The Essence of Christianity (Italian Texts and Studies on Religion and Society Series)

The Essence of Christianity (Italian Texts and Studies on Religion and Society Series)



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ISBN-13: 9780802826572
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 11/28/2003
Series: Italian Texts and Studies on Religion and Society Series
Pages: 132
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.43(d)

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The Essence of Christianity


William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2657-1

Chapter One

Where Are We? Who Are We?

You gave me the day, because you could only give me what you are. Mother, you gave me the days of my death. Since then, I live and die in you who are love. Since then, I am reborn from our death.

These lines-from The Book of Questions by Edmond Jabès-show how, for us human beings, it is natural to struggle tirelessly against death, and how it is also just as natural for us to sense ourselves as mysteriously enfolded in our mother's womb, source of life without limit.

The weapon we wield in this combat is a question, the question which impels us beyond the threshold, and which alone is able to give us new birth, because it puts us strangely in touch with the maternal origin of all that lives. Our deepest identity as human beings, our indelible "name," is a question: "My name is a question, and I find freedom in my longing to ask questions."

When we ask this question with passion, when we are genuinely interested in the answer, our hearts are made able to receive a revelation, we become capable of an encounter that transforms our very lives: we recognize our deep longing for a loving father-mother, who welcomes and cares for each one of us. Where, instead, thought alone tries to lord it over all, and the question simply becomes a way to dominate and do violence, we risk the shipwreck of an existence without moorings, and the anguish of a world with no origin or home.

In the landscape of time and of the heart, this loving father-mother is a decisive point of reference, against which we can discern the meaning, and the success or failure, of our human adventure. Towards this figure the great religions converge, and also precisely in relation to it they show how different they are. To take this figure as a key for a reading of modernity and its crisis will help us to answer the double, decisive question: Where are we? and who are we?

Landscape of Our Times

Modernity's Dream - and the "Murder of the Father"

The metaphor of light provides us with the most eloquently expressive way of talking about the principle that inspired modernity - adult reason's ambitious claim of understanding and mastering everything. This project - which lay at the foundations of the Enlightenment in all its manifestations - maintains that to understand the world rationally means to make human beings free at last, masters and captains of their own future, emancipating them from every possible dependence.

"Emancipation": this was the dream that pervaded the great processes of historical transformation in the modern age, born with the "age of lights" and the French Revolution: from the emancipation of the exploited classes, the oppressed races, and the peoples of the so-called "third world" to the liberation of women, in all the variety of the different cultural and social contexts.

This dream of total emancipation strained forward towards a reality entirely illuminated by the idea as such, where the power of reason may express itself without constraint. As Hegel wrote so emphatically: "Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man's existence centers in his head, i.e., in Thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality ... [N]ot until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn." Where reason triumphs, there rises the sun of the future; in this sense, it may be said that modernity is the age of light. This heady modern spirit lies behind claims that absolute reason can vanquish every shadow and resolve every difference....

The fullest expression of this spirit is "ideology": modernity, the age that dreamt of emancipation, was also the time of those all-embracing ways of understanding the world proper of the ideologies. Ideologies tend to impose the light of reason on the whole of reality, to the point of equating ideal and real. In pursuit of this ambition, the "great ideological narratives" tended to construct a "society without fathers," where there are no vertical relationships - held unfailingly to imply dependence - but only horizontal ones, of equality and reciprocity.

The sun of reason generates liberty and equality, and hence fraternity, in an egalitarianism founded on the one light of thought, which governs the whole world and all life: "liberté, égalité, fraternité" are the sweet fruits of reason's triumph. The critique of the "father-lord" figure thus leads to the complete rejection of God. Just as on earth there must be no fatherhood creating dependence, so in heaven there may be no Father of all.

There are no divine "partners," there is no other world; there is only this history, this horizon. The only idea of God allowed to stand before the court of adult reason is of a God who is dead, meaningless, and with no practical purpose ("Deus mortuus, Deus otiosus"). This collective murder of the Father is carried out in the conviction that human beings must manage their own lives for themselves, molding their destiny with their own hands. The modern ideologies, whether of right or left, pursued this ambitious aim of emancipating the dwellers in time in a way so radical as to make them the sole object and subject of their history, and at the same time both the source and goal of all that happens.

There can be no denying that this is a mighty project, and that we are all in some measure its debtors: Who would want to live in a society that had not undergone this process of emancipation? And yet, this dream has also led to satanic consequences: precisely because of its all-embracing ambition, ideology becomes violent. Reality is forced to bend to the idea; reason's "will to power" (F. Nietzsche) strives to dominate life and history so as to make them conform to its own ends.

Inexorably, this all-encompassing dream becomes totalitarian: totality - as understood by reason-produces totalitarianism. Neither by chance nor accident, all the enterprises of modern ideology, of right and left, bourgeois and revolutionary, eventually issue in totalitarian and violent expression. And it is precisely this historical experience of totalitarianism that leads to the crisis and twilight of the claims of modern reason: "The enlightenment, in its fullest sense as thought in continuous progress," affirm Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno at the beginning of their Dialectic of the Enlightenment, "has always aimed at freeing men from fear and making them their own masters. But the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant."

Thought without shadows becomes tragedy; far from emancipating, it generates suffering, alienation, and death. The modern "society without fathers" does not bear children who are freer and more equal, but, instead, dramatic dependencies on those who at various times offer themselves as "surrogate" fathers. The "leader," the "party," the "cause," these become the new masters, and the freedom promised and dreamt of turns into a painful, gray manipulation of the masses, held in place by violence and fear. The collective murder of the father did not prevent this proliferation of these new, barely camouflaged "fathers" and "lords." ...

A Society without Fathers and the "Short Century"

The dream of emancipating life and the world seems, then, to have dashed itself against the unheard-of violence produced by the age of emancipation. Eloquent witnesses to this are the wars, ethnic cleansings, crematory ovens, the Shoah and genocides of the last century, as well as the massacre caused by hunger every day in the world. Are these the fruits of adult reason? Where are the new heavens and new earth promised by the great ideological narratives?

This is the drama with which the twentieth century closed: a moral drama, a crisis of meaning, a vacuum of hope. If, for modern reason, everything found meaning within one all-encompassing process, for the "weak thought" of the postmodern condition - shipwrecked on the great sea of history after the collapse of ideology's claims - nothing seems to have meaning anymore. In reaction to the failed claims of "strong" reason, then, there emerge the contours of a time of shipwreck and collapse; this crisis of meaning is the special characteristic of post-modern restlessness. In this "night of the world" (Martin Heidegger), what seems to triumph is indifference, a loss of the taste for seeking ultimate reasons for human living and dying. And thus, too, we reach the nadir of the century that has not long ended, that is, nihilism.

Nihilism is not simply a matter of giving up values for which it is worth living, but a more subtle process: it deprives human beings of the taste for committing themselves to a higher cause, of those powerful motivations that the ideologies still seemed to offer. Our worst contemporary ailment is this lack of "passion for the truth": this is the tragic face of our postmodern age. In this climate of diffuse nihilism, everything conspires to lead us not to think anymore, to flee from any passionate striving after truth, to abandon ourselves instead to whatever may be enjoyed at once, its value calculated only by the interest in immediate consumption.

This is the triumph of the mask over truth: even the very values themselves are often reduced to banners hoisted to camouflage the lack of real meaning. Human beings seem to be reduced to a "useless passion" (the expression used, disturbingly ahead of the times, by Jean-Paul Sartre: "l'homme, une passion inutile"). One could say that the most serious malady of this so-called postmodern age is the definitive abandonment of the search for a father-mother towards whom to hold out our arms, our no longer having the will or desire to seek a meaning worth living and dying for.

Orphaned by the ideologies, we all run the risk of being more fragile, more tempted to shut ourselves up in the loneliness of our own selfishness. This is why post-ideological societies are increasingly becoming "collections of solitudes" in which people seek their own self-interest, defined according to an exclusively selfish and manipulative logic: faced with the vacuum of ultimate meaning, we grasp at penultimate concerns, and seek immediate possession.

This explains the triumph of the most shameless consumerism, of the rush towards hedonism and whatever may be enjoyed at once; but this is also the deep reason for the emergence and affirmation of forms of thought that are sectarian, narrowly ethnic, nationalistic, or regional, and that spread with alarming virulence throughout Europe at the end of the last century. Without the wide horizons offered by truth, we easily drown in the selfish loneliness of our own particular situation, and our societies become archipelagos, collections of separate islands.

Yet it is exactly this process which shows that we all need a common father-mother to free us from the confines of our selfishness, to offer a horizon for which to hope and love-not the claustrophobic, violent horizon of the ideologies, but one that truly frees all, and respects all. So if the "society without fathers" ran after the dream of emancipation, and to achieve this dream sought to destroy the father, it is precisely the bitter fruit of totalitarian and violent emancipation - and the vacuum it created - that evokes the newly felt need for a father-mother who welcomes us in freedom and love. This is certainly not to seek a father-mother whose place could be taken by the party, or the boss, or unquestioned leaders, or money, or capitalism; it is, rather, the longing for a father-mother who, at one and the same time, founds the dignity of each person, the freedom of all, and the meaning of life.

In short, faced with the indifference and lack of passion for the truth that characterize our present age, our greatest need is to discover the countenance of the father-mother who loves us. It is our longing for the Totally Other, of whom Horkheimer and Adorno spoke as they foresaw the crisis of the ideologies. It is the yearning for the hidden Face, the need for a home to be shared, which provides horizons of meaning without violence.

This is what emerges from the whole arc traced by the modern age: from the triumph of reason in the Enlightenment, which sought to embrace and explain everything with reason's light alone, to the more diffuse experience of fragmentation and nonsense that followed upon the collapse of the mighty horizons of ideology. This is the process that characterized the twentieth century, the so-called "short century" ("the Short Twentieth Century": Eric Hobsbawm), marked by both the triumph and crisis of the totalitarian optimism of the various ideological models.

The continuing violence, the ethnic hatreds, the blind prejudices against everything different, show how we may have sung too soon the "requiem" of the ideologies, and how they have taken their revenge by reappearing with all the virulence of their mechanisms of self-justification and of demonization of the other: in the suffering inflicted on defenseless peoples, in genocide, in the vicious propaganda of opposing parties, in the vendettas of terrorism. The metaphor of the night really does seem the least inadequate to describe our present condition, notwithstanding the ideologies' renewed claims of being able to understand everything by the "light" of reason alone.

And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely from this continuing and evident denial of fraternity among human beings that there rises up all the more loudly the cry of need for a rediscovered brotherhood, for which only a father-mother can provide the foundation. There are signs of expectation: there is a "longing for perfect and achieved justice" (Max Horkheimer), which can be perceived in the contemporary restlessness and "search for lost meaning." This is not simply "une recherche du temps perdu," not mere nostalgia, but a striving to rediscover meaning beyond shipwreck, to make out an ultimate horizon against which to measure all that is penultimate, and to give an ethical foundation to what we do.

There is a rediscovery of the other, in the recognition that my neighbor, by the mere fact of existing, can give me a reason to live, because he or she challenges me to go out of myself, to take the risk of the exodus with no return involved in committing myself in love to others. The new concern for the weakest-especially for foreigners fleeing from situations of deprivation and poverty of every kind - and the growing awareness of the demands of local and global solidarity may be counted-even if still in the midst of many contradictions - as signs of this search for lost meaning.


Excerpted from The Essence of Christianity by BRUNO FORTE Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

I.Where Are We? Who Are We?1
Landscape of Our Times2
Modernity's Dream--and the "Murder of the Father"2
A Society without Fathers and the "Short Century"4
Landscape of Our Hearts8
"Impelled towards Death", or Open to Mystery8
Rejecting--and Expecting--the Father11
When Religions Meet13
Judaism and Christianity13
Christianity and Islam17
Christianity and the Other World Religions20
II.The Essence of Christianity25
The Exodus of Jesus from the Father26
The Word Comes from Silence26
The Interplay between Revelation and Listening to the Totally Other29
Jesus' Exodus from Himself31
Jesus' Story as a Story of Freedom31
The Cross as the Story of the Trinity35
Jesus' Exodus to the Father39
Experiencing Easter39
From Faith Narrated to Faith Defined41
God, the Father, Is Love45
The Humility of the Living God46
God, Who Is Love48
The Spirit of Life51
The Spirit, Bond of Divine Love51
The Spirit: "Ecstasy" of God53
Trinity--Eternal Story of Love57
Lover, Beloved, and Love57
The Unity of the Living God60
III.Living in Christ and the Church65
The Threefold Exodus of the Disciple66
Disciples of the Only One: Giving Faith First Place66
Servants out of Love, Charity Their Mark68
Witnesses to Meaning: Reasons for Hope71
Believing and Not Believing74
The Atheism of the Believer74
Faith: Struggle, Scandal, Submission76
The Church of Love80
Needing the Church81
The Spirit: Creating Communion in Space and Time83
Faith and History87
The Trinity and the Human Community87
Witnesses of the Trinity at the Service of Reconciliation89
IV.Towards the Beauty of God95
The Beautiful Woman96
Mary, Woman, Icon of Mystery97
The All in a Fragment of History99
Mortal, Saving Beauty103
Beauty: Splendid Generosity103
Beauty That Will Save the World106
AppendixWhat "Essence of Christianity"?111
Feuerbach's "Unhappy Love"112
Harnack's "Tranquil Love"118
Guardini's "Paradoxical Love"124
The Truth of "Crucified Love"129

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