Thursday, 31 January 2013

Man and Woman: Nakedness

Arm back

John Paul II opens the 11th talk on the Theology of the Body1 by reflecting on the previous ten. He highlights the profile of the human person and the male-female union presented there as always being “at the root of every human experience. […T]hey are so interwoven with the ordinary things of life that we generally do not realize their extraordinary character. [… They show] the absolute originality of what the male-female human being is inasmuch as he or she is human, that is, also through the body.”

The aspect of Genesis that is taken under the microscope in talks 11-13 is the following sentence: “Now both were naked, the man and his wife, but they did not feel shame.” (2:25), which is placed alongside the insights about “man’s original solitude and original unity” in importance. Original nakedness in the absence of shame evidences innocence, and shows the original “reciprocal experience of the body, that is, the man’s experience of the femininity that reveals itself in the nakedness of the body and, reciprocally, the analogous experience of masculinity by the woman.” This also makes shame the boundary experience between the original human state and that after the fall, also since shame is used in later passages to highlight how reality has altered after the fall: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they realized that they were naked; they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Genesis 3:7).2

The next challenge in understanding the fullness of original nakedness is to attempt its reconstruction by first trying to understand shame. Here John Paul II offers the following description, given the context already set up in the previous chapters: “In the experience of shame, the human being experiences fear in the face of the “second I” (thus, for example, woman before man), and this is substantially fear for ones own “I.”” What then is the meaning of its absence from the original human state? Here John Paul II argues that such a question is a misunderstanding of the Genesis account - it is not like there was a lack of shame before the fall, but that shame was inapplicable, which “indicate[s] a particular fullness of consciousness and experience, above all the fullness of understanding the meaning of the body connected with the fact that “they were naked.”” To understand this “fullness of consciousness” we need to pan out and remember how original solitude (separateness from the rest of creation) is overcome by being created as man and woman (the other being another “I”). This overcoming of solitude occurs “through the body [… which is the] direct and visible source of [the] experience that effectively establishes their unity.” Therefore “the man and the woman were originally given to each other precisely according to this truth inasmuch as “they were naked”” also as evidenced by the “perception of the senses.”

At this point John Paul II argues that while the above external view of nakedness is essential and not to be discounted, it is necessary to look at its inner dimension as well. “[T]hrough its own visibility, the body manifests man and, in manifesting him, acts as an intermediary that allows man and woman, from the beginning, to communicate with each other.” But what is this interior nakedness that the body manifests? Here John Paul II’s answer is yet another stunner:
“To this fullness of “exterior” perception, expressed by physical nakedness, corresponds the “interior” fullness of the vision of man in God, that is, according to the measure of the “image of God” (see Genesis 1:27). According to this measure, man “is” truly naked (“they were naked”), even before becoming aware of it (see Genesis 3:7–10).”
Before the fall man internally sees (understands!) woman as she was created in God and woman sees man again as created in God, which makes shame inapplicable. Pure genius! And he continues:
“[Man] has […] a share in the vision of the Creator himself — in that vision about which the account of Genesis 1 speaks several times, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). “Nakedness” signifies the original good of the divine vision. It signifies the whole simplicity and fullness of this vision, which shows the “pure” value of man as male and female, the “pure” value of the body and of [its] sex.”
A consequence of this state is that it “does not contain an inner break and antithesis between what is spiritual and what is sensible. […] They see and know each other, in fact, with all the peace of the interior gaze, which creates precisely the fullness of the intimacy of persons.” Finally, John Paul II concludes by summing up the original meaning of nakedness in that it “corresponds to the simplicity and fullness of vision in which [man’s and woman’s] understanding of the meaning of the body is born from the very heart, as it were, of their community-​communion. We will call this meaning “spousal.”” This brings us to the end of his analysis of man and woman “from the beginning,” which has taken us up to the threshold of the fall. The next part of the book then looks at how man and woman are created as a gift and takes the “spousal” relationship as its point of departure.

I have to say that, beyond the content for which my enthusiasm should be explicit from the above, I continue to be hugely impressed with John Paul II’s method, behind which I feel a profound trust in God and in Scripture containing wisdom. His efforts to access it are, to my mind, a perfect embodiment (pardon the pun) of the critical, rational approach set out in Vatican II’s Dei Verbum, where faith and trust fuel the quest and where reason and analysis are its means. An aspect of the book that I haven’t mentioned so far are also its superb footnotes, which span sources as diverse as C. G. Jung, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, as well as a rich body of biblical scholarly and theological literature (including the young Ratzinger). Far from being carried out in isolation, John Paul II’s thought is lucidly aware of the intellectual context of his time and references the insights of those in and beyond the Church alike.

1 If you are interested in this topic, consider taking a look of the first two posts where I cover earlier chapters first here and then here and getting the book they are based on: Man and Woman He Created Them.
2 John Paul II is very careful throughout these talks to be clear about the fact that the Genesis account is a myth, which “does not refer to fictitious-fabulous content, but simply to an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” So, references to the fall and to humanity before and after it are not to be read historically, but rather as means of conceiving of different aspects of human anthropology, psychology and ontology.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Lumen Gentium: The Religious


In an effort to get at least to the end of the second of the Vatican II documents that I would like to read during this Year of Faith, let me now turn to chapter six of Lumen Gentium, which talks about the religious. After its first two chapters set out who the church is and how it lives, the next pair present its hierarchy and laity and chapter five speaks about a universal call to holiness, this chapter is about, what in contemporary organizations would be called, a horizontal group.1

The logic of presenting the religious after the universal call to holiness in chapter five is very clear in that the religious take a specific commitment to the evangelical counsels of “chastity dedicated to God, poverty and obedience” that are presented to all the Church as means for attaining holiness. The distinguishing feature of the religious is that they “bind themselves to the three aforesaid counsels either by vows, or by other sacred bonds, which are like vows in their purpose.” In this context, the Church’s hierarchy has the role of “interpreting these evangelical counsels, of regulating their practice and finally to build on them stable forms of living.” These “forms of living” include “community life, as well as various religious families,” yet:
“the religious state of life is not an intermediate state between the clerical and lay states. But, rather, the faithful of Christ are called by God from both these states of life so that they might enjoy this particular gift in the life of the Church.”
The purpose of the vows that the religious profess is “to free [themselves] from those obstacles, which might draw [them] away from the fervor of charity and the perfection of divine worship.” As a result, “[t]he evangelical counsels […] lead to charity [and] join their followers to the Church and its mystery in a special way. [… T]he spiritual life of [the religious] should then be devoted to the welfare of the whole Church.” In other words, the vows of chastity, obedience and poverty are aids to living with greater love for the good of the whole Church.

A particularly beautiful insight is shared next: “[the] purpose [of the religious state] is to free its members from earthly cares, [which] more fully manifests to all believers the presence of heavenly goods already possessed here below. […] Christ proposed to His disciples this form of life, which He, as the Son of God, accepted in entering this world to do the will of the Father.” Instead of being directed at the benefit only of the religious, their withdrawal from some aspects of natural life serves the purpose of highlighting a foretaste of heaven that is to be had already here and now. I believe this foretaste is the love that they show the Church and the world, and based on the religious I know, this is certainly something many of them radiate! Just to avoid any misunderstanding, I don’t believe the religious have a monopoly on accessing the “heavenly goods already possessed here below” - we can all do so (and this is not even restricted only to Christians or other people of faith), but it is the religious who give them particular visibility due to their relinquishing certain aspects of everyday life.

As a consequence of their “duty […] to care for the People of God,” the hierarchy “regulate the practice of the evangelical counsels by law,” just like they do the practice of the priesthood and marriage. The impetus are always “rules presented by outstanding men and women” (such as St. Francis, St. Benedict, Bl. Mother Teresa, Chiara Lubich, etc.), which the hierarchy then receives “following with docility the prompting of the Holy Spirit” and, after possible adjustments, approves. The resulting religious orders, communities or movements (called “institutes of perfection”) can then either be under the direct authority of the pope or of a local bishop, to whom they owe obedience. Incorporated in the Church in this way, the religious show Jesus “to believers and non-believers alike[, … portraying Him] in contemplation on the mountain, in His proclamation of the kingdom of God to the multitudes, in His healing of the sick and maimed, in His work of converting sinners to a better life, in His solicitude for youth and His goodness to all men, always obedient to the will of the Father who sent Him.”

To conclude its brief presentation of the religious, Lumen Gentium takes care to be clear about the nature of the renunciation and withdrawal that the evangelical counsels entail:
“Let no one think that religious have become strangers to their fellowmen or useless citizens of this earthly city by their consecration. For even though it sometimes happens that religious do not directly mingle with their contemporaries, yet in a more profound sense these same religious are united with them in the heart of Christ and spiritually cooperate with them.”
Finally, the religious are summed up as “Brothers and Sisters, who in monasteries, or in schools and hospitals, or in the missions, adorn the Bride of Christ by their unswerving and humble faithfulness in their chosen consecration and render generous services of all kinds to mankind.” Again the emphasis is on service to all and on a transmission of Jesus’ love to them, which has been a focus throughout the presentation of the hierarchy and laity in previous chapters too. From personal experience, I am deeply grateful for the gifts I have received thanks to those “Brothers and Sisters” of mine who have bound themselves to the evangelical counsels and who are shining beacons of God’s love.

1 If you have read previous "Lumen Gentium" posts on this blog, you will be familiar with my pointing to a caveat for non-Catholic readers, in paragraph 2 of this post.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Tarkovsky: glimpse with sightless eyes

Tarkovsky76 s

Today I have received a wonderful Christmas present from my bestie PM: the book “Instant Light Tarkovsky Polaroids” that contains a series of Polariods taken by the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. If you haven’t seen any of his work, I highly recommend it - his movies are beautifully shot, profound, thought-provoking and reveal a desire to use cinema as a means of exploring fundamental aspects of human nature: “Juxtaposing a person with an environment that is boundless, collating him with a countless number of people passing by close to him and far away, relating a person to the whole world, that is the meaning of cinema.” Fortunately, his movies can now be seen for free on-line, with having an up-to-date listing here.

What struck me about the book is first of all the personal character of its photos. They are how I’d imagine Tarkovsky’s Instagram feed to be, rather than a polished fine art collection. While exhibiting the atmospheric, observant nature of his movies, they instead show his dog, son and wife or scenes from places he visited during travels in Russia and Italy. In addition to the photos, there are also a couple of poems, prayers and reflections by Tarkovsky here and I believe these to be the true gems of the book. Let me share a couple of my favorites with you.

First, Tarkovsky gives thought to the nature of artistic expression (italics show original emphasis):
“The image is not a certain meaning
expressed by the director,
but the entire world
reflected as in a drop of water.”
This view very much rings true for me. Whenever I am asked to “explain” my own paintings I feel like I am just one of the multitude of possible viewers, all of whom can confront the work as a world in itself and extract feelings, insights, questions, etc. from it. To my mind, as to Tarkovsky’s, a piece of art is not a message, but an alternate representation of the world. This concept of the image as world, is taken further along a religious line in the following:
“An image
is an impression
of the Truth,
which God
has allowed us
to glimpse
with our
sightless eyes.”
Again there is the world/Truth impressed in an image here, but it is now confronted with our inherent inability to even glimpse it with our “sightless eyes.” I believe this expresses beautifully that basic inability to absolutely interpret artistic work, which is an impression (i.e., not the thing in and of itself) or a reflection (again, only a twisted representation) of a reality that lies beyond it. Tarkovsky here attributes any success in attaining meaning or Truth to God’s benevolence and takes his religious viewpoint further still in the following passage:
“Whatever it expresses -
even destruction and ruin -
the artistic image
is by definition an embodiment of hope,
it is inspired by faith.
Artistic creation
is by definition a denial of death.
Therefore it is optimistic,
even if in an ultimate sense the artist is tragic.
And so there can never be
optimistic artists and pessimistic artists.
There can only be talent and mediocrity.”
To my mind this very much resonates with both what the painter Michel Pochet said about the redemptive power of ugliness and what Benedict XVI said about the liberating, uplifting effect of art even when it is shocking. The role of faith that Tarkovsky sees here, comes out even more clearly in the next quote, where he emphasizes love as the key to faith and their subsequent resolution of the limitations set out above:
“We are crucified on one plane,
while the world is many-dimensional.
We are aware of that
and are tormented by our inability
to know the truth.
But there is no need to know it!
We need to love.
And to believe.
Faith is knowledge with the help of love.”
Finally, Tarkovsky also reflects on man being created in the “image of God” according to the Genesis account - a point that is also central to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (covered first here and then here):
“In my opinion, when we talk about God
making man in His own image and likeness,
we should understand that the likeness
has to do with His essence, and this is creation.
From this comes the possibility
of evaluating a work and what it represents.
In short, the meaning of art
is the search of God in man.”
This, I believe, is a beautiful synthesis of the above quotes. Man is created in God’s image and is by himself incapable of going beyond the surface of even his own creations. It is only through love and faith that he can seek to be granted access to meaning, Truth and God in himself, in art and in the world.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Man and woman: a communion of persons


In a previous post (that I highly recommend if you’d like to get the most out of this one), I shared my notes on the first eight chapters of John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them.” There he presents an astonishing view of the human person, derived from the creation account of Genesis. It centers around his argument for the self-consciousness and self-determination of the human person, and, as their consequence, their relating to God as a partner. The human person is set against the background of man’s initial solitude, out of which the differentiation of the male and female sexes arises. In this post I would like to continue sharing my takeaways from John Paul II’s book, where the relationship between the “two ways in which [a] human being […] is a body” is further elaborated.

Here the narrative continues on from the “unity of two beings” established in chapter 8, and emphasizes the value of the human person to God (“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” Genesis 1:31) and of man and woman to each other, as “an overcoming of the frontier of solitude.” This original solitude of man is already an indication that man is made for woman and vice versa. The “existence of the person “for” the person1 […] is confirmed, in a negative sense, precisely by [man’s original] solitude.” Such being for each other results in the formation of a communion of persons, where it is the ““double solitude” of the man and the woman, […] which [gives] to both the possibility of being and existing in a particular reciprocity.” The human person’s being created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) lets us deduce that “man became the image of God not only through his own humanity, but also through the communion of persons, which man and woman form from the very beginning.” This is beautifully summed up by John Paul II saying that “[m]an becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.” Man is “not only an image in which the solitude of one Person, who rules the world, mirrors itself, but also and essentially the image of an inscrutable divine communion of Persons.”

All I can say to that is: wow! The clarity of thought, the beauty of the universal image of the human person and its relationship with God that John Paul II presents here is astonishing and seems so fresh and open that I am lost for words!

Turning back to the human person, he extracts yet another profound realization from the Genesis account: “on the basis of the original and constitutive solitude of his being - man has been endowed with a deep unity between what is, humanly and through the body, male in him and what is, equally humanly and through the body, female in him.” The “twofold aspect of man’s somatic constitution” - masculinity and femininity – indicates “the new consciousness of the meaning of one’s body[, which is] reciprocal enrichment.” These “two reciprocally completing ways of “being a body” [… are] complementary dimensions of self-knowledge and self-determination.” It is important to note here that John Paul II does not refer to an individual, when he says “man” in the above quotes (i.e., he is not saying that a single person is constituted by masculine and feminine parts) and neither is he talking about a male human being. Instead, “man” refers to humanity, where human person have these two “ways of being” that have among them a deep unity. This becomes particularly clear also from the following passage, where he says that being male or female “is “constitutive for the person” (not only “an attribute of the person”) [… Man] is [deeply] constituted by the body as “he” or “she”.”

With the human person understood as above, the next step is to turn to the unity between male and female that Genesis expresses as: “the two will be one flesh” (2:24). This “is without doubt the unity that is expressed and realized in the conjugal act.” “When they unite with each other (in the conjugal act) so closely so as to become “one flesh,” man and woman rediscover every time and in a special way the mystery of creation, thus returning to the union in humanity (“flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones” [Genesis 2:23]) that allows them to recognize each other reciprocally.” “This means reliving in some way man’s original virginal value [… and for man and woman to discover] their own humanity, both in its original unity and in the duality of a mysterious reciprocal attraction.” “[S]ex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of man’s solitude [… and] always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.”

Finally, chapter 10 (yes, all of this is in only two, short chapters!), highlights the core importance of choice in becoming “one flesh” “While the man, by virtue of generation, belongs “by nature” to his father and mother, “he unites,” by contrast, with his wife (or she with her husband) by choice.” This choice, which is an “expression of self-determination” that is fundamental to the “structure” of the human person, “is what establishes the conjugal covenant between the persons, who become “one flesh” only based on [it].” “When both unite so intimately with each other that they become “one flesh,” their conjugal union presupposes a mature consciousness of the body.” The result is a new “discovery of the […] original consciousness of the unitive meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity.”

OK, that’s about as much as I can try to cover in one go. John Paul II’s thought is intricate, dense (re-reading a good few times is a must) and has peculiarities of vocabulary (like all good, philosophically meaty texts), but the rewards are rich and will, at least for me, lead to many more re-reads and hopefully new insights in the future. Even the surface I managed to skim here presents the sexual relationship between man and woman as a mirror of the cosmic event of creation (in the rich depth that John Paul II has exposed in these first 10 chapters ), as a mirror of the innermost nature of God’s own Trinitarian life and as a mirror of the fundamental complementarity and reciprocity of human relationships. Consciousness, choice, bodiliness, solitude and a gratuitous giving of one’s self to another self are all weaved into a profoundly illuminating tapestry, which shows off the beauty of a positive, Christian understanding of humanity and sexuality.

1 Please, note that all italicized emphases are John Paul II’s own, from the original text.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The riches of poverty

Goodshepherd domitilla

The other day I came across a very interesting article shared by one of my besties - MS - on Facebook. It reproduced the text of a pact signed by 40 bishops in the catacombs of St. Domitilla (the oldest and most extensive of the Roman catacombs) shortly before the Second Vatican Council’s conclusion - “The Pact of the Servant and Poor Church,” also known as “The Pact of the Catacombs.” The core of this group was made up of Brazilian bishops, but it also included several from Europe, Africa, Asia and both North and South America.1 At its heart, this pact was a commitment made by each signatory to live the evangelical counsel of poverty in their position as bishop of their local church and it echoed a point also emphasized in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, which says:2
“Jesus, “though He was by nature God … emptied Himself, taking the nature of a slave”, and “being rich, became poor” for our sakes. Thus, the Church, although it needs human resources to carry out its mission, is not set up to seek earthly glory, but to proclaim, even by its own example, humility and self-sacrifice.”
The following then is my abbreviated version of the pact’s preamble and 13 points:
“We, Bishops meeting at Vatican Council II, being aware of the deficiencies of our life of poverty according to the Gospel, encouraged by one another in this initiative in which each one wants to avoid singularity and presumption, in union with all our brothers in the Episcopate; counting, especially, on the grace and strength of our Lord Jesus Christ, on the prayer of the faithful and priests of our respective diocese; putting ourselves in thought and prayer before the Trinity, commit ourselves to the following:
  1. We will seek to live in accordance with the ordinary manner of our people, regarding housing, food, means of transportation, etc.
  2. We renounce wealth and the appearance thereof, especially in clothing (expensive fabrics and garish colors), and insignia of precious metals.
  3. We will possess neither liquid nor fixed assets in our names; and if it is necessary to possess anything, we will place it under the name of our diocese or other social or charitable works.
  4. We will entrust the financial and material administration of our diocese to a commission of competent lay people conscious of their apostolic role, since we should be pastors and apostles rather than administrators.
  5. We refuse to be called by names or titles that signify grandeur and power. We prefer to be called by the Gospel name “Father”.
  6. We will avoid everything that could appear to confer privilege, priority, or even preference to the rich and powerful.
  7. We will also avoid fostering or flattering the vanity of anyone, whoever they might be, when rewarding or requesting donations, or for any other reason. We will invite our faithful to consider their gifts as normal participation in worship, ministry and social action.
  8. We will give our time, thought, heart, means, etc. to the service of working individuals and groups who are economically weak and underdeveloped, without this being at the expense of other people and groups in the diocese.
  9. We will seek to transform the works of charity into social works based on charity and justice that take everyone into account.
  10. We will endeavor to ensure that government and public services decide on and implement laws, structures and social institutions that are necessary for justice, equality and the full and harmonious development of the whole person and all people.
  11. We commit ourselves to share, according to our ability, in the urgent projects of the dioceses in poor nations; together to always give witness to the Gospel at the international level, by asking for the adoption of economic and cultural structures that do not create poor nations in an ever richer world, but that allow the poor majority to emerge from their poverty.
  12. We pledge to share our life with our brothers and sisters in Christ (priests, religious and laity), so that our ministry constitutes a real service. We will seek out partners so that we can be promoters according to the spirit rather than rulers according to the world. We will try to be present, to be welcoming. We will be open to everyone, whatever their religion.
  13. When we return to our diocese we will present these resolutions to our diocesan priests, asking them to help us with their understanding, collaboration and prayers.
God help us to be faithful.”
When I first read this pact, my immediate reaction was of great admiration for its signatories, who resolve in it to start afresh in their role as bishops, returning to what is fundamental in imitating Jesus and applying the resolutions of Vatican II to themselves with great specificity and individuality. I also appreciated their making this choice together and following the model of the Early Church. In essence, I saw - and see - here that going of an extra mile and that self-noughting that is also set out as an example in Lumen Gentium, where the whole Church is warned not to “[l]et [either] the use of the things of this world [or] attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love.”

In the process of looking up some background on this pact, it has become clear to me that the vast majority of texts that refer to it are ones dissenting from the Catholic Church’s teaching and are critical of its conduct. On the one hand this is not difficult to understand - there are numerous bishops who behave in ways incompatible with this pact’s letter and spirit (or who at least seem to do so) and it can be used as a handy ruler by which to find them wanting. I find such a reading incongruous on two counts: First, this pact is one freely entered into by specific bishops who, probably as a result of participating in the Council, received the grace to impose on themselves specific measures that they felt called to follow. Second, it smacks of a basic disregard to the very spirit in which the pact’s signatories acted, whose desire was to “avoid presumption” and be “aware of the deficiencies of [their] life of poverty.” Furthermore, it flies in the face of Jesus’ own reprimand: “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5). This is in no way to deny or attempt to excuse the unchristian conduct of some bishops, but simply to recognize this document for what it is - the sincere resolution of a group of bishops to renew their commitment to Jesus, instead of waving it around like a weapon.

1 For scans of a reproduction of the original Portuguese text - Bonaventure Kloppenburg’s 1974 The ecclesiology of Vatican II - see here. While the above is based on the source from the first paragraph, I chose to translate some words differently, taking advantage of the original version’s scans (e.g., I translate “berrante” in point 2 as “garish” instead of “brilliant” and - in point 9 - “beneficência” as “charity”).
2 For a very interesting analysis that situates this pact in the context of Benedict XVI’s thought as well as of that of other post-conciliar theologians, see this article.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The inescapable indulgence of philosophy

Homunculus drawing s

If you are not in the mood for reading a rant, please, kindly, move along to some calmer, more edifying post.

OK, so, for those of you who are reckless with you blood pressure, the topic of today’s rant is, yet again, the “Faith and Reason” section of the the “Our Faith on Sunday” leaflet that now accompanies my parish’s newsletter (for a previous run in with it see here). This time the topic is none other than philosophy, and it gets disposed of in less than 150 words.1 You’d think that those few words would have to be carefully chosen to say anything meaningful about a complex topic like this. Yet, instead, the opening words are the following:
“Every person will at some stage in life indulge that inescapable curiosity which seeks answers to philosophical questions; even small children exhibit impressive levels of philosophical inquiry when, during the so called ‘Why Stage’, they demonstrate an insatiable desire to know the causes of things.”
The unidentified author of the above wisdom then drops gems like: “[h]ow articulate and explicit each person’s philosophical investigation is will depend on circumstances,” “there is in human nature a questioning quality, an irresistible urge to find out” and “although no single philosophical system can claim to give us a complete account of reality, some do reflect it more fully than others.”

Two words: WOW! Where do you even start in the face of such platitudes and inanity? First, let’s just spell out what the above actually implies about philosophy:
  1. The opening line makes philosophy sound like sneezing, a temporary infatuation with Brad Pitt or the onset of puberty. It makes philosophy seem like something that may one day overcome you, out of the blue. You’ll have no control over it and you’ll just have to indulge it. But, don’t worry - it will pass …

  2. Philosophy may also have the hallmarks of a disease - how serious its symptoms will be in your case (and at some point it will wash over you for sure) depends “on circumstances.” It would have been useful to get at least at hint of what it is about “circumstances” that may make a philosophy attack more or less severe. Is it open spaces, high altitudes, allergens or the presence of nanosphere complexes that one should watch for?

  3. The paragon of philosophical activity is a small child asking “why?”. Having actually been at the receiving end of barrages of “why”s by small children (and having greatly enjoyed the game), I am therefore inferring that the purpose of philosophy is entertainment, attention-seeking and maybe in 1/10 of its instances an actual desire for an answer. [Well, this one may not be that far off :)]

  4. You may find this hard to believe, but some philosophical systems reflect reality more fully than others … Mind. Blown. I would love to see the unidentified author of this gem of a treatise on philosophy sketch out how one might go about determining the extent to which a given philosophical system reflects reality. Maybe we could have a star rating in next week’s newsletter. (Dialectical materialism: x stars, Neoplatonism: y stars, Deconstructivism: z stars … You didn’t think I’d actually assign specific values, did you?)
“It is easy to be critical,” I hear you think. So, let me show you how I would use a ~100 word limit to talk about philosophy (and I’d do so by letting another, far better qualified mind, speak):
“Men and women have at their disposal an array of resources for generating greater knowledge of truth so that their lives may be ever more human. Among these is philosophy [meaning “love of wisdom”], which is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it. Philosophy emerges, then, as one of noblest of human tasks [… and] shows in different modes and forms that the desire for truth is part of human nature itself. […] Through philosophy’s work, the ability to speculate […] produces a rigorous mode of thought; and then in turn, through the logical coherence of the affirmations made and the organic unity of their content, it produces a systematic body of knowledge.” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio)

1 I owe it at least to my überbestie MR (née MM) to rush to the defense of philosophy. Not that it is being attacked particularly efficaciously here, but an attack is an attack and this one is bringing the game into disrepute … its a matter of principle!

Friday, 18 January 2013

Science and religion: a set-theoretic view


The question of how science and religion relate is a staple of this blog, yet in spite of numerous posts1 on this topic already, I feel the need to revisit it again (and probably not for the last time either). What I would like to give some thought to here, are different beliefs (or at least assumptions) about how God and the universe relate2 and the consequences they have on how science and religion are viewed.

For a change, let me start with what I believe myself and then proceed to contrast it with alternatives. To my mind, God infinitely exceeds the universe and is present everywhere and always - as St. Augustine puts it, God is “more inward to me than my most inward part; and higher than my highest.” (Confessions 3, 6). He has both created and sustains the universe, but does so in a way that is intelligible (and therefore also repeatable - the expectation of different outcomes when doing the same thing being one of the definitions of insanity, as Albert Einstein puts it). My position is therefore panentheistic (as opposed to pantheistic - God being equal to the universe - or deist, believing in a distant, separate God) and one that is fundamentally rational as opposed to fideist (a point also emphatically underlined by Benedict XVI during a general audience in November ’12). Here the universe, created “in and by” God,3 is both other than God and very much part of God and the top left quadrant of the diagram above is an attempt to depict it in terms of sets: the universe is represented by a circle, situated in an infinitely extending plane - God.

In this worldview, science is profoundly good not only because of the improvements to life that it can yield, but also because it tells me about how the universe that God created operates. It tells me about God in a way that is like learning about a mime artist by viewing their performance - the information is not immediate, but nonetheless leads to insights about the actor. Another source of understanding God comes to me from theology, which seeks to understand what God has revealed about himself through his relationship with the people of Israel, through his Son, Jesus and through his presence among his followers since then and into the present. These two sources of information about God are in perfect complementarity and equally fill me with wonder and admiration.

Yet science and religion (theology) are not the same - the former has methods finely tuned to bringing the laws of the universe to light and spans the sensible (empirical), while the latter has a span that exceeds that of science, by addressing the extra-empirical aspects of the universe (the whys and ought(’nt)s) as well as events and entities exclusive to its scope. This is not to place one above the other, but simply to put them in relationship as far as their scopes are concerned (bottom left quadrant of the above diagram).

In summary, my understanding of science and religion is that they jointly yield an understanding both of the world I live in and its source and purpose that I believe in. As John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

As for alternative views, a positioning of the world as separate from God and outside God, as shown on the right side of the above diagram, is also widespread among religious believers. Here God’s involvement in creation is only an initial impulse and setup, followed by a subsequent separation and distance. The scope of what science and religion have to talk about has no overlap.

My impression here is that this separation also extends into other spheres, beyond just the relationship between God and the universe. At times I come across (repulsive) statements that, e.g., imply that ethical behavior is “owned” by those who hold religious beliefs or that the same applies to truth or beauty.4 In my set theory of the God-universe relationship, all that is good, true and beautiful in the universe, and is accessible without faith, is mine and I just feel like I am being given more or being helped more to live it from my additional, extra-empirical sources.

I have a feeling that this (right) picture also applies to atheist believers, with the circle representing God removed. Here all that is believed to exist is the universe, which is being understood by scientific means and religion is a separate activity that has no corresponding object.

Finally, I suspect that those atheists, who don't acknowledge that their position is a belief, operate on a worldview like mine (i.e., on the left above), but with the labels swapped. Claims about God are treated like claims about an entity enclosed in the universe and therefore fully subject to the methods of science. Religion too is an activity that can be fully reduced to scientific scrutiny just like any other human activity. If this is correct, then I can understand why atheists who fall in this category find religious belief as lacking in credibility, to the point of being hostile to it.

If any of you, my readers, identify with one of the positions other than mine, I would very much appreciate it if you let me know if I misunderstood something about it. And even if you agree with me, I'd be keen to hear from you :).

1 With previous looks at the science of creation from nothing, a mystical view of creation, the role of belief in science (also here), the dialogue between Chief Rabi Sacks and Prof. Dawkins, the ambiguous relationship between theory and evidence, the constraints of empiricism, the “God of gaps” caricature, atheism as a creed, the evidential equivalence of atheism and religious belief, Martini and Eco’s dialogue on ethics and a call for recognizing rationality in (some of) religion and science alike - to mention just a few :).
2 Many thanks to NP and AG with whom I have spoken about some aspects of this picture by email and over on Facebook over the last weeks. Their insights triggered a lot of interesting and valuable discussion.
3 “The universe, created in and by the eternal Word, the “image of the invisible God,” is destined for and addressed to man, himself created in the “image of God” and called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of his creation.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §299)
4 My friend, SC, told me of a particularly saddening and vile case of her parish priest telling her (at the age of 7) that she wasn’t even human, because she didn’t believe in God. This has nothing to do with Christianity as I understand it, as I hear it taught by the current and previous popes or presented in the Catechism. Instead, it is its perversion.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Lumen Gentium: The Call to Holiness

Paul klee marked man

Following presentations of the Church’s purpose, life, hierarchy and laity, Lumen Gentium1 turns to the call to holiness that Jesus addresses to “each and everyone of His disciples of every condition” by inviting them to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This holiness “is expressed in many ways in individuals, who in their walk of life, tend toward the perfection of charity, thus causing the edification of others.”

While holiness is a grace - a gift from God - that Christians receive in baptism, they need to “hold on to and complete [it] in their lives” - again thanks to grace - by having a “heart of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, patience” (Colossians 3:12). The result then is not something restricted to Christians, but instead is the promotion of “a more human manner of living […] in this earthly society.” More specifically, the instructions to Christians are the following:
“They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things. They must devote themselves with all their being to the glory of God and the service of their neighbor. In this way, the holiness of the People of God will grow into an abundant harvest of good, as is admirably shown by the life of so many saints in Church history.”
Holiness thus is an imitation of Jesus, a seeking to do the Father’s will (as Jesus did) and a service to all of humanity, as demonstrated by the saints. Holiness is to “follow the poor Christ, the humble and cross-bearing Christ in order to be worthy of being sharers in His glory.”

Bishops, by the sacramental grace they have received, “are given the courage necessary to lay down their lives for their sheep, and the ability of promoting greater holiness in the Church by their daily example.” Priests, are called to “the holiness of humble and hidden service” and “should grow daily in their love of God and their neighbor by the exercise of their office through Christ.” Deacons are called to “stand before men as personifications of goodness and friends of God.” The path to holiness for married couples and parents is “by faithful love” through which they “sustain one another in grace throughout the entire length of their lives” and lead their children to the practice of the evangelical virtues (poverty, chastity, obedience). Work too is a path to holiness by which the Christian “should raise all of society, and even creation itself, to a better mode of existence.” “Poverty, infirmity and sickness” as well as “hardships or […] suffer[ing] persecution for justice sake” also result in being “united with the suffering Christ.” A shared prerequisite for all is “to receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and […] cooperate with the divine will.”

While it might seem from the above that those in different circumstances and positions in the Church have different paths to holiness, Lumen Gentium emphasizes both that “holiness is one” and that “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him” (1 John 4:16). This primacy of love, which is a gift from the Holy Spirit, is the means “by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of God.” This gift of love is nourished by listening to the Word of God, accepting His Will, participating in the Eucharist and the Liturgy, “prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues.” It is love again that “rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means.” In summary, “[i]t is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor which points out the true disciple of Christ.”

Given the above view of love, which is a gift from God, nourished by the sacraments, and which is then directed back at God, also through one’s neighbor, the supreme manifestation of love is “lay[ing] down [ones] life for Christ and His brothers” - martyrdom.
“By martyrdom a disciple is transformed into an image of his Master by freely accepting death for the salvation of the world—as well as his conformity to Christ in the shedding of his blood. Though few are presented such an opportunity, nevertheless all must be prepared to confess Christ before men. They must be prepared to make this profession of faith even in the midst of persecutions, which will never be lacking to the Church, in following the way of the cross.”
Next, celibacy is singled out, which is a “grace given by the Father to certain souls, whereby they may devote themselves to God alone the more easily, due to an undivided heart.” The free choice of poverty and obedience are also praised as means for attaining holiness. “Th[ese are] beyond the measure of the commandments, but are done in order to become more fully like the [poor and] obedient Christ.” Finally, the following exhortation is made to aid all in their seeking of holiness, which is not only an invitation but an obligation for every Christian:
“Let neither the use of the things of this world nor attachment to riches, which is against the spirit of evangelical poverty, hinder them in their quest for perfect love. Let them heed the admonition of the Apostle [Paul - cf. 1 Corinthians 7:31] to those who use this world; let them not come to terms with this world; for this world, as we see it, is passing away.”
The key takeaways for me from this short chapter in Lumen Gentium are the underlining of the oneness and universality of holiness, the obligation for all Christians to seek it and its synonymity with love. A love that is directed at God through one’s neighbors, that leads to God through the selfless giving of oneself to others. There are details here about different aspects to emphasis for different roles within the Church and different means that the Church offers its members in aid of holiness, but the core point here is that holiness is about imitating Jesus, who loved us so much that he even gave his life for us. Holiness is a path that leads from every ordinary moment to the extraordinary, total giving of oneself out of love.

1 If you are not a Catholic, you might like to read the caveat in paragraph two of this post, where I propose a way for you to approach this post in which I attempt to summarize what I understand the Catholic Church as addressing to its members.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Man and woman: the beginning


It has been a long time since I last read a text that filled me with excitement and admiration and lead me through a seemingly inexhaustible sequence of insights and profound realizations. The book I am talking about is John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” which presents his “Theology of the Body” - a term that I have heard mentioned on various blogs but that has meant little more to me than a buzz-word so far.

The book presents the content of a series of talks that Blessed John Paul II gave during his Wednesday general audiences between September 1979 and November 1984 (!) that closely track a manuscript he wrote before being elected pope. Instead of the usual pastoral material, typically presented at events like these, the first chapter already makes it crystal clear that the book is going to be technical and intellectually challenging material. To think that he shared it with the crowds who came to see him in Rome is astonishing to me by itself, as it is the polar opposite of the typical dumbing-down that so often informs pubic communication.

The starting point is the origin of the family in marriage, whose indissolubility Jesus categorically reaffirms when challenged by some Pharisees:
“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator created them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So it is that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6; emphasis by John Paul II)
Here John Paul II picks up on Jesus’ emphasis on “the beginning” and his quoting of verses from two separate chapters of Genesis. Instead of this passage from Matthew being only taken as a confirmation and reinforcement of the Genesis model of marriage, Jesus’ emphasis on “the beginning” triggers an analysis of the creation of humanity. In fact, John Paul II focuses on the specific features and complementary differences of the two Genesis accounts to look not only at the differences between male and female genders, but at key characteristics of what it means to be human.

The first account (which is chronologically more recent and which has more of a theological character) is that “God created man [hā’ādām, collective noun: “humanity”?] in his image, in the image of God he created him, man [zākār, male] and woman [neqēbāh, female] he created them.” (Genesis 1:27, John Paul II’s additions in []). In other words, the creation of man and woman is “a single act.” In contrast, in the second account (which is more ancient and has more of a mythical character), man’s creation (Genesis 2:5-7) precedes that of woman’s (Genesis 2:18-23). However, even here, the first human being is called “man” (’ādām), “while from the moment of the creation of the first woman, [Genesis] begins to call him “male,” îš, in relation to ’iššāh (“woman,” because she has been taken from the male = îš).”

While the above “single-act” creation of the sexes is an aspect of Genesis that I certainly was not aware of, the most impressive move in John Paul II’s analysis comes next and is the insight that the solitude of the pre–male-female differentiated “man,” - expressed in Genesis as “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18) - is a reference not only to an individual’s solitude (lacking a mate) but to a fundamental feature of every person’s nature. In Genesis, the first “man” is shown both as being separate from the rest of creation (being alone in spite of a multitude of other living beings already populating the world) and as searching for his identity (being asked by God to name “every living creature” but not “find[ing] a help similar to himself” (Genesis 2:19-20)).

This original solitude of the human person indicates self-consciousness and the commandment about not eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” introduces self-determination (free will) as a basic feature of humanity. These two together make the human person “created in the image of God” and a “partner of the Absolute.” Next, John Paul II argues that it is man’s (’ādām’s) body that is the source of his awareness of solitude. This body that could have made man place himself as equal among the other created bodies, instead gives him awareness of his otherness and solitude. This in turn makes it evident that “the “invisible” determines man more than the “visible”.”

Next, man’s body is also the means of his “cultivating the earth” (Genesis 2:5) and “subdu[ing] it” (1:28), as the Genesis account further states. As a result, the human body is not only involved in man’s awareness of his separateness from the rest of creation and his potential for self-determination, but also “permits him to be the author of genuinely human activity[, where] the body expresses the person.” The final ingredient that John Paul II identifies in the Genesis account is the introduction of the difference between death an immortality in the form of the mystery of the three of knowledge: “The LORD God gave the man this order: You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; when you eat from it you shall die.” (Genesis 2:16-17).

With man’s features emerging as his self-consciousness, self-determination and, as their consequence, relating to God as a partner, John Paul II turns to taking a closer look at the meaning of the original unity of humanity. The starting point here is an argument for there being a distinction between “bodiliness and sexuality” whereby our being bodies is fundamental to the structure of our being personal subjects, even before differences between the male and female genders are considered. Being a body is fundamental to being human and is intrinsic to the nature of that humanity (as John Paul II argues above), while masculinity and femininity are “two ways in which [a] human being […] is a body.” These two ways of being human bodies – the “double unity as male and female” – are introduced as means of overcoming the solitude of the sexually undifferentiated human. From the Genesis account of how male and female are differentiated, John Paul II notes in particular two aspects: First, that the “second I” - the female - that emerges from the “torpor” of the undifferentiated man during which differentiation is created - is “also personal and equally related to the situation of original solitude.” Second, that man “shows joy and even exultation […] for the other human being, for the second “I”.”

The first 8 chapters, a high-level synthesis of which the above has attempted, take us to the point of the basic features of man and woman having been sketched out, which is then the starting point for looking at the nature of the marital relationship. What I found particularly impressive, beyond the actual content and the psychological and anthropological profile of the human person that John Paul II presents, is the method of analysis he applies to Genesis. Throughout this discourse he is very clear about considering that text to be of mythical character, which “does not refer to fictitious-fabulous content, but simply to an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.” And he goes on to say that “[w]ithout any difficulty, we discover that content under the stratum of the archaic narrative, truly marvelous in the quality and condensation of the truths contained there.” What a guy! While I certainly cannot echo the “without difficulty” qualifier, the marvelousness and “quality and condensation of the truths” that he manages to reveal in this ancient text is amazing. His approach strikes me as being categorically different both from a naive, literal reading of Genesis that leads some to highly irrational and a-scientific conclusions and from a superficial “this is just a story” approach that fails to uncover deeper meaning.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Venture freely into the open sea of the truth

I am glad I kept tabs on Pope Benedict XVI’s sermons, articles and speeches over the Christmas period and that I now had a chance to read them, as there were some true gems to be found there.

Let’s start with his Christmas Vigil homily, where he summed up the trusting fragility of the Christmas paradox particularly vividly and beautifully:
“Again and again it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him, and as a child trustingly lets himself be taken into our arms. It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you, and that you are trying to assert yourself in the face of my grandeur. So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.”

Then, in his article in the Financial Times, he drew out the consequences of God’s becoming man and the love for humanity He thereby demonstrated:
“Christians shouldn’t shun the world; they should engage with it. But their involvement in politics and economics should transcend every form of ideology.

Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all.”

However, the engagement of Christians in the world is to be done on Gospel terms and here Benedict introduces a (to me) new reading of Jesus’ famous response to the trap some Pharisees laid him: “Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.” He goes beyond a splitting of responsibilities and highlights the wrongful demands that secular powers can lay claim to:
“Christians have at times throughout history been unable to comply with demands made by Caesar. From the Emperor cult of ancient Rome to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, Caesar has tried to take the place of God. When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world-view. Rather, it is because they are free from the constraints of ideology and inspired by such a noble vision of human destiny that they cannot collude with anything that undermines it.”

Benedict then takes this central idea of freedom in truth and applies it, in a to me surprisingly bold way, to the topic of inter-religious dialogue, which “is a necessary condition for peace in the world and is therefore a duty for Christians as well as other religious communities.” He first presents the current rules of this dialogue as, first, “not aim[ing] at conversion, but at understanding” and, second, that “both parties to the dialogue remain consciously within their identity, which the dialogue does not place in question either for themselves or for the other.” While he underlines the correctness of not aiming at conversion, Benedict sees these rules as “too superficial” and instead proposes the following to the Christian participant:
“[T]he search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”

This is decidedly not a cautious edging towards compromise, but instead a realization that Christians “can enter openly and fearlessly into any dialogue.”

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Lumen Gentium: The Laity


Chapter 4 of Lumen Gentium brings us to a presentation of the role of the laity - i.e., “all the faithful except those in holy orders [discussed at length in chapter 3] and those in the state of religious life [to be covered in detail later].” Like in previous posts about Vatican II documents, if you are not a Catholic, I would again encourage you to take a look at paragraph two of my post on Dei Verbum, where I propose an approach that might make reading the following more accessible.

The chapter on the laity starts with, and is run through by, repeated emphases on the unity and singularity of purpose of the whole Church, against the background of which any distinctions are to be read: “Everything that has been said [about] the People of God is intended for the laity, religious and clergy alike. [… The lay] faithful are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ.” The specific aspect of the laity os that they “live in the ordinary circumstances of family and social life […] They are called there by God that by exercising their proper function and led by the spirit of the Gospel they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven.” The key here to me is that the laity is not some sort of “other” or “miscellaneous” category, but that its members are “called there by God” - being a lay person can be a calling like being a member of the church’s hierarchy or of a religious order.

The equality of the People of God (i.e., laity, clergy and religious all together) is then stated very explicitly:
“[T]he chosen People of God is one: “one Lord, one faith, one baptism”; sharing a common dignity as members from their regeneration in Christ, having the same filial grace and the same vocation to perfection; possessing in common one salvation, one hope and one undivided charity. There is, therefore, in Christ and in the Church no inequality on the basis of race or nationality, social condition or sex, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all ‘one’ in Christ Jesus”.”
Furthermore this equality of dignity extends not only across natural but also across spiritual categories: “And if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, pastors and dispensers of mysteries on behalf of others, yet all share a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ.” A source for this equality can also be found in the mutual interdependence of the clergy and laity: “[P]astors and the other faithful are bound to each other by a mutual need. Pastors of the Church, following the example of the Lord, should minister to one another and to the other faithful. These in their turn should enthusiastically lend their joint assistance to their pastors and teachers.” This is further (and to my mind beautifully!) underlined as follows:
“Therefore, from divine choice the laity have Christ for their [brother] who though He is the Lord of all, came not to be served but to serve. They also have for their brothers those in the sacred ministry who by teaching, by sanctifying and by ruling with the authority of Christ feed the family of God so that the new commandment of charity may be fulfilled by all.”
St. Augustine then puts the difference between his being a Christian and a bishop in particularly clear terms: “What I am for you terrifies me; what I am with you consoles me. For you I am a bishop; but with you I am a Christian. The former is a duty; the latter a grace. The former is a danger; the latter, salvation.” Again it is the saints, whose words illuminate and breathe a heightened sense of life into the Church’s formal teaching.

Next, Lumen Gentium elaborates on the apostolic and prophetic roles of the laity and there is a clear sense here even just from the language that this is a blueprint for the future (e.g., by many sentences having the form of “let the laity …”), rather than a re-statement of well-established teaching, as is the case in some of the earlier parts of this document.

The apostolic role of the laity (to which they are commissioned “[t]hrough their baptism and confirmation”) is a call “to [making] the Church present and operative in those places and circumstances where only through them can it become the salt of the earth.” The apostolate of the laity (i.e., it’s spreading of the Gospel) is not restricted only to such conditions where the hierarchy would be less effective or appropriate. Instead, it “can also be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy. This was the way certain men and women assisted Paul the Apostle in the Gospel. […] Further, they have the capacity to assume from the Hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions.” The model here is very much one of co-operation rather than exclusive leadership by the hierarchy. This does not in any way diminish the leadership of the hierarchy, but, to my mind, it expresses a desire to reflect the emphasis on equality in the preceding paragraphs. It shows a desire for spreading of the Gospel in a way where the talents of all are put to good use.

The way the laity spread the Gospel, “by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world. […] For all their works, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily occupations, their physical and mental relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life, if patiently borne—all these become “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”.” What strikes me as key here is that a lay person is called to follow Jesus 24/7 and that even when they rest, that is an opportunity to bear witness to God’s love for all. This is very explicitly the opposite of the unhealthy compartmentalization that can creep into anyone’s life, where their Christianity is manifest only in some contexts but not in all. Finally, the part on the laity’s apostolic role concludes with the profound statement that “the laity consecrate the world itself to God.”

Turning to the prophetic aspect, Lumen Gentium states that “Christ […] continually fulfills His prophetic office […] not only through the hierarchy who teach in His name and with His authority, but also through the laity whom He made His witnesses and to whom He gave understanding of the faith (sensu fidei).” Here I was immediately struck by the attribution of a rational and reflexive function to the laity, which again does not detract from the authority of the hierarchy, but which places the lay person in a position of intellectual engagement rather than blind obedience. This is again underlined by the exhortation to “let the laity devotedly strive to acquire a more profound grasp of revealed truth, and let them insistently beg of God the gift of wisdom.”

Then comes a bit of a surprise to me:
“In connection with the prophetic function is that state of life which is sanctified by a special sacrament […], namely, married and family life. […] In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. […] They must assist each other to live holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world may be permeated by the spirit of Christ and it may more effectively fulfill its purpose in justice, charity and peace. The laity have the principal role in the overall fulfillment of this duty.”
This places the sacrament of marriage in a position not only of a commitment of the spouses to each other and to their children - for their individual good, but also makes it a foretaste of things to come and a source from which Jesus’ love is to be brought to the whole world so that “justice, charity and peace” may be brought about. Such projection into the world has its challenges though and the laity is reminded that:
“[T]he faithful should learn how to distinguish carefully between those rights and duties which are theirs as members of the Church, and those which they have as members of human society. Let them strive to reconcile the two, remembering that in every temporal affair they must be guided by a Christian conscience, since even in secular business there is no human activity which can be withdrawn from God’s dominion.”
The relationship of the laity and the hierarchy is then introduced as follows:
“The laity […] should openly reveal to [the hierarchy] their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church.”
This again underlines the need for active, rational participation of the laity in the life of the Church and even the obligation to escalate concerns to its leadership, but it also requires that “[t]he laity [… then] accept in Christian obedience decisions of their spiritual shepherds, since they are representatives of Christ as well as teachers and rulers in the Church.”

In summary, “[e]ach individual layman must stand before the world as a witness to the resurrection and life of the Lord Jesus and a symbol of the living God. All the laity as a community and each one according to his ability must nourish the world with spiritual fruits. They must diffuse in the world that spirit which animates the poor, the meek, the peace makers—whom the Lord in the Gospel proclaimed as blessed.”

As a lay person I found this part of Lumen Gentium particularly encouraging as it shows very clearly that in Vatican II the hierarchy of the Church (since all of these documents’ authors were part of it!) calls for greater participation by all members of the Church in its life. The hierarchy does not shirk away from its responsibilities (and I don’t believe it should), but it makes it clear that it desires dialogue among equals. Even though a bishop is placed at the head of his local church, he is the brother of all the faithful he leads and this brotherhood, pioneered by Jesus himself outranks any hierarchical distinctions. I know full well that this is often not what happens even today - 50 years after Vatical II, but I am pleased to see at least that this is the blueprint, even if the boat is still under construction.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The blue of the sky

On New Year's Day was one of my favourite feasts of the Church calendar: that of Mary, mother of God. While the emphasis on Christmas Day is very much on God becoming man - the infinite also becoming finite, the feast of the Theotokos looks at another central aspect of the Christmas paradox.

Instead of descending to earth on a cloud or by means of some other superficial spectacle, God first sought the consent of a girl and then grew and developed inside her in the same way every human does. He joined humanity from the ground floor rather than waltzing in at the peak of its powers as a fully-grown adult. This also means that he has a mum whom he loved, respected, was concerned for and esteemed just like other children and adults relate to their mothers. He also felt her absolute love, care, commitment and devotion, just like children and adults receive from their mothers.

In an intellectual vision in 1949, Chiara Lubich received the following, particularly striking, insight about Mary’s relationship to God:
"As the blue of the sky contains sun and moon and stars, so Mary appeared to me, made by God so great as to contain God Himself in the Word."
This image clearly expresses how great a love God has for Mary by making her contain Him as His mother (like the sky contains the sun), which in some sense shows God as being smaller than Mary. Yet, since it is God who made himself small, this self-humbling adds to his magnanimity and greatness and we see a God who is great, but whose greatness includes His making Himself small.

By having Mary be His mother, God leads us to humility by example, which is also what Jesus explicitly called us to: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30).