Saturday, 26 December 2015

Aquinas’ rational analysis of mercy

1665 words, 8 min read

During this Year of Mercy, I would like to get a deeper and richer understanding of what mercy means and how it has been understood differently by a verity of thinkers. Looking back at the Synod on the Family, an obvious place to start is with St. Thomas Aquinas, who has been referred to there on several occasions as a benchmark and on whom Pope Francis too has relied when speaking about this subject. Among St. Thomas's works too there is a clear front-runner for getting a sense of how he understood mercy, which is his monumental Summa Theologiæ.

In the Introduction to the first part of the Summa, which runs to a total of 2.8 million words (!), St. Thomas presents his aims as follows:

“We purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. [... W]e shall try, by God's help, to set forth whatever is included in this Sacred Science as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.”
While sophisticated arguments for the Summa's brevity could be constructed, it is clearly not a work you'd find in the “for dummies” section, and clarity too could be contested with the contemporary reader in mind. What still makes the Summa highly attractive, to my mind, is its deeply rational approach, whose frame of reference may be dated but whose principles and method are decidedly current.

Just by way of a sample, before we proceed to mercy, here is what St. Thomas has to say about discussing faith with those who don't have it:
“If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.” [I, Q. 1, Art. 8, co.]
Taking the text at first sight, there are definitely things to get hung up about today - referring to one’s partner in dialogue as an opponent, making claims about infallibility - but, with even just a sprinkling of the Principle of Charity, there is also a lot here that is accessible: understanding the limits of how far a person of faith can take one who is without it by reason alone, positioning reason as an unlimited ally of faith and posing a challenge to those who have faith, including the author of the above paragraph himself, to be prepared to present their faith on the level playing field of reason and to do so with confidence. It is not hard to see how the above is an invitation to humble, yet confident, dialogue and how such an attitude is echoed also in one of Benedict XVI’s most impactful exhortations made only three years ago almost to this day: “[T]he 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.”

Turning to mercy now, and looking at the vast expanse of the Summa, we find that St. Thomas speaks about it 471 times there. First, he starts of by thinking about whether it is even possible for God to be merciful and he comes to the initial conclusion that the answer here, strictly speaking, has to be a resounding “no” [when air first read this, I liked his confidence in going wherever the inescapable train of logic leads him :)]:
“[A] person is said to be merciful [misericors], as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy. To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
To understand why St. Thomas dismisses the possibility of sorrow impelling God to act, let's go back to an earlier part of the Summa, where he presents his argument for God's immutability:
“God is altogether immutable [... because] there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.” [I, Q. 9, Art. 1, co.]
Whoa! What's with the potentiality versus act business? Let's backtrack a bit further to get to the bottom of this, key point:
“For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality.” [I, Q. 3, Art. 1, co.]
To get to the starting point then, we need to see how St. Thomas arrives at God being the First Being:
“But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” [I, Q. 2, Art. 3, co.]
Let's bring this all together and attempt an ultra-synthetic reconstruction of St. Thomas' argument from first principles: Because potentiality and actuality are mutually exclusive concepts, there is a need for a causal chain, which in turn necessitates a starting point. This starting point is God - a God who by being the first act cannot contain potentiality but only actuality. This also precludes him from sorrow and the desire to alleviate it, and therefore from mercy.

Rather than picking holes into the above (of which I see plenty, including a misunderstanding of infinity [see 19th century mathematicians such as Georg Kantor] and of causality [see David Hume]), I'd like to underline the rational rigor of St. Thomas’ method where he proceeds from the best available understanding of basic concepts and follows their consequences through with aplomb.

But why does he come back to mercy 471 times if he dismisses its applicability to God in the first pages of the Summa? Actually, he does not dismiss it at all and only points out that, when defined in human terms, mercy does not fit God 1:1. God's mercy - and therefore the mercy that we are ultimately called to live - is something other:
“To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God; but it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery, whatever be the defect we call by that name. Now defects are not removed, except by the perfection of some kind of goodness; and the primary source of goodness is God, as shown above (Q. 6, A. 4). It must, however, be considered that to bestow perfections appertains not only to the divine goodness, but also to His justice, liberality, and mercy; yet under different aspects. The communicating of perfections, absolutely considered, appertains to goodness, as shown above (Q. 6, AA. 1, 4); in so far as perfections are given to things in proportion, the bestowal of them belongs to justice, as has been already said (A. 1); in so far as God does not bestow them for His own use, but only on account of His goodness, it belongs to liberality; in so far as perfections given to things by God expel defects, it belongs to mercy.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
Human mercy hinges on identifying the other’s suffering with my own and alleviating it as my own. It is applied only to those others in whom I see myself. In some sense human mercy therefore passes through selfishness - I help you, but I do it by alleviating the root cause of my own suffering, which is your suffering. God’s mercy instead is devoid of selfish motives and is the result of goodness and justice given freely. I don't believe St. Thomas is speaking against human mercy here, but that he is pointing to what perfect justice looks like, as arrived at from rational first principles, and that this mercy is effectively a purified form of our own, where the good is done for its own sake and where all are therefore destinataries of mercy.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Comte-Sponville: non-dogmatic, faithful, atheist mysticism


1189 words, 6 min read

Avvenire, the Italian daily affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has published a very interesting piece yesterday by the French atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville, entitled “The atheist believes … But does not know whether God exists.” As I started reading it, I was immediately reminded of an enriching exchange with some atheist friends of mine - especially SC - after I wrote a very negative review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion some three years’ ago. SC, at the time, presented a new type of atheism to me, which acknowledges its belief in there being no God, as opposed to the New Atheists’ argument for that position following directly from rationality. Reading Comte-Sponville’s words made me immediately recognize that same position, and I would like to share an English translation of it with you here:
““Religion” and “spirituality” are not synonyms, nor should they be put on the same level. These two concepts function instead like species and genus: religions are a certain species, or several species, of the genus spirituality, but from among the many possible, some of which do very well without any personal God, indeed without any form of transcendence. [... S]pirituality is [simply] the life of the spirit.

Etymology speaks clearly: the two words, “spirit” and “spirituality”, derive from the Latin spiritus, which refers first of all to vital breath and, in second place, to inspiration, genius, wit, esprit. Now, atheists, as far as I know them, have no less spirit than others. Why should they have less spirituality? Why should they care less about spiritual life? As for me, I have always been interested in it. That’s how it was at the time of my youth, when I was a practicing Christian; but since I stopped believing in God, spirituality interests me even more, which might seem paradoxical and leads us to the heart of our subject. Those who have a religion, also have the spirituality that characterizes it. But how about those who do not belong to a religion? They seems devoid of spiritual resources, especially in the West. Even more reason to think about it. I summarize my position in one sentence: I am a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist. Why atheist? This is the simplest question: I do not believe in any God. Let’s not dwell on the reasons for my not believing; doing so would take me far away from the theme of my argument here, which is not metaphysics, but spirituality. Why a non-dogmatic atheist?

Because I obviously recognize that my atheism is not knowledge. How could it be? No one knows, in the true and strong sense of the verb “to know” whether God exists or not. It depends very much on the question that is addressed to me. If I am asked: “Do you believe in God?”, The answer is very simple: “No, I do not believe.” But if someone asks me, “Does God exist?”, the answer is necessarily more complicated, because, for intellectual honesty, I must begin by saying that I know nothing about it. Nobody knows. I say in my book, if anyone says, “I know for certain that God does not exist,” you are not dealing with an atheist, but a fool. The truth is that I do not know. Likewise, if you meet someone who tells you: “I know that God exists,” he is a fool who has faith, and who, foolishly, confuses faith with knowledge. But in the confusion between faith and knowledge I see a double error: a theological error, because in any respectable theology (at least in Christian theology) faith is a grace, while knowledge can not be; and a philosophical error, because it confuses two different concepts, that of belief and that of knowing. In short, I do not know if God exists or not; I believe that he does not.

A non-dogmatic atheism is an atheism that admits its own status as a belief, in this specific case a negative beliefs. Being non-dogmatic atheists is to believe (rather than to know) that God does not exist. But why a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist? A faithful atheist because, as an atheist, I remain bound with every fiber of my being to a number of values - moral, cultural, spiritual - many of which were born in the great religions and, in the case of Europe, the Judeo-Christian one (unless one wants to deny their history). […] Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I have to turn my back on 2000 years of Christian civilization or 3000 years of Judeo-Christian civilization.

Because I no longer believe in God doesn’t mean that I refuse to recognize the greatness, at least human, of the Gospel message. A spirituality without God is a spirituality of loyalty rather than of faith and of love in action rather than of hope. I could stop here, but I would be left with a feeling of not having touched the essentials. I said earlier that spirituality is the life of the spirit. Fine. But if the word is taken in such a broad sense, every human phenomenon ends up falling under the umbrella of spirituality: morality and ethics, of course, but also science and myths, the arts and politics, feelings or dreams. All this belongs to the spiritual life in a broad sense (in its cognitive, mental or emotional dimensions), to the life that, for clarity, you could define as psychological or mental (from the Greek psyche and the Latin mens, two words that can also be translated by the word “spirit”, but in semantic terms very different from those derived from the Latin spiritus). Now, it is not at all these areas that you think of when it comes to spiritual life.

It is better to take the word “spirituality” in a narrower sense (although, paradoxically, a more open one), making it a sort of subset of our mental or psychological life. The definition I propose is the following: spirituality is the life of the spirit, but especially in its relationship with the infinite, eternal, the absolute. This meaning seems to me to conform to its use and tradition. Our spiritual life is our finite relationship with the infinite, our temporal relationship with eternity, our relative relationship with the absolute. Thus defined, spirituality, at its must extreme, culminates in what is usually called mysticism.”
In an earlier interview, Comte-Sponville expands on what he means by “the absolute” as follows:
“This absolute, for them, isn’t a person, but the being or the becoming, the whole or nature, let’s say the immanent totality which contains them and surpasses them. They can ponder it, think about it, it’s what we call metaphysical, but also try it out, live it, and it’s this we call spirituality. We are open in the grand Open, as Rilke says. This opening, it’s the same spirit. Should I, because I am atheist, renounce all experience of eternity, the infinite, and the absolute? Certainly not. Many philosophers – for example Epicurus and Spinoza – have challenged the existence of a transcendental spirit, without renouncing the enjoyment of what Epicurus called ‘immortal rights’. It’s this I call a spirituality of immanence.”

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Adversus Scruton

Tracey emin

2191 words, 11 min read

Is the body subject to the mind, or the mind something that the body does? Is it my body that holds me - my true, immaterial self - back, or is it my parasitic mind that inhibits the freedom of my body, my true, physical self? Ought I to favor the purity of ideas over messy matter, or the concreteness of being over the ephemeral nature of the mind?

Such questions are the polar opposites of a concept of the human person as a single being that is at home both in the material world and in a world that - at least apparently - is beyond matter: a world of thought, memory, relationships and values.

In the context of Christianity, the above is an opposition between the dualist heresy that denigrates matter and the body and attributes goodness only to the soul, and the concept of differentiated unity pervading the New Testament and made explicit in St. Paul speaking of the “spiritual body” [soma pneumatikón] (1 Corinthians 15:44). In Karl Barth’s words, “man is an embodied soul, a besouled body” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents an ultimately Trinitarian anthropology: “[t]he unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body. [... S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (§365).

With that brief preamble in mind, let us turn to a program by the philosopher Roger Scruton where he speaks about beauty, a subject very close to my heart (in the Homerian sense). Instead of being enlightening or thought provoking, Scruton’s position lead me to disappointment and frustration and, eventually (after some hesitation, given the strength of my initial aversion) to the writing of this piece.

There is a lot to be “against” in this hour-long program, but I will focus on only three of its, liberally intermingled, aspects here: superficiality, internal inconsistency and dualism.

Before arguing in favor of his positions’ flaws, I would first like to underline the good that I have seen in Scruton’s thought. For a start, I wholeheartedly share his insistence on the importance of beauty:

“I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home.”
Scruton also presents beauty in art as impelling its recipient towards the good - “The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy.” - and as a gateway to profound truths: “The most ordinary event can be made into something beautiful by a painter who can see into the heart of things.” And Scruton also aligns himself with Immanuel Kant’s emphasis of selflessness in art:
“Kant argued that the experience of beauty comes when we put our interests to one side; when we look on things not to use them for our own purposes or to explain how they work or to satisfy some need or appetite, but simply to absorb them and to endorse what they are.”
Sadly that is all I can echo from Scruton’s 6300 word defense of beauty, since the rest strikes me as little more than an attempt to justify what is to his taste and belittle what isn’t, instead of being an attempted enquiry into beauty.

The first issue I find with Scruton’s thought is that there is a tremendous superficiality and lack of charity in his approach to post-nineteenth-century art. This is coupled with a blanket attribution of goodness to all that came before it, paired with a universal belittling of all that came since. Virtually at the start of the program, Scruton declares:
“[I]n the 20th century beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality however achieved and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness. Architecture too has become soul-less and sterile. […] One word is written large on all these ugly things and that word is “Me.” My profits, my desires, my pleasures. […] Our world has turned its back on beauty and because of that we find ourselves surrounded by ugliness and alienation.”
To my mind this is little more than an expression of Scruton’s esthetic response to contemporary art rather than the result of an analysis either of its motives (in which he assumes beauty not to feature) or of its beauty (which, incidentally, Scruton never defines or analyses beyond declaring its presence or absence). If Scruton had taken the trouble to listen to even just the responses of those who were interviewed in his own program (!), he could have seen that beauty is very much still a driving force in contemporary art. Admittedly not a beauty that he might recognize or appreciate, but beauty nonetheless and not the universally base consumerist pursuit of selfish pleasures that he attributes it.

The clearest example in the program is the following passage from Tracey Emin being interviewed by David Frost about her 1998 piece “My Bed”:
Frost: “[T]he Tate says that it is [beautiful]. But what do you want the viewer, the visitor to the gallery to say? Do you want…. You don’t want them to say, ‘I think that’s beautiful.’”
Emin: “No, no one’s actually said that, only me.”
Frost: “You think it’s beautiful?”
Emin: “Yeah…. I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have showed it.”
Far from beauty being absent from artistic expression, Emin here not only points to it as the motive of her work (“otherwise I wouldn’t have showed [sic] it”) but, to my mind, also expresses a sadness about its absence from the minds of those who view her work.

Another piece that Scruton presents as an example for the absence of beauty is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” which, he argues “was [a] satirical [gesture], designed to mock the world of art and the snobberies that go with it.” In other words, Duchamp’s work is about mockery and is entirely disconnected from beauty. Interestingly, the Tate describes this work in different terms - as “testing the commitment of the new American Society to freedom of expression and its tolerance of new conceptions of art.” And, importantly, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, writing in a letter from 1917 describes his photograph of Duchamp’s work as “really quite a wonder – Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful – And it’s true – it is. It has an oriental look about it – a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.” Again, news of the death of beauty is greatly exaggerated ...

Finally, let’s look at the words of a third of the enemies of beauty as presented by Scruton - the conceptual artist and painter Michael Craig-Martin. During his interview with Scruton, he responds to a question about what the point was of the changes that Duchamp wanted to usher in, by saying:
“I also think it is important to say that the notion of beauty has been extended to include things that would not have been thought of – that’s part of the artist’s function, to make one see something as beautiful that no one thought was beautiful until now.”
The difficulty here is not that Scruton does not like what Emin, Duchamp and Craig-Martin have done - he is free to experience reality as he pleases - but that he equates the lack of his perception of beauty in their work with their own disinterest in beauty and that he attributes motives to them that are base and among which beauty does not figure.

A second flawed strand in Scruton’s arguments is a total lack of self-consistency. E.g., he is quite content to launch into a tirade against today’s “people”:
“Maybe people have lost their faith in beauty because they have lost their belief in ideals. All there is, they are tempted to think, is the world of appetite. There are no values other than utilitarian ones. Something has a value if it has a use and what’s the use of beauty? […] Our consumer society puts usefulness first and beauty is no better than a side-effect.”
And, almost in the same breath put the following question to Craig-Martin, as a challenge to contemporary art: “What is the use of this art? What does it help people to do?” In other words: “Consumer society puts utility before beauty, and what’s the use of contemporary art anyway?!”

Scruton also simultaneously does two things: he bemoans a “cult of ugliness” at the beginning of the program and, half an hour later, states that art has always done that:
“Of course, this habit of dwelling on the distressing side of human life isn’t new. From the beginning of our civilisation it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it in a work of beauty. Art has the ability to redeem life, by finding beauty even in the worst aspect of things. Mantegna’s crucifixion displaying the cruellest and most ugly of deaths achieves a kind of majesty and serenity”
The third flaw I see though is the one that presents the greatest gulf between the beauty that Scruton speaks about and the one that I know: his putting in dualist opposition of the ideal and the particular, of desire and adoration:
“But if human beauty arouses desire how can it have anything to do with the divine? Desire is for the individual, living in this world. It is an urgent passion. Sexual desire presents us with a choice: adoration or appetite? Love or lust? Lust is about taking, but love is about giving.

Lust brings ugliness – the ugliness of human relations in which one person treats another as a disposable instrument. To reach the source of beauty we must overcome lust.

This longing without lust is what we mean today by Platonic love. When we find beauty in a youthful person it is because we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a heavenly source beyond this world. The beautiful human form is an invitation to unite with it spiritually not physically. Our feeling for beauty therefore is a religious and not a sensual emotion.”
Beyond the questionable leaps from desire to sexual desire to lust, Scruton’s thought here too is self-inconsistent: lust leads to ugliness which makes one treat another as an instrument; beauty in youth points to “light of eternity”. To my mind Scruton’s proposal for how to engage with beauty is as objectifying as the sexually-lustful one he decries. In both the case of a source of beauty being turned into an object of one’s pleasure and the case of it being treated as a means for seeking an eternal ideal, that source of beauty is not engaged with for its own sake but is used as a device for satisfying its “consumer”’s ends. And while one can argue about the relative merits of those two ends, their seeking degrades beauty into a mere means.

Scruton’s thought here seems like a polar opposite of the caricature of contemporary art that he battles against, which, however, makes it a caricature too, pitting the beauty of the material and sensory against the beauty of the spiritual and ideal, instead of being open to the union and mutual enrichment of both.

Just to give an example of what an approach of differentiated unity - instead of dualism - looks like when applied to desire, let us consider the way Fr. James Martin, SJ speaks about it:
“[S]adly, desire has a disreputable reputation in many religious circles. When many hear the term, they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are often condemned by some religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist! The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life -- desire for food, shelter and clothing. [...]

The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that the Creator deals with the creation. They are also the way that God fulfills God’s own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.”
Such a recognition of good in desire leads to greater appreciation of the entirety of the universe we inhabit rather than to an a priori discarding of either the totality of the material/sensual or spiritual/ideal. In fact it leads to a vision of art like that of Pope Francis who said that “art must discard nothing and no one.”

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Ravasi: Borges’ agnostic Christology


1691 words, 8 min read

I have just come across a great talk by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi on Jorge Luis Borges, given in Cordoba, Argentina last October in the context of the Courtyard of the Gentiles and his receiving an honorary doctorate from the Universidad Católica de Córdoba there. Ravasi gives some beautiful examples from Borges' poetry that illustrate his approach to Scripture and Christ and where Ravasi underlines the richness of his understanding and the depth of his sincerity, which come from what Pope Francis speaks about as “periphery”. Note that the following is my translated transcript of the talk and that a more extensive version of it can be found here in Spanish.

To Borges, boundaries are always moveable and subtle. There is never an iron curtain between truth and fiction, between waking and dreaming, between reality and imagination, between rationality and feelings, between the essential and consequences, between concrete and abstract, between theology and fantasy literature, between Anglo-Saxon conjecture and Baroque emphasis.

Among his readings, an undisputed primacy was given to the Bible, as he had confessed: “I must remember my grandmother who knew the Bible off by heart, so I could enter literature along the way the Holy Spirit.” His paternal grandmother was in effect English and practicing Anglican and it was her who introduced the little Jorge Luis to the Scriptures and to the exalted English language. During a talk given at Harvard, dedicated to the art of storytelling, Borges, extolling the epic poem as the oldest form of poetry, lead to a triptych of masterpieces for humanity: “The Iliad, The Odyssey and a third ‘poem’ that stands out above the others: the four Gospels ... The three stories of Troy, Odysseus and Jesus have been sufficient for humanity ... Even though, in the case of the Gospels, there is a difference: I think that the story of Christ can not be told better.”

Let us now leave behind this specific topic of the literary and existential panorama of Borges to focus on a narrower scope that is particularly rich, so much so that here has exercised a small legion of scholars. Here we will deal with the aforementioned passion of the author for the Bible and we will do so through two examples.

The first is the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) that had a poetic evocation in a short composition “The Unending Rose” entitled, as Borges often liked to do by revisiting Bible passages, “Genesis IV, 8”:

“In the first desert it was.
Two arms cast a great stone.
No cry. Blood.
For the first time death.
Was I Abel or Cain?”
Next to it we must, however, place the broadest reading of this Biblical scene in “In praise of Darkness” where the two brothers meet again after the death of Abel in an atmosphere of the eschatological court, even though the scene is set in the desert and the origins of the world. They sit, light a fire, while the day comes to an end and the stars, as yet unnamed, light up in the sky.
“By the light of the flame, Cain noticed the mark of a stone indented in Abel's forehead and the bread he had raised to his lips fell before he could eat it and he asked whether his crime had been forgiven.

Abel answered:

“Did you kill me or did I kill you? I already cannot remember, and here we are, together like before.”

“Now, you must have forgiven me,” Cain said, “because to forget is to forgive. I will, too, try to forget.”

Abel replied softly:

“That's right. While the remorse lasts, so does the guilt.””
Some have seen in this text a relativist moral conception by which an imperceptible transition is performed between good and evil, true and false, virtue and vice. Actually here we instead witness a process of transformation or alteration that we have indicated above and that Borges performs to show the infinite potentialities of an archetypal text. The same text allows continual re-transcriptions and in this case the aim is a paradigmatic celebration of forgiveness that makes the crime vanish completely: revenge is erased by forgetting and through it, the blame of the other becomes dissolved. What certainly remains always active is the fluidity of historical human reality and, therefore, of ethics that, in vain - in the eyes of Borges - also the “inspired” word tries to compress into defined and definitive certainties.

The second example is linked to the figure of Christ as Borges proposes in some of his many texts dedicated to this fundamental figure of Christianity.
“The black beard hangs down heavy over his chest.
His face is not the face from the engravings.
It's harsh and Jewish. I do not see him
And will keep questing for him till the final
Day of my steps falling upon this earth.”
It was already in the twilight of his existence when Borges writes these verses of “Christ on the Cross”, dating them Kyoto 1984. They are verses of high spiritual tension, that all quote when they want to define Borges’ relationship with Christ, a hoped for encounter, but one that hasn’t occurred fully, bearing in mind that we don’t know his “last steps on earth”. Maria Lucrecia Romera wrote that “Borges confronts the tragic Christ of the Cross ... and not the [theological] doctrine of the Resurrection .. His is not the optics of the believer's faith, but that of the restlessness of the agnostic poet”. However, one needs to add immediately that the general observation made by the French writer Pierre Reverdy in his “En vrac” applies to certain of Borges’ verses: “There are fiercely harsh atheists who are much more interested in God than some frivolous and light believers”. Borges absolutely didn’t have “the fierce harshness” of an atheist, but his was certainly a more intense search than that of many pale and colorless believers. His restlessness was profound, hidden under the bark of a rhythmic dictation and streaked with disinterest, and even irony.

This is the intuition of Borges: the face of Christ is to be sought in the mirrors that reflect human faces. On the other hand, it was Jesus himself who said that everything done “to one of his least brothers”: hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and imprisoned, is done to him (Matthew 25:31-46). Behind the, often deformed, contours of human faces hides therefore the image of Christ and in this regard, the writer refers to St. Paul for whom “God is all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) . It is here, then, that we find Borges's invitation to follow him in this human quest for Christ in the faces of men:
“We have lost those features,
just as a magic number made up of ordinary figures can be lost;
just as an image in a kaleidoscope is lost for ever. We may come across the features
and not know them. The profile of a Jew on an underground train
may be that of Christ; the hands that give us our
change over a counter may echo those that some soldiers
once nailed to the cross.
Perhaps some feature
of the crucified face lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face
died and was erased so that God could be everyone.”
[Paradise, XXXI: 108]
Now, on the basis of Borgesian Christology, we undoubtedly find the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth who is born, dies, even proclaims himself Son of God, and, therefore, assigns himself a transcendent quality. The writer does not ignore this interweaving of divine and human, of absolute and contingent, of eternal and time, of infinity and the limit and, even while witnessing the side of humanity, does not hesitate to interpret Christ’s consciousness in a poem of extraordinary power, as is that of the original Gospel matrix that generates it.

Here the title is, certainly, more explicit still: “John I, 14” (in “In praise of Darkness”). The verse is cut from the that literary and theological masterpiece that is the anthem-prologue of the Fourth Gospel: “The Lógos (Word) became sarx (flesh) and made his dwelling among us.” A verse that is a counterpoint to the solemn opening words of the hymn: “In the beginning was the Lógos, and the Lógos was with God, and the Lógos was God.” (1:1). Let us consider how John's Lógos intrigued Goethe so much that in Faust he proposes a range of meanings to express its profound semantics: the Word is, certainly, Wort, word, but also Sinn, meaning, Kraft, power, and Tat, act, in line with the value of the parallel Hebrew word dabar, which means word and act/event. Let us read a few sentences from this surprising “autobiography” of the Word that is eternal (“Is, ​​Was, Is to Come”), but is also “time in succession.”
“I who am the Was, the Is, and the Is to Come
again condescend to the written word
which is time in succession and no more than an emblem. ...
I lived under a spell, imprisoned in a body,
in the humbleness of a soul. ...
I knew wakefulness, sleep, and dreams,
ignorance, the flesh,
reason’s roundabout labyrinths,
the friendship of men,
the blind devotion of dogs.
I was loved, understood, praised, and hung from a cross.”

During the round-table discussion after his talk, Cardinal Ravasi then made a very significant gesture of appreciation towards Borges:
"Borges could be the best patron of the Courtyard of the Gentiles. Because he is not only in the courtyard of the gentiles, and he is not only in the courtyard of the believers. He was, instead, on top of that wall that divided the two spaces. That wall allowed for a good view both from one side and from the other. And Borges is a bit of a believer, in his own way as he said, and also a gentile. And it is because of this that the Courtyard of the Gentiles that takes place here in Córdoba or in Buenos Aires, in his hame, is the best Courtyard of the Gentiles."
The patron [saint] of the Catholic Church's dialogue with non-believers is an agnostic!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Antony Gormley: tools for carrying nothing

0401 quantumcloud ix 1999 001

3083 words, 16 min read

Ever since my first encounter with Antony Gormley’s sculptures, I have had a sense of great affinity with his work and later, as I started reading various of his writings and interviews, also with his thought. What attracted me to his sculptures initially is not verbalizable, but reflecting on it leads me to a recognition of shared experience and of shared values. And I am thinking here of existential and ontological values first, although not to the exclusion of moral ones.

Being in the presence of one of his pieces has always given me a profound sense of incarnation - of a beyond in the here - and of communion, of a blurring of boundaries. The latter is obvious in sculptures since his Domain series (and also in Quantum Could, Hive and other, later ones) but I feel it is also there in his earlier work that, at first sight, may suggest the polar opposite - isolation, separation, individuation. Already the Three Part Lead Bodycase works, which on the face of it are solid, lead boundaries, impermeably encasing individuals, are such strong pointers to that “darkness of the body” that Gormley presents as “objectless”, that they too bring out a sense of a collective, shared place - to which each one of us has access in their own bodies, open to encounter and communion.

Instead of talking more about how I see Gormley’s work, I’d like to share some of his thoughts with you, and encourage you to go an see his sculptures next time you get a chance.

To begin with, Gormley has a concept of art that is extreme (a matter of life and death), paradoxical (useless yet vital), but at the same time profound (potentially life-changing confrontation rather than illustrative decoration):
“Art is the way that life tests and expresses itself, without which we are already dead. [... A]rt […] is useless but vital; it is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.” (Art In The Time Of Global Warming, 2010)

“Art is the means by which we communicate what it feels like to be alive - in the past that was mixed up with other illustrative duties but that was still its central function that has been liberated in the art called modern. Art is not necessarily good for you or about communicating “good things”. […] Making beautiful things for everyday use is a wonderful thing to do - making life flow more easily - but art confronts life, allowing it to stop and perhaps change direction - they are completely different.” (BBC Forum Questions And Answers, 2002)
Gormley’s art is very much also about meaning and has parallels with religion: “[My] work comes from the same source as the need for religion: wanting to face existence and discover meaning. The work attempts by starting with a real body in real time to face space and eternity. The body - or rather the place that the body occupies is seen as the locus on which those forces act.” (Concerning The Religious Dimension In My Art, 1987) While rejecting the Christianity of his childhood, which he recounts as something that he was “indoctrinated” with and where he speaks about how he was told that the Devil is inside him, Gormley looks to art as the means also for preserving what is good in religion, while excluding its past errors:
“I am interested in reviving this idea of presence. Can we have presence without the God? Can we resurrect the monument without bringing the shadow of bad history? The idea of an image that is open enough to be interpreted widely, that has multiple and generative potential for meaning but is strong enough to be a focus. How do we construct such an image? In its being someone’s can it become everyone’s? It has seemed for quite a long time obvious to me that the body can represent at the present time what abstraction did at the beginning of the twentieth century. That is, the ground on which all the seeds of emancipated identity are to grow: the last frontier, the inner realm. (Space has been probed but what do we really know of the body’s darkness.) The body, not as an object of idealisation that should be forced to carry allegorical, symbolic or dramatic readings, but the body as a place. The body not as hero or as sexual object, but the body in some way as the collective subjective - the place where we all live. The place on which the pressures of society are inscribed and out of which expression, language, feeling can come.” (Still Moving, 1996)
In the same interview, Gormley emphasizes communion as a purpose of art - also a deeply Christian teleology:
“Can we use the space of art for communion? A contact not only between ourselves but between ourselves and history? In doing this can we also derive the energy necessary to believe in our part in the construction of the future? Is it possible for art to provide a space that can be regenerative? Is it possible to use the space of art to resist this restlessness, this sense of fragmentation, this sense of alienation from self and from place?”
In fact, Gormely sees art as closely tied to beliefs about the value of life and its future not only in the context of an individual but of society and humanity as a whole:
“It is necessary these days to hold on to the crucial function art has in the continuance and regulation of life. It provides us with images and acts by which we identity ourselves but so often now in an unstable way. Art can be a focus for life by reasserting in times of vicissitude the central belie[fs] of a people. In tribal cultures it is a collective act whether in dance, carving, self-decoration that reasserts the body of the people and it is from this that the individual draws his or her power. Art and the practice of non-utilitarian skills is an act of will for the future and is as critical an aspect of survival as hunting or gathering food. What has happened to this urgency expressed in a collective creativity that projects into the future and ensures the belief necessary for life? It is not that we have lost it, but the repositories of dance, dream and art are dispersed into the hands of individuals who have responsibility not simply to a single family or tribe but as points of consciousness of the whole world.” (The Impossible Self, 1988)
The desire for community and an undoing of alienation and fragmentation through art is also a strong theme in Gormley’s 2010 talk about the specific role of art in the context of Global Warming, which is highly relevant also to the upcoming UN conference on climate change that starts on Monday in Paris and deeply consonant with Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ encyclical:
“Is it possible to re-think art and take it from this finished-object status and make it into a verb, a participatory, open space, a place of transformation and the exchange of ideas and reflection on our state and status? Can we use art as a way of investigating this perilous time? Can we change from our obsession with production values? Instead of the perfection of an Asprey’s catalogue or the gloss of the desirable branded object can we accept that art has to find its own raw and direct way of existing?

[In my studio w]e create here situations and objects that can become catalysts for a form of reflexivity that allows the viewing subject not simply to be a passive consumer of an already tested experience but for the experience of art itself to be testing ground for both the model of art and the model of the human subject. We have in making art a specialisation and its exchange as a matter of high monetary worth lost its central subject - the human being. In the art of the 20th century the Duchampian breakthrough was the examination of human labour and mass production in the ‘found object’. I would like art to re-focus on the lost subject.” (Art In The Time Of Global Warming, 2010)
I particularly like that Gormley self-applies his thinking about the state of the world - to his own most immediate environment: his studio. At the same time his perspective is anything but parochial and extends to a global scale [in same text as above]:
“In facing the challenges of global climate crisis in a culture which encourages us to do more, produce more, be seen more - my initial response is paralysing fear, I want to shrink, to go into a hibernating state with minimum muscular effort and put minimal demand on any kind of fuel.

This position is not helpful but perhaps is a good place to start to rethink one’s place in the world.

[...] We can no longer assume that more is better. We have to change our cultural heroes from generals and captains of industry to meditators and mediators, from Rambo and Terminator to Ghandi and the Dalai Lama.

Our tool systems, no longer stone, having separated us from the rest of the planet and biosphere, are now what will, without this revolution, destroy both. The notion that human life was going to be improved by an empirical march of tool making that would make life stronger, longer and safer is challenged by the fall out effects of this very technology. Technology that was in some senses made to make life better has now become the problem.”
Given the above context, let’s turn to what is at the basis of Gormley’s own work as an artist, a sculptor:
“I’m interested in art’s ability to bear witness, and I start with what I know, the bit of the material world in which my consciousness is embedded: my body. And I try to present that bit of material (to myself as much as to anybody else) in a way in which its trace is registered. So my work always starts with the idea of a body at a particular moment in a particular position, fixed by a negative just like a photographic negative, except that this is a three-dimensional negative and we call it a mould. I still think of a mould as being the most magical and mysterious thing. The mould is a testament, a proof of the existence of an object or a body and, for my sculpture, the particular body that I inhabit. […]

I think of my work as instrumental. My sculptures will be seen as very boring objects if you look at them in terms of Western art history, or a kind of desire to make beautiful objects or a “picture” of reality. But if you look at them as instruments then they can become vessels, empty things that can be used for a type of thinking or a kind of feeling, then they begin to get more interesting.” (Silence And Stillness: Antony Gormley Interviewed By Enrique Juncosa, 2002)
I get a great sense of humility from Gormley’s words: a starting from one’s own body, a witnessing first to oneself, a recognition of one’s work being an empty vessel (immediately making me think of Christ’s kenotic self-emptying).

This impression is further strengthened by seeing how Gormley explains the need for starting from the body, which represents common ground and which he sees as an invitation for others to inhabit his work:
“The issue for me is that it is impossible to make art that can truly be shared without acknowledging the body as a starting point of common experience. So I have to acknowledge the body and at the same time try to find a way of not representing it, or presenting it simply as an object. This is the reason why I’m not interested in the perfect copy, in representation. We probably never did it better than Mantegna or Masaccio, and anyway, photography does it perfectly. […]

[My sculptures] are tools for carrying nothing, nothing else than emptiness, shadow, darkness, carrying the condition of embodiment. They each carry the condition we all know. All you have to do is to shut your eyes when you are awake you are in the place that the bodyforms and the bodycases carry. […]

I completely disagree with the [...] proposition that the highest aspiration of art is to have a specific object that is purely itself and refers to nothing. I want people to inhabit my sculpture with their own lives, feelings, thoughts, emotions, whatever. I would like the logical and affective to be in the right balance.” (Interview With Pierre Tillet, 2008)
A final point in this thread is also that Gormley sees art as non-elitist, as a landscape open to all:
“We could say that for most of European art’s progress, it’s been about picturing. Then in Modernism it turns to interpretation and deconstruction. And now, I think, we’re into a completely new phase in which art is about providing a place where the human subject is somehow able to concentrate on his/her own being. [...] The subjective experience of space-time, the condition of life, rather than being in some way the assumed background condition for refined perceptions of the object, now becomes a landscape in itself. And I think this is a new paradigm in the evolution of art.” (Interview With Hans Ulrich Obrist, 2008)
While Gormley has been extremely successful in his appreciation by the art world, there is an explicit desire in his thought to not be confined by it and to live “in the wild” instead:
“All art now has to be lost: to be an awkward interloper within life, that is its job. What Heidegger talks about in The Origin of the Work of Art, the idea that the temple is part of its landscape and the landscape part of the temple is an ideal, and we have lost it. This is a classical image of interdependence of site and object. And while I recognise this ideal, I think that sculpture does not have a home. For me, sculpture is a lost subject, an alien body that infects and interrupts the cohesion of place. The museum is just one place amongst many wherein you might find art - but not art at work but in refuge. I’m not against museums because I think they have a very important part to play in the memory of a culture. But before my work has any need to be in the museums it has to have a life, it has to have adventures in the real world. For me, art has to be part of everyday life and every one of my pieces is an attempt to look at a new context and say: how can I deal with this opportunity?” (Interview With Pierre Tillet, 2008)
Gormley then positions the scope of art even beyond inter-personal communication, between artist and viewer:
“I’m not so interested in formal validations of work, where people called artists make something called art that belongs in a gallery. It’s tiny the ecology and economy of the art world. Art is not simply human communication or a way of explaining ourselves to ourselves. I’m interested in art that speaks of our vulnerability in time, in the same way that a figure on Easter Island looks up at the sky somewhere above the horizon and is evidently not a substitute for me speaking to you. It’s not about communication between human beings; it’s about communication between human beings and deep time and deep space. This is the broader horizon that I’m interested in positioning the work against. I want to make an art that has to do with survival, that thinks about where human beings fit in the chain of being, that asks who we are, and where we’re going...well, these big, big questions.” (Silence And Stillness: Antony Gormley Interviewed By Enrique Juncosa, 2002)
On the basis of the above, it should come as no surprise that Gormley is an admirer of Teilhard de Chardin, whose concepts of a continuum between matter and spirit and of an evolution towards collective consciousness bear strong resemblance to his art:
“The Internet, for better or worse, is an objectification of Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the communion of human mind - the noosphere, which is the third encirclement of the globe, the first being the biosphere and the second the atmosphere. With this possibility of instant communication, created by a non-space that is everywhere, the idea of place becomes very important.” (Still Moving, 1996)

“I love Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the ‘Noosphere’; the idea that there is a deep connection between the mineral and the mental. This has everything to do with sculpture. But in some way the history of material transformation on the planet is a progress from slower, less complex forms to faster, more complex forms and that, in some way, human consciousness is a kind of atmosphere. He calls it ‘Noosphere’ - the idea of an encirclement of the entire surface of the globe by ‘mind’. I think that mind is collective; a collective subjective and one of the tasks is to make that collectivity more apparent.” (Interview With Marjetica Potrc, 1994)
To conclude, let’s look at how Gormley positions his own work in such a continuous world view, speaking about the Earth in not dissimilar ways to St. Francis’ Canticle of Brother Sun:
“Sculpture is a direct way of allowing mind to dwell in matter. It is a means of becoming aware of the connections between matter, space and time in a way that complements (but is completely different from) the connections that science has demonstrated. I firmly believe that we are part of a chain of being and that sculpture is a way of providing instruments in which our place within it can be tested, made manifest and perhaps transformed.

Where does the world begin? Of course we can make it moment by moment and most intimately in what we call the self - but world and self cannot be separated - they are continuous. Where consciousness ends and the world begins is not so easy to define. We are, after all, borrowing our bodies from the earth and is it not likely that the earth knows more of us than we of it? Nothing is ever lost.” (Present Time, 1996)

I'd also recommend a great BBC documentary about Antony Gormley that has only come out recently.

Monday, 26 October 2015

The only thing that’s changed is everything

Francis behind cross

2610 words, 13 min read

Yesterday, at the closing mass of the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis concluded his homily with the following words:
“There is a [...] temptation, that of falling into a “scheduled faith”. We are able to walk with the People of God, but we already have our schedule for the journey, where everything is listed: we know where to go and how long it will take; everyone must respect our rhythm and every problem is a bother. We run the risk of becoming the “many” of the Gospel who lose patience and rebuke Bartimaeus. Just a short time before, they scolded the children (cf. Mark 10:13), and now the blind beggar: whoever bothers us or is not of our stature is excluded. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to include, above all those kept on the fringes who are crying out to him. They, like Bartimaeus, have faith, because awareness of the need for salvation is the best way of encountering Jesus. In the end, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on his path (cf. v. 52). He did not only regain his sight, but he joined the community of those who walk with Jesus. Dear Synod Fathers, we have walked together.”
To my mind, these few lines sum up the Synod perfectly, by presenting two poles: one, characterized by rules, clarity and predictability and the other by an path that twists and turns, that is full of surprises, but where we are walking not only among Jesus’ friends, but side-by-side with Jesus himself.

Detractors of the Synod have already declared it a failure, a preservation of the status quo, a “no change” of doctrine, a failure for not opening up access to the Eucharist for the divorced and remarried and a giving-in to African pressures on gays. They, however, are precisely the group for whom Pope Francis had harsh words in the speech he delivered after the Synod Fathers voted on the final report (the Relatio Finalis) paragraph-by-paragraph:
“[The Synod] was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others. It was also about laying bare closed hearts that frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, and judge difficult cases and wounded families.”
Instead of being a failure, I believe, that the Synod was a dramatic first step along the path that Pope Francis presented the week before, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Synod of Bishops. In that landmark speech, Francis shared his vision of a synodal Church, a Church that is on a journey with Christ in the present moment:
“A synodal Church is a Church of listening, knowing that listening “is more than hearing”. It is a mutual listening in which everyone has something to learn. Faithful people, the College of Bishops, Bishop of Rome: each one listening to the others; and all listening to the Holy Spirit, the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17), to know what he “says to the Churches” (Rev 2:7).”
In such a synodal Church, authority too changes, and becomes rooted in the cross, as Pope Francis explains:
“Let us never forget it! For the disciples of Jesus, yesterday, today and always, the only authority is the authority of service, the only power is the power of the cross, in the words of the Master: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.”(Mt 20: 25-27). It shall not be so among you: in this expression we reach the heart of the mystery of the Church - “it shall not be so among you” - and receive the necessary light to understand hierarchical service.”
Pope Francis is also very clear, in the homily he delivered on the morning of the Synod’s last day, about a consequence of being a journeying, synodal Church also being constant change. However, since the journeying party includes Jesus, it is not a thrashing about or a bending with the wind. Instead it is a tight adherence to the person of Christ, while being immersed in the ever-changing now. A freedom with rather than a freedom from or a freedom to:
“The times change and we Christians must change continuously. We must change while being firm in our faith in Jesus Christ, firm in the truth of the Gospel, but our attitude must move continuously according to the signs of the times. We are free. We are free by the gift of freedom that Jesus Christ gave us. But it is our task to look at what happens inside us, to discern our feelings, our thoughts; and what happens outside us and to discern the signs of the times. With silence, with reflection and with prayer.”
All of the above is, to my mind a beautiful spelling out of what Pope Benedict XVI meant when he said, at the beginning of the 2012-13 Year of Faith, that faith “is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church.”

With the above perspective, of a community walking with Jesus, where service is the basis of authority and where life is full of surprises because we aren’t following a set of instructions, but developing a relationship with Jesus instead, let us look at what the Synod on the Family was all about.

First, the Synod was a resounding endorsement of the family, as Cardinal Schönborn put very clearly:
“I think that the principal message of this Synod is the theme of the Synod: that the Catholic Church around the world, with one billion and 200 million Catholics, have discussed the topic of marriage and the family for two years, with all its positives aspects and difficulties ... This alone is a remarkable fact for our time, because the core of the message is this: a great yes to the family. The success of this Synod for me is a great yes to the family; that the family is not over, not an old model, but that it is a fundamental model of human society.”
Second, that this endorsement wasn’t just a pre-cooked message to be rubber-stamped, but that it was, instead, the result of an intense process of discernment, discussion and at times even outright verbal warfare both inside the Synod and by interests outside it. Just as examples, a letter from some cardinals to the pope got leaked and resulted in all sorts of recriminations, some cardinals accused others of being opposed to Jesus, and false news about the pope’s health was released two days before the final vote. The inappropriate nature of some of the behavior inside the Synod lead the German language working group to open their final report with the following words:
“We have observed the public statements of individual Synod Fathers regarding the people, content and course of the Synod with great dismay and sadness. This contradicts the spirit of walking together, the spirit of the Synod and its elementary rules. The images and comparisons used are not only coarse and wrong, but hurtful. We distance ourselves from them categorically.”
Third, that there was a great diversity among the Synod Fathers. One of the English language working group’s reports stated that “[o]n many [...] points there was consensus, on others there was wide if not universal agreement, and on a few there was significant disagreement.” Pope Francis too saw this very clearly, when he said in his closing speech:
“[W]e have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”
To my mind this is a very positive picture, which sends a clear message that it is possible to talk about even divisive and sensitive topics openly in the Church.

Fourth, that there was a tremendous desire for unity in the Synod, in the face of the variety of disparate views represented in it. Two things evidence this very clearly. First, that all of the final report’s 94 points were accepted with a 2/3rds majority. In fact, the vast majority (something around 80% of the points) were accepted with near unanimity, and even the handful of more controversial points received support from over 2/3rds of the Synod Fathers. Second, that the German language working group, which included the strongest proponents of both positions in favor of least change (Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller) and of most change (Cardinal Walter Kasper), arrived at unanimous support for all of its reports. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who was also in that group, gave a very intimate account of how that came about in one of the official press conferences:
“You have to argue. You can’t say I have an opinion. You must be very clear in your knowledge, to quote St. Thomas and the others. When you listen for a few minutes to Cardinal Müller, Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Schönborn discussing about St. Thomas that is very interesting and when they say St. Thomas said this or that then he really did. So, you have to be together and say: that is the meaning of St. Thomas. [...] We had the will to make a text together. It was clear when we wouldn’t find unanimity but we tried to come together and also in the different points, for example regarding the divorced and remarried, we tried to make a text that everyone could accept as a proposal to the Holy Father. [Before the first set of reports we felt that other groups were looking to us to see whether we would find unanimity, given who we are in this group] and Cardinal Schönborn said: “The others are looking at us, so make an effort to come together.””
Fifth, the Synod presented the family as a subject, an agent, rather than an as an object, as something that needs to be managed. One of the Italian working groups put this particularly clearly:
“Given [...] that evangelization is the duty of the whole Christian people, [...] families, under the grace of the sacrament of marriage, need to become ever more subjects of pastoral care, expression of a mission that becomes visible through a concrete life, not something that is only theoretical but an experience of faith rooted in people’s real problems. Priests should therefore be trained to recognize families as subjects, valuing the skills and experiences of all: lay, religious and ordained.”
Sixth, that the sheer variety and breadth of family circumstances and factors affecting them requires closeness, tenderness and discernment to be the basis of sharing God’s love with all. No set of rules, laws, principles can be a substitute for personal relationships, and Pope Francis is very clear about this too:
“[T]he true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27).”
An example of this personal discernment-based approach is also the proposal in the final report regarding the divorced and re-married, which says (in §85-86):
“It is [...] the task of pastors to accompany interested [divorced and civilly remarried] persons on the way of discernment in keeping with the teaching of the Church and the guidance of bishops. In this process it will be useful to make an examination of conscience through times of reflection and penitence. The divorced and remarried should ask themselves how they behaved toward their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; if there were attempts at reconciliation; how is the situation with the abandoned partner; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; what example it offers to young people who must prepare for marriage. A sincere reflection can strengthen the trust in the mercy of God which is never denied to anyone. [...] Therefore, while upholding a general norm, it is necessary to recognize that the responsibility regarding certain actions or decisions is not the same in all cases. Pastoral discernment, while taking account of the rightly formed conscience of persons, must take responsibility for these situations. Even the consequences of the acts carried out are not necessarily the same in all cases. The process of accompaniment and discernment directs these faithful to an awareness of their situation before God. Conversation with the priest, in the internal forum, contributes to the formation of a correct judgment on what hinders the possibility of a fuller participation in the life of the Church and the steps that can foster it and make it grow.”
Seventh, that mercy is the root of divine love [“Misericordia est radix amoris divini”] as already St. Thomas Aquinas taught and as Pope Francis again underlined as the Synod closed and as the opening of the Jubilee of Mercy approaches:
“The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50). […] In effect, for the Church to conclude the Synod means to return to our true “journeying together” in bringing to every part of the world, to every diocese, to every community and every situation, the light of the Gospel, the embrace of the Church and the support of God’s mercy!”
One of the Synod Fathers, Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ, the director of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, summed this up beautifully in a tweet today:
“After #Synod15 the #Jubilee switches from the binary logic of a door, open/closed, to that of a face, which vitally changes before another face.”

Just in case you are left feeling short-changed about the content of the final report, the scarcity of references to it in the above post are a consequence of two facts: first, that it has no magisterial value (i.e., it is not the Church speaking to its faithful or the world through it - instead, it is a collection of ideas that serve as input for Pope Francis), and, second, that it was the shared journey of the Synod Fathers that matters rather than that document - in keeping with Pope Francis’ call for being a synodal Church instead of one that feels herself best expressed in laws, rules or documents.

Synod15: the community of those who walk with Jesus

Francis closing mass

Two days ago, in the Vatican press conference, Cardinal Schönborn provided a great synthesis of what this Synod was about:
"I think that the principal message of this Synod is the theme of the Synod: that the Catholic Church around the world, with one billion and 200 million Catholics, have discussed the topic of marriage and the family for two years, with all its positives aspects and difficulties ... This alone is a remarkable fact for our time, because the core of the message is this: a great yes to the family. The success of this Synod for me is a great yes to the family; that the family is not over, not an old model, but that it is a fundamental model of human society."
Then, regarding the question of the divorced and remarried, Cardinal Schönborn focused on discernment:
"[I]n this diversity and unity in collegiality, the question that has long interested the press but also many of our people [is] the situation of the divorced and remarried. We spoke about it, spoke about it very carefully, but the key word is the word "discernment". And I invite you all to think that there is no black or white, no simple "yes" or "no": there is to be discernment. And this is the word of St. Pope John Paul in "Familiaris Consortio" from 1984, when he says, it is obligatory, out of love for the truth, that the pastors exercise discernment because the situations are different and there is a need for the discernment of Pope Francis, good Jesuit, formed by the Exercises of St. Ignatius, this "discernment" that he learned already when young: trying to understand the situation of this couple, of that person."
Last week also saw the publication of an interview with Archbishop Paul-André Durocher, who spoke about the universal need for mercy and the actions of the Holy Spirit beyond the confines of Church teaching:
"Instead of speaking about “good families” and “hurt families,” in my small group there was a real recognition that we are all hurting and in need of God’s mercy. Mercy isn’t just for a certain category of people. We all stand in the need of God’s mercy. And, at the same time, the Spirit is working in a lot of situations that, on the face of it, do not correspond to church teaching."
The Belgian Bishop Luc Van Looy also spoke in similar terms, when he said:
"This Synod inaugurates the Church of tenderness and declares the end of the Church that divides the world into those who are good and those who bad. Not distinguishing between good families and bad families, will speak clearly of the tenderness that the Church wants to show towards any family situation."
Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, has in the meantime also published the text of his intervention at the Synod, in which he said:
"The Word of God does not present God only as a perfect Spirit, creator of heaven and earth, (as declared in the Christian Doctrine’s Second Catechism), but affirms that “God is love” (1 John 4,8.16). Saint Augustine tried to delve deeper into the path of love in God and reached the point of affirming that God is the Lover, the Beloved, and Love itself. However, he felt incapable of pursuing this path and bequeathed to us the deepening of this mystery in man and woman, in the three qualities of intelligence, memory and will. But what remained to be fully developed was the deeper understanding of the mystery of God who is Love. [...]

What is love? How can we understand and experience love? Our pathway must be found in the pathway of Him who came to us from the bossom of the Father, that is, the Son. To meet man, God who is love made himself nothing (Nazareth, Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt. The Cross) (cf. Philippians 2:5-11).

Love passes through the incarnation and the mystery of the resurrection. Love makes itself nothing to be able to meet the other. This is the Kenotic dimension of love. Without this path it would be difficult for man and woman to find that relationship with God, but also with each other, whether man or woman. In this sense I think we could find the Trinitarian path of anthropology, not only theoretically but concretely."
And, finally, let's conclude with Pope Francis' words from the closing mass of the Synod, celebrated yesterday, where he warns against a "scheduled faith":
"There is a [...] temptation, that of falling into a “scheduled faith”. We are able to walk with the People of God, but we already have our schedule for the journey, where everything is listed: we know where to go and how long it will take; everyone must respect our rhythm and every problem is a bother. We run the risk of becoming the “many” of the Gospel who lose patience and rebuke Bartimaeus. Just a short time before, they scolded the children (cf. 10:13), and now the blind beggar: whoever bothers us or is not of our stature is excluded. Jesus, on the other hand, wants to include, above all those kept on the fringes who are crying out to him. They, like Bartimaeus, have faith, because awareness of the need for salvation is the best way of encountering Jesus. In the end, Bartimaeus follows Jesus on his path (cf. v. 52). He did not only regain his sight, but he joined the community of those who walk with Jesus."

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Pope Francis: refresh hearts, don’t hide behind Church’s teachings

Francis synod smile

The second Synod on the Family has concluded this afternoon with a vote on its final report - the Relatio Finalis - all of whose 94 points were approved with a 2/3 majority by the Synod Fathers, followed by and closing speech given by Pope Francis and then a final Te Deum. Here I would like to just share what I think are the core passages of Francis's address to the Synod, but I would very much like to encourage you to read it in full, available here in English.

Pope Francis starts by asking himself what this whole synodal process was about and first dismisses two potential false expectations:

"Certainly, the Synod was not about settling all the issues having to do with the family, but rather attempting to see them in the light of the Gospel and the Church’s tradition and two-thousand-year history, bringing the joy of hope without falling into a facile repetition of what is obvious or has already been said.

Surely it was not about finding exhaustive solutions for all the difficulties and uncertainties which challenge and threaten the family, but rather about seeing these difficulties and uncertainties in the light of the Faith, carefully studying them and confronting them fearlessly, without burying our heads in the sand."
Neither is the point here to settle all the questions, not to jus repeat what has always been said while ignoring what is going on around us. Instead, the point is a reading of reality through the eyes of the Gospel:
"It was about urging everyone to appreciate the importance of the institution of the family and of marriage between a man and a woman, based on unity and indissolubility, and valuing it as the fundamental basis of society and human life. [...]

It was about trying to view and interpret realities, today’s realities, through God’s eyes, so as to kindle the flame of faith and enlighten people’s hearts in times marked by discouragement, social, economic and moral crisis, and growing pessimism."
Francis then had some hard words for those who, like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, want to hide behind doctrine and impose unbearable burdens, but he also pointed to the fruits have have come in spite of such erroneous attitudes:
"It was about bearing witness to everyone that, for the Church, the Gospel continues to be a vital source of eternal newness, against all those who would “indoctrinate” it in dead stones to be hurled at others.

It was also about laying bare closed hearts that frequently hide even behind the Church’s teachings or good intentions, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families. [...]

In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue; they offered a vivid image of a Church which does not simply “rubberstamp”, but draws from the sources of her faith living waters to refresh parched hearts."
Next, he yet again set out his vision of a Church that is a Church of sinners, open and welcoming of all and whose mission is to spread the beauty of the Gospel:
"It was about making clear that the Church is a Church of the poor in spirit and of sinners seeking forgiveness, not simply of the righteous and the holy, but rather of those who are righteous and holy precisely when they feel themselves poor sinners.

It was about trying to open up broader horizons, rising above conspiracy theories and blinkered viewpoints, so as to defend and spread the freedom of the children of God, and to transmit the beauty of Christian Newness, at times encrusted in a language which is archaic or simply incomprehensible."
Francis then spoken about the heterogeneity of the Church as she is today:
"[W]e have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied. The 1985 Synod, which celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, spoke of inculturation as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity, and the taking root of Christianity in the various human cultures”. Inculturation does not weaken true values, but demonstrates their true strength and authenticity, since they adapt without changing; indeed they quietly and gradually transform the different cultures."
Here Francis agains drew a golden thread from a challenging, even negative, situation to the hope that springs from the Gospel (which is reminiscent of St. Paul's "inculturating" the Gospel in his advice to slaves and slave owners and thereby sowing the seeds of that system's destruction).

After a reminder that God "desires only that “all be saved” (cf. 1 Tm 2:4)", Francis again attacked those who adhere to the letter of the law, while trampling on its spirit:
"[T]he true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas but people; not formulae but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness. This is in no way to detract from the importance of formulae, laws and divine commandments, but rather to exalt the greatness of the true God, who does not treat us according to our merits or even according to our works but solely according to the boundless generosity of his Mercy (cf. Rom 3:21-30; Ps 129; Lk 11:37-54). It does have to do with overcoming the recurring temptations of the elder brother (cf. Lk 15:25-32) and the jealous labourers (cf. Mt 20:1-16). Indeed, it means upholding all the more the laws and commandments which were made for man and not vice versa (cf. Mk 2:27)."
Francis then spoke powerfully about the economy of salvation and underlined its gratuitous nature and the supremacy of mercy over condemnation:
"[T]he necessary human repentance, works and efforts take on a deeper meaning, not as the price of that salvation freely won for us by Christ on the cross, but as a response to the One who loved us first and saved us at the cost of his innocent blood, while we were still sinners (cf. Rom 5:6).

The Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord (cf. Jn 12:44-50)."
That this is not a break with tradition - the lived tradition that is the Mystical Body of Christ as opposed to a "dead" tradition of formulae and laws not made for man - is then underlined by Francis when he spends about a sixth of his speech quoting his predecessors' teaching about mercy:
"Blessed Paul VI expressed this eloquently: “”We can imagine, then, that each of our sins, our attempts to turn our back on God, kindles in him a more intense flame of love, a desire to bring us back to himself and to his saving plan… God, in Christ, shows himself to be infinitely good… God is good. Not only in himself; God is – let us say it with tears – good for us. He loves us, he seeks us out, he thinks of us, he knows us, he touches our hearts us and he waits for us. He will be – so to say – delighted on the day when we return and say: ‘Lord, in your goodness, forgive me. Thus our repentance becomes God’s joy”.

Saint John Paul II also stated that: “the Church lives an authentic life when she professes and proclaims mercy… and when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour’s mercy, of which she is the trustee and dispenser”.

Benedict XVI, too, said: “Mercy is indeed the central nucleus of the Gospel message; it is the very name of God… May all that the Church says and does manifest the mercy God feels for mankind. When the Church has to recall an unrecognized truth, or a betrayed good, she always does so impelled by merciful love, so that men may have life and have it abundantly (cf. Jn 10:10)”."

And in a beautiful footnote on the meaning of the family, he adds: "no family should feel alone or excluded from the Church’s loving embrace, and the real scandal is a fear of love and of showing that love concretely."

Having read and listened to the interventions, articles and interviews of and with the Synod participants, and to Pope Francis' homilies and catecheses!, over the course of the last three weeks, and now reading Francis' closing remarks at the Synod leaves me with a tremendous sense of optimism and it leaves me looking forward to what he will do next, to make the Church better positioned for a greater welcoming of all who want to be part of her. The Church is a loving mother who cannot but be close to all her children if she is to remain faithful to her Spouse's example and to His living in and among us today.

Synod15: Christians must change continuously

Francis dolan

Today let us start with the homily that Pope Francis gave yesterday morning - the morning of the day when the Synod Fathers were reviewing the draft of the Synod's final report.
"We have this freedom of judging what happens outside us. But to judge we need to know well that which happens outside us. And how can we do that? Hon we do what the Church calls "knowing the signs of the times"? The times change. It is properly due to Christian wisdom to know these changes, know the different times and to know the signs of the times. What does one thing mean and what another. And to do this without fear, with freedom.

This is an effort that we typically don't make: we conform ourselves, we calm ourselves down with a "they told me, I heard, people say, I read ..." Like that we are clam ... But what is the truth? What is the message that the Lord wants to give me with that sign of the times? To understand the signs of the times, what is first of all needed is silence: to make silence and to observe. And then to reflect inside us. An example: why are there so many wars now. Why did something happen? And to pray ... Silence, reflection and prayer. Only like that can we understand the signs of the times, what Jesus wants to tell us.

The times change and we Christians must change continuously. We must change while being firm in our faith in Jesus Christ, firm in the truth of the Gospel, but our attitude must move continuously according to the signs of the times. We are free. We are free by the gift of freedom that Jesus Christ gave us. But it is our task to look at what happens inside us, to discern our feelings, our thoughts; and what happens outside us and to discern the signs of the times. With silence, with reflection and with prayer."
I hope they all read it before the day's work ...

Going back to the Synod, yesterday saw an extensive interview with Cardinal Schönborn, in which he was asked about implications of the proposal for the divorced and remarried made by the German language working group. In particular he was asked about whether being in a second, non-sacramental union is a permanent state of mortal sin:
"It is interesting to note that the teaching of the Church has already renounced speaking generically of mortal sin in these cases. At the beginning there is the mortal sin of adultery and often this is the case, if there is a sacramentally valid bond of marriage. But if with the passage of time a situation is created that involves also objective requirements, for example towards children born in the new union? Are they simply illegitimate children while having a Mom and a Dad? Of course, there remains the conflict between the sacramental obligation - if the marriage was valid - and the new union. But it can not simply be affirmed that the whole situation is of grave sin, because honoring the new reality and the new objective situations is also a demand of justice. Because of this, there is a need for such discernment that is able to look at the different realities of people.

The classic case is of the woman with young children abandoned by her husband. She can survive if she finds a man who is willing to welcome her and these children: it is not possible to speak simply of adultery because of a second marriage. There is also another reality of generosity and virtue in this new reality, which, however, is not sacramental. And here it is important to entrust oneself to the words of St. Thomas, and we have lived through a small conflict at the Synod between a radical Augustinianism and classical Thomism. Augustine in the "Civitas Dei" presents the idea that every act of the pagans is a vice, that there is no virtue in them. But Thomas refused this position with force and also the Fathers of the Church such as Clement of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor spoke of the virtues of the pagans. The Bible itself does it with Job, a pagan ... St. Thomas explains: even though paganism is idolatry, in spite of it, pagans can perform truly virtuous acts.

Jesus is moved when faced with human suffering, as we read in the Gospels. And today Jesus embraces, and in this embrace of mercy the person feels loved and recognizes their own sin. With his catecheses last year, Pope Francis has given us a great lesson, they are so beautiful as to bring us to tears, because we learn about closeness to life, but with the eyes of the shepherd who does not coldly observe reality as a scientist or ideologist: it is truly the school of the shepherd."
Yesterday, the Anglican Bishop Tim Thornton wrote about his experience of being one of the fraternal delegates at the Synod:
"This is a pastoral synod. I struggle with the word pastoral as we so easily misuse it to mean being nice to people. I think pastoral means taking people seriously and attending to people. If that happens then how we react to them and what we do as a result of that attention will in its turn affect us.

So one of the core issues here is whether doctrine develops and if it does, does that mean change and how does the pastoral work, attending to people relate to the teaching of the church.

I think we ought in the Church of England to have something positive to say here about valuing every person and placing the incarnation at the centre of our theology and praxis. That does not mean we simply let people do what they want to do. But it does mean we pay attention to God and to people and we work in that impossible place in the middle holding on to insights from God and people as we strive to articulate what being human, loved children of God, mature disciples means in our daily lives."
In an interview yesterday, Cardinal Francesco Montenegro, the Archbishop of Agrigento, was asked about his reaction to Pope Francis' landmark speech last Saturday, to which he responded:
"The Pope has turned the pyramid on its head, with his Gospel perspective he is overturning many ways of being. These [worried] reactions [to the Pope's speech] are quite natural for me, one is disorientated. Some defend a past, some dream of a different future. I believe that a Romanian proverb says: when the caravan departs, the dogs bark. The fact that there are so many reactions is the sign that what he is proposing is something new and powerful. A bit like during the time of Saint Francis: we risked reliance on a structured Church, a faith that was a little easy, where I can please God with the little prayer and a little bit of charity. But the Pope is putting us in the street, he tells us to meet our brother when it would be more convenient for us to stop at the altar. He asks us to keep our eyes open as we pray. He explains to us that our Church, that we would like to have clean and untouched, must go out and maybe get a little dirty because it is in the street.

Once I said to Francis: Thank you because we can finally talk about the poor without becoming red in the face. Before we were almost ashamed. He is giving us a luminous image of the Church, even while wounded and dented. A Church of mercy, because those who hunger understand the hungry. A Church that lives insecurity and stands next to the least, those who have not yet come to the churches despite the slogans of the Council, because the boundary for the poor is precisely the front door of our churches. If they enter they disturb the liturgy, it is better for them to leave because they don't helps us to pray. The Pope tells us that if you want to give a true meaning to what we are and do, we need contact with the poor. Monsignor Tonino Bello said that the mutual acceptance of differences is not to feed the poor but to eat with the poor. Francis is telling us the Gospel, and we are amazed, when we should be telling him: we are living these things. He has no idea how many people tell me that they are back in the church and to the sacraments because they are touched by the Pope's witness."
As a parting gift, Pope Francis has today given a copy of Diego Fares' book "The scent of the pastor. Pope Francis' vision of the bishop." to all Synod Fathers ...