Buffon Giuseppe ,
Antonianum, 88/1 (2013) p. 5-10
The relationship between theology and social, political and economic life is the common subject of the articles of this first issue of 2013. Hailed in the Middle Ages as the queen of the sciences, theology has later had some difficulty, in the modern and contemporary periods, in being welcomed into the universitas scientiarum. The cause of its marginalization may depend, in addition to the context, on certain lacunae built into its epistemological status, and not least on theologians’ ineptitude in expounding the contents of the Christian faith in a comprehensible, efficacious and meaningful manner. In today’s theological landscape, in between the alternatives of defeatism and radical militancy, the great Franciscan tradition of the fifteenth century constitutes a kind of via media, insofar as, through setting forth an economic-political ethics adequate to the complexities of commerce, it offers a just consideration of “secular” reality without bowing to, or degenerating into, “secularism”.
In this perspective of reflection on the relationship between theology and secularized contexts, there is offered here the fruitful reflection of our welcome guest, Prof. Aku Visala, in his essay on the social and religious environment of Scandinavia’s (Lutheran) Protestantism, with its special attention to the function performed by theological enquiry within the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches.
He sets before the reader the negative outcomes of a “liberal” theology, emptied of meaning and lacking in social-political impact, and concentrates on three specific theological currents that propose to offer an alternative to “liberal” nihilism.
In this colleague’s estimation, the Lutheranism introduced into Sweden by King Gustav Vasa already in 1531 remains to this day the creed of almost the entirety of the citizens of the countries known collectively as Scandinavia – Sweden, Norway,
Finland, Denmark. Nonetheless, he emphasizes that, while 80% of these citizens affirm their adherence to this creed, only 14% of them attend religious services, which fact is responsible for the religion’s scarce impact on social life and family ethics. These, in turn, are therefore much secularized, as is evidenced by the disintegration of the nuclear family and a strong tendency towards individualism.
All in all, the religious creed professed by the members of these Scandinavian Churches has little influence on society and, generally, in the public sphere.
The social and political, as well as ethical, decline, to which the data point, is due, in Visala’s opinion, to the wholly inadequate “liberal” theology of the Scandinavian Lutheran Churches, inasmuch as this theology deliberately aims to limit its discourse to the private sphere, to the world of experience, while ignoring the duty to put forward proposals for a civil, political, ethic, and at most supports campaigns in favour of human rights and ecological concerns. Such theological lack of engagement is opposed rather by those who speak for John Millbank’s Radical Orthodoxy, which uses the assumptions of post-modern criticism to call for a return to the Patristic and Mediaeval tradition as the only response to secularization. It is a matter of radical critique of nihilistic positions resulting from modernity, and it asks for a social re-foundation on Platonic-Christian bases of Augustinian-Thomist origins. According to the exponents of this theological current, the modern system of thought leads to violent outcomes that are catastrophic for society as a whole, and is therefore in contrast with Christianity, which alone is able to lead to peace and social renewal. The other post-liberal current of thought presented by Visala is that of Narrative Theology, led by George Lindbeck, Hans Frei, Stanley Hauerwas and Robert Jenson. Influenced by the communitarianism promoted by Alisdair MacIntyre, this current wishes for a return to Thomism, and sees theology as a discipline entirely called to support the Christian life and the ecclesial community, wherefore it is not aware of a need for theology to legitimize its own functionality in the face of a secularized culture. Visala then presents a third current, that of Analytical Theology, which is inspired by authors such as Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen and Michael Rea, making use of their philosophical approach favouring a returnto metaphysics and epistemology. Analytical Theology is indeed characterized by interest in Mediaeval theology and tends towards applying to doctrinal propositions the method worked out by analytical philosophy, in the attempt to produce the most coherent and reasonable theory possible.
In a social and cultural context profoundly different from that mapped out by Visala, the Franciscan Bernardine of Siena had tried to work out a theology highly relevant to the social and civil needs typical of a politically and economically lively period in Italy. This is shown by Paolo Evangelisti, who presents the Sienese Saint as a faithful interpreter of St. Francis, in that, as the main promoter of the Observant movement, he identifies in caritas a concrete way of realizing the ideal of the Christomimesis of the pauperes Christi originated by the Saint of Assisi. Caritas for him fully translates the voluntary paupertas that is to be applied by the civil society expressed by the polis. For St. Bernardine, Evangelisti says, “caritas becomes the indispensable paradigm of the ethics of his activity and, at the same time, the model being proposed to the true Christian cives fideles who are his interlocutors in the city squares of the fourteenth century Italian res publicae.” Bernardine’s caritas is not to be confused either with philanthropy or with short-term almsgiving; rather it is a political virtue essential for the building up of community, for developing the common good. Through an analysis of the sermons delivered by the celebrated Franciscan in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, this author sets out to examine the Observant preacher’s ideas of the city, of government, of the market, and particularly the political, social and economic ethics expounded by Bernardine. It was not by happenstance that Bernardine’s pulpit was placed in the square, and not inside a sacred edifice; in fact, that pulpit is attached to the facade of city hall, above the city arms. Bernardine addresses the city magistrates, inviting them to give up all adulation for any interlocutors, whether these be simple cives, or – a fortiori – rulers.
He makes himself into a herald of a politics geared to the good of the res publica, as a virtus essential to the polis. For this preacher of Piazza del Campo, “concord” is not a union of hearts, but the bond – corda - that binds together everything for the sake of the res publica. He unhesitatingly translates into “the good of all” the Pauline verse on the “good of Christ,” thereby showing, on the one hand, the political force of Scripture and, on the other hand, the ethical dimension of the res publica.
According to Evangelisti, Bernardine folds into an ethical interpretation also the Christological concept of Veritas, inasmuch as he highlights the contrast between the Truth of Christ and the deceit of Antichrist. The latter, as represented in the Apocalypse, buys and sells without regard to truth and justice. For the sin of greed, too, Bernardine offers his own interpretation, condemning not so much the harm it does to the character of the individual, personally, but the damage it wreaks on civil life, on the res publica. Bernardine further calls for reflection on the role of the man of commerce and on the value of the wealth, emphasizing that using money for investment in production is more advantageous than employing it for merely financial ends. The theology of Bernardine of Siena is, therefore, not an abstract discipline given over to mere speculation, but reflection that is oriented towards practice. Indeed this Franciscan takes care to put forward concrete measures for broadening the social base of the cives, and to this end he conceives the Monti di Pieta, thus named, which amount to a sort of social elevator. The Monte is indeed structured in such a way as to favour the non-property owning young, by supplying them with the capital they need to engage in the production of goods and in commerce.
Evangelisti’s perspective accords with that of the article by Prof. Marco Bartoli. Bartoli shows clearly right away how Bernardine’s preaching is evidence of taking the greatest care to adapt to changing social situations. He states, for example, that the contents of the Lenten preaching of 1425 are changed in comparison with those of the previous year, reflecting, at least in part, the changed social and spiritual conditions in the city. While in 1424 Bernardine had put the emphasis on condemning sodomy and vanity, now his sermons are concerned above all with love of neighbour and deal with the problem of usury, which is evidently oppressing the humbler part of the population, suffering on account of the economic recession caused by the war. The principal subjects tackled in the sermons of 1425 are thus charity and almsgiving. The choice of the latter holds special interest, insofar as almsgiving appears to be, in Bernardine’s thought, a median subject between economics and ethics, or rather between public and private ethics, since it belongs, on the one hand, to good government – better yet, the bonum commune – and on the other hand, to the works of mercy privately commended to every Christian. For Bernardine then, it is not enough to give alms, rather it is necessary to know the right manner of doing it; it is necessary to practise social assistance intelligently, with discernment, in the light of charitable wisdom. Bernardinian preaching, even in deploring women’s excessive ornaments, is not prudish and does not have as its purpose the promotion of personal modesty, but rather aims to highlight the social immorality of the ostentation of excessively accumulated wealth. All in all, almsgiving is understood by Bernardine as an exercise of justice; the poor and needy person is none other than a brother, and the alms given him are therefore no more than restitution. This too: The giving of alms corresponds to a right of the poor, vouchsafed them by God himself; almsgiving must therefore be understood as the just manner of reestablishing the cosmic order established by God at the dawn of creation, as the giving back to the needy of that which God had already prepared for them.
Also for Prof. Nicola Riccardi, our own professor in the Chair of “Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation,” the Observance movement is shot through with a reforming tension that does not stop at the sole individual-ascetic dimension, but is oriented to the sphere of the communitas and includes that of civil and economic life. Riccardi rightly notes that, even though the Observance principally intended the reform of religious life, its most assiduous promoters never failed to show interest in the general renewal of the organization and structures of society. As it happened, the social conditions of the years of transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance created the context best adapted to the itinerant preaching of the Friars of the Observance, who did not fail to engage all their energies in admonishing the faithful to adopt virtuous behaviours in every field of human activity, above all in the management of the res publica, and in the matter of social justice. Riccardi, too, along the same lines as Evangelisti, underline the ways in which the life of the Observant preacher par excellence, Bernardine of Siena, is filled with elements that demonstrate such active attention to the problems of civil society. This author, though, expounds the original contribution of the Franciscan Observance, above all as he considers the great effort made by the movement to bring theology, and the Church herself, nearer to civil society. This he does also by presenting the criticism voiced in relation to the positions taken in economic matters by the Decretum Gratiani and by the Pseudo Chrysostom. Under the influence of these texts, the entire mediaeval Christian tradition had very much cast doubt on the legitimacy of commerce and of the profit derived from its exercise. The Pseudo Chrysostom, for example, through the literal application of the Biblical prohibition of usury, defines commerce and the gain derived there from as incompatible with Christian faith. The Franciscans of the Observance, though, put forward a new view of the economic sphere, circumscribing the prohibition of usury to the sole elements that distort the market, namely to that greed and that selfishness that are, not only pernicious for the exercise of commerce, but are also harmful to the cohesion of the communitas. In fact, the criticism of usury by the Friars of the Observance, and by Bernardine himself, does not intend to condemn the use of money and material goods, but its perversion, which is damaging to social and economic life: “In the manner –says Bernardine - that the body’s natural warmth leaves the outer parts and collects and concentrates only around the heart and the innards, constituting a sign and a danger of imminent death for the human body; in that manner the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is both a manifestation and a threat of great harm to the state of a city.” The ad extra social engagement of the Friars of the Observance is not, however, limited to denouncing greed, avarice, selfishness; rather they enquire, too into the concrete measures to be adopted for the purpose of halting the scourge of usury. It is precisely in the framework of such reflection that there comes to be the Mons Pietatis, a publicly run charity, able to give out loans at interest rates far below those imposed by the usurers. Riccardi highlights the pioneering contribution of the inventio of the Mons Pietatis, a system that, in essence, is still today implemented in the world of microfinance. Thus it can be said that, by means of this tool, the Friars of the Observance introduce into the world of faith the merchant, an occupation previously suspected of belonging rather to the sphere of sin. Thereby they take the opportunity to evangelize the sphere of the economy, to civilize the market, and offer for our time, too, a way of doing theology together with an interpretive frame for the present economic crisis, rooted as it is in an ethical imbalance even more than in a financial and commercial imbalance.
Likewise in relationship with the discussion of faith and society, theology and the secular dimension, is the article of Prof. Ezio Albrile, which offers a cross section of the use by Romanesque art of symbolic themes elaborated in the context of Iranian mythology and brought to the West through Hellenic, Gnostic and Islamic mediation. Indeed, according to Albrile, Romanesque art frequently employs images carved out of Hellenistic and Gnostic mythology, which have a far more than merely choreographical function. Thus, for example, representation of the constellation Sagittarius is intended to illustrate the myth of Sol Invictus as translated into the Christian Sol Salutis. The Iranian background, mediated by Islam, constitutes the cultural basin, from which there emerge many representations employed by Piedmontese Romanesque art in the worship buildings studied by this Author. Little distant from Mondovi, in the Province of Cuneo, in Roccaforte Mondovi, a small mother church (pieve) documents the contacts between West and East, namely Romanesque art’s reception of Zoroastrian myths. Iranian mythology arrived there by way of Saracen armed guards come from Frassineto. It is Albrile’s conviction that the interiors of the Pieve di San Maurizio in Roccaforte Mondovi are a small iconographic treasure house, thanks to a series of frescoes showing the interaction between Romanesque painting and the Aramaic-Iranian culture whose heralds in the West the Saracens were. It is in the interior of the Pieve di San Maurizio, and more precisely, under the Pantokrator in the apse, that Sagittarius is seen, the symbol of the Zodiac standing for the Winter Solstice, now Christ our Sun coming through a crystalline heaven populated by stars, images of the divine changelessness, but also the divine origin and cause of all becoming. As we follow Albrile, we come to discover how the myth of the Centaur, sign of the union of the divine and the human, determines by shooting his arrows the going on of time, the becoming of history. It is, indeed, the observation of the astral signs and of the position of the sun that makes it possible to work out the calendar; i.e. it is studying the stars that safeguards due order in deciding the proper dates of feast days. Descending into the world below, the Sun crosses the ultimate threshold, the constellation of Sagittarius. The door is the Winter Solstice, the point of the Sun’s greatest hiddenness, yet also the moment of the Sun’s rebirth and victory over the dark. Thus the following constellation, Capricorn, is represented by the deer, an image of Christ. Sagittarius, according to this Author, expresses therefore the metaphor of Christ the Sun, held in captivity by the netherworld, as represented by the Winter Solstice, the Sun’s greatest degree of hiddenness. Albrile leads us further to observe yet another symbol shown by the same church, the Siren. The Siren was thought to distract the believer just as he intends to turn his gaze upon Christ, while it actually is a myth of Gnostic origin. For the Gnostics, this halfwoman half-fish creature, abandoned by father Elohim, seeks revenge by sending among human beings the angel Babel (Aphrodite) to sow division, enmity, adultery and separatedness. The Pleiades, too, the “Seven Sisters”, stand out in that church’s frescoes, in the lower velarium, or awning. Their presence in the heavens signifies the coming of good May weather, as well as the arrival of the dark season in November. The Pleiades or Doves, indicating like the other signs the passage of time, are thus part of memories far away in both space and time, which the sponsors of Romanesque art chose to make their own, for the purpose of representing the process of becoming and its foreseeability as background for the Christian story.