Friday, 14 February 2014

The demon of distance

Demon of distance

A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi lead another of the “courtyard of the gentiles” events, aimed at providing a space for dialogue between non-believers and Catholics. This time it took place in Budapest and Cardinal Ravasi’s address focused on the fundamental Christian principles, from which its understanding of morality, economy and society derives.

These principles include those of the person (created in the image of God and intrinsically being in relationship with others), of autonomy (of the civil and religious spheres, following Jesus’ words: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21)), of solidarity and of truth (that precedes and exceeds us and that we inhabit rather than possess1). Each of these four principles is insightfully presented and analyzed by Ravasi and I would recommend anyone to read his talk in full (at the time of writing this post, only available in Italian). Here, however, I would like to focus only on the principle of solidarity, which Ravasi further differentiates into its aspects of justice and love.

The starting point of the principle of solidarity in Christianity, like that of the other three principles too, is the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), as a result of which there is a link between faith and history, between religion and political and social life. Cardinal Ravasi also emphasized this point during his brief opening remarks of the entire event, where he pointed out that, while in Eastern religions saints tend to be depicted with closed eyes (indicating an interiority of focus), in Christian art saints are typically shown with their eyes wide open - projecting out into the world around them. What is needed, Ravasi concludes, is both an interiority and a having one’s eyes open to see the great political, economic, social and cultural problems of the world.

In this context, the principle of solidarity in Christianity has its roots already in the Genesis account of creation, where
“the fact of all of us being human is expressed by the noun “Adam,” which in Hebrew is ha-’adam,2 with the article (ha-) that simply means “the human.” is used to refer to humanity. Therefore there is in all of us a shared “adamness.” Solidarity is, therefore, structural to our fundamental anthropological reality. Religion expresses this anthropological unity using two terms that are two moral categories: justice and love. Faith takes solidarity, which is also at the basis of lay philanthropy, but goes beyond it. In fact, staying with John’s Gospel, during the last evening of his earthly life Jesus says a wonderful phrase: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).”
To illustrate the two aspects of solidarity - justice and love, Ravasi takes advantage not only of Christian tradition, but also makes reference to Eastern thought, in the spirit of inter-religious dialogue.

To present the essence of justice, Ravasi quotes the 4th century saint, Ambrose of Milan:
“The earth was created as a common good for all, for the rich and for the poor. Why, then, O rich, do you usurp an exclusive right to the soil? When you help the poor, you, rich, don’t give them from your own, but you return to them their own. In fact, you alone use the common property, given for the use of all. The earth belongs to all, not only to the rich, therefore when you help the poor you give them back their due, instead of providing them with a gift of your own.” (On Naboth)
Turning to the second aspect of solidarity - love, Ravasi takes advantage of the following Tibetan parable, showing that religious cultures, that are undoubtedly diverse, do at their bases have touch-points and contacts:
“A man, walking through the desert, spots something strange in the distance. Fear starts welling up in him, since, in the absolute solitude of the steppe, such an obscure and mysterious reality - maybe an animal, a dangerous wild beast - can’t but unsettle. Moving ahead, the traveller discovers that he is not approaching a beast, but a person instead. But his fear does not pass. If anything, it grows, thinking that the person could be a robber. Nonetheless, he has no choice but to proceed, until arriving in the presence of the other. At this moment, the traveller lifts his gaze and, to his surprise, exclaims: “It is my brother, whom I haven’t seen for many years!””
Ravasi concludes his reflection on solidarity by noting that “distance generates fears and demons; one has to get close to the other to overcome fears, no matter how understandable they may be. Refusing to get to know the other and to encounter the other is the same as saying no to the love that springs from solidarity and that dissolves terror and generates a true society.”

Personally, I have found Cardinal Ravasi’s reflection highly compelling and enlightening, both due to its deep roots in Scripture and its open and broad perspective that is equally at ease with drawing on the rich sources of Christianity as it is to benefit from the insights of other religions, even in matters as fundamental and core to Christianity as its understanding of love. Specifically, I have also found the Tibetan parable to be a great reminder to attempt closeness with all, instead of remaining at a distance and being put off by distorted, prejudice-filled, blurry perception.

1 Ravasi addressed this concept of the truth several times already, e.g. see also its coverage in a previous post here.
2 For more on the Genesis account and ha-’adam, see John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” discussed here.