Monday, 4 July 2016

"Traditionalists and Progressives share the same mistake"

This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with Czech priest and theologian Tomás Halík. The news item can be found here.

Esta é uma transcrição completa, no inglês original, da minha conversa com o padre e teólogo checo Tomás Halík. A reportagem pode ser vista aqui.

Your book is about love, yet you confess that you had some difficulty deciding to approach this topic. Why?
My books are theological essays, and I think it is important to reinterpret the great Christian values: Love, Hope and Faith. I wrote a book about Faith, about Hope and when I was asked if it was time to write a book about love, I said "oh, there are so many books about love". It sounded a bit too sweet for me. What could I say theologically about love?

I think it is important to speak about love of God, about love of our enemies, something that is special for the Christian understanding of Love. I think there is a connection between the love of God and love of people. The gospels say that if you don't love your brother who you can see, you can't say you love God whom you have not seen. I think this connection between love of people and love of God is very typical for Christianity.

My provocative sentence is that God perhaps is not so interested if we believe in him, but if we love him. People say you must first believe in God and then you can love him. I don't think so. I think that it is not so important what we believe, in the sense of our reflections, our views, that if we have the experience of love, love of people, love of man, nature, the world... love is not just an emotion, love is the self-transcendence. You love somebody, or something, if it is more important for you than you are yourself. It is a self-transcendence and in this experience of self-transcendence in love, you can understand what the word God means.

We seem to be going through a crisis of faith in the Western World. Some find this alarming, but you read the situation in a different way…
If a non-believer says to me that he doesn't believe in God I always ask what this God he doesn't believe in looks like. He has to have some image of God, some concept, in which he doesn't believe. If he explains his image of God I have to answer "thank God you don't believe in such a God, I don't believe in such a God either".

Then he replies that he is not a stupid materialist, he knows that something is above us. And this "somethingness" I believe, is the most widespread religion in our age.

So people have problems with faith, because they are not prepared to believe in a special concept of God, and I think this concept of God is in crisis, but it is a challenge, and an opportunity for theologians, to reflect deeper the concept of God. I think that the XXth Century was a sort of dark night of the soul, a dark night of religion, a collective dark night. The mystics spoke about the dark night of the soul at an individual level, but I think there are also some collective dark nights of the soul. Some collective crises in the trust of God, and I think that the hard experiences of the XXth Century, with the Gulags, Auschwitz, the Holocaust,  the to World Wars, they were great tests, and after them we cannot just return to the good old type of religion.

I think Christianity is in its Easter phase and Easter means the Cross, Death and Resurrection. I think it is good that sometimes our concept of God is dying, but then it is an opportunity for a resurrection of our Faith which must be deeper and when I am reading the Gospel about the resurrected Christ, he is coming to his disciples and they are not able to recognize him. He is like a foreigner, and he legitimizes himself with his wounds. I think we should also seek the wounds of Christ in our world.

For me this is very important, the theme of the meeting of Thomas with the Resurrected Christ and it is the only part of the Gospel where Christ is called God. Thomas is touching the wounds of Christ and he says "My Lord and my God".

When I was in [place of the martyr Thomas] in India, I celebrated mass, I read the Gospel of Thomas and his meeting with Christ. And then, in the afternoon I visited the hospital for poor children there. And it was like a hell. These poor children and sick children... I remembered the sentence of Karamazov "I return the ticket to the world in which children are suffering", and then I realized, they are the wounds of Christ in our World, and if we ignore the wounds of Christ in our World, the wounds of our World, we have no right to say "My Lord and my God".

This brings us to another point… In “Touch the Wounds” you tell a story about Pascale, at a time when he was not allowed to receive communion, having taken a sick man into his home so as to be able to receive the body of Christ. In a footnote you even say this sort of approach might be a solution for people who are not allowed to receive communion. Meanwhile, ironically also in a footnote, Pope Francis has cleared the way for some people who are in irregular situations to receive communion. In light of that example of Pascal, was this a missed opportunity to emphasize different ways of being united to Christ? What is your view of this section of the Apostolic Exhortation?
Yes, I think it is a great inspiration for us Christians to find other ways to be in connection with Christ. It is not only the sacraments, it is not only in the Milieu of the Church, there are many suffering people, bodily suffering and many other ways of suffering, and in this connection with the suffering people, and also with people who are in spiritual need, they live in this experience of the hiddenness of God. It is an opportunity for us.

I think the great Patron Saint of our age is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She served the poor and sick during her days, but when, after her death, her diary was published, it was a shock for many people, because she suffered great doubts and this dark night of the soul. And I think that she, during her days, showed a solidarity with the people suffering through sickness and poverty, but during her nights, she felt a solidarity with people in the dark night of the faith. I think these two types of solidarity are very important for inspiration for our Christian witness in our world. There are people who suffer social misery, but also many who suffer a spiritual crisis, through this darkness of faith and this hiddenness of God. I think we should also understand them and show solidarity with them.

You quote Pascal saying that faith is a choice, but in church parlance we hear that faith is a gift…
I think it is both. Of course, faith is a gift... Faith is a mixture God's activity and human freedom. I think it is typical for Christianity, this meeting of God and man. The meeting of God and man in Jesus Christ, the meeting of this divine and human dimension in the Church, and the meeting and the unity of God's inspiration and Human culture in the scripture. I think there is something very similar in the virtues, they are God's inspiration, a gift of grace, but also, from our side, they are an act of our freedom, to accept this gift and to cooperate with the Grace. So this meeting of Grace and human freedom is, I think, the fascinating substance of faith, hope and love.

It is not belief in God that makes a Christian, but belief that God is Love. Are there many who claim to be Christians but do not reflect a God who is love? And are they dangerous?
Yes they are. In the New Testament we read that even the demons believe, but they are afraid. And I think that belief with fear is something demonic. Our belief should be connected with joy and with freedom and gratitude, so there are a sort of belief and religion which are connected to our human projection of God, our human images of God which are full of our anxiety, our desires, and thanks to the great atheists, like Freud, Nietzsche and Marx, they discovered that many images of God are too human, they are the projections of human fears, anxiety and desires. And we need the correction of this all too human image of God, and to discover the image of God which is in the Gospel, and, I think, Pope Francis is the teacher of this reinterpretation of this new, deeper understanding of the Gospel.

Traditionalists are up in arms at the moment with Pope Francis’ papacy. You claim in your book that the Christianity envisioned by traditionalists is relatively modern and very limited. Why is that?
I think this traditionalism and fundamentalism is really a modern phenomenon, it is the reaction to modernity, but tradition, real Christian tradition, is something deeper, something dynamic. Tradition is not just a treasure, it is like a river, it is dynamic, it is the historical dialogue between God's inspiration, scripture, and the signs of the time. So it is the reason why theology and the Church are here, to interpret again and again the message of the Gospel, in the context of the special time and culture.

Blessed cardinal John Henry Newman said "when we repeat the same thing our grandfathers said we are saying something different", because the whole context, our language, is changing. So if we should be faithful, and truthful, and have responsibility for our tradition and for the authenticity of our tradition we must reinterpret it, we should recognize the signs of the time and try to interpret the message of the Gospel in the way which is understandable for people in our time. So it is not just conformism with the spirit of the time, no, it was said that those who are married to the spirit of the time will quickly become a widower, so it is not conformity, but we should make our message understandable.

Sometimes it is a provocation towards the mentality of a certain age. So tradition is nothing bad, it is a living movement.

Yet for somebody who is critical of traditionalism, you hold liturgical beauty in high esteem, which some might find surprising…
I don't identify with traditionalists or with so called progressives, because I think they both share a mistake. They are too concentrated on the outward things, the institutions, the formulae... The traditionalists want to keep it the same all the time, and some progressives see the solution as the changing of the institutions and forms. But I think the real solution is to go deeper in a refreshment of our language and in a deepening of our spirituality, so it is a third way between traditionalism and progressivism. I think the right way is to go deeper.

I am thinking about the afternoon of Christianity and I am preparing my next book with this title, the afternoon of Christianity. I use the metaphor of Karl Gustav Jung, the founder of depth and analytical psychology. He said that human life is like a day, the youth is like a morning. Youth is the time for developing our outward structures of our life and personality, our social role and so on, then came the noonday crisis. It could be a crisis in marriage, in our job, in our health... the symptom of burning out, of depression, it is this noonday crisis. But afterwards, the afternoon of life, is a challenge to go deeper, not just to develop the outside structures of our life.

And I think that something similar happens in the history of Christianity. These two thousand years were the morning and then came, with modernity, the noonday crisis: secularisation, death of God, and such things. But now, perhaps, is the time for the afternoon of Christianity, it is the challenge to go deeper, and I think these conservatives and progressivists are always thinking in the categories of the morning, they are concentrated about the institutional structures, but I think it is a time to go deeper.

The Christian faith is the Easter faith, and Easter is death and resurrection, and I think that after this so called death of God, which was the crisis of our banal, old and too naive concept of God and religion, we should go deeper.

You complain that the phrase “nobody reaches the Father except through me” is widely misunderstood. In a previous book you make the same point. So what do these expressions actually mean? Does this reasoning also apply to the expression “No salvation outside the Church”?
I think that this sentence of Cyprianus was said in another context. It was said during a polemic with some very demanding Christians, who were not prepared to accept the cristiani lapsi, and so Cyprianus said we should also open the church to these people, because there is no salvation outside the Church. It was not an attempt to close the door, but to open the door of the church to the failed Christians.

I think also the sentence of Jesus, "nobody can go to the father except through me"... What does this mean? Who is the "me" of Christ. Christ identifies with the least, with the poor, in this parable about the last judgement. Jesus says that if you served his poor brothers and sisters you served him. He was they. He identified himself with the poor, with the sick, with the people, and they are in need, and they are also Christ and open doors. So if we serve the poor, if we have solidarity with the seekers, they also represent Christ, and with them we can go to God, through Christ.

So it is not just the historical figure of Christ, but the Christ who identified himself with these, the least ones.

Buddhism and Christianity have very different starting points. One holds that reality is suffering and the other that creation is fundamentally good. It follows that Buddhist and Christian meditation also have very different foundations. Is it possible to bridge this gap, and what does that mean for inter-religious dialogue with Eastern religions?
I don't believe in the possibility of creating some sort of religious Esperanto, a religion for all people. I think the plurality of religions were there always and will be there always, and we should also discover, recognize and respect the differences. But at the time, in our dialogue, we can discover things that are good experiences also for us. We can exchange our experiences and I think there is something in Zen meditation, in the inner-liberation, in how to find inner-freedom, and how to recognize the importance of the special moments and how to be free of our dependence. It is something that could also be an inspiration for us.

Also, for example, the role of the body in meditation, that meditation in spiritual life is something that involves the whole personality, not just the mind, but also our breath and our body, and these are the things which are forgotten in Christianity and which we can discover again in this dialogue with other people. So there are many people in our country and other countries, who started there interest in spirituality and religion by seeking the Eastern tradition, but after a while they recognized it is not so easy to be a Buddhist in Prague or Lisbon, and sometimes they then discovered also Christian mysticism.

Over the last 25 years, after the fall of communism, I baptized more than 1000 young adults, mostly university students. We have the two year catechumenate, and I spoke to the all and their paths to Christianity were sometimes very complicated and many of them started with Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga, and then realised that it is not so easy to be a Buddhist in Prague, and there is something similar in the Christian mysticism, and many of these people are well prepared for the spiritual life. They have a certain discipline in meditation, they know that the spiritual life demands also asceticism, and it could also be a preparation for the Christian spiritual life.

One chapter of Touch the Wounds struck me particularly… Your criticism of the Bodies exhibition. Does our society have a difficulty in dealing with death, and what does this mean?
From my experience, during the communist time, speaking of death was a taboo. Because death provoked spiritual questions, and communist materialism had no answers to these questions, so death was taboo.

Now, people are fascinated with death. If we look at the television at night, you can see so many deaths, on the news, in films, horror movies. But it is not real death, it is artificial death. And I think this is also a an escape from the question. Death is a question, a provocation for deeper thinking, and sometimes people are fascinated by this virtual death.

This exhibition of the bodies is like the narcotization to look at it, but it is virtual death, it is not real death.

Birth and death are very important moments in life and when we witness birth and death we are witnesses of something connected with the transcendence of our life.

The death of many people nowadays takes place in hospitals and people are not confronted with these deaths. And I think sometimes if we are close to our dying parents and friends, the experience could be a great gift to us, it was a great gift for me! I was the son of very old parents and I spent many years with anxiety that one day they would die, and then, when I was there it was a very peaceful and very deep spiritual experience, this transition from this World... Yes... The eschatological dimension of our life, what will be after death... the traditional images are in crisis, because I think the experience of the the XXth Century overshadow the traditional image of hell and paradise. Because the concentration camps, the holocaust and all the tragedies of the XXth Century was something more real than our image of hell.

And the attractive polarity of our world is, to many people, more attractive than our images of heaven. So we should say that we don't know what it life after death will look like, it is a great mystery, but we could live with the mystery.

I think faith is not here just to answer all our questions. There are some questions which are so good, we shouldn't spoil them with answers. Faith is also the courage to live with the mystery, to enter the cloak of the mystery, to live with some open questions. I think we are confronted with the hiddenness of God, with the mystery of God, and our faith, our hope, our love are three ways to live with this silence of God. So there are some impatient answers, short-term answers, in front of this silence of God, which is the experience of many people of our age.

Atheists interpret this silence of God as the non-existence of God, death of God; There are the fundamentalists, repeating all the old formulas and are unable to listen to the silent music of the hiddenness of God. There is emotional religiosity, with all its "hallelujahs" but I think a mature faith must withstand this, and contemplate this and see God's signs and language in the events of our life. God is always speaking to us in the events of our life, of our world. The signs of the times are also the language of God, but we need the inner silence, patience, intelligence of faith, the art of interpreting these events in the light of God, in the light of faith, because the answers are not superficial, they are in the depths, and then to contemplate our own life, our own experiences, our own World, and then to discover, and to interpret and accept the challenge of God, the inspiration of God, the provocations of God and to answer in the life of faith and dialogue. And part of this dialogue is this listening, this attempt to understand and to answer, to respond, to live in responsibility.

The real life of faith is life as a dialogue.

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