Monday 30 December 2013

Saturday 28 December 2013

Spirituality and religion and ethics, yet again

Yet another possible danger of spirituality versus religion: the intrinsically individual nature of the contemporary search for spirituality in the West: the contamination by the individualism that originated with modernity. Which means that I am supreme, I pick and choose; and that I will probably not allow myself to be challenged. Thus Hahnenberg:
"[T]he principal weakness of choice - as a fundamental framework for the spiritual life - is the way it can so easily short-circuit personal transformation. If relgious traditions and religious institutions no longer provide the context for the spiritual life, but instead serve as resources for our own spiritual constructions, can they ever really challenge us? Despite the sincerity of the search, does Christianity, in the end, become a collection of commodities from which I pick and choose, determining whether or not they fit into my life - a life whose basic pattern is set well before any real encounter with the demands of the Gospel?" (Edward P. Hahnenberg, Awakening Vocation: A Theology of Christian Call [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2010] xiii)

Suffering, pain and the goodness of God

Antony Flew's challenge to religious people: if you can show what might possibly falsify a religious statement such as "God is a loving father," that statement can be considered meaningful. If not, it is simply meaningless.

When a child is sick, his father goes out of his way, and will do all in his power, to try to cure him. We call such a father a 'good father.' He would be a bad father if he were not to do all in his power to cure his child. But God? How can we call God a loving father, when he seems not to do all in his power - and he is all-powerful - to help his children? What is the meaning of calling God a loving father? If the goodness of God is compatible with any and every state of affairs, what is the meaning of 'good' here?

A statement is meaningful only if we know what would have to happen to falsify it. So: what would have to happen to falsify the statement that God is a loving father?

Flew's challenge is formidable. Hare and Mitchell try to answer him in thier own way, but Flew makes short schrift of their answers. What I love is I.M. Crombie's answer, and to the best of my knowledge, Flew has not responded to it.  Here is the final part of the answer:
"There are three main fortresses behind which he goes. For, first, he looks for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come; he believes, that is, that we do not see all of the picture, and that the parts which we do not see are precisely the parts which determine the deign of the whole. He admits that if this hope be vain then we are of all men the most miserable. Second, he claims that he sees in Christ the verification, and to some extent also the specification, of the divine love. That is to say, he finds in Christ not only convincing evidence of God's concern for us, but also what sort of love the divine love is, what sort of benefits God is concerned to give us. He sees that, on the New Testament scale of values, it is better for a man to lose the whole world if he can thereby save his soul (which means his relationship to God); and that for that hope it is reasonable to sacrifice all that he has, and to undergo the death of the body and the mortification of the spirit. Third, he claims that in the religious life, of others, if not as yet in his own, the divine love may be encountered, that the promise 'I will not fail thee nor forsake thee' is, if rightly understood, confirmed there. If, of course, this promise is interpreted as involving immunity from bodily suffering, it will be refuted; but no reader of the New Testament has any right so to interpret it. It is less glaringly, but as decisively, wrong to interpret it as involving immunity from spiritual suffering; for in the New Testament only the undergoing of death (which means the abdication of control over one's destiny) can be the beginning of life. What then does it promise? It promises that to the man who begins on the way of the Christian life, on the way that is of seeking life through death, of seeking relationship with God through the abdication of self-sovereignty claimed by Adam, that to him the fight will be hard but not impossible, progress often indiscernible, but real, progress which is towards the paring away of self-hood, and which is therefore often given through defeat and humiliation, but a defeat and humiliation which are not final, which leave it possible to continue. This is the extra-parental nurture of religious belief of which I spoke earlier, and it is the third of the prepared positions on to which the Christian retreats, claiming that the image and reflection of the love of God may be seen not only hereafter, not only in Christ, but also, if dimly, in the concrete process of living the Christian life.
     One final word. Religion has indeed its problems; but it is useless to consider them outside their religious context. Seen as a whole religion makes rough sense, though it does not make limpidity."
(I.M. Crombie, in Antony Flew, Richard M. Hare, Basil Mitchell, and I. M. Crombie, "Theology and Falsification," New Essays in Philosophical Theology, eds. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre  [London: SCM, 1969] 129-30) 
In his use of Christian language and belief - and especially in his appeal to the resurrection - Crombie reminds me of John Milbank. The links need to be explored.  

Wednesday 25 December 2013

The all-sufficiency of God

Jesus the Gift, the Sign.
And when we talk of gift, the question that arises is: am I happy with this gift? Am I satisfied? Is it enough for me?
God in his goodness gives us the Gift, and many other gifts besides, most of the time. If God were to give me only this Gift, would I be happy? Would I be content?

The all-sufficiency of God: "All I want is you, Senor," Willie Juan learns to pray in the parable narrated, I think, by Brennan Manning. "All I want is you, Senor." "My happiness lies in you alone."
What else have I in heaven but you
Apart from you I want nothing on earth
My body and my heart faint for joy
God is my possession forever.
To be able to say these words of Psalm with all my heart: that would truly be Christmas.

"Neither death nor life..." Paul says. And how true this is. Perhaps Paddy Chayefsky, in his extraordinary play Gideon, captures this well: when Gideon complains to God about all the killing God is ordering, God - like Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita? - tells him that he must learn to see things as God sees them. Not death, not life, but life in God, that is what Jesus comes to proclaim: I am the Way, the Truth, the Life. I am the Resurrection and the Life.

Saturday 21 December 2013

The sign of Emmanuel

The coming Sunday, 4th of Advent, has the very same readings as those for 20 December: the prophecy of Isaiah regarding the Virgin birth, and the fulfilment of that prophecy as narrated in the gospels.

Isaiah tells Ahaz to ask for a sign, and the king, because he does not really want to hear or obey the word of God, piously says he will not put God to the test. The sign is given anyway, and the sign is the Virgin and child.

The sign that is given to us, whether we want it or not, is Mary and the Child. The Child who is Emmanuel, God with us.

This is the sign that is given yet again to us, today, everyday, every Christmas: God is with us.

Let me let this Word wash over me. Over my concrete reality. What is my reality? What is the reality of my life? What are my joys, and what makes me suffer? What is it that I find hard, difficult, unbearable, impossible? In the midst of that reality, comes the Word: God is with us. I am with you.

Suffering is of many kinds. Perhaps for today we could say: there is suffering for which I am at least partly responsible; and there is suffering that has come my way, in which I have had no role to play. If I am suffering because I have eaten too much pansit, and too many sweets and chocolates, then I am responsible for this suffering. If I have fallen down and broken my arm because I drank too much on Christmas day, I am responsible for this suffering. But if I fell down and broke my arm because I slipped on the ice, I am not responsible for this suffering.

In both kinds of suffering, the Word comes to us: Christ is born. God is with us. I am with you.

My first response is to believe, with all my heart. Do I believe?

My next response is to see what God is telling me. If I am responsible for my suffering, is he telling me to change? Is he telling me to stop eating too much, stop drinking too much? And if I am not responsible for my suffering, he still says: I am with you. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find Jesus promising us a life without suffering. What he does promise is: I will be with you, till the end of the world. I am with you, and that is enough. Is it enough for me? That may be the challenge God is putting before me today: to believe in his all-sufficiency, to believe that he is enough for me, that he is happiness enough for me, that he is my happiness. [Psalm.] Whether things change or not, God is with me, and that is enough.

Tuesday 17 December 2013


Impossible suffering in the Philippines, as also, differently, in so many parts of the world and the Middle East.

Our hearts and our minds ask: how? why?

And God's answer is very different, very difficult.

Paddy Chayefsky's Gideon comes to mind: God dismisses the questions of Gideon. You do not understand. You think too much like a man. For you this world, this life, is everything. I have a much larger picture. Can't help recalling Krishna saying much the same thing, especially in his Theophany, to the Arjuna agonizing over killing of relatives, teachers, friends.

God's point of view. Humanism, and the making absolute of the human. Rationalism. The third pole of the two-pronged dialectic (see Lonergan, Insight).

A constant challenge to one who reads the Word. How do we rest? How do we take vibrant, ringing joy, as on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, in the face of the miseries and misfortunes of the world, and of our personal lives?

Perhaps: "God educating us, leading us by the hand..." (Tit 2:12) 


The other day we had the gospel passage that follows Jesus' Jubelruf: Come to me all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.

Ratzinger / Benedict XVI points out the deep meaning of rest here: I will give you rest: Jesus puts himself in the place of the Sabbath rest. He is revolutionary, and the Jewish scholar realizes that all too clearly.

Jesus is our Rest. He is our Home. He is our final destination.

How is my heart today? Is it at rest? Is it restless? If it is restless, why? And what can I do to reach rest? What am I doing that is preventing me from resting in the Rest? And do I want to reach rest?

And if I think it is at rest, have I truly reached the rest that is the Rest? Or have I perhaps mistaken some halfway house, some house along the way, for the Rest that is Jesus?

Spirituality and religion and ethics, continued

Further on the topic of spirituality and religion. (I've just sent something to Mark Ulyseas for Live Encounters January 2014. Not completely satisfactory. Not substantial enough.)

The well-known saying of Dostoievsky from The Brothers Karamazov came to mind: If there is no God, everything is permitted.

If God is dead, then man is the creator of values and of meaning (Nietzsche). This is, probably, at least a species of nihilism, where nihilism means that there is no inherent, intrinsic meaning to things, but that it is imposed on them by man.

In practice - as Nietzsche recognized only too clearly - this will mean that the strongest will impose his / their will on the others. The Overman, the Superman. The ideology for the Nazis. And the hidden, unacknowledged ideology of many others, including savage capitalism?

Stanley Hauerwas on the deep inconsistency and peril of the postmodern who, wanting to defend victims, ends up by not defending them, because what basis does he have for defending them rather than defending his own skin, or his own particular group? Rorty's ethnocentrism.

So: does God assure sane values? Does religion assure sane values?

Does the 'true hero' of Sartre, the atheist, have any light to go by?

Perhaps Lonergan would say yes: the inbuilt dynamisms, the transcendental notions.

Is he carried by the tradition? No doubt. And if that tradition is Christian, he is carried by it. As Gentile or Croce said: we are not Christians, but we cannot call ourselves non-Christian.

Or is it perhaps that we need to respect autonomy as against heteronomy, as Kant said?

The Epiphany or Appearing

"but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life." (Tit 3:4-7)

And the previous text once again:

"For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ..." (Tit 2:11-13)

When God appeared - when Jesus came - he saved us by washing and renewal in the Holy Spirit.

The divine pedagogy

"For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world..." (Tit 2:11-12 RSVCE)

"For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (NIV)

What is translated as 'training' or 'teaching' here is paideuousa hmaV. God is educating us, leading us by the hand, so that we might renounce irreligion - or ungodliness - and worldly passions. I like this: God educating us, leading us by the hand. This text does not talk about dramatic transformation - and really, not even Paul's conversion was total and instantaneous. It talks about God leading us by the hand, through the ups and downs of life, bringing us to himself, to become like him. 

Thursday 12 December 2013


Alice Roosevelt of her father, President Theodore Roosevelt: "Father has depths of insincerity not even he has plumbed." (Gore Vidal, Empire: A Novel [New York: Random House, 1987] 381)

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Ferdinand Ebner (1882-1931)

I had first heard about Ferdinand Ebner from Massimiliano De Luca, a Salesian from the IME province. Ebner, Massimiliano told me, was known as the philosopher of the gift. I learn now that Ebner was, together with Buber, one of the philosophers of dialogue, of the I-Thou, something he discovered and coined quite independent of Buber. Ebner was a primary school teacher in Austria, and never became quite as well known as Buber, but it would seem that he did have a significant influence upon a host of well-known theologians, including Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger. So that is one more element in the background from which Ratzinger's work springs. In the sense that his thought was cognate to Christian theology, if not itself theological, Ebner is also mentioned together with Gabriel Marcel. He himself, though Christian and Catholic, had a complex relationship with the church, struggling with anti-clerical feelings all through life. He is known as a philosopher of the word, and much of his thinking centres around the Prologue of the Gospel of John: "In the beginning was the word." (Wittgenstein instead played with this: Im Anfang war die Tat. In the beginning was the deed.) I find the little I have read strangely evocative. 

"In the beginning was the word"

I've spent the last week trying to digest John Milbank's "The Midwinter Sacrifice," found in The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Graham Ward, himself one of the names associated with Radical Orthodoxy, the new thinking that has emerged within the Anglican communion. I had read the piece some years ago while preparing for my talk on tradition-innovation dynamics within Christianity, and had come away intrigued by Milbank's reflections on gift. Now I realize that he is trying to reconceive the ethical in terms of gift-exchange, while vigorously opposing what he calls a 'recent consensus' that sees gift as unilateral giving, and that is associated with names like Jan Patocka (who I have never heard of till now), Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Marion. The problem is that the idea of gift as unilateral is easily secularized, and even perhaps finds its best consistency in a secularized horizon, as I remember Sartre saying: the true hero, the true saint, is the atheist, because he does what he does for no reward at all.

Just now I am wondering whether to go on with this rather exciting reflection on gift and sacrifice and ethics, or go on to working out something to meet Gerry Whelan's request for a piece on Lonergan's anthropology. I have begun dipping into the pieces Massimiliano De Luca sent me about Ferdinand Ebner, another philosopher who I had never heard of, but who Massimiliano calls the Philosopher of the Gift. From John D. Caputo's piece in The Blackwell Companion, it is obvious that gift has been one of the themes that Derrida has made popular.

The little I have read about Ebner I find intriguing (see Baccarini, Emilio. “In principio era la parola: La svolta di Ferdinand Ebner.” Dialegesthai: Rivista telematica di filosofia [in linea], anno 1 (1999) [inserito il 10 marzo 1999], disponibile su World Wide Web: , [61 KB], ISSN 1128-5478.) The thought that comes to me is the fecundity of the word, the symbolic word, language that is pregnant: it has the capacity to arouse thought in a way that is so different from theoretical language or even the language of interiority. And I am powerfully drawn to it. That is what, in the end, I find fascinating in the language of the later Heidegger, I suppose. On the other hand, 'free' speculation is always easier.  

Ebner seems to dwell very much on the word, and on the human being as the speaking animal or speaking being, the human being as realized / constituted in the I-thou relationship. This is another revolt against the objectivization of the I in Cartesian philosophy. 

Sunday 1 December 2013

Byte size thinking

Is this an inbuilt danger of blogging, the web in general, and all the contemporary means and tools of communication - sms, tweets and what not - that we so easily limit ourselves to byte-size thinking? And is this perhaps not pre-eminently post-modern, the limiting oneself, willy-nilly, to the impression, the fragment, the fleeting, the superficial? Am I, in other words, finding myself conditioned almost into byte-sized thinking? Certainly there is the pain, the difficulty, the formidability of sustained thinking. Just now I have begun reading Milbank's "The Midwinter Sacrifice." Found, of all things, in an anthology of postmodern theology - Graham Ward's The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology. Milbank tends to be formidable, and I am experiencing an unease, a dis-ease, the dizzying sensation, the vertigo, like I am about to step onto the glass pane at the top of the CN Tower in Toronto, which I know is solid, and that so many thousands of people have stepped on to it without incident, and yet the mind, the body holds back, cautious, unwilling to let go, unwilling to trust. 

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Rupnik, “E se l’evangelizzazione chiedesse una novità nella vita consacrata?” English summary