Saturday, 24 January 2015

Peppuccio: being by not being

Peppuccio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Peppuccio, for your wisdom and love!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

I am with Charlie Hebdo

Charlie hebdo

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

Vengeance for what?

For cartoons.

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

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

What kind of a God would that be?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Parable of the Good Lesbian

Good samaritan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Atheist Universes

Orion Nebula Hubble 2006 mosaic 18000

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Friday, 26 December 2014

Quranic treasures

“God’s working in [Non-Christians] tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. [...] The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs."
Inspired by the above words by Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium (254), I set out to read the Sahih International translation of the text, with the exception of a couple of cases, where I found it to be too terse as compared with other translations, to the point of obscuring elements that are spelled out in other variants and that in the Sahih International text would require more extensive passages for the same nuances to become clear from context. In these, exceptional cases, I used the Muhsin Khan or Yusuf Ali translations, all available at Quran.com. Finally, the chosen verses will be presented mostly in the order in which they appear in the Quran, which is also the order in which the prophet Mohamed recorded them.

While much of the Quran painstakingly distinguishes between believers and unbelievers, there are several passages where God's (Allah's) discretion in how they are treated is emphasized, as is universal access to what is good:
"Allah selects for His mercy whom He wills, and Allah is the possessor of great bounty." (2:105)

"To Allah belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path." (2:143)

"Who, when disaster strikes them, say, "Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return." Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided." (2:156-157)

"He gives wisdom to whom He wills, and whoever has been given wisdom has certainly been given much good. And none will remember except those of understanding." (2:269)

"Not upon you, [O Muhammad], is [responsibility for] their guidance, but Allah guides whom He wills. And whatever good you [believers] spend is for yourselves, and you do not spend except seeking the countenance of Allah . And whatever you spend of good - it will be fully repaid to you, and you will not be wronged." (2:272)

"Do you not know that to Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth? He punishes whom He wills and forgives whom He wills, and Allah is over all things competent." (5:40))

"And Allah invites to the Home of Peace and guides whom He wills to a straight path. For them who have done good is the best [reward] and extra. No darkness will cover their faces, nor humiliation. Those are companions of Paradise; they will abide therein eternally." (10:25-26)

"Is the reward for good [anything] but good?" (55:60)
The Quran also emphasizes the importance of orthopraxy in the form of generosity with those in need (including alms giving - zakah), of acceptance of hardship in ones own case and of doing these without fanfare:
"Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous." (2:177)

"If you disclose your charitable expenditures, they are good; but if you conceal them and give them to the poor, it is better for you, and He will remove from you some of your misdeeds [thereby]. And Allah, with what you do, is [fully] Acquainted." (2:271)

"Have We not made for him two eyes?
And a tongue and two lips?
And have shown him the two ways?
But he has not broken through the difficult pass.
And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass?
Or feeding on a day of severe hunger
An orphan of near relationship
Or a needy person in misery." (90:8-16)
There is also mention of religious freedom:
"There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong." (2:256)
And kindness and forgiveness are elevated even above the frequently praised forms of charity:
"Kind speech and forgiveness are better than charity followed by injury. And Allah is Free of need and Forbearing." (2:263)
The supremacy of good deeds, without qualification as to who performs them, is also presented in the Quran:
"Indeed, Allah does not do injustice, [even] as much as an atom's weight; while if there is a good deed, He multiplies it and gives from Himself a great reward." (4:40)
And generosity, independently of who it is directed at, is also called for:
"And when you are greeted with a greeting, greet [in return] with one better than it or [at least] return it [in a like manner]. Indeed, Allah is ever, over all things, an Accountant." (4:86)
Such generosity, that rewards the good tenfold while punishing evil only commensurately, also extends to God's final judgment:
"Whoever comes [on the Day of Judgement] with a good deed will have ten times the like thereof [to his credit], and whoever comes with an evil deed will not be recompensed except the like thereof; and they will not be wronged." (6:160)

"Whoever comes [at Judgement] with a good deed will have better than it, and they, from the terror of that Day, will be safe." (27:89)
The Quran also calls for rational discourse, invitation instead of compulsion, and reason as leading to an understanding of God:
"Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided." (16:125)

"Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason." (2:164)
Humility too is exhorted, in the face of the majesty of the universe:
"And do not walk upon the earth exultantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth [apart], and you will never reach the mountains in height." (17:37)

"And do not turn your cheek [in contempt] toward people and do not walk through the earth exultantly. Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful." (31:18)
And diversity of race and culture is also attributed to God's greatness:
"And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge." (30:22)
The Quran also speaks vividly about gratitude towards ones parents:
"And We have enjoined upon man, to his parents, good treatment. His mother carried him with hardship and gave birth to him with hardship, and his gestation and weaning [period] is thirty months. [He grows] until, when he reaches maturity and reaches [the age of] forty years, he says, "My Lord, enable me to be grateful for Your favor which You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents and to work righteousness of which You will approve and make righteous for me my offspring. Indeed, I have repented to You, and indeed, I am of the Muslims."" (46:15)
The greatness of God, at several extremes, is also presented clearly:
"He is the First (nothing is before Him) and the Last (nothing is after Him), the Most High (nothing is above Him) and the Most Near (nothing is nearer than Him). And He is the All-Knower of every thing." (57:3 Muhsin Khan)

"It is He who created the heavens and earth in six days and then established Himself above the Throne. He knows what penetrates into the earth and what emerges from it and what descends from the heaven and what ascends therein; and He is with you wherever you are. And Allah , of what you do, is Seeing" (57:4)
And God's presence among humans is made explicit:
"Seest thou not that Allah doth know (all) that is in the heavens and on earth? There is not a secret consultation between three, but He makes the fourth among them, - Nor between five but He makes the sixth,- nor between fewer nor more, but He is in their midst, wheresoever they be: In the end will He tell them the truth of their conduct, on the Day of Judgment. For Allah has full knowledge of all things." (58:7 Yusuf Ali)
The Quran also places God above all else:
"O you who have believed, let not your wealth and your children divert you from remembrance of Allah . And whoever does that - then those are the losers." (63:9)

"The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things),
Until ye visit the graves.
But nay, ye soon shall know (the reality)." (102:1-3 Yusuf Ali)

"Woe to every scorner and mocker
Who collects wealth and [continuously] counts it.
He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal.
No! He will surely be thrown into the Crusher." (104:1-4)

"And to Allah belongs the east and the west. So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah . Indeed, Allah is all-Encompassing and Knowing." (2:115)
And, finally, the Quran also has positive things to say about Jesus and the Gospel:
"And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous.

And let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed - then it is those who are the defiantly disobedient." (5:46-47)
In spite of the severe caveats of the above first excursion into the Quran, I believe there is a clear shared basis both for journeying towards God and helping those in need in the here and now. This is not to deny the presence of significant challenges and concerns, but to point to a shared patch of common ground instead, on which we may seek to discover each other's shared humanity and thirst for God. Inshallah!

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

Complementarity

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.