[OPE] Vatican politics

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Mon Nov 24 2008 - 18:38:04 EST

Last Saturday L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, exonerated John Lennon for his old quip that the Beatles "were now bigger than Jesus Christ", and said that The Beatles did pretty good music, especially compared to contemporary "stereotypical, standard songs". It was forty years ago that The Beatles released the White Album, and 28 years ago that Lennon was killed. Still, better to acknowledge late rather than never. Christ and Lennon had something in common, they both got murdered for famously doing something different from the prevailing norm.

In a letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy's leading daily newspaper, the Pope said Marcello Pera's book "Why We Must Call Ourselves Christian" explained with great clarity" that "an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible." In theological terms, added the Pope, "a true dialogue is not possible without putting one's faith in parentheses." (NYT)

I do not understand completely why he says that, since faith seeks to overcome (transcend) doubt, uncertainty, disorientation and chaos, and doubt, uncertainty, disorientation and chaos are something which any human being can have from time to time, including the good Lord Jesus himself. For example, hanging on the cross, being tortured brutally by Roman soldiers, he cried out "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?". Secondly, it is perfectly possible to have a decent dialogue without putting your own faith in parentheses - the dialogue in that case consists simply in acknowledging, accepting and understanding better somebody else's faith, including its right to exist, enabling you to relate better, because you understand more.

To say that "my faith rules out your faith", is sectarian and fanatical. The theological line of reasoning is, that if my faith is the truth, then I have a monopoly of the truth, and therefore, logically, any other faith cannot also be the truth. But in reality I think the Holy Books suggest a less pretentious interpretation, namely, only God knows the whole truth, our human understandings of the truth are more fallible and imperfect, and therefore have to be revised or renewed from time to time, with the growth of human understandings. That is precisely one reason why you need faith in the first place, you are dealing with something that at least partly goes beyond your own human understanding. For example, the Catholic view about the truth concerning John Lennon has changed. What the church believed before, and what it believes now are different, and the two views cannot be true at the same time, at least not in theology, since the theological truth is in the end eternal and universal. Therefore, it must be the case that we have learnt something more in the meantime, which hopefully approximates the truth better, or even captures it well.

I worked in the area of statistical research for some years, and there you find that if you have a fairly large data set showing a distribution of observations, there are logically any number (or at least a large number) of statements you could devise about that data set, and they would all be true. This is indeed partly why Benjamin Disraeli said exasperatedly, "Lies, damned lies, and statistics". He did not necessarily mean that statistics were lies, but that true quantitative facts could be interpreted in all sorts of ways, some more honorable or honest than others (to be "honest" is to tell the truth in a way which takes the other into consideration, often difficult in politics). This is just to say, that the truths we decide to tell, in order to describe the data set, depend on a useful purpose, and indeed often the data set is formatted specifically to accommodate many different purposes. At most you could say that "the truth" about the data set is the whole data set itself, but that is not very useful per se, and in fact it may be incomprehensible to know humanly what it means, without very comprehensive data exploration and data mining.

This kind of interpretation of faith and truth is fully consistent with the principle of religious freedom, i.e. to believe what you wish to believe yourself and the human right to believe it, to respect the natural spiritual inclinations that people personally have. Pope Benedict however emphasized also, that "intercultural dialogue which deepens the cultural consequences of basic religious ideas" was important. He called for confronting "in a public forum the cultural consequences of basic religious decisions." "He's trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?" said George Weigel, a Catholic scholar and biographer of Pope John Paul II (NYT).

That's pretty healthy I think, with the proviso of what I said before. The first thing there is to get rid of the fear and hate of foreign religions. By the time you are afraid of a foreign religion, you have lost the plot. One of the purposes of religion is to make people more sure and better oriented, and if you are afraid of religious things, then religion has failed, and there is no faith, or at most bad faith. Secondly, there is no way that most Muslims are going to become Catholics, or that most Catholics are going to become Islamic, this is totally unrealistic, and this has been proved in Iraq, where Christians got murdered and exiled, and a Christian priest ended up saying "we were better off with Saddam Hussein" (!). Once you get rid of the fear and hate, and you accept that other people believe different things, you can work with it, and get along, at the very least you can try, or at least leave them alone, if they want to be alone.

To live together "justly" with people of other faiths requires acceptance of mutual rights & duties, and procedures to resolve conflicts. However, you cannot resolve conflicts at all, if you think we have nothing in common as human beings, and if you think you have a monopoly of the truth. Once you adopt a less pretentious attitude, it becomes possible to have dialogue, and admit what you do not know for certain, in order to discover the truth, or at any rate get closer to it.

My personal orientation is humanist, meaning among other things that the idea of God goes beyond what I can understand about it, and that I believe in an experimental, experiential ethics in which we try to prove what is good and bad for human beings with experiential, practical and logical evidence, through a learning & discovery process, resulting in better knowledge. The existence or non-existence of God is not provable, it is a matter of faith, and even if "humanity is the supreme being for humanity" (Marx) the total knowledge of what this means is beyond a mere mortal like me. In this case, religious knowledges arising from faith can provide clues and guiding inspiration, but they don't absolve us at all from having to do our own thinking, in particular because we always have the choice to believe or not to believe, a choice which usually cannot be totally rational and involves creativity.

Why is this comment relevant to a Marxian list on political economy? Well, because religion has a very large impact on politics and economics. I don't think I need to spell that out in detail right now. Religion has divided the working classes internationally for centuries. Therefore I think it is essential to take a healthy, sensible approach to it, especially in these uncertain times where often people seek faith to get themselves through the day. Can we imagine a world without religion, as Lennon sang? Yes we can. But in reality, religion responds to deep spiritual (Geistliche) needs people have, and just as soon as you try to wipe it out, it returns again in another form. That is just to say that nothing can wipe out human spirituality, the human spirit (Geist, esprit), because it is part of being human, and that it is presumptious to say we can have the last word on all its manifestations. It's nothing to be afraid of, just something to be understood for what it is.



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Received on Mon Nov 24 18:47:23 2008

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