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Listening to one’s own culture, listening to the cultures of others

Ibidem, pagg. 105-117

The person who listens is a being in continual mutation


  1. Men or women who open themselves up to listening to themselves, in the light of the Word of God which becomes incarnate, become persons in continual transformation, persons who do not any longer deceive themselves that they are in full possession of their own identity, but who rather wait to receive it day by day as an ever new revelation, fresh and unpredictable. These persons can say on the basis of their own interior experience: I do not know who I am but I become every day more myself, opening myself in complete confidence to my transformation and to listening relationships, both internal and interpersonal.


These persons re-formulate all their relationships so that they can become concrete opportunities for knowing themselves more completely, for broadening themselves out and thus helping and serving each other, and precisely in this way finding peace.


We now want to see if this model of humanity, metamorphic and trans-figurative, that is pressing itself on us and on the history of the planet to give fresh life and impetus to our individual lives and the whole process of collective history,


  1. a) corresponds to our Christian identity, that is, how our faith gives shape to our individual human identity;


  1. b) has functioned in the cultural history of Western Christianity as a paradigm of human identity;


  1. c) can be re-launched today as a truly Christian spiritual and cultural configuration, able on the one hand to re-connect the Christian tradition to the more forward-looking outcomes of modernity, and on the other to establish a new relationship with other world religions and cultural traditions, precisely so as to gift peace to each other.


We want, in other words, to ask ourselves, a stated in the title of this paper: what image of our identity are we called to incarnate (what is our culture: who are we precisely as Christians), and therefore how can we relate as such to other cultures.



The paradoxical identity of the Christian


  1. Now, what exactly does being a Christian mean?


Let us take as our starting point this passage from the First Letter of John: “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3, 2).


So, to be Christians means being already, in Christ, children of God, but without knowing what that means: that is, I do not know what I already am, who I already am. My being is not yet fully clear to me, and therefore my identity here on earth is still in a phase of formation, gestation: it is coming to birth. Precisely because of this stage of waiting in which I find myself with regard to my proper being, I am by my very constitution a being in a state of listening, open, receptive, fluid, mouldable, disposed towards letting my mind be trans-formed, and thus in continual metanoia.


  1. Hence, the identity of the Christian is paradoxical: the more I am a Christian, the less I conceptually possess myself, the less I can define myself. The stronger my Christian identity, the less I know who I am, and so the less I can identify myself with all that I can sometimes presume on being: my historical, sexual, social, national or religious identity. The Christian “I” seems to be a sort of potentiality open to the Love that takes possession of me to transform me into itself and thus give peace to the world. Becoming Christians therefore means, in a certain sense, losing our own identity, rather than being confirmed in some fixed image of ourselves. It is in this sense that we can read this passage from the Letter to the Colossians: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory” (3, 3-4). By substituting the term “identity” for “life”, we can see the profoundly metamorphic, un-possessive, and therefore paschal, modality of being a Christian person.


  1. There resides a very corrosive element in the Christian identity, in that every traditional form of identification, by caste or religion, class or nationality, once fecundated by the Gospel, is profoundly relativised, put into crisis, dissolved even. This can be seen right from the very origins of the spread of Christianity, as the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clément has pointed out: “The martyrs destroyed the opaque sacredness of power, the divinisation of the state (…) The monks destroyed the shadowy sacredness of eros (the sex drive), of the earth and the heavenly bodies.” Then, throughout the modern era, this capacity of the Christian identity to break down every traditional form of cultural organisation can be see in ever more dramatic, albeit sometimes ambiguous and distorted, ways. To be Christians means destroying ever more radically all the cages of identity in which we have been entrapped over thousands of years of history and which have only resulted in wars, conflicts and clashes of identity, tribal, racial, religious, etc. It is only this never-ending exodus from ourselves can open us up to our true being, to that Promised Land of peace and unity between peoples that is the Kingdom already present in our midst, in that mysterious space that that is the I in Christ.


This outline of the Christian identity seems to correspond very well with that image of humanity in a state of listening, an essentially Marian state, that is, expectant and joyful, that we described as emerging in each one of us in this crucial phase of the history of salvation. It is as if the most fitting form of the Christian identity really wants to be the foundation of a new culture. It is as if the Word is penetrating more deeply into our humanity, dissolving other deceptive foundations, other death-masks, other imprisoning forms of identity.



Western Christian culture and its beneficial crisis


  1. This model of the identity of the Christian: to what extent has it determined our Western Christian culture over the past centuries?


We have, frankly, to recognise that this model of identity has inspired the culture of Christianity hardly at all. We believed that we knew perfectly well who we were, indeed that we possessed the fullness of truth about ourselves and the world, and that therefore we had to impose this on all the others. We interpreted and lived our identity as Christians not as a continual exodus, listening and in trepidation, an inspirational promise and maternal, Marian state of expectancy, but rather as a sort of fortress well provided with all sorts of arms, and thereby producing a continual state of war, within and without, fomented by that very religion that was to have brought peace to mankind.


Secure in this Christian identity, brandished like a weapon, and convinced of always being in the right, the truth, with God behind us, we have condemned anyone who was not as we had decided they should be, demonising, persecuting, casting out or regimenting into our ranks by force, at different times heretics, Jews, Christians of other confessions, peoples of other religious traditions, women, all to be reduced to silence – always and everywhere.


At this point in our reflection, we can understand how these aberrations depend on a certain way of defining our identity. The whole of 20th century psychological research tells us that the more our Ego is rigid and sure of itself, the more everyone else will be perceived as a threat. The more we are closed in, in our presumption of possessing the truth, in our psychological and cultural arrogance, the more we see others as enemies to be crushed or at least inferiors to be brought under control. Unfortunately, this holds good for the greater part of the sad story of the cultural expansion of Western Christianity: a history of wars and oppression. Once again, at the level of collective history, we see that the substance of our relationships with others depends on the form of our identity.


  1. By good fortune, in these recent years in the history of the Church, we have reached a turning point. With his request for forgiveness, John Paul II has marked a break with history: for the first time, the Church has asked forgiveness for all the serious wrongs committed against the unity of Christians, Israel, women, other peoples, the rights of the individual, etc. The epoch-making nature of the act carried out by the Pope in Lent 2000 has been strongly underlined in the Document: Memory and reconciliation: the Church and the mistakes of the past, the work of the International Theological Commission under the presidency of Cardinal Ratzinger: “In none of the Jubilees celebrated up to now has there been, however, a recognition of the errors of the past of the Church, nor of the need to ask pardon of God for the behaviours of the recent and remote past. In the entire history of the Church, there are no precedents of requests formulated by the Magisterium for forgiveness for wrongs committed in the past.”


Re-reading all the history of the Church in this key of radical conversion re-shapes the very memory of the Church and so, consequently, the identity of the Christian itself. In a certain way, there is a beginning afresh, a re-evangelisation. The identity of the Christian begins to move again, takes up its journey once more, is re-finding its paschal dynamic at a new and unheard of level, lightened of all the paralysing forces, the blocks and distortions of the past centuries. The gesture of the Pope, I believe, still has to give forth all the prophetic force of authentic re-beginning that is contained in it.




Towards a re-connection between Christianity and modernity


  1. This new trans-figurative (and therefore metanoic) dynamism of our Christian identity allows us to listen to the culture of modernity in a fresh and new way, and then lets us listen to/understand the other religious and cultural traditions of the world, in a way that is gets us beyond any temptation to be “imperialistic” or oppressive. Let us look, very briefly, at the first of these points.


As is well known, modernity originated and developed as a criticism and destruction of all preceding traditional concepts, cosmological as well as religious, scientific as well as political, in the name of a new and knowledge which is superior because it is more true than the old. In this way, the category of  “the new” emerges in modernity as an absolutely positive attribute, in contradistinction to the traditional point of view in which the old, the primordial or archaic is the guarantee of the veracity of a type of knowledge or the validity of a type of behaviour. For modern man, what is new is better than what comes from former times: the new science is more profound and authentic than the old superstitions, the new society is more just than the old regimes, my identity is ahead of me, more in the future than in the past, in that I myself will know how to feely create it rather than just receiving it as an inheritance from my forefathers. In this light, the “progressive” acquired that impetus of continual change that accelerated between the 16th and 19th centuries and arrives at the revolutionary spiral of the 20th century and our own times. In reality, in this projection towards the future, understood as a better place/time than the past, a very strong Christian component is at work, which recalls St. Paul always striving onwards and, in general, the idea of the absolute Newness that the Incarnation introduces into history: a New Man, a New Covenant, a New World, which is implanted on the old and which forces it swiftly onwards towards a  fulfilment in  the future.


  1. The Church, however, has not perceived or even recognised this essentially Christological aspect in the progressive tendencies of modernity; on the contrary, the Church has felt seriously threatened by them, and thus has opposed with all its might the various movements of transformation, sometimes, indeed, chaotic and destructive, that have been emerging. This mutual lack of understanding between the Church and the cultures of modernity, albeit they are intrinsically Christian at least in their positive thrust towards liberation and knowledge, has created and widened, from century to century, that schism between the Church and modern culture that Paul VI pointed out as one of the most serious dramas of our times and which has often given rise to, on the one hand, ecclesial structures that are inward-looking, defensive and culturally ineffective, and on the other, “modern” cultural advances impoverished through a lack of a spiritual vision and leading to the present-day nihilistic outlook in the West. It is only starting from the Second Vatican Council that a healing of this rift slowly and painfully has begun to emerge, so that Paul VI, at the closing ceremony of the Council on 7 December 1965 could say: “The Council has poured out on the world of modern mankind a stream of affection and admiration. Yes, errors have been corrected, but since that requires charity no less than truth, for the persons involved [there is] only regret, respect and love. Instead of depressing diagnoses, helpful remedies, instead of dark forebodings, messages of trust have gone out from the Council to the contemporary world, its values have not just been respected, but honoured, its efforts supported, its aspirations purified and blessed.”


  1. This re-linking, however, has only just got off the ground and will require many more purifications and new, creative syntheses. We have to improve our understanding about, for example, how much of the Christian spirit has been and is still at work in the thrusts of modernity towards freedom of the individual and democratic participation that form the bases of every form of human society. Likewise, we have still to understand how much energy for renewal and liberation, therefore precisely for modernisation, there is still to be unleashed from the words of the Gospel. This means, in short, listening at a deeper level to our culture, which is both Christian and modern, although in differing ways according as to whether we come from the Western countries of Europe and America, or Africa, or Latin America, or Asia.  Listening at greater depth to our Christian identity, understood as an identity open to transformation and relationship with others, will help us re-connect with those pathways of modernity which have taught us to push ourselves onwards towards ever new discoveries, but giving them a depth of meaning which will allow us to discern what is truly evolutionary in them from what is just madness, random choice and Faustian – worse still, Frankenstein-like – conceit.



Christian identity as openness to other traditions


  1. So we come to our second point, that we can pose as a question: if indeed our cultural identity contains both Christian and modern elements, and is therefore open to transformation, to listening and accepting others, how can we relate to the other religions and cultures of the world?


In regard to this problem too, we find ourselves at a completely new point in history. Never as in recent decades have we been able to get so close to other religions: Buddhism, Yoga, Islam, etc., both as a result of a staggering amount of publications and translations and also through direct contacts, brought out by vast movements of migration. But what is important is at no other time before now have we been able to recognise the spiritual validity of these age-old traditions. The Declaration of the Council, Nostra Aetate, stated: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and wholesome in these religions. She regards with sincere respect those ways of acting and living, those precepts and doctrines which, although differing on many points from what She herself believes and proposes, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens every human person” (no. 2c). The Encyclical Novo Millennio Ineunte seems to go even further when it asserts: “The missionary endeavour, furthermore, does not hinder us from entering into dialogue intimately disposed to listening. We know indeed that, faced with the mystery of grace, infinitely rich in its dimensions and implications for man’s life and history, the Church herself will never cease searching, relying on the aid of the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, who is to bring her to “the fullness of the truth” (cf. Jn 16, 13).

This principle is at the basis not only of the inexhaustible theological enquiry into Christian truth, but also of Christian dialogue with philosophies, cultures and religions. Often the Spirit of God, who “breathes where he wills” (Jn 3, 8),  causes to arise in universal human experience, notwithstanding its manifold contradictions, signs of his presence which help the disciples of Christ themselves to understand more deeply the message of which they are the bearers” (no. 56).


Listening to, and knowledge of, other religions can thus teach us something of the mystery of Christ, which we have not yet fully understood. And these extraordinary theological openings on the part of John Paul II are, without doubt, the result of a more open and flexible, and thus more “modern”, way of thinking about our Christian identity.


  1. Faced with these epoch-making challenges, we late-modern Christians run two opposing – but at the same time complementary – risks:


  1. a) Fundamentalism, which pushes us back, out of fear, towards rigid definitions of our cultural identity, deceiving us into thinking we can get past the gulfs of modernity by returning to some mythical Medieval age; following that clam-like, defensive strategy has already caused not a few failures and negative spectacles in the history of the Church in recent centuries.


  1. b) The drift to nihilism, which pushes us to believing that cultural progress consists in the pure and simple obliteration of every specifically Christian connotation. This nihilistic loss can appear in the guise of de-Christianised secularism or cryto-Hinduistic spiritualism. This latter is very widespread in large urban areas and is based on a concept – which is indeed in substance Hindu – of Jesus as one of the many wise men, avatars, prophets, of history.




  1. What now? How can we affirm our modern Christian identity without going on the defensive, without attacking or rejecting others? Here, I believe, the path we have been mapping out thus far can help us. The type of metanoic identity which is emerging in this crucial stage of the history of salvation, as a possible unblocking of the whole of modern Christian civilisation, can in fact allow us to be both more Christian and more open to listening to others.


Let us try to sum up this point in a very schematic way:


  1. The starting point for us Christians is the definitive nature of the revelation of God in Jesus: “The Christian economy, therefore, insofar as it is the new and definitive covenant, will not pass away, and there is no other public revelation that can be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This concept, stated in the Constitution Dei Verbum of the Council, no. 4, has been amply re-affirmed in the Declaration Dominus Jesus by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (nos. 5-6).
  2. The revelation of Christ is however definitive not so much in that it tells us the whole truth in concepts and definitions, all the contents of divine truth, which continue to manifest themselves in history in ever new ways, but rather in that it reveals to us definitively that God becomes Man in history, in a historical process. That is, it reveals to us the essential historicity, the process of the economy of the revelation of God, and hence our own identity, as we have already seen. The definitive nature of the revelation of God in Christ, in other words, not only does not end, but opens and endlessly dilates the historical dynamism by means of which humanity reaches out towards its own realisation/salvation, and therefore, relativises every attempt at laying hold of, closing-down or blocking off, the Truth. In other words, Christ the Truth lies always ahead of us, he is never completely possessed; for this very reason, he can come to meet us even through someone who does not even believe in Him, as the Pope has reminded us.
  3. It is only this humility of identity, this awareness of being projected towards an ever fuller revelation of our Humanity, and hence a fuller understanding of the mystery of Christ, that can permit us to listen in a sincere way to other religious traditions, going not only beyond naturally hostile responses but also beyond neutral toleration. The metanoic identity tends towards an undefined communion that can come about to the extent that the Christian community will how to let grow within it that Man-God who is already uniting the whole of humanity, outside and way from our attempts at containment or hegemony.


  1. To sum up: the 21st century Christian, precisely because he is a Christian, understands that he is moving towards an identity (a “being himself”) and a knowledge (of God and of the world) that are ahead of us, and that he is doing this together with all the people and cultures of the earth, who can help him to truly become himself, truly a Christian, and to whom I can offer the treasures of my faith, but only as an offer, an offer of service. The Christian of the 21st century will retain as the only yardstick of his identity the fruits of peacemaking and Love that he can produce. He will be identified and recognised only by love, Love incarnated, concretely offered and gifted. May this become our only identity card, our only strength.


Outline of group work for 15 July


11.00 – 12.30

  • First impressions and questions about the conference
  • Moment of silence and meditation before answering in writing the following questions:
  • Have we had experiences of positive contacts or difficult meetings with people belonging to other religions?
  • Have we had experiences of contacts, positive or negative, with people subscribing to the nihilistic culture of our age?
  • Have we met people influenced by new forms of spirituality, such as New Age, and with what outcomes as regards relating to them?


We are proposing to check out our difficulties about listening to and accepting different religious points of view and the real possibilities for witnessing to Christ without assuming a defensive standpoint or closing down on openness to others.


15.30 – 16.30

Continuation of the sharing in groups from the morning.


17.00 – 18.00


In full assembly: discussion with the speaker about the various themes touched on today and what has come out of the sharing in the different groups.