Thursday, 17 April 2014

The BBC’s Rev: Christian or “just” nice?


One of my favorite TV series of all time is Rev - the BBC comedy about an Anglican priest in a London inner-city parish, with a minuscule congregation of misfits, and facing a barrage of trials both internal and from within and outwith the Anglican Church. The casting and acting are superb, the story lines varied, the contrast between the Rev’s psychology and the supporting cast’s caricatures comedic and the insightfulness of observation razor sharp.

Unlike other religiously-themed comedies, like the legendary Father Ted, Rev is not only about laughs, but very much also about a portrayal of a man’s sincere desire to love God and his fellow men and women. It is a love that falters and falls, but a love that is sincere and persistent.

In one episode we see the Rev go out of his way to be welcoming to a sinner (a sex offender just released from prison) in spite of his entire congregation’s opposition and his own revulsion. In another episode he struggles with his Church’s and his own views on homosexuality while going out of his way to be welcoming of his gay friends. In yet another episode he goes out of his way to work with the local Imam in spite of the humiliation that their financial imbalance brings him.

In fact, the formula of a Rev episode is a going out of one’s way, in pursuit of the excluded, the peripheral, the needy, regardless of the cost to oneself. And throughout these trials and adventures, the Rev converses with Jesus, with whom he pleads, to whom he complains, but in whom he trusts and whom he loves. In many ways, Rev expands on Blessed Mother Teresa’s saying: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

Why, you may ask yourself, have I gone to the trouble of writing the above, albeit short, review of Rev? The reason is simple - an article in yesterday’s Telegraph, where Rev is denounced as un-Christian by reducing Christianity to being merely “nice” and leaving out “that Christians do nice things not just because they are nice people but because they are commanded to by scripture.” The article’s author then proceeds to list 8 “against”s that Christians need to be, and concludes with the following, peculiar piece of moral theology: “Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them.”

However, the most offensive aspect of this article is not so much its twisted view of Christianity, but the following anti-atheist statement: “Nice atheists don’t have to [tell people when they’re going wrong] because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves.” This is offensive not only because it suggests that Christians only do what they do because they are commanded to do so - rather than because they (like all men and women!) are made in the image of God and have a deep-seated call to participate in the Trinity’s life of mutual self-giving - but also because it suggests that atheists don’t have a desire to correct wrongs. This is absurd, offensive and factually incorrect. Rather than try to build an extensive case, let me just point to a single counterexample: Albert Camus speaking to Dominicans about what atheists expect of Christians, showing great concern for them and being an exemplary “external” conscience for them.

In an attempt to bolster its credibility, the article also refers to Archbishop Justin Welby, who “disagrees with the show’s depiction of Anglican life because he notes that many churches are growing.” That is quite true - and a point I wholeheartedly agree with. However, it conveniently fails to mention that - in the same piece by the Archbishop - he also says that it is “great viewing.” Furthermore, the former Archbishop of Canterbury - Dr. Rowan Williams says that it tells us “something about the continuing commitment of the church to run-down and challenging areas. It also shows us someone who prays honestly.”

Finally, let me put one more card on the table - Pope Francis’ ever-versatile Evangelii Gaudium, where he has the following to say:
“[A] missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. [...] What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 108, a. 1.)” (§35, §37)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Humanist transcendence in religious art

Algebraicszoom s

A couple of weeks ago I read an excellent article in the Guardian, by the philosopher and Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, Kenan Malik. While it is an article that clearly positions religion as deprecated, inferior and outmoded (sentiments I certainly don’t share), it nonetheless makes some very positive moves.

Malik starts out by recognizing a piece of Christian writing as “wonderful, luminous,” able to “discover the poetic even in the most mundane,” and proceeds to argue that the awe that inspires religious artists and the spiritual force that drives them to create are “a celebration of our ability to find the poetic and the transcendent,” which is “something very human.” It is this attitude of recognizing value in the work of another, whose beliefs the author of the article does not share and even opposes, that made me like Malik’s approach from the start.

Having established an openness towards religious art, Malik asks whether “non-believers can truly comprehend the meaning of religiously inspired art.” The answer he provides not only addresses this interesting question, but serves as a basis for even broader dialogue between religion and atheism:
“[W]e can think about the sacred in art [... n]ot so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry. Transcendence does not, however, necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion, solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project [...].”
Malik then proceeds to sketch out a brief history of transcendence in philosophy and art, noting its roots in religious belief and proceeding to present attempts made to transplant it into humanist soil in the 15th century, e.g., by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy and by Dirk Bouts, whose “The Entombment” (shown next) Malik analyzes to great effect, arguing that it is an example of a “changing conception of the sacred” that reveals a “humanising impulse.”

Bouts the entombment s

Malik is quick though to point out a “growing suspicion of the very idea of transcendence” in the post-Enlightenment period when “the very rootedness of the idea of transcendence in religious belief made it an uncomfortable concept.” These were accompanied by a gradual ebbing away of the “optimism about human capacities that had originally suffused the humanist impulse,” leading - through the horrors of 20th century history - to a “darkening perceptions of humans.” At the same time, that century also witnessed a “revolution in the way that artists were able to conceive of the human.” Here Malik points to “Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time to Mark Rothko’s paintings, from Barbara Hepworth’s figures to Pablo Neruda’s odes” as “astonishing works of art,” but proceeds to declare that “[i]t makes little sense to call such works of art “sacred”.”

What is curious though is that Malik next quotes Mark Rothko as saying: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them,” but decides to consider Rhothko’s being religious merely a being “religious”:
“What Rothko calls “religious experience” is not what would traditionally be seen as such. It is rather an attempt to grasp the meaning of our humanness not in its immediacy, nor merely in its physicality, but, to borrow a religious term, in a more apophatic sense.”
If anything, saying that something is apophatic is to align it with the most traditional and deep-seated of religious intuitions about God’s otherness, put particularly starkly by Blessed Duns Scotus: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” or by St. Cyril of Alexandria: “For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.” To Christians, God is - to borrow Malik’s words from a different context - “difficult to capture in a purely propositional form.” And this is not just the opinion of fringe elements or of eccentrics from a distant past - it is clearly stated in the Catholic Church’s current Catechism: “God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (§42). If that’s not apophatic, then I don’t know what is ...

The above is not an attempt at an “aha!” or a “gotcha” though - instead it is meant just to suggest that what Malik sees as an areligious or a meta-religious transcendence - a “break[ing of] the shackles of the sacred while maintaining the sense of the transcendent”, in fact has the hallmarks of what I would wholeheartedly label as religious.

What I’d like to take away from Malik’s thought is a very positive point though, which is that the transcendence understood very differently by Malik and myself nonetheless seems like the one transcendence to me that we both appreciate and relate to. In spite of Malik’s efforts to distance contemporary expressions of transcendence in art from any and all religious associations, that exact same art is to me deeply religious and connects to the scared when I view, hear or read it.

Ultimately Malik’s moves can also be seen as a mirror to Pope Benedict XVI’s quoting Simone Weil saying that “all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.” I have to say I like this picture: atheists claiming religious art is not really religious but humanist, and religious people claiming that secular art is religious after all. To my mind these are both profound compliments and a source of joy :).

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I’m with O’Malley: the Mexican border mass

Omalley 1

When an idea or an event that pushes the envelope (in the parlance of our times) arises, the most immediate reaction from some people is to oppose it instinctively, on the grounds of it just not making sense or being the done thing. This is pretty much ubiquitous in science, where new theories initially tend to be ridiculed or at least approached with skepticism, and no less at home in the Church, where new expressions of imitating Jesus often fall on deaf ears or are met with some form of the “crimes against tradition” objection.

Last week saw an event exactly like that - a mass celebrated at the Mexican-US border, where the concelebrands, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, and a dozen other bishops, were on the US side of the 20-foot-tall, metal-fenced border, while the congregation around them, numbering in excess of 500, was partly on US and partly on Mexican soil. The occasion was a two-day visit of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee to the border, to experience first hand the conditions under which immigrants risk their lives on their way to the US and to mourn the loss of the many who die in the process. It was also an expression of the many divisions that emigration and deportations bring to families and a clear move to be with those at the peripheries, in imitation also of Pope Francis’ mass at Lampedusa.

During his homily, Cardinal O’Malley, puts the objectives of the event very clearly:
“We come to the desert today because it is the road to Jericho; it is traveled by many trying to reach the metropolis of Jerusalem. We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert. [...] We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbor is, who is our brother and sister.”
Omalley 2

And he then proceeds to illustrate the scale of the tragedy:
“Last year about 25,000 children, mostly from Central America arrived in the US, unaccompanied by an adult. Tens of thousands of families are separated in the midst of migration patterns. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants are exposed to exploitation and lack access to basic human services, and are living in constant fear. They contribute to our economy by their hard work, often by contributing billions of dollars each year to the social security fund and to Medicare programs that will never benefit them. [...] We have presently over 30,000 detainees, most of whom have no criminal connections. The cost of these detentions is about $2 billion a year.”
When I first heard about the event, I was very impressed by it, as an expression of solidarity and closeness to those who suffer and are excluded from society, as Pope Francis put it so clearly in Evangelii Gaudium:
“We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (§53)
Imagine then my disappointment and disbelief, when I came across a condemnation of the border mass by George Weigel (introduced there as “papal biographer”), whose reaction was:
“It’s not clear to me how holding Mass in these circumstances can be anything other than politicized. [...] To turn the Mass into an act of essentially political theater is something I thought we had gotten over in the Church, no matter how noble the cause might be.”
And by the canon lawyer Ed Peters, who made the following assessment of the event:
“Canon 932 § 1 [...] states that “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place”. Obviously, no one suggests that the border is a “sacred place” in the canonical meaning of that term, so the question becomes whether necessity required holy Mass to be celebrated at the border. I think not. The intentions for which this Mass was offered (immigration reform and in memory of those who died crossing the border, both legitimate intentions of course) could have been amply asserted at a Mass celebrated in a sacred place as envisioned by c. 932 [...] Thus, the kinds of factors commonly invoked to justify Mass outside of a sacred space do not support this Mass at the border.”
It’s hard to know where to start in the face of such rule-based, status quo thinking - not for want of counterarguments, but for their excess. From among several alternatives, I could go down the Scriptural route, pointing to the instances of Jesus’ own “political theater” (did anyone say Caesar? (cf. Mark 12:17)) or to his take on “necessity” (did you say “withered hand” (cf. Mark 3:4)), but I wont :). Instead I’d like to re-tell a story about one of the Desert Fathers that I came across a while ago, but whose source eludes me now.1
“A poor couple came to Abba Irenaeus to cancel their wedding, since they were unable to find a venue for the reception that they could afford. Upon seeing their sadness, Abba Irenaeus felt moved by compassion and said to them: “Why don’t you hold your wedding celebration in our church?” The couple were overjoyed and accepted the offer. On their wedding day, well into the party, the local bishop happened to walk past, and when he heard music and cheers coming from the church, he stopped and proceeded to investigate. Upon entering the church he saw dancing and food being served to a merry crowd. Filled with indignation he sought out Abba Irenaeus and proceeded to scold him: “How can you desecrate this church by allowing such profanity? And in the presence of the Eucharist!” To which Abba Irenaeus calmly replied: “Wasn’t Jesus himself a wedding guest at Cana? Wouldn’t he have celebrated the wedding of this couple just as much if he were here today in person?””
[UPDATE (11/04/14): Within a couple of hours of publishing this post, my überbestie ML sent me another version of the above wedding story - thank you! This one is told by Anthony de Mello (re-telling Cardinal Martini’s story), is set in Italy, and the two takes on the Eucharist are embodied by the parish priest and his assistant pastor. The whole article that contains it is very much worth reading!]

1 If you do know where the story is from (and its above version is very much just from my imperfect memory), I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know so I could credit it’s source - and you :).

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The emptiness of manufactured allure

South beach

Visiting South Beach in Miami a couple of days ago has provided me with one of the saddest experiences of recent times. A few brief moments there stunned me and left me unable to relate freely to the friends I was with. Since this event has had such a strong impact on me, I would like to use this post to try and make sense of it for myself, but also to share this, in itself negative, experience with you, in the spirit of completeness and openness.

Let me start by giving an account of what happened.

Last week I spent five days in North Miami on business, with PM and JMGR - two of my very best friends. One evening, for the sake of a change of environment from the conference hotel, we thought of heading out to do a bit of local sightseeing. The day before, some colleagues recommended a visit to South Beach and, without looking into what the destination had to offer, the three of us set out there.

After a lengthy and costly taxi ride, we were dropped off in front of Versace’s house (a destination that held no appeal to any of us, but one that the taxi driver considered de rigueur for tourists, which we obviously were) and set off down Ocean Drive, towards its southernmost tip. The first offering of local culture was a group of inebriated chaps, whose most extensive member immediately launched into what can politely be labelled as an invitation to a mano-a-mano, urban skirmish (with an unusually high frequency of references to mothers). Having spent years in large cities (thank you, London), this was no big deal, and a smile, shrug and feigned incomprehension dealt with the matter successfully.

What came next unsettled me deeply though. While, at first sight it was just a 15-20 second walk through an on-street restaurant, my experience of it was anything but a simple traversal of that space. Instead, I passed through a gauntlet. At the restaurant’s entrance I was met by a woman of approximately my own age, dressed in thigh-high boots and a skirt and top of microscopic square-inchage, counterbalanced by bucket-fulls of makeup and hair extensions reaching down to the top of her boots. The dagger to my heart then came from the expression in her eyes that met me as I tried to smile at her. It was an ashen look of resignation. An emptiness and absence so deep it made me flinch.

As painful as that welcome was, I tried to shake it off, while feeling deeply sorry for this woman. Instead, the rest of the walk through the establishment just kept dragging me deeper and deeper into its oppressive morass. I met three more employees, all wearing variants of the first one’s outfit - nominally with the intention to entice, allure and excite, but each making me more and more concerned for their wellbeing and worried about their mental health.

Walking out at the other end of this pavement-gripping setup left me unable to carry on the light conversation we have been having with my friends and made me a dour companion for the rest of the night (which we, thankfully, spent in a Cuban restaurant a couple of streets away from Ocean Drive - a place whose down-to-earth-ness would normally not be my kettle of fish, but whose normality was a welcome change from the void of Ocean Drive).

Where am I going with all of this though? First of all, I wanted to share a disturbing experience with you, since disturbing experiences tend to be opportunities. I don’t yet know what consequences to draw from it, but it has been undoubtedly unsettling and therefore important, even if in an as yet unclear way. This was also underlined for me yesterday when I saw Pope Francis tweet the following: “How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”

Thinking about these words, I can certainly see that the experience was good for me - in spite of it’s great negativity for all involved, and me wishing that that place didn’t exist - it shook me and gave me a heightened sensitivity to the wellbeing of those around me, who thankfully weren’t in distress like the waitresses of the South Beach restaurant, but who nonetheless each had their expectations and needs.

To conclude, let me just address what might otherwise seem like an implicit prudishness. What disturbed me about the women in the restaurant wasn’t at all what they were wearing. It wouldn’t be what I’d choose, but who am I to tell them how to dress. Neither was it about them exposing extensive parts of their anatomy. The human body is full of beauty, made even to God’s own liking (“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.” Genesis 1:31). And neither did I feel any resentment towards these four women. They were very likely in a position of limited choice and in existential need of income - some probably supporting families. Instead, I felt a deep rage against the owners of the establishment, who - to my mind - unquestionably exploited their staff and tried to turn them into cheap merchandise.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The brawl

Meissonier la rixe s

The Church is often criticized for requiring mindless obedience and for seeking uniformity instead of fostering an exploration of alternatives in pursuit of greater understanding and insight.

Well, I’d say that recent events ought to lay such prejudices to rest. Instead of singing from the same hymn sheet, in robotic unison, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church look more like a bunch of brawlers than the yes-men of a pontifical monarch. Instead of being of one voice, these princes of the Church are engrossed in an escalating game of fisticuffs where argument and counter-argument are generously interlaced with genteel-sounding, but under-the-hood, razor-sharp ad hominem jabs.

Before we look at the implications of this verbal brawl, or jump to its denunciation, let’s take a quick look at some of the punches that have been thrown so far. The examples I’ll refer to next all come from the run-up to this year’s synod on the family, in the context of which there is a particularly controversial topic - whether those who got divorced and subsequently civilly re-married could be admitted to the Eucharist, which sustains and strengthens, while also expressesing unity. I don’t mean to go into the question itself here,1 but it is useful to have at least an idea of the topic for the following quotes to make some sense.

The scene for our brawl has been set by Pope Francis himself, when - in the off-the-cuff interview on the flight back from the World Youth Day in Rio - he indicated a desire to look at “the larger context of the entire pastoral care of marriage,” including the “issue of giving communion to persons in a second union.” At the same time as making these remarks, Francis also pre-announced the family as the theme of the next bishops’ synod.

As soon as word came out about Francis’ desire to review this topic, the German diocese of Freiburg published a set of guidelines that essentially assumed that divorcees will be admitted to the Eucharist (while later denying such an interpretation and arguing that they were merely making a “contribution” to the discussion ...). In any case, a couple of days later, the the then-Archbishop (now, by Francis’ choice a cardinal - make a mental note of this) Müller published an extensive article on the “care of remarried divorcees” in L’Osservatore Romano, where he sets out the teaching of the Church as it stands, doing - in my opinion - a great job of being very clear, structured and direct, while also compassionate and seeking new solutions.

It is this article by Müller that lit the fuse of our verbal brawl - probably best thought of as a drawing of a line in the sand rather than a flying chair, but nonetheless very much part of the proceedings.

The first punch to kick off the brawl proper then comes from Cardinal Maradiaga - head of Franics’ council of eight cardinals, who had the following to say when asked about Müller’s move in an interview for the German daily Kölner Stads-Anzeiger:
“Yes, I have read it. And I thought: “OK, maybe you are right, but maybe not.” I mean, he is a German - yes, I have to say it, and he is a Professor on top of that, a German professor of theology. With his mentality there is only right and wrong, that’s it. But I say: “The world, my brother, the world is not like that. You should be a bit flexible, when you hear other voices, so that you don’t just listen to them and say, no, here is the wall.” So, I believe, he’ll get there, to understand other views. But now he is just at the beginning, he listens only to his advisers.”
Yikes! Next, Maradiaga is quickly backed up by Cardinal Marx - another of the council of 8, saying that Müller “cannot stop the discussions.”

A couple of months later, a new pocket of altercation starts, following a talk by Cardinal Kasper addressed to the college of cardinals, on the behest of pope Francis, in which he outlines possible conditions under which remarried divorcees might be admitted to communion. As an aside, with these two texts - Müller’s exposition of the current status and Kasper’s speculation about possible new alternatives, both of which were made to order by the pope, Francis nicely brackets the discussion in the upcoming synod, ensuring both a clear picture of where we are and making sure that there are courageous new proposals in play.

Hot on the heels of Kasper’s talk, Cardinal Caffarra states, in an interview for the Italian Il Foglio, that Kasper’s proposal “negates the foundations of the Church’s teaching on sexuality.”

And finally, pulling an ace from his sleeve, Cardinal Müller (now no longer Archbishop), puts his foot down one more time, in response to a question from Vatican Radio about where he stands in the debate about remarried divorcees:
“I don’t participate [in this debate] as a private theologian, but by exercising my office. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith [whose head Müller is] is the only Roman congregation that participates immediately in the pope’s magisterium, while others, who join in here, even if they are cardinals, simply speak for themselves personally and cannot make official pronouncements.”
Take that, Maradiaga! [Just kidding, your Eminence.]

This may not sound like much, but recent decades have seen nothing like any of the above direct jabs of one cardinal at another. While a possible reaction is horror and disappointment at a lack of unity among the cardinals, I would like to argue that the above is not in itself negative and may even be positive. The stakes are high here as there is an opportunity for the Church to better transmit God’s mercy, while having to ensure that she doesn’t, in the process, trample on the treasures handed to her by Jesus. That cardinals feel passionate about one alternative versus another is, I believe, a good thing, as is the fact that they are being serious about thinking the alternatives through. This is certainly not a show trial, or a staged “conversation” - the players mean it and that is as it should be. It is also good that the discussion spills out into the media, since the cardinals have an opportunity here to give an example for how serious discussion among peers should be conducted. If they just kept themselves out of the open, the result would appear simply as a dictate, received from the pope and blindly recited by his minions. Like this, we at least see a bit of the process in action. And finally, the only caveat to these differences of opinion being a good thing that I’d like to put on the table comes from Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium:
“Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.” (§40)

1 For its discussion see an earlier post, as well as two posts on Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to the latest consistory of cardinals here and here.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Francis fights fundamentalism

20110311 gor chakhal

A new book by Pope Francis, entitled “Beauty will teach the world,” was published today in Italian and the daily La Repubblica has already released an excerpt. There Francis speaks out against fundamentalism, and while his thoughts are very much along the lines of the understanding of truth that he laid out in the letter to Scalfari, their freshness and forcefulness expand the scope and intensity of the previous sketch. Since I haven’t found an English translation yet, the following is my own, rough attempt.

In the published excerpt, Francis starts with an analysis of fundamentalism, portrayed as a flavor of insecurity and cowardice:
“What is apparent is the fact that during the course of history there has been an explosion, and there continues to be an explosion also today, of fundamentalisms. At their heart, these systems of thought and conduct are absolutely outdated, mummified, and serve as bunkers. Fundamentalism grows from the rigidity of a single thought, inside which a person protects itself from sources of instability (and from crises) in exchange for a certain existential calm. Fundamentalism does not allow for shades of meaning or second thoughts, simply because it is afraid and - specifically - it is afraid of the truth. The person who hides in fundamentalism is someone who is afraid to set out on a journey in search of truth. They already “possess” the truth, they have already acquired it and used it as a defensive means; therefore they experience each discussion as personal aggression.”
Francis then presents an alternative view of the truth - not as defense mechanism and aggression, but as a shared gift, very much reminiscent also of Dr. Slipper’s paper on “cognition by mutual reflection”:
“Our relationship to the truth isn’t static, because the Supreme Truth is infinite and can always be known better; it is always possible to immerse oneself into greater depth in it. The apostle Peter asks of Christians to be ready to “give an explanation”1 of their hope; which means that the truth, on which we base existence, must open itself to dialogue, to the difficulties that others show us or that circumstances present us with. Truth is always “reasonable,” even when I may not be, and the challenge is to remain open to the point of view of the other, without turning our convictions into an immovable whole. Dialogue does not mean relativism, but a “logos” that is shared, reason that offers itself in love, to build together a reality that is more and more liberating every time.”
Dialogue therefore fosters a sharing in truth and freedom, built on mutual openness, and Francis proceeds to project the consequences of such an attitude even further, calling it a “virtuous cycle”:
“In this virtuous cycle, dialogue uncovers the truth and the truth is nourished by dialogue. Careful listening, respectful silence, sincere empathy, an authentic making oneself available to the stranger and the other, are essential virtues that are to be fostered and transmitted in today’s world. God himself calls us to dialogue, he calls and summons us by his Word, the Word that has abandoned every nest and shelter to make itself human.”
Dialogue is presented here not only as something that is a good thing to do, but - for Christians - as a direct call from God and an example set by Him, which in turn opens new dimensions:
“As a result, three, intimately interlinked, dimensions of dialogue appear: one between the person and God - the one that we Christians call prayer, one among human beings themselves, and a third one, of dialogue with oneself. Through these three dimensions the truth grows, consolidates itself and extends over time. [...] At this point we have to ask ourselves: what do we mean by the truth? Seeking the truth is different from finding formulae for possessing and manipulating it to one’s own liking.”
An aspect of the above that I particularly like is the order in which Francis presents the dimensions of dialogue: God, others, self ... With this framework in place, he proceeds to emphasize the role of humility in the quest for truth:
“The search involves the totality of the person and of being. It is a journey that fundamentally involves humility. With the firm conviction that no one is sufficient for themselves and that it is dehumanizing to use others as means for being sufficient for oneself, the search for the truth embarks on this laborious journey, often artisanal, with a humble heart that refuses to quench its thirst with standing waters.

A fundamentalist “possession” of the truth lacks humility: it tries to impose itself on others by a gesture that, in and of itself, is self-defensive. The search for truth does not quench the roaring thirst. An awareness of “wise ignorance”2 lets us continually restart the journey. A “wise ignorance” that, with life’s experiences, becomes “learned.” We can affirm without fear that the truth isn’t had, is not possessed: it is encountered. For us to desire it, it must cease to be the one that can be possessed. The truth opens itself, uncovers itself to those who - in turn - open themselves to her. The word truth, precisely in its Greek sense of aletheia, suggests that which manifests itself, that which uncovers itself, that which reveals itself by means of a miraculous and gratuitous apparition. The Hebrew sense, instead, of the term emet, unites the meaning of the true with that of the certain, stable, that which does not lie or deceive. The truth, therefore, has a dual connotation: it is a manifestation of the essence of things and persons, that in their opening up of their innermost selves give us the certainty of their authenticity, the reliable proof that invites us to believe in them.”
How does such a concept of certainty mesh with the humility Francis called for earlier on?
“Such certainty is humble, because it simply “lets the other be” it its manifestation, and does not subject it to our needs or demands. This is the first justice that we owe others and ourselves: to accept the truth of what we are, to tell the truth of what we think. Our painful political history has tried many times to gag them. Very often the use of euphemisms has anesthetized us or made us fall asleep before her. But, the time has come to rejoin, to twin ourselves with the truth that needs to be announced prophetically, with justice authentically restored. Justice only springs forth when the circumstances, that we are betrayed and deceived by in our historical destiny, are called by their names. And by doing this, we accomplish one of the principal services of responsibility due to future generations.”
The above seems very clear to me: the need for dialogue and humility that Francis starts out with is motivated by the need for an honest understanding and acceptance of reality, whose denial and distortion otherwise go against the good of all. To conclude the excerpt, Francis pulls back from truth, to reveal her sisters - goodness and beauty:
“The truth is never found by herself. Together with her there are goodness and beauty. Or, better put, the Truth is good and beautiful. An Argentinian thinker used to say: “A truth that is not entirely good always hides some goodness that is not entirely true.” I insist: these three go together and it is neither possible to find nor seek one without the others. It is a reality that is very different from the simple “possession of truth” claimed by fundamentalism: they take formulae in and of themselves as valid, emptied of goodness and beauty, and they try to impose themselves on others with aggression and violence, doing evil and conspiring against life itself.”
As soon as a proper translation becomes available, I’ll point to it here, but I hope that even my broken attempts at rendering Pope Francis’ thoughts in English will give you a sense of his concerns and his positioning of the truth as part of a set with goodness and beauty and as a gift received with others in response to openness, dialogue and a journey shared.

1 “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15)
2 I guess this is in reference to the Socratic: “I am wiser than this man; for neither of us really knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do either. I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.” (Plato, Apology 21d)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Serra: space in the flesh

Serra threats of hell

[Warning: long read - again]

It might seem strange to start a post about the sculptor Richard Serra by referring to Pope Francis’ homily from last Friday morning, but I hope you’ll bear with me while I do it anyway and that you won’t interpret it as an attempt to imbue Serra’s work with religious motives, which I believe it does not have. Instead, my reason for starting out with the following quote is that I believe both Richard Serra and Pope Francis give great importance to physicality, as is apparent from the examination of conscience proposed here by the pope and as I will try to spell out in greater detail with regard to Serra’s work:
“Am I embarrassed by the flesh of my brother or sister? When I give alms, do I let the coins fall without touching his hand? And if by chance I touch him, do I do this? [he asked mimicking a gesture of repulsion with his hand] When I give alms, do I look my brother or sister in the eyes? When I know a person is sick do I visit him or her? Do I greet them with tenderness?”
That the pope emphasizes physicality - using the word “flesh” 13 times last Friday morning - is, I believe, motivated by a desire to counter the ever-recurrent dualist distortion of Christianity that considers only the spirit to be good while equating matter with evil. This is categorically not Jesus’ message and, to my mind, Serra’s work is a great way also for a Christian (and everyone else too) to understand why, in an experiential rather than a moral or intellectual way.

What Richard Serra does, in my opinion, is to heighten the potential for an immediate experience of space, mass, scale, orientation and matter in a way that is difficult to be had directly in nature, where these experiences are admixed with those of other properties or qualities. The result can be awe and an experience of profound beauty (that is not to be sought only in the superficially aesthetic), which - while, as far as I can tell, not intended by their author - make Richard Serra’s work precisely what the composer James MacMillan pinpointed as the key feature of art: “a window on to the mind of God.”

To begin with, speaking about Richard Serra’s work faces the same challenges as appreciating any piece of art, in that no verbal account is going to suffice as a surrogate for direct experience. In fact, Serra himself argues this point very starkly, when asked to describe his “Delineator” (shown next):1

Serra delineator
“What happens with Delineator is that the only way to understand this work is to experience the place physically, and you can’t have an experience of space outside of the place and the space you’re in. Any linguistic mapping or reconstruction by analogy, or any verbalization or interpretation or explanation, even of this kind, is a linguistic debasement, in a sense, because it isn’t even true in a parallel way.”
Nonetheless, Serra does say more about Delineator elsewhere, which highlights some of his concerns and the mental model he uses for thinking about his own work:
“The sculpture defines a definite space inside the room. [...] The juxtaposition of steel plates forming this open cross generates a volume of space which has an inside and an outside, openings and directions, aboves, belows, rights, lefts - coordinates to your body that you understand when you walk through it. Noe you might say that that sounds quite esoteric. Well, one of the things that you get into as you become more in tune with articulating space is that space systems are different than linguistic systems in that they are nondescriptive. The conclusion I’ve come to is that philosophy and science are descriptive disciplines, whereas art and religion are not.”
So, if you haven’t seen any of his work and tried to circumnavigate and “inhabit” it, I would very much encourage you to try to do so, if you get a chance. Personally, I have had experiences akin to what Serra speaks about above, when I saw his “Seven plates, six angles” (below) at the Gagosian in New York. The overwhelming sensation I had was of a heightened awareness of scale, volume and proportion, but also - unexpectedly - of space and mass. In some sense, my extensive use of photos in this post is futile - like showing you images of alien foodstuffs that you have not tasted, so, please, consider them tokens or bookmarks - i.e., pointers for your own future experience.

Serra 7 plates 6 angles

When asked about the relation of one of his pieces, shown at the Tate in London, to the building it was exhibited in, Serra made another important observation about what his work intends to be (and one that rang very true to me in retrospect):
“I did not want to enter into an affirmative dialogue with the building. I did not want to mirror face-value language, the physiognomy of the architecture. I wanted to deal with the volume, weight, mass and directionality of the space. [... I] wanted to make a sculpture out of the whole volume [...] I wanted to make the volume of the space tangible, so that it is understood immediately, physically, by your body.”
The idea that the sculpture is not solely the object Serra created, but that it is that object in relation to the space it is situated in, is a paradigm shift and the key to understanding his insistence on making site-specific work even in the case of indoor sculptures. And even when a piece is shown in multiple locations over time, its placement in every one of those spaces results in multiple sculptures involving the one Serra-made object (that naïvely might be identified as the sculpture in full).

Beyond the paradigm shift from objects to entire spaces, Serra also broadens the palette of sculptural considerations:
“There’s a difference between walking into a telephone booth and a football stadium. If you take those two extremes and make the idea very subtle, then you can say there’s a difference between walking to the left and walking to the right, between the experience of the concave and convex, between something leaning right and something leaning left. How do you know that to be a different experience in terms of your daily life? And if it is, is it meaningful? The degree of meaningfulness depends on the limitations of the viewer. I think it is very difficult to introduce large-scale works into the public arena inasmuch as I am not interested in complicity or affirmation.


Compared to that of vertical sculpture, the ideas of sculpture existing horizontally are basically different concepts about construction, are basically different concepts about how we live in the world. On a simple, perceptual level, a modular unit extending above your eye-level becomes foreshortened as it rises, while the horizontal modular unit implies an infinite vanishing point. [...] The cultural symbolic iconography of verticality versus horizontality is most apparent in the cross, where the vertical expresses transcendence and the horizontal expresses materiality.”
While Serra is clear about his interests being “nonutilitarian, nonfunctional” and declaring that “any use [of sculpture] is a misuse,” as well as anticipating limited audience appreciation (likening it to “poetry and experimental film” :)), he at the same time has a profound message behind his work:
“We are all restrained and condemned by the weight of gravity. [...] The constructive process, the daily concentration and effort appeal to me more than the light fantastic, more than the quest for the ethereal. Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight. We face the fear of unbearable weight of repression, the weight of constriction, the weight of government, the weight of tolerance, the weight of resolution, the weight of responsibility, the weight of destructions, the weight of suicide, the weight of history which dissolves weight and erodes meaning to a calculated construction of palpable lightness.”
In many ways, the above strikes me as having affinities with Christianity, where Serra’s “Everything we choose in life for its lightness soon reveals its unbearable weight.” can be seen as a complement of Jesus’ “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:33).

A further aspect of Serra’s weight versus lightness statement (made in 1988) is its echoing of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” published only four years earlier, where its author too makes a play for weight over lightness:2
“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”
What, you may ask, is my point though? I hope that the above highlighted a couple of aspects of Serra’s work, which I have found to be deeply engaging and appealing. First, that he has invented a whole new concept of sculpture whose building blocks are not only form, texture, composition and proportion, but also mass, space, directionality and orientation, rendering an entire space a sculpture. Second, that his work is deeply rooted in the entirety of art and philosophy, without these being prerequisites for its appreciation and experience. Third, that experiencing his work, which explicitly shuns religious motives, does shed light on deeply Christian concepts and is therefore also of spiritual value to a Christian viewer at least.

As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you, when I tell you that Richard Serra is probably my favorite sculptor (alongside Michelangelo, Rodin and Giacometti) and I hope that you will appreciate his work too when you next see one of his pieces.

1 All Richard Serra quotes here are from “Writings/Interviews.”
2 Both, probably, derived from Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence, where the permanent (heavy) is contrasted against the fleeting (light).