Sunday, December 9, 2007

More on Spe Salvi

What strikes me first of all when reading Spe Salvi is the Holy Father's essential point that hope has a communal dimension:

14. Against this, drawing upon the vast range of patristic theology, de Lubac was able to demonstrate that salvation has always been considered a "social" reality. Indeed, the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of a "city" (cf. 11:10, 16; 12:22; 13:14) and therefore of communal salvation. Consistently with this view, sin is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence "redemption" appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers. We need not concern ourselves here with all the texts in which the social character of hope appears. Let us concentrate on the Letter to Proba in which Augustine tries to illustrate to some degree this "known unknown" that we seek. His point of departure is simply the expression "blessed life". Then he quotes Psalm 144 [143]:15: "Blessed is the people whose God is the Lord." And he continues: "In order to be numbered among this people and attain to ... everlasting life with God, 'the end of the commandment is charity that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith' (1 Tim 1:5)"[11]. This real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a "people", and for each individual it can only be attained within this "we". It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our "I", because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself—to God.

What particularly strikes me is that at Pentecost, in contrast to Babel, those who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit are able to speak in other languages -- they regain what was lost at Babel -- not by having the multiplicity of languages erased in favor of a universal "esperanto," but by being able to make themselves intelligible in every language. This intelligibility is something we yearn for and work toward still. Even after we receive Confirmation, we do not suddenly burst forth in languages we have never studied. Yet we, like the apostles, are called to "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation..." (Mark 16:15b). The content of the apostles' speech, when they were given the gift of tongues, was "God's deeds of power" (Acts 2:11b). If we were moved to speak and think exclusively and joyfully of God's deeds of power (and not of our own), what new intelligibility would our speech develop? How much more clearly understood would our actions, and even our mere presence be? Much love is communicated in the absence of words.

What was the sin of Babel? Instead of going out into the world, the people tried to build their own pathway to a "name" for themselves. What they wished to avoid was being "scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:4bc), which was precisely what God intended that they do. When he saw the city they were building, God said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them" (Genesis 11:6). Why should God wish to thwart our proposals and weaken our ability to carry out our plans? Why does he wish us to be scattered?

I think that the answer to this question lies in understanding what it means for human beings to want to make a "name" for themselves. The people saw their common language as a safeguard against the unexpected, the surprising. Their unity was a way to build power and glory for themselves, to try to sever the ties of dependence that bound them to God. What would be the features of this utopian city, built by human hands?

We can see, in many new technologies (that are analogous to the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the people who began to build Babel), some of the consequences of using human means to reach human ideals. The internet, to give one example, promises us that we can form "one" people, with one common language, and what are the consequences of this particular "unity"? Let's just say that not every use to which the internet is put yields glory to God or even benefits our humanity.

What we need is not a common language, but a common "Logos" that will infuse our language and the texture and grit of our daily existence with meaning.

So, again I want to ask, why does God wish us to be "scattered"? Here is another excerpt from Spe Salvi that helps to answer the question:

In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

We are not redeemed alone. What happens to my brothers and sisters concerns me because what Christ has promised us, (the "mystery of God's will" that St. Paul speaks of) is "a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Ephesians 1:10). Thus, what I want is not simply to make sure that I (and the select few I would like to spend my eternity beside) have a berth in heaven, but rather that "thy will be done." More than any particular glory or name for myself, what I want is for all things to be "gathered" or "summed up" in Christ. Therefore, it is with the whole community of believers that I "wait in joyful hope for the coming of the Lord." It is this communal waiting for the coming of Christ that constitutes the true language, or Logos, of hope and redemption. I cannot speak it alone.


Freder1ck said...

I too was struck by the social dimension of this encyclical.

Reading this reminds me that I really ought to learn Spanish...

Remush said...

"What particularly strikes me is that at Pentecost, in contrast to Babel, those who receive the gift of the Holy Spirit are able to speak in other languages -- they regain what was lost at Babel -- not by having the multiplicity of languages erased in favor of a universal "esperanto," but by being able to make themselves intelligible in every language."

1) Esperanto goal has nothing to do with erasing languages.
2) It is very likely that the apostles chose words and sentence constructions that were understandable by many local dialects (as Luter did when he translated the Bible in what became German). They spoke one language which many understood.