle knew this well, when he argued in he Metaphysics (XIII, 10) that there can be no science of individual entities).

This initial roadblock leads Zanghí to define the person as follows:
“The person [...] is a “singularity” irreducible to another since it is other; it is that unrepeatable “singularity” that makes a human be this human, who then is the concretely existing one.”
Next, Zanghí introduces an important nuance and distinction: that between the person and the individual, lest his definition of the former be taken as pointing to the latter:
“Could we, therefore, say that the person is the individual? The answer to this question calls for careful reflection. If we analyze ourselves, we realize that the individual is that which exists concretely: only in it does human nature not exist as a logical concept but as effective reality. But there remains a difference between nature and individual, without which the individual would absorb the totality of the nature and would deny the other. We can say, therefore, that the individual is defined by the precise limits within which it exists; the individual is, to use an image, carved into the common, shared nature. Human nature is constrained, it contracts, becoming concrete in the space-times that are individuals.”
What I believe Zanghí is saying here is that the individual is an instance of human nature, but distinct from it, since, otherwise, there could be only one individual, and that it is a spatiotemporal restriction and concretization of that nature.

This leads Zanghí to the realization of what it is that distinguishes the person from the individual:
“Yet, as I affirm all this (non-identity between the individual and nature, spatiotemporality of the individual), if what I say makes sense, I demonstrate to myself that, because of the awareness that I have of it, I am overcoming precisely the limits that make me an individual; I overcome, by speaking about it, the space-time in which I am an individual, I overcome the individual-nature distinction. Not in a sense that confuses the logical and existential planes, but in the sense that I unite them on a higher level, that I call ontological. I can think of myself as I think, because I transcend myself as an individual, I achieve a way of being where the individual-nature opposition, and thus individuality itself, is overcome (but not negated). In this act of transcendence, in this overcoming that I achieve while thinking, I reverse the state proper to the individual, that is, I assume nature, through the individual but beyond the individual, in an “other” with regard to the individual, and that is the person.”
The person is essentially the individual’s self-transcendence, a going beyond the constraints and unicity of the individual that is demonstrated by the very act of thinking about oneself, which would otherwise not be possible - without transcendence the individual could not think about itself.

Zanghí unpacks this transcendental nature of the person as follows:
“I would say, then, that the person is the individual’s act of transcendence, it is the individual that overcomes itself by taking nature up into itself and achieving a unity between universality (proper to nature) and existential concreteness, that is, the particular (proper to the individual). Human nature exists concretely in an act of transcendence that, while it “limits” it in the concreteness of the here and now (the individual), it returns it to an existing universality (the person).”
Finally, in anticipation of a potential misunderstanding that the above could lead to, Zanghí focuses on how individual and person relate:
“It is to be understood, also, that the person is not placed above, so to speak, the individual: almost as though, if the individual is what exists, is substance, then the person is also another substance added to the individual. The person is the act of the individual human substance, the act in which that-which-is-human (the individual human individual) is in its fullness, I would simply say: is.”
In other words, Zanghí is careful to avoid a dualist misinterpretation of his thought by stressing that we are not some strange amalgams of two distinct substances: individual and person, but that it is the person which is how the individual exists/is.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Amoris Lætitia: sex sanctified

Close quibe

3406 words, 17 min read

An aspect of marriage that Pope Francis speaks about extensively in Amoris Lætitia is sex and he does so by presenting a very positive view. He speaks about sex in a way that recognizes both its beauty and its importance in the context of a couple’s relationship, also beyond its procreative function. This is a topic that was very prominent during the two Synods that preceded the exhortation, where the Synod Fathers have called for a new way of speaking about sex and of making it clear that it is valued broadly and positively by the Church. Since Pope Francis has, I believe, taken up that challenge masterfully and has written with great clarity and freshness about the subject, I would next like to share with you my favorite passages from Amoris Lætitia in which he speaks about this topic.

Sex comes up very early on in the text, in §9, which is effectively the second paragraph of the exhortation, since the preceding ones present more meta context (about the process, an outline, ...). Here, Francis goes back to the origins of the family in Scripture and introduces it as Genesis does:
“At the centre we see the father and mother, a couple with their personal story of love. They embody the primordial divine plan clearly spoken of by Christ himself: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Mt 19:4). We hear an echo of the command found in the Book of Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24)”.”
Francis then points to it being a couple’s potential to beget life as a result of their love for each other that makes them an icon of God himself, a vehicle for salvation and a reflection of the inner life of the Trinity:
“The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:7; 17:2-5, 16; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3-4). [...] The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being. This Trinitarian dimension finds expression in the theology of Saint Paul, who relates the couple to the “mystery” of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33).” (§11)
The “becoming one flesh” that is referred to right at the start of AL is then unpacked and presented as being both physical and spiritual:
“The marital union is thus evoked not only in its sexual and corporal dimension, but also in its voluntary self-giving in love. The result of this union is that the two “become one flesh”, both physically and in the union of their hearts and lives, and, eventually, in a child, who will share not only genetically but also spiritually in the “flesh” of both parents.” (§13)
Further on in the exhortation, Pope Francis underlines that Christian Scripture presents marriage as a gift from God and that this gift also contains sexuality:
“Contrary to those who rejected marriage as evil, the New Testament teaches that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected” (1 Tim 4:4). Marriage is “a gift” from the Lord (1 Cor 7:7). At the same time, precisely because of this positive understanding, the New Testament strongly emphasizes the need to safeguard God’s gift: “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb 13:4). This divine gift includes sexuality: “Do not refuse one another” (1 Cor 7:5).” (§61)
Francis also points to this position already having been put forward by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:
“The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, was concerned “to promote the dignity of marriage and the family (cf. Nos. 47-52)”. The Constitution “de ned marriage as a community of life and love (cf. 48), placing love at the centre of the family... ‘True love between husband and wife’ (49) involves mutual self-giving, includes and integrates the sexual and affective dimensions, in accordance with God’s plan (cf. 48-49)”. (§67)
This then leads to a reflection on the sacrament of marriage, where the link between the love of wife and husband for each other and of Christ for his Church is again made (§72) and where links are also shown to Christ’s incarnation and to the joys of Paradise:
“By becoming one flesh, they embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God. That is why “in the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb”. Even though the analogy between the human couple of husband and wife, and that of Christ and his Church, is “imperfect”, it inspires us to beg the Lord to bestow on every married couple an outpouring of his divine love.” (§73)
Next, Pope Francis speaks directly about the role of sex in the context of the sacrament of marriage and emphasizes that it is sanctified, leads to growth in grace and has meaning in the context of complete, mutual self-giving:
“Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity.” (§74)
Francis then goes on to spell out its divine, unitive nature:
“[B]y manifesting their consent and expressing it physically, [the man and the woman who marry] receive a great gift. Their consent and their bodily union are the divinely appointed means whereby they become “one flesh”.” (§75)
Next, he speaks with nuance about the relationship between sex and procreation:
“Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love” which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”. It follows that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms”. Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”.” (§80)
Following a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s Hymn to Love, Pope Francis underlines through Pope Pius XI’s words the link between conjugal love and Christ’s love for us:
“[Conjugal love] is the love between husband and wife,115 a love sanctified, enriched and illuminated by the grace of the sacrament of marriage. It is an “affective union”,116 spiritual and sacrificial, which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside. Pope Pius XI taught that this love permeates the duties of married life and enjoys pride of place. Infused by the Holy Spirit, this powerful love is a reflection of the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross. “The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained: conjugal charity.”” (§120)
Later on in AL, Francis speaks both about the good effects of sex on a married couple and about the meaning of it being used as a parallel to heavenly love, in which context he also points to the importance of pleasure and passion:
“The Second Vatican Council teaches that this conjugal love “embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestation of the friendship proper to marriage”. For this reason, a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: “All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love, rather than in friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality”.” (§142)
Pope Francis then revisits the idea of sex as a gift and quotes from St. John Paul’s writings on the theology of the body, in which he denies a negative view and one restricted solely to procreation:
“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the “impoverishment of an authentic value”. Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”. Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.” (§150)
This leads Francis to following John Paul II’s lead further into a view of sexuality that neither deprives it of spontaneity nor denies the need for self-control, leading to a recognition of its nature being love and self-giving:
“To those who fear that the training of the passions and of sexuality detracts from the spontaneity of sexual love, Saint John Paul II replied that human persons are “called to full and mature spontaneity in their relationships”, a maturity that “is the gradual fruit of a discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart”. This calls for discipline and self-mastery, since every human person “must learn, with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of his or her body”. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. As such, “the human heart comes to participate, so to speak, in an other kind of spontaneity”. In this context, the erotic appears as a specifically human manifestation of sexuality. It enables us to discover “the nuptial meaning of the body and the authentic dignity of the gift”. In his catecheses on the theology of the body, Saint John Paul II taught that sexual differentiation not only is “a source of fruitfulness and procreation”, but also possesses “the capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the human person becomes a gift”. A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses.” (§151)
The train of thought then concludes with a repeated rejection of a negative view of sex and Francis links it to goodness and happiness:
“In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and happy”.” (§152)
While sex is presented as an inherent part of marriage and as a gift from God, Francis also speaks about the dangers of its misuse as a means of egoistic consumerism:
“On the basis of this positive vision of sexuality, we can approach the entire subject with a healthy realism. It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a result, “it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts”. In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of “use and discard”. The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing. Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?” (§153)
This is a point he also made very early on in AL, where he decried all forms of violence directed towards women in the family:
“Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated. I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.” (§54)
Following from its nature as self-giving, Pope Francis next warns against an abuse of sexuality between husband and wife:
“We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Hence it must be clearly reaffirmed that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife”. The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which is truly human”. Saint Paul insists: “Let no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter” (1 Th 4:6). Even though Paul was writing in the context of a patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to men, he nonetheless taught that sex must involve communication between the spouses.” (§154)
And he again points to St. John Paul who spoke out clearly about the dangers of domination perverting what ought to be a communion build on the recognition of mutual dignity:
“Saint John Paul II very subtly warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability”. In other words, while called to an increasingly profound union, they can risk effacing their differences and the rightful distance between the two. For each possesses his or her own proper and inalienable dignity. When reciprocal belonging turns into domination, “the structure of communion in interpersonal relations is essentially changed”. It is part of the mentality of domination that those who dominate end up negating their own dignity. Ultimately, they no longer “identify themselves subjectively with their own body”, because they take away its deepest meaning. They end up using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.” (§155)
Like he did in Laudato Si’ with regard to a misinterpretation of passages from Genesis that have been taken as license to exploit the Earth, Pope Francis next presents an exegesis of a passage from St. Paul that could be misunderstood as giving men power over their wives:
“Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys. As Saint John Paul II wisely observed: “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband... The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection”. Hence Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph 5:21). In marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfillment of the other.” (§156)
Concluding this section of Amoris Lætitia, in which Francis warns about distortions of sexuality, is a passage that reaffirms, with the help of Benedict XVI’s beautiful words from Deus Caritas Est, the intrinsic importance of sex also as a safeguard against a dualism that would result in a loss of the value of both body and spirit:
“All the same, the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves. The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union. Benedict XVI stated this very clearly: “Should man aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity”. For this reason, “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”. Still, we must never forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive and selfish tendencies.” (§157)
Speaking about marriage preparation, Pope Francis introduces a new aspect to his presentation of sexuality, which again builds on St. John Paul II’s thought, who links it to the wedding liturgy and who thinks of sex as its continuation:
“[young people] need to be encouraged to see the sacrament not as a single moment that then becomes a part of the past and its memories, but rather as a reality that permanently influences the whole of married life. The procreative meaning of sexuality, the language of the body, and the signs of love shown throughout married life, all become an “uninterrupted continuity of liturgical language” and “conjugal life becomes in a certain sense liturgical”.” (§215)
Finally, Pope Francis mentions sexuality again in one of the last paragraphs of the exhortation, where he speaks about it in the context of family spirituality and where he links it to the resurrection:
“If a family is centred on Christ, he will unify and illumine its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them. In the darkest hours of a family’s life, union with Jesus in his abandonment can help avoid a breakup. Gradually, “with the grace of the Holy Spirit, [the spouses] grow in holiness through married life, also by sharing in the mystery of Christ’s cross, which transforms difficulties and sufferings into an offering of love”. Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord”.” (§317)

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Žižek: what separates me from God, unites me to him

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1389 words, 7 min read

Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross is by some considered to be the pinnacle of his suffering and therefore of God’s self-emptying and self-giving love. It is a moment in Jesus’ life that has attracted many and that many have reflected on and meditated on. Among the latest of these is the atheist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who, in a book co-authored with the Lutheran theologian Boris Gunjević and entitled “God in Pain”, presents a particularly insightful analysis.

Žižek approaches Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross by first posing one of the most perennially challenging questions in Christianity, and in any religion that posits a loving God, which is that of evil and suffering:
“Every theologian sooner or later faces the problem of how to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of the Shoah or some similar excessive evil: How are we to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and good God with the terrifying suffering of millions of innocents, like the children killed in the gas chambers?”
After dismissing two unsatisfactory answers (the first being an argument from mystery and the second from God self-imposing limitations that effectively lead to dualism), Žižek proceeds to present a, to his (and my) mind, credible response:
This brings us to the third position [...]: that of a suffering God — not a triumphalist God who always wins in the end, although “his ways are mysterious” since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who — like the suffering Christ on the cross — is agonized, who assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. … Without the concept of a humanly suffering God … all of history remains incomprehensible.” Why? Because God’s suffering implies that he is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of a real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided. This is the philosophical background of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s deep insight that, after the Shoah, “only a suffering God can help us now” — a proper supplement to Heidegger’s “Only a God can save us!” from his last interview. One should therefore take the statement that “the unspeakable suffering of the six million is also the voice of the suffering of God” quite literally: the very excess of this suffering over any “normal” human measure makes it divine. Recently, this paradox was succinctly formulated by Jürgen Habermas: “Secular languages which only eliminate the substance once intended leave irritations. When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost.”

Which is why secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like the Shoah or the gulag (amongst others) are experienced as insufficient: in order to reach the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophe in which the world itself is “out of joint”—when one confronts a phenomenon like the Shoah, the only appropriate reaction is to ask the perplexed question “Why did the heavens not darken?” (the title of Arno Mayor’s book). Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe — the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of God.
I believe that Žižek makes two key observations here: first, that God’s suffering is born of solidarity with human suffering, in other words, that it is the result of mercy, and, second, that it is God’s suffering that is a key to beginning to understand the suffering of others and suffering itself.

Furthermore, Žižek also sees Jesus’ abandonment on the cross as the key to man transcending his animal origins and as a bridge over the otherwise insurmountable abyss between God and man:
“The crucial problem is how to think the link between the two “alienations” — the one of modern man from God (who is reduced to an unknowable In-itself, absent from the world subjected to mechanical laws), the other of God from himself (in Christ, in the incarnation) — they are the same, although not symmetrically, but as subject and object. In order for (human) subjectivity to emerge out of the substantial personality of the human animal, cutting links with it and positing itself as the I = I dispossessed of all substantial content, as the self-relating negativity of an empty singularity, God himself, the universal Substance, has to “humiliate” himself, to fall into his own creation, “objectivize” himself, to appear as a singular miserable human individual, in all its abjection, i.e., abandoned by God. The distance of man from God is thus the distance of God from himself.”
Žižek then argues that Jesus’ abandonment is the key to union with God since in that moment God makes what separates man from Him part of Himself. The gap that separated us from Him becomes part of Him and makes us immediately adjacent and no longer at a distance:
“In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” in the figure of Christ as god-man, but only in the most tense moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”): in this moment, the gap is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God the Father; the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.”
Finally, Žižek claims the forsaken Jesus for himself by conferring on him his own atheist identity and he does so also through the words of G. K. Chesterton:
“[I]n Christianity, when, dying on the cross, Christ utters his “Father, father, why did you forsake me?”—here, for a brief moment, God himself does not believe in himself—or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in emphatic terms: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 145.)”
Žižek’s “God in Pain” is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to read in full, since it is a rich source of profound reflection on a variety of questions, from among which the above are the highlights of his insights into the forsaken Jesus. Personally, I find his perspective very enriching in that it provides a view from a vantage point that is close to the event of Jesus’ abandonment and that spells out aspects of what that experience might have been “from the inside.” Žižek’s insight that Jesus’ taking on what separates God from man is what builds a bridge is particularly striking and also an invitation to radical dialogue. By emptying myself to receive what separates me from you, we become one.

I can’t not mention another outstanding feature of “God in Pain”, which is the deeply beautiful re-telling and analysis of St. Mark’s Gospel that Gunjević presents in the book’s final chapter, entitled “Pray and Watch — The Messianic Subversion.” It alone is worth the price of admission.