Archbishop Forte on Religion and Freedom (Part 2)

“There Is a Return to the Father, Who Sets Us Free”

LEEDS, England, DEC. 5, 2007 ( Here is the second part of the address given by Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy, a member of the International Theological Commission, to a Nov. 12 meeting of the bishops of England and Wales.

Part 1 appeared Tuesday. Part 3 will appear Thursday.

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2. Principles: “Religion and Freedom From Modern to Postmodern Time”

We move now to the second archway of our bridge. Within the horizon of the search for the infinitely loving Father-Mother it is possible to distinguish two different attitudes regarding the relationship between religion and freedom: the first one, marked by rejection of the Father-Mother figure in the name of the emancipation of human being; the second one, characterized by the conviction that without the acceptance of a transcendent truth there is no possible freedom and no religious freedom at all.

a) The metaphor of light provides us with the most expressive way of talking about the principle which inspired modern reason’s ambitious claim to understand and master everything. This project — which lies at the foundations of the Enlightenment in all its manifestations — maintains that to understand the world rationally means to make human beings free, masters of their own future, emancipating them from every possible dependence.

Emancipation: This was the dream which pervaded the great processes of historical transformation in the modern age, born with the “Enlightenment” and the French Revolution, from the emancipation of the working classes, the oppressed races and the peoples of the so-called third world, to the emancipation of women, in all variety of different cultural and social contexts. This dream of total emancipation strained forward toward a reality entirely enlightened, where the radiating power of reason might express itself without constraint.

Where reason triumphs, there rises the sun of the future; in this sense, it may be said that modernity is the age of light. Freedom — interpreted as self-consciousness, self-determination and self-realization — is light: The light is being set free from every dependence, from every Father-Mother who could decide for us. Freedom is precisely emancipation, liberation from every transcendent Lord, from every historical slavery. Revolutionary freedom as well as the bourgeois one are both aspects of the modern spirit of emancipation. The fullest expression of this spirit is “ideology”: modernity, the age that dreamed of emancipation, was also the time of those all-embracing ways of understanding the world proper to 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 — unfailingly thought to imply dependence — but only horizontal ones, of equality and reciprocity.

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité”: The sun of reason generates liberty and equality, and hence fraternity, according to an egalitarianism founded on the light of reason, which governs the whole world and all life. 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 must be no Father of all.

“Religious freedom” is freedom from religious slavery, from every fear in front of the divine: Human beings alone are the heroes of their own destiny and of the future of society. 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 human beings in a way so radical as to make them the sole 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 in debt to it: 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 for power (F. Nietzsche) strives to dominate life and history so as to make them conform to its own goals. Inexorably, this all-encompassing dream becomes totalitarian: Totality — as understood by reason — produces totalitarianism. Neither by chance nor by 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 fully enlightened earth — affirm Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno — radiates disaster triumphant” (Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), New York 1969, 3).

Thought without shadows becomes violent; 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 dependent 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 dreamed of turns into a painful, grey manipulation of the masses, held in place by violence and fear.

The collective murder of the father did not prevent the proliferation of these new, barely camouflaged, fathers and lords. 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. Where are the new heavens and new earth promised by the great ideological narratives? This is the drama with which the 20th century closed: a moral drama, a crisis of meaning, a vacuum of hope. Freedom and religious freedom in a world without God have not made us more free, more equal, more fraternal.

b) The need for a transcendent horizon arises from the crisis of the suppositions of the modern era. If, according to modernity, 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 any more.

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 postmodern 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 parable of modern ideologies, nihilism: Nihilism is not simply a matter of giving up values for which it is worth living. It is a much more subtle process: It deprives human beings of the taste for committing themselves to a higher cause, of those powerful motivations which the ideologies still seemed to offer.

Our worst contemporary ailment is this lack of “passion for the truth”: This is the dramatic face of our postmodern age. In this climate of nihilism, everything conspires to lead us not to think anymore, to flee from any passionate striving after truth. In the dark light of nihilism, to be freed means to be “condemned” to freedom, compelled to make choices, not free to be or not to be free, and religious freedom has no meaning, because there are no gods and no free human beings!

The result of such a cultural process is the triumph of the mask over and above truth: Even values are often reduced to banners hoisted to camouflage the lack of meaning. Human beings seem to be reduced to a “useless passion” (Jean-Paul Sartre: “l’homme, une passion inutile”). One could say that the most serious malady of this so-called postmodern age is the abandonment of the search for a father-mother toward whom to hold out our arms, while we 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 “crowds of loneliness,” 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 possessions.

This explains the triumph of the most shameless consumerism, of the rush toward hedonism and whatever may be enjoyed at once; but this is also the deep reason for the emergence and affirmation of forms of thought which are sectarian, narrowly ethnic, nationalistic or regional. Without the wide horizons offered by truth, we easily drown in the selfish loneliness of our own particular situation, and our societies becomes archipelagos, collections of separate islands.

It is exactly this process which shows that we all need a common father-mother to free us from our selfishness, to offer a horizon of hope and love — not the violent one of the ideologies, but one which 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 transcendent father-mother who welcomes us in freedom and love and guarantees the dignity of each person, the freedom of all, and the ultimate meaning of life.

This is the 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 shared home, which provides horizons of meaning without violence. There are signs of such an 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 discern an ultimate horizon, against which to measure all that is penultimate, and to give an ethical foundation to that 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 an exodus with no return by 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 beset by many contradictions — as signs of this search for lost meaning and for a freedom based on respect for each human person and his infinite dignity.

At the same time, there seems also to be a rediscovery of the longing for the Totally Other, a kind of rediscovery of the Holy over against every nihilistic denial. There is the reawakening of a need, which may be described in general as religious — for an ultimate horizon, understood not in the manipulative and violent way of ideology. A transcendent womb which allows us to affirm that the value of creation is promoted and not undermined by the Holy.

Under very different forms, there is a “return to the Father,” who sets us free, even though not always without ambiguity or even a certain ideological nostalgia. To witness to such a need of the Other, able to offer reasons for life and hope, and to proclaim the Face of this transcendent loving Father-Mother, is the most important commitment of the Church’s mission today. The Second Vatican Council expressed this intuition in a particularly deep way when it said: “One is entitled to think that the future of humanity is in the hands of those who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for life and hope” (“Gaudium et Spes,” 31).

In these words we can espy the role of a fundamental paternal-maternal mediation, of a kind of paternity-maternity of meaning, which might be able to stop the future from falling into nothingness. The Other — ultimate foundation of all true reasons to live, and to live together — seems to be offering himself as the answer to the truest and deepest question revealed by the crisis of our present age; and the yearning for his hidden face seems to lead us toward a father-mother who has a loving welcome for us all.

[Text adapted]

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