Sunday, December 30, 2007
Thoughts on Pope Benedict XVI's Spe Salvi ("Saved in Hope")
According to John Allen Jr., Benedict XVI's second encyclical Spe Salvi might be considered a 'Greatest Hits' collection of core Ratzinger ideas -- "a compilation of core concerns, his idees fixes over almost sixty years now of theological reflection":
Having just finished Benedict's second encyclical today -- in between naps, as is the tendency these days with a new youngster in the household -- I'm really at a loss as to what to offer in the way of blogging or commentary. I read it online, but suffice to say it's one of those texts where if I had a highlighter, I'd easily run out of ink. Then again, that's often the case when reading Ratzinger / Benedict XVI.
So what follows are some notes, impressions and passages which particularly struck me, perhaps as impetus for discussion by our readers.
Benedict begins by exploring the relationship between hope and faith in the Christian scriptures and the early Church. Benedict poses the question each of us must ask ourselves:
The present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. Now the question immediately arises: what sort of hope could ever justify the statement that, on the basis of that hope and simply because it exists, we are redeemed? And what sort of certainty is involved here?
In sections 10-12 Benedict addresses the human condition without hope, the dual fascination and repulsion at the prospect of our soul's immortality; he addresses to some understandable misconceptions one might have concerning the meaning of "eternal life":
The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John's Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith, our being with Christ, leads us to expect.
Modernity and "the ideology of human progress"
Benedict asks: "How could the idea have developed that Jesus's message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the “salvation of the soul” as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?" -- this is a familiar charge that is, with respect to some articulations of Christianity, legitimate.
Benedict looks to "the modern age", when spiritual concerns were supplanted by scientific knowledge and man embraced "the ideology of human progress"; where reason and freedom were heralded "to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community." (This seduction of humanity by positivism and the reduction of reality to techne is another familiar theme in Ratzinger, discussed for instance in the forward to Introduction to Christianity).
Benedict looks at the French Revolution ("an attempt to establish the rule of reason and freedom as a political reality") and Marxism ("with the fall of political power and the socialization of means of production, the new Jerusalem would be realized") -- as representative of modern man's futile attempts to establish the 'Kingdom of God' on earth:
Once the truth of the hereafter had been rejected, it would then be a question of establishing the truth of the here and now. The critique of Heaven is transformed into the critique of earth, the critique of theology into the critique of politics. Progress towards the better, towards the definitively good world, no longer comes simply from science but from politics—from a scientifically conceived politics that recognizes the structure of history and society and thus points out the road towards revolution, towards all-encompassing change.
In section 21, Benedict gives the perfect paragraph-length summary of the ambitions of Marxism and where it failed:
Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.
In section 23, Benedict again returns to the core message of his Regensburg address -- not a commentary on Islam (as emphasized by the press) but rather the restoration of reason to its proper place, in relation to faith:
If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil. Only thus does reason become truly human.
The Social Dimensions of Spe Salvi
Benedict calls for "a self-critique of modernity in dialogue with Christianity"; Christians too must "learn anew in what their hope truly consists, what they have to offer to the world and what they cannot offer. Flowing into this self-critique of the modern age there also has to be a self-critique of modern Christianity, which must constantly renew its self-understanding setting out from its roots."
I'm struck by Benedict's addition of the phrase "what Christianity cannot offer" -- it is opportune, given the myriad presentations of Christianity in our age, from televangelists preaching a "gospel of wealth" and material success to those for whom Christian praxis is reduced to a politicized, revolutionary program for class warfare. Benedict is reputedly working on a third encyclical devoted to social issues, but I found this section on "the true shape of Christian Hope" very relevant:
Material progress is incremental. Man slowly gains a mastery of technique and power over his natural surroundings. But we cannot speak similarly of humanity's moral evolution:
. . . in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man's freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning.We can learn from the "lessons of history," the knowledge and "moral treasury" of previous generations -- or we can choose to reject it. This responsibility falls upon each generation.
What are the implications? -- First, according to Benedict:
The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order."Secondly:
"Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man's freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all."Consequently:
... every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.I could not help but see in this section shades of Benedict's critique of certain aspects of liberation theology and it's call for the overthrow of "structures of injustice" and a reduction of the gospel to "politico-messianic hope and praxis" (see Preliminary Notes on Liberation Theology by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, circa. 1984).
There is present in this encyclical an "Augustianian realism" (characteristically Ratzinger) -- a lucid awareness of man's capacity for good and evil, and the inherent limitations placed upon man's striving by his nature.
Thus we are reminded that our scientific and technological achievements "opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. . . . If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man's ethical formation, in man's inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world."
Benedict counters the criticism that Christianity's promise of eternal life is "falling back once again into an individualistic understanding of salvation":
Our relationship with God is established through communion with Jesus—we cannot achieve it alone or from our own resources alone. The relationship with Jesus, however, is a relationship with the one who gave himself as a ransom for all (cf. 1 Tim 2:6). Being in communion with Jesus Christ draws us into his “being for all”; it makes it our own way of being. He commits us to live for others, but only through communion with him does it become possible truly to be there for others, for the whole.Referring to Maximus the Confessor - this love of God and communion in Christ manifests itself in charity to others, is essentially other-oriented: "Love of God leads to participation in the justice and generosity of God towards others. Loving God requires an interior freedom from all possessions and all material goods: the love of God is revealed in responsibility for others. . . . Christ died for all. To live for him means allowing oneself to be drawn into his being for others."
In what does our redemption consist?
"It is not science that redeems man," says Benedict. Rather, "man is redeemed by love." Not a merely human love subject to fickleness and dissolution, but an everlasting and unconditional love:
"He needs the certainty which makes him say: “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38- 39). If this absolute love exists, with its absolute certainty, then—only then—is man “redeemed”, whatever should happen to him in his particular circumstances. This is what it means to say: Jesus Christ has “redeemed” us. Through him we have become certain of God, a God who is not a remote “first cause” of the world, because his only-begotten Son has become man and of him everyone can say: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). . . .
Prayer as Response of Christian Hope
"How can Christians learn, articulate and exercise this hope in Christ? -- Benedict responds: "A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer." When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me. When I can no longer talk to anyone or call upon anyone, I can always talk to God." He refers to Augustine's example of stretching, expanding, purifying our hearts of vinegar to make room for God's honey.
To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. . . .Prayer can never be merely individual or self-preoccupied; genuine prayer is that which turns us toward others, in solidarity with our neighbor and communion in the Church:
"For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope."
Benedict on human suffering
In sections 35-40, he embarks on a profound meditation on human suffering ("The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer") as a context for Christian hope:
"It is not by fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love . . . A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. . . . the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity."Needless to say, it is only through the transformative hope that God brings that we as Christians can embrace suffering in this manner. Here Benedict recommends a revival of the practice of offering up our daily inconveniences and sufferings in Christ, an expression of our hope:
What does it mean to offer something up? Those who did so were convinced that they could insert these little annoyances into Christ's great “com-passion” so that they somehow became part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race. In this way, even the small inconveniences of daily life could acquire meaning and contribute to the economy of good and of human love. Maybe we should consider whether it might be judicious to revive this practice ourselves.Benedict devotes the latter section of his encyclical (sections 40-48) on the Last Judgement as a manifestation of Christian hope (together with a rich, theological exploration of Purgatory and man's purification from sin in Chrisitan thought). "I am convinced," says Benedict, "that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life."
The following passage offers much food for thought (and some questions as well):
47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning-it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice-the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together-judgement and grace-that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).
Benedict closes his encyclical with a beautiful homage to our Holy Mother Mary, the exemplification of Christian hope:
"With her 'yes' she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1:14)."
Additional Commentary on Spe Salvi
The Catholic News Agency reports that over one million copies the new encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, have been sold since it was released on November 30.