Monday, 8 December 2014

Dialogue, doubt and dangerous religion

Jacob s ladder 1973

The Courtyard of the Gentiles, the Catholic Church’s forum for dialogue with non-believers, met again in September, this time in Bologna. The event included a very interesting conversation between Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, and Gino Paoli, the agnostic singer-songwriter and former member of the Italian Parliament for the Communist Party, moderated by the journalist Beppe Severgnini. While the overall theme of the event was that of time, this event focused on questions of faith, doubt, encounter and the dangers of religion. Instead of a commented account, let me just offer you the following, translated transcript (with the usual caveats about my translation’s coarseness) of a conversation I greatly enjoyed and one that I hope will give you as much as it gave me. Here GP will stand for Gino Paoli, GR for Gianfranco Ravasi and BS for Beppe Severgnini (the Italian video is available here in full):
[BS asks GP what he thought when he received the invitation to talk with GR.]

GP: “I thought that the cardinal, being a dogmatic, would like to have dialogue. And, for me, dialogue is the most important thing. I don’t believe in the truth. I believe that my truth is mine, yours is yours and the cardinal’s is his. Through dialogue we may find one truth that contains all three. And I believe this is the intention of Cardinal Ravasi too.” [Ravasi nods.]


GP: “I believe that religion is not only about those who believe in something. Religiosity exists in all humans. Religiosity, not religion. I believe I too have a religiosity. It can’t be a dogmatic one, because I am an agnostic. I believe that it would take the same degree of wisdom to say that God exists as that God doesn’t exist, because there is no proof of either one or the other claim. I am someone who doesn’t know. And I don’t know with regard to many topics, I don’t even know about myself.”

[BS asks GR whether he thinks love songs, just with their subjects capitalized, could be used in churches - i.e., with the same intentions and sentiments as directed to another person, redirected to God.]

GR: “I would first like to distance myself a bit from a definition that Gino Paoli has assigned to me: dogmatic. Being considered a dogmatic can be good for a theologian, in the sense used by theologians. In its everyday sense, I feel less comfortable with it, because what is characteristic of believing, due to it not being like mathematics where there are theorems that may be self-evident and adherence to which is quasi-mechanical, is its being an experience of intelligence, love and interiority, which - as such - also includes dark moments, moments of silence. For example, if we take the sacred text par excellence and open it on its first pages, we see Abraham ascending Mount Moriah, holding his son’s hand, having received an order from God that is absolutely scandalous, that for him is absurd: he has to kill his son, whom he received from God, whom God promised to him! Further ahead, we find the figure of Job, who even gets to the point of blaspheming. There is an extraordinary phrase by Luther regarding these passages, who says: “Sometimes God appreciates a desperate person’s cursing more than the praises of a well-meaning bourgeois during a Sunday morning service.” […] Then there is another book of the Bible that you may not have read - Ecclesiastes, which presents the figure of a person who is in crisis, a crisis of wisdom, a crisis of meaning, yet it is a book of the Bible, which is the book of believers par excellence. Therefore I’d say that the history of the true believer is an arduous history that does include light but that certainly also includes many moments of shadows and darkness.”

GP: “I have read the Bible, the Qur’an, and other writings, in order to understand, because I don’t believe it would be right to decide whether yes or no if one doesn’t know. I believe that freedom is born of knowledge. You have the freedom to decide, but a you once it knows, not before. You can’t be for God or against God like you can be a supporter of Genoa or Sampdoria - that is not possible. That would be stupid. I have known men of faith, in fact one of the most important people in my life was a priest who was my philosophy professor. I have known many believers and from them I have understood that faith passes through doubt. Only doubt can lead to faith. There is no possibility of certainties. Certainties are not of faith, it is only doubts that lead to faith.”

GR: […] A phrase that I often use as a motto is a quote by the French writer Julien Green that says (specifically in the context of religion): “As long as you are restless, you may be at ease.”

GP: I’d go even further and say: as long as you are restless, you are alive.

GR: I’t true. This is true.


GP: “When does a value become a defect? A value can also be a defect, depending on where it becomes a defect. For example, the value of tolerance. At what point does it become a defect to accept certain things? The value of honor. When does such a positive positive thing become negative? When does doubt become a brake?

GR: Exactly. The same thing applies to vice and virtue. […] We have at one end of a scale coal and at the other end a diamond. Both have the same basis - carbon - both these extremes. Let’s think, for example, of a vice and let’s take the most sensational vice - even though the gravest one is pride - let’s take lust. Lust has its source in a virtue - the virtue of love and of the eros, which is poetry.


GR: “Let me get back to your question about songs though. […] There are certainly songs that are explicitly “mystical” (in quotes), for example those of Leonard Cohen and some of Bob Dylan’s […] and this is explicit. In other cases, it is true, there is also an implicitness, since poetry - by nature - is the sister of faith, because she always tries to go beyond the other. She doesn’t remain on the surface.

GP: Poetry, to begin with, is evocative. It lets the imagination of the listener run. In effect it is not what is written, but what is not written, not what is said, but what is not said. Therefore in a certain sense it is mystical. Whatever it may be, poetry is always surreal and, being surreal, and surrealism wasn’t born with that movement, it has always been. It is a given of art, of art in general.

GR: Yes, yes. [… Henry] Miller wrote a small essay - “The wisdom of the heart” - that contains this strange definition by him who wasn’t a believer, who was even quite ferociously against …, his definition is this, he says: “Art and religion are good for nothing, except for showing the meaning of life.”


GP: “Life is the art of encounter. Why? I could also say that it is the art of choice, which is the same thing. Because it is encounters that enrich you, that maybe wreck you; it is encounters that decide your life. Maybe for Cardinal Ravasi it is the encounter with faith, for another the encounter with a woman, for someone else the encounter with a friend. All depends on the encounters you have. On the one hand this depends on you, on the other hand it depends on fortune. […] I am very happy because I have had good fortune, because I have always met extraordinary people who have given me a lot, who have always given me a lot. I don’t know how much I have given, but the people I have encountered have always given me a huge amount. So, I have been very fortunate. […] I have realized that the riches of a man are his friends. Faith too can be a riches - they are both faces of the same coin. You have one particularly important friend [GP say with a big smile while looking at GR], maybe he is enough in comparison with many others, but I need the many others.

GR: The others are necessary too [GR adds with a laugh]. It is true … I’d like to add something about the dark mirror image of this point. One of the great ills of our time is that of isolation and solitude. […] It is Saturday now and there certainly is a person now in this city in a block of flats who sits by a phone and waits for it to ring. Because if it rings, it means that there is still someone out there who remembers me. For us the ringing of the phone or the front door is a nuisance, but for this person it remains mute and will remain mute tomorrow too, on Sunday, because they have no one to encounter. Maybe they are old, ill, a stranger, someone who has virtually no one. […] This is the true poverty of life.

GP (after speaking about an initiative to help those who are alone): “Every evil, every mistake creates something good in some way. I love a person not because of their virtues, their successes. I love a person because of their fragility, their mistakes, their - and excuse me - cock-ups. I think, deep down, even a sad thing like solitude has its purpose. It has a function with regard to those who are still willing to be generous. I think that one of the most worthy things about a person - according to me - is their human generosity. And this generosity is brought to the fore by evil, by misery, by solitude …


[BS asks: what can we, in the media and the music industry, which have egoistical, individualist tendencies, do to understand Jesus’ saying “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.” (Acts 20:35)]

GR: Christ’s saying, quoted by St. Paul, is the essence of one of his constant laws, which is paradoxical in economic terms and which is that of loosing for the sake of finding. If one gives something, one deprives oneself of that thing, but if it is given out of love, paradoxically, one becomes enriched. This is also the logic of being in love. When two who are in love start looking at the value of the gifts they give each other, it is a sign that they will break up. So, it is beyond doubt that this law of self-giving, of giving something that gives you joy in the act of giving, is a characteristic both of faith and of the great value of love. […] I would also link this act of giving to face-to-face encounter. [… Then, Card. Ravasi tells the Tibetan story that can be found here.] Giving means overcoming fears and distances, overcoming diversity, and then through this encounter with humanity, with our shared countenance, enables us to give and leads to joy as a result.

GP (addressing GR): […] You have told an extraordinary story. Until you don’t look your enemy in the face, you don’t understand that he is your brother. [… How come we have then seen the followers of different religions over the last centuries stop looking at the faces of their enemies and commit atrocities?]

GR: I’d start with a joke by the philosopher David Hume, who was a skeptic, and who said: “The errors of philosophy are always ridiculous, the errors of religion are always dangerous.” Religion, because it is a reality that completely involves the whole person, and not only reason, but also feelings and passions, when it enters a person, it may become deformed. […] The human person has a fundamental attribute, which is that of freedom. […] Human nature takes this flame [of freedom] in its own hands, this reality that - by its very nature is explosive, explosive also in a good sense - lets just think about the extraordinary things that an authentic believer is capable of - […] and here I include believers who are maybe not explicitly so, who have in them faith in a value. This reality [of religion], suffused in human freedom can also become explosive in the sense that it throws you in the air, or it can lead to deviations from ulterior motives where transcendence is taken as an excuse and becomes an instrument of perversion. This is why I’d say that we need to be extremely careful with living a religion. It is much easier to die for a religion than to live it every day in a continuous, coherent way according to that law we spoke about before. This is why I believe, as a believer and a person who belongs to a religion, that we have to be careful because religion is dangerous, not only grandiose.

GP: I completely agree about religion being dangerous, but I have a slightly different view. I think that religion, as a human movement is very positive and leads to good things. It becomes dangerous when it goes from being such a movement to becoming power. Power over others, over a large number of persons, and this power links to economy, to politics, to many things. To accuse religion alone of disasters is fairly simplistic, because that religion in that moment becomes the instrument of […] someone who through it seeks power and their own interests. […] According to me religion is dangerous to the degree to which it becomes power. I would agree that before that point it is positive, but when linked to power it becomes absolutely dangerous.

GR: Yes, I agree! If you go back to what I said about the dangers of religion earlier, whether it be a king or a modest citizen, if they grab hold of religion and use it as a banner under which to seek their own interests, it is the same, without a doubt. And therefore, I believe, we always have to be careful with religion to avoid its abuse as power, as an instrument. I completely agree with you here.


GR: About music, I would just like to share something from the world I know best, which is that of the Bible and of Judaism. There, there is a description of how music was born. In the Bible there is a scene, […] a vision of Jacob, one of the great patriarchs of Israel, it is a vision that is presented in chapter 28 of Genesis. It is night and he is escaping from his brother Esau, who wants to kill him, because Jacob tricked him out of some inheritance, and he arrives in this place called Bethel - the house of God. He falls asleep on a rock and at night he has a vision. The vision is this: angels are coming down a stairway, from heaven to earth, and they keep coming down. The angels are like ambassadors of God and they bring a message to Jacob that he will be the father of a people who will inherit this land. This is what the Bible account says. The judaic tradition goes further and has imagined this: after the angels passed on the message to Jacob, they go back to heaven, but they forget one thing, to remove the stairway. This stairway has remained on Earth. And judaic tradition says that it is the musical scale - it is the way to God. The stairs along which to scale up towards the eternal and infinite.

[The event then concluded with a concert by Gino Paoli.]
In my opinion this is another great example of a dialogue, an encounter to use Paoli's terminology, where profound questions have been illuminated from two perspectives - one whose optics do not include a belief in God and one whose optics do, and where I feel enriched by both. My overwhelming impression here is again one of a tremendous amount of shared value between the two, which - to my mind - is a great source of joy. The picture it reminds me of is that of the relationship between water and tea that the present Dalai Lama used to talk about the two perspectives.