Friday, 15 August 2014

Probably the best movie about Jesus

Il vangelo

Franco Zefirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”? No. (Phew!)

Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”? No, not that one either. (Phew, again!)

No, “probably the best movie about Jesus” is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”

“Says who?,” you ask.

Well, none other than the Vatican’s own newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano, which in a review on the 50th anniversary of the movie’s premiere had the following to say (in the words of Emilio Ranzato):
“Whether it be a movie about a crisis in progress or about its overcoming, The Gospel according to Matthew remains a masterpiece, and probably the best movie about Jesus ever made. It is certainly the one in which his words ring out most fluidly, in the most elevated and the most powerful way. Hewn out of bare rock, like the best moments of Pasolinian cinema.”
But, what makes this movie the pinnacle of depicting Jesus’ life? The l’Osservatore Romano review elaborates:
“The director follows the Gospel pages to the letter and doesn’t shy away even from talking about miracles, which he presents with an inspiration worthy of a believer. In this way, on the one hand confirming the validity and power of the Christian word, but, on the other hand, giving it a more down-to-earth context in which to spread, the director clearly intends to give a thrust both towards the marxist and ecclesial worlds. At the same time, however, and maybe unexpectedly, he finds peace in a place that is equidistant from these two poles. Surely there have been few other times in the history of cinema where a representation that plays on sacred strings, or even only mythical and epic ones, has been built on such a sincere realism.”
So, what drove this marxist (and atheist and gay) director to making a movie about Jesus? He explains this himself - during the year before the movie’s release - in a letter to Lucio Caruso of the Pro Civitate Christiana of Assisi (a Christian volunteer organization):
“The first time I visited all of you in Assisi, I found the Gospels at my bedside: your diabolical calculation!

That day, in your place, I read them from beginning to end, like a novel.

And in the exaltation of reading - as you know, it’s the most exalting thing one can read! - there came to me among other things, the idea of making a film... as the days and later the weeks went by, the idea kept getting more overwhelming and exclusive. It threw in the shade all the other ideas for work I had in my head, it weakened and devitalised them.

And it alone remained, alive and thriving within me... my idea is this: to follow the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, point by point, without making a script or adaptation of it. To translate it faithfully into images, following its story exactly without any omissions or additions.

The dialogue too should be strictly that of Saint Matthew, without even a single explanatory or connecting sentence, because no image or inserted word could ever attain the poetic heights of the text... to put it very simply and frankly, I don’t believe that Christ is the son of God, because I am not a believer - at least not consciously. But I believe that Christ is divine. I believe that is, that in him humanity is so kind and ideal as to exceed the common terms of humanity. For this reason I say “poetry” - an irrational instrument to express this irrational feeling of mine for Christ.”
His answer to the question of why he, a non-believer, had made a film which dealt with religious themes, at a press conference in 1966, is also illuminating:
“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”
But, how does one who is not a Christian create a piece of art that is recognized by Christians as their own, and not only that, but a masterpiece? Here Pasolini’s answer is very telling:
“[T]he rule that dominated the making of the film was the rule of analogy. That is, I found settings that were not reconstructions but that were analogous to ancient Palestine. The characters, too—I didn’t reconstruct characters but tried to find individuals who were analogous. I was obliged to scour southern Italy, because I realized that the pre-industrial agricultural world, the still feudal area of southern Italy, was the historical setting analogous to ancient Palestine. One by one I found the settings that I needed for The Gospel. I took these Italian settings and used them to represent the originals. I took the city of Matera, and without changing it in any way, I used it to represent the ancient city of Jerusalem. Or the little caverns of the village between Lucania and Puglia are used exactly as they were, without any modifications, to represent Bethlehem. And I did the same thing for the characters. The chorus of background characters I chose from the faces of the peasants of Lucania and Puglia and Calabria. [...]

In reality, my method consists simply of being sincere, honest, penetrating, precise in choosing men who psychological essence is real and genuine. Once I’ve chosen them, then my work is immensely simplified. I don’t have to do with them what I have to do with professional actors: tell them what they have to do and what they haven’t to do and the sort of people they are supposed to represent and so forth. I simply tell them to say these words in a certain frame of mind and that’s all. And they say them.”
Whether intentionally or not, this way of analogy is precisely Jesus’ own method. The employment of parables, and his teaching in its entirety rely fundamentally on analogy. Here is God - the infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, wholly transcendent and other - speaking to his creatures, who are addled with limitations, and the only possible way is that of analogy, since the listeners have no direct access to the ultimate realities that the speaker is trying to convey. At the heart of this method is in fact the very life of the Trinity, where each Person empties itself so as to receive the other and fully gives itself to the other that is ready to receive them. This self-othering1 nature of God is the basis of analogy, which Pasolini applied masterfully and I would like to argue that his work resonates with Christians not only because of the subject matter, but because of the method that begot it. And I have to say that I am a great fan of it too!

To conclude, I’d just like to share a fragment of the dialogue between the Franciscan Fr. Ugolino Vagnuzzi and Pier Paolo Pasolini that took place in June ’68 and that Fr. Vagnuzzi published a couple of days ago. It starts with Pasolini’s words:
““I saw Christ with two “eyes,” one being mine - of a rational man, modern and a lay person; the other being the look of a simple person with great faith. These two visions complement each other, I’ll explain: I saw him as the Son of God, mystically, religiously, but at the same time I saw him as a revolutionary.”

I asked him [writes Fr. Ugolino] whether before or after that Christ was so successful in the cinema, he had said something to him.

“Religious convictions or non-belief are like blocks of quartz. The reasons that make these blocks dissolve is always mysterious, so I can say neither yes nor no to you.”

I was deeply moved when he then turned to me with these words:

“You see, dear Brother, you and I are one on one and the other on the other bank of a river. A bridge unites us where we can meet. Both of us must travel some distance. I am certain that you will not say no to taking these steps, which are precious to me.””

1 A term coined by my überbestie CS.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Who are children of God?

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Catholics? Christians? “Good” people?


In total disagreement with the author of yesterday’s “Thoughts on today’s Mass,” distributed in my parish, who said that “we are not naturally children of God: we become so by baptism, when God adopts us as his own. Otherwise to call God our Father would be a bold presumption,” I would like to show that the Catholic Church teaches that every single human being is a child of God. Using the idea of being God’s child as the basis of separation, the basis of an “us,” as opposed to a ”them,” is perverse and absolutely not what the Catholic Church teaches, in spite of the official-looking material handed out in some of its parishes.

To begin with, Jesus - the Son of God - himself recognizes familial status universally, when he says that “whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:50) and St. Paul too picks up on the key being adherence to God’s will: “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

That such adherence to the will of God is open to everyone - whether they believe in God or not - and that it is at the heart of what the Catholic Church believes, is very clear from Nostra Aetate, the declaration issued during the Second Vatican Council by Pope Paul VI, which says in its closing paragraph:
“We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).

No foundation therefore remains for any theory or practice that leads to discrimination between man and man or people and people, so far as their human dignity and the rights flowing from it are concerned.

The Church reproves, as foreign to the mind of Christ, any discrimination against men or harassment of them because of their race, color, condition of life, or religion. On the contrary, following in the footsteps of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, this sacred synod ardently implores the Christian faithful to “maintain good fellowship among the nations” (1 Peter 2:12), and, if possible, to live for their part in peace with all men, so that they may truly be sons of the Father who is in heaven.”
And this is also reflected in what the Catechism teaches about the opening words of the Our Father, the prayer Jesus taught:
“God’s love has no bounds, neither should our prayer. Praying “our” Father opens to us the dimensions of his love revealed in Christ: praying with and for all who do not yet know him, so that Christ may “gather into one the children of God.” God’s care for all men and for the whole of creation has inspired all the great practitioners of prayer; it should extend our prayer to the full breadth of love whenever we dare to say “our” (§2793)
Note in particular the thought-provoking idea in the above of Catholics praying with those who don’t know Jesus. Even in a fundamentally religious act the desire of Catholics is to be united with those who don’t share their beliefs!

And if the above weren’t enough to categorically declare that Catholics consider every human being to be a child of God and therefore also their brother or sister, let’s see what the last three popes had to say on the subject:
  1. “We must never forget that every person, from the moment of conception to the last breath, is a unique child of God and has a right to life.” Pope Saint John Paul II (Address at the Ceremony of the Anointing Of The Sick, Southwark’s Cathedral, London, 28 May 1982)

  2. “God is the origin of the existence of every creature, and the Father in a unique way of every human being: he has a unique, personal relationship with him or her.” Pope Benedict XVI (Sunday Angelus address, 8 January 2012)

  3. “Since many of you are not members of the Catholic Church, and others are not believers, I cordially give this blessing silently, to each of you, respecting the conscience of each, but in the knowledge that each of you is a child of God. May God bless you!” Pope Francis (Audience to Representatives of the Communications Media, 16th March 2013 - the day after his election!)

  4. “Every human being is a child of God! He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see, that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.” Pope Francis (Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, 5 August 2013)
I rest my case.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Francis: Happiness, in ten simple steps

Francis happiness

Yesterday, Pope Francis’ interview with the Argentine Vivir (a Sunday magazine of the Clarin daily) included 10 tips for how to be happy. Their language is simple, and I believe their applicability is very broad and likely to resonate with believers and non-believers alike. While I think that they are essentially an application of his Evangelii Gaudium to the broad readership of a magazine, the way they are posed largely avoids religious terminology,1 even though they have deep roots in Jesus’ life and teaching.

Even though the 77 minute interview from which they are taken is not available yet, these 10 pieces of advice are contained in the four minute extract that Clarin have already published on their website in Spanish:2
  1. Live and let live. “Here the Romans have a saying that we can follow like a thread: “Go ahead and let others go ahead too.” Live and let live, that is the first step towards peace and joy.”

  2. Giving oneself to others. “If one stays still, they run the risk of being selfish. And still water is the first to spoil.”

  3. Moving like a peaceful oasis. “In Don Segundo Sombra there is a beautiful image of someone who reflects on their own life. He says that as a youth he was a rocky stream that moved everything in its path; as an adult he was a river that moved ahead and that in old age he felt in motion, but slowly like a peaceful oasis [“remansado” in the original]. I would use the image of the poet and writer Ricardo Güiraldes, this last adjective “remansado.” The capacity to move with kindness and humility, the peaceful oasis of life. Old people have this wisdom, they are the memory of a nation. And a nation that does not look after its old people has no future.

  4. Playing with kids. “Consumerism has lead us to an anxiety about losing a healthy culture of leisure, reading, enjoying art. These days I rarely hear confessions, but in Buenos Aires I used to do that a lot and when a young mum came to me, I asked her: “How many children do you have? Do you play with them?” And it was a question she did not expect, but I said to her that playing with kids is key, it is a healthy culture. It is difficult, parents go to work early and at times return when the kids are already sleeping, it is difficult, but it has to be done.”

  5. Spending Sundays with the family. “The other day, in Campobasso, I went to a meeting between the worlds of academia and the world of labor, and both were demanding Sundays without work. Sunday is for the family.”

  6. Helping young people find employment. “We have to be creative with their age group. If there is a lack of opportunity, they will fall prey to drugs. And the suicide index among young people without employment is very high. The other day I read, but I don’t trust it because it is not scientific data, that there are 75 million unemployed young people below the age of 25.3 It is not enough to feed them: we have to make up one-year courses for them to learn plumbing, becoming an electrician or a builder. Bringing bread home is what gives you dignity.”

  7. Looking after nature. “We have to look after creation and we are not doing it. It is one of the greatest challenges we have.”

  8. Quickly forgetting about the negative. “The need to speak ill of another indicates low self-esteem, in other words: I feel so low that instead of rising, I lower the other. Quickly forgetting what is negative is healthy.”

  9. Respecting those who think differently. “We may trouble others by our testimony, so that we may both progress in our communication, but the worst that can happen is religious proselytism, which paralyzes: “I dialogue with you to convince you.” No! Each one dialogues from their own identity. The Church grows by attraction, not by proselytism.”

  10. Actively seeking peace. “We are living in times of many wars. In Africa, wars look like tribal wars, but they are something else. War destroys. And the call for peace has to be shouted. Peace at times gives the impression of stillness, but it is never stillness, it is always an active peace.”
I particularly like Francis’ words on respect - both in general (delighting in the progress of others like in one’s own) and in dialogue (worry/unsettle - yes, set out to convince - no), on playing with kids, on a forgetfulness of the negative and on challenges (lack of peace, youth unemployment, selfishness combatted by self-giving) have to be faced actively (but an activity that is kind and humble). To suggest that the above is un-Christian (or even a-Christian) is being blinded by packaging and a subscription to dualism instead of the realization that God’s love extends to all, regardless of their beliefs.

1 Unsurprisingly, but sadly, he has already been criticized for the non-religious terms in which he has expressed his advice, e.g., here.
2 The following, crude translation is mine and follows the interview’s transcript here.
3 In fact the International Labor Organization (a UN agency) places worldwide youth unemployment at 73 million, which supports Francis’ figure. In terms of individual countries, according to government statistics there were "817,000 young people aged 16-24 [...] unemployed in March to May 2014" in the UK. And in Argentina the figure is around the 2.5 million mark according to the Peace Child International NGO, while in the US there were 3.5 million unemployed 16-24 year olds in 2013, according to the ILO. Fact-check: done!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Where nothing articulate can be said

Lama sabachthani

The idea of God crying out in forsakenness, nailed to a cross like a criminal, is both deeply disturbing (hence the frequent denial of its “reality”) and a window onto Jesus’ new commandment: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). It is an event that has not only occupied theologians and mystics, but has also attracted non-believers and has been written about on this blog several times. Today, I’d like to look at how Hans Urs von Balthasar, St. John Paul II, Gianfranco Ravasi and Chiara Lubich understood it and what consequences they drew from it.

Von Balthasar, like Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (“Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life.” §269), argues for a deep continuity between Jesus’ life and teaching and his abandonment on the cross:
“The inarticulate cry of the cross of Jesus is no denial of his articulate proclamation to his disciples and to the people... instead it is the final end of all those articulations... which he utters with the greatest force where nothing articulate can be said any longer.” (The Whole in the Fragment)
To von Balthasar, Jesus’ forsakenness is not failure, but culmination, and this perspective can also be seen in St. John Paul II’s thought where he presents it as necessary for God’s “full solidarity” with humanity:
“[O]n Jesus’ lips the “why” addressed to God was also [... an expression of] pained bewilderment at that suffering which had no merely human explanation, but which was a mystery of which the Father alone possessed the key. Therefore, [...] the question contained a theological significance in regard to the sacrifice whereby Christ, in full solidarity with sinful humanity, had to experience in himself abandonment by God.”
During that same General Audience in 1988, John Paul II also presents a synthesis of positions that argue for and against the “reality” of Jesus’ abandonment on the cross:
“If Jesus felt abandoned by the Father, he knew however that that was not really so. He himself said, “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10:30). Speaking of his future passion he said, “I am not alone, for the Father is with me” (Jn 16:32). Jesus had the clear vision of God and the certainty of his union with the Father dominant in his mind. But in the sphere bordering on the senses, and therefore more subject to the impressions, emotions and influences of the internal and external experiences of pain, Jesus’ human soul was reduced to a wasteland. He no longer felt the presence of the Father, but he underwent the tragic experience of the most complete desolation.

Here one can sketch a summary of Jesus’ psychological situation in relationship to God. The external events seemed to manifest the absence of the Father who permitted the crucifixion of his Son, though having at his disposal “legions of angels” (cf. Mt 26:53), without intervening to prevent his condemnation to death and execution. In Gethsemane Simon Peter had drawn a sword in Jesus’ defense, but was immediately blocked by Jesus himself (cf. Jn 18:10 f.). In the praetorium Pilate had repeatedly tried wily maneuvers to save him (cf. Jn 18:31, 38 f.; 19:4-6, 12-15); but the Father was silent. That silence of God weighed on the dying Jesus as the heaviest pain of all [...].

In the sphere of feelings and affection this sense of the absence and abandonment by God was the most acute pain for the soul of Jesus who drew his strength and joy from union with the Father. This pain rendered all the other sufferings more intense. That lack of interior consolation was Jesus’ greatest agony.”
While the above may at first look like a variant of the naive arguments for the unreality of Jesus’ abandonment by the Father, which revolve around the claim that Jesus knew he wasn’t “really” abandoned, John Paul II’s position is more nuanced. He both affirms Jesus’ knowledge of the Father’s presence and the fullness of Jesus experiencing the Father’s absence. Unlike the naive positions that present knowledge as a mitigating factor, John Paul II does not hesitate to describe Jesus’ soul as a “wasteland” and his experience as being one of “most complete desolation.” It is essentially a third-person, “objective” view that recognizes the continuing presence of the Father while Jesus fully experiences his absence on the cross. In many ways this is akin to a Christian, who sees their atheist friends’ sincerity, recognizing that their friends live in the absence of an experience of God, while they themselves see both their own and their friends’ lives unfolding in His presence. This is not to deny the “reality” of the atheist experience (qua experience) while at the same time situating it within one’s own understanding of reality. I believe such a parallel also underlines John Paul II’s claim that Jesus’ abandonment on the cross was necessary for the sake of “full solidarity” with all of humanity - both with those who believe in God and who do not.

John Paul II’s analysis does seem to me to be the key also to understanding why many theologians wrestle with with the contradiction of Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross. Even Cardinal Ravasi, who in one context affirms the reality of Jesus’ forsakenness (even calling it “salvific atheism”), in another context speaks both about His being our “brother also in the tragedy of the absence of God” and at the same time about it not being possible to “classify that cry as a sign of despair and almost of disbelief.”

Beyond considerations about the reality of Jesus’ forsakenness and its central role in God’s closeness to humanity, what is its practical impact though? What difference does it mean to me, as a Christian, that Jesus experienced such complete desolation? Here the insights of the Servant of God Chiara Lubich are key, since she recognized in Jesus’ forsakenness the key to uniting herself both to God and to every neighbor she encountered, to the point of declaring Jesus Forsaken to be her spouse.

In a talk from 1971,1 Lubich shares her insight into Jesus’ forsakenness being the pinnacle of his self-giving:
“He had given everything.

First, a life lived beside Mary in hardship and obedience.

Then, three years of mission, revealing the Truth, giving witness to the Father, promising the Holy Spirit, and working all kinds of miracles of love.

Finally, three hours on the cross, from which he gave forgiveness to his executioners, opened paradise to the thief, gave his mother to us, and ultimately gave his body and blood, after having given them mystically in the Eucharist.

He had nothing left but his divinity.

His union with the Father, that sweet and ineffable union with the One who had made him so powerful on earth as the Son of God and so regal on the cross, that feeling of God’s presence had to disappear into the depths of his soul and no longer make itself felt, separating him somehow from the One with whom he had said to be one: “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30). In him love was annihilated, the light extinguished, wisdom silenced.”
Left in a state of complete self-noughting, “where nothing articulate can be said,” what choice did he have left?
“To formulate a question was the only way Jesus could then possibly express himself; that loud cry is the Word which is no longer word, which therefore, cannot be understood and explained as word. It is the indescribable reality which is so beyond what words that are uttered in the created world can express. It is the sub-word; that which is chosen by the Powers of Heaven to bear the Eternal ultra- word.”
What was the point of such complete annihilation though? Here Lubich presents a deeply logical argument:
“So he made himself nothing to make us share in the All; a worm2 of the earth, to make us children of God.

We were cut off from the Father. It was necessary that the Son, in whom all of us were represented, should experience separation from the Father. He had to experience being forsaken by God so that we might never be forsaken again.

He had taught that no one has greater love than one who lays down his life for his friends. He who was Life laid down his whole self. This was the culminating point, love’s most beautiful expression. He loved in God’s way! With a love as big as God!”
Most importantly though, Jesus Forsaken was not of academic interest to Lubich, who - with her companions and a growing number of sympathizers and followers - sought to put the Gospel into practice in everything she did, but a person with whom she developed a close relationship:
“He drew us to himself; we discovered him everywhere: in every physical moral or spiritual pain. They were shadows of his great suffering. [...] Then we saw him in every neighbor who was suffering. [...] Every personal suffering also appeared to us as a countenance of Jesus forsaken to be loved and wanted in order to be with him and like him, so that through the death of ourselves [...], he might give life to us and to many others.”
In fact, Lubich understood that such a relationship with Jesus Forsaken, a becoming another Jesus Forsaken, is the way to profound relationships of unity:
“In his testament Jesus had said: “With me in them and you in me, may they be so perfected in unity” (Jn 17:23). If Jesus was in me, if Jesus was in the other, and if Jesus was in all, at that moment we were perfected in unity. [...] Jesus forsaken is the model for those who must build unity with others. I cannot enter into another spirit if I am rich of my own. To love others I must constantly make myself so poor in spirit that I possess nothing but love. Love is empty of itself. Jesus forsaken is the perfect model of one who is poor in spirit. He is so poor that he has not even God, so to speak. He does not feel God’s presence.”
And finally, picking up on a theme so close to Pope Francis’ heart, Lubich points to the simultaneous closeness to humanity and God that Jesus’ forsakenness brings about, where He becomes the void that bridges the finite with the infinite:
“In his forsakenness Jesus seems to be nothing but a man, and so never had he been as close to us human beings as in that moment and never, therefore, had he loved so much. At the same time, never had he been so close to the Father; it is out of love for him that he dies in that way.”

1 Which was also my source for the quotes from von Balthasar’s “The Whole in the Fragment” above.
2 “But I am a worm, not a man, scorned by men, despised by the people.” (Psalms 22:7)

Sunday, 29 June 2014

The Gospel for families “as they are”

Modern family

The Catholic Church is in the process of preparing for two synods of its bishops - one this autumn and the other the following year - during which questions to do with the family will be reviewed. As a basis for the discussions, the Vatican has issued an initial preparatory document last November, whose most novel feature was an extensive questionnaire addressed to the bishops conferences of the world, but open to completion by anyone. The questionnaire spanned topics like whether Church teaching about the family was known, whether marriage preparation and care for families were effective, how difficult marital situations were dealt with, how same-sex unions were approached, how procreation was understood, plus an open question about any other family-related challenges.A questionnaire of this scale and openness is unprecedented, and three days ago, a summary of its results was published in the form of the “instrumentum laboris” (i.e., working instrument) that will be used during this year’s synod. The document, which weighs in at 25K words is very much worth reading in its entirety, since it - in my opinion - presents a very interesting, world-wide and above all utterly frank look at the life of the family at the beginning of the 21st century and the Church’s relationship with it. Rather than an analysis or commentary, I would first just like to share with you the passages that found most important and that effectively are my favorite 10% of the text (each passage is prefixed with the number of the paragraph it was taken from; note that - with one exception for the sake of the extracts’ logic - the following is in the same order as in the original text):
Part I: Communicating the Gospel of the Family in Today’s World

(2) [T]he divine measure of conjugal love, to which spouses are called by grace, has its source in “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (EG, 36), the very heart of the Gospel.

(4) The “true love between husband and wife” (GS, 49) implies a mutual gift of self and includes and integrates the sexual and affective aspects, according to the divine plan (cf. GS, 48-49). […] Christ the Lord “comes into the lives of married Christians through the Sacrament of Matrimony,” and remains with them. In the Incarnation, he assumes human love, purifies it and brings it to fulfillment. Through his Spirit, he enables the bride and groom to live their love and makes that love permeate every part of their lives of faith, hope and charity. In this way, the bride and groom are, so to speak, consecrated and, through his grace, they build up the Body of Christ and are a domestic Church (cf. LG, 11), so that the Church, in order to fully understand her mystery, looks to the Christian family, which manifests her in a real way.

(6) “marriage based on an exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (DCE, 11).

(35) “Marriage is the icon of God’s love for us. Indeed, God is communion too: the three Persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit live eternally in perfect unity. And this is precisely the mystery of Matrimony: God makes of the two spouses one single life” (General Audience, 2 April 2014).

(36) A recurring subject in almost all the responses is the importance of the Holy Family of Nazareth as the model and example for the Christian family. The mystery of the Word of God’s becoming incarnate within a family reveals how it is the privileged place for God’s revelation to humanity. In fact, the family is acknowledged to be the ordinary and everyday place to encounter Christ. The Christian people look to the Holy Family of Nazareth as a model in relationships and love, as a point of reference for every family and as a comfort in time of trial.

(39) The role of parents as primary educators in the faith is considered vital and essential. Emphasis is often placed on their witness of fidelity, particularly on the beauty of their individuality and at times, simply on the importance of their distinctive roles as father and mother. At other times, the responses stress the positive character of the spouses’ freedom, equality and reciprocity. Still other responses, especially from Europe, stress the equal importance of both parents in the upbringing of their children and domestic responsibilities.

(43) The family is essential in the maturation of those cognitive and affective processes which are crucial to personal development. In addition to being a vital environment in personal formation, the family is also the place to experience the awareness of being not only a Child of God but also called to a vocation of love.

(7) Faith is no refuge for the fainthearted, but something which enhances our lives. It makes us aware of a magnificent calling, the vocation of love. (LF, 53)

(11) The People of God’s knowledge of conciliar and post-conciliar documents on the Magisterium of the family seems to be rather wanting.

(13) Church teaching is more widely accepted, when the faithful are engaged in a real journey of faith and are not just casually curious in what might be the Church’s thinking in the matter of sexual morality.

(14) Ultimately, the responses and observations call for the need of establishing real, practical formation programmes through which the truths of the faith on the family might be presented, primarily to appreciate their profound human and existential value.

(15) the reason for much resistance to the Church’s teaching on moral issues related to the family is a want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level, for which no doctrinal presentation, no matter how accurate, can substitute. In this regard, some responses point to the insufficiency of pastoral activity which is concerned only with dispensing the sacraments without a truly engaging Christian experience.

(18) [V]arious episcopal conferences recall the importance of developing the insights of Pope St. John Paul II in his “theology of the body” series, in which he proposes a fruitful approach to the topics of family through existential and anthropological concerns and an openness to the new demands emerging in our time.

(24) Furthermore, much attention is given in the responses to the fact that what becomes established in civil law — based on an increasingly dominant legal positivism — might mistakenly become in people’s mind accepted as morally right. What is “natural” tends to be determined by the individual and society only, who have become the sole judges in ethical choices. The relativization of the concept of “nature” is also reflected in the concept of stability and the “duration” of the relationship of marriage unions. Today, love is considered “forever” only to the point that a relationship lasts.

(29) [T]his tendency accentuates the absolute right to personal freedom without any compromise: people are “formed” on the basis of their individual desires only. What is increasingly judged to be “natural” is more of a reference-to-self only, when it comes to their desires and aspirations.

(30) [M]ore emphasis [is to] be placed on the role of the Word of God as a privileged instrument in the conception of married life and the family, and [...] greater reference to the Bible, its language and narratives [is recommended …] Moreover, this proposal insists on using language which is accessible to all, such as the language of symbols utilized during the liturgy. The recommendation was also made to engage young people directly in these matters.

(31) [T]he family is experiencing very difficult times, requiring the Church’s compassion and understanding in offering guidance to families “as they are” and, from this point of departure, proclaim the Gospel of the Family in response to their specific needs.

Part II: The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges

62. [I]n cases where the faith of family members is either weak or non-existent, both the parish and the Church in general are not seen as supportive. [...] Often, when the lay faithful sense the great distance between the ideal of family living and the impossibility of achieving that goal, the couple’s crisis in marriage and the family gradually becomes a crisis in faith. Therefore, the question arises on how to act pastorally in these situations, namely, how to make sure that the Church, in her variety of pastoral activities, can demonstrate that she has the ability of caring for couples in difficulty and families.

64. [O]ne of the many critical issues facing the family is a difficulty in relationships and communication. Whether it be tensions and conflicts in a marriage due to a lack of mutual trust and intimacy or the domination of one marriage partner over the other or the inter-generational conflict between parents and children, all hinder the building of family relationships and can even make them entirely impossible. The dramatic aspect of these situations is that they lead to the gradual disappearance of the possibility of dialogue as well as the time and opportunity to work on relationships. For want of sharing and communication, each one is forced to face difficulties in isolation without an experience of being loved and, in turn, loving others. [...] People who do not witness, live and accept love on a daily basis find it particularly difficult to discover the person of Christ as the Son of God and the love of God the Father.

66. The responses unanimously make reference to psychological, physical and sexual violence and abuse in families which has a particularly damaging effect on women and children, a phenomenon which, unfortunately, is neither occasional nor isolated, particularly in certain parts of the world. [... T]he responses also mention the appalling phenomenon of the killing of women, often caused by deep emotional trouble in relationships. Arising from a false culture based on possessions, this is particularly disturbing and calls for action by everyone in society and by the Church in her ministry to the family. Sexual promiscuity and incest in the family are explicitly cited in certain parts of the world (Africa, Asia and Oceania), as well as pedophilia and child abuse. The responses also refer to authoritarianism by parents, expressed in the lack of care and attention given to their children, a situation often leading to their children’s abandonment, and, on the parents’s part, a want of a sense of responsible parenthood which causes them to refuse to not only care for their children but also educate them, thereby leaving them totally to their own devices.

70. Increasing job insecurity, together with the growth of unemployment and the consequent need to travel greater distances to work, have taken their toll on family life, resulting in, among other things, a weakening of family relationships and the gradual isolation of persons, causing even greater anxiety.

71. In dialoguing with the State and the related public entities, the Church is called to offer real support for decent jobs, just wages and a fiscal policy favouring the family as well as programmes of assistance to families and children. In this regard, laws protecting the family in relation to work are frequently wanting, particularly those affecting working mothers.

75. Responses from almost every part of the world frequently refer to the sexual scandals within the Church (pedophilia, in particular) and, in general, to a negative experience with the clergy and other persons. Sex scandals significantly weaken the Church’s moral credibility, above all in North America and northern Europe. In addition, a conspicuously lavish lifestyle by some of the clergy shows an inconsistency between their teaching and their conduct. Some lay faithful live and practice their faith in a “showy manner,” failing to display the truth and humility required by the Gospel spirit. The responses lament that persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities, that some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking, that the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive. In this sense, an open and positive pastoral approach is needed, one which can restore confidence in the institution through a credible witness by all her members.

80. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open, [...] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (GE, 47). [...] The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation which brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal. The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.

89. Generally speaking, the responses from various places in the world devote attention to divorced and remarried persons or those, at least, who have formed a different union. Those living in such canonically irregular situations display various attitudes ranging from their being entirely unaware of their irregular situation to their consciously enduring the difficulties created by their irregular situation.

90. A rather great number of people give no thought to their irregular situation.

91. Before treating the suffering associated with those who are unable to receive the sacraments due to their irregular union, the responses refer to a more basic suffering which the Church must take in hand, namely, the suffering of a breakdown in marriage and the difficulty of regularizing the situation.

92. Some Church members who are cognizant that they are in an irregular situation clearly suffer from the fact that they are unable to receive the sacraments. Many feel frustrated and marginalized. Some wonder why other sins can be forgiven and not theirs. Others cannot see how religious and priests can receive a dispensation from their vows and priestly obligations so they can marry, while divorced and remarried persons are unable to receive Holy Communion.

103. Pastoral charity impels the Church to assist people who have suffered the breakdown of their marriage and are living with their situation relying on the grace of Christ. A more painful wound results when these people remarry and enter a state of life which does not allow them to receive Holy Communion. Clearly, in these cases, the Church must not assume an attitude of a judge who condemns (cf. Pope Francis, Homily, 28 February 2014), but that of a mother who always receives her children and nurses their wounds so they may heal (cf. GE, 139-141). With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation. With patience and understanding, she must explain to these people that their not being able to celebrate the sacraments does not mean that they are excluded from the Christian life and a relationship with God.

109. Generally speaking, pastoral care, preparation and planning of formation sessions prior to marriage are having a limited and uneven success everywhere. In almost every case, everything depends, for good or for ill, on the initiatives of each priest.

110. On unions of persons of the same sex, the responses of the bishops’ conferences refer to Church teaching. “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family. [...] Nonetheless, according to the teaching of the Church, men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided’” (CDF, Considerations regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, 4).

113. Every bishops’ conference voiced opposition to “redefining” marriage between a man and a woman through the introduction of legislation permitting a union between two people of the same sex. The episcopal conferences amply demonstrate that they are trying to find a balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions. On the whole, the extreme reactions to these unions, whether compromising or uncompromising, do not seem to have facilitated the development of an effective pastoral programme which is consistent with the Magisterium and compassionate towards the persons concerned.

115. Episcopal conferences supply a variety of information on unions between persons of the same sex. In countries where legislation exists on civil unions, many of the faithful express themselves in favour of a respectful and non-judgmental attitude towards these people and a ministry which seeks to accept them. This does not mean, however, that the faithful give equal status to heterosexual marriage and civil unions between persons of the same sex.

Part III: An Openness to Life and Parental Responsibility in Upbringing

122. The Church is called to proclaim the fruitfulness of love in light of that faith which “helps us grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person” (LF, 52).

131. The responses recommend that the synod can be of assistance in rediscovering the deep anthropological meaning of the moral character of conjugal life, which beyond every type of moralism, appears as a true desire to live the beauty demanded by the Christian love between a man and a woman and given value by considering the greatest act of love which comes from laying down one’s life for a friend (cf. Jn 15:13).

132. “Parents are called, as Saint Augustine once said, not only to bring children into the world but also to bring them to God, so that through baptism they can be reborn as children of God and receive the gift of faith” (LF, 43).

137. In general, families participating in ecclesial movements are the most active in seeking to transmit the faith to newer generations.

138. [F]amilies with children who may be particularly affected by the so-called “irregular” situation of their parents deserve greater pastoral attention in Christian education. In this regard, words and expressions need to be used which create a sense of belonging and not exclusion, ones that can better convey the warmth, love and the support of the Church, so as not to generate, especially in the children and young people involved, the idea of rejection or discrimination against their parents, fully aware that “irregular” is a word applied to situations, not persons.

146. When parents, usually after an absence from the Church for some time, request from the ecclesial community the sacramental preparation of their children, the most recommended approach in all the responses is to readily accept them without making any distinctions. Receiving them with a basic attitude of respect, a friendly disposition and a willingness to listen to their human and spiritual needs creates a proper and beneficial atmosphere for communicating the Gospel message.

159. After examining the responses and observations and gathering from them not only the hopes and joys but also the griefs and anxieties, this work concludes by returning to the sources of faith, hope and charity, namely, the Blessed Trinity which is the mystery of absolute love, revealed in Christ and made accessible by the Holy Spirit. The love of God shines in a particular way in the Holy Family of Nazareth, the sure point of reference and comfort for every family. The Holy Family, the beacon of true love, is to be contemplated in every family situation so as to draw light, strength and consolation.
I have to say that this document makes me very optimistic and it does so for three reasons: first, the complete frankness of the assessment of today’s reality that doesn’t shirk either from pointing out failings of the Church or from recognizing a disconnect with regard to some aspect of her teaching (the entire document being evidence for this), second, the insistence on the importance of mercy and accompanying: “With great mercy, the Church is called to find forms of “accompaniment” which can support her children on the path of reconciliation.” (§103), and, third, that what is at stake here is not some rejigging of rules, but the very heart of men and women being called to love: “The pastoral care of families, far from limiting itself to a legal point of view, has a mission to recall the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.” (§80). A consequence of these three features is, in my opinion, a chance for the upcoming Synod to bring the joy of the Gospel to families “as they are.”

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Freedom, with and without God

Banksy westbank wall balloon girl1

[Warning: very long read :)]

A video that has been burning a hole in my pocket since last November is the recording of the opening evening of the Berlin Courtyard of the Gentiles, that I already wrote about in a previous post.1 While I focused on Cardinal Ravasi’s talk on beauty and art there, today I’d like to cover the opening session’s discussion of morality, which was conducted under the title “Freedom, with and without God” and where Dostoevsky’s controversial dictum: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” provided the initial impetus.

To open the evening’s dialogue, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi starts with a quote from Albert Camus’ The Plague, which says: “Can one be a saint without God? That’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” and then proceeds to set the scene by being critical of the obstacles to open and fruitful dialogue between those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not:2
“These days a kind of fog engulfs both true religion and rigorous atheism. This is more of a sociological than an ideological phenomenon. It is an indifference, a superficiality, a banality, a sarcastic derision. In this atmosphere of indifference, mythos rules over logos, the pamphlet replaces the analytical essay, a fundamentalist approach is stronger than a critical weighing of alternative positions, jeering conflict is valued over a calm exchange of ideas, faith gives way to a spiritual collage. Syncretism uses a spiritual menu from which to compose an a la carte offering from which everyone can pick and choose what happens to suit him or her. These pathologies both of unbelief and of religion can benefit from a response in the form of the following dialogue.”
Ravasi then acknowledges the differences of the two positions and proposes that they nonetheless share a common element:
“In fact, the two logoi, the two argumentative positions that will be presented next, have an intrinsic difference, an objective difference. The secular non-believer takes the individual as their point of reference - the subject who seeks their own, personal and social, ethical orientation. The religious person, on the other hand, is convinced that truth, nature and moral order precede and exceed us. To use a famous image from Plato’s Phaedros, these realities are like a plane that stretches out in front of the chariot of the human soul, which proceeds through it towards discovering its objective foundations. A first point of agreement between these obviously differing perspectives - one which is predominantly subjective and the other objective - could be the thoughts of St. Augustine, who claimed that in each one of us there is an innate, original knowledge of good and evil, which enables the capacity for moral judgment. […] A reference to conscience is not a optional call to situational subjectivism, but a return to this radical anthropological structure, which is our conscience. At the same time we have to constantly bear in mind the limitedness of the human subject inherent in its being a creature.”
The opening remarks are then followed by two talks, one by a non-believer and the other by a believer. The first speaker was Prof. Herbert Schnädelbach, an agnostic philosopher whose work has included social philosophy and theories of rationality, epistemology, free will and values. Here Schnädelbach kicks off with an anecdote:
“A friend of mine, who is also a philosopher, said: “This sentence should be place on a list of the most stupid sentences ever - and fairly high up. Even in the absence of the existence of God, I am not allowed to break a red light, to withhold the payment of my taxes or to hit my wife, if that were even physically possible for me. And it is irrational to think that all of this were permitted without God.””
And proceeds to argue that the Dostoevsky quote is meant to teach us a fear of atheism and of atheists, and a fear of what supposedly follows: senselessness and anarchy. Dostoevsky’s quote implies that all rules and norms cease to have power in the absence of God. However:
“we live in a whole network of rules that we adhere to because we consider following them to be rational (e.g., the highway code), or because we want to avoid penalties imposed if they are broken (e.g., paying taxes). I can’t imagine though that Dostoevsky would not have know this. [...] Dostoevsky claims that reason is an insufficient basis for our normative culture, that its normative power is too weak, that a more resilient basis is needed to hold up their edifice and that this foundation can only be God.”
This leads Schnädelbach to asking whether “God is even a suitable foundation for norms and who this God is?” and to drawing a parallel with Plato’s dialogue about the nature of piety in his Euthyphro: ““Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a). By analogy, Schnädelbach asks “is what is good and right for humans, good and right because God commanded it, or did God command it because it is good and right for humans?” and argues that there are two possible answers, using the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as context:
  1. In the first case, God is sovereign and can freely choose what is good and right and no one can hold him to account. This is a voluntaristic image of God, which is closely related both to fundamentalism and to normative nihilism. They are two faces of the same coin. They rely on the same model of thinking of the all or nothing: either there is an ultimate justification or there is no justification, which is why systematic philosophers, at least since Descartes and until Hegel, have always looked for an absolute first justification for knowledge and claimed that the alternative is skepticism.
  2. In the second case, if God commands what is good and right, he is not an unaccountable tyrant, who could, at will, one day, make law what is evil and unjust. He commands what every person can see to be good and right with their own, healthy reason. This makes commandments 4-10 merely God teaching the People of Israel what they themselves could have discovered with their own reason, and the same would hold true for all of humanity too. This God, who commands what is rational because it is rational, and for no other reason, is the God of the Johannine Logos.”
Schnädelbach then proceeds to argue that only one of the above scenarios is problematic:
“If one assumes a sovereign God who commands without it being possible to ask them for reasons, i.e., where norms are divorced from reason, and if one then denies their existence, then truly everything is permitted. Then our normative culture would have its foundations removed. This danger does not exist, however, if the God who commands what is right and just, because it is right and just for humans, does not exist, since there is still the chance that people will discover it with their own reason and will make it hold even without God’s teaching.”
And, finally, the argument is brought to its logical conclusion, which, along the above lines or reasoning leads to a redundancy of God:
“Why should the practical reason of people and their free consent to what they discover to be normative in the process of rational discourse not be sufficient? Admittedly, this does presuppose the mutual recognition of discourse participants as free and equal partners, and their uninhibited participation in processes where public will is built and set. My final questions is: what could an transcendent God add at this point?”
I have to say that I find Schnädelbach’s reasoning very clear and compelling. There is a basis for morality derived from reason and consensus that is well-founded without the need for God. As a Christian I see this is as being extremely positive, and consistent with my belief in a loving God, who does not make a pursuit of what is good contingent on a person believing in His existence. There’d be more to say regarding the idea of a God who “can freely choose what is good and right,” but I’ll leave that for another time :).

Returning to the Berlin event, the second speaker of the evening was Prof. Hans Joas, a Catholic sociologist, who has worked in areas like social philosophy and the history of values. Joas first appeals for specificity, arguing that there isn’t a single religious or even Christian position, like there isn’t a homogeneous secular or atheist position and that “the level of discussion on this topic rises as the level of abstraction is lowered.” He then proceeds to present his view of the role played by morality in atheism:
“In the 20th century the vast majority of thinkers and writers who have self-identified as atheists did so for strong moral reasons. Often their arguments against faith were moral arguments: a focus on the afterlife would limit one in working for the good here on earth, one would do good only in the hope of a reward in the afterlife, or, a focus on the afterlife inhibits living this life to the full. Religions lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt, risk leading to hypocrisy in interpersonal relationships, or to a denial of one’s corporeality. For those who thought or think in this way, the absence of God is even a heightening of morality. This has to be taken seriously and I have high esteem for philosophers or writers who thought in this way, such as Ludwig Feuerbach or George Eliot. These are people who understood an exceptionally great deal about faith and who were exceptionally serious about going beyond what religion and Christianity had to offer.

For us Christians, it is necessary to look at the history of these views as a history of our failures. These weren’t lunatics, but people who understood certain things very precisely, and it was a failure of Christians to present their faith to them. An example is also the strong secularization of the workers’ movement in 19th century Germany, instead of its alignment with the Church. When asked, some of its members said that they didn’t go to church because they didn’t have the right clothes … This is an actual quote from a survey of Protestant pastors about dwindling numbers at the time. What shocked me here is that the pastor in question didn’t think, “What can I change about the Sunday service, so that people don’t stay away for a stupid thing like clothes.”

The atheism that had such strong moral motives in the beginning, has in some instances also degenerated, as in the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where its leading philosopher claimed that the supreme moral point of reference was the wellbeing of the GDR. And today, there is often a tiredness on the side of non-militant atheism and a rigidity on the militant side. The first challenge, in my opinion, is to reopen a dialogue between believers and non-believers and a mutual awareness.”
Joas then moves on to distancing himself from the Dostoevskian quote and from belief in God being a prerequisite for morality, and instead argues for a developmental and experiential basis, from which God can then be sought:
“I don’t agree with the statement “Values need God.” Many findings in the context of developmental psychology and cultural anthropology point to another source, which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, and which consists in experiences of reciprocity. Already games played by children point to fundamental rules that underlie human coexistence. Reflecting on them points to the value of justice, to the value of fairness in interpersonal relationships. At the same time, such relationships are under threat of falling apart if one of the participants chooses not to adhere to the rules, e.g., when these are to their disadvantage.

It is therefore useful to think about what it could be that would make humans adhere to moral rules, other than rational appeal, and what could make them adhere to them even when these are to their short-term detriment. What motivates the start of moral reasoning, what makes one start thinking about moral questions, what makes one adhere to shared moral rules? This still doesn’t bring us to God though. I believe we arrive at strong values, at intense convictions of there being such a thing as the good. This can be rooted in positive experiences, such as an encounter with someone who lives in an exemplary way, or in negative experiences, such as wanting to make sure that something doesn’t ever happen again the way that it happened before. For example, on German soil, National Socialism was an obvious, direct experience of evil itself, without the need for rational underpinnings. Then, a long journey can begin that can lead to an understanding how God relates to these values and rules.”
The position of Joas is very clear here: morality played a strong role in early atheism and is in no way in need of divine justification. Even the simple experiences of children lead to a recognition of the good of justice and fairness. My takeaway here is the importance of the emphasis of our common ground, which is what Joas chose to do here - an emphasis of the role of experience and the innate ability to identify good and evil, with only a hint of how God relates to morality for a Christian.

In the discussion that followed, Joas returned to the role of reason in morality, and emphasized the psychological perspective:
“Many things appear as obviously good or evil to us; reasons for why that is are needed when we encounter others who don’t share these evidential experiences with us and challenge us to explain why we value certain things. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that whether something is good or evil is a matter that does not require rational justification to ourselves - it is obvious to us, and even in the face of counterarguments from others, instead of changing our minds about what appeared good to us from the start, we will look for reasons to support our original intuition. Note that this is a psychological, not a philosophical argument.”
The final contribution to the discussion was Schnädelbach’s sharing his personal experience of what it is like to be a - as he self-labeled himself - “pious atheist”:
“I have great respect for personal piety and for religious experiences, but personally I have to say that I can’t connect these to the God of the Bible - neither the Old nor the New Testament. At times, when something very good happens, I feel the desire to thank someone. But whom? And when something bad happens, I feel - like Job - the urge to argue with someone. But there is no one. I think though that this is the point that makes me who I am - a pious atheist.”
And to conclude the evening, Cardinal Ravasi was invited to share his thoughts, which he prefixed with saying that he is resisting the temptation to join the conversation between Schnädelbach and Joas or even to summarize it. Instead, he decided to present his understanding of the verb “to know”:
“In Hebrew the verb is yada, which has the same meaning as the New Testament Greek word genoskein, which reflects very well the polymorphism of anthropological knowledge, of human knowledge. Knowledge, according to this view, which is a symbolical view that is important also in the current dialectic or counter-positioning of faith and science, arrives along four ways. There is first the intellective, rational way. Added to it is the volitive way; decision, the willed intensity of knowing. The third line then is that of affectivity, of feeling. And the last, the fourth way, is that of action - knowing, which, e.g., in the Bible also means a completion of the sexual act. In other words, an encounter between two people in the fullness also of corporeality.

At this point, knowledge arrives in diverse ways, and each of these ways may lead to different stages. However, all of the stages are necessary. Hence the knowledge of the horizon of God, of transcendence, is a knowledge that has to pass through all of this, this whole itinerary. Therefore, the scientific way is certainly also relevant, as is a well-elaborated theology. But what is also indispensable is a knowledge of the esthetic kind, also of the spiritual kind, of a mystical kind. And this is why individual concepts and individual disciplines reveal themselves to be insufficient if they don’t travel along all the four ways.

This is also true of human experience itself, in general; To know a reality fully, it is not enough to only have knowledge of the phenomenon, knowledge of the context, knowledge of the “documentation.” A knowledge of love is also necessary, a knowledge that is substantially narrative. This knowledge that is also historical is the one that predisposes us to the ultimate foundations, to extreme questions.”
Since this post is massively long as is, I’ll refrain from attempting to present my own understanding of this topic, and will defer to do so at a later time. In any case, my intention with this post was just to share with you the above conversation among Cardinal Ravasi and Profs. Joas and Schnädelbach, which was such a joy to follow and whose availability only in German has been bugging me over this last half year.

1 It may come as a surprise to long-time readers of this blog, but I am actually following up on a strand from a previous post that I said I’d follow up on :).
2 All quotes from the event here are my crude translations from the evening’s recording in German.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Theology: necessary, but only for experts


Last Sunday was Trinity Sunday - the day when the Church focuses on the one God having revealed himself to be a communion of three persons, whose self-giving love for one another means that they are both three and one - distinct persons, yet of one substance. As St. John Paul II put it in Familiaris Consortio (§11): “God is love and in Himself He lives a mystery of personal loving communion.”

John Paul II then goes on to discussing the relevance of an understanding of the Trinity for humanity, when he says that
“God created man in His own image and likeness: calling him to existence through love, He called him at the same time for love. [...] Creating the human race in His own image and continually keeping it in being, God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”
Maybe naively, but I therefore expected to read some edifying insight into this trinitarian nature of God when picking up an official leaflet distributed with my parish’s newsletter last Sunday. Instead, I started reading a piece that kicks off as follows:
“The liturgy of Trinity Sunday is full of abstract words that many of us find difficult - unity, trinity, person, substance. They can seem to belong more to a mathematical text-book than to a prayer. This is the technical language of theology, necessary but only for experts.”
At this point I stopped reading, since, whatever followed, could be neither edifying nor enriching, and I preferred to spend the rest of the time I had before mass in a positive way instead of by trying to calm myself down in the face of more drivel.

I am not sure what maths books the author of the above patronizing had read, but I can only think of one of those four terms coming up there. More seriously wrong is the idea though that our understanding of the nature of God is in some way an academic exercise, that it is something that just has to be put up with and that it is best left to experts. The rest of us, for whom this must all be terribly confusing, should just get on with our lives and not let ourselves be troubled by abstract concepts. In fact, we should shelve all this hoity-toity talk about persons and substances under the soothing blanket of “mystery,” as the author of the above insult to every rational human being suggests later in the same piece.

Absolutely no way, Bruce! This would be - to use a soccer analogy - like telling players that they didn’t need to know anything about the Laws of the Game, that they should just run around kicking the ball however they liked (since those complicated rules would just give them headaches) and that the referees would tell them what’s going on and, at some point, who won.

Luckily the author in question here is comfortably outranked by another, whose words I will chose to use against him and to adhere to myself. Yes, you guessed it - I am talking again about St. John Paul II, who said:
“[T]he Trinity is beyond the capacities of our understanding and can only be known through revelation. Nevertheless, this mystery which infinitely transcends us is also the reality closest to us, because it is the very source of our being. For in God we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), and what St Augustine says of God must be applied to all three divine persons: he is “intimior intimo meo” (Confessions, 3, 6, 11). In the depths of our being, where not even our gaze can penetrate, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, are present through grace. Far from being a dry intellectual truth, the mystery of the Trinity is the life that dwells in us and sustains us. [...]

He is love in his inner life, where the Trinitarian dynamism is the very expression of the eternal love with which the Father begets the Son and both give themselves to each other in the Holy Spirit. He is love in his relationship to the world, since the free decision to make it out of nothing is the fruit of this infinite love which radiates into the sphere of creation.”
Yes, the Trinity is a mystery, but saying so is not a conversation stopper or an excuse, and neither is it code for saying that we cannot think or reason about what it means. Christianity has at its heart the gift of revelation, where God became man and dwelt among us, precisely so that we could also have some understanding of who He is. While being wholly other, and justifiably approached also by apophatic means, He is at the same time “more inward to us than our inmost self and higher than our highest self” (“intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo”), as St. Augustine says. Being made in His image means that by understanding Him we understand ourselves, and vice versa, and this surely is worth struggling for and putting up with (seemingly) abstract and technical language for.

Let’s not let others tell us that thinking about the Trinity is for experts only, that it is too technical and abstract for us to trouble our pretty little heads with. Let’s receive the gift of revelation and the glimpses of His innermost life that God shared with us, since these are treasures beyond the wildest imagination and keys to unlocking joy in our lives. And even if you, my dear reader, are not a Christian, see what it is that we mean by speaking about God as Trinity, since it tells you what we mean by love.