Saturday, 12 October 2013

Athena and/or Jesus?


The other day I watched a greatly edifying and enjoyable video of Eugenio Scalfari and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi having a chat about a variety of topics in the context of the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative launched by Pope Benedict XVI - a forum for dialogue between catholics and non-believers. What struck me in particular was a train of thought triggered by Scalfari commenting on Ravasi quoting him as having said that he was “in love” with Jesus. To this Scalfari responds:1
“Maybe it is an exaggerated phrase, but it is true. I have been following the life and preaching of Jesus ever since I was a kid, since I abandoned the faith. I grew up in a Catholic family [...] but then I met Athena, together with Italo Calvino, with whom I shared a desk for three years at school ...”
This follows the pattern I have seen so many times among my friends: I grew up a Catholic (or member of another church), but then I realized that belief in God was not reasonable and I became an atheist or agnostic. Scalfari tells the same story: upon encountering Athena (the Greek goddess of wisdom) his religious beliefs crumbled. Faced with a choice between faith and reason, he opted for the latter and while he still admires Jesus, he does so without any accompanying - irrational or at least arational - religious beliefs.

I particularly liked the posing of the above process with rationality personified by Athena, as it gave it a symmetry that less poetic accounts lack, and I was looking forward to Ravasi’s response, as this was a statement that he was sure to react to:
“[You tell the story of how you] made the choice of Athena, in a certain sense abandoning the choice of Christ in that moment at least. I think though that this choice, these two choices are not necessary and divisive, that they would split a person. Because I am firmly convinced, I personally, that, even though I have made the choice of Christ, I have not renounced my choice of Athena. Athena, reason, has always interested me.”
Ravasi then - very compellingly - proceeds to expand on Pope Francis’s speaking about the Truth in relational terms in his letter to Scalfari, and then shares the following, personal reflection:
“I, for myself, can’t say that I have the Truth, that I have God. I, every day, have to return - and in some moments it is likely that I drift into a territory where the heavens seem devoid of divinity ... [pause] Precisely because there is this dimension of the subject [pointing at himself], that is limited and that walks in a reality that exceeds me. This is why I believe that the element of seeking, searching is fundamental.”
I believe Ravasi is absolutely spot-on here - faith is not an alternative to reason, but a position that requires reason for the sake of remaining authentic. Ravasi presents his relationship with God as a dynamic, persistent search for the infinite, transcendent-immanent by a limited and finite self contained by it. This is no rejection of reason, blind adherence to tradition or irrational ignorance of evidence that are often the objections leveled at faith, but a sincere, dynamic relationship with God, as experienced through the limited, fallible, imperfect consciousness of a human person.

Having focused on Ravasi - whose fan I admit I am, I would also like to express my admiration for Scalfari, who comes across as a highly intelligent, sincere and compassionate person and whose atheism I don’t in any way find issue with. If anything, the fact that shines through their conversation is that both are open and honest about their own understanding of reality and that both value the other’s thoughts and find inspiration in them.

To conclude, I’d like to share my motivation for this post, which was my überbestie, PM’s saying that he didn’t get why I keep talking about faith and reason as being opposed, when in fact they are not. This certainly made me stop, since I completely agree with him, and I in fact proceeded to read up on more formal treatments of rationality, reason and faith, with the desire to get to some low-level mixup that would explain the mistaken perception of this fictitious opposition. I very quickly realized though (how could I not have seen that straight-away?!) that such efforts lead me down the well-trodden, lengthy and criss-crossing paths of epistemology and ontology, for whose considerations the terms “reason” and “rational” were a lax shorthand. Not wanting to attempt a synthesis of a vast field of investigation here, I’d just like to argue again that faith and reason are not opposed - they are both means for making sense of our conscious experiences in ways which I (and the Catholic Church) believe to be complementary and fundamentally incapable of contradicting each other in their perfect instantiations.

Seeing the sincere experiences of Scalfari and many of my friends, who arrive at a different conclusion - i.e., of faith being opposed to reason - instead leads me to an examination of conscience. Why is it that the Church and I fail to present the inherent compatibility of faith and reason compellingly enough? Has too much baggage accumulated over the centuries? Have ulterior motives obscured the profound purity and rationality of Christian faith, motivated by insecurity and lack of trust in God’s love? Maybe the answer lies in personal dialogue though, instead of an attempt to address the question via some new systematic exposition. And Pope Francis’ clear, blunt and razor-sharp directness will help too, of that I am sure ...

1 This is around 21:50 in the video (in Italian) and Ravasi’s reaction around 43:00.