Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Transverse Advent

I’m seriously into Pope Francis, these days. Especially reading his speeches and homilies (which seem to average about one a day). His speech to the Council of Europe last week featured a discussion of the present state of European culture as featuring the challenge of transversality. And he want beyond lamenting this fact to suggesting a path forward (if not an outright solution). 

By transversal, at root a mathematical concept but one more and more common in humanist dialogue about religion, culture, feminism, psychology, and rationality itself, he seems to mean that we can no longer take any sort of “universality” for granted. At least for the purposes of dialogue. 

Obviously this is true in contemporary Europe (and, to a lesser degree, in the United States). The Pope specifically drew on his meetings with political leaders, observing that “the younger politicians view reality differently than their older colleagues.” 

Of course, the differences are more than just generational, but this is a key point, often lost in the more obvious anxieties over religious differences or party lines (and, indeed, to keep the imagery, cutting across them). Pope Francis continued, "We need to take into account this transversality encountered in every sector. To do so requires engaging in dialogue, including intergenerational dialogue." In conclusion, Francis said, "Were we to define the continent today, we should speak of a Europe in dialogue, one which puts a transversality of opinions and reflections at the service of a harmonious union of peoples."

This, like other things Pope Francis has said and done, put me in mind of Albert Camus’ speech in a monastery after World War II, published later as “What the World Expects of Christians.” The title itself sounds rather like a demand or, at least, a one-way movement (the world has a right to expect something from Christian but not vice versa). In fact, though, what he has in mind is something more reciprocal, something more like a “transversality” of values, keeping in full view our many differences of "opinion" (or "truths"), yet bumping up against each other in this particular place and time, finding common ground and common work for the common good. 

Of course, for religious people, all this "common" talk may seem rather mundane, vulgar, even worldly. But it is just this prejudice that Pope Francis, time and again, has called to account. There may be something "beyond" our present, our "common" life lived out here and now, but there is nothing higher or more important. Beyond isn't higher. And least not now, not yet. Theologically--the story of the incarnation, a wonderful story for some of us/an offensive one for some others--speaks of an incredible (yes, many would say unbelievable) intersection of divine pity with human need, a line of hope and love cutting across a seemingly infinite field of suffering and despair. 

For believers (even near agnostic, heavily ironic ones like myself), Advent is the time to remember (in its strong meaning) that love promises to come. And the time to prepare for that special unique coming. What better way to prepare and to be signs on the real plane of earth (not in the heavens, we will leave that to the heavens where we are not) than to engage with our fellow featherless bipeds possessing souls in common dialogue and, where possible, common work. 

And we shouldn't be any stingier or more narrow in the way we think about and go about that than was the one we still ironically await and yet who has already come. He risked everything, especially his religiosity in the eyes of the leaders of his day, to share our dirty skin, to sit with the woman in Samaria, to protect the woman caught in adultery about to the stoned, to feed the hungry (and to cry over the religious powers).

Of course, if you believe the sources (or Paul, at least), he also preached a religious message of conversion including heaven, hell, sin, and salvation. But two things about that must be noted. First, he did NOT have to rescue women, heal lepers, feed hungry folks, and all the rest to preach the message. But he did. Secondly, if Matthew got it right, Love preached something about how our work feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, clothing the needy, housing the homeless, and caring for the sick is specifically linked to that conversion stuff. Like, you can't have one without the other. 

Where do we, then, find values that intersect with the needs of our age and the voices of our contemporaries whose traditions, perspectives, and practices are different than our own? That list in Matthew 25 should give us a good place to start. We've got most of a month yet to  get to work on those before we really have to start worrying about any others. 

But, in the spirit of "transversality," let me give Camus the almost final word(s). 

What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men/women resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally....

We are faced with evil. And, as for me, I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said: "I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere." But it is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done; if not reduce evil, at least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortured children.
And if you don't help us, who else in the world can help us do this?

Between the forces of terror and the forces of dialogue, a great unequal battle has begun. I have nothing but reasonable illusions as to the outcome of that battle. But I believe it must be fought, and I know that certain men/women at least have resolved to do so. I merely fear that they will occasionally feel somewhat alone, that they are in fact alone....

It may be that Christianity ... will insist on losing once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die.... What I know--which sometimes creates a deep longing in me--is that if Christians made up their minds to it, millions of voices--millions, I say--throughout the world would be added to the appeal of a handful of isolated individuals who, without any sort of affiliation, today intercede almost everywhere and ceaselessly for children and for men/women.
Nothing Camus says, though, really will make much difference. Neither will the words of Pope Francis. Or, excuse, my French, the words of Jesus.  That will be up to me. And you. I wish I could say it would be easy. Well, I guess I can, if I wanted to. But I won't. But I know what it will look like. This. 

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