Friday, February 22, 2008

The Last Judgment- the decisive image of hope, not terror

It really has taken months for me to come to an appreciation of Spe Salvi. I am indebted to our School of Community for helping me, in our reading of it and discussing it light of our lives, of our experience, for showing me what a treasure this letter is. So, here are bits of the encyclical, numbers 42-43 completely and the opening part of number 44. I suppose Fridays, with the penitential aspect, especially Fridays in Lent, have an eschatological twinge.

"42. In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement [sic] has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement [sic], however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested. Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world's suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a 'longing for the totally Other' that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any 'image' of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this 'negative' dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world 'where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone'. This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve 'the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit'."

I like what the Holy Father does here with what is known in contemporary Philosophy as the inconsistent triad, which is at the heart of the question of evil, known more technically as theodicy. The inconsistent triad (of propositions) goes as follows:

God is all good
God is all powerful, yet
There is still evil in the world

Hence, one of four possibilities follow:

God is not all good
God is not all powerful
God neither all good nor all powerful
God does not exist

The take away here is that regardless of which of the four conclusions one chooses to employ, in the words of Pope Benedict, "there is no God to create justice". Is it not odd that oppressed people understand this, but easy-living folks do not? So, bracketing the fourth conclusion, we feel that for the sake of morality "this God has to be contested". In light of this we human beings must "establish justice". I would add to Adorno and Horkheimer a third thinker, whose ideas are more widespread: Albert Camus, especially in his novel The Plague and his essay The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. What is so fundamental that it is often overlooked in this calculation is the felt need, intrinsic to humanity, although challenged by some, like Nietzsche, to establish justice.

The Center of triptych, by Hans Memling 1467-71

This human need, this deep desire, for justice, a just world, which Christians recognize as nothing less than the Kingdom of God, gives rise to a contradiction: the recognized need to establish justice on the one hand and, on the other, doing so si Deus non daretur, as if God did not exist. Here is where we come face-to-face the disastrous idea of freedom as an end in itself, having no relationship whatsoever to truth, not truth as a series of propositions, but the very truth of our being. Therefore, something that Pope Benedict was going to say at La Sapienza University, building on a major theme of his thought over the years, is relevant here: "The danger facing the Western world ... is that man today, precisely because of the immensity of his knowledge and power, surrenders before the question of truth."

In an address given to catechists during the Jubilee Year in 2000 while still Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, commenting on a conclusion arrived at by theologian Johannes Baptist Metz, said: "The true problem of our times [according to Metz] is the 'Crisis of God,' the absence of God, disguised by an empty religiosity. Theology must go back to being truly theo-logy, speaking about and with God. Metz is right: the unum necessarium to man is God. Everything changes, whether God exists or not"

"43. Christians likewise can and must constantly learn from the strict rejection of images that is contained in God's first commandment (cf. Ex 20:4). The truth of negative theology was highlighted by the Fourth Lateran Council, which explicitly stated that however great the similarity that may be established between Creator and creature, the dissimilarity between them is always greater ["between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude"-Lateran Council IV: DS 806]. In any case, for the believer the rejection of images cannot be carried so far that one ends up, as Horkheimer and Adorno would like, by saying 'no' to both theses—theism and atheism. God has given himself an 'image': in Christ who was made man. In him who was crucified, the denial of false images of God is taken to an extreme. God now reveals his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself. This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an 'undoing' of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement [sic] is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."

This, again, is so fundamental that we might miss it. God does not answer our cry for justice with a brilliant argument, but by becoming human for us and revealing "his true face in the figure of the sufferer who shares man's God-forsaken condition by taking it upon himself". Jesus Christ, in his passion, death, resurrection, and return in glory, is the answer to our cry for justice. Nonetheless, at the same time, as the Holy Father notes, our Lord meets Horkheimer's criteria.

"44. To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement [sic] is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope."

So, perhaps the reason that Gaudium et Spes was not used as a point of reference for this letter (I am speculating- probably wildly) is that, without becoming a prophet of doom, the Holy Father found it too optimistic. After all, to be hopeful, as Spe Salvi shows, is not the same as being optimistic. On a tagental note for a Friday post, sometimes admitting failure is the first step to succeeding.


  1. These are some great quotes, especially this one: God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith.

    I admit I've never read Camus, but Matthew Lickona quoted a significant part of The Plague in Swimming with Scapulars. He basically embraced the position of the village pastor. I can see value in this but it doesn't tell the whole story...

  2. I have to say, this encyclical, which I was initially very resistant to, has affected me tremendously. Faith as a form of knowledge- Yes!

    By the way, thanks for the link to Matthew's wonderful book. I have been listening to it since Saturday. I love his style.

    If I were to recommend any Camus I would recommend the two I mention. If someone were looking for more, The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus from an earlier period of his writing would be good.

    There are two people I find it very difficult to write about, Camus and Pater Tom (Merton). I also like a talk Camus gave to the French Dominicans, published in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. This was quoted by Timothy Radcliffe in his book What is the Point of Being a Christia?. One day, quite to my surprise, then-Bp. Niederauer quoted it in a homily. Anyway, the last book mentioned is a collection of speeches, essays, and reflections.

    I was heavily into Camus' more metaphysically platable style of existentialism just prior to becoming Catholic. Heck, I still am in a way. By contrast, along with Camus, I cannot tolerate Sartre.