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 At their heart, these systems of thought and conduct are absolutely outdated, mummified, and serve as bunkers.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)