Monday, March 18, 2013

"Truth is symphonic," it resists reduction

Since my post Pope Francis: What's in a name?, the Holy Father has provided us with an answer to the question, "Why the name Francis?" In his address to journalists last Saturday, Pope Francis shared the following:
Some people wanted to know why the Bishop of Rome wished to be called Francis. Some thought of Francis Xavier, Francis De Sales, and also Francis of Assisi. I will tell you the story. During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo and Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Claudio Hummes: a good friend, a good friend! When things were looking dangerous, he encouraged me. And when the votes reached two thirds, there was the usual applause, because the Pope had been elected. And he gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: “Don't forget the poor!” And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi
I appreciate the clarification and love the simplicity of Pope Francis' story (who wouldn't?). Predictably, I have received a few "nanner, nanner"-type replies to my post, despite the fact that I admitted to not knowing why he chose "Francis" and thought I made it clear that I was simply exploring possibilities, which exploration spilled over into my next post (Concrete polyavlance: the communion of saints). These responses brought to my attention, yet again, how on-line interaction often renders us less mature and causes some people to regress to Piaget's "concrete operational" stage of development.

All of this brings me back to the concept, or idea, of polyvalence. I want to apply that concept more specifically to language. So, for an explication of what I was pointing to as we awaited some clarification as to why the Holy Father chose the name "Francis," I turn to that philosopher whose prose style is said to have been been dubbed by Michel Foucault obscurantisme terroriste (i.e., terrorist obscurantism- I have never found it to be so, but some of Foucault writings are, in my estimation, moral terrorism). Whatever else might be written of Derrida, he grasped the mystery of language and how it is language that leads us into an intense encounter with reality ("In the beginning was Logos"- John 1:1). Too many philosophers and theologians, failing to grasp the mysterious nature of language, seek to be definitive about what they write and work very hard to make their prose unequivocal, bearing a singular message, one that is not subject to any other way of understanding it. Derrida's point was never that authorial intention doesn't matter when trying to understand a text (though some extremists of the "deconstructionist" school tried to make this case and drew on Derrida to do so). On the contrary, he insisted that it is one of the markers that constitute the boundaries of what a text can mean.

Pope Francis' papal coat-of-arms

Derrida's point, as I understand it, was that language resists our attempts to reduce the meaning of a text exclusively to what we think were the specific intentions of its authors, even when the intentions are fairly well known, but especially when the are not. This brings to mind many critical passages written by St. Paul. Nothing demonstrates this better than attempts to reduce the interpretation of Sacred Scripture by application of the historical-critical method. It is the post-critical, that is, theological expositors of Scripture that help us grasp the polyvalence of the sacred texts. Anyone who has read Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth books knows firsthand what it is to explicate Scripture in a post-critical way. It was Hans Urs Von Balthasar, especially in the first chapter of his first volume of his theological aesthetics, Seeing the Form, who pioneered the post-critical approach, which does not discount the insights wrought by those who mine the historical-critical vein, but refuses to be reductive, or let the atomizing of Scripture be the last word because it leaves us only with fragments and shards, saying nothing. Returning to those passages by St. Paul, to grasp their possible meanings in the absence of clear authorial intention, we look to how these have been interpreted by commentators whose works help to make up what we call Tradition. We also have what we call the "four senses of Scripture" (see "Henri de Lubac and the Spiritual Sense of Scripture" by Dr. D'Ambrosio).

Those who refuse the inherent polyvalence of language, which is made of words, are reductivists. Derrida, Von Balthasar, and those who have a deeper understanding of and appreciation for language and the words that comprise it, seek to demonstrate the futility of the authoritarianism over language exhibited by those seek to be definitive, or unequivocal. To borrow words from Steve Martinot, "the polyvalence of language calls in question what 'say' and 'think' mean, what the 'who' that does it is." So, while we are now clear about what led the Holy Father to choose "Francis" as his papal name, let's not seek to reduce to his witness, or restrict the communio sanctorum. Even with the Pontiff's clarification, I am sticking with both/and. As Balthasar noted, "truth is symphonic."

For those who think I am really stretching, I ask you simply to consider Papa Begoglio's episcopal motto: Miserando atque eligendo. He chose this motto, not when he was chosen to be Bishop of Rome last week, but when he became a bishop back in 1992. Translated fluidly it means "Lowly yet chosen," or, a bit more literally, "Poor but elected." His motto exemplifies the very tension I am trying to articulate. I would also draw your attention, dear reader, to a piece posted last Friday on the Catholic Answers blog by Todd Aglialoro: A Pope of Contradictions. Moreover, like my beloved Benedict, Pope Francis strikes me as a Pope who resists reduction.


  1. Far be it from me to cry 'I told you so,' despite having seen the form from the outset. ;)

    On the other hand, the coat of arms recalls several other saints: Saint Matthew, St. Bede, St. Joseph, and our blessed Mother. Fact is, a pope needs as much help as he can get, including the dozens of martyred Chinese Christians named Francis.

  2. Polyvalence, one of my favorite words and concepts. And one which is crucial for good theology because the things of which we speak are Mystery and by their very nature are polyvalent.