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Religion and Society

Existence as a Text

Those who visit the Roman home of the Small Sisters of Jesus can see in a small chapel the very poor mementos of Charles de Foucald. In addition to a few wooden objects there are three large canvasses that he painted: one fuses the images of the Crucifix and the Sacred Heart and the others portray two scenes from the Gospel that symbolise the style of his choice of life. On the left there is the family of Nazareth: God wants to become man in the most humble way, working and remaining invisible to the eyes of the world for thirty years; on the right the visitation: the Word made Flesh comes to Elizabeth, but he is still silent, making himself present only through a gesture of concern for this mother. It is difficult to find images that better represent the current idea of Christian witness, adding to it the emotion produced by awareness of the heroicness of the life (far from being ingenuous and intellectually inept) from which it drew its origins, in the torrid desert of the Tuareg. Witness, therefore, in abandonment, in silence, and in concealment. But it is interesting to stop and reflect on a strange paradox, on the fact, that is to say, that the concept of witness in its primary sense refers to something that is very different: a witness is first of all someone who ‘speaks’. This is its original juridical meaning which, if the Latin etymology that is commonly accepted is correct (testis from ter-stis), can be expressed even more clearly: a ‘witness’ is said to be first of all the ‘third’; he, that is to say, who is ‘not’ being prosecuted, whose word can be held to be reliable specifically because his life has no relationship with what he relates and he does not having anything to gain from false testimony. But even if this etymology were not correct, this is anyway a condition that every juridical system envisages: no person directly involved in the case can be a witness; indeed, the person who is accused is recognised as having an implicit right to lie. Witness as a detached attesting of the facts, witness as a radical embodiment of values: what is concealed behind this so profound reversal of a meaning?



Perhaps nothing is so instructive as to remember the way in which the Christian tradition tried to understand the character of its message in relation to philosophical language: not in an aspiration to shared truth which could have been, albeit solely for apologetic purposes, magnanimously attributed to all pagan intellectual inquiries, but in the different paths employed to reach it. Philosophical language was to the utmost thought of as being based on a rationality shared by all men and thus by its nature reproducible by anyone. When Plato regretted the good old days when one did not worry about ‘who’ had said something, but when even the words of an oak if true were received with reverence, (1) he expressed the fear that philosophy could be overwhelmed by a political-rhetorical mentality in which the power of argument were replaced by the power of authority – a fear that the subsequent history of philosophy would, to the posthumous joy of Plato, in large measure belie. The philosophical spirit would continue to include as a constituent element controllable, transparent and reproducible reasoning. But specifically for this reason it was not easy for Christianity to formulate its own claim to the truth in the Greek language. On the one hand it was the language most suited because of its noble aspiration to an eternal truth. On the other, it was the most abysmally unsuited language because it made inconceivable from the outset the centrality of a historic and unrepeatable human experience. In this sense, the writings of John’s circle presented from the beginning, in their coherence and profundity, a model that was so original as to be destined to continually produce fractures and disconnections in pagan epistemology: a universal Logos which was ‘in the beginning’ [Jn 1:1], certainly, but whose determining revelation (exégesis, narration) became flesh and because of this uniqueness created a circle of preachers who related what they had seen, heard and touched ‘concerning the word of life’ [I Jn 1:1]. Perhaps it is no accident that the tradition of John, which most emphasises this distance, is also that which most willingly uses the language of ‘witness’: although philosophical language offered the most natural paradigm by which to express the eternal Logos, the Logos made flesh more specifically allowed itself to be translated into the language of historical reconstruction and in particular into that dramatic testing which takes place during the debate of a trial.



It would certainly be an excessive simplification to read the troubled relationship with Greek philosophy (at times seen as a prefiguring of Christian truth and at others as the matrix of all heresies) in the sole terms of a fight between the language of abstract rationality and the language of historic testimony and the testimony of trials. However, these are two poles that help us to contextualise many facts. When Tertullian rejected philosophy with irritation and formulated his ‘exception’ at the level of principle against the heretics, he moved intentionally onto a juridical territory where it was necessary to assess the right to offer testimony. (2)



When Augustine in his De utilitate credendi fought the rationalistic claims of Manichaeism, it was in the name of reason itself that he defended the advisability of entrusting oneself to those who had transmitted Scripture and declared that they were able to interpret it. (3) This was an acknowledgement that was substantially the same as that of Tertullian, and which was certainly difficult for someone who conserved a Platonic forma mentis and believed in interiority as the ultimate appeal of truth. Witness as disinterested attestation, indeed, is thus very far from being absent from the Christian tradition; in a certain sense it is at its origins: how is a ‘tradition’ and therefore the community that channels it, justifiable in its claim to truth if not as the handing down of information that the intellect could never reach, connected as it is to a truth that transcends man, and even more radically to a divine freedom that entered the world in the form of contingency, leaving behind it effective signs of salvation which in their turn were free and contingent? To summarise: if the apostolic tradition founded the Church, this appears to be so in a non-secondary sense because through a infinite word of mouth it established in the collective memory the reality of what happened at the beginning and the eternal truth that was proclaimed at that beginning.



‘Unwritten’ tradition in this sense constitutes the crucial place of this testimony. If both Tertullian and Augustine upheld the claim of the Catholic Church to interpret Scripture, this was because the text that had been established in written form received its right meaning only within the living tradition that canonised it. Beyond it the text was an ambiguous word that each reader could bend towards the interpretation that he wanted. This was already the limit that Plato complained about when in Phaedo he portrayed texts as ready to be ‘rolled’ in any direction, becoming according to the case in hand silent or wrongly eloquent when the author was not there to respond to the doubts that they generated and to complete what they left unfinished. (4) If, in conformity with a practical typical of antiquity (including the Judaic world) the typical contents of oral tradition prevalently related to the rites with which a community identified, it was not necessary to wait long for its diriment role to be acknowledged in the case of the central contents themselves of the faith. Here perhaps the most explicit declaration is to be found in the disputes about the divinity of the Holy Spirit when Basil frankly acknowledges that the question cannot be decided on the basis of the testimony of Scripture, which is too shaded on the question, but only by calling into play the unwritten tradition that had been faithfully passed down by word of mouth (5): This was an acknowledgement that from then on would have innumerable echoes.



From Tradition to Theology



If this is true, then it is necessary to imagine the effect of the anxiety provoked by the explosion of disputes that apparently did not allow themselves to be resolved with reference to reason and Scripture or with reference to tradition. Two great events well symbolised this recurrent element in the history of Christianity: in the East, the dispute about iconoclasm; in the West, the dispute about the Eucharist. In both cases, all the parties involved, in order to support their positions, could exhibit, as far as we know in perfect good faith, arguments of every kind. But faced with the impotence of reason and the ambiguity of Scripture, tradition was no longer able to offer a clear answer, and its oral apostolic origins were by now, inexorably, too far away, and shaded by innumerable repetitions, to be able to offer the hope of an evident solution. This at the least was the perception that some of the protagonists had. The writings (not only the Bible but by then also the works of the Fathers of the Church) well solidified the testimony on which the Christian faith was founded, but the memory that should or could transmit something more, that something that would have permitted the contextualising, the vivifying, the correct interpreting and assessing of written testimony, was by now faded and problematic. It was precisely this in the West that would be one of the crises that transferred competence about Scripture and the Fathers to scholarship and its methods. Henry of Ghent, perhaps the most famous theologian of the twelfth century, could thus clearly argue that in the case of a divergence between the church and theology, it was theology that had to be listened to. (6) If the living ‘witness’ of the first generations of Christianity simply could no longer exist, then written testimony had by now, as well, inevitably, to be explained by specialists, within a ‘dispute’ which in its turn was entirely subject to the uncertainty and the capacity for reform of human learning. Bearing in mind all necessary clarifications, this was a dominant feature of the history of Christian thought from the Scholastics onwards.



But can a witness no longer exist in absolute terms? Does testimony allow itself to be reduced to the transmission of explicit news about something that is far off in time? Or perhaps there exists, so to speak, an unconscious transmission which takes place not only in words and ideas but also in the flesh of Christians and in the way in which this carnality becomes fraternal charity? And is transmission of ancient words, by now objectified, no longer able to constantly generate a life in which these words find anew their context? Perhaps these are some of the questions around which one could organise a history of the new idea of Christian witness. They are certainly ancient themes which reconnect, for example, with awareness of the amazed admiration to which the Christian communities were subjected in antiquity, first and foremost because of their way of life, more radically than the certainty that only ‘loving one another’ in the eyes of the world was a sign by which to recognise the disciples of Christ [Jn 13:35]. But this new kind of ‘witness’ was invested with a more demanding role the more testimony in the primary meaning became shaded, the testimony of the conscious lasting of a tradition. From the protests of Bernard in support of the cross as the ‘only philosophy’ to Francis of Assisi who reproduced and demonstrated in his life and his features Christ himself; from Jean Gerson who invoked a ‘mystical theology’ in which one thought of the experience of that God so rarely encountered by the Scholastics to the extraordinary work of Geert Groote which made the seriousness of the interior search an invitation to conversion and cultural renewal – innumerable are the moments when Christianity, in profoundly changed situations, made existence a crucial part of the Christian analysis faced with the world.



It is a little paradoxical to locate this idea of Christian witness in the wake of the loss that I have outlined above. And yet, as is often the case, loss is an occasion for gain, in that dialectic of strength and weakness that seems so peculiar to the historical events of Christianity: the gain is the idea of a ‘life as witness’, which refers to an existence which, in breaking the infinite network of values that are understandable in earthly terms, manages to mean something that is beyond the whole life. Disinterest now becomes impossible because the witness cannot create any distance with the tradition that he transmits: in a certain sense he himself is there. Life thus becomes, albeit in the opaqueness of the human experience, a text that speaks better than words and in which words find their context and persuasiveness: what thus assured the identity of tradition before scholarly theology came to understand what was happening. This idea of testimony can cross the confines of the Christian faith but within it, it takes on a completely special connotation. In the Christian experienced life re-echoes the voice of he who is the only lord of history and of the days of man, and who perhaps speaks so much better through the language made up of flesh and charity, of history and of hope, which manages to go beyond the contingencies in which it is expressed. ‘Every action of witness is certainly a particularly determined action but its most specific contents do not lie in those particular determinations but in that unique value that gives meaning to all actions and interprets in a unitary way the various novelties of life’. (7)




(1) ‘The ancients, my friend, said that in the sanctuary of Zeus in Dodona the first oracular pronouncements came from an oak tree. For the men of that time, therefore, given that they were not as wise as you young men, because of their simplicity it was enough to listen to an oak tree or a stone, provided they told the truth. But for you, perhaps, it makes a difference who speaks and where the words come from; indeed for you it is not enough to examine if the things that it says are more or less true' (Plato, Phaedo, 275 b7-c2).



(2) ‘It is from here that we raise our exception [praescriptio]. If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out his disciples to preach, one should not accept preachers other than those that Christ established because nobody can know the Father but the Son and those to whom the Son revealed Him, and it appears that to nobody the Son revealed Him but to the apostles whom he sent out to preach what he had expressed to them. What, therefore, they preach is what Christ revealed to them, and hereI would object that one should not engage in a test other than through the very Churches that the apostles themselves founded, preaching both by word and by letters’ (Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, 21).



(3) ‘There is nothing more reckless (and we then, like real children, were reckless) than not taking into account the interpreters of a book, who profess to know it well and to be able to transmit to their disciples, and asking about its meaning of them who, induced by I know not which reason, have declared a very severe war against those who composed them and wrote them’ (Augustine, De utilitate credendi, 6,13).



(4) ‘Once it is written, every discourse rolls everywhere in the same way amongst those who understand, those who are by no means suited, and those who do not know to whom to speak and to whom not to speak. And if it is maltreated and unjustly accused it always needs the help of its parent because it is neither capable of defendingitself nor of helping itself alone’ (Plato, Phaedo, 275 d9-e5).



(5) ‘Of the doctrines [dógmata] and the preaching [kery´gmata] stewarded in the Church, the second we have from written teaching; the first we have received from apostolic tradition 


and we have transmitted them reservedly; but both have the same force as regards piety. And this can be contested by no one however scarce experience they may haveof ecclesiastical institutions. If in fact we were to discard unwritten customs as not having great force, we would unconsciously cause injury to the Gospel precisely at the most important points; 


indeed, I would go further: one would reduce preaching to words without a context’ (Basil of Cesarea, De spiritu sancto, 27, 66).



(6) Hendrik Van Gent (Henricus Gandavensis), Summa quaestionum ordinariarum, art. 9, q. 1.



(7) Armando Rigobello, Legge morale e mondo della vita (Abete, Roma 1968), 273.