Words from Kierkegaard

22.07.2009

(1) Out of love, God becomes man. He says: “See, here is what it is to be a human being.”

(2) This fact, that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue, has been overlooked. The latter is partly a pagan view, which is content with a merely human standard, and which for that very reason does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith.

(3) Well, if sin is ignorance, then sin does not really exist, for sin is precisely consciousness; if sin is ignorance of what is right, and one then does what is wrong because one does not know what is right, then no sin has occurred.

(4) Worldly wisdom thinks that love is a relationship between man and man. Christianity teaches that love is a relationship between: man-God-man, that is, that God is the middle term.

(5) When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.

(6) Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

(7) To say that love is a feeling or anything of the kind is an unchristian conception of love. That is the aesthetic definition and therefore fits the erotic and everything of that nature. But to the Christian, love is the works of love. Christ’s love was not an inner feeling, a full heart and what not, it was the work of love which was his life.

(8) Above all do not forget your duty to love yourself.

(9) God is a highest conception, not to be explained in terms of other things, but explainable only by exploring more and more profoundly the conception itself.

(10) But precisely this is the misfortune, and has been the misfortune, in Christendom that Christ is neither the one nor the other — neither the one he was when living on earth, nor he who will return in glory, but rather one about whom we have learned to know something in an inadmissible way from history — that he was somebody or other of great account. In an inadmissible and unlawful way we have learned to know him; whereas to believe in him is the only permissible mode of approach.

Simone Weil’s Sayings

21.07.2009

Simone Weil, a French philosopher and mystic, was born in Paris in 1909 and passed away in Ashford, Kent, England, in 1943, and was a complex, fascinating woman. She came from a secular Jewish home and was never baptised, but she considered herself a Christian — a non-committed Catholic, to be more precise. She was a pacifist, but fought in the Spanish Civil War. She was an intellectual, but was known for her anti-intellectualism. She came from a bourgeois family, but worked on a French assembly line for a year. She loved life, but yearned for her death.

In the spring of 1937, she experienced a religious ecstasy in the same church where St. Francis of Assisi had prayed, which led her to pray for the first time in her life. She had another, even more powerful revelation a year later and from that moment on her writings became more mystical. During World War II, she lived for a time in Marseille and received spiritual direction from a Dominican friar. Around this time she met Gustave Thibon, the French Catholic writer who later edited her work. Weil was also deeply interested in other religious traditions — for instance, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Here are some of her resonant sayings:

A doctrine serves no purpose in itself, but it is indispensable to have one if only to avoid being deceived by false doctrines.

A science which does not bring us nearer to God is worthless.

All sins are attempts to fill voids.

An atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.

Charity. To love human beings in so far as they are nothing. That is to love them as God does.

Difficult as it is really to listen to someone in affliction, it is just as difficult for him to know that compassion is listening to him.

Equality is the public recognition, effectively expressed in institutions and manners, of the principle that an equal degree of attention is due to the needs of all human beings.

Every perfect life is a parable invented by God.

Every time that I think of the crucifixion of Christ, I commit the sin of envy.

Evil, when we are in its power, is not felt as evil, but as a necessity, even a duty.

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.

Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace.

Humility is attentive patience.

In the Church, considered as a social organism, the mysteries inevitably degenerate into beliefs.

It is an eternal obligation toward the human being not to let him suffer from hunger when one has a chance of coming to his assistance.

It is only the impossible that is possible for God. He has given over the possible to the mechanics of matter and the autonomy of his creatures.

Life does not need to mutilate itself in order to be pure.

One cannot imagine St. Francis of Assisi talking about rights.

Real genius is nothing else but the supernatural virtue of humility in the domain of thought.

The contemporary form of true greatness lies in a civilization founded on the spirituality of work.

The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.

The most important part of teaching is to teach what it is to know.

The mysteries of faith are degraded if they are made into an object of affirmation and negation, when in reality they should be an object of contemplation.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

To set up as a standard of public morality a notion which can neither be defined nor conceived is to open the door to every kind of tyranny.

To want friendship is a great fault. Friendship ought to be a gratuitous joy, like the joys afforded by art or life.

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.

We can only know one thing about God — that he is what we are not. Our wretchedness alone is an image of this. The more we contemplate it, the more we contemplate him.

Whatever debases the intelligence degrades the entire human being.

When once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder.

Jed Bartlet’s Dialogues

20.07.2009

Josiah “Jed” Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was the President of the United States in the television drama The West Wing (1999-2006). Bartlet is a devout Catholic due to the influence of his mother. He was accepted to Harvard and Yale Universities, but instead chose to go to the University of Notre Dame, the most renowned American Catholic university, since he was thinking of becoming a priest. He graduated summa cum laude with a BA in American Studies and a minor in Theology. He received a Masters and PhD in economics from the London School of Economics, as well as an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Dartmouth College, where he was a tenured professor prior to entering politics.

These two dialogues from the series demonstrate how he thinks and feels.

In “The Midterms” (2.03), Jed confronts a talk show hostess about her views on homosexuality. She likes to quote a verse from the Old Testament (Lev 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.”). And he asks her if she abides by other directives of the Old Testament. What is striking is that he feels compelled to do this, to tell the truth, to show her mistaken position to herself.

In “Two Cathedrals” (2.22), Jed launches into a tirade against God after the service in memory of Mrs. Landingham, his faithful secretary. He walks in the cathedral, cursing God in Latin. It does not seem like a dialogue, but by shouting at God, he is acknowledging the presence of God. What does he say?

Gratias tibi ago, domine. (“Thank you, Lord.”)

Haec credam a deo pio, a deo justo, a deo scito? (“Am I to believe these things from a righteous god, a just god, a wise god?”)

Cruciatus in crucem! (“To hell with your punishments!” — literally, “Put/send punishments onto a cross”.)

Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui; officium perfeci. (“I was your servant, your messenger on the earth; I did my duty.”)

Cruciatus in crucem — eas in crucem. (“To hell with your punishments! And to hell with you!” — literally, “May you go to a cross”.)

He also includes a quote from Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock: “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Later, in a vision, the gone Mrs. Landingham tells him that if he is not going to run again because he thinks he has no chance or because it will be too hard, and not out of conviction, their friendship (that is, her trust) will be at risk. Imagine that.

The Bible, Poetry and Truth

17.07.2009

Last weekend I went to the National Theatre with my beautiful and sweet wife to see William Shakeapeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well. It always gives me an immense pleasure to go see a play with her, not only because of the moments that we share, but also because she knows a lot more about theatre than I do. She looks at it, not simply as entertainment, but as art — something that matters, something with a communal value; the same way I look at film. During the performance she told me that Shakespeare was a feminist.

Some scholars argue that Shakespeare was Catholic. When he was born, the Elizabethan Religious Settlement had already separated the Church of England from the Catholic Church. Catholic faith became illegal. A lot of people became recusants, refusing to attend the services of the now official church. It is said that Shakespeare, who came from a Catholic family, was one of those who quietly refused to submit to the new denomination. That means that if he was Catholic he could not have been outspoken about it. Nevertheless, he was surely a Christian. We see it in his commitment to equality and social justice — Christian values that the theologian Desiderius Erasmus universalized as humanist values.

While I was attending the play, it struck me that the illumination we get from Shakespeare’s work (and from the best art) is similar to the one we get from the Bible. Scriptures should be read poetically, even if some of its books are historically accurate. Reading the Bible scientifically (like dishonest atheists and bible literalists do) is reading it simplistically. This collection of books has to be appreciated for its poetry and for the meaning it reveals, not directly conveys. Anselmo Borges, a Portuguese priest who teaches philosophy at the University of Coimbra, puts it like this:

After all, the Bible writes about the history of men, at their best and at their worst, in the search of the absolute. It is necessary to understand that it is a religious and not a scientific book and that only in its whole it claims the truth. [...] Only in this light are they [the Scriptures] true. In all that can be found of less human or even inhuman, it is revealed what God is not and what Man should not be.

Lídia Jorge said in an insightful way: “The Bible is the longest collective poem created by Humanity until now. In it are mirrored the various battles that men have engendered in their quest for absolute love.”[1]

Shakespeare is not a substitute for the Bible. (The comparison is senseless.) But his works can get us closer to God — the idea that the natural world and the produced world (art works in particular) yield information about God is important in Christianity. Pay attention to the way Timothy Radcliffe uses King Lear to explain that exposing who and what we are leads to serene delight instead of agitated approval:

Delight is not the same as approval. The Father does not approve of the Son, nor the Son of the Father. The Trinity is not a mutual admiration society. Approval implies patronage, and to obtain it we may be tempted to put on masks and pretend to be the sort of person of whom your patron would approve. In King Lear Goneril and Regan seek their father’s approval so that they may obtain power. Cordelia obstinately refuses to say what her father wants, only what she thinks. Ultimately, he comes to delight in her.[2]

Scriptures puts us in touch with God, with the truth about our hearts and about what surrounds us — but not directly. It is not true, it is truthful — truthful to human experience. Slowly and tentatively grasping this truth is part of our long journey as Christians. Jesus’s words on the value of his words in John 8:32 can therefore be applied to the whole Bible: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free”.

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[1] Anselmo Borges, “A ‘Bíblia’: 73 Livros”, Diário de Notícias, 18 Oct. 2008 (my translation), http://www.dn.pt/inicio/interior.aspx?content_id=1133089, pars. 14-15.
[2] Timothy Radcliffe, OP, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005), p. 61.

The Catholic Kama Sutra

16.07.2009

The Kama Sutra is an ancient Sanskrit treatise on the art of love and sexual technique — kāma “love” + sūtra “thread”. Now fr. Ksawery Knotz, a Polish Franciscan, has written a similar book “for married couples who love God”. The volume is simply called Sex. Father Knotz writes that

Every act — a type of caress, a sexual position — with the goal of arousal is permitted and pleases God. During sexual intercourse, married couples can show their love in every way, can offer one another the most sought-after caresses. They can employ manual and oral stimulation.

and that

Some people, when they hear about the holiness of married sex, immediately imagine that such sex has to be deprived of joy, frivolous play, fantasy and attractive positions. They think it has to be sad like a traditional church hymn. Calling sex a celebration of the marriage sacrament raises its dignity in an exceptional way. Such a statement shocks people who learned to look at sexuality in a bad way. It is difficult for them to understand that God is also interested in their happy sex life, and in this way gives them his gift.

What does a celibate priest know about the subject? It is a valid question. His experience comes from collecting and absorbing the experience of others and pondering on it. He says that he talks with a lot of couples and that he listens to them with attention, so these problems just sit in his mind. “I would like for them to be happier with their sex life, and for them to understand the church’s teachings so there won’t be unnecessary tension or a sense of guilt”, he adds. He is confident: he has been running a website offering sexual advice to the devout for the past year. According to him, the correct Catholic sexual position is “saucy, surprising and fantasy packed”.

Caritas in Veritate

13.07.2009

The new papal encyclical had already been the subject of debate and speculation before its official publication. Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth) is a social letter. It reflects on globalisation and it seems to be a response to the current economic crisis. Some Catholic capitalists felt the need to reply on the defensive to this missive that focuses on the true meaning of Christian charity:

In the present social and cultural context, where there is a widespread tendency to relativize truth, practising charity in truth helps people to understand that adhering to the values of Christianity is not merely useful but essential for building a good society and for true integral human development. A Christianity of charity without truth would be more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance. In other words, there would no longer be any real place for God in the world. Without truth, charity is confined to a narrow field devoid of relations. It is excluded from the plans and processes of promoting human development of universal range, in dialogue between knowledge and praxis. (par. 4)

The text restates (recalls?) the commitment to social justice that must be at the heart of Christianity. Pope Benedict XVI’s stress on the common good goes against the capitalist ideal of self-interest. He writes, “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.” (par. 34). Solidarity, the recognition of a common ground, the process of mutual support, must go hand in hand with progress: “The truth of development consists in its completeness: if it does not involve the whole man and every man, it is not true development.” (par. 18). Benedict emphasises the need to protect the rights of workers, the necessity for greater public contributions, and urges that our interest should be the protection of basic human needs.

As Davey Henreckson summarises, “every economic decision is ultimately a moral decision”. Henreckson later adds that

Benedict draws out both our responsibility to consider the natural (ecological) world, and the deeper human relationships across national and economic boundaries. We do not live in a zero-sum world. And the way to restore these charitable relationships with nature and our fellow men begins with a realization of the public nature of faith. Christians as citizens are uniquely motivated to work toward justice, since they have a transcendent allegiance to the world. Public life is a life of faith.

Ultimately, Caritas in Veritate argues against the conception of markets and technology as independent, as having a remote life of their own, away from human value. That such things are idolised, it is a sign of how some of us have replaced freedom, the freedom of being and its responsibilities, with a false autonomy.

While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. God reveals man to himself; reason and faith work hand in hand to demonstrate to us what is good, provided we want to see it [...]. (par. 75)

The Colbert Report

10.07.2009

In an interview with Time Out magazine, Stephen Colbert reports on how he squares his Catholic faith with comedy:

I love my Church, and I’m a Catholic who was raised by intellectuals, who were very devout. I was raised to believe that you could question the Church and still be a Catholic. What is worthy of satire is the misuse of religion for destructive or political gains. That’s totally different from the Word, the blood, the body and the Christ.

A Perplexing Attitude

09.07.2009

Why do so many Christians behave so unchristianly when abortion and homosexuality are involved? They act out of self-righteousness and hate, instead of compassion and love. I sometimes wonder if they have read the Gospels or if they know the teachings of Jesus. He did not say a word about these topics and walked amongst the oppressed, the outcast, and the sufferers — those who most needed his empathy.

Moral Freedom

08.07.2009

I have been reading What Is the Point of Being a Christian? by Timothy Radcliffe, a Dominican friar who taught theology at the University of Oxford. (I already wrote about his latest book.) I could quote the whole volume, given that I keep finding lapidary passages. I advise you to buy it. Now.

Here are two insightful paragraphs on moral freedom and Christianity (that also confirm the Dominican love of food and drink):

A few years ago, when I was visiting the Dominicans in the Czech Republic, I spent the night in a small town called Snojmo near the Austrian border. There was the usual meeting with the Dominican Family. There were lots of young families with their noisy offspring, and we feasted on delicious sausages and drank slivovitz. Then we had an open discussion, and the first question was from a young woman who asked how she could transmit the Church’s moral teaching to her children, who seemed to be just as resistant as children in Western Europe. I did not know how to answer the question and so I passed it to my companion for that trip, a moral theologian called Wojcieh Giertych, professor at the Angelicum University in Rome.

He went to the blackboard and drew a small square in a corner. “In that square are the commandments. Is that what morality is about?” And everyone cried “Of course.” “No,” he said “God is not much interested in commandments.” Then he drew a square which covered all the rest of the board and said, “That is freedom. That is what interests God. Your task is to teach your children to be free. That is the teaching of the Gospels, and of St. Thomas Aquinas.”[1]

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[1] Timothy Radcliffe OP, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 2005), pp. 29-30.

Catholic Imagination

07.07.2009

In De vierde man (The Fourth Man, 1983), directed by Paul Verhoeven, a puzzled questioner asks Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé) how he can still be Catholic in the face of modern science. Gerard, a gay and alcoholic Catholic poet, shouts that “Being Catholic means having imagination!”

Imagination is a powerful force linked with creativity and vision. It allows us to picture something to ourselves, making sense of the world, reinventing it. Catholics have a long history of intellectual, and therefore creative, engagement with ideas and images that are not tied up with what is present to the senses. Perhaps we can turn the question on its head and ask how can you be a scientist without imagination. Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), the Belgian Catholic priest and professor of physics and astronomy at the Catholic University of Leuven who developed the theory of the origin of the Universe (known as the Big Bang theory), did not lack this faculty.