Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Conscientious objection

Brangwyn1

The supremacy of conscience in determining the actions of an individual is a key principle of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which, in no uncertain terms, presents it as the ultimate criterion: “A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself.” (CCC, §1790). Regardless of whether it is “right” or not - and it can certainly also be wrong! - “[i]n all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience.” (Dignitatis Humanae, §3).

This is, indeed, not only the teaching of the Catholic Church, but also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ articles 1 and 18:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In practice, the picture is far from clear though, in that external forces - but internal ones too - often push in directions opposed to a person’s conscience and going against them can come with significant risks, to the point of putting one’s own life on the line. The United Nations themselves recognize this clearly and in their guidance about conscientious objection with regard to military service, give the following example of probably the earliest recorded conscientious objector:
“In the year 295, on reaching the age of 21, Maximilianus, as the son of a Roman army veteran, was called up to the legions. However, he reportedly told the Proconsul in Numidia that because of his religious convictions he could not serve as a soldier. He persisted in his refusal and was executed. He was subsequently canonized as Saint Maximilian.”
It may not always be a matter of life and death though, at least for the person whose conscience can come in conflict with external forces, such as a state’s laws, and the qualifier “certain” used in the Catechism as well as the knowledge that one's own conscience may be erroneous can both put a question mark over one's conscience. The principle of following it can therefore be less than unambiguous in practice and arguments for its bending and dulling can easily creep in. This may, in part be what has resulted in the, to my mind, disgraceful positions taken by some politicians and representatives of the Catholic Church in Central Europe with regard to the refugee crisis (and the opposite of what has thankfully lead many citizens as well as clergy and lay persons to do the right thing).

Against the above background, I would here like to translate parts of an interview that Cardinal Walter Kasper gave yesterday, in which he addressed the question of conscience in the context of the refugee crisis and with reference to the laws of individual states. Here Kasper starts his argument from the position of mercy:
“To welcome someone is a work of mercy and justice that goes beyond state laws. The Holy Year of Mercy reminds us about what the Old and New Testament teach: we must welcome as brothers and sisters those who arrive to us from oppressions and persecutions. And even before we understand whether or not they are to be considered refugees, we must remember that they are human beings and as such have the right to live in a healthy and free environment. It is clear that immigrants must respect the rules of the society that welcomes them, but we must be open because that is what Christian mercy asks of us.”
Next, he goes on to directly address how mercy and the laws of states relate:
“State laws are to be observed, but they are not the ultimate criterion of being a Christian. Mercy goes further. The state cannot give orders to mercy. In this sense, the laws stipulate a minimum level for the rules of coexistence, while mercy goes beyond. And it is only mercy that gives a certain warmth to our society, without it and without compassion we would live in a very cold society. [...] There is a question of conscience. One has to wonder if a man who has no documents can be returned to a country where he was persecuted. It is clear that a state has the right to ask for the documents of immigrants, but there is always room for individual conscience.”
In fact, Pope Francis took this same argument even beyond the confines of the Church, by emphasizing the inviolability of a person's conscience also in the case of non-believers (in one of his first acts as Pope - the letter to the atheist Eugenio Scalfari):
“[T]he mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. There is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed. Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil. It is on the basis of this choice that the goodness or evil of our actions is determined.”
And, some months earlier, in his remarks before the Angelus prayer, he explained what he means by conscience, in clearly Christian terms:
“[T]he importance, even for Jesus, of conscience [was this]: listening in his heart to the Father's voice, and following it. Jesus, in his earthly life, was not, so to speak, “remote-controlled”: He was the Word made flesh, the Son of God made man, and at one point he made a firm decision to go up to Jerusalem for the last time - a decision taken in His conscience, but not on His own: ​​with the Father, in full union with Him! He decided in obedience to the Father, in profound intimate attunement to the Father’s will. For this reason, then, the decision was steadfast: because it was taken together with the Father. In the Father, then, Jesus found the strength and the light for His journey. Jesus was free. His decision was a free one. Jesus wants us Christians to be free as he is: with that liberty, which comes from this dialogue with the Father, this dialogue with God. Jesus wants neither selfish Christians, who follow their egos and do not speak with God, nor weak Christians, without will: “remote-controlled” Christians, incapable of creativity, who seek ever to connect with the will of another, and are not free. Jesus wants us free, and this freedom – where is it found? It is to be found in the inner dialogue with God in conscience. If a Christian does not know how to talk with God, does not know how to listen to God, in his own conscience, then he is not free – he is not free.

So we also must learn to listen more to our conscience. Be careful, however: this does not mean we ought to follow our ego, do whatever interests us, whatever suits us, whatever pleases us. That is not conscience. Conscience is the interior space in which we can listen to and hear the truth, the good, the voice of God. It is the inner place of our relationship with Him, who speaks to our heart and helps us to discern, to understand the path we ought to take, and once the decision is made, to move forward, to remain faithful.”
During the press conference after his visit to the USA, Francis also explicitly applied this same principle to the scenario of a conflict between individual conscience and state law:
“[C]onscientious objection is a right, and enters into every human right. It is a right, and if a person does now allow for conscientious objection, he or she is denying a right. Every legal system should provide for conscientious objection because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise, we would end up selecting between rights: “this right is good, this one less so”. It is a human right. I am always moved when I read, and I have read it many times, when I read the “Chanson de Roland”, when there were all these Moors lined up before the baptismal font, and they had to choose between baptism and the sword. They had to choose. They weren’t permitted conscientious objection. It’s a right and if we want to have peace, we have to respect all rights.”
While its prominence has recently been heightened, conscience has been given great respect throughout the history of Christianity, which can also be seen in the following guidance given by St. Francis of Assisi to the leaders of his own order:
“If a superior give any order to one who is under him which is against that man's conscience, although he do not obey it yet he shall not be dismissed.”
At a time when obedience to hierarchy was unquestionable, Francis underlined the importance of placing conscience above obedience even in a context where authority may be exercised with the best of motives and by the best and most holy of people.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Enter darkness, make your closeness felt

Widow nain

A book-length interview with Pope Francis, by the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli and entitled “The Name of God is Mercy”, has been published today and I would here like to share some of my favorite passages with you (and encourage you to read it in full!).

First, there is Francis’ rooting of mercy in Ezekiel’s account of the foundation of Jerusalem:
“[M]ercy is God’s identity card. God of Mercy, merciful God. For me, this really is the Lord’s identity. I was always impressed by the story of Jerusalem as it is told in chapter 16 of the Book of Ezekiel. The story compares Jerusalem to a little girl whose umbilical cord wasn’t cut, who was left in blood and cast out. God saw her wallowing in blood, he washed the blood from her, he anointed her, he dressed her, and when she grew up he adorned her with silk and jewels. But she, infatuated with her own beauty, became a harlot, taking lovers not for money but paying them herself. God, however, will never forget his covenant and he will place her above her sisters so that Jerusalem will remember and be ashamed (Ezekiel 16:63), when she is forgiven for what she has done.

For me this is one of the most important revelations: you will continue to be the chosen people and all your sins will be forgiven. So mercy is deeply connected to God’s faithfulness. The Lord is faithful because he cannot deny himself. This is explained well by Saint Paul in the Second Letter to Timothy: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” You can deny God, you can sin against him, but God cannot deny himself. He remains faithful.”
Second, Francis exalts the goodness of starting again over that of an (impossible) never failing:
“The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way. The important thing is always to get back up, not to stay on the ground licking your wounds. The Lord of mercy always forgives me; he always offers me the possibility of starting over. He loves me for what I am, he wants to raise me up, and he extends his hand to me.”
In fact, earlier in the book, Francis is explicit about the impossibility of not sinning and follows it up with a great quote by St. Francis de Sales:
“We must take this sad reality of ours into account: no one can avoid sin, small or great, for very long. ‘But,’ as Saint Francis de Sales said, ‘if you have a little donkey and along the road it falls onto the cobblestones, what should you do?’ You certainly don’t go there with a stick to beat it, poor little thing; it’s already unfortunate enough. You must take it by the halter and say: ‘Up, let’s take to the road again . . . Now we will get back on the road, and we will pay more attention next time.’”
Third, there is a good number of personal experiences that Pope Francis shares in the book, to give his answers to Tornielli’s questions a fresh sense of concreteness and specificity. Of these one of my favorites is the following:
“Back when I was rector of the Collegio Massimo of Jesuits and a parish priest in Argentina, I remember a mother with young children, whose husband had left her. She did not have a steady job and only managed to find temporary work a couple of months out of the year. When there was no work, she had to prostitute herself to provide her children with food. She was humble, she came to the parish church, and we tried to help her with our charity, Caritas. I remember one day—it was during the Christmas holidays—she came with her children to the College and asked for me. They called me and I went to greet her. She had come to thank me. I thought it was for the package of food from Caritas that we had sent to her. “Did you receive it?” I asked. “Yes, yes, thank you for that, too. But I came here today to thank you because you never stopped calling me Señora.” Experiences like this teach you how important it is to welcome people delicately and not wound their dignity. For her, the fact that the parish priest continued to call her Señora, even though he probably knew how she led her life during the months when she could not work, was as—or perhaps even more—important than the concrete help that we gave her.”
Fourth, in response to being asked to clarify what he meant when he said that famous “who am I to judge” soon after being elected pope, Francis said:
“I am glad that we are talking about “homosexual people” because before all else comes the individual person, in his wholeness and dignity. And people should not be defined only by their sexual tendencies: let us not forget that God loves all his creatures and we are destined to receive his infinite love. I prefer that homosexuals come to confession, that they stay close to the Lord, and that we pray all together.”
Fifth, in the context of being asked about the “scholars of the law” whom Francis frequently lambasts in his homilies, he recalled a great quote from St. Ambrose’s De Abraham:
“When it comes to bestowing grace, Christ is present; when it comes to exercising rigor, only the ministers of the Church are present, but Christ is absent.”
Sixth, Francis addresses the important question put to him by Tornielli of whether there is a risk of “infection” when dealing with those who live in sin:
“We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brethren live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it. Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock. It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect. The more conscious we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many “wounded” we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy. So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam in his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance.”
Seventh, there is also a great deal that made me smile in this book, like the following passage that, while clearly communicating a profound truth, does so with humor:
“At times I have surprised myself by thinking that a few very rigid people would do well to slip a little, so that they could remember that they are sinners and thus meet Jesus. I think back to the words of God’s servant John Paul I, who during a Wednesday audience said, “The Lord loves humility so much that sometimes he permits serious sins. Why? In order that those who committed these sins may, after repenting, remain humble. One does not feel inclined to think oneself half a saint, half an angel, when one knows that one has committed serious faults.””
Eighth, Pope Francis speaks beautifully about how compassion relates to mercy, using Jesus himself as the example:
“Let us reflect on the beautiful pages that describe the raising from the dead of the widow’s son. When Jesus arrived in the village of Nain in Galilee, he was moved by the tears of the widow, who was devastated by the loss of her only son. He says to her, “Woman, do not weep.” As Luke writes in the Gospel: “When the Lord saw her, he felt compassion for her” (7:13). God Incarnate let himself be moved by human wretchedness, by our need, by our suffering. The Greek verb that indicates this compassion is σπλαγχνίζομαι [splanchnízomai, ed.], which derives from the word that indicates internal organs or the mother’s womb. It is similar to the love of a father and mother who are profoundly moved by their own son; it is a visceral love. God loves us in this way, with compassion and mercy. Jesus does not look at reality from the outside, without letting himself be moved, as if he were taking a picture. He lets himself get involved. This kind of compassion is needed today to conquer the globalization of indifference. This kind of gaze is needed when we find ourselves in front of a poor person, an outcast, or a sinner. This is the compassion that nourishes the awareness that we, too, are sinners.”

Friday, 8 January 2016

Reason in Faith: God’s exile of love in the world

Emmaus4

The questions of how faith and reason relate to each other and to reality are of central importance in contemporary dialogue, and while I have previously focused on this topic with the desire to either make religious thought accessible to a non-religious reader or vice versa, I would here like to share a view “from inside”, a view that is deeply embedded in Christianity. I will do this by providing an English translation of a few passages from a book I have just read, in which the great Christian philosopher, Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, gives an account of his personal journey through philosophy. It is an account that is profoundly internal to its author, whose roots as a poet give the narrative both a mesmerizing beauty and, at times, call for his words to be be wrestled with repeatedly, putting us in the position of Jacob’s encounter with the angel (Genesis 32:22-33). Even if the result is defeat, and a hip injury, I believe that Zanghí’s words will leave us with an inner conviction that then allows for free, universal dialogue with all.

Zanghí, who in his youth met and then throughout his life followed Chiara Lubich, recounts this foundational piece of advice early on in the book:
“It was Chiara who [...] made me pay attention to all expressions of human enquiry, because, she told me, each of them had been, is in love with the truth and in one way or another had, has touched it. In all there is a patrimony of suffering, invocation, anticipation, which must be respected with humble attention and strong participation. “You have to learn from everyone,” she said, “so that you may draw near to all with love.””
It is with this conviction, that behind all human enquiry there is a desire for truth and that all human enquiry also arrives at some truth, that its various forms can be approached with humility and be candidates for participation.

In this context, Zanghí understands our engaging with reality as:
“a unitary discourse set in a reality that is wholly given as God-Love’s word of love. An intuitive discourse, in which a face of reality, infinite in its original source that is the Word of God, opens itself up rationally and thereby offers itself to our weakness, to be reached in its entirety by the unity of knowledge that is wisdom.”
Since the above is a highly concentrated expression of what engaging with reality consists in, Zanghí proceeds to spell out what he means and anchors thought in Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross (pp. 26-27):
“The philosopher’s1 approach to reality does not presuppose a previous mathematical approach (as Plato wanted): it captures, in one go, an aspect of reality in which reality speaks-gives itself all-in-a-piece. To the philosopher (like the mathematician, physicist, artist), in their “innocence”, reality gives herself wholly, without mediation through other kinds of knowledge, but she presents herself with a face that expresses all of her concealed in her entirety.

Every field of knowledge grasps all that is real, but reality is given to it in a way that hides while revealing.

And here the fulfillment of Jesus’ question - the commandment of mutual love (John 15:12-17) - opens itself to the thinker (and the artist). Because it is in the actuality of this that the one reality can be approached by a perichoresis of different kinds of knowledge, in a circular dance of knowledge, that is light and in tune with the profound harmony of God. Each kind of knowledge is custodian of its approach to reality; reality that unfolds fully in the mutual embrace of the different kinds of knowledge, an embrace in which individual thinkers will be lead to stripping themselves of their own approaches, making them gifts for the others. To receive as a gift the real in its entirety, that transcends individual kinds of knowledge.

Jesus forsaken is always the teacher: being and non-being. Knowing how to face the “emptiness” that follows the true gift, “losing” one’s own knowledge out of love in the attentive listening to the other, joined in their knowledge by my knowledge, mine and no longer mine, and waiting for their gift of a response in which I find again my knowledge made more complete by theirs. Without making their knowledge pass through the maze, the grating of my knowledge, that would result in me being joined by none other than myself.

In this communion one can, in some way, catch, in the faces of reality through which it is reached by our knowledge, the one face that it speaks and does not speak, to reveal itself to our reciprocal love. Catching the face of the triune God, of Trinitarian perichoresis, that speaks itself while hiding in realities and opens itself in their communion.”
What Zanghí presents here in highly dense and poetic language is an understanding of reality, knowledge and God that is unlocked by what Jesus revealed about the Trinity, and therefore love, in his abandonment on the cross. Since love is about loving in a way that requires a total self-giving, to the point of becoming empty, and about being loved, where my emptiness is filled by the other’s total gift, and since the God whose very life is such love is the source of reality, it too can only be grasped in that same dynamic of love, and knowledge too follows the logic of self-giving to an empty recipient. As a result, reality (spoken by God) makes itself known to our mutual self-giving. Knowledge is received when we empty ourselves and offer ourselves as gifts to each other. In such a world, dialogue is fundamental, since it is the space where knowledge is received as gift. It becomes the privileged locus of understanding and participating in reality and the lives of others, rather than being a mere PR exercise or an attempt at influencing others and changing their minds.

With the above world-view, let’s finally turn to Zanghí’s reflection on faith and reason (pp. 38-39):
“Faith and reason are not two ways of knowing. Faith without reason would remain blind, suspended in emptiness. Reason without faith would remain unfulfilled desire. They would remain one outside the other, one foreign to the other, ripping man apart.

And reason could never offer its light, out of love, to penetrating in faith the mystery of God and as far as possible to opening his riches to a creature, allowing itself to be lead to the pinnacle of its power, and immersing in those riches the created realities. Reason, without faith, would remain folded in mortifying impotence.

And faith could not let penetrate to the heart of man the light of God who is God in his loving self-offering to the efforts of the creature - efforts which, moreover, are provoked by that very light. The promise of knowing in the way in which it is known (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12) would remain unfulfilled, the order of created things would not be illuminated by the divine Order, by the Trinity, but would have to give itself a poor and unsatisfactory foundation and unfolding.

We must unite the divine that is offered in faith immersed as “form” in reason, and the human that is open in reason, pulled to himself by God, in faith for being filled with light. Without confusion and without separation.

For me it has been a beautiful experience to follow the rush of reason unfettered by cultural blocks, to the point of feeling it welcomed by God, who responds to it in faith, in a perichoresis, still on a journey, of the divine and the human.

Faith, due to one of its aspects, is, in some way, reason itself being led by God, in the ecstasy of cognitive love, outside itself, remaining itself but permeated by Christ.

Reason in faith is, in some way, the voice of God in its exile of love in the world.

Reason is the material offered to God who gives it human-divine form in faith.

Reason as the seal of divine love that participates in man, as a creature, his Logos.

Faith as the tenderness of God-Love for his creature, whom He does not want to burn with His divine power but lead, respecting it in its creaturely weakness, in a consuming embrace in which the creature, while entering the searing heart-mind of God, must remain herself.

Faith, in short, as a moment of mediation between that which I can here, as a man, know of God through the Revelation of God, and that which I will then know of God in God’s own way, no longer mediated through faith. Remaining man, like Jesus at the right hand of the Father is always the man of Nazareth.”
What strikes me as I re-read these passages for at least the tenth time is that clear both-and instead of an either-or that Zanghí establishes between faith and reason. On the one hand, the picture he presents can be seen as showing reason as supreme, since faith only plays a temporary role, as tender protection against the overwhelming power of God and therefore as a means for preserving our identity in the face of God. On the other hand, his words can also be heard as exalting faith above reason, since faith is reason transfigured, Christified, an expression of God’s love.



1 I will render Zanghí’s “metafisico” as “philosopher” even though it might be more correct - but arguably more cumbersome - to say “metaphysician”.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Aquinas’ rational analysis of mercy



During this Year of Mercy, I would like to get a deeper and richer understanding of what mercy means and how it has been understood differently by a verity of thinkers. Looking back at the Synod on the Family, an obvious place to start is with St. Thomas Aquinas, who has been referred to there on several occasions as a benchmark and on whom Pope Francis too has relied when speaking about this subject. Among St. Thomas's works too there is a clear front-runner for getting a sense of how he understood mercy, which is his monumental Summa Theologiæ.

In the Introduction to the first part of the Summa, which runs to a total of 2.8 million words (!), St. Thomas presents his aims as follows:

“We purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. [... W]e shall try, by God's help, to set forth whatever is included in this Sacred Science as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.”
While sophisticated arguments for the Summa's brevity could be constructed, it is clearly not a work you'd find in the “for dummies” section, and clarity too could be contested with the contemporary reader in mind. What still makes the Summa highly attractive, to my mind, is its deeply rational approach, whose frame of reference may be dated but whose principles and method are decidedly current.

Just by way of a sample, before we proceed to mercy, here is what St. Thomas has to say about discussing faith with those who don't have it:
“If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.” [I, Q. 1, Art. 8, co.]
Taking the text at first sight, there are definitely things to get hung up about today - referring to one’s partner in dialogue as an opponent, making claims about infallibility - but, buy even just a sprinkling of the Principle of Charity, there is also a lot here that is accessible: understanding the limits of how far a person of faith can take one who is without it by reason alone, positioning reason as an unlimited ally of faith and posing a challenge to those who have faith, including the author of the above paragraph himself, to be prepared to present their faith on the level playing field of reason and to do so with confidence. It is not hard to see how the above is an invitation to humble, yet confident, dialogue and how such an attitude is echoed also in one of Benedict XVI’s most impactful exhortations made only three years ago almost to this day: “[T]he Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”

Turning to mercy now, and looking at the vast expanse of the Summa, we find that St. Thomas speaks about it 471 times there. First, he starts of by thinking about whether it is even possible for God to be merciful and he comes to the initial conclusion that the answer here, strictly speaking, has to be a resounding “no” [when air first read this, I liked his confidence in going wherever the inescapable train of logic leads him :)]:
“[A] person is said to be merciful [misericors], as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy. To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
To understand why St. Thomas dismisses the possibility of sorrow impelling God to act, let's go back to an earlier part of the Summa, where he presents his argument for God's immutability:
“God is altogether immutable [... because] there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.” [I, Q. 9, Art. 1, co.]
Whoa! What's with the potentiality versus act business? Let's backtrack a bit further to get to the bottom of this, key point:
“For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality.” [I, Q. 3, Art. 1, co.]
To get to the starting point then, we need to see how St. Thomas arrives at God being the First Being:
“But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” [I, Q. 2, Art. 3, co.]
Let's bring this all together and attempt an ultra-synthetic reconstruction of St. Thomas' argument from first principles: Because potentiality and actuality are mutually exclusive concepts, there is a need for a causal chain, which in turn necessitates a starting point. This starting point is God - a God who by being the first act cannot contain potentiality but only actuality. This also precludes him from sorrow and the desire to alleviate it, and therefore from mercy.

Rather than picking holes into the above (of which I see plenty, including a misunderstanding of infinity [see 19th century mathematicians such as Georg Kantor] and of causality [see David Hume]), I'd like to underline the rational rigor of St. Thomas’ method where he proceeds from the best available understanding of basic concepts and follows their consequences through with aplomb.

But why does he come back to mercy 471 times if he dismisses its applicability to God in the first pages of the Summa? Actually, he does not dismiss it at all and only points out that, when defined in human terms, mercy does not fit God 1:1. God's mercy - and therefore the mercy that we are ultimately called to live - is something other:
“To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God; but it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery, whatever be the defect we call by that name. Now defects are not removed, except by the perfection of some kind of goodness; and the primary source of goodness is God, as shown above (Q. 6, A. 4). It must, however, be considered that to bestow perfections appertains not only to the divine goodness, but also to His justice, liberality, and mercy; yet under different aspects. The communicating of perfections, absolutely considered, appertains to goodness, as shown above (Q. 6, AA. 1, 4); in so far as perfections are given to things in proportion, the bestowal of them belongs to justice, as has been already said (A. 1); in so far as God does not bestow them for His own use, but only on account of His goodness, it belongs to liberality; in so far as perfections given to things by God expel defects, it belongs to mercy.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
Human mercy hinges on identifying the other’s suffering with my own and alleviating it as my own. It is applied only to those others in whom I see myself. In some sense human mercy therefore passes through selfishness - I help you, but I do it by alleviating the root cause of my own suffering, which is your suffering. God’s mercy instead is devoid of selfish motives and is the result of goodness and justice given freely. I don't believe St. Thomas is speaking against human mercy here, but that he is pointing to what perfect justice looks like, as arrived at from rational first principles, and that this mercy is effectively a purified form of our own, where the good is done for its own sake and where all are therefore destinataries of mercy.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Comte-Sponville: non-dogmatic, faithful, atheist mysticism

Infinity

Avvenire, the Italian daily affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has published a very interesting piece yesterday by the French atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville, entitled “The atheist believes … But does not know whether God exists.” As I started reading it, I was immediately reminded of an enriching exchange with some atheist friends of mine - especially SC - after I wrote a very negative review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion some three years’ ago. SC, at the time, presented a new type of atheism to me, which acknowledges its belief in there being no God, as opposed to the New Atheists’ argument for that position following directly from rationality. Reading Comte-Sponville’s words made me immediately recognize that same position, and I would like to share an English translation of it with you here:
““Religion” and “spirituality” are not synonyms, nor should they be put on the same level. These two concepts function instead like species and genus: religions are a certain species, or several species, of the genus spirituality, but from among the many possible, some of which do very well without any personal God, indeed without any form of transcendence. [... S]pirituality is [simply] the life of the spirit.

Etymology speaks clearly: the two words, “spirit” and “spirituality”, derive from the Latin spiritus, which refers first of all to vital breath and, in second place, to inspiration, genius, wit, esprit. Now, atheists, as far as I know them, have no less spirit than others. Why should they have less spirituality? Why should they care less about spiritual life? As for me, I have always been interested in it. That’s how it was at the time of my youth, when I was a practicing Christian; but since I stopped believing in God, spirituality interests me even more, which might seem paradoxical and leads us to the heart of our subject. Those who have a religion, also have the spirituality that characterizes it. But how about those who do not belong to a religion? They seems devoid of spiritual resources, especially in the West. Even more reason to think about it. I summarize my position in one sentence: I am a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist. Why atheist? This is the simplest question: I do not believe in any God. Let’s not dwell on the reasons for my not believing; doing so would take me far away from the theme of my argument here, which is not metaphysics, but spirituality. Why a non-dogmatic atheist?

Because I obviously recognize that my atheism is not knowledge. How could it be? No one knows, in the true and strong sense of the verb “to know” whether God exists or not. It depends very much on the question that is addressed to me. If I am asked: “Do you believe in God?”, The answer is very simple: “No, I do not believe.” But if someone asks me, “Does God exist?”, the answer is necessarily more complicated, because, for intellectual honesty, I must begin by saying that I know nothing about it. Nobody knows. I say in my book, if anyone says, “I know for certain that God does not exist,” you are not dealing with an atheist, but a fool. The truth is that I do not know. Likewise, if you meet someone who tells you: “I know that God exists,” he is a fool who has faith, and who, foolishly, confuses faith with knowledge. But in the confusion between faith and knowledge I see a double error: a theological error, because in any respectable theology (at least in Christian theology) faith is a grace, while knowledge can not be; and a philosophical error, because it confuses two different concepts, that of belief and that of knowing. In short, I do not know if God exists or not; I believe that he does not.

A non-dogmatic atheism is an atheism that admits its own status as a belief, in this specific case a negative beliefs. Being non-dogmatic atheists is to believe (rather than to know) that God does not exist. But why a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist? A faithful atheist because, as an atheist, I remain bound with every fiber of my being to a number of values - moral, cultural, spiritual - many of which were born in the great religions and, in the case of Europe, the Judeo-Christian one (unless one wants to deny their history). […] Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I have to turn my back on 2000 years of Christian civilization or 3000 years of Judeo-Christian civilization.

Because I no longer believe in God doesn’t mean that I refuse to recognize the greatness, at least human, of the Gospel message. A spirituality without God is a spirituality of loyalty rather than of faith and of love in action rather than of hope. I could stop here, but I would be left with a feeling of not having touched the essentials. I said earlier that spirituality is the life of the spirit. Fine. But if the word is taken in such a broad sense, every human phenomenon ends up falling under the umbrella of spirituality: morality and ethics, of course, but also science and myths, the arts and politics, feelings or dreams. All this belongs to the spiritual life in a broad sense (in its cognitive, mental or emotional dimensions), to the life that, for clarity, you could define as psychological or mental (from the Greek psyche and the Latin mens, two words that can also be translated by the word “spirit”, but in semantic terms very different from those derived from the Latin spiritus). Now, it is not at all these areas that you think of when it comes to spiritual life.

It is better to take the word “spirituality” in a narrower sense (although, paradoxically, a more open one), making it a sort of subset of our mental or psychological life. The definition I propose is the following: spirituality is the life of the spirit, but especially in its relationship with the infinite, eternal, the absolute. This meaning seems to me to conform to its use and tradition. Our spiritual life is our finite relationship with the infinite, our temporal relationship with eternity, our relative relationship with the absolute. Thus defined, spirituality, at its must extreme, culminates in what is usually called mysticism.”
In an earlier interview, Comte-Sponville expands on what he means by “the absolute” as follows:
“This absolute, for them, isn’t a person, but the being or the becoming, the whole or nature, let’s say the immanent totality which contains them and surpasses them. They can ponder it, think about it, it’s what we call metaphysical, but also try it out, live it, and it’s this we call spirituality. We are open in the grand Open, as Rilke says. This opening, it’s the same spirit. Should I, because I am atheist, renounce all experience of eternity, the infinite, and the absolute? Certainly not. Many philosophers – for example Epicurus and Spinoza – have challenged the existence of a transcendental spirit, without renouncing the enjoyment of what Epicurus called ‘immortal rights’. It’s this I call a spirituality of immanence.”

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Adversus Scruton

Tracey emin

Is the body subject to the mind, or the mind something that the body does? Is it my body that holds me - my true, immaterial self - back, or is it my parasitic mind that inhibits the freedom of my body, my true, physical self? Ought I to favor the purity of ideas over messy matter, or the concreteness of being over the ephemeral nature of the mind?

Such questions are the polar opposites of a concept of the human person as a single being that is at home both in the material world and in a world that - at least apparently - is beyond matter: a world of thought, memory, relationships and values.

In the context of Christianity, the above is an opposition between the dualist heresy that denigrates matter and the body and attributes goodness only to the soul, and the concept of differentiated unity pervading the New Testament and made explicit in St. Paul speaking of the “spiritual body” [soma pneumatikón] (1 Corinthians 15:44). In Karl Barth’s words, “man is an embodied soul, a besouled body” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents an ultimately Trinitarian anthropology: “[t]he unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body. [... S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (§365).

With that brief preamble in mind, let us turn to a program by the philosopher Roger Scruton where he speaks about beauty, a subject very close to my heart (in the Homerian sense). Instead of being enlightening or thought provoking, Scruton’s position lead me to disappointment and frustration and, eventually (after some hesitation, given the strength of my initial aversion) to the writing of this piece.

There is a lot to be “against” in this hour-long program, but I will focus on only three of its, liberally intermingled, aspects here: superficiality, internal inconsistency and dualism.

Before arguing in favor of his positions’ flaws, I would first like to underline the good that I have seen in Scruton’s thought. For a start, I wholeheartedly share his insistence on the importance of beauty:

“I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home.”
Scruton also presents beauty in art as impelling its recipient towards the good - “The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy.” - and as a gateway to profound truths: “The most ordinary event can be made into something beautiful by a painter who can see into the heart of things.” And Scruton also aligns himself with Immanuel Kant’s emphasis of selflessness in art:
“Kant argued that the experience of beauty comes when we put our interests to one side; when we look on things not to use them for our own purposes or to explain how they work or to satisfy some need or appetite, but simply to absorb them and to endorse what they are.”
Sadly that is all I can echo from Scruton’s 6300 word defense of beauty, since the rest strikes me as little more than an attempt to justify what is to his taste and belittle what isn’t, instead of being an attempted enquiry into beauty.

The first issue I find with Scruton’s thought is that there is a tremendous superficiality and lack of charity in his approach to post-nineteenth-century art. This is coupled with a blanket attribution of goodness to all that came before it, paired with a universal belittling of all that came since. Virtually at the start of the program, Scruton declares:
“[I]n the 20th century beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality however achieved and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness. Architecture too has become soul-less and sterile. […] One word is written large on all these ugly things and that word is “Me.” My profits, my desires, my pleasures. […] Our world has turned its back on beauty and because of that we find ourselves surrounded by ugliness and alienation.”
To my mind this is little more than an expression of Scruton’s esthetic response to contemporary art rather than the result of an analysis either of its motives (in which he assumes beauty not to feature) or of its beauty (which, incidentally, Scruton never defines or analyses beyond declaring its presence or absence). If Scruton had taken the trouble to listen to even just the responses of those who were interviewed in his own program (!), he could have seen that beauty is very much still a driving force in contemporary art. Admittedly not a beauty that he might recognize or appreciate, but beauty nonetheless and not the universally base consumerist pursuit of selfish pleasures that he attributes it.

The clearest example in the program is the following passage from Tracey Emin being interviewed by David Frost about her 1998 piece “My Bed”:
Frost: “[T]he Tate says that it is [beautiful]. But what do you want the viewer, the visitor to the gallery to say? Do you want…. You don’t want them to say, ‘I think that’s beautiful.’”
Emin: “No, no one’s actually said that, only me.”
Frost: “You think it’s beautiful?”
Emin: “Yeah…. I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have showed it.”
Far from beauty being absent from artistic expression, Emin here not only points to it as the motive of her work (“otherwise I wouldn’t have showed [sic] it”) but, to my mind, also expresses a sadness about its absence from the minds of those who view her work.

Another piece that Scruton presents as an example for the absence of beauty is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” which, he argues “was [a] satirical [gesture], designed to mock the world of art and the snobberies that go with it.” In other words, Duchamp’s work is about mockery and is entirely disconnected from beauty. Interestingly, the Tate describes this work in different terms - as “testing the commitment of the new American Society to freedom of expression and its tolerance of new conceptions of art.” And, importantly, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, writing in a letter from 1917 describes his photograph of Duchamp’s work as “really quite a wonder – Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful – And it’s true – it is. It has an oriental look about it – a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.” Again, news of the death of beauty is greatly exaggerated ...

Finally, let’s look at the words of a third of the enemies of beauty as presented by Scruton - the conceptual artist and painter Michael Craig-Martin. During his interview with Scruton, he responds to a question about what the point was of the changes that Duchamp wanted to usher in, by saying:
“I also think it is important to say that the notion of beauty has been extended to include things that would not have been thought of – that’s part of the artist’s function, to make one see something as beautiful that no one thought was beautiful until now.”
The difficulty here is not that Scruton does not like what Emin, Duchamp and Craig-Martin have done - he is free to experience reality as he pleases - but that he equates the lack of his perception of beauty in their work with their own disinterest in beauty and that he attributes motives to them that are base and among which beauty does not figure.

A second flawed strand in Scruton’s arguments is a total lack of self-consistency. E.g., he is quite content to launch into a tirade against today’s “people”:
“Maybe people have lost their faith in beauty because they have lost their belief in ideals. All there is, they are tempted to think, is the world of appetite. There are no values other than utilitarian ones. Something has a value if it has a use and what’s the use of beauty? […] Our consumer society puts usefulness first and beauty is no better than a side-effect.”
And, almost in the same breath put the following question to Craig-Martin, as a challenge to contemporary art: “What is the use of this art? What does it help people to do?” In other words: “Consumer society puts utility before beauty, and what’s the use of contemporary art anyway?!”

Scruton also simultaneously does two things: he bemoans a “cult of ugliness” at the beginning of the program and, half an hour later, states that art has always done that:
“Of course, this habit of dwelling on the distressing side of human life isn’t new. From the beginning of our civilisation it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it in a work of beauty. Art has the ability to redeem life, by finding beauty even in the worst aspect of things. Mantegna’s crucifixion displaying the cruellest and most ugly of deaths achieves a kind of majesty and serenity”
The third flaw I see though is the one that presents the greatest gulf between the beauty that Scruton speaks about and the one that I know: his putting in dualist opposition of the ideal and the particular, of desire and adoration:
“But if human beauty arouses desire how can it have anything to do with the divine? Desire is for the individual, living in this world. It is an urgent passion. Sexual desire presents us with a choice: adoration or appetite? Love or lust? Lust is about taking, but love is about giving.

Lust brings ugliness – the ugliness of human relations in which one person treats another as a disposable instrument. To reach the source of beauty we must overcome lust.

This longing without lust is what we mean today by Platonic love. When we find beauty in a youthful person it is because we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a heavenly source beyond this world. The beautiful human form is an invitation to unite with it spiritually not physically. Our feeling for beauty therefore is a religious and not a sensual emotion.”
Beyond the questionable leaps from desire to sexual desire to lust, Scruton’s thought here too is self-inconsistent: lust leads to ugliness which makes one treat another as an instrument; beauty in youth points to “light of eternity”. To my mind Scruton’s proposal for how to engage with beauty is as objectifying as the sexually-lustful one he decries. In both the case of a source of beauty being turned into an object of one’s pleasure and the case of it being treated as a means for seeking an eternal ideal, that source of beauty is not engaged with for its own sake but is used as a device for satisfying its “consumer”’s ends. And while one can argue about the relative merits of those two ends, their seeking degrades beauty into a mere means.

Scruton’s thought here seems like a polar opposite of the caricature of contemporary art that he battles against, which, however, makes it a caricature too, pitting the beauty of the material and sensory against the beauty of the spiritual and ideal, instead of being open to the union and mutual enrichment of both.

Just to give an example of what an approach of differentiated unity - instead of dualism - looks like when applied to desire, let us consider the way Fr. James Martin, SJ speaks about it:
“[S]adly, desire has a disreputable reputation in many religious circles. When many hear the term, they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are often condemned by some religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist! The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life -- desire for food, shelter and clothing. [...]

The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that the Creator deals with the creation. They are also the way that God fulfills God’s own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.”
Such a recognition of good in desire leads to greater appreciation of the entirety of the universe we inhabit rather than to an a priori discarding of either the totality of the material/sensual or spiritual/ideal. In fact it leads to a vision of art like that of Pope Francis who said that “art must discard nothing and no one.”

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Ravasi: Borges’ agnostic Christology

CHRIST EN CROIX  CHAGALL

I have just come across a great talk by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on Jorge Luis Borges, given in Cordoba, Argentina last October in the context of the Courtyard of the Gentiles and his receiving an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Católica de Córdoba there. Ravasi gives some beautiful examples from Borges' poetry that illustrate his approach to Scripture and Christ and where Ravasi underlines the richness of his understanding and the depth of his sincerity, which come from what Pope Francis speaks about as “periphery”. Note that the following is my translated transcript of the talk and that a more extensive version of it can be found here in Spanish.

To Borges, boundaries are always moveable and subtle. There is never an iron curtain between truth and fiction, between waking and dreaming, between reality and imagination, between rationality and feelings, between the essential and consequences, between concrete and abstract, between theology and fantasy literature, between Anglo-Saxon conjecture and Baroque emphasis.

Among his readings, an undisputed primacy was given to the Bible, as he had confessed: “I must remember my grandmother who knew the Bible off by heart, so I could enter literature along the way the Holy Spirit.” His paternal grandmother was in effect English and practicing Anglican and it was her who introduced the little Jorge Luis to the Scriptures and to the exalted English language. During a talk given at Harvard, dedicated to the art of storytelling, Borges, extolling the epic poem as the oldest form of poetry, lead to a triptych of masterpieces for humanity: “The Iliad, The Odyssey and a third ‘poem’ that stands out above the others: the four Gospels ... The three stories of Troy, Odysseus and Jesus have been sufficient for humanity ... Even though, in the case of the Gospels, there is a difference: I think that the story of Christ can not be told better.”

Let us now leave behind this specific topic of the literary and existential panorama of Borges to focus on a narrower scope that is particularly rich, so much so that here has exercised a small legion of scholars. Here we will deal with the aforementioned passion of the author for the Bible and we will do so through two examples.

The first is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) that had a poetic evocation in a short composition “The Unending Rose” entitled, as Borges often liked to do by revisiting Bible passages, “Genesis IV, 8”:

“In the first desert it was.
Two arms cast a great stone.
No cry. Blood.
For the first time death.
Was I Abel or Cain?”
Next to it we must, however, place the broadest reading of this Biblical scene in “In praise of Darkness” where the two brothers meet again after the death of Abel in an atmosphere of the eschatological court, even though the scene is set in the desert and the origins of the world. They sit, light a fire, while the day comes to an end and the stars, as yet unnamed, light up in the sky.
“By the light of the flame, Cain noticed the mark of a stone indented in Abel's forehead and the bread he had raised to his lips fell before he could eat it and he asked whether his crime had been forgiven.

Abel answered:

“Did you kill me or did I kill you? I already cannot remember, and here we are, together like before.”

“Now, you must have forgiven me,” Cain said, “because to forget is to forgive. I will, too, try to forget.”

Abel replied softly:

“That's right. While the remorse lasts, so does the guilt.””
Some have seen in this text a relativist moral conception by which an imperceptible transition is performed between good and evil, true and false, virtue and vice. Actually here we instead witness a process of transformation or alteration that we have indicated above and that Borges performs to show the infinite potentialities of an archetypal text. The same text allows continual re-transcriptions and in this case the aim is a paradigmatic celebration of forgiveness that makes the crime vanish completely: revenge is erased by forgetting and through it, the blame of the other becomes dissolved. What certainly remains always active is the fluidity of historical human reality and, therefore, of ethics that, in vain - in the eyes of Borges - also the “inspired” word tries to compress into defined and definitive certainties.

The second example is linked to the figure of Christ as Borges proposes in some of his many texts dedicated to this fundamental figure of Christianity.
“The black beard hangs down heavy over his chest.
His face is not the face from the engravings.
It's harsh and Jewish. I do not see him
And will keep questing for him till the final
Day of my steps falling upon this earth.”
It was already in the twilight of his existence when Borges writes these verses of “Christ on the Cross”, dating them Kyoto 1984. They are verses of high spiritual tension, that all quote when they want to define Borges’ relationship with Christ, a hoped for encounter, but one that hasn’t occurred fully, bearing in mind that we don’t know his “last steps on earth”. Maria Lucrecia Romera wrote that “Borges confronts the tragic Christ of the Cross ... and not the [theological] doctrine of the Resurrection .. His is not the optics of the believer's faith, but that of the restlessness of the agnostic poet”. However, one needs to add immediately that the general observation made by the French writer Pierre Reverdy in his “En vrac” applies to certain of Borges’ verses: “There are fiercely harsh atheists who are much more interested in God than some frivolous and light believers”. Borges absolutely didn’t have “the fierce harshness” of an atheist, but his was certainly a more intense search than that of many pale and colorless believers. His restlessness was profound, hidden under the bark of a rhythmic dictation and streaked with disinterest, and even irony.

This is the intuition of Borges: the face of Christ is to be sought in the mirrors that reflect human faces. On the other hand, it was Jesus himself who said that everything done “to one of his least brothers”: hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, is done to him (Matthew 25:31-46). Behind the, often deformed, contours of human faces hides therefore the image of Christ and in this regard, the writer refers to St. Paul for whom “God is all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) . It is here, then, that we find Borges's invitation to follow him in this human quest for Christ in the faces of men:
“We have lost those features,
just as a magic number made up of ordinary figures can be lost;
just as an image in a kaleidoscope is lost for ever. We may come across the features
and not know them. The profile of a Jew on an underground train
may be that of Christ; the hands that give us our
change over a counter may echo those that some soldiers
once nailed to the cross.
Perhaps some feature
of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face
died and was erased so that God could be everyone.”
[Paradise, XXXI: 108]
Now, on the basis of Borgesian Christology, we undoubtedly find the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth who is born, dies, even proclaims himself Son of God, and, therefore, assigns himself a transcendent quality. The writer does not ignore this interweaving of divine and human, of absolute and contingent, of eternal and time, of infinity and the limit and, even while witnessing the side of humanity, does not hesitate to interpret Christ’s consciousness in a poem of extraordinary power, as is that of the original Gospel matrix that generates it.

Here the title is, certainly, more explicit still: “John I, 14” (in “In praise of Darkness”). The verse is cut from the that literary and theological masterpiece that is the anthem-prologue of the Fourth Gospel: “The Lógos (Word) became sarx (flesh) and made his dwelling among us.” A verse that is a counterpoint to the solemn opening words of the hymn: “In the beginning was the Lógos, and the Lógos was with God, and the Lógos was God.” (1:1). Let us consider how John's Lógos intrigued Goethe so much that in Faust he proposes a range of meanings to express its profound semantics: the Word is, certainly, Wort, word, but also Sinn, meaning, Kraft, power, and Tat, act, in line with the value of the parallel Hebrew word dabar, which means word and act/event. Let us read a few sentences from this surprising “autobiography” of the Word that is eternal (“Is, ​​Was, Is to Come”), but is also “time in succession.”
“I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is to Come
again condescend to the written word
which is time in succession and no more than an emblem. ...
I lived under a spell, imprisoned in a body,
in the humbleness of a soul. ...
I knew wakefulness, sleep, and dreams,
ignorance, the flesh,
reason’s roundabout labyrinths,
the friendship of men,
the blind devotion of dogs.
I was loved, understood, praised, and hung from a cross.”
***

During the round-table discussion after his talk, Cardinal Ravasi then made a very significant gesture of appreciation towards Borges:
"Borges could be the best patron of the Courtyard of the Gentiles. Because he is not only in the courtyard of the gentiles, and he is not only in the courtyard of the believers. He was, instead, on top of that wall that divided the two spaces. That wall allowed for a good view both from one side and from the other. And Borges is a bit of a believer, in his own way as he said, and also a gentile. And it is because of this that the Courtyard of the Gentiles that takes place here in Córdoba or in Buenos Aires, in his hame, is the best Courtyard of the Gentiles."
The patron [saint] of the Catholic Church's dialogue with non-believers is an agnostic!