Sunday, 29 March 2015

Being body in spirit

Le christ arcabas

Last Saturday at mass, I heard something along the following lines during the sermon: “We need to look after our souls more than after our bodies, since our souls are eternal and our bodies will be discarded at the end of our lives.” While the intention behind this statement may have been good, and was set in the context of the priest noting that only around 1% of those who attend mass come to confession in his parish, the suggestion of the body being secondary and only temporarily attached to the soul certainly wasn't in keeping with the Church's teaching. Since such dualist views are not uncommon and since I have heard them attributed to Catholicism by some friends of mine, I would here like to take a closer look at what the Catholic Church actually teaches about this topic.

Originally I was going to look at the question of how the body and soul are understood in a broader way, with a look at Scripture, a mention of St. Francis of Assisi, a glimpse at the counter-reformation and then examples from Pope Francis' teaching (e.g., his insistence on the importance of touching the flesh of the poor and suffering), I will instead stay monographic and focus on what St. John Paul II wrote on the subject in his “Man and Woman He Created Them.” As soon as I went back to that book and started re-reading the relevant passages I realized that all of what I wanted to bring into play is there and is expressed crisply and sharply.

To being with, John Paul II's point of departure is that of humans1 being made in the image of God and therefore being a “primordial sacrament”:
“Man appears in the visible world as the highest expression of the divine gift, because he bears within himself the inner dimension of the gift. And with it he carries into the world his particular likeness to God, with which he transcends and also rules his “visibility” in the world, his bodiliness, his masculinity or femininity, his nakedness. [...] Thus, in this dimension, a primordial sacrament is constituted, understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity. And this is the mystery of Truth and Love, the mystery of divine life, in which man really participates. In the history of man, it is original innocence that begins this participation and is also the source of original happiness. The sacrament, as a visible sign, is constituted with man, inasmuch as he is a “body,” through his “visible” masculinity and femininity. The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.”
Note how John Paul II does not say “he has a body” but “he is a body” and that the sacramentality of humans consists in their being a “visible sign” of God's presence in the world. Unlike other sacraments, humans are conscious of their being so and therefore become subjects rather than objects:
“Consciousness of the gift conditions in this case “the sacrament of the body”: in his body as man or woman, man senses himself as a subject of holiness. With this consciousness of the meaning of his own body, man, as male and female, enters into the world as a subject of truth and love.”
The body's origins (as gift from God and God's visible sign in the world) and function (as “subject of holiness”) already point to it's being a lasting and intrinsic part of what it is to be human:
“[W]e draw a first hope already from the mystery of creation: namely, that the fruit of the divine economy of truth and love, which revealed itself “at the beginning,” is not Death, but Life, and not so much the “destruction of the body of man made in the image of God,” but rather the “call to glory” (Romans 8:30).”
And it is Jesus' resurrection that seals the deal:
“The resurrection, according to Christ’s words reported by the Synoptics, means not only the recovery of bodiliness and the reestablishment of human life in its integrity, through the union of body and soul, but also a wholly new state of human life itself.”
It is often said that all philosophy is a conversation between Plato and Aristotle, and the body-soul question seems to be no different. John Paul II here clearly aligns Christianity and Catholic teaching with Aristotle and later with Thomas Aquinas:
“Reflection about the resurrection led Thomas Aquinas in his metaphysical (and simultaneously theological) anthropology to abandon Plato’s philosophical conception on the relation between the soul and the body and to draw near to Aristotle’s view. In fact, the resurrection attests, at least indirectly, that in the whole of the human composite, the body is not, contrary to Plato, only temporarily linked with the soul (as its earthly “prison,” as Plato maintained), but that together with the soul it constitutes the unity and integrity of the human being. This is precisely what Aristotle taught, in contrast to Plato. When St. Thomas in his anthropology accepted Aristotle’s conception, he did so because he considered the truth about the resurrection. In fact, the truth about the resurrection clearly affirms that man’s “eschatological perfection and happiness cannot be understood as a state of the soul alone, separated (according to Plato, liberated) from the body, but must be understood as the definitively and perfectly “integrated” state of man brought about by such a union of the soul with the body that it definitively qualifies and assures this perfect integrity.”
Siding with Aristotle here is firmly on the basis of the resurrection, which brings about the original harmony that was created by God “in the beginning”:
“In the resurrection, the body will return to perfect unity and harmony with the spirit: man will no longer experience the opposition between what is spiritual and what is bodily in him. [... It is] not only that the spirit will master the body, but, I would say, that it will also fully permeate the body and the powers of the spirit will permeate the “energies of the body.””
John Paul II is quick to insist on the resurrection not having resulted in victory of spirit over body, a subjugation, but in participation and personal fulfillment:
“In fact, in the composite, psychosomatic being that is man, perfection cannot consist in a reciprocal opposition of the spirit and the body, but in a deep harmony between them, in safeguarding the primacy of the spirit. In the “other world,” this primacy will be realized, and it will be manifested in a perfect spontaneity without any opposition on the part of the body. Nevertheless, this should not be understood as a definitive “victory” of the spirit over the body. The resurrection will consist in the perfect participation of all that is bodily in man in all that is spiritual in him. At the same time, it will consist in the perfect realization of what is personal in man.”
This also very much echoes Giuseppe Maria Zanghí's thought on how our being in God does not annihilate us, is not a victory over us, but instead:
“I can be myself in Him (being an intimate participant of Trinitarian life in the Word), while being really distinct from Him (by virtue of being a creature different from Him). It is His love that wants me, and the love of God does not withdraw into itself, canceling diversity with the other by totally reverting it to Himself, but “makes” the other and guards them in diversity from Himself, not wanting to possess (like He doesn’t possess Himself) in total reabsorption. [...] Because the relationship between the two “opposing” extremes (I and the other, I and God) is still thought of as ending in one of the two (and, therefore, in the strongest!); while, if Christian faith is true, the relationship does not end in either of the mediated extremes, but in a third that saves them precisely in their diversity.”
And - as far as the body-soul relationship is concerned, I believe Zanghí's “third” is precisely John Paul II's “resurrection.”

1 In my own words I will use the somewhat awkward “humans” to refer to both men and women, while in the quotes from John Paul II's writings there will be reference to “man.” Note, however, that John Paul II means “human” when his words are rendered as “man” in English, which is explicit from the full text of “Man and Woman He Created Them” and also reflects the fact that in Polish he uses the word “człowiek” which also refers to both men and women and is used in everyday language without the technical connotations that “human” has in English.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Romero: disobey false absolutes


After a tumultuous process following his martyrdom, Oscar Romero is finally due to be beatified on 23rd May in San Salvador, where he served as archbishop and where he was assassinated by a member of a death squad on 24th March 1980. Instead of writing about his life,1 I would like to share some of his own words with you, from his pastoral letters, homilies and diaries.

Starting from his pastoral letters, there is a strong sense of the social dimension of Christianity, which grows from and is interconnected with individual choices:
“Throughout the centuries the Church has, quite rightly, denounced sin. Certainly she has denounced personal sins, and she has also denounced the sin that perverts relationships between persons, especially at the family level. But she has begun to recall now something that, at the Church’s beginning, was fundamental: social sin - the crystalization, in other words, of individuals’ sins into permanent structures that keep sin in being, and make its force to be felt by the majority of the people.” (2nd pastoral letter, 1977)
In the same pastoral letter, Romero’s response to the “crystalization” of personal sin into “structures of sin” is a call to an authentic, present-day, up-to-date Christianity that understands tradition like Vatican II does - as being alive:
“To remain anchored in a non-evolving traditionalism, whether out of ignorance or selfishness, is to close one’s eyes to what is meant by authentic Christian tradition. For the tradition that Christ entrusted to his Church is not a museum of souvenirs to be protected. It is true that tradition comes out of the past, and that it ought to be loved and faithfully preserved. But it has always a view to the future. It is a tradition that makes the Church new, up to date, effective in every historical epoch. It is a tradition that nourishes the Church’s hope and faith so that she may go on preaching, so that she may invite all men and women to the new heaven and new earth that God has promised (Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17).”
Next, Romero moves on to emphasizing the non-legal, non-rule-based nature of faith and instead presents a model of participation in the person of Christ, as St. Paul did:
“The Church’s foundation is not to be thought of in a legal or juridical sense, as if Christ gathered some persons together, entrusted them with a teaching, gave them a kind of constitution, but then himself remained apart from them. It is not like that. The Church’s origin is something much more profound. Christ founded the Church so that he himself could go on being present in the history of humanity precisely through the group of Christians who make up his Church. The Church is the flesh in which Christ makes present down the ages his own life and his personal mission.”
This is an idea that he returned to in a meditation later that year, which also foreshadows Pope Benedict XVI’s introduction to the 2012-13 Year of Faith:
“How I would like to engrave this great idea
on each one’s heart:
Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed,
of laws to be obeyed,
of prohibitions.

That makes it very distasteful.
Christianity is a person,
one who loved us so much,
one who calls for our love.
Christianity is Christ.” (November 6, 1977)
Romero continues in his second pastoral letter with making the link between the Church’s authenticity and her being the Body of Christ:
“That is how changes in the Church are to be understood. They are needed if the Church is to be faithful to her divine mission of being the Body of Christ in history. The Church can be Church only so long as she goes on being the Body of Christ. Her mission will be authentic only so long as it is the mission of Jesus in the new situations, the new circumstances, of history. The criterion that will guide the Church will be neither the approval of, nor the fear of, men and women, no matter how powerful or threatening they may be. It is the Church’s duty in history to lend her voice to Christ so that he may speak, her feet so that he may walk today’s world, her hands to build the kingdom, and to enable all its members to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ (Colossians 1:24).”
And again it is a theme he picks up in a mediation around a year later, which is also an examination of conscience:
“Christ became a man of his people and of his time:
He lived as a Jew,
he worked as a laborer of Nazareth,
and since then he continues to become incarnate in everyone.

If many have distanced themselves from the church,
it is precisely because the church
has somewhat estranged itself from humanity.
But a church that can feel as its own all that is human
and wants to incarnate
the pain,

the hope,

the affliction
of all who suffer and feel joy,
such a church will be Christ loved and awaited,
Christ present.
And that depends on us.” (December 3, 1978)
What does a Church that has not become estranged from humanity and that lends “her feet so that he may walk today’s world” look like? Romero here points to the Matthean questions and updates them to his own time and place:
“There is one rule
by which to judge if God is near us
or is far away –
the rule that God’s word is giving us today:
everyone concerned for the hungry,
the naked,
the poor,
for those who have vanished in police custody,
for the tortured,
for prisoners,
for all flesh that suffers,
has God close at hand.” (February 5, 1978)
Returning to his second pastoral letter, Romero also underlines the non-negotiability of Jesus’ command - even in the face of aggression directed against the Church - to love one another has He has loved us and for that “another” to include our enemies:
“The Church has never incited to hatred or revenge, not even at those saddest of moments when priests have been murdered and faithful Christians have been killed or have disappeared. The Church has continued to preach Jesus’ command love one another (John 15:12). This is a command that the Church cannot renounce, nor has she renounced it, not even in recent months. On the contrary, she has recalled that other command, pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).”
Such conduct is anything but plain sailing though and is both a thorn in the side of those who seek wealth and power for themselves and a pretext for accusations being leveled against the Church (still from Romero’s second pastoral letter):
“The Church is not dedicated to any particular ideology as such. She must be prepared to speak out against turning any ideology into an absolute. As several of the Latin American hierarchies have said time and again in recent years, worldly interests try to make the Church’s position seem Marxist when it is in fact insisting on fundamental human rights and when it is placing the whole weight of its institutional and prophetic authority at the service of the dispossessed and weak.”
What struck me in the above was also Romero’s denunciation of the absolutization of ideologies, where it is not hard to see examples of this happening also today, and I was glad to see him return to this point and expand on it in his fourth (and final) pastoral letter as the Archbishop of San Salvador. There, his point of departure is an acclamation of transcendence, which he - interestingly - links to critical thinking and which he puts in opposition against the absolutization of human (limited) values:
“As well as offending God, every absolutization disorients, and ultimately destroys, human beings. It is the vocation of human beings to raise themselves to the dignity of the children of God and to participate in God’s divine life. This transcendence of human beings is not an escape from problems here on earth, still less is it an opium that distracts them from their obligations in history. On the contrary, by virtue of this transcendent destiny people have the capacity to always remain critical vis-a-vis the events of history. It gives them a powerful inspiration to reach out to ever higher goals. Social forces should hearken to the saving voice of Christ and of true Christians, cease their questioning, and open themselves to the values of the one and only Absolute. When a human value is turned into an absolute and endowed, whether in theory or in practice, with a divine character, human beings are deprived of their highest calling and inspiration. The spirit of the people is pushed in the direction of a real idolatry, which will only deform and repress it.”
Next, he applies the analysis of absolutization to two contexts, the first of which is wealth:
“The absolutization of wealth holds out to persons the ideal of having more and to that extent reduces interest in being more, whereas the latter should be the ideal for true progress, both for the people as such and for every individual. The absolute desire of having more encourages the selfishness that destroys communal bonds among the children of God. It does so because the idolatry of riches prevents the majority from sharing the goods that the Creator has made for all, and in the all-possessing minority it produces an exaggerated pleasure in these goods.”
Second, he looks at national security with the same optics - a topic of acute relevance also in today’s world:
“By virtue of [the absolutization of national security], the individual is placed at the total service of the state. His or her political participation is suppressed, and this leads to an unequal participation in the results of development. Peoples are put into the hands of military elites, and are subjected to policies that oppress and repress all who oppose them, in the name of what is alleged to be total war. The armed forces are put in charge of social and economic structures under the pretext of the interests of national security. Everyone not at one with the state is declared a national enemy, and the requirements of national security are used to justify assassinations, disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment, acts of terrorism, kidnappings, acts of torture ... [all] indicate a complete lack of respect for the dignity of the human person (Puebla #1262).”
It is not hard to see from all of the above why Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the postulator of Oscar Romero’s cause for beatification, characterized him by saying: “Romero is truly a martyr of the Church of Vatican II, a Church, as Pope John used to say, who is mother of all, but in particular of the poor.” Everything I have read by him was steeped in the Gospel and in its reading today through the eyes of Vatican II. It is also for this reason that Paglia referred to Romero as the “proto-martyr” of contemporary martyrs.

No account of a martyr’s thought would be complete without including the words pertaining to his own martyrdom, which is a culmination of a life of imitating Christ. Here, Romero was acutely aware of the risk to his own life, which can be readily seen from an interview he gave just days before being shot at long range while celebrating mass:
“You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” 
In spite of the severe threats to his life, even on the day before his death, Romero spoke out against the “structures of sin” that he had been fighting for many years, addressing a group of soldiers:
“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination … In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression!”

1 For a brief biography of Archbishop Romero, see the one provided by the UN on the website about the “International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims,” dedicated to him and held on the anniversary of his martyrdom, the 24th March.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The human and the divine

Patterns of light

Sir Terry Pratchett, who died yesterday and whose books have given me a great deal of joy over the last 20 years, expressed my gut reaction to crowds very well when he said that: “[t]he intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it.”1 While I don’t have a phobia of crowds, I’d always prefer a walk in a forest over “relaxing” on a packed beach, a stroll around good architecture to queueing at some movie-themed attraction, or a chat with friends in a quiet pub over a party in a sports bar.

These preferences (and prejudices) of mine were again reinforced when I recently spent a weekend at a holiday camp. There was a lot to like about it, no doubt - spending time with my family, a change of environment, clean air, eating out ... But it also came with an ample and ready supply of that “creature known as a crowd.” The place was packed to bursting point! My aversion to such an environment was particularly heightened when, at one point, my spouse and younger son left me in a large “leisure pool” and set off to go down some slides.

As I stayed behind in the pool I felt like a sardine who had to be oiled to be squeezed into a tight tin. And I didn’t feel any bonhomie towards my fellow sardines either, I can tell you that for nothing.

Floating there, my mind started wandering and I went back to Cardinal Ravasi’s beautiful piece of thinking on secularity and secularism, and landed on his declaration that Christianity “doesn’t call us to detach ourselves from reality towards mythical or mystical heavens.” The truth of his statement struck me and reminded me of the importance of living neither in the good memories of the past nor in the promises of a potential future, but right here, in the present. As I looked around, it was still the same “creature known as a crowd” that surrounded me, but its individual members now presented an invitation and challenge to me. Can I see them as my brothers and sisters, as the presence of God, or do I let myself be enslaved by my prejudices?

I felt like I was on holy ground (like Pope Francis said to confessors yesterday: “We are ministers of mercy thanks to God’s mercy, and we must never lose this view to the supernatural that makes us truly humble, welcoming and merciful towards every brother and sister who wishes to confess. … Every faithful penitent who approaches the confessional is ‘sacred ground’.”). Ashamed of my self-centeredness, but encouraged by the open arms extended to me in the present moment.

At that point, my mind turned to that extraordinary meditation by Chiara Lubich, the seventh anniversary of whose death it is tomorrow, which she entitled “The great attraction of modern times” and where she wrote:
This is the great attraction of modern times:
to penetrate to the highest contemplation
while mingling with everyone,
one person alongside others.
I would say even more:
to lose oneself in the crowd
in order to fill it with the divine,
like a piece of bread
dipped in wine.
I would say even more:
made sharers in God’s plans for humanity,
to embroider patterns of light on the crowd,
and at the same time to share with our neighbor
shame, hunger, troubles, brief joys.
Because the attraction
of our times, as of all times,
is the highest conceivable expression
of the human and the divine,
Jesus and Mary:
the Word of God, a carpenter’s son;
the Seat of Wisdom, a mother at home.
Thinking about Lubich’s and Ravasi’s words made me realize: Yes, we are not called to a detachment from reality in favor of some heavens in an ephemeral beyond, but to a discovery of those mystical heavens in the reality around us. To a discovery by participation and a facilitation of others’ participation in it with us.

1 Not wanting to nitpick, but I’d adjust Sir Terry’s words along the following lines, to impose a mathematically more severe expression of prejudice against crowds: “The intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is one over the square root of the number of people in it.”

Friday, 6 March 2015

The world: a flowerbed of communion

Klee flowers

Yesterday and today, a fantastic meeting of the Courtyard of the Gentiles - entitled “Renewing the Church in a Secular Age” - is taking place at the Gregorian University in Rome, and it is also being freely live-streamed. Since listening to the opening remarks of the university’s rector, Fr. François-Xavier Dumortier S. J., Fr. George McLean, the President of The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, and Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi yesterday, I have been working on a transcript of parts of the first two and pretty much the entirety of the last one, since they struck me as profound and beautiful expressions of the openness and warmth of the Church that I am keen to share with you as soon as possible. I will therefore, in the interest of speed, dispense with my own commentary and reflections, and just offer you the transcript (and coarse translation into English) next:

First, here is the conclusion of Fr. Dumortier’s opening remarks:
“This conference is about the Church in her relationship with the world of today, i.e., with the men and women of today, but also with the societies and cultures of our time. It won’t only be about being at the frontiers that cut through these societies and cultures and our selves too, but about going ahead with confidence and hope in the discovery of God who works mysteriously everywhere and in everyone and who, in some way, calls us to leave behind the certainties we guard too tightly and the places we know too well. This challenge of thinking about our current intellectual and spiritual situation asks for the capacity to go out of the context of our individual specializations, the constraints of our own cultures, from self-referentiality, not so as to confront that which is different and at times far removed, but so as to listen, encounter, understand and learn. It seems to me that such an attitude would indicate a Church that is not afraid of living the newness of the Gospel and that has the audacity of meeting head-on the challenges that permeate cultures today. To recognize when and how human beings are searching for God, which is never a private matter and which is done until the end of self and the end of time. To deepen our current way of humbly bringing the word of God that truly speaks to the hearts and minds of today’s men and women. Desiring to promote a culture of mutual welcome. It is a dialogue that does not despair of anything or anyone. They are challenges that we can now live with the courage and the strength of intelligence, with a generosity of intelligence that broadens the space in which one moves.”
Next, a couple of points made by Fr. McLean, that particularly struck me, where he spoke about a new perspective on secularism, derived from the work of Charles Taylor and Jose Casanova, who
“took on the fallacy that secularity was simply a loss of religion and said: “No!” secularity is a new way of being religious, and he pointed us in the direction that would make that possible. […] There are four things that we need to study: one of them is that of the seekers, that is not that they are against religion or abandoning religion, but they are looking in new ways - can we meet them? Can we find out where they are going? Can we speak to them? This is a new, creative mode of approaching the secular age. And then also the magisterium. How can the magisterium be the guide, the teacher of the new seekers? How can that be done? This is the great challenge for the Church. […] Perhaps there are many different ways in the world today in which people are seeking the divine and responding in their own way. Can we bring those together? Can this be the life of the Church? A creative pastoral responsibility.”
And finally, the main course, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s superb exposition of two interpretations of the concept “seculum” and the need for dialogue flowing from them:
“I would like to place this word at the center: “seculum”, also because it is directly in the title of this meeting. Seculum, as we know well, generates two meanings and I will build a brief reflection around them that will be more theologically-pastoral in character. The first meaning is a positive meaning: secolo generates secularity, which is a Christian category. Let’s not forget, for example, that “secolo” in New Testament Greek is “aeon”, and “aeon” also has a dimension of eternity. This also holds for the Hebrew “olam” (עוֹלָם) which simultaneously indicates temporality but also a dimension of globality.

[… I’ll start with] secularity as a theological category. I will express the theological form of this category in this case only in an impressionist way, in a simplified way. I’ll express it by means of three components of Christian faith.

The first component is creation. It suffices to listed to these verses from the Book of Wisdom - a book, among other things, of dialogue between the Hebrew and Greek cultures - “[T]he creatures of the world are wholesome; There is not a destructive drug among them.” (Wisdom 1:14). Note: “the creatures of the world.” Second: “For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made.” (Wisdom 11:24).The Lord - lover of life. To the Creator nothing is profane. And this already makes us understand how we must look to totality, we must have an optimistic perspective.

The second component: Jesus is a lay person. He is not a priest. The letter to the Hebrews says so: “It is clear that our Lord arose from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (Hebrews 7:14) But the author of the letter to the Hebrews wasn’t content just with this: “If then he [Jesus] were on earth, he would not be a priest.” (Hebrews 8:4). This aspect, that our founder is a lay person, is truly very significant. Even with all the clarifications that theologians then make.

The third element: Christianity presents a model of the relationship between faith and politics, faith and society, that is extremely significant. because it says no to sacralism, it says no to hierocracy , to integralism and, naturally, it also says no to statolatry, to the negation of any religious component in society.

What is being asserted? An assertion that Christ formulates and on which exegesis has been based for centuries, above all in terms of incarnation. The assertion is precise, and as I often say - it is a tweet that in Greek has only 50 characters, including spaces: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Luke 20:25) There is the recognition that there is a strong autonomy of the image of God that is man, of religion on the one hand, and on the other hand a real autonomy, naturally, of society and the state. Christian religion cannot accept the extraordinary phrase […] “The Temple is my country and my nation, and there is nothing outside it.” (spoken by Joad, the Jewish high priest in Jean Racine’s Athalie). Christianity, instead, recognizes secularity.

I’d now like to conclude with two considerations about secularity. First, secularity is a “locus theologicus”, delicate but real. And it has, fortunately, been considered in various ways during the 20th century. I’d now like to give three examples by just quoting some indicative phrases from these authors whose works I have read.

First, and all know this one and expect me to say his name: Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer with his theory of the “mündige Welt” - the adult world, the grown-up world, which, like a young person who becomes emancipated, does not break the links with the family, but has their own autonomy. And the challenge for faith is precisely this: to abandon the theophanic, ex machina God who embraces all reality, in favor of a kenotic God. The God of the cross, who does have his presence, but - you will see - a presence as seed. Not as power.

The second person, whom many will think of as representing fruitfulness, is Gogarten. Gogarten, in his work of 1953, Despair and hope for our time, wrote: “Secularity is the necessary and legitimate consequence of Christian faith.” And here we come to the second topic I would like to address: secularism or secularization. Secularism is a degeneration of secularity because it takes leave of God, radicalizing its own autonomy and canceling the co-presence of the divine. [Gogarten] then continues: “The autonomy of man does not detach itself from God but neither is it sacramentally overpowered.” It is not detached, but it is not crushed either. “The Church must live,” he continues, “in sincere solidarity with the world, without wanting to sacralize it.”

And the third one, obviously, is Rahner. Rahner […], referring to Gaudium et Spes, in his Theological Investigations wrote these words about secularization in 1966 […]: “The Church must and wants to codetermine also the way of the secular world, without, however, wanting to determine it in an integral and doctrinal way.” […] 

Let’s now turn to the second aspect of the word “seculum,” which I’d define as secularism. What symbol could we use to represent secularism? Well, all know it, it is a symbol that has become popular in everyday language […]: disenchantment. The disenchantment of the world. “Entzauberung der Welt.” This phrase, by the way, is not - as all say - by Max Weber, but by Hölderlin. Hölderlin used it in a different sense though, and it is a term that also became popular through a 1985 work of Marcel Gauchet.

So, what are the characteristics of secularism? […] First of all, an emancipation from sacral bonds and subjection, the emancipation from sacral authorities, symbols and institutions. The emancipation from the jurisdiction of the scared. Second, […] the ontological, epistemological, deontological  autonomy from theology. In practice, there is a desire to relegate theology to a sort of protected oasis, but one that is independent of the horizon of knowledge. Also since there is only one subject - humanity, heaven is empty of gods. Another component, which is a consequence of this one, is one I often call the monodicity of knowledge, i.e., knowledge with a single tone, which in the end is the rational/scientific one. As a consequence, what comes to the fore is the scene of the world rather than the foundations of reality. The possibility of transcendence and its own language for approaching it are excluded.

Fortunately, we know that this attitude is now in crisis. We know that our knowledge, that of all - including the simplest person - is polymorphous. When a person, even a scientist, falls in love, they use another channel of knowledge. Esthetics, art … The last component, that I would like to mention, among many examples of secularism, is the phenomenon of the metropolis, of urbanization. This is a component that I take from the work “The secular city” by Harvey Cox from 1975 […] “Urbanization means a structure of life together, in which diversity and the disintegration of traditions dominate.  A kind of impersonality dominates. A certain degree of tolerance and of anonymity that replace traditional moral sanctions and codified knowledge.” You see, even a man from the countryside who arrives in a city, who has his traditions, his morality, when he enters this gray place, loses his identity. […] 

What I think though is that in contemporary secularism there are two pastoral challenges. Two challenges that are also cultural and that are the result of two phenomena, among many other possible ones, in the complex society and culture of today.

The first phenomenon. I’ll label it with a term that I need to explain, because it has been used by some authors already, is: apatheism. Apatheism is the union of apathy and atheism. It is what we often call indifferentism. This is a phenomenon with which, for example, the Courtyard of the Gentiles - this dialogue between believers and non-believers that I am trying to develop - is trying to confront with great difficulty. Because we are in front of a wall of fog. Apathy. A beautiful definition here comes from none other than Diderot in his “Letter on the blind for the use of those who see”, addressed to his atheist friend, Voltaire: “It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley, but believing in God or not isn’t.” This is a bit the style of apatheism, which is really problematic and ever more dominant. It doesn’t answer head-on, like Nietzschean atheism, it doesn’t fight faith like atheist regimes do. It ignores God as a stranger. Like a reviewer of Prof. Taylor’s book, Costa, wrote: “If God walked into a square in a contemporary city, he wouldn’t surprise anyone. At most a guard would ask him for his papers.” He’d be asked for his papers because his identity is unknown. God mustn’t interfere in human affairs. He is a stranger. He is not the basis of existential choices. Even transcendence can be recognized but he must remain in the limbo of his transcendence. The times have finished where, de Sade in his “Justine (or The Misfortunes of Virtue)” writes, as an emphatic atheist: “When atheism needs martyrs, it should say so - my blood is ready.” This now would be ridiculous. Atheists today are apatheists. The last ones who are aggressive are a kind of endangered species. Those who feel strongly about atheism. And this relegates religion to insignificance. To uselessness, to irrelevance in history. […]

This situation of apatheism, pastorally, calls out to Christians. I asks Christians why they have not been able to communicate their difference in the face of this indifference. If anything, they have reduced themselves to the minimum, […] they are no longer able to provide answers to key questions and thereby to stimulate questions. Indifferent societies do not love questions. The question, in our languages is represented as something that claws [Ravasi draws a question mark in the air]. Oscar Wilde rightly said that everyone is able to give answers, but it takes genius to ask true questions. A question requires depth and requires tension too. Herein lies the importance of provoking with ultimate truths. Evil. Suffering. The meaning of life. Things that don’t enter into … Also the authenticity of the truth. And we, Christians, have probably lost warmth as far as our lives, our lifestyles go. Let’s recognize it. Very often our communities deserve the condemnation that the Apocalypse launches against the church of Laodicea: “So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:16). There are communities lacking any testimony, incoherent. They are no longer the leaven and the yeast of the Gospel.

The second phenomenon that could stimulate us is what I would call polytheism. Which in a nicer way we could express as religious pluralism. We know that already Max Weber in his day spoke about the polytheism of ethical values. Now, however, we have confirmation of this unquestionable phenomenon of a continuous intersection of religions and civilizations. And this phenomenon of a polytheism of more divinities, or more religions leads to three possible reactions as I can see. First, there is fundamentalism. Fear of the other god, of the other culture. Therefore there is aggressive apologetics, self-referential. Islamic fundamentalism is an example of this. It is the choice of pulling out the sword straight-away against the other. Second, there is a reaction that is more alive in Europe. Which is generic syncretism and then apatheism. Inoffensive syncretism. Without identity. The famous poet George Eliot said: “If we lose Christianity, we, Europeans, will no longer be able to understand even Voltaire and Nietzsche. But there is an even worse risk. We will lose our countenance. We will no longer have a face.” Forgetfulness. A loss of memory. Religious memory and also cultural memory, which means that, when faced with fundamentalism, we are in no position to react since we have no identity anymore. Certainly, fundamentalism has an exasperated identity, which is negative too.

So, what is the third way? The third way, evidently, and even though it is demanding, modest and to be carried out with a bowed head, and I have to say that the Church and Pope Francis are going it, is the way of dialogue. Dialogue with all its risks and troubles, inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. What ought this dialogue be like? We could talk about lot about it, but let us just look more closely at the word dialogue.

In its Greek form, and not everyone knows this, it has two meanings. The preposition ‘dia’ has two values - not one. Usually it is said that ‘dia’ is the crossing of two different ‘logoi.’ In reality, ‘dia’ also means a descending into depth. Ideologies have died, but as ideologies died, thought has died with them. We must return to a deepening of our faith, to the foundations, and ask of others that their argumentation be substantial epistemologically and in terms of content. I think that dialogue also means many other things, such as a making oneself close to the other, putting oneself in a position of listening to the other. And this is another very demanding practice. It reminds me of the expression used by John Paul II in his Novo Millennio Ineunte with regard to the Church, which I think ought to become the ideal for humanity too, which share a common basis. He says that we must “make the Church the home and the school of communion.” Here the call is for a humanity that in its diversity manages to share a home which is that of this modest planet. This small flowerbed as Dante Alighieri called it.

In the rabbinical tradition there is a beautiful image, a beautiful aphorism that says: “When men coin money, they do so with a single die, as a result of which all coins are the same. God, too makes men with a single die, yet all men are different.” Dialogue is an arduous, lengthy, maybe eschatological, process of building a shared home. 

To conclude, I would like to pass the word to the Bible, which is to give us a push and the capacity to decipher our own history. The Judaeo-Christian religion is a historical religion. It doesn’t call us to detach ourselves from reality towards mythical or mystical heavens. It is an incarnate religiosity, starting with Christ, who is a great sign. Because of this I would like to remember that stereotype, which has unfortunately become a stereotype, used since conciliar times […]: “the signs of the times.” Signs are important, the signs of power, and I’d say the power of signs is important. And I’ll give the word about this to two fundamental biblical characters, two biblical witnesses: We’ll start with the prophets, where I’ll choose Jeremiah 8:7 “Even the stork in the sky knows its seasons; Turtledove, swift, and thrush observe the time of their return, But my people do not know the order of the LORD.” And now, in the same style, the voice of Christ, who speaks to us from Matthew 16:2-3, using the symbol of meteorological forecasting “In the evening you say, ‘Tomorrow will be fair, for the sky is red’; and, in the morning, ‘Today will be stormy, for the sky is red and threatening.’ You know how to judge the appearance of the sky, but you cannot judge the signs of the times.”