Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reading for Holy Week

In 1996 an Italian newspaper invited Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan to join with his friend, secularist and novelist Umberto Eco in a series of dialogues on the place of religion in contemporary society.  The two exchanged four letters a piece.  Out of those eight letters, the book, Belief or Nonbelief: a Confrontation, emerged.

In honor of the upcoming holy week I submit a small portion of the book, part of a letter written by Eco to the Cardinal. The entire letter is worth reading and can be found here:  

When the Other Appears on the Scene. 

In a prior letter, the cardinal had asked Eco: “What is the basis of the certainty and necessity for moral action of those who, in order to establish the absolute nature of an ethic, do not intend to appeal to metaphysical principles or transcendental values, or even to universally valid categorical imperatives?”  In other words, Martini is invoking the question of, if there is no God, isn't everything now permitted.

But you say that, without the example and the word of Christ, all lay ethics would lack a basic justification imbued with an ineluctable power of conviction. Why deprive laypersons of the right to avail themselves of the example of a forgiving Christ? Try, Carlo Maria Martini, for the good of the discussion and of the dialogue in which you believe, to accept even if only for a moment the idea that there is no God; that man appeared in the world out of a blunder on the part of maladroit fate, delivered not only unto his mortal condition but also condemned to be aware of this, and for this reason the most imperfect of all creatures (if I may be permitted the echoes of Leopardi in this suggestion). This man, in order to find the courage to await death, would necessarily become a religious animal, and would aspire to the construction of narratives capable of providing him with an explanation and a model, an exemplary image. And among the many stories he imagines—some dazzling, some awe-inspiring, some pathetically comforting—in the fullness of time he has at a certain point the religious, moral, and poetic strength to conceive the model of Christ, of universal love, of forgiveness for enemies, of a life sacrificed that others may be saved. If I were a traveler from a distant galaxy and I found myself confronted with a species capable of proposing this model, I would be filled with admiration for such theogonic energy, and I would judge this wretched and vile species, which has committed so many horrors, redeemed were it only for the fact that it has managed to wish and to believe that all this is the truth.
You are now free to leave the hypothesis to others: but admit that even if Christ were only the subject of a great story, the fact that this story could have been imagined and desired by humans, creatures who know only that they do not know, would be just as miraculous (miraculously mysterious) as the son of a real God’s being made flesh. This natural and worldly mystery would not cease to move and ennoble the hearts of those who do not believe. 
This is why I believe that, on the fundamental points, a natural ethic— respected for the profound religiosity that inspires it—can find common ground with the principles of an ethic founded on faith in transcendence, which cannot fail to recognize that natural principles have been carved into our hearts on the basis of a plan for salvation. If this leaves, as it certainly does, margins that may not overlap, it is no different from what happens when different religions encounter one another. And in conflicts of faith, charity and prudence must prevail.
Eco and Martini


James R said...

Cardinal Martini is the God to the human Eco whom he "goads toward novelty." Eco typically writes well, but here he rises to inspiration. I don't know how the letters proceed, but I can imagine that, like all meaningful discussions, there becomes more understanding and consensus, though, perhaps, complexity (or depth). What is really the difference between Martini's Jesus Christ who saves mankind and Eco's story of Jesus Christ, which, at least as Eco's views it, is inspirationally saving mankind?

James R said...

That last sentence didn't come out quite right. How about "Is there much meaningful difference between Martini's God and Eco's good which emanates from the awareness that nature has created the story of Jesus? Eco doesn't think so, or at least he believes there is room for accord.