Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Teilhard de Chardin’s Universe

Loeb sci american s

No reflection about the nature of the Universe can be complete without including the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, the French Jesuit philosopher, paleontologist and geologist. As a paleontologist, Teilhard participated in the discovery of Peking Man, while - as a philosopher and naturalist - he elaborated a profound analysis of evolution in his most famous work, The Phenomenon of Man. Not only does Teilhard endorse evolution and reconcile it with his religious beliefs, but he argues for it being a principle that governs not only life, but all of matter: from its earliest moments and forms trough the emergence of life and consciousness and beyond to future, social forms of thought, along an axis of increasing complexity and interconnectedness.

Instead of looking at Teilhard’s scientific and philosophical work, I would here like to think about how he understood the nature of the Universe as a Christian - a Christian who contributed to science at the highest level and whose philosophy (suppressed by the Catholic Church during his lifetime, but having received some endorsement from Pope Benedict XVI) is yet to see the widespread recognition it merits.

Among Teilhard’s writings, the richest and most in-depth source about his understanding of the universe is the beautiful book of reflections, meditations and prayers: Hymn of the Universe, which I recommend in full wholeheartedly. In one of its earliest chapter - “Fire over the Earth” - Teilhard presents his vision of cosmogenesis and its daily persistence in being matter:
“In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and molding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire. This is the truth.

So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made, which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being; everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.

Blazing Spirit, Fire, personal, super-substantial, the consummation of a union so immeasurably more lovely and more desirable than that destructive fusion of which all the pantheists dream: be pleased yet once again to come down and breathe a soul into the newly formed, fragile film of matter with which this day the world is to be freshly clothed.”
Teilhard then turns to God with the following words of invitation into, and already recognition of presence in, his own life:
“Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mold the manifold so as to breathe your life into it; I pray you, lay on us those your hands — powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us.

May the might of those invincible hands direct and transfigure for the great world you have in mind that earthly travail which I have gathered into my heart and now offer you in its entirety. Remold it, rectify it, recast it down to the depths from whence it springs. You know how your creatures can come into being only, like shoot from stem, as part of an endlessly renewed process of evolution.”
Finally, Teilhard identifies all of what is positive in the universe with Jesus’ body, and - in a stunning move of insight - all of what is suffering and death with His blood: a beautiful recognition of the being-by-non-being dynamic of the Trinity:
“Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.”
In the next chapter - “Fire in the Earth” - Teilhard revisits God’s presence in the Universe, and speaks about it as a fire permeating it at the macro and micro scales:
“Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.”
And he proceeds to derive from this extreme-encompassing presence of God a tension flowing from His simultaneous intimacy and transcendence:
“All of us, Lord, from the moment we are born feel within us this disturbing mixture of remoteness and nearness; and in our heritage of sorrow and hope, passed down to us through the ages, there is no yearning more desolate than that which makes us weep with vexation and desire as we stand in the midst of the Presence which hovers about us nameless and impalpable and is dwelling in all things. Si forte attrectent eum [“so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17:27)].”
Teilhard then speaks about an interconnectedness among all that is not restricted to the Universe, but that places God at its center and attributes to Him its unity:
“Now, Lord, through the consecration of the world the luminosity and fragrance which suffuse the universe take on for me the lineaments of a body and a face in you. What my mind glimpsed through its hesitant explorations, what my heart craved with so little expectation of fulfillment, you now magnificently unfold for me: the fact that your creatures are not merely so linked together in solidarity that none can exist unless all the rest surround it, but that all are so dependent on a single central reality that a true life, borne in common by them all, gives them ultimately their consistence and their unity.”
The final, extensive passage that I would like to share with you from Teilhard’s writings (still from the same “Fire in the Earth” chapter) contains an explicit comparison between his, Christian view of the Universe and a number of alternatives:
“What I experience as I stand in face of — and in the very depths of — this world which your flesh has assimilated, this world which has become your flesh, my God, is not the absorption of the monist who yearns to be dissolved into the unity of things, nor the emotion felt by the pagan as he lies prostrate before a tangible divinity, nor yet the passive self-abandonment of the quietist tossed hither and thither at the mercy of mystical impulsions.”
However, instead of dissociating himself from monist, pagan and quietist world views, as may seem to be the case at first, Teilhard goes beyond their rejection:
“From each of these modes of thought I take something of their motive force while avoiding their pitfalls: the approach determined for me by your omnipresence is a wonderful synthesis wherein three of the most formidable passions that can unlock the human heart rectify each other as they mingle: like the monist I plunge into the all-inclusive One; but the One is so perfect that as it receives me and I lose myself in it I can find in it the ultimate perfection of my own individuality; like the pagan, I worship a God who can be touched; and I do indeed touch him — this God — over the whole surface and in the depths of that world of matter which confines me: but to take hold of him as I would wish (simply in order not to stop touching him), I must go always on and on through and beyond each undertaking, unable to rest in anything, borne onwards at each moment by creatures and at each moment going beyond them, in a continuing welcoming of them and a continuing detachment from them; like the quietist I allow myself with delight to be cradled in the divine fantasy: but at the same time I know that the divine will, will only be revealed to me at each moment if I exert myself to the utmost? I shall only touch God in the world of matter, when, like Jacob, I have been vanquished by him.”
The above synthesis of disparate positions other than his own shows both a basis for dialogue with those who hold them (having recognized beauty, goodness and truth in each) and a going beyond each. It is not so much a rejection as an evolution of each into a single, richer whole, that Teilhard then makes explicit:
“Thus, because the ultimate objective, the totality to which my nature is attuned has been made manifest to me, the powers of my being begin spontaneously to vibrate in accord with a single note of incredible richness wherein I can distinguish the most discordant tendencies effortlessly resolved: the excitement of action and the delight of passivity: the joy of possessing and the thrill of reaching out beyond what one possesses; the pride in growing and the happiness of being lost in what is greater than oneself. Rich with the sap of the world, I rise up towards the Spirit whose vesture is the magnificence of the material universe but who smiles at me from far beyond all victories; and, lost in the mystery of the flesh of God, I cannot tell which is the more radiant bliss: to have found the Word and so be able to achieve the mastery of matter, or to have mastered matter and so be able to attain and submit to the light of God.”
Teilhard sees presence in the Universe as rich and complex to the point of self-contradiction, where “the most discordant tendencies [are] effortlessly resolved.” It is “a continuing welcoming [...] and a continuing detachment” lived in the bosom of “the One [who] is so perfect that as it receives me and I lose myself in it, I can find in it the ultimate perfection of my own individuality.” It is a presence in “the magnificence of the material universe,” a being smiled at by the God who permeates it and a game of discovering matter through God and God through matter. It is a vision that is able to recognize the good, the true and the beautiful, wherever it may be, and one in which the encounter with the Universe and with fellow humans is always also an encounter with God.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

In continuous search of the other


Just under a month ago, from 17th to 19th November, the Humanum conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” took place at the Vatican, hosted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There thirty speakers from around the world belonged to various religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity of various kinds, and the talks were wide ranging in the aspects of the family they addressed, reaching far beyond the titular question of complementarity.

In this post I would, however, like to zoom in on things said specifically about complementarity itself (even at the expense of leaving out other, also very interesting content), since that is a topic close to my own heart. The following will therefore be a look at the highlights of what has been said there about how men and women relate, using the hermeneutic of complementarity.12

Right at the start of the symposium, Pope Francis set the scene by rooting complementarity in the words of St. Paul and by panning out to show that it is a profound attribute of God, instead of only a device for thinking about men and women:
“You must admit that “complementarity” does not roll lightly off the tongue! Yet it is a word into which many meanings are compressed. It refers to situations where one of two things adds to, completes, or fulfills a lack in the other. But complementarity is much more than that. Christians find its deepest meaning in the first Letter to the Corinthians where Saint Paul tells us that the Spirit has endowed each of us with different gifts so that-just as the human body’s members work together for the good of the whole-everyone’s gifts can work together for the benefit of each. (cf. 1 Cor. 12). To reflect upon “complementarity” is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation. This is a big word, harmony. All complementarities were made by our Creator, so the Author of harmony achieves this harmony.”
Having set the scene, Francis then bridges God’s intrinsic harmony and its being the modus operandi of the family, also projecting out its consequences:
“This complementarity is a root of marriage and family. For the family grounded in marriage is the first school where we learn to appreciate our own and others’ gifts, and where we begin to acquire the arts of cooperative living. For most of us, the family provides the principal place where we can aspire to greatness as we strive to realize our full capacity for virtue and charity.”
And finally, Francis warns against an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of complementarity, which, I believe, have plagued thinkers both aligned with the Church and opposed to it:
“When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.”
The sketch presented by Pope Francis was then fleshed out by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose analysis departs from the question of (in)completeness:
“One’s own male or female being is not sufficient to oneself. Each one of us feels needy and lacking in completion. [... W]e do not complete ourselves from our own selves, we are not totally self-sufficient. This simple consideration, clear to all, would suffice to demonstrate the inadequacy of the markedly individualistic trait so characteristic to the modern mentality.”
This inbuilt individual self-insufficiency is, Müller argues, positive, since it impels us to go beyond ourselves and since it is in this way that we are in God’s image:
“[I]n the Bible difference is the place of blessing, the exact place where God will make present His action and His image. In this way, we can comprehend that in Scripture, each of the two, Adam and Eve, are measured not only according to their mutual relation but above all from the starting point of their relationship with God. Indeed, in the singularity of each and not only in their union as a couple, we find inscribed the image of the One who has created them. Here, man and woman share the same humanity, the same incarnate condition, and sexual difference does not imply subordination one to the other: “both man and woman are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God’s image” In this vein, Saint John Paul II said that male and female are as “two incarnations of the same metaphysical solitude before God and the world as two ways of being body and together [hu]man, who complete each other reciprocally.””
Next, Müller argues in a surprising twist that the union between man and woman has an unexpected consequence:
“[I]n the book of Genesis the union of man and woman does not lead to a fulfilment, does not close them within themselves, for it is precisely in uniting with each other that they open themselves to the greater presence of God. One might well say that in the very union of the two, man and woman render themselves needier, which makes increase in them the thirst of the mystery in the measure that their radical reference to the Creator God is revealed more clearly. The union sets off, therefore, a dynamic, a movement, as the Song of Songs recounts, in which the lover and beloved are at the same time in continuous search of the other and of God.”
Müller then arrives at considering the profound nature of complementarity and underlines it being anything but a polar stereotype:
“It is precisely the presence of God within the union between man and woman that helps us consider the meaning of their complementarity. This cannot be understood in a polar fashion, as if male and female were opposed realities who complete each other perfectly: active and passive, exterior and interior, so as to become a closed unity; rather, it is a matter of different ways of situating themselves in the world so that, when they come together, far from closing themselves in, these open the path towards the world and others, a path that leads above all to the encounter with God.”
The reality of children too can be seen from the perspective of incompleteness and of being directed towards God:
“The union of male and female is complementary not in the sense that from it ensues one complete in him or herself, but in the sense that their union demonstrates how both are a mutual help to journey towards the Creator. The way in which this union refers to itself always beyond itself becomes evident in the birth of a child. The union of the two, making themselves “one flesh,” is proven precisely in the one flesh of those generated by that union. Hence, we see confirmed how complementarity also means overabundance, an insurgence of novelty. From the presence of the child comes a light that can help us describe the complementarity of man and woman. The relationship of the parents with the baby, where both open out beyond themselves, is a privileged way to understand the difference between the man and the woman in their role as father and mother. Complementarity is not understood, therefore, when we consider man and woman in an isolated form, but when we consider them in the prospective of the mystery to which their union opens out and, in a concrete way, when we look at male and female in light of the relationship with the child.”
Finally, and only after an ample emphasis on the complexity, richness and God-centeredness of complementarity, does Müller speak about male and female characteristics, while again insisting that “male and female are dimensions that interconnect and exchange”:
“One might add that the female aspect is characterized by a constant presence, which accompanies always the child. Indeed, in German, when a woman is pregnant, we say that she “carries a baby beneath her heart” Contemporary philosophy has spoken of the feminine as a dwelling place, as presence that envelops man from the beginning and accompanies him along the way, as singular sensitivity for the person as gift and for his affirmation.

On the other hand, the male is characterized, in terms of the child, as the presence of someone “in the distance,”in a distance that attracts, and, therefore, helps in walking the journey of life.

Both male and female are necessary to transmit to the child the presence of the Creator,both as love that envelops and confirms the goodness of existence despite all else, and as a call that from afar invites one to grow. In this way, male and female are dimensions that interconnect and exchange, such that the woman enriches man and man the woman, because one participates in the property of the other and may transmit together to the child being in the image of God.”
In many ways, listening to Cardinal Müller reminds me of an, at first perplexing, but upon further reflection profound quote by the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek: “The only way to the universal good is that we all become strangers to ourselves.”

Another speaker at the conference whose words shed light on complementarity is Henry B. Eyring, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His words have great beauty and can also be seen as a lived experience of the concepts Müller presented:
“Most remarkable to me has been the fulfillment of the hope I felt the day I met my wife. I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her. We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined. Her capacity to nurture others grew in me as we became one. My capacity to plan, direct, and lead in our family grew in her as we became united in marriage. I realize now that we grew together into one—slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts. Our differences combined as if they were designed to create a better whole. Rather than dividing us, our differences bound us together.”
Wael Farouq, Visiting Professor of Islamic Studies at the Catholic University of Milano, extends the generative role of the male-female relationship to meaning and likens it to linguistic mechanisms:
“We can say that the complementarity of man and woman is an encounter which generates life and meaning not only in terms of children, but life and meaning which is at the heart of every encounter of man and woman in daily living.

The greatest danger the family faces today is its being emptied of all meaning, being turned into something that can be possessed, bought, and sold. [...]

In Arabic, there is no word “to be” or “being” in the absolute. For this reason, one single word has neither meaning or grammatical function, unless it is located in a sentence. You can only understand this verb in relation to the other elements of the sentence. The word in a sentence is like the person in a family: is nothing, unless within a relationship.”
Finally, Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, delivered an extraordinary speech, reflecting on a broad range of issues to do with the family. Focusing in just on the concept and role of complementarity, Sacks too emphasizes the importance of the relationship, of conversation:
“[T]ruth, beauty, goodness, and life itself, do not exist in any one person or entity but in the “between,” what Martin Buber called Das Zwischenmenschliche, the interpersonal, the counterpoint of speaking and listening, giving and receiving. Throughout the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinic literature, the vehicle of truth is conversation. In revelation God speaks and asks us to listen. In prayer we speak and ask God to listen. There is never only one voice. In the Bible the prophets argue with God. In the Talmud rabbis argue with one another. In fact I sometimes think the reason God chose the Jewish people was because He loves a good argument.”
Sacks then proceeds to revisit the value and purpose of otherness that Müller also emphasized, by providing a close reading of Genesis 3 where he links it to the desire for immortality and to the recognition of equal personhood:
“If we read [Genesis 3:19-21, the end of the story of Adam and Eve] carefully, we see that until now the first man had given his wife a purely generic name. He called her ishah, woman. […] For him she was a type, not a person. [...] What is more he defines her as a derivative of himself: something taken from man. She is not yet for him someone other, a person in her own right. She is merely a kind of reflection of himself.

As long as the man thought he was immortal, he ultimately needed no one else. But now he knew he was mortal. He would one day die and return to dust. There was only one way in which something of him would live on after his death. That would be if he had a child. But he could not have a child on his own. For that he needed his wife. She alone could give birth. She alone could mitigate his mortality. And not because she was like him but precisely because she was unlike him. At that moment she ceased to be, for him, a type, and became a person in her own right. [...]”
Finally, Sacks presents the consequences of man recognizing in woman a person in her own right, bound to him by love:
“At that moment, as they were about to leave Eden and face the world as we know it, a place of darkness, Adam gave his wife the first gift of love, a personal name. And at that moment, God responded to them both in love, and made them garments to clothe their nakedness, or as Rabbi Meir put it, “garments of light,” [since] the Hebrew word for “skin” is almost indistinguishable from the Hebrew word for “light.”

And so it has been ever since, that when a man and woman turn to one another in a bond of faithfulness, God robes them in garments of light, and we come as close as we will ever get to God himself, bringing new life into being, turning the prose of biology into the poetry of the human spirit, redeeming the darkness of the world by the radiance of love.”
Looking at the above thoughts in their totality - from Pope Francis’ broad strokes, via their profound elaboration by Cardinal Müller, through the personal witness of President Eyring and the Muslim perspective of Prof. Farouq, and being brought to fruition in the words of Rabbi Sacks - a picture emerges where complementarity is tightly linked to God Himself, more so than to men and women. Instead of having its roots in the differences between the two sexes, complementarity propels one person outside themselves and towards an other, towards a dynamic harmony. Instead of deriving from static differences between two parties, complementarity subsists imperfectly in the interpersonal and is fulfilled in the relationship between our finite selves and the infinite love of God. As such, instead of confining differences to their original owners, complementarity engenders their becoming gifts for the other - a mutual enriching and transfer of all that is good, beautiful and true. And while relationships between men and women are particularly suited for the coming about of complementarity, I believe that complementarity is a principle that acts in all human contact. Each one of us has distinctive contributions to make in our relationships with others, that can engage with what they lack and what they seek on the way to fulfillment, completeness and communion.

1For completeness sake, it is worth noting that, in addition to the speakers, whose thoughts on complementarity are covered here in detail, Sister M. Prudence Allen also spoke about it and did so in terms of four aspects of complementarity: equal dignity, significant difference, synergetic relation and intergenerational fruition.
2 Please, note that the following is not the order in which the talks were given.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The apostles screamed at each other

Cappella brancacci Predica di San Pietro restaurato Masolino

This morning, Pope Francis has started a new series of Wednesday General Audience talks about the family, given that we are in the year between two synods on the subject. Instead of launching straight into it, Francis today focused on last October’s Synod. After first thanking the media for their extensive coverage, he criticized them for reporting on the synod as if it had been a sports event, with opposing sides fighting each other, and then proceeded to provide his own account:
“Above all I have asked the Synod Fathers to speak frankly and with courage, and to listen with humility, to say all they had in their hearts, with courage. During the Synod there was no prior censorship, there wasn’t. Everyone could, even he had to, say what he had in his heart, what he thought sincerely. ‘But, Father, this will lead to arguments.’ That’s true, we saw how the apostles argued. The text says: a strong argument followed. They screamed at each other, the apostles, yes! Because they were seeking the will of God about the Gentiles, whether they could enter the Church or not. It was a new thing. Always, when you seek the will of God, in a synodal assembly, there are different points of view and there are arguments and that is not a bad thing! As long as it is approached with humility and a spirit of service to the assembly of brothers. But, it would have been a bad thing, eh!, to have prior censorship. No, no, everyone had to say what they thought.”
Francis then proceeded to present a walk-through of the Synod’s milestones, as has been covered previously on this blog, and then proceeded to reflect again on the confrontational nature of some of the proceedings:
“Some of you may ask: ‘But, father, have the Fathers fought?’. I don’t know about fighting, but they have raised their voices, yes, really, eh! And this is freedom, it is the freedom that’s in the Church. Everything happened “cum Petro et sub Petro,” that is, with the presence of the Pope, which is a guarantee for all of freedom and trust, and the guarantee of orthodoxy. And in the end, in my speech I gave a synthetic reading of the synodal experience.”
After emphasizing that there are only three official documents resulting from last October’s synod: the final message, the final report (Relatio Synodi) and his closing speech, Pope Francis spoke about what the synod is:
“We need to know that the synod is not a parliament, with the representative of this church, that church, another church … No, it’s not that. They are representatives, yes, but the structure is not parliamentary. It is totally different. The Synod is a protected space so that the Holy Spirit may work; there was no clash between factions, as in a parliament, which is licit in a parliament, but an exchange among Bishops, which came after a long process of preparation and now continues in further work, for the good of families, the Church and society. It’s a process, it is the normal synodal journey. Now this Relatio [Synodi] returns to the particular Churches, and in those Churches the work of prayer, reflection and fraternal discussion continues, in order to prepare for the next Assembly. This is the Synod of Bishops. We entrust it to the protection of the Virgin Mary our Mother. May she help us to follow the will of God, taking pastoral decisions that help the family most and best. I ask you to accompany this synodal journey until the next synod with prayer. May the Lord enlighten us, help us progress to the maturity of what we have to say to all the Churches as Synod. And it is important for you to pray for this. Thank you.”
I find Francis’ clarity very encouraging here and I believe that the openness of discussion that I saw during the Synod even just from the outside is very positive for the Church. After all, what is at stake is of great importance and discerning how to remain faithful to Jesus’ Good News today is a constant challenge. I very much look forward to what Pope Francis will speak about next Wednesday!

Monday, 8 December 2014

Dialogue, doubt and dangerous religion

Jacob s ladder 1973

The Courtyard of the Gentiles, the Catholic Church’s forum for dialogue with non-believers, met again in September, this time in Bologna. The event included a very interesting conversation between Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Gino Paoli, the agnostic singer-songwriter and former member of the Italian Parliament for the Communist Party, moderated by the journalist Beppe Severgnini. While the overall theme of the event was that of time, this event focused on questions of faith, doubt, encounter and the dangers of religion. Instead of a commented account, let me just offer you the following, translated transcript (with the usual caveats about my translation’s coarseness) of a conversation I greatly enjoyed and one that I hope will give you as much as it gave me. Here GP will stand for Gino Paoli, GR for Gianfranco Ravasi and BS for Beppe Severgnini (the Italian video is available here in full):
[BS asks GP what he thought when he received the invitation to talk with GR.]

GP: “I thought that the cardinal, being a dogmatic, would like to have dialogue. And, for me, dialogue is the most important thing. I don’t believe in the truth. I believe that my truth is mine, yours is yours and the cardinal’s is his. Through dialogue we may find one truth that contains all three. And I believe this is the intention of Cardinal Ravasi too.” [Ravasi nods.]


GP: “I believe that religion is not only about those who believe in something. Religiosity exists in all humans. Religiosity, not religion. I believe I too have a religiosity. It can’t be a dogmatic one, because I am an agnostic. I believe that it would take the same degree of wisdom to say that God exists as that God doesn’t exist, because there is no proof of either one or the other claim. I am someone who doesn’t know. And I don’t know with regard to many topics, I don’t even know about myself.”

[BS asks GR whether he thinks love songs, just with their subjects capitalized, could be used in churches - i.e., with the same intentions and sentiments as directed to another person, redirected to God.]

GR: “I would first like to distance myself a bit from a definition that Gino Paoli has assigned to me: dogmatic. Being considered a dogmatic can be good for a theologian, in the sense used by theologians. In its everyday sense, I feel less comfortable with it, because what is characteristic of believing, due to it not being like mathematics where there are theorems that may be self-evident and adherence to which is quasi-mechanical, is its being an experience of intelligence, love and interiority, which - as such - also includes dark moments, moments of silence. For example, if we take the sacred text par excellence and open it on its first pages, we see Abraham ascending Mount Moriah, holding his son’s hand, having received an order from God that is absolutely scandalous, that for him is absurd: he has to kill his son, whom he received from God, whom God promised to him! Further ahead, we find the figure of Job, who even gets to the point of blaspheming. There is an extraordinary phrase by Luther regarding these passages, who says: “Sometimes God appreciates a desperate person’s cursing more than the praises of a well-meaning bourgeois during a Sunday morning service.” […] Then there is another book of the Bible that you may not have read - Ecclesiastes, which presents the figure of a person who is in crisis, a crisis of wisdom, a crisis of meaning, yet it is a book of the Bible, which is the book of believers par excellence. Therefore I’d say that the history of the true believer is an arduous history that does include light but that certainly also includes many moments of shadows and darkness.”

GP: “I have read the Bible, the Qur’an, and other writings, in order to understand, because I don’t believe it would be right to decide whether yes or no if one doesn’t know. I believe that freedom is born of knowledge. You have the freedom to decide, but a you once it knows, not before. You can’t be for God or against God like you can be a supporter of Genoa or Sampdoria - that is not possible. That would be stupid. I have known men of faith, in fact one of the most important people in my life was a priest who was my philosophy professor. I have known many believers and from them I have understood that faith passes through doubt. Only doubt can lead to faith. There is no possibility of certainties. Certainties are not of faith, it is only doubts that lead to faith.”

GR: […] A phrase that I often use as a motto is a quote by the French writer Julien Green that says (specifically in the context of religion): “As long as you are restless, you may be at ease.”

GP: I’d go even further and say: as long as you are restless, you are alive.

GR: I’t true. This is true.


GP: “When does a value become a defect? A value can also be a defect, depending on where it becomes a defect. For example, the value of tolerance. At what point does it become a defect to accept certain things? The value of honor. When does such a positive positive thing become negative? When does doubt become a brake?

GR: Exactly. The same thing applies to vice and virtue. […] We have at one end of a scale coal and at the other end a diamond. Both have the same basis - carbon - both these extremes. Let’s think, for example, of a vice and let’s take the most sensational vice - even though the gravest one is pride - let’s take lust. Lust has its source in a virtue - the virtue of love and of the eros, which is poetry.


GR: “Let me get back to your question about songs though. […] There are certainly songs that are explicitly “mystical” (in quotes), for example those of Leonard Cohen and some of Bob Dylan’s […] and this is explicit. In other cases, it is true, there is also an implicitness, since poetry - by nature - is the sister of faith, because she always tries to go beyond the other. She doesn’t remain on the surface.

GP: Poetry, to begin with, is evocative. It lets the imagination of the listener run. In effect it is not what is written, but what is not written, not what is said, but what is not said. Therefore in a certain sense it is mystical. Whatever it may be, poetry is always surreal and, being surreal, and surrealism wasn’t born with that movement, it has always been. It is a given of art, of art in general.

GR: Yes, yes. [… Henry] Miller wrote a small essay - “The wisdom of the heart” - that contains this strange definition by him who wasn’t a believer, who was even quite ferociously against …, his definition is this, he says: “Art and religion are good for nothing, except for showing the meaning of life.”


GP: “Life is the art of encounter. Why? I could also say that it is the art of choice, which is the same thing. Because it is encounters that enrich you, that maybe wreck you; it is encounters that decide your life. Maybe for Cardinal Ravasi it is the encounter with faith, for another the encounter with a woman, for someone else the encounter with a friend. All depends on the encounters you have. On the one hand this depends on you, on the other hand it depends on fortune. […] I am very happy because I have had good fortune, because I have always met extraordinary people who have given me a lot, who have always given me a lot. I don’t know how much I have given, but the people I have encountered have always given me a huge amount. So, I have been very fortunate. […] I have realized that the riches of a man are his friends. Faith too can be a riches - they are both faces of the same coin. You have one particularly important friend [GP say with a big smile while looking at GR], maybe he is enough in comparison with many others, but I need the many others.

GR: The others are necessary too [GR adds with a laugh]. It is true … I’d like to add something about the dark mirror image of this point. One of the great ills of our time is that of isolation and solitude. […] It is Saturday now and there certainly is a person now in this city in a block of flats who sits by a phone and waits for it to ring. Because if it rings, it means that there is still someone out there who remembers me. For us the ringing of the phone or the front door is a nuisance, but for this person it remains mute and will remain mute tomorrow too, on Sunday, because they have no one to encounter. Maybe they are old, ill, a stranger, someone who has virtually no one. […] This is the true poverty of life.

GP (after speaking about an initiative to help those who are alone): “Every evil, every mistake creates something good in some way. I love a person not because of their virtues, their successes. I love a person because of their fragility, their mistakes, their - and excuse me - cock-ups. I think, deep down, even a sad thing like solitude has its purpose. It has a function with regard to those who are still willing to be generous. I think that one of the most worthy things about a person - according to me - is their human generosity. And this generosity is brought to the fore by evil, by misery, by solitude …


[BS asks: what can we, in the media and the music industry, which have egoistical, individualist tendencies, do to understand Jesus’ saying “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20:35)]

GR: Christ’s saying, quoted by St. Paul, is the essence of one of his constant laws, which is paradoxical in economic terms and which is that of loosing for the sake of finding. If one gives something, one deprives oneself of that thing, but if it is given out of love, paradoxically, one becomes enriched. This is also the logic of being in love. When two who are in love start looking at the value of the gifts they give each other, it is a sign that they will break up. So, it is beyond doubt that this law of self-giving, of giving something that gives you joy in the act of giving, is a characteristic both of faith and of the great value of love. […] I would also link this act of giving to face-to-face encounter. [… Then, Card. Ravasi tells the Tibetan story that can be found here.] Giving means overcoming fears and distances, overcoming diversity, and then through this encounter with humanity, with our shared countenance, enables us to give and leads to joy as a result.

GP (addressing GR): […] You have told an extraordinary story. Until you don’t look your enemy in the face, you don’t understand that he is your brother. [… How come we have then seen the followers of different religions over the last centuries stop looking at the faces of their enemies and commit atrocities?]

GR: I’d start with a joke by the philosopher David Hume, who was a skeptic, and who said: “The errors of philosophy are always ridiculous, the errors of religion are always dangerous.” Religion, because it is a reality that completely involves the whole person, and not only reason, but also feelings and passions, when it enters a person, it may become deformed. […] The human person has a fundamental attribute, which is that of freedom. […] Human nature takes this flame [of freedom] in its own hands, this reality that - by its very nature is explosive, explosive also in a good sense - lets just think about the extraordinary things that an authentic believer is capable of - […] and here I include believers who are maybe not explicitly so, who have in them faith in a value. This reality [of religion], suffused in human freedom can also become explosive in the sense that it throws you in the air, or it can lead to deviations from ulterior motives where transcendence is taken as an excuse and becomes an instrument of perversion. This is why I’d say that we need to be extremely careful with living a religion. It is much easier to die for a religion than to live it every day in a continuous, coherent way according to that law we spoke about before. This is why I believe, as a believer and a person who belongs to a religion, that we have to be careful because religion is dangerous, not only grandiose.

GP: I completely agree about religion being dangerous, but I have a slightly different view. I think that religion, as a human movement is very positive and leads to good things. It becomes dangerous when it goes from being such a movement to becoming power. Power over others, over a large number of persons, and this power links to economy, to politics, to many things. To accuse religion alone of disasters is fairly simplistic, because that religion in that moment becomes the instrument of […] someone who through it seeks power and their own interests. […] According to me religion is dangerous to the degree to which it becomes power. I would agree that before that point it is positive, but when linked to power it becomes absolutely dangerous.

GR: Yes, I agree! If you go back to what I said about the dangers of religion earlier, whether it be a king or a modest citizen, if they grab hold of religion and use it as a banner under which to seek their own interests, it is the same, without a doubt. And therefore, I believe, we always have to be careful with religion to avoid its abuse as power, as an instrument. I completely agree with you here.


GR: About music, I would just like to share something from the world I know best, which is that of the Bible and of Judaism. There, there is a description of how music was born. In the Bible there is a scene, […] a vision of Jacob, one of the great patriarchs of Israel, it is a vision that is presented in chapter 28 of Genesis. It is night and he is escaping from his brother Esau, who wants to kill him, because Jacob tricked him out of some inheritance, and he arrives in this place called Bethel - the house of God. He falls asleep on a rock and at night he has a vision. The vision is this: angels are coming down a stairway, from heaven to earth, and they keep coming down. The angels are like ambassadors of God and they bring a message to Jacob that he will be the father of a people who will inherit this land. This is what the Bible account says. The judaic tradition goes further and has imagined this: after the angels passed on the message to Jacob, they go back to heaven, but they forget one thing, to remove the stairway. This stairway has remained on Earth. And judaic tradition says that it is the musical scale - it is the way to God. The stairs along which to scale up towards the eternal and infinite.

[The event then concluded with a concert by Gino Paoli.]
In my opinion this is another great example of a dialogue, an encounter to use Paoli's terminology, where profound questions have been illuminated from two perspectives - one whose optics do not include a belief in God and one whose optics do, and where I feel enriched by both. My overwhelming impression here is again one of a tremendous amount of shared value between the two, which - to my mind - is a great source of joy. The picture it reminds me of is that of the relationship between water and tea that the present Dalai Lama used to talk about the two perspectives.

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Catechism’s Universe


After sharing sketches of how Pope Francis and Chiara Lubich have spoken about the universe, I will have take a quick look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the subject. As in the previous two cases, the terms “universe” (used 18 times), “cosmos” (6x) and “creation” (125x) are again used as synonyms, while the term “world” refers to social, cultural, economic, political realities (219x, two of which, however, synonymously with “universe”). Note also that the following overview will (with some small exceptions) follow the sequence laid out in the Catechism, since there is a clear logic to it and since that logic itself is worth paying attention to.

The Catechism’s exposition of a Catholic understanding of the universe starts from the central mystery of faith - the Trinity, where the universe is introduced as a source of clues about it and evidence for it:
“The Trinity is a mystery of faith in the strict sense, one of the “mysteries that are hidden in God, which can never be known unless they are revealed by God.” To be sure, God has left traces of his Trinitarian being in his work of creation [...]” (§237)
The importance of the universe is then highlighted by pointing out that it is mentioned in the very first verse of Scripture (Genesis 1:1) and that the belief in its being created by God is part of the most succinct exposition of faith - the creed:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Holy Scripture begins with these solemn words. The profession of faith takes them up when it confesses that God the Father almighty is “Creator of heaven and earth” (Apostles’ Creed), “of all that is, seen and unseen” (Nicene Creed).” (§279)
Very soon after the close bond between God and the universe is established, the good of scientific enquiry into the working of the universe is declared, as is its potential to enrich our relationship with God:
“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers. With Solomon they can say: “It is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists, to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements... for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.”” (§283)
Creation is then presented as the start of a sequence where a relationship with God follows the creation of the universe and that culminates in His own dwelling among us:
“Creation is revealed as the first step toward [God’s] covenant [with humanity], the first and universal witness to God’s all-powerful love.” (§288)

“The glory of God consists in the realization of [the] manifestation and communication of his goodness, for which the world was created. God made us “to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace,” for “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” [...]” (§294)
The deep rationality of the universe and God’s invitation for us to engage with it by participating in His own “being, wisdom and goodness” are presented next, alongside the affirmation of our human intellect being capable of understanding the universe (whose “measurability” is also declared):
“We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God’s free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom, and goodness: “For you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” Therefore the Psalmist exclaims: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”; and “The LORD is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.”” (§295)

“Because God creates through wisdom, his creation is ordered: “You have arranged all things by measure and number and weight.” The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the “image of the invisible God,” is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the “image of God” and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation, though not without great effort and only in a spirit of humility and respect before the Creator and his work. Because creation comes forth from God’s goodness, it shares in that goodness — “And God saw that it was good... very good” — for God willed creation as a gift addressed to man, an inheritance destined for and entrusted to him. On many occasions the Church has had to defend the goodness of creation, including that of the physical world.” (§299)
The Catechism then also talks about our response to God speaking to us also through the universe, which takes on the form of us searching for Him:
“Man is in search of God. In the act of creation, God calls every being from nothingness into existence. “Crowned with glory and honor,” man is, after the angels, capable of acknowledging “how majestic is the name of the Lord in all the earth.” Even after losing through his sin his likeness to God, man remains an image of his Creator, and retains the desire for the one who calls him into existence. All religions bear witness to men’s essential search for God.” (§2566)
At the same time as creating an intelligible universe, God himself infinitely exceeds it both at the macro and micro scales and remains ineffable:
“God is infinitely greater than all his works: “You have set your glory above the heavens.” Indeed, God’s “greatness is unsearchable.” But because he is the free and sovereign Creator, the first cause of all that exists, God is present to his creatures’ inmost being: “In him we live and move and have our being.” In the words of St. Augustine, God is “higher than my highest and more inward than my innermost self.” (§300)
God’s relationship to the universe is not that of an absentee father who withdraws from his offspring. Instead, He “upholds and sustains” its being:
“With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing this utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy and confidence: “For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living.”” (§301)
Instead of the universe having sprung forth fully-formed, it was created “in a state of journeying,” on a journey that contains the “free action of creatures”:
“Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created “in a state of journeying” (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it. We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward this perfection: “By his providence God protects and governs all things which he has made, “reaching mightily from one end of the earth to the other, and ordering all things well.” For “all are open and laid bare to his eyes,” even those things which are yet to come into existence through the free action of creatures.” (Vatican Council I, Dei Filius 1: DS 3003; cf. Wis 8:1; Heb 4:13.)” (§302)
Coming back to its relationship with the Trinity, the universe’s links to all three divine Persons are emphasized:
“God created the universe and keeps it in existence by his Word, the Son “upholding the universe by his word of power” (Heb 1:3) and by his Creator Spirit, the giver of life.” (§320)
That the Genesis account is symbolical and a hint at the universe’s inner nature is presented next:
“God himself created the visible world in all its richness, diversity, and order. Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine “work,” concluded by the “rest” of the seventh day. On the subject of creation, the sacred text teaches the truths revealed by God for our salvation, permitting us to “recognize the inner nature, the value, and the ordering of the whole of creation to the praise of God.”” (§337)
Then, God being the source of all that exists is underlined:
“Nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history are rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun.” (§338)
The Catechism then speaks about the universe’s beauty, which points beyond itself to the beauty of God, as the trigger for our desire to understand it, which - incidentally - is not dissimilar to how atheists like Richard Dawkins speak about awe and wonder1:
“The beauty of the universe: The order and harmony of the created world results from the diversity of beings and from the relationships which exist among them. Man discovers them progressively as the laws of nature. They call forth the admiration of scholars. The beauty of creation reflects the infinite beauty of the Creator and ought to inspire the respect and submission of man’s intellect and will.” (§341)
Having sketched out the key features of how the universe relates to God, what it is and how our engaging with it is also an engaging with God, the intimate nature of the relationships between humans and the rest of the universe is laid out:
“There is a solidarity among all creatures arising from the fact that all have the same Creator and are all ordered to his glory: “May you be praised, O Lord, in all your creatures, especially brother sun, by whom you give us light for the day; he is beautiful, radiating great splendor, and offering us a symbol of you, the Most High.... May you be praised, my Lord, for sister water, who is very useful and humble, precious and chaste.... May you be praised, my Lord, for sister earth, our mother, who bears and feeds us, and produces the variety of fruits and dappled flowers and grasses.... Praise and bless my Lord, give thanks and serve him in all humility.” (St. Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Creatures.)” (§344)

“The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.” (§374)

“By the radiance of this grace all dimensions of man’s life were confirmed. As long as he remained in the divine intimacy, man would not have to suffer or die. The inner harmony of the human person, the harmony between man and woman, and finally the harmony between the first couple and all creation, comprised the state called “original justice.”” (§376)
This harmony among God, man and woman and the universe is not only there as a good in itself, but also a basis for men and women to work with God:
“The sign of man’s familiarity with God is that God places him in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation.” (§378)

“Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him. It can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ.” (§2427)

“The primordial value of labor stems from man himself, its author and beneficiary. By means of his labor man participates in the work of creation. Work united to Christ can be redemptive.” (§2460)
The idea of God’s traces in the universe, introduced in the early paragraphs of the Catechism is picked up again and our capacity to intuit God’s actions from what is accessible through sensory perception is highlighted. The empirical here becomes a conduit for what lies beyond it (echoing St. Paul’s “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12)) - “the universal language of creation”:
“God speaks to man through the visible creation. The material cosmos is so presented to man’s intelligence that he can read there traces of its Creator. Light and darkness, wind and fire, water and earth, the tree and its fruit speak of God and symbolize both his greatness and his nearness.” (§1147)

“Inasmuch as they are creatures, [...] perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God. The same is true of signs and symbols taken from the social life of man: washing and anointing, breaking bread and sharing the cup can express the sanctifying presence of God and man’s gratitude toward his Creator.” (§1148)

“The practice of goodness is accompanied by spontaneous spiritual joy and moral beauty. Likewise, truth carries with it the joy and splendor of spiritual beauty. Truth is beautiful in itself. Truth in words, the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality, is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect. But truth can also find other complementary forms of human expression, above all when it is a matter of evoking what is beyond words: the depths of the human heart, the exaltations of the soul, the mystery of God. Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos—which both the child and the scientist discover — “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.”” (§2500)
God’s presence in the universe, its being a gift to us and a means by which God speaks to us and we can strive to know him, also mean that it calls for respect and care:
“Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.” (§1049)
And not only is care in order, but a just and universal access to the goods contained in the universe:
“In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. However, the earth is divided up among men to assure the security of their lives, endangered by poverty and threatened by violence. The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men.” (§2402)

“The seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity. Use of the mineral, vegetable, and animal resources of the universe cannot be divorced from respect for moral imperatives. Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” (§2415)
And finally, the universe - as “the great book of creation” - is also presented as helping us to meditate:
“Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history—the page on which the “today” of God is written.” (§2705)
In summary, the Catechism presents a universe that is intimately linked with God, who is its source and who sustains it and who also speaks to us through it. This communication is in the form of God’s “traces” in the universe and in the form of an invitation to engage with it rationally (as a pointer to God’s wisdom) and through beauty (as a foretaste of the beauty of God Himself). The universe is more than just a teaser for the goodness, truth and beauty of what is to come and is a good in itself, to be developed and enjoyed by all in a just and equitable way. This is a universe that we are call to care for and think of in the context of the relationships among us and with God.

1 “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.” ― Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Harmony in diversity

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Last weekend Pope Francis visited Turkey, a country where 99.8% of the population is Muslim and where there are only about 35,000 Roman Catholics - truly a peripheral choice, fitting perfectly into Francis’ focus throughout his pontificate. What I would like to do in this post is just to pick out a couple of my favorites from among the things the pope said and share with you three photos - the two at the top, of Francis praying with Istanbul’s Grand Mufti Rahmi Yaran in the Blue Mosque and the one in the middle of Francis - and with him the entire Roman Church - being blessed (and kissed on the head) by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.

In his first address in Turkey, to civil authorities, Francis emphasized the centrality of human dignity and brotherhood:
“Today what is needed is a dialogue which can deepen the understanding and appreciation of the many things which we hold in common. Such a dialogue will allow us to reflect sensibly and serenely on our differences, and to learn from them.

There is a need to move forward patiently in the task of building a lasting peace, one founded on respect for the fundamental rights and duties rooted in the dignity of each person. In this way, we can overcome prejudices and unwarranted fears, leaving room for respect, encounter, and the release of more positive energies for the good of all.

To this end, it is essential that all citizens – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – both in the provision and practice of the law, enjoy the same rights and respect the same duties. They will then find it easier to see each other as brothers and sisters who are travelling the same path, seeking always to reject misunderstandings while promoting cooperation and concord. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression, when truly guaranteed to each person, will help friendship to flourish and thus become an eloquent sign of peace.”
Later during the first day, Francis addressed the president of the Diyanet, the Department For Religious Affairs, denouncing religious extremism and fundamentalism:
“Particular concern arises from the fact that, owing mainly to an extremist and fundamentalist group, entire communities, especially – though not exclusively – Christians and Yazidis, have suffered and continue to suffer barbaric violence simply because of their ethnic and religious identity. They have been forcibly evicted from their homes, having to leave behind everything to save their lives and preserve their faith. This violence has also brought damage to sacred buildings, monuments, religious symbols and cultural patrimony, as if trying to erase every trace, every memory of the other.

As religious leaders, we are obliged to denounce all violations against human dignity and human rights. Human life, a gift of God the Creator, possesses a sacred character. As such, any violence which seeks religious justification warrants the strongest condemnation because the Omnipotent is the God of life and peace. The world expects those who claim to adore God to be men and women of peace who are capable of living as brothers and sisters, regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural or ideological differences.”
The next day, during his homily at the Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul, Francis focused first on the fundamental role of the Holy Spirit in our lives and then on the nature of diversity in unity:
“When we pray, it is because the Holy Spirit inspires prayer in our heart. When we break the cycle of our self-centredness, and move beyond ourselves and go out to encounter others, to listen to them and help them, it is the Spirit of God who impels us to do so. When we find within a hitherto unknown ability to forgive, to love someone who doesn’t love us in return, it is the Spirit who has taken hold of us. When we move beyond mere self-serving words and turn to our brothers and sisters with that tenderness which warms the heart, we have indeed been touched by the Holy Spirit.

It is true that the Holy Spirit brings forth different charisms in the Church, which at first glance, may seem to create disorder. Under his guidance, however, they constitute an immense richness, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of unity, which is not the same thing as uniformity. Only the Holy Spirit is able to kindle diversity, multiplicity and, at the same time, bring about unity. When we try to create diversity, but are closed within our own particular and exclusive ways of seeing things, we create division. When we try to create unity through our own human designs, we end up with uniformity and homogenization. If we let ourselves be led by the Spirit, however, richness, variety and diversity will never create conflict, because the Spirit spurs us to experience variety in the communion of the Church. [...] Saint Basil the Great’s lovely expression comes to mind: “Ipse harmonia est”, He himself is harmony.

The temptation is always within us to resist the Holy Spirit, because he takes us out of our comfort zone and unsettles us; he makes us get up and drives the Church forward. It is always easier and more comfortable to settle in our sedentary and unchanging ways. In truth, the Church shows her fidelity to the Holy Spirit in as much as she does not try to control or tame him. And the Church shows herself also when she rejects the temptation to look only inwards. We Christians become true missionary disciples, able to challenge consciences, when we throw off our defensiveness and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit. He is freshness, imagination and newness.”
On the Saturday evening then came a particularly moving moment of “mystical tenderness” (as Fr. Antonio Spadaro, SJ put it), shown in the following photo and following these words by Pope Francis, addressed to the Patriarch Bartholomew:
“Andrew and Peter heard [the promise of joy]; they received this gift. They were blood brothers, yet their encounter with Christ transformed them into brothers in faith and charity. In this joyful evening, at this prayer vigil, I want to emphasize this; they became brothers in hope – and hope does not disappoint us! What a grace, Your Holiness, to be brothers in the hope of the Risen Lord! What a grace, and what a responsibility, to walk together in this hope, sustained by the intercession of the holy Apostles and brothers, Andrew and Peter! And to know that this shared hope does non deceive us because it is founded, not upon us or our poor efforts, but rather upon God’s faithfulness.

With this joyful hope, filled with gratitude and eager expectation, I extend to Your Holiness and to all present, and to the Church of Constantinople, my warm and fraternal best wishes on the Feast of your holy Patron. And I ask a favour of you: to bless me and the Church of Rome.”
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The final day of Francis’ trip - Sunday 30th November, the feast day of St. Andrew, patron saint of the Orthodox Church - started with an address during the Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the Patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul, where his focus was on the relationship between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and where he first underlined deeply personal nature of the Christian life:
“Meeting each other, seeing each other face to face, exchanging the embrace of peace, and praying for each other, are all essential aspects of our journey towards the restoration of full communion. All of this precedes and always accompanies that other essential aspect of this journey, namely, theological dialogue. An authentic dialogue is, in every case, an encounter between persons with a name, a face, a past, and not merely a meeting of ideas.

This is especially true for us Christians, because for us the truth is the person of Jesus Christ. The example of Saint Andrew, who with another disciple accepted the invitation of the Divine Master, “Come and see”, and “stayed with him that day” (Jn 1:39), shows us plainly that the Christian life is a personal experience, a transforming encounter with the One who loves us and who wants to save us. In addition, the Christian message is spread thanks to men and women who are in love with Christ, and cannot help but pass on the joy of being loved and saved. Here again, the example of the apostle Andrew is instructive. After following Jesus to his home and spending time with him, Andrew “first found his brother Simon, and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus” (Jn 1:40-42). It is clear, therefore, that not even dialogue among Christians can prescind from this logic of personal encounter.”
Next, Francis reiterated the Vatican II Unitatis Redintegratio position that the Catholic Church recognizes that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy” and that “it is of the greatest importance to preserve and support the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches.” He then set out his vision for the road towards full communion:
“I believe that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation. Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit. I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.”
And finally, he called for joint action already, as a consequence of being Jesus’ disciples, in three areas: the poor, the victims of conflicts and young people.

Next followed a common declaration by Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew, of their desire “to intensify our efforts to promote the full unity of all Christians, and above all between Catholics and Orthodox. [...] asking our faithful to join us in praying “that all may be one, that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21).” And finally, Pope Francis went to meet with young refugees from Turkey, Syria and Iraq who were being looked after by Salesians in Istanbul, where he said:
“Dear young people, do not be discouraged. It is easy to say this, but please make an effort not to be discouraged. With the help of God, continue to hope in a better future, despite the difficulties and obstacles which you are currently facing. [...] Remember always that God does not forget any of his children, and that those who are the smallest and who suffer the most are closest to the Father’s heart.”
As has been customary on Pope Francis’ trips, there was a press conference this time too during the return flight, where journalists could ask him questions directly. Here I’d just pick out his answer to a question about what praying in the Blue Mosque meant for him:
“I went there, to Turkey, as a pilgrim, not as a tourist. And I went there primarily for the feast [of St. Andrew] that we celebrated today: I came precisely to share it with Patriarch Bartholomew, with a religious motive. But then, when I went to the mosque, I could not say, “No, now I’m a tourist.” No, it was all religious. And I saw that wonderful place! The mufti explained things well to me, with such gentleness, and also using the Qur’an, which speaks of Mary and John the Baptist, he explained everything to me ... That’s when I felt the need to pray. And I said: “Shall we pray a bit?” - “Yes, yes,” he said. And I prayed for Turkey, for peace, for the mufti ... for all ... for myself, since I need it ... I prayed, really ... And I prayed for peace, above all. I said, “Lord, let’s put an end to these wars ...” So, it was a moment of sincere prayer.”

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pope Francis’ Universe


As I outlined in the first installment of this series, I am in the process of looking at how the universe is being thought of from different perspectives and by thinkers of different backgrounds. After a brief look at Chiara Lubich’s intellectual visions concerning creation, I would now like to share a high-level view of how Pope Francis has been speaking about this topic.

The first thing to note is that he uses the terms “universe,” “creation,” and “nature” (with the odd mention of “cosmos”) interchangeably, while referring to social, economic and cultural spheres when speaking about the “world.” With this categorization, we can look at what Francis thinks the universe is, how he speaks about approaching and understanding it, what value he gives it and what relationship he proposes for us to have with it.

The most important point in terms of which to read all that follows is the intimate relationship Francis sees between God and “the universe, the precious gift of the Creator”:
“[T]he Holy Trinity […] leads us to contemplate and worship the divine life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: a life of communion and perfect love, origin and aim of all the universe and of every creature: God.” (Angelus, 15th June 2014)
Not only is the universe God’s gift to us and a gift that has both source and destination in the inner life of the Trinity, but it is also permeated by God’s presence:
“God and Christ walk with us and are present also in nature, as the Apostle Paul affirmed in his address at the Areopagus: “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). When we read in Genesis the account of Creation, we risk imagining that God was a magician, with such a magic wand as to be able to do everything. However, it was not like that. He created beings and left them to develop according to the internal laws that He gave each one, so that they would develop, and reach their fullness. He gave autonomy to the beings of the universe at the same time that He assured them of his continual presence, giving being to every reality.” (Address to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 27th October 2014)
God is paradoxically, simultaneously present throughout the universe, giving it being, and at the same time investing it with laws and autonomy. He desires its development, but remains close to his creation. Francis then, in the same speech, elaborates on the significance of these God-given laws of nature:
“The beginning of the world was not the work of chaos, which owes its origin to another, but it derives directly from a Supreme Principle who creates out of love. The Big-Bang, that is placed today at the origin of the world, does not contradict the divine intervention but exacts it. The evolution in nature is not opposed to the notion of Creation, because evolution presupposes the creation of beings that evolve.”
The world is not arbitrary, but has order, which it turn leads to repeatability and therefore rationality, making the universe knowable - an aspect of God’s gift that Francis values highly, and about which he speaks in the context of its relationship with faith and truth in the encyclical Lumen Fidei (§34):
“A common truth intimidates us, for we identify it with the intransigent demands of totalitarian systems. But if truth is a truth of love, if it is a truth disclosed in personal encounter with the Other and with others, then it can be set free from its enclosure in individuals and become part of the common good. [... F]aith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all. Nor is the light of faith, joined to the truth of love, extraneous to the material world, for love is always lived out in body and spirit; the light of faith is an incarnate light radiating from the luminous life of Jesus. It also illumines the material world, trusts its inherent order and knows that it calls us to an ever widening path of harmony and understanding. The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.”
Believing in God being the creator of the universe is not an alternative to a scientific world view, but its enabler for the Christian scientist, who trusts in the inherent order of their object of inquiry and who responds to God’s invitation to know Him also through His creation. Francis elaborates on this point in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (§242-243), also calling for a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the universe:
“Whereas positivism and scientism “refuse to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences”,[190] the Church proposes another path, which calls for a synthesis between the responsible use of methods proper to the empirical sciences and other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, theology, as well as faith itself [...]. Faith is not fearful of reason; on the contrary, it seeks and trusts reason, since “the light of reason and the light of faith both come from God”[191] and cannot contradict each other. [...]

The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science. On the contrary, she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind. Whenever the sciences – rigorously focused on their specific field of inquiry – arrive at a conclusion which reason cannot refute, faith does not contradict it. […]”
In fact, on a separate occasion, Francis puts the Church’s appreciation of science in maternal terms: “as a mother rejoices and is rightly proud as her children grow “in wisdom, and age and grace” (Lk 2:52)” and adds art to the modes of engagement with the universe, saying:
“In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message of the grandeur of God’s creation, the dignity of human beings made in his image and likeness, and the power of Christ’s death and resurrection to bring redemption and rebirth to a world touched by the tragedy of sin and death.”
The sense of awe and wonder that drive both rational and artistic engagement with the universe (for believers and non-believers alike) is further emphasized in one of Francis’ catecheses about the Holy Spirit:
“When our eyes are illumined by the Spirit, they open to contemplate God, in the beauty of nature and in the grandeur of the cosmos, and they lead us to discover how everything speaks to us about Him and His love. All of this arouses in us great wonder and a profound sense of gratitude! It is the sensation we experience when we admire a work of art or any marvel whatsoever that is borne of the genius and creativity of man: before all this, the Spirit leads us to praise the Lord from the depths of our heart and to recognize, in all that we have and all that we are, an invaluable gift of God and a sign of his infinite love for us.”
And to round out this picture of how a knowledge of the universe complements faith, it is worth reading Pope Francis’ words from this year’s Epiphany homily, where he places the two side-by-side as “great books”:
“[O]ur life is a journey, illuminated by the lights which brighten our way, to find the fullness of truth and love which we Christians recognize in Jesus, the Light of the World. [… E]very person has two great “books” which provide the signs to guide this pilgrimage: the book of creation and the book of sacred Scripture. What is important is that we be attentive, alert, and listen to God who speaks to us, who always speaks to us.”
Pope Francis also points to Jesus himself having made use of this “book of creation” in his own teaching:
“When he speaks to the people, Jesus uses many parables: in language understandable to everyone, with images from nature and from everyday situations.”
Far from being optional or even frowned upon, knowledge of the material world is a guide to the Christian as is that of Scripture, which is further underlined by the universe being seen as good (as opposed to evil or even just neutral):
“In the first Chapter of Genesis, right at the beginning of the Bible, what is emphasized is that God is pleased with his creation, stressing repeatedly the beauty and goodness of every single thing. At the end of each day, it is written: “God saw that it was good” (1:12, 18, 21, 25): if God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing.” (General Audience, 21st May 2014)

““And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:12, 18, 21, 25). The biblical account of the beginning of the history of the world and of humanity speaks to us of a God who looks at creation, in a sense contemplating it, and declares: “It is good”.” (Vigil for Peace, 7th September 2013)
What then ought to be our attitude towards a universe that we can relate to in truth (through knowledge), beauty (through the senses and art) and goodness (through contemplation)? Francis’ answer, unsurprisingly, is “respect and gratitude”:
“[I]f God sees creation as good, as a beautiful thing, then we too must take this attitude and see that creation is a good and beautiful thing. [...] Creation is not some possession that we can lord over for our own pleasure; nor, even less, is it the property of only some people, the few: creation is a gift, it is the marvellous gift that God has given us, so that we will take care of it and harness it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude. […] We must protect creation for it is a gift which the Lord has given us, it is God’s present to us; we are the guardians of creation. When we exploit creation, we destroy that sign of God’s love. To destroy creation is to say to God: “I don’t care”. And this is not good: this is sin.”
An important aspect here is the harnessing of the universe for the good of all, which Francis also ties to the universe’s “grammar”:
“The human family has received from the Creator a common gift: nature. The Christian view of creation includes a positive judgement about the legitimacy of interventions on nature if these are meant to be beneficial and are performed responsibly, that is to say, by acknowledging the “grammar” inscribed in nature and by wisely using resources for the benefit of all, with respect for the beauty, finality and usefulness of every living being and its place in the ecosystem. Nature, in a word, is at our disposition and we are called to exercise a responsible stewardship over it.”
And on another occasion he then links the care for nature to the care we must have for one another:
“All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.”
In summary, Francis’ universe is a gratuitous gift from God whose being He sustains and in which He is close to us, but also where He instituted laws and, at the same time, autonomy. It is a gift that has its origin and being in God and its destiny too, via its being harnessed for the good of all. It is a gift that exhibits goodness and beauty and whose nature can be expressed in truth. As a result it invites respectful stewardship for the good of all, contemplation and rational understanding. Francis, using a rich metaphor, therefore issues an “appeal for respect and protection of the entire creation which God has entrusted to man, not so that it be indiscriminately exploited, but rather made into a garden.”