Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Finding as founding

Some days ago I started jotting down a few lines prompted by a statement the Pope made during his recent journey to Africa, saying that Christianity breaks all borders and so unifies all peoples. But I was taken by writing other things, and so those lines staid there unfinished.

I want to come back to it, remarking that there are two sides in what the Pope says on this regard, which seems irreconcilable among them: the one I just mentioned about Christianity breaking all borders, and the other he so strongly stressed in the Reichstag speech we reported, that Christianity never appealed to a God revealed law, but developed the idea of natural law of the Greek and Romans.

I hope the reader sees the problem in keeping these two statements together. If not, I’ll try to clarify it for him.

To breaks all borders means to make people capable of living under one law. Now, if it is Christianity that does this breaking, how can it be said that it doesn’t bring the one law under which to live?

Let’s take the case of the United States of America. I think I read somewhere –but I can’t be sure, because I don’t remember where – that the present POTUS said that America cannot be called a Christian nation. If we assume, for the sake of argument, that he said it, I’d like to ask him: If not, what is it then?

To which I could be retorted: if it is such, i.e. a Christian nation, how can it make so many peoples of different religion live in her peacefully?

The intelligent reader should see now that we have here the general question raised by the Pope’s statements set in a concrete case. And, being so concretely put, also the answer I’ll try to give will spring from the concreteness of my own personal experience.

I like to call it my experience of the “discovery of America”. A prominent American philosophy professor, nowhere less than at Harvard (actually a philosopher for real, but, being that such a qualification is given to dogs and pigs, I don’t want to insult him with it) gave some years ago two lectures by the general title of “This new yet unapproachable America”, one of which was: “Finding as founding”. How beautiful! America is something in whose founding anyone can share, if he just finds her.

And it is not enough for that to be born in the United States. I recall, by the way, that there were some questions raised about the present POTUS being born in the US. Originally it was a way to exclude him from the race, and now to disqualify him as president. But it doesn’t work. There are plenty of people who are undoubtedly born in the US, who don’t sound as Americans at all: one could say the great part of the MSM.

Why, what do they sound like then? Well, like today Europeans: people just born there, who don’t show signs of any discovery: as if there was nothing worthy of finding-founding.

As far as myself is concerned, there is no question, I was not born in the Sates, and I lived there just a few years. But that real philosopher whom I mentioned, by the name of Stanley Cavell, authorizes me to consider myself a founder, because I did find something.

When in my intellectual pursuit – of the true, the good and the beautiful – I came to study in the States, I made a discovery that turned studying into an experience of finding-founding. I realized that, except for the so called Indians, no one is native in America. Even the people who have been in the USA for generations, came in a traceable past from somewhere else. A discovery of hot water, one could say. But it is not so. To realize the obvious has a great import in the “search of the ordinary” – to say it again with Cavell –, which otherwise escapes our attention.

If everybody in the States is an immigrant, it means that America is the place where we can converge in our “pursuit of happiness”. Where happiness can be found, and then America founded, is suggested by Cavell by taking that beautiful expression of the Declaration of Independence (a stroke of genius of the otherwise ambiguous Jefferson) as title for a book of his on the Hollywood comedies of the first decades of talkies, all turning around the theme of marriage: love broken and refounded.

This means that coming to America makes a common story in which everyone can recognize himself. In a way no one is born in America, because, even if born in the US, still has to make that movement of convergence. Otherwise …: here, in the “otherwise” is another side of my discovery.

I realized that either people communicate in a story they share, or, when such a story is lacking, nothing else is left through which to communicate but, speaking of the US, green paper notes: better known as dollars.

Don’t take me wrong, I have no grudge against money. I only think that you cannot build just on it a political union, as it was tried in Europe, with what consequences we are now seeing. But, as I said, also the US is dangerously coming to resemble Europe, with a dropping therefore of the A.

To be short in a very complex matter: without money, you have just small communities, closed in borders defined by an exclusive cultural consensus. Just with money, you have large societies of a multicultural kind, made by individuals having among other options that of the religion to which consent, all equally included in a financial empire that knows no borders.

Perhaps the reader will see now the answer to the questions asked at the beginning.

The US, if it doesn’t want to drop the A, is a Christian nation, which doesn’t run counter anybody’s cultural and religious tradition, as long as he obeys to the natural law that everywhere requires that crossing of borders universalized in Christianity. Because, to say that Christianity breaks all borders means that it allows to cross them all; but borders there must be to be crossed. Out of which , there aren’t but outlaws or tyranny.

Anybody can come through this discovery in America: the finding that in ordinary experience founds everywhere human relations.


Sunday, November 06, 2011

A need of philosophy

I was waiting for the LD to chip in, but he lingers. So, here I am, to raise for the reader the question of why among the most meaningful speeches given by the Pope is giving, there are those of a more philosophical than theological tenor. How does this fit with his specific magisterium?

On the site www.chiesa.espressonline.it (also in English version), Sandro Magister has been recording a controversy going on among theologians and historians about the meaning of the Vatican II, with those of a more “traditionalist” bent denouncing its lack of continuity with the tradition, which for some makes it outright heretical, and those of a more “progressive” bent who extol that same lack of continuity, arguing that that is what the Council really meant.

Benedict’s position on this regard is well known, he made it clear little after his election: renewal in continuity.

This seems, however, to leave everybody, so to say, unhappy. “Progressives” look at him as a staunch conservative, “traditionalists” ask for a clarification, e.g., to submit the Council’s documents to scrutiny by a theological committee, which should judge their adherence to the orthodox doctrine. Of course I am expressing rather bluntly positions which are, in the contributions to the controversy recorded by Magister, quite more nuanced. But here I am not interested in nuances, to go rather to what appears to me the core of the question.

To state offhand my thought: the issue concerning the Vatican II documents is not theological but philosophical.

(And who are you, I could be asked, to pass such a sentence. Well, let me say in a humbly presumptuous’ way: a man trained in philosophy and theology, and before them in jurisprudence and social sciences.)

There is an analogy between the reading of the Council’s documents and the reading of law. So, let me start from this, because the issue of the nature of law was raised in the Reichstag speech.

Benedict mentioned there a German law professor, by the name of Hans Kelsen, who exerted an enormous influence. His conception of law echoes that of one of the most famous, and infamous, political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes: known as a defender of absolute monarchy, he actually theorized in the Seventeenth Century the absoluteness of the State, that today we give for granted. Already for him the law isn’t but the will of the Sovereign, one or assembly: in our terms, democratic or not, it makes no difference. Thus Kelsen in the Twentieth Century maintained that all process of law is lawgiving: down from the highest legislative bodies, like Congress, to the least of judges. It’ll be the latter to say which is the will of the law; and this means as a consequence that he can make the law say whatever he wills. This consequence follows from the fact that the law needs to be interpreted, and, missing any other criterion of interpretation except the will, the judge can make it will whatever he wants. It doesn’t save from the arbitrariness of judgment the possibility of appeal to a higher court, thus making the process of law giving to re-ascend the ladder all the way up to the Supreme Court. The question stays the same: on what criterion will the law be interpreted? You can’t say the Constitution, because this is again a law to be interpreted.

To say in other words, the judge will carry in his interpretation of the law his understanding of things: what we would call today his “philosophy”, meaning rather his opinion.

As I said, the same is the question with the Council’s documents. They lack indications on how they want to be read, in the way of continuity with the tradition, or break from it. I’d say that what they lack is philosophical breath, if I were sure that the reader of these lines understood that I meant, by it, a truly theological one.

The right ambition was to address non only Christians, but all people. But, unfortunately, this ambition was betrayed precisely in the “pastoral constitution” dedicated to “the Church in the contemporary world”, with the unhappy distinction of people in “believers and non believers”. It was meant to be the most philosophical of the Council’s constitutions, saying even to non believers what it means to be human, but it failed, because of that distinction (which I think I already criticized in a previous post), to clarify that all man are “believers”, the only question being to discern the truth that can rightly demand our believing. Because of this, not only the Council was unable to address “non believers”, but also left “believers” on their own when it came to the interpretation of the other “dogmatic constitutions” (e.g. on Revelation or on the Church): it left them free do bring to bear on it whatever presumed “philosophy”, i. e. opinion, they had a penchant for.

Given my (trained) sensibility, those other constitutions have a strange effect on me: like when I hear certain homilies in which the preacher fills his mouth with plain God speech. It makes me uneasy, because those Vatican II documents, like that preacher, don’t seem to take into account that in today’s culture at large speaking of God doesn’t find many point of contact. Christians share – alas – of that culture, and even they like any other men of our time need to be reintroduced to it. To find and show the missing points of contact is what I mean with giving real philosophical breath to theological talk.

Now, Benedict addresses that need with his philosophical speeches, thus exercising with them his papal magisterium.


Friday, October 07, 2011

What is representation

The LD happily announced that he is working on a book on “the political thought of Pope Benedict XVI”, clearly going back to its ripening in Joseph Ratzinger.

By the way, what does this change of name means?

We are not used to change names anymore. It was the case for women when they got married, or for people entering in religion. Often now days women are prone not to do it, preferring to keep their name as single, so authorizing also men not to feel invested by the meaning of that change, which actually meant a change for them too, the same name not covering now just him, a single one, but two. We rather stress this way the continuity of the “I”, that enables us to tell life stories as lived by us: the risk though, with this stress on continuity, is that, because nothing happens to break it, nothing really happens worthy telling, there is no true story. Change of names means just this, that something happened, so that I have a story to tell: of how the one I was before with the old name died, to be born again with the new name. So man and woman die as single to be born again as couple and family. So the man entering in religion dies to be born again with the new name. So a cardinal, say “Ratzinger” dies, and a Pope, say “Benedict XVI” is born.

In short, names tell who we are in relation to others, or, in other words, what we represent for them.

Here we are to the theme raised by the LD, and tossed to me.

What makes so remarkable the Reichstag speech, it isn’t just the intrinsic value of the arguments, by itself very high, but the fact that it wasn’t given by Ratzinger – the priest, university professor and in the end cardinal – but by Benedict: i.e., the Pope.

With great finesse, after the official greetings, Benedict recalls it:

At this moment I turn to you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, not least as your fellow-countryman who for all his life has been conscious of close links to his origins, and has followed the affairs of his native Germany with keen interest. But the invitation to give this address was extended to me as Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, who bears the highest responsibility for Catholic Christianity

This means that as Bishop of Rome he doesn’t speak in his own name, but in that of Catholic Christianity. However, who is the Bishop of Rome? The successor of saint Peter: he represents for Catholic Christianity the person put in charge by Jesus Christ “to feed his lambs”, and who, to do it, followed him all the way to the cross.

The first lesson coming from the Reichstag speech concerns then the person of the one giving it. In more general terms, it regards the nature of what we call in English “representation”.

We have just seen in the papal person two different meanings of the word, which, if we translate it into another language, let’s say German, become evident, because it gives us two different words: Vertretung and Vorstellung. The Pope represents the Church, because he is, we’d say, her “representative”, in German her Vertreter: literally “someone who steps in (for someone else)”, meaning that he can take the place of another or others, acting in their name. At the same time, the Pope represents for the Church something that is not just himself as defined by the older name, meaning that he plays a part in a representation – in German Vorstellung.

It might seem then that German has gone further than English in differentiating meanings, actually also in English held separate in current use, by different words. But word differentiation is a tricky business, because we risk by it to lose sight of the connections which the use of same word makes perceptible. Acting and speaking in behalf of others can appear simply as a task of which one has been entrusted by them, independent by any ground that justifies such entrusting; while a common ground of trust is looked for in representations which are simply Vorstellungen, like a spectacles “put before” one’s eyes.

We can say, instead, of a person that is representative, because the representation works to ways: one can represent others in as far as they recognize themselves in what he represents.

So electoral competitions are all plaid on persuading people that one really represents what they hold dear, which can then make him capable to represent them. Obama, for example, was elected as representative of the American people because of the persuasive claim to represent what had made them one, against all racial and partisan divisions. Too bad that rarely there has been a greater gap between the image given in election time by the presidential candidate and the action of the elected president. Racial conflicts have been rekindled, and partisanship is more scorching than ever.

Now, back to the Pope’s speech, we could say that partisanship threatening democracy because of the majority rule is precisely the question addressed by it. Most remarkable then is that the Bishop of Rome, in speaking as representative ad extra of Catholic Christianity, addressed himself to the common ground of representation, not speaking of religion in a sectarian sense, but giving a great lesson of political and juridical theory.


Saturday, October 01, 2011

The threefold synthesis: the idea of Europe

As is the HP's wont, he cut right to the heart of the matter with his post of earlier this week, "A higher law." There, he suggests that the lynchpin on which the Holy Father's vision of Europe turns - or, if you will, the lodestar from which it takes its bearings - is that Europe is essentially - arises from the "encounter between Jerusalem, Athens and Rome – from the encounter between Israel’s monotheism, the philosophical reason of the Greeks and Roman law." This is not the first time we have seen the Holy Father articulate this vision. In his Regensburg address (without doubt one of the three fundamental and most important public addresses of BXVI's pontificate), the Pope said:
[The] inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history - it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe.
This idea is, therefore, a basic notion of what I would like to call, "the political thought of Pope Benedict XVI" - incidentally, the working title of a book I am currently writing. The two formulations, offered at five years' remove, tend also to suggest that the Holy Father's political thinking (I hope it is clear that I mean "political" in the ancient and original sense, recovered for political science by Eric Voegelin in the second half of the 20th century) is rather more systematic than a cursory consideration of his writings might suggest. Having written a licentiate dissertation arguing essentially that the program of St Augustine's De civitate Dei is constructive and systematic right from the very first book (a view that opposes the general view of the matter, according to which the first ten books were a pars destruens and the first five books, in the words of one recent translator, "little more than ham-fisted Pagan-bashing"), and having written a PhD dissertation in which - among other things - I argue that the question of America involves the question of Europe intrinsically, I am prepared to see system beneath the surface and recognize Benedict's public thinking as "political" in ways and under aspects that others perhaps would not.

In order to make the task of parsing and exploring this speech manageable, we must have recourse to some analytical tools. Since The speech itself begins with the Holy Father's invocation of "representation", and since "representation" is the basic problem of political science (by which I mean, basically, philosophy sic et simpliciter - but more on that later), I propose a discussion of the senses of representation, beginning with a discussion of the two German words that are both rendered into English as "representation", but which are not precisely synonymous.

What do you say, HP? Do you agree?


Friday, September 30, 2011

PSA - The Crescat has moved...

The reader will note that our dear and highly esteemed Crescat has moved to the following address: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat/

Make note, and do go visit her at her new place.

Whatever else you might be there, you won't be bored!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

A higher law.

The LD and I have been for some time absent from this web page, he being engaged with his family, his work and his ongoing e-dialogue with friends on topics of public concern, and I… well, I’ll tell you in a second. We were then planning to make a return of some weight, when it happened that Pope Benedict gave the speech just posted by the LD on “the foundations of a free state of law”.

Here we have it! we agreed. We should comment on this grand speech.

Funny, I had been away from the blog because all taken by bringing to completion a book I have been laboring on these last three years, and I found that Benedict confirmed what I had been writing in the conclusion of the book.

I won’t go here into the theme of the book. It’s enough to say that my concern was double: to account for the truth of Christianity, and to find thus a way of defending democracy.

Quite a hard thing to do, in a moment in which the meaning of democracy has restrained itself to sheer procedures to decide who should be in government, with the result that, whichever the majority pro tempore is, it makes the other party feel oppressed. The trouble is that the different parties are in disagreement precisely about what democracy is.

We boast about our democratic political regime by defining it as the rule of law. I always found this definition as being in contradiction with other things we equally maintain: that the laws are sovereignly made by the Parliament, and at the same time that defining the law rests entirely on the (supreme) courts. The so called “rule of law”, then, is nothing else than the rule of the legislative and/or the judiciary power.

Now, the Pope recalled for us what is required for a rule to be really of law: that the law makers and interpreters are subject to a higher law. He also remarked, though, that according to the tradition he represents such a law needs not be straightway divine, because it is nothing else than the law of reason – divine then only as far as human reason can be recognized such.

The recognition of a higher law through reason was made possible in Christianity by a “three-way encounter” that “has shaped the inner identity of Europe”: to say it with the name of three emblematic cities, of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome.

Thus the Pope ends his speech. Thus - si parva licet componere magnis - with this three-way encounter I open my book. The closing which held me these months is in the realization of how according to Christian teaching the biblical tradition stands someway apart from the other two, accounting for an event that allowed to recognize in them the rational truth everywhere represented in human affairs.