Saturday, 25 June 2016
When I first read Søren Kierkegaard's Either/Or, in which he presents a choice between an aesthetic, inward-focused and an ethical life, lived for others, I was filled with joy both by the beauty of his writing and the goodness of the choices he proposed. In some sense, I had already then rejected his either/or perspective by my very reaction to his work. Nonetheless, I could clearly see the importance of the distinctions he presented and the value of making informed decisions about which option to select from among a set of alternatives. In another sense, therefore, I also fully identified with Either/Or. My reaction, therefore, was a Both+And. I both recognized the importance of what Either/Or was proposing, and I saw the good in the two choices that it pitted against each other.
That was around twenty years ago and what followed has been a gradual emergence of what was initially only an implicit leaning towards Both+And, a Both+And that, I now see, also encompasses the Either/Or and that, with it, forms an infinitely nested structure, where Both+And = Both Both+And And Either/Or, which in turn makes Both+And both finite and infinite.
Forgive me if this is too abstract and, if you like, bear with me as I try to spell out some examples of what this means in more practical terms.
First, choices are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. Given that all that is open to me at any one moment is to choose from among the alternatives in front of me here and now (do I continue to write this piece, or do I get distracted, or do I go and unload the washing machine, or ...), every single choice attains paramount importance. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my choice is one among a myriad as far as I am concerned and infinitesimal as far as humanity, history and statistics go, not to mention God in his infinity.
Second, knowledge is both the greatest good and its pursuit futile. The more I know, the better I understand what is, how things work, what consequences follow from events, the more closely I understand myself, others and the universe, the more fully I am part of existence and the better I can make choices, which - as we have already established - are both profoundly important and entirely inconsequential. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, my capacity for knowledge is virtually nil and my attempts at attaining anything that may properly be called knowledge are crippled by how I engage with the universe. All I see is tinted with myself and is merely the view through a filthy window (to use Panikkar's metaphor) or through a mirror, darkly (with a nod to St. Paul).
Third, loving others is both the greatest source of joy and a guarantee of suffering. Putting others before myself brings us closer together, triggers joy in the other, triggering joy in me and, challenges, fatigue, self-denial notwithstanding, leads to days lived in fullness and to relationships whose strength and depth exist and persist outside time and space. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, loving others makes their suffering my own and makes a lack of reciprocity even more keenly felt as a wound, a wound that indifference may have even been able to prevent with its padding.
Fourth, beauty is both the highest perfection and the first chip to trade. The greater my communion with beauty, and regardless of whether she displays herself unmediated or whether she hides behind what, at first sight, is wrongly categorized as ugliness, the more fully truth and goodness can breathe in me, unobstructed by the dust that otherwise accumulates on the soul (as Picasso saw so clearly). Beauty, who is both beautiful and beautifully ugly, also builds bonds that transcend language, understanding, context, prejudices and gives rest to all those who labor and are burdened (as Jesus - the Beautiful Shepherd - put it). At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I would give up all the beauty in the world in exchange for the life of a starving child, an abandoned pensioner, a freezing homeless man.
Fifth, faith is both my lifeblood and wholly unnecessary. Having received it as a gift that permeates my every fibre, a life without feeling loved by God is as unimaginable to me as what it is like to be a bat (and here I find Nagel's view to be overly optimistic), and I wish it for every single person in this world. At the same time, and not negating the first interpretation, I see no lack in those who do not have faith, either because doubt takes its place (doubt that is a "both+and" part of faith) or because its place is taken by a sincere conviction that there is nothing beyond this world. Their capacity for love is in no way diminished and I can learn as much from them as from any other fellow human.
Sixth, God is both one and three, both human and divine, both finite and infinite, both interior intimo meo and superior summo meo (in St. Augustine's beautiful words), both all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent and scandalously suffering in abandoned failure.
Friday, 24 June 2016
930 words, 5 min read
The question of who I am is at the very heart of philosophy and a failure to answer it was presented by Socrates even as grounds for voiding the very value of his being, when he said his famous “The unexamined life is not worth living.” during the trial that lead to his being sentenced to death. A philosopher who has given this question some very careful and insightful thought is Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, who in his 1980 article entitled “A few thoughts on the person” has looked at the distinction between person and individual.
His starting point is the presentation is a key challenge that we face when attempting to subject the person to scientific enquiry:
“In the humanity common to all humans, the person is precisely that which is not in common, that which constitutes me as me in a shared humanity. How is it possible, then, to objectify the person? If we do that, we can only state what the person is not (not to confuse with, e.g., human nature); but if we want to say what the person is, we won’t find a “scientific” answer.”By definition, that of which there is only a single specimen can not be subjected to the scientific method, since it does not allow for repeatability, for generalization and for verification (already Aristotle knew this well, when he argued in he Metaphysics (XIII, 10) that there can be no science of individual entities).
This initial roadblock leads Zanghí to define the person as follows:
“The person [...] is a “singularity” irreducible to another since it is other; it is that unrepeatable “singularity” that makes a human be this human, who then is the concretely existing one.”Next, Zanghí introduces an important nuance and distinction: that between the person and the individual, lest his definition of the former be taken as pointing to the latter:
“Could we, therefore, say that the person is the individual? The answer to this question calls for careful reflection. If we analyze ourselves, we realize that the individual is that which exists concretely: only in it does human nature not exist as a logical concept but as effective reality. But there remains a difference between nature and individual, without which the individual would absorb the totality of the nature and would deny the other. We can say, therefore, that the individual is defined by the precise limits within which it exists; the individual is, to use an image, carved into the common, shared nature. Human nature is constrained, it contracts, becoming concrete in the space-times that are individuals.”What I believe Zanghí is saying here is that the individual is an instance of human nature, but distinct from it, since, otherwise, there could be only one individual, and that it is a spatiotemporal restriction and concretization of that nature.
This leads Zanghí to the realization of what it is that distinguishes the person from the individual:
“Yet, as I affirm all this (non-identity between the individual and nature, spatiotemporality of the individual), if what I say makes sense, I demonstrate to myself that, because of the awareness that I have of it, I am overcoming precisely the limits that make me an individual; I overcome, by speaking about it, the space-time in which I am an individual, I overcome the individual-nature distinction. Not in a sense that confuses the logical and existential planes, but in the sense that I unite them on a higher level, that I call ontological. I can think of myself as I think, because I transcend myself as an individual, I achieve a way of being where the individual-nature opposition, and thus individuality itself, is overcome (but not negated). In this act of transcendence, in this overcoming that I achieve while thinking, I reverse the state proper to the individual, that is, I assume nature, through the individual but beyond the individual, in an “other” with regard to the individual, and that is the person.”The person is essentially the individual’s self-transcendence, a going beyond the constraints and unicity of the individual that is demonstrated by the very act of thinking about oneself, which would otherwise not be possible - without transcendence the individual could not think about itself.
Zanghí unpacks this transcendental nature of the person as follows:
“I would say, then, that the person is the individual’s act of transcendence, it is the individual that overcomes itself by taking nature up into itself and achieving a unity between universality (proper to nature) and existential concreteness, that is, the particular (proper to the individual). Human nature exists concretely in an act of transcendence that, while it “limits” it in the concreteness of the here and now (the individual), it returns it to an existing universality (the person).”Finally, in anticipation of a potential misunderstanding that the above could lead to, Zanghí focuses on how individual and person relate:
“It is to be understood, also, that the person is not placed above, so to speak, the individual: almost as though, if the individual is what exists, is substance, then the person is also another substance added to the individual. The person is the act of the individual human substance, the act in which that-which-is-human (the individual human individual) is in its fullness, I would simply say: is.”In other words, Zanghí is careful to avoid a dualist misinterpretation of his thought by stressing that we are not some strange amalgams of two distinct substances: individual and person, but that it is the person which is how the individual exists/is.
Monday, 6 June 2016
3406 words, 17 min read
An aspect of marriage that Pope Francis speaks about extensively in Amoris Lætitia is sex and he does so by presenting a very positive view. He speaks about sex in a way that recognizes both its beauty and its importance in the context of a couple’s relationship, also beyond its procreative function. This is a topic that was very prominent during the two Synods that preceded the exhortation, where the Synod Fathers have called for a new way of speaking about sex and of making it clear that it is valued broadly and positively by the Church. Since Pope Francis has, I believe, taken up that challenge masterfully and has written with great clarity and freshness about the subject, I would next like to share with you my favorite passages from Amoris Lætitia in which he speaks about this topic.
Sex comes up very early on in the text, in §9, which is effectively the second paragraph of the exhortation, since the preceding ones present more meta context (about the process, an outline, ...). Here, Francis goes back to the origins of the family in Scripture and introduces it as Genesis does:
“At the centre we see the father and mother, a couple with their personal story of love. They embody the primordial divine plan clearly spoken of by Christ himself: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Mt 19:4). We hear an echo of the command found in the Book of Genesis: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24)”.”Francis then points to it being a couple’s potential to beget life as a result of their love for each other that makes them an icon of God himself, a vehicle for salvation and a reflection of the inner life of the Trinity:
“The couple that loves and begets life is a true, living icon – not an idol like those of stone or gold prohibited by the Decalogue – capable of revealing God the Creator and Saviour. For this reason, fruitful love becomes a symbol of God’s inner life (cf. Gen 1:28; 9:7; 17:2-5, 16; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3-4). [...] The ability of human couples to beget life is the path along which the history of salvation progresses. Seen this way, the couple’s fruitful relationship becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love. The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection. Saint John Paul II shed light on this when he said, “Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude, but a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”. The family is thus not unrelated to God’s very being. This Trinitarian dimension finds expression in the theology of Saint Paul, who relates the couple to the “mystery” of the union of Christ and the Church (cf. Eph 5:21-33).” (§11)The “becoming one flesh” that is referred to right at the start of AL is then unpacked and presented as being both physical and spiritual:
“The marital union is thus evoked not only in its sexual and corporal dimension, but also in its voluntary self-giving in love. The result of this union is that the two “become one flesh”, both physically and in the union of their hearts and lives, and, eventually, in a child, who will share not only genetically but also spiritually in the “flesh” of both parents.” (§13)Further on in the exhortation, Pope Francis underlines that Christian Scripture presents marriage as a gift from God and that this gift also contains sexuality:
“Contrary to those who rejected marriage as evil, the New Testament teaches that “everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected” (1 Tim 4:4). Marriage is “a gift” from the Lord (1 Cor 7:7). At the same time, precisely because of this positive understanding, the New Testament strongly emphasizes the need to safeguard God’s gift: “Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb 13:4). This divine gift includes sexuality: “Do not refuse one another” (1 Cor 7:5).” (§61)Francis also points to this position already having been put forward by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:
“The Second Vatican Council, in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, was concerned “to promote the dignity of marriage and the family (cf. Nos. 47-52)”. The Constitution “de ned marriage as a community of life and love (cf. 48), placing love at the centre of the family... ‘True love between husband and wife’ (49) involves mutual self-giving, includes and integrates the sexual and affective dimensions, in accordance with God’s plan (cf. 48-49)”. (§67)This then leads to a reflection on the sacrament of marriage, where the link between the love of wife and husband for each other and of Christ for his Church is again made (§72) and where links are also shown to Christ’s incarnation and to the joys of Paradise:
“By becoming one flesh, they embody the espousal of our human nature by the Son of God. That is why “in the joys of their love and family life, he gives them here on earth a foretaste of the wedding feast of the Lamb”. Even though the analogy between the human couple of husband and wife, and that of Christ and his Church, is “imperfect”, it inspires us to beg the Lord to bestow on every married couple an outpouring of his divine love.” (§73)Next, Pope Francis speaks directly about the role of sex in the context of the sacrament of marriage and emphasizes that it is sanctified, leads to growth in grace and has meaning in the context of complete, mutual self-giving:
“Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple. It is the “nuptial mystery”. The meaning and value of their physical union is expressed in the words of consent, in which they accepted and offered themselves each to the other, in order to share their lives completely. Those words give meaning to the sexual relationship and free it from ambiguity.” (§74)Francis then goes on to spell out its divine, unitive nature:
“[B]y manifesting their consent and expressing it physically, [the man and the woman who marry] receive a great gift. Their consent and their bodily union are the divinely appointed means whereby they become “one flesh”.” (§75)Next, he speaks with nuance about the relationship between sex and procreation:
“Marriage is firstly an “intimate partnership of life and love” which is a good for the spouses themselves, while sexuality is “ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman”. It follows that “spouses to whom God has not granted children can have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms”. Nonetheless, the conjugal union is ordered to procreation “by its very nature”.” (§80)Following a beautiful reflection on St. Paul’s Hymn to Love, Pope Francis underlines through Pope Pius XI’s words the link between conjugal love and Christ’s love for us:
“[Conjugal love] is the love between husband and wife,115 a love sanctified, enriched and illuminated by the grace of the sacrament of marriage. It is an “affective union”,116 spiritual and sacrificial, which combines the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and endures long after emotions and passion subside. Pope Pius XI taught that this love permeates the duties of married life and enjoys pride of place. Infused by the Holy Spirit, this powerful love is a reflection of the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross. “The Spirit which the Lord pours forth gives a new heart and renders man and woman capable of loving one another as Christ loved us. Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained: conjugal charity.”” (§120)Later on in AL, Francis speaks both about the good effects of sex on a married couple and about the meaning of it being used as a parallel to heavenly love, in which context he also points to the importance of pleasure and passion:
“The Second Vatican Council teaches that this conjugal love “embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestation of the friendship proper to marriage”. For this reason, a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: “All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love, rather than in friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality”.” (§142)Pope Francis then revisits the idea of sex as a gift and quotes from St. John Paul’s writings on the theology of the body, in which he denies a negative view and one restricted solely to procreation:
“God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the “impoverishment of an authentic value”. Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”. Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.” (§150)This leads Francis to following John Paul II’s lead further into a view of sexuality that neither deprives it of spontaneity nor denies the need for self-control, leading to a recognition of its nature being love and self-giving:
“To those who fear that the training of the passions and of sexuality detracts from the spontaneity of sexual love, Saint John Paul II replied that human persons are “called to full and mature spontaneity in their relationships”, a maturity that “is the gradual fruit of a discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart”. This calls for discipline and self-mastery, since every human person “must learn, with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of his or her body”. Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. As such, “the human heart comes to participate, so to speak, in an other kind of spontaneity”. In this context, the erotic appears as a specifically human manifestation of sexuality. It enables us to discover “the nuptial meaning of the body and the authentic dignity of the gift”. In his catecheses on the theology of the body, Saint John Paul II taught that sexual differentiation not only is “a source of fruitfulness and procreation”, but also possesses “the capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the human person becomes a gift”. A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses.” (§151)The train of thought then concludes with a repeated rejection of a negative view of sex and Francis links it to goodness and happiness:
“In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permissible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentarily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and happy”.” (§152)While sex is presented as an inherent part of marriage and as a gift from God, Francis also speaks about the dangers of its misuse as a means of egoistic consumerism:
“On the basis of this positive vision of sexuality, we can approach the entire subject with a healthy realism. It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a result, “it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts”. In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of “use and discard”. The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing. Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality?” (§153)This is a point he also made very early on in AL, where he decried all forms of violence directed towards women in the family:
“Unacceptable customs still need to be eliminated. I think particularly of the shameful ill-treatment to which women are sometimes subjected, domestic violence and various forms of enslavement which, rather than a show of masculine power, are craven acts of cowardice. The verbal, physical, and sexual violence that women endure in some marriages contradicts the very nature of the conjugal union.” (§54)Following from its nature as self-giving, Pope Francis next warns against an abuse of sexuality between husband and wife:
“We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Hence it must be clearly reaffirmed that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife”. The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which is truly human”. Saint Paul insists: “Let no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter” (1 Th 4:6). Even though Paul was writing in the context of a patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to men, he nonetheless taught that sex must involve communication between the spouses.” (§154)And he again points to St. John Paul who spoke out clearly about the dangers of domination perverting what ought to be a communion build on the recognition of mutual dignity:
“Saint John Paul II very subtly warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability”. In other words, while called to an increasingly profound union, they can risk effacing their differences and the rightful distance between the two. For each possesses his or her own proper and inalienable dignity. When reciprocal belonging turns into domination, “the structure of communion in interpersonal relations is essentially changed”. It is part of the mentality of domination that those who dominate end up negating their own dignity. Ultimately, they no longer “identify themselves subjectively with their own body”, because they take away its deepest meaning. They end up using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.” (§155)Like he did in Laudato Si’ with regard to a misinterpretation of passages from Genesis that have been taken as license to exploit the Earth, Pope Francis next presents an exegesis of a passage from St. Paul that could be misunderstood as giving men power over their wives:
“Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Letter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys. As Saint John Paul II wisely observed: “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband... The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection”. Hence Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph 5:21). In marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfillment of the other.” (§156)Concluding this section of Amoris Lætitia, in which Francis warns about distortions of sexuality, is a passage that reaffirms, with the help of Benedict XVI’s beautiful words from Deus Caritas Est, the intrinsic importance of sex also as a safeguard against a dualism that would result in a loss of the value of both body and spirit:
“All the same, the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves. The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union. Benedict XVI stated this very clearly: “Should man aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity”. For this reason, “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”. Still, we must never forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive and selfish tendencies.” (§157)Speaking about marriage preparation, Pope Francis introduces a new aspect to his presentation of sexuality, which again builds on St. John Paul II’s thought, who links it to the wedding liturgy and who thinks of sex as its continuation:
“[young people] need to be encouraged to see the sacrament not as a single moment that then becomes a part of the past and its memories, but rather as a reality that permanently influences the whole of married life. The procreative meaning of sexuality, the language of the body, and the signs of love shown throughout married life, all become an “uninterrupted continuity of liturgical language” and “conjugal life becomes in a certain sense liturgical”.” (§215)Finally, Pope Francis mentions sexuality again in one of the last paragraphs of the exhortation, where he speaks about it in the context of family spirituality and where he links it to the resurrection:
“If a family is centred on Christ, he will unify and illumine its entire life. Moments of pain and difficulty will be experienced in union with the Lord’s cross, and his closeness will make it possible to surmount them. In the darkest hours of a family’s life, union with Jesus in his abandonment can help avoid a breakup. Gradually, “with the grace of the Holy Spirit, [the spouses] grow in holiness through married life, also by sharing in the mystery of Christ’s cross, which transforms difficulties and sufferings into an offering of love”. Moreover, moments of joy, relaxation, celebration, and even sexuality can be experienced as a sharing in the full life of the resurrection. Married couples shape with different daily gestures a “God-enlightened space in which to experience the hidden presence of the risen Lord”.” (§317)
Thursday, 2 June 2016
1389 words, 7 min read
Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the cross is by some considered to be the pinnacle of his suffering and therefore of God’s self-emptying and self-giving love. It is a moment in Jesus’ life that has attracted many and that many have reflected on and meditated on. Among the latest of these is the atheist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who, in a book co-authored with the Lutheran theologian Boris Gunjević and entitled “God in Pain”, presents a particularly insightful analysis.
Žižek approaches Jesus’ forsakenness on the cross by first posing one of the most perennially challenging questions in Christianity, and in any religion that posits a loving God, which is that of evil and suffering:
“Every theologian sooner or later faces the problem of how to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of the Shoah or some similar excessive evil: How are we to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and good God with the terrifying suffering of millions of innocents, like the children killed in the gas chambers?”After dismissing two unsatisfactory answers (the first being an argument from mystery and the second from God self-imposing limitations that effectively lead to dualism), Žižek proceeds to present a, to his (and my) mind, credible response:
This brings us to the third position [...]: that of a suffering God — not a triumphalist God who always wins in the end, although “his ways are mysterious” since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who — like the suffering Christ on the cross — is agonized, who assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. … Without the concept of a humanly suffering God … all of history remains incomprehensible.” Why? Because God’s suffering implies that he is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of a real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided. This is the philosophical background of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s deep insight that, after the Shoah, “only a suffering God can help us now” — a proper supplement to Heidegger’s “Only a God can save us!” from his last interview. One should therefore take the statement that “the unspeakable suffering of the six million is also the voice of the suffering of God” quite literally: the very excess of this suffering over any “normal” human measure makes it divine. Recently, this paradox was succinctly formulated by Jürgen Habermas: “Secular languages which only eliminate the substance once intended leave irritations. When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost.”I believe that Žižek makes two key observations here: first, that God’s suffering is born of solidarity with human suffering, in other words, that it is the result of mercy, and, second, that it is God’s suffering that is a key to beginning to understand the suffering of others and suffering itself.
Which is why secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like the Shoah or the gulag (amongst others) are experienced as insufficient: in order to reach the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophe in which the world itself is “out of joint”—when one confronts a phenomenon like the Shoah, the only appropriate reaction is to ask the perplexed question “Why did the heavens not darken?” (the title of Arno Mayor’s book). Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of the Shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology that can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of the catastrophe — the fiasco of God is still the fiasco of God.
Furthermore, Žižek also sees Jesus’ abandonment on the cross as the key to man transcending his animal origins and as a bridge over the otherwise insurmountable abyss between God and man:
“The crucial problem is how to think the link between the two “alienations” — the one of modern man from God (who is reduced to an unknowable In-itself, absent from the world subjected to mechanical laws), the other of God from himself (in Christ, in the incarnation) — they are the same, although not symmetrically, but as subject and object. In order for (human) subjectivity to emerge out of the substantial personality of the human animal, cutting links with it and positing itself as the I = I dispossessed of all substantial content, as the self-relating negativity of an empty singularity, God himself, the universal Substance, has to “humiliate” himself, to fall into his own creation, “objectivize” himself, to appear as a singular miserable human individual, in all its abjection, i.e., abandoned by God. The distance of man from God is thus the distance of God from himself.”Žižek then argues that Jesus’ abandonment is the key to union with God since in that moment God makes what separates man from Him part of Himself. The gap that separated us from Him becomes part of Him and makes us immediately adjacent and no longer at a distance:
“In Christianity, the gap that separates God from man is not effectively “sublated” in the figure of Christ as god-man, but only in the most tense moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs (“Father, why have you forsaken me?”): in this moment, the gap is transposed into God himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God the Father; the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.”Finally, Žižek claims the forsaken Jesus for himself by conferring on him his own atheist identity and he does so also through the words of G. K. Chesterton:
“[I]n Christianity, when, dying on the cross, Christ utters his “Father, father, why did you forsake me?”—here, for a brief moment, God himself does not believe in himself—or, as G. K. Chesterton put it in emphatic terms: “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 145.)”Žižek’s “God in Pain” is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to read in full, since it is a rich source of profound reflection on a variety of questions, from among which the above are the highlights of his insights into the forsaken Jesus. Personally, I find his perspective very enriching in that it provides a view from a vantage point that is close to the event of Jesus’ abandonment and that spells out aspects of what that experience might have been “from the inside.” Žižek’s insight that Jesus’ taking on what separates God from man is what builds a bridge is particularly striking and also an invitation to radical dialogue. By emptying myself to receive what separates me from you, we become one.
I can’t not mention another outstanding feature of “God in Pain”, which is the deeply beautiful re-telling and analysis of St. Mark’s Gospel that Gunjević presents in the book’s final chapter, entitled “Pray and Watch — The Messianic Subversion.” It alone is worth the price of admission.
Sunday, 29 May 2016
This morning, another of Chiara Lubich's first followers has completed his earthly journey. Giorgio Marchetti, who received the name “Fede” (faith) from Chiara, was a focolarino, medical doctor, psychologist, moral theologian and priest, and I give thanks to God for the gift that he was for me personally. I first met Fede over twenty years ago, during a meeting in Rome of which I have three lasting memories. First, Fede's deep, radiant and existential smile, which seemed more a smile of his every atom that just of his face. Second, his utter rootedness in the present moment, as a result of which he almost entirely ignored the carefully crafted schedule of the four day meeting to tell us what was at the forefront of his soul at the beginning of any given session during which he spoke. Third, the experience he shared of his call to follow Jesus. Fede, pretty much in the first sentence I heard him say, declared that he never felt called by Jesus. Instead, he met others who had so obviously been his followers that he felt like someone who goes up to Jesus and says to him: “Let me follow you.” All of this has had a powerful impact on me during a time when I was discerning my own vocation, and I would like to thank God for the gift of Fede on this, his dies natalis.
Others have known Fede far better than I and have been far closer to him, and I hope that they will share their rich experiences of who he was for them. As a way of thanking Fede myself, I have selected - and translated into English - a couple of my favorite passages from his writings, which I would like to share with you next.
First, there is a particularly lucid passage about how love and freedom mutually strengthen each other, from a talk entitled “The conquest of freedom”:
“In practice we see that a person grows humanly and spiritually and that they mature and become fulfilled not by looking at themselves in an effort of self-perfection, but by looking at others, and on the back of their giving themselves, they grow and fulfill themselves, almost without realizing it, not by looking at themselves in the mirror, but by looking at others.Second, a beautiful reflection on what makes love perfect:
This love makes freedom grow in us. Why? Because in every act of love we, giving ourselves, somehow “lose” ourselves, but by doing so we free ourselves from all the things of which we may be prisoners. But, by being love, we grow. And we grow with a full heart: pure and full, free and full. Therefore, as freedom lets us love, so love increases freedom.”
“[Love] cannot be but reciprocal, for it is the love of the Trinity itself that Jesus made come down to Earth and in which he made us take part. Like this he, in fact, prayed to his Father: “May the love with which you loved me be in them and I in them.” (John 17;26) It is therefore the same love that connects us with God and with one another, to the point of making us “perfect in unity”, as John always says, that is, “one”, like Jesus and the Father are one. If we love one another reciprocally, “God remains in us.” (1 John 4:12) The more unity grows among us, the more unity grows with him, and vice versa; we are therefore not called to sanctify ourselves alone but together, and for each one of us to feel responsible for each other, each members of one another. If we love, Jesus is still with us, as he promised us: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) God in us, God among us: this is enough for us, of course, to understand that love is the essence of Christian life.”Third, advice on how to think of and deal with inevitable difficulties:
“Each one of us, in their own life, cannot help but experience sufferings, to meet, or rather to collide with difficulties. Even just being aware of this allows us to be prepared to face them. And it is important, in fact, to face them: that is, not to let them effectively take over; I’d say in other words, it should not be they who “live us” but we who “live them”, with full awareness and with all the freedom we are capable of. This applies to all the difficulties we encounter, physical, spiritual, social, environmental.Fourth, on the importance of remaining in love:
A difficulty that I would like to reflect on is “temptation”: by that I mean thoughts or circumstances or inner drives that tend to distract us from our life’s project that we are pursuing in an attempt to be consistent. Here in particular it is important and fundamental to be aware of them, that is, pulling them out of the subconscious, “not to sleep on them” but to look them in the face and reject them with utmost determination. This applies to everyone; but for us Christians, in particular, there are those temptations that can distance us from God and from the life that he proposes to us: the one that we most deeply desire.
And here, in addition to our determination, what is worth a lot, and takes first place, is trusting prayer. But we can say the same also with regard to all other types of difficulty. Some we can resolve. Others we will have to accept, but it is possible not to get crushed by them. Beyond interior attitude, it may be useful to share them with other people you trust. For us Christians, it is important to unite our sufferings with those of Jesus crucified and abandoned, and possibly share them with other people united by the “new commandment” of Jesus, who love one another with his love to the point of being able to count on him personally, as he promised: Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)”
“What God expects of us, more than the great acts of virtue or heroic deeds and even more than a scrupulous fidelity to his teachings, it is our love for him, overflowing to men. He is a Father who expects us to start and to continue with him, in a thousand ways, a personal dialogue that will last beyond death. Our love can be turned to God or to men and permeate our relationship with all creatures; but remaining in this divine-human reality of love always has the consequence of “remaining in God.”And, finally, a reflection on the commandment that Jesus gave to his disciples:
And this is not just some nice expression, nor some keeping in touch with him, like with someone of whom you think and whom you love; instead, it is a communion that reaches the totality of our being. There are a thousand circumstances that can make us exit this reality. For example, when we approach someone full of good will and with all the love that we are capable of, it is always a tough injury if we receive hatred, dislike, or even indifference from them in return. Or, it can happen that what we do is misinterpreted; and misunderstandings arise. It is not easy then to remember that regardless of any possible explanation, that which has value, however, is to ”remain in love.” Many of us have known slanders, insults, teasing and cheating of every kind. Many know what wounded pride, humiliation, the desire to pay back in kind, or the blind rage of impotence mean, instead of remaining in the newness of the kingdom of Jesus. But who manages to “remain in love,” learns to forgive, to repay evil with good, to pray for those who persecute us, and to give double of what is asked of us, in short, to live all of the Gospel.”
“[What] resonates in our minds and hearts are the words said to his disciples: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). He calls us therefore to participate in His own love towards men; This is His commandment, a New Commandment, the synthesis of all the moral teaching of Jesus. […]
In fact, Jesus says : “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:14) (and all his commandments are summed up in his commandment); and then he resumes: “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15) A friendship that is even mutual immanence: “Remain in me, as I remain in you.” (John 15:4) Next, he promises his disciples that if they will love Him, then the Father too will go and live in them; he promises the Holy Spirit; he promises that every prayer will be heard. More than a command, then, it is the revelation of Love, the door of the Trinity flung wide open. It is a love that, before being commanded, is given as a gift; and it is the same love that binds the Father to the Son: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you.” (John 15:9) And it is a love that contains all the loves of which Chiara spoke, referring to Jesus Forsaken: fatherly, motherly, brotherly, spousal.”
Friday, 27 May 2016
1262 words, 6 min read
The Hebrew Bible presents a copious offering of laws, rules and regulations for virtually every aspect of life, as does the Church today. There is the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism and a rich body of magisterial texts that prescribe and proscribe in equal measure. All of this poses the perennial challenge of how a person is to understand and relate to such a body of laws and rules. Is full and permanent compliance with all of them the way to God and happiness? And are those who don’t comply to be reprimanded and shunned? Are laws a necessary and sufficient guarantee of holiness? Will adherence to them ensure a life that imitates that of Jesus, God who became man?
Probably the best way to arrive at an answer, or at least the beginnings of one, is to see what Jesus said and did himself. Here a good starting point may be the words with which he addressed the crowds to whom he had just presented the Beatitudes:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mark 5:17-19)So, it sounds like compliance with the law is pretty fundamental and not even the slightest deviation from it is to be tolerated. This seems pretty clear and one would expect that the rest of the Gospel accounts would be a catalogue of Jesus being exemplary at complying with the rules and regulations of Scripture.
However, the polar opposite is actually the case!
Jesus broke the laws calling for abstaining from work on the Sabbath, by healing the withered hand of a man (Matthew 12:9-19), which incensed the Pharisees to the point of plotting his death. He cured a “blind, lame and crippled” man, again on a Sabbath (John 5:1-18). He cured another man’s blindness (John 9:1-16), yet again on a Sabbath, making the Pharisees exclaim that “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” And Jesus also cured a woman “crippled by a spirit; [who] was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect.” (Luke 13:11) - again on a Sabbath and much to the consternation of the authorities, with the leader of the Synagogue exclaiming in exasperation: “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.”
On another occasion, Jesus condoned his disciples’ breaking the Sabbath, when they picked grain from a field to feed themselves (cf. Matthew 12:1-8). In fact, the disciples’ behavior was a source of complaint by the Pharisees on another occasion too, when they asked Jesus: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They do not wash [their] hands when they eat a meal.” (Matthew 15:2).
Jesus broke the law again when touching a leper who approached him (Matthew 8:1-4), which goes directly against the rules laid out in Leviticus 13. He also touched a dead girl (cf. Matthew 9:25) which is against Numbers 19:11. Jesus allowed a prostitute to touch him (Luke 7:36-50) and he also ate with tax collectors on the same occasion, who broke the laws set out in Leviticus 25:36-38 that prohibit charging interest on loans. And he even invited himself for a meal at a tax collector’s house (cf. Luke 19:1-10)!
Jesus also broke the law when he stopped the stoning of an adulteress, even though the Pharisees told him directly that “in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.” (cf. John 8:1-11).
Finally, Jesus broke the law again when blasphemously identifying himself with God (cf. John 5:18), a crime he was accused of also during his trial before the Sanhedrin that lead to his - legal - condemnation to death (cf. Matthew 26:65-66).
So, what is going on here?
I believe there are two keys in the passage where Jesus declares that he has not “come to abolish the law.”
First, Jesus states that his purpose is to “fulfill” rather than abolish the law. To my mind, fulfillment is consistent both with change, since something that becomes fulfilled changes (since it was, presumably, not fulfilled before, otherwise it would have had no capacity for fulfillment) and with remaining the same (it is the one thing that grows in fulfillment). What kind of fulfillment does Jesus have in mind though? The obvious place to look to for an answer is the law that Jesus himself imposes on his followers: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). The purity laws, the laws governing the Sabbath, the laws pertaining to blasphemy get, prima facie, broken for the sake of underlining the one law that they were designed to safeguard, but whose attainment they have become at times obstacles to: love of neighbor. When Jesus transgresses against laws, his motivation is love of neighbor: of the sick, of sinners, of his disciples. He is moved by mercy (misericordia, meaning compassion felt by the heart) and it is indeed this participation of the heart in bringing laws to fulfillment that Jesus saw lacking in the reactions of the Pharisees. This in turn lead him to throwing Isaiah’s prophesy in their faces when they complained about Jesus allowing his disciples to eat with unwashed hands:
“Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said:Second, there is another, perhaps less immediately recognizable key in Jesus’ words, which calls for a closer reading of the text. Note what it is that Jesus is actually saying in the following sentence: “Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” If you break these commandments, you’ll be in heaven. You’ll be the least in heaven, but you’ll be in heaven! To my mind this is a brilliant piece of humor. It’s like saying: if you break the rules you’ll be the poorest among billionaires, the weakest among superheroes, the unluckiest among Leprechauns, the shortest among giants. And, let’s remember that Jesus isn’t saying that it is a free-for-all. He is quite happy to threaten exclusion and a “wailing and grinding of teeth” (cf. Luke 13:22-30) or to recommend that it would be better to “have a great millstone hung around [their] neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” for those who lead the young astray (cf. Matthew 18:6-9). This is not about laxity, but about priorities: love of neighbor precedes adherence to rules and regulations, whose breaking may actually be the act of love that someone needs to have done to them to turn their lives around.
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines human precepts.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)
Tuesday, 24 May 2016
1515 words, 8 min read
Last Saturday, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi addressed a meeting entitled “Beauty will save the world, let us save beauty,” organized by Earth Day Italia, that took place in the Vatican’s church of St Stephen of the Abyssinians. In his talk, Cardinal Ravasi spoke about the etymology of the word for beauty in Hebrew, Greek and Italian, pointing to the fact that in all these languages the word either directly refers both to beauty and goodness, or at least has roots that do. After the Q&A that followed, Cardinal Ravasi then added a few words in defense of a certain kind of ugliness, lest beauty be misunderstood as aestheticizing. What follows is my translated transcript of the talk:
I would like to start from a thing that is the most material possible, the most limiting possible, which, however, is always fundamental for humanity: that is, the vocabulary, words. […] In the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, using two completely different languages - Hebrew and Greek, and we are still at the point of vocabulary, words, which, on the other hand are the fundamental instruments of communication, we have a single word that contemporaneously expresses two realities that are different for us. In fact, in Hebrew there is the word ‘tov’ (טוֹב) that at the same time means good and beautiful. And in the New Testament, predominantly when a prominent figure or a significant act is to be described, the Greek word kalos (καλός) is used, which in the New Testament means good.
Let me give you an example that you all have in mind but about which you maybe do not have the idea of its original Greek basis. How does Jesus define himself in John’s Gospel? I am the good shepherd. I am sure you all have the famous statue of the good shepherd from the Vatican museums in mind, which is a Christian transcription of a Greek statue of the moscophoros. So, in Greek we have - listen! - “egō eimi ho poimēn ho kalos” (ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ποιμὴν ὁ καλός.) “Ho kalos” - I am the beautiful shepherd, because these two realities must interweave among us.
With this background, let’s look at Italian. […] In Italian we have this word “bello”. Now, probably only few among you know […] that it has nothing to do with Latin. What does “bellum” mean in Latin? War. That has nothing to do with it. Think about the fact that the word “bello” is a deformation - or the synthesis, the portmanteau, if you will - of a late mediaeval Latin word which sounded like this: “bonicellus” which means good, pleasant, nice and which gradually became first bonellus and then bellum, but in Italian and not in Latin. So, you can see, that at the basis of the Italian word beautiful (“bello”) there is the word “good.”
Let’s now pass to another word, which is antipodean to the word beauty, which is “brutto” (ugly). In Italian there are two words that bud from it and these two other words have the same basis but are not synonymous with it, even if we may use them in an undifferentiated manner. We have the words “bruttezza” (ugliness) and the word “bruttura” (nastiness). The word “bruttezza” indicates an aesthetic quality while the word “bruttura” an ethical one. Imagine for a moment, without wishing to give offense since this applies to many other cities too, that we are going to a district at the peripheries of Rome. A dilapidated district, a district where there is exploitation and rampant overdevelopment, where blocks of flats are built on top of each other in all their ugliness (bruttezza). Such spaces also tend to become the sites of moral degeneration and of social degeneration. And so we arrive at the dimension of nastiness (bruttura).
This is why I am saying that the aesthetic question is also relevant to the ethical and social question. Imagine a kid, one of our kids, who comes out of one of these quarters, where he always sees a gray and rundown block of flats, a flowerbed - if there is one - that is always scruffy, streets that are littered with garbage … and he comes to the center and sees the splendor of architecture, of monuments, … What does he do? He slashes them. They mean nothing to him. Because, with the ethical dimension he has also lost the aesthetic one.
Instead, let’s imagine a kid in the 14th century, who’d leave his house in Siena, would enter the Square of Miracles and walk around in that quarter. Evidently here aesthetics in some way influenced a lifestyle. Naturally, subject to the limits of the weakness and the wickedness also of the human creature.
I conclude and would just like to remember [… a message from the bishops at the Second Vatican Council to artists that reflected on the despair caused by ugliness and nastiness] but in that same message there was also another consideration […] whose basis was that art and faith - both authentic: authentic art and authentic faith - are sisters. Why? And I’d like to answer that with the words of a great painter, Paul Klee, who wrote a very important definition of art: “Art does not represent the visible, but the invisible that is in the visible.” Transcendence. And what is it that religion does if not the same job? […] And finally I would like to quote a writer who is far from Christianity and who is also immoral in the eyes of Christianity: Henry Miller, who wrote Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn. In a short essay, The Wisdom of the Heart, […] he wrote the following phrase: “Art, like faith, is good for nothing, other than to show the meaning of life.” And that is not little.
[… at the end of the Q&A that followed, Cardinal Ravasi added:]
I would like to conclude by speaking about ugliness. Let’s say straightaway that squalor is squalor and there is ugliness that is ugly. And we need the courage to say it. We have to say that we are being assaulted by ugliness and nastiness. But, having said this, I would now like to present an defense of ugliness, but of a particular ugliness. For many, and that is why I don’t like this expression that “beauty will save the world” so much, it has become a generally aestheticizing phrase.
We can see, and these are often the victims, with women that feminine beauty has become thought of exclusively as the fruit of an artificial operation applied to a person. To the point of having created an entire medical discipline whose criteria are aestheticizing ones, at times in the form of an external lucidity that, however, isn’t a profound transparency. I remember a beautiful poem by John Donne, this great 17th century English poet, which should be read in English. What does he do? He dedicates beautiful verses to the face of his wife, which by then is marked by a web of wrinkles. To this he says - and I agree fully, “I haven’t seen a season as beautiful as autumn.”1 Imagine what Roman autumn is like. It is infinitely more beautiful than summer.
This is why I said that I would like to present a sort of defense of ugliness. […] Beauty is not smoothness. It is not a dictation formed by beautiful words searched for in a dictionary, as Sunday poets often do. It is, instead, the capacity to capture the transcendent, to capture that which is not seen, but that which is the soul of reality. So, when you go and see an exhibition […] of Caravaggio, you can’t come out from it indignant because Caravaggio also touches evil.
Without reflecting on evil, and evil is ugly, we wouldn’t have 60-70% of literature. It would not exist. We’d have to get rid of virtually all of Dostoyevsky. This is why I say that it is important to remember that the beautiful is also the groundwork, the pilgrimage, the entrance to the substratum, the underground (to use Dostoyevsky), the entering into a nest of vipers (to quote Mauriac) that represent humanity. When Rilke, who is one of the great poets that I love alongside Eliot, writes the Duino Elegies, how does he define beauty? He defines it as “the beginning of terror.” This is an impressive theophany that torments. Not being a writer or a poet I’ll give my voice to Virginia Woolf, when she too defines beauty saying: “Beauty has two faces, one of joy, one of anguish, both cutting, wounding the heart.” That is, beauty offends, disturbs, disconcerts, also. Let’s think of the Divine Comedy. The best part, they say paradoxically, is the Inferno. And this is precisely because the song wants to enter … and it is also right that we be able to see in something ugly, that may represent humanity’s breath of pain, that we try to look even there for what is truly beautiful that, in the end, however, redeems even evil. It is transfiguration. It is liberation.
1 I guess Cardinal Ravasi is referring to Elegy IX: The Autumnal.