Friday, 20 February 2015



In Manila, Pope Francis returned to a concept that he first introduced in Evangelii Gaudium - that of the polyhedron being the ideal of social interaction instead of the, seemingly more perfect, sphere. There, speaking about "ideological colonization," he said:
"[W]hen conditions are imposed by [...] colonizing empires they seek to make peoples forget their own identity and make them (all) equal. This is the globalization of the sphere - all the points are equidistant from the center. But the true globalization [...] is not the sphere. It is important to globalize [...] not like the sphere, but like the polyhedron. Namely that every people, every part, conserves its own identity without being ideologically colonized."
To make more sense of the sphere-polyhedron distinction, let's go back to Evangelii Gaudium, where it is presented in the context of strategies for contributing to the common good and peace in society. There, Francis gives preference to time over space (§222-225), unity over conflict (§226-230), realities over ideas (§231-233) and finally the whole over the part. However, he is quick to argue that the part is not negated or subsumed in the whole, but that they mutually enrich each other (§235):
"The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. There is no need, then, to be overly obsessed with limited and particular questions. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren."
And it is in the context of how the whole and its parts can be thought of without the former stifling the latter that the concept of the polyhedron comes into play (§236):
"Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone."
Reading the above, I believe, that the image of a polyhedron also points to another fundamental feature, implicit in the distinction between sphere and polyhedron, which is that of asymmetry.

Purely on geometric grounds, an obvious distinction between a sphere and any polyhedron is that the former abounds in symmetry: an infinity of rotation symmetries around the sphere's center, an infinity of reflection symmetries with respect to any plane containing the sphere's center and a central point symmetry, also with respect to its center, not to mention a host of other symmetry groups. On the other hand, a polyhedron, in general, has no guaranteed symmetry whatsoever, where each of its vertices may relate to all the others in a unique way and where even subsets of the polyhedron's vertices may form geometries distinct from those of other vertex subsets. As a result, the polyhedron formed by a set of vertices, edges and faces is both a unique whole and one whose nature depends on where each one of its components is located, potentially without any symmetry at all. In fact, the absence of symmetry can also be though of as an expression of the non-redundancy of the polyhedron's parts, since any, even partial symmetries or repetitions would allow for a representation of the polyhedron that no longer requires a reliance on all of its parts. The sphere here represents an extreme, where the infinite continuum of points that form its surface can be reduced just to the coordinates of its center and its radius. Incidentally this line of thinking also resonates with Pope Francis' early insistence on the importance of peripheries, expressed by him saying that “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the peripheries.” To understand a polyhedron requires traversing its vertices, edges and faces that form its perimeter, while a sphere can be "understood" from its center and radius, since its surface can be inferred from them, without ever being traversed.

Asymmetry not only means that each member is necessary for the identity of the resulting whole, but it is also a principle that is deeply embedded in Jesus' life and teaching. His incarnation itself is vastly asymmetrical, since it is the infinite, unbounded God making Himself spatiotemporally finite, as is His death on the cross, where his one life is given "so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." (John 3:16). The all becomes one to save the many.

Jesus' teaching too is full of asymmetry, starting with the following, emphatic passage:
“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back." (Luke 6:27-30)
In St. Matthew's account of the same speech, we the hear Jesus adding: "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." (Matthew 5:40-41).

Love-hate, bless-curse, pray-mistreat, strike-offer, take-give, tunic-tunic+cloak.

And the madness doesn't stop there! The asymmetrical rewards offered in the parable of the workers in the vineyard have those who have worked a full day complain to the owner: "These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat." (Matthew 20:12). The pittance offered by a poor widow is valued above the large sums contributed by the rich (cf. Mark 12:41-44) and asymmetry is also at the heart of Jesus' exhortation to "be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

Not only are action and reaction, action and reward asymmetrical, but asymmetry is at the very heart of God's own inner life and at the core of love as such. The gratuity of love and the very concept of a gift hinge on asymmetry. I give without expecting anything in return, for if I did, my gift would not be a gift at all, but - at least implicitly - an exchange, a transaction, a symmetrical process. In the Trinity the Father gives all of Himself to the Son, without holding back or without requiring prior guarantees of equal recompense. The Son too gives Himself to the Father unreservedly and totally, making Himself nothing to Himself and all as gift to the Father. The Holy Spirit makes Himself empty unconditionally to allow for the love of the Father and the Son to find space in Him. Each Person of the Trinity is ultimately asymmetrical: a gift of self outside oneself, for the other; nothing and everything. It is only on this asymmetry that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one - a one that is dynamic (instead of being static), varied (instead of being monotonous) and communion (instead of being regimented).

A consequence of the asymmetry of love is also a difference in what to expect of oneself versus others. For my actions to be gratuitous and an expression of love, their end must remain their being love, gift and a benefit for the other. If they get reciprocated, my neighbor and I share in the life of the Trinity and we become one without either of us being annihilated.

I believe it is for these same reasons that St. John Paul II used to say: "Be strict to yourself and lenient with everyone else." and that I choose to constrain what I say and do, out of love for my neighbors, without wanting to impose those same constraints on them. For by imposing them, I would preclude them from freely choosing to self-apply them out of love for me.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Jesus the blasphemer

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was struck by a tweet from the Protestant theologian and Yale professor, Miroslav Volf:
“Jesus was crucified for “blasphemy.” Blasphemers should not be crucified, or killed, or punished in any way.”
This assertion of Jesus having been a blasphemer stopped me in my tracks, as I have never thought of him in that way. Good Shepherd, Son of God, Paschal Lamb, and Word Made Flesh would ring a bell, but not Blasphemer. Then, I started thinking about all the offense Jesus has caused during his lifetime: fraternizing with tax collectors and prostitutes (cf. Luke 5:27-32), healing the sick on the Sabbath (cf. Mark 3:1-6), having his disciples eat corn without washing their hands (cf. Mark 7:2), making ludicrous claims about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem in three days (cf. John 2:19), and even his death on a cross was perceived as a scandal (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23) ... And how did his listeners react? Exactly as Pope Francis suggested recently - with threats and violence, to the point of dragging Jesus to the edge of a cliff and wanting to throw him to his death (cf. Luke 4:29), or to making him fear for his life to the point of deciding to hide from the people he scandalized and who were about to stone him (cf. John 8:59).

Suddenly adding blasphemy to the list doesn’t seem like such a stretch, and in fact the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial clearly state that this was the charge brought against him.

When questioned by the Sanhedrin during the night at the start of Good Friday, the high priest commanded Jesus: “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Matthew 26:63), to which Jesus responded: “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matthew 26:64). Jesus’ words then triggered the following scene:
““Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!” (Matthew 26:65-66)
The determination of Jesus’ blasphemer status is then presented to Pilate by his accusers as the grounds for having the secular powers of the Roman Empire put him to death: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7)

The above may seem pretty cut-and-dried, but, like all legal arguments, it too is just that - arguable. Here the New American Bible has the following, interesting note on Jesus’ blasphemy, as a commentary on the passage about his hearing before the Sanhedrin:
Blasphemed: the punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning (see Leviticus 24:10–16). According to the Mishnah, to be guilty of blasphemy one had to pronounce “the Name itself,” i.e., Yahweh [...]. Those who judge the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial by the later Mishnah standards point out that Jesus uses the surrogate “the Power,” and hence no Jewish court would have regarded him as guilty of blasphemy; others hold that the Mishnah’s narrow understanding of blasphemy was a later development.”
The spirit of what Jesus said certainly qualified as blasphemy, while the letter may have been arguable. Nonetheless, this guy, who was going around Galilee and Judea, telling everyone he was the Son of God, was guilty - a blasphemer! - and had to be killed. It’s the law. The Bible say so ...

Now, you may ask yourself, where am I going wit all of this? And that brings us to Charlie Hebdo and other brutal murders of those who speak out against oppressors of free speech, whether they be religious or atheist regimes (and, sadly, there are plenty of examples of both, both in the present and the past). In the case of Charlie Hebdo too we have a bunch of blasphemers, depicting what the law decries as insulting and blasphemous, and law-abiding believers doing their bit for the law’s just punishment being meted out.

Is what the Charlie Hebdo murderers have done consistent with how the vast majority of Muslims understand Islam? Is what Charlie Hebdo have been publishing detestable, crude and inciting of hatred?

Regardless of how those questions are answered (and I’d say “no” and “in some cases, yes”), the first order of business has to be a defense of the freedom of speech - and not just the freedom of “good” speech. Is this an argument for all speech being equal? Absolutely not! And neither is it an expression of support for what publications like Charlie Hebdo have been doing. Instead it is an insistence on the absolute value of free speech. And once that is given, arguments against expressions like Charlie Hebdo can be made (and must be made). Arguments to convince their listeners and readers of such offensive expressions being contrary to the common good, risking an angry (albeit wrong!) response, and not being the most efficacious ways of fighting against oppression, corruption or bigotry. But these must be arguments made on the foundation of free speech where its limiting to “good” free speech becomes a choice of the individual and not the imposed dictate of a legislative regime that is enforced at all cost, including the administration of death.

Making freedom of speech about “good” speech turns it into its opposite, as is clear both from fictional (although chillingly prophetic) accounts like George Orwell’s 1984 and the enforced superficial innocuousness of public speech in 20th century communist regimes, where everything was wonderful, according to plan, fraternal and equal. Unless you made fun of it that is ... in which case you’d qualify for a “Golden Bars” award (bars that were not golden, but embedded in prison walls instead). And the distortions of political correctness that grip many countries today are a scarily similar phenomenon. Only two days ago did I hear the following here in the US, in response to showing a historical photo of a Native American during a presentation to illustrate that a certain process was native to its context: “Um ... You should be careful about saying “native.” It is a very sensitive term here. Saying Red Indian or chief or similar can be offensive. Some sports teams here have already changed their names not to offend.” My colleague then proceeded to tiptoe around such a sensitive topic and ended up using the term “native” as a non-offensive way of referring to this whole faux pas of mine - the exact term that initially triggered the friendly advice.

Freedom of speech is clearly a complex question and it is easy to come up with examples of things that shouldn’t be said (e.g., racist slurs), that shouldn’t be made fun of (e.g., genocide), that should not be promoted (e.g., violence or exploitation). And I would unquestionably agree with that and support very specific, narrow constraints on freedom of speech. However, the easy solution of criminalizing whole categories of verbal expression brings with it great dangers in that those same legal instruments may be abused for very different ends. The extremes here are totalitarian regimes that criminalize any criticism of themselves and that consider any such criticism an offense against the common good that their leaders embody. In our democratic societies too there are dangers, where governments have been prone to overstep their remits and where legislation to prevent terrorism has enabled infringements of privacy and the gagging or undermining of critical voices. A society that cannot handle hearing ideas it disagrees with will eventually descend into fear and caution, rendering speech lukewarm. Speech that becomes barely worthy of being spat out.

I am therefore wholeheartedly with Volf: “Blasphemers should not be crucified, or killed, or punished in any way.” Instead, they should be challenged and engaged with in the same free speech context they employ and, who knows, maybe such engagement (instead of a silencing by law or bullets) could let all discover each other’s brothers and sisters on the other side of the argument.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Pope Francis the Violent

While there have been popes who have earned the epithet “the Great,” it looks like Francis is risking a very different one: “the Violent.” Even though he tends to come across all goody-goody, “who am I to judge”-y, during the course of the last couple of weeks he has spoken both of punching someone and of kicking them “where the sun never shines.”

Fortunately, paragons of pacifism, like the British Prime Minister David Cameron, have come out to condemn such brutality and thuggishness, insisting that no one has the right to “wreak vengeance.” Thank goodness for that! Where would we be without pillars of the international community like David Cameron? Rogues like Pope Francis would be left unchecked and free to perpetrate their injurious misdeeds without impunity!

With that out of the way, let’s turn to what the pope actually said, and look at whether it merited the prime-ministerial admonition that followed. On the flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, during his recent visit to Asia, Pope Francis said the following, in response to a question about the limits of freedom of expression (asked days after the Charlie Hebdo attack):
“Each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! [...] We have the obligation to speak openly, to have this freedom, but without giving offense, because, it is true, one mustn’t react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri,1 a great friend, insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch. It’s normal! It’s normal. You mustn’t provoke, you mustn’t insult other people’s faith, you mustn’t make fun of faith. [...]

Many people who speak badly about religions, make fun of them, we could say treat other people’s religions like toys, these people provoke, and what can occur is the same as what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mum. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit. I have used this example of a limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that with regard to my mum.”2
Before jumping straight in, let’s also look at what he said when, a couple of days later, he was asked about his answer during the flight back from Manila to Rome:
“In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it. In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek. In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. In theory we all agree.

But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making them angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent.

It’s a way of saying that one must be polite, prudent. Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no. What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freedom of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.”
Oh ... So, Pope Francis wasn’t calling for physical violence in response to offense or provocation, and neither was he inciting his 1.2 billion followers to “wreak vengeance,” as the Right Honourable David Cameron, MP, suggested. In fact, even just a closer reading of the original reference to punching Dr. Gasbarri contains clues to what Francis unpacked during the second interview: he said “[if he] insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch,” not “if he insults my mum, then I am obliged to punch him” or “it is my right to punch him” or “the right thing to do is for me to punch him, and punch him I will!,” or “I go away and plan revenge against him in cold blood and with deadly force.” Strictly speaking, Francis points out that Gasbarri insulting his mum runs the risk of triggering a reflex in the heat of the moment. And this is precisely what Francis then elaborates on in the second interview: let us not reason about freedom of expression in a conceptual vacuum, divorced from a realism about human psychology. Insults and offense risk triggering “an unjust reaction,” and in spite of being unjust, one should take the likelihood of such injustice into account.

It could sound like Francis is advocating a ban on any form of criticism directed at religion and is just maneuvering to preempt having the Catholic Church criticized. Such a reading, however, is unsubstantiated. Already in the first answer, Francis emphasizes other religions rather than his own, where what he says could be restated as follows: “Don’t insult other people’s religions, because they might take it the way I might take having my mum insulted. This could make me punch the offender, even though I wouldn’t be proud of myself afterwards and such behavior would not be what the Gospel teaches. But, I too am only human and can get angry when provoked.” Far from calling for violence, Francis is clear about it being wrong, but, at the same time, he reminds his audience of it being prudent to take its possibility into account when one offends another.

That Francis is not thinking here gagging criticisms of the Catholic Church should also be clear from what he has been saying pretty much since his election as pope, where he himself has been razor-sharp in pointing out the flaws of the Church with bluntness and linguistic zest. Here the most recent and brutal example were his “Christmas Greetings” to the Roman Curia last December, where he listed 15 “diseases” whose symptoms he has observed in their conduct, including “mental and spiritual petrification,” “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease,” “rivalry and vainglory,” “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting,” and “self-exhibition.” “Christmas Greetings” indeed!

Finally, let’s also look at the other instance of Francis referring to being violent himself. During the same interview from Manila to Rome, a journalist asked Francis about corruption in the Church, where his answer included the following:
“I remember once, in the year 1994, when I had been scarcely named bishop of the Flores quarter of Buenos Aires, two employees or functionaries of a ministry came to me to tell me, “You have so much need here with so many poor in the villas miserias (shanty towns).” “Oh yes,” I said, and they told me “We can help you. We have, if you want, a subsidy of 400,000 pesos.” At that time, the exchange rate with the dollar was one to one. $400,000. “You can do that?” “Yes, yes.” I listened because, when the offer is so big, even the saint is challenged. And they went on: “To do this, we make the deposit and then you give us half for ourselves.” In that moment I thought about what I would do: either I insult them and give them a kick where the sun never shines or I play the fool. I played the fool and said, in truth, we at the vicariate don’t have an account; you have to make the deposit at the archdiocese’s office (chancery) with the receipt. And that was it. “Oh, we didn’t know.” And they left. But later I thought, if these two landed without even asking for a runway -- it’s a bad thought -- it’s because someone else said yes. But it’s a bad thought, no?”
Again, the thought of violence (to “kick where the sun never shines”) is triggered by offense (being offered a bribe), but again Francis only points to the impulse to such a response and spells out his having chosen another path.

Looking over all that Francis has said, both in the context of freedom of expression and when recounting his brush with corruption, I see someone who has his eyes wide open, someone who understands both what the right thing is to do, what should happen ideally, in theory, and the risks and dangers that come into play because of human weakness and sinfulness - both conditions he openly self-applies. His talking about limits to freedom of expression here does neither equal a call for legally curbing it, nor does it mean that those limits are absolute. Instead, they are tempered by prudence and may even involve getting “bruised, hurting and dirty” (Evangelii Gaudium §49) when it comes to speaking freely for the common good.

1 Dr. Gasbarri is the papal trip organizer, who was standing beside him during the interview (see the photo at the top of this post for Francis being mid-punch against his obviously distressed victim :).
2 Note that this quote departs from the America magazine English translation in an effort to provide as close a rendering of Pope Francis’ Italian words. This comes at the expense of some awkwardness of expression, but with - I believe - a closer sense of the simplicity and nuances of his words especially regarding the scenario of his punching Dr. Gasbarri.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Peppuccio: being by not being


Today, at the age of 85, the man who has helped me most with understanding God has gone to be with Him. Giuseppe Maria Zanghì, known simply as Peppuccio to all who met him (the Italian diminutive for Joseph that in English would be rendered as Joey), was a follower and close collaborator of Chiara Lubich, whose process of beatification is completing its diocesan phase and transferring to the Vatican on Tuesday.

Peppuccio’s philosophical genius will, I am certain, provide the basis for a deeper understanding of God for many generations to come. His insights into the fundamental interconnectedness of being and not being as the key to love and to an intuition of the value of suffering are akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity in that they turn all that came before on its head, while, at the same time, being a superset of it. Having had the privilege to listen to him speak and to get to know him personally a little has been a great gift for me and I will never forget meeting him again last May, after not seeing him for many years. By that time he had become a frail, old man, whose former steel had given way to the warmth of a kindly grandfather. I will never forget his recognizing me and caressing my face like my own grandfather used to.

Dearest Peppuccio, I will miss you very much! Thank you for all you have taught me!

Instead of telling you more about his extraordinary life, I prefer to translate for you an excerpt from a paper he wrote in 1979, entitled “Identity and dialogue,” so that you may get a flavor of his extraordinary thought directly.

In this paper Peppuccio considers the challenges and seeming opposition of the concepts of individual identity on the one hand and of dialogue on the other. Let’s join Peppuccio’s train of thought at the point where he presents how God loves us without possessing us, after having presented profound analyses of both identity and dialogue in isolation:
“I can be myself in Him (being an intimate participant of Trinitarian life in the Word), while being really distinct from Him (by virtue of being a creature different from Him). It is His love that wants me, and the love of God does not withdraw into itself, canceling diversity with the other by totally reverting it to Himself, but “makes” the other and guards them in diversity from Himself, not wanting to possess (like He doesn’t possess Himself) in total reabsorption.

And also those who are other than me, the other, or other subjects, are really different from me, because they are “guarded” in the diversity of God, and yet we are one because we are all seized by the same movement of God’s love.”
Peppuccio here roots our diversity-preserving union with God and our own relationships with others in His own inner life, where God’s relationship of love to all is the basis of our own diversity-preserving union with them. He then spells out the consequences of a departure from this many-but-one life:
“If I remove myself from the ecstasy of love, the ecstasy of being, my identity will experience an infinite regress, and I loose myself in the abyss of a nothing that, not being the “nothing” of the Love that wants me ecstatically, is a nothing that is not real, it is nothing-nothing ... And community with others will be a collision and a negation and a distancing to infinity. The peace that is Love is replaced by the war that is hatred.”
Note that ecstasy in the above is best read in the Ancient Greek philosophical sense of ἔκστασις (ekstasis), “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere,” since it refers to the self-giving, self-othering nature of love. Removing oneself from the ecstasy of love means retreating into oneself, while God’s love for me being ecstatic underlines His going out of Himself for my sake.

Peppuccio then proceeds to sketch out the Christian approach to relating to others, as a departure from the self-constrained, static nothingness resulting from a withdrawal from ecstatic relationships:
“The Christian revelation has ripped through this way of thinking and of being socially structured from the inside. But we are still far, it seems to me, from having understood this clearly and from having draw practical conclusions from it. It is true, in modern thought duality has been made more dynamic with dialectic. But the logic of confrontation and struggle has not been overcome. Because the relationship between the two “opposing” extremes (I and the other, I and God) is still thought of as ending in one of the two (and, therefore, in the strongest!); while, if Christian faith is true, the relationship does not end in either of the mediated extremes, but in a third that saves them precisely in their diversity. The relationship between two, if it wants to be thought and lived in the logic of God, must be torn from pure (and abstract) symmetry and discovered, as it were, in the asymmetry of a third that “transforms” the opposition into agreement, the conflict into peace.”
What is apparent from the above is God’s intrinsic role also in human relationships as the asymmetry that allows for unity in diversity, which very much also prefigures Pope Francis’ insistence in Evangelii Gaudium (§236) that the Church, and society too, ought to be modeled on the polyhedron (where diverse parts preserve their distinctiveness while converging to form one whole) rather than the sphere (where there is total uniformity).

Peppuccio finally leads the above considerations towards reciprocity and freedom in a masterful synthesis:
“In the relationship with God, this means living the relationship with Him, diversity, within Him, in Tri-unity.

In the relationship with others, it means “allowing” for God to be among the many, as the “third asymmetrical,” so to speak. This Presence among the many makes diversity true, uniting it without annulling it. This applies to my relationship with myself. It applies to my relationship with the other and with others. Diversity is experienced as love, identity is experienced as love: diversity is experienced as identity, and vice versa. I am me in the infinite, and absolute, gift of myself: in the diversity of me with myself, experienced not as laceration but as ecstatic love. The other, whoever they are, is my giving myself made person, real because giving myself is real. And reciprocally. Without reciprocity what I say here is suffered as an impossibility that must become, but still is not, possible. History, after all, is the path towards a realization of the necessity of this reciprocity so that everyone may be themselves!

From this dialectical perspective “as three,” identity and dialogue are the same thing: they are the love by which I am myself insofar as I am not myself. They are the sign of that freedom-love which is, if I may say so, the secret of being.”
Reciprocal ecstasy, a mutual being outside oneself, for the other, as a gift for each other, bring identity and dialogue together in love, and, if I too may say so with Peppuccio, are the secret of being.

Thank you, Peppuccio, for your wisdom and love!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

I am with Charlie Hebdo

Charlie hebdo

The heinous slaughter of twelve people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this morning, and the serious injury of several others, are vile crimes, whose repulsive horror is made even greater by the religious motivation of their perpetrators. The gunmen responsible for this morning’s barbarity invoked the name of Allah and spouted words of vengeance.

Vengeance for what?

For cartoons.

They responded to cartoons that they found offensive by murdering and maiming their fellow brothers and sisters: blood of their blood, beloved children of the same God they delude themselves into serving.

What God could possibly want one of his children to take a gun, aim it at their own brother, pull the trigger and make a bullet rip through their sibling’s flesh, bones, veins, arteries and sinews, extinguishing their life? What insane God would that be? What an abhorrent and repulsive God indeed. The same kind of deranged lunatic of a God who would make other of his children torture their siblings with unspeakable efficiency and clinicality of method, while tricking them into thinking that they were doing it “for the greater good.” The same beast of a demiurge God who would make yet other of his children use their siblings as human shields and bomb their schools and hospitals. The same leech of a God who would have some of his children get rich at the expense of their brothers and sisters starving, homeless and hopeless, working for a pittance that would leave them worse off than if they did not work at all.

What kind of a God would that be?

Not one I recognize, but one who ought to be denied, ignored and thought dead.

My God is different though. He makes Himself vulnerable and small, dependent on the kindness of others. He responds to violence with turning His other cheek, to ridicule with words of kindness, to temptations of power with resolute humility. He is a God who calls to meekness, poverty, peace-making, to feeding the hungry, sating the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners. He is a God who chooses suffering for Himself lest He would impinge on my freedom. A God who invites and welcomes, never forces or coerces. A God who instead envelopes me with the beauty of the Universe, the truth of reason and the goodness of my brothers and sisters through whom He loves me.

And as much as seeing the cartoon at the top of this post saddens me, since it mocks Jesus, whom I love, I choose to show it here out of solidarity with my brothers and sisters at Charlie Hebdo, who were callously murdered today. I choose to support their freedom of expression, even though what it expresses is not mine, since freedom is the absolute basis of God’s love for us and our love for each other. Without freedom there can be no love, and without love all we’d have is darkness.

[UPDATE (9 January 2015): A Catalan translation of this post is now available on the Ciutat Nova blog.]

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Parable of the Good Lesbian

Good samaritan

A very good friend of mine, MK, wrote the following on Facebook a couple of days ago: “I think that if Jesus was telling the parable of the good Samaritan today, maybe it would be the parable of the good gay.” And, as soon as I saw it, I “liked” it, since it seemed to fit Jesus’ choice of profile for that particular parable character like a glove - i.e., as someone who is frowned upon, mistrusted and seen as repulsive by “good” God-fearing folk, and with whom there is an us-versus-them that needs to be undermined.

A short while later I noticed that MK’s Facebook status had received 43 comments, dominated by outrage, exhortations to read St. Paul (undoubtedly a good idea, and one, which that comment’s author should also self-apply) and a bandying-about of phrases like “the truth of Christ” (as if there were different flavors of truth). There were also reasonable comments, but these formed a small minority among the sea of tirades that followed the outrageous suggestion that homosexuals could be thought of as today’s equivalent of first-century Judea’s Samaritans.

My immediate reaction to seeing this was to look more closely at the Good Samaritan parable and get a sense of how well founded MK’s suggestion for its contemporary adaptation is - not so much for the sake of assessing its reasonableness (which had intuitive appeal to me from the start), but to get a more specific sense of its context and exegesis.

To get an idea of how Jews and Samaritans got on with each other, Blessed John Henry Newman provides the following summary, after giving an account of mutual killings between the two peoples:
“[… T]he strongest expression of hatred the Jews could invent against Christ was ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil’ (John 8:48). [… I]f a Jew and a Samaritan met in a narrow way, they were particularly careful to avoid touching each fearing to receive pollution from the other.”
Saying “Samaritan” in the first century AD to an audience of Jewish lawyers (as Jesus - and, lets not forget, himself a Jew, did), seems to have been the same kind of trigger as saying “gay” is today to my friend’s “Christian” contacts. 1:0 to MK - the glove does indeed seem to fit.

Let me next take a look at how the last three popes have read this parable and see whether that sheds light on the transposition proposed by my friend.

St. John Paul II spoke at length about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his apostolic letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris (§28):
“The parable of the Good Samaritan belongs to the Gospel of suffering. For it indicates what the relationship of each of us must be towards our suffering neighbour. We are not allowed to “pass by on the other side” indifferently; we must “stop” beside him. Everyone who stops beside the suffering of another person, whatever form it may take, is a Good Samaritan. This stopping does not mean curiosity but availability. It is like the opening of a certain interior disposition of the heart, which also has an emotional expression of its own. The name “Good Samaritan” fits every individual who is sensitive to the sufferings of others, who “is moved” by the misfortune of another. If Christ, who knows the interior of man, emphasizes this compassion, this means that it is important for our whole attitude to others’ suffering. Therefore one must cultivate this sensitivity of heart, which bears witness to compassion towards a suffering person. Some times this compassion remains the only or principal expression of our love for and solidarity with the sufferer.

Nevertheless, the Good Samaritan of Christ’s parable does not stop at sympathy and compassion alone. They become for him an incentive to actions aimed at bringing help to the injured man. In a word, then, a Good Samaritan is one who brings help in suffering, whatever its nature may be. Help which is, as far as possible, effective. He puts his whole heart into it, nor does he spare material means. We can say that he gives himself, his very “I”, opening this “I” to the other person. Here we touch upon one of the key-points of all Christian anthropology. Man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). A Good Samaritan is the person capable of exactly such a gift of self.”
What strikes me here immediately are two things: first, the deep-seated universality of St. John Paul II’s words, addressed to “each of us,” “everyone,” “every individual,” where “Good Samaritan” status is predicated only on one’s capacity for “a gift of self.” Second, the imperative nature of his words which insist both on what we must do (being sensitive to, moved by and helping our suffering neighbors; being compassionate and self-giving) and what we are not allowed to do: be indifferent. This exegesis too easily extends to homosexuals, who are undoubtedly in a position of showing compassion to those around them and of selflessly coming to their aid.

Pope Benedict XVI adds further clarity to this universally-predicated imperative to love, in his exceptional piece of thinking: the encyclical Deus Caritas Est:
“14. [...] Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. [...] We become “one body”, completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. [...] the “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be “commanded” because it has first been given.

15. This principle is the starting-point for understanding the great parables of Jesus. [...] The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members.”
For me, the most significant aspect of this passage is Benedict’s insistence on love being a commandment and on the justification of its imperative status being the precedent of God’s love. Since the source of this “obligation” to love is inexhaustible, its scope too is universal (as St. John Paul II already made clear). Furthermore, Benedict also calls for a keeping current of what such universality means in the present. This is very much in line with the current process of discernment underway in the Catholic Church, which is on the road to the second Synod on the Family this October. Specifically, the challenges of how to provide opportunities for homosexuals to feel part of the Church are on the table there too, which is easily read as an instance of Benedict’s “interpret[ing] ever anew this relationship between near and far.”

Finally, let’s hear what Pope Francis has to say about this parable:
“The Gospel passage from St Luke (10:25-37) tells of a certain man, half dead, who had been thrown into the street. Now by chance a priest was going down that road. A good priest, in his cassock: good, very good. He saw him and looked: I’ll be late for Mass, and he went on his way. He didn’t hear the voice of God there”. [...] It is curious to note that only a man who habitually fled from God, a sinner, the Samaritan, was the very one who perceived the voice of God. He drew near to the man. He bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast. Oh how much time he lost: he brought him to an inn, and took care of him. He lost the whole evening! In the meantime, the priest arrived in time for the Holy Mass and all the faithful were content.

Why did the priest flee from God? Because his heart was closed. When your heart is closed you cannot hear the voice of God. Instead, it was a Samaritan on a journey who saw the wounded man and had compassion. His heart was opened, he had a human heart. His humanity enabled him to draw near.

The priest had a plan for his life: he wanted to write his own history well, according to God’s ways. But he was the one writing it. However, this other sinner allowed God to write the history of his life. He changed all his plans that evening because the Lord placed before him this poor, wounded man who had been thrown out onto the street.

I ask myself and I also ask you: do we allow God to write the history of our lives or do we want to write it? This speaks to us of docility: are we docile to the Word of God? Yes, I want to be docile, but are you able to listen to his Word, to hear it? Are you able to find the Word of God in the history of each day, or do your ideas so govern you that you do not allow the Lord to surprise you and speak to you?”
What strikes me here is the supremacy of openness over righteousness. Making oneself the ultimate judge (+ jury & executioner), instead of opening oneself up to discerning the will of God and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit through one’s conscience, leads to a spoiling even of things that are good in themselves and to an assumption of ultimate power by an imperfect subject. Instead, the admission of sinfulness, that Pope Francis (and before him the saints universally) has made for himself and that each one of us can recognize in our own lives, if we are sincere enough, helps us both to recognize brothers and sisters in all, without exception, and to open ourselves up to God’s surprises.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Atheist Universes

Orion Nebula Hubble 2006 mosaic 18000

Following a review of four Christian visions of our Universe - that of Chiara Lubich, Pope Francis, the Catholic Church’s Catechism and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I would now like to attempt a far harder challenge, which is that of presenting atheist thoughts on its nature. Here, I must leave the luxury of my own experience behind and rely much more on the Principle of Charity when engaging with the words of others, especially since I desire to identify what the atheist position is in itself, as opposed to in contrast with other, religious positions. My points of departure here are: the conviction that there is great good in the lives of atheists,1 that I myself stand to benefit from discovering that good, that I wish to speak about it in a way that my own atheist friends would recognize as doing their views justice, and that I would like to construct an understanding of atheist thought about the universe using the words of contemporary atheists themselves. And since atheism is not a single-minded entity, the plural in the title of this post does not refer to the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but rather to there being multiple atheist understandings of the universe (whether it be one, in the sense understood before the multiverse was conceived of, or not).

Desiring to start at the beginning, as the White Rabbit is encouraged to do by the King, I would like to refer to the words of the atheist author Kenan Malik, who argues that the basis of his view of the universe is an uncertainty that, instead of being disconcerting, is exhilarating:2
“The difference between believers and atheists is not about whether either can explain the ultimate cause of the universe. It is about how we wish to explain it. I am happy to say, ‘I do not know what First Cause is, or even if there is one. It may be that one day we discover the answer to that. Or it may be that we never will. For now I am happy to keep an open mind, accept our ignorance of First Cause and live with the uncertainty of not having one’. […] The human condition is that of possessing no moral safety net. No God, no belief in God, no amount of ethical concrete, can protect us from the dangers of falling off that moral tightrope that is to be human. That can be a highly disconcerting prospect. Or it can be a highly exhilarating one. Being human, the choice is ours.”
That uncertainty leads not to stagnation or paralysis, but that it can impel one to an intense participation in both the sorrows and joys of living in the universe, is also clear from the words of the atheist thinker Christopher Hitchens:
“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
In the above what strikes me is not only the clear-headed determination for a conscious life, but also a profound sense of sincerity. This choice of striving for meaningful living in a meaningless universe is also expressed very clearly by the atheist biologist and philosopher Franz Wuketits:
“And the meaning of being? The universe itself has no meaning, it simply exists, without it being possible to derive meaning from this fact itself. Of course, it is understandable that many people do not like this idea. They are afraid that this being empty of meaning would triumph over human aspirations for meaning. But, no one stops us from giving our being a meaning that has its source in our own selves - by virtue of what we do. To accept that the world is meaningless in itself, only creates space for individually founded meaning. If instead, the Universe gave us meaning, this would not necessarily have to be good for us. Because then we would be deprived of our personal development opportunities from the outset. To be happy, we have no need for a Universe that participates in our destinies.”
For an example of what such self-rooted types of meaning look like, the atheist activist, Richard Carrier, readily shares his own beliefs, which should look very familiar also to the followers of the world’s religions:
“An atheist is a person who does not believe that any gods exist. […] I believe in many things. I believe in the potential of humanity, in the power of reason, in the comfort of love, and in the value of truth. I also believe in the beauty and joy of human experience, and the nearly unlimited power of the human will to endure almost any hardship or solve almost any problem.”
How does such a self-rooted foundation of meaning come about though? Here the words of the atheist cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker present a solution that relies on going beyond one’s self:
“Knowing there is a world that will outlive you, there are people whose well-being depends on how you live your life, affects the way you live your life, whether or not you directly experience those effects. You want to be the kind of person who has the larger view, who takes other people’s interests into account, who’s dedicated to the principles that you can justify, like justice, knowledge, truth, beauty and morality.”
And, while such self-transcendence may smack of theism, it is, in fact a position held by other atheists too, without requiring recourse to belief in God. Even in a universe that is itself devoid of meaning, one can - and can feel impelled to - go beyond oneself: towards others and towards that universe itself. Kenan Malik writes beautifully about this in the context of art, and Christopher Hitchens too presents it as a distinctly human trait:
“I’m a materialist … yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.”
This leads me to the final part of our brief excursion into atheist experiences of the universe, which presents the accounts of three scientists engaging with its beauty.

First, we have the inspiring words of the atheist physicist, Richard Feynman, who takes exception to the suggestion that his appreciation of the beauty of a flower is any lesser than that of an artist. What’s more, he argues - very successfully to my mind - for the opposite:
“I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe…

I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
Second, the agnostic physicist Brian Cox takes the same attitude as Feynman does and projects a sense of interconnectedness from it, in addition to that of aesthetic appreciation:
“On its own, [a blade of grass] is a wonder, but viewed in isolation its complexity and very existence is inexplicable. Darwin’s genius was to see that the existence of something as magnificent as a blade of grass can be understood, but only in the context of its interaction with other living things and, crucially, its evolutionary history. A physicist might say it is a four-dimensional structure, with both spatial and temporal extent, and it is simply impossible to comprehend the existence of such a structure in a universe governed by the simple laws of physics if its history is ignored.

And whilst you are contemplating the humble majesty of a blade of grass, with a spatial extent of a few centimeters but stretching back in the temporal direction for almost a third of the age of the Universe, pause for a moment to consider the viewer, because what is true of the blade of grass is also true for you. You share the same basic biochemistry, all the way down to the detail of proton waterfalls, and ATP, and much of the same genetic history, carefully documented in your DNA. This is because you share the same common ancestor. You are all related. You were once the same.

[…] Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.”
Third, the atheist biologist, Richard Dawkins too sings the praises of wonder and elevates it to a source of value itself:
“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
Re-reading all of the above leads me to two thoughts: First, a great sense of joy, derived from a recognition of the centrality of goodness, truth and beauty in atheism. Seeing these three “sisters,” as Aristotle refers to them, revered, is a sure sign of of a fulfilling and rich life, and - in St. Paul’s words - I feel like “rejoic[ing] with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15). Second, a call to living my own life as someone who tries to follow Jesus - and who believes in a loving, personal God - with a renewed commitment, in imitation of the fearless intensity of life that I observe in my atheist brothers and sisters. The false certainties they rebel against are false in my eyes too and I am reminded of the warning from the book of Proverbs (14:15): “The naive believe everything, but the shrewd watch their steps.”

1 I am greatly encouraged here also by the words of Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium: “God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice.” (§71)
2 I also highly recommend his blog.