Per Caritatem

Dante Beatrice Paradiso Canto 31For Dante the ultimate meaning of human history can be understood in terms of salvation history.  That is, Dante believes strongly in God’s providential guidance over human history; yet, within God’s providence there is a place for human freedom and deliberation.  God creates humans in his image, which entails the gift of freedom, and this freedom is to be used in the service of God. In the Divine Comedy, Dante tells of how he strayed from his own vocational calling (to be a Christian epic poet) and how, by God’s grace working through figures like Beatrice, he was able to fulfill his calling.

Dante understands the entire created order as sacramental in nature.   In other words, beauty, art, images, and the physical all have value in Dante’s worldview.  We see this in Dante’s relationship with Beatrice.  Beatrice was a particular, historical person, whom Dante at a young age came to admire and even love.  Apparently, Beatrice was a virtuous woman who was trying to lead Dante to higher things, the most important of which is the Christian God.  From some of his other writings (Convivio), Dante seems to have been “led astray” by false schools of philosophy or by using philosophy wrongly.  That is, Dante, instead of using philosophy as a handmaiden to revelation, exalted philosophy to the detriment of revelation.   As a result, Dante finds himself lost and in need of guidance.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante (the character) has to journey through hell and purgatory and after the purgation process, finally makes his way to paradise and ultimately experiences the beatific vision.  Vergil serves as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.  This seems to suggest that natural reason can only take one so far (even though one wonders how Vergil has knowledge of Purgatory).  This is not to devalue natural reason, as by the proper use of natural reason one can become virtuous.  Dante is thoroughly familiar with the Greek tradition of virtue as acquired by practice via the use of practical reason and which then becomes a habit that produces stable character.  Humans, in a way unlike any other animals, have reason and are able to deliberate and choose the good in various circumstances.   Dante readily acknowledges by his choice of Vergil as his guide and by the appearance of various unexpected characters in Purgatory (e.g., Cato—an expression not only of political freedom but also of moral freedom).

With his depiction of purgatory, Dante brings together the Greek tradition of virtue acquisition with the Christian tradition which stresses our need for the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.  The theological virtues do not destroy the natural virtues; rather, they crown and complete them.  Dante also affirms the goodness of creation, art and beauty by his positive portrayal of the use of images and the sensory in Purgatory (e.g., singing, liturgical acts etc.).  Vergil’s role, however, is limited and after Dante has gained mastery over himself, Vergil hands the torch to Beatrice.  Under Beatrice’s guidance, Dante is taught a number of theological truths and undergoes a painful time of confession.  One can interpret this confession as Dante’s admission that he had been seduced by Lady Philosophy and has now seen the errors of his ways.

Beatrice plays a special role as a universal-particular.  That is, Beatrice was a concrete, historical person—Dante, after all, tells us that she did in fact die and that he knew her as a young boy.  Yet, in the pageant scene, she appears in the vision as an image of the integrity of the Church (as she chases off the “heretics” presented as foxes etc.)  Though Beatrice is Dante’s guide and is his superior with regard to theological knowledge, she is clear that Dante is not to worship her.  When Dante at times stares too fixedly at her, she immediately exhorts him to turn his attention to Christ.  (This is in keeping with Dante’s need to fulfill his calling.  The fact that he turned away from Christ and made philosophy an idol is the reason for his wandering in the first place).

Dante’s final guide is St. Bernard, a mystic and a poet.  With the choice of St. Bernard, Dante gives a literary picture of the traditional Catholic teaching of grace completing nature and the compatibility of reason and revelation.  That is, revelation, though supra-rational, is not irrational.  The Incarnation, as Dante makes  clear at the end of the poem, ultimately cannot be fully articulated by finite, human language.  St. Bernard, as a mystic points us to the mystery of the Trinitarian God whose Love opens the way for union with him.  With the completion of his Divine Comedy, Dante has fulfilled his life’s calling and thus has participated in the ultimate meaning of human history—to glorify God.

 

In chapter one, “The Message of Populorum Progressio,” of Pope Benedict XVI’s new encyclical, he brings Paul VI’s insights on charity and truth to bear on the present in a number of fascinating ways.  Paul VI wrote his encyclical, Populorum Progressio, in 1967 just after the completion of Vatican II.  The encyclical clearly identifies itself with spirit and concerns of Vatican II and the social justice teaching of the Catholic Church.  For example, the opening paragraphs of Populorum Progressio state,Pope Benedict XVI

The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance; of those who are seeking a larger share in the benefits of civilization and a more active improvement of their human qualities; of those who are consciously striving for fuller growth.[1]

With an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area, the Church judges it her duty to help all men explore this serious problem in all its dimensions, and to impress upon them the need for concerted action at this critical juncture.”

Benedict XVI as well highlights the important of the Second Vatican Council and the role it played in shaping both Paul VI’s document and the social teaching of his magisterial successors.  Then the Pope mentions two important truths from Paul VI’s encyclical that still speak to us today.

The first is that the whole Church, in all her being and acting – when she proclaims, when she celebrates, when she performs works of charity – is engaged in promoting integral human development. She has a public role over and above her charitable and educational activities: all the energy she brings to the advancement of humanity and of universal fraternity is manifested when she is able to operate in a climate of freedom. In not a few cases, that freedom is impeded by prohibitions and persecutions, or it is limited when the Church’s public presence is reduced to her charitable activities alone.

Having just spent some time reading Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit and parts of his Phenomenology of Spirit, I found it the Pope’s point about the need “to operate in a climate of freedom” to be in great continuity with Hegel’s thought.  For example, in the section on “Objective Spirit” in Hegel’s Philosophy of Spirit, he explores the concrete institutional structures that promote human flourishing.  According to Hegel, political institutions-those which over time have developed various traditions and customs-are the conditions required for the possibility of human advancement and flourishing.  Though I in no way agree with Hegel’s narrative regarding the details of the master/slave dialectic, he does claim that this dialectic must be overcome through recognition of our mutual rationality and freedom-that is, the other must be recognized not as my tool but as an “I” who has the ability to step back from the causal matrix and act as a free being.

The first triad under Objective Spirit is the movement from abstract right (thesis), to morality (Moralität, antithesis), to social ethics (Sittlichkeit, the synthesis of the previous two).  Abstract right deals with law articulating various rights and duties of the citizens.  Morality focuses on the individual conscience and what s/he takes as morally binding on her/himself.  When we get to social ethics, however, we have moved beyond mere private conscience (though private conscience has not be eradicated) to a higher synthesis of private morality and social living in the customary life of a concrete state.  Here the triad moves from the immediacy of the family to civil society to the state.  The structures of a civil society are based on contract and private interests where the most basic unit in the atomistic individual.  Yet, Hegel also emphasizes that a civil society should allow for voluntary entry associations such as churches, fine art societies and the like.  The state, of course, represents the synthesis of this triad, and it is here that we find not only the government of the people but the lifeblood of the people as well.  Here the individual finds greater meaning within the larger whole, while, according to Hegel, still remaining an individual.  Interestingly, Hegel stresses that the state’s constitution is not to be externally imposed on a people, but rather must arise from within the state’s own history and tradition.  That is, it must express the state’s innermost being-its Spirit/Geist.  Consequently, for Hegel, religion plays a huge role in the development of the state, as religion is tied to the ultimate and deeply felt concerns of human beings.  This is not to suggest that a state’s constitution ought to quote bible verses in its legislation; rather, the idea is that the intelligible principles and moral insights of religion have an essential role to play in public life and to bar religion (in that sense) from public life is to remove one of the key voices in the harmony of state.  (Charles Taylor seems to articulate something along these lines).

Hegel also notes that the history of states has gone through many developments.  In some expressions, freedom was experienced by few; however, in the modern state, the possibility of freedom for all has been unleashed.  In no way am I suggesting that what Hegel says is identical in all its details with what Benedict XVI articulates in his encyclical.  However, there are some interesting overlaps here to be explored, and I am simply applying the Pope’s own words as articulated in the introduction:

Fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development. For this reason the Church searches for truth, proclaims it tirelessly and recognizes it wherever it is manifested. This mission of truth is something that the Church can never renounce. Her social doctrine is a particular dimension of this proclamation: it is a service to the truth which sets us free. Open to the truth, from whichever branch of knowledge it comes, the Church’s social doctrine receives it, assembles into a unity the fragments in which it is often found, and mediates it within the constantly changing life-patterns of the society of peoples and nations [Cf. Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 76.]

In short, both Hegel and Benedict emphasize the importance of human freedom, the formative role of concrete institutions and tradition, and the need to appeal to common, shared truths available to all apart from revelation (which is not to say that Christians in the public square, for example, ought not to allow revelation to inform their views.  Indeed they should and must.  It’s the how that various Christians disagree over).

Returning to the text, Paul VI’s second important truth is that “authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension” [Cf. Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 14: loc. cit., 264.].  As Benedict explains,

“Without the perspective of eternal life, human progress in this world is denied breathing-space. Enclosed within history, it runs the risk of being reduced to the mere accumulation of wealth; humanity thus loses the courage to be at the service of higher goods, at the service of the great and disinterested initiatives called forth by universal charity. Man does not develop through his own powers, nor can development simply be handed to him.”

In what follows the Pope distinguishes his view from those who would claim that well-functioning human institutions in themselves are our salvation and hope. Rather, as the Pope states,

institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature [Cf. Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est (25 December 2005), 18: AAS 98 (2006), 232.], to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.” [Ibid., 6: loc cit., 222.]

I haven’t finished reading the encyclical yet; however, what I’ve read thus far, I’ve  found edifying and a “breath of fresh air” in an age in which the human beings are increasingly instrumentalized and often treated as a mere resource having no dignity of their own.

Notes


[1] All citations from Caritas in Veritate are taken from the online version of the document as found here:  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate_en.html#_edn16.

 

In his work, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Johannes Climacus discusses what he calls the dialectical aspects of Christianity or those aspects of Christian belief that one might call intellectual.   Climacus of course do not think that Christianity is merely a set of doctrines to which one must assent.  Rather, Christianity is a way of existence-as Climacus says, “Christianity is not a doctrine,” but is “an existence-communication” (VII, 328-29; pp. 379-380).[1] As C. Stephen Evans observes, this statement has been misunderstood often.  Climacus himself anticipated the potential misunderstanding and gives a lengthy footnote to clarify his meaning.  Here he explains,

Surely a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and speculatively understood is one thing, and a doctrine that is to be actualized in existence is something else. If there is to be any question of understanding with regard to this latter doctrine, then this understanding must be:  to understand that it is to be existed in, to understand the difficulty of existing in it, what a prodigious existence-task [Existents-Opgave] this doctrine assigns to the learner (VII, 329; p. 379).

Because the Christianity of Climacus’ day had become overly speculative, he purposely distances himself from the word “doctrine,” as he fears that by employing the word, Christianity will continue to be categorized and understood as a philosophical theory instead of way of existence.  Thus, he comes up with a new term, “existence-communication.”  In no way is Climacus denying that Christianity has intellectual content; rather, he wants to make sure that this content is set forth in such a way that the uniqueness of Christianity as a transcendent (as opposed to an immanent) religion is upheld.  As Climacus explains,

If Christianity were a doctrine, it would eo ipso not constitute the opposite of speculative thought but would be an element within it.  Christianity pertains to existence, to existing, but existence and existing are the very opposite of speculation.  The Eleatic doctrine, for example, is not related to existing but to speculation; therefore it must be assigned its place within speculation.  Precisely because Christianity is not a doctrine, it holds true, as developed previously, that there is an enormous difference between knowing what Christianity is and being a Christian.  With regard to a doctrine, this distinction is unthinkable, because the doctrine is not related to existing.  I cannot help it that our age has reversed the relation and changed Christianity into a philosophical theory that is to be comprehended and being a Christian into something negligible.  Furthermore, to say that Christianity is empty of content because it is not a doctrine is only chicanery.  When a believer exists in faith, his existence has enormous content, but not in the sense of a yield in the paragraphs (VII, 329; p. 380).

The content of Christianity is dialectical; it is the “absolute paradox” and as such, it differentiates Christianity from immanent religions in which in principle all doctrines can be penetrated rationally, making revelation superfluous.  Climacus is firmly committed to what the orthodox Christian tradition calls the “mysteries of the faith”-the Incarnation, the Trinity and other doctrines which are both central to the Christian faith and can only be known through revelation.  In addition and related to the previous passage, Climacus believes that the content of Christianity has the potential to actually transform a person’s existence, giving him/her a new passion-“it is relating to the pathos-filled as an impetus for a new pathos” (VII, 488; p. 559).  Christian belief then is intimated related to action.  As Evans explains,

Climacus understands Christian belief as not merely accompanied by action but as essentially expressing itself in action.  Because of this he attempts to rethink the nature of that belief in such a way that it does not exclude belief as an intellectual act but does exclude even the possibility of belief being only an intellectual act.  This conception of Christian belief is itself demanded by “existential appropriation” that is Christianity and the content of Christianity, which is the absolute paradox, can be seen to correspond exactly to each other [VII, 532; pp. 610-611].  Both the content of Christianity and the appropriation of Christianity become “specifically different” from everything else (Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript, p. 210).


[1] All citations are from the Hong translation.