Pope Benedict XVI. Wikimedia Commons

The Rebound of a Presence

Marco Bersanelli, astrophysicist at the University of Milan, and Costantino Esposito, philosopher at the University of Bari, provoked by reading the encyclical on hope, discuss it here, together with Traces.
Alberto Savorana

A scientist and a philosopher, who regularly meet to dialogue about things (and in this, they are an example of participation in a cultural enterprise), accepted the invitation to tackle the new encyclical of Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, which the Movement has indicated as the book of the month for January, having included it with the December edition of Traces. Here they begin to identify some main points that emerge from the encyclical.

What did a first reading of the text arouse in you?
Costantino Esposito: A shaking of the conscience. I say this also because of the unprecedented reaction I saw in some of my university colleagues who are not even Christians. Benedict XVI has reawakened the powerful nostalgia for a meaning in life. Before individual and collective, cultural and social myths which come and go, the encyclical points out what is the “meat” of human experience, its most radical desire–a man can live only if there is a reason that makes it worthwhile. What do I expect from life, what makes me go on? With these questions, the Pope reopens the problem of the present. Isidore of Seville said that the word spes comes from the word pes, foot, because it is what lets you take a step every morning. It is what the heart desires.
Marco Bersanelli: And this reawakening of a hope is within the historic drama we are living in. The Pope acknowledges–almost reluctantly, never as a negative judgment–the failure of all the hopes placed in something finite. The demand for totality that man is cannot be closed up within a limited answer. Here his criticism of the ideology of progress is acute. Without ever ignoring the value of science in itself (which, as he says, “can contribute greatly to making the world and mankind more human”), he stresses its inadequacy at that level of human experience, which can find an answer only in something infinite.
Esposito: The hope Benedict XVI is speaking of does not regard first and foremost the future, but the present. In recent centuries, there has been a progressively widening gap between hope for the future–time and again identified with the idea of progress, with the myth of total liberation from need, and with the ideology of a new man; in a word, with what we “should do,” as Kant said–and the condition of the present. Then we have contemporary philosophy–for example, Ernst Bloch in The Principle of Hope sustains something terrible, because it is unreasonable: that hope is where the present given disappears; the only redemption for man is precisely to free himself from the present, which remains a prison, a loss, because in it everything is fossilized, that is, without meaning. The Pope, instead, sets it moving again. He says that the only motive for hope is in something present. Man is made for the infinite, but the infinite is present–this is the novelty of Christianity. Thanks to this, men are no longer slaves of the elements and of the laws of nature.

The Pope writes: “The inexorable power of material elements no longer has the last word; we are not slaves of the universe and of its laws, we are free.”
Bersanelli: And he goes on: “In ancient times, honest enquiring minds were aware of this.” Scientific and philosophical research for truth is born of this freedom from the universe, from the perception that we are not slaves to nature. He says, “Life is not a simple product of laws and the randomness of matter, but within everything, and at the same time above everything, there is a personal will.” This takes away nothing from the dynamism of nature or from man’s humanity; and it is only this that “resounds” with the human being’s desire for fulfillment. As a man, a scientist is not truly satisfied when discovering a mechanism, but only when he experiences that mechanism within an order, a universal design that is wanted… “

Even the hairs on your head are numbered,” the Gospel says.
Bersanelli: It is the aspect of post-modern thought that the Pope points out: within the progress of the natural sciences, the need arises to look beyond them; this is a point that no one can ignore, and the encyclical makes it with a delicacy and a depth that will leave their mark.
Esposito: In a person’s experience, this “true presence,” as the Pope calls it, is not only an other-worldly answer, but is what saves my desire here and now, what enables me to desire and enjoy life. I was stuck by the almost literal coincidence with a judgment of Fr. Giussani’s in Religious Awareness in Modern Man: If mankind has failed the Church, the Church, too, has failed mankind. As for the pretension that the only hope is given by science and politics (tracing a line from Bacon to the French Revolution, to Marx and post-Marxism), the Pope sustains that the modern Church, following a Lutheran tendency, began to say that Christian hope is individual or private–because it regards the destiny of the soul in the other world–and that the world has its own hopes, based on what man is able to achieve with his own strength. This would mean that faith is not denied, but is no longer incisive.

Irrelevant, the Pope says: “It is not that faith is simply denied; rather it is displaced onto another level–that of purely private and other-worldly affairs–and at the same time it becomes somehow irrelevant for the world. This programmatic vision has determined the trajectory of modern times and it also shapes the present-day crisis of faith which is essentially a crisis of Christian hope.”
Esposito: The Pope invites everyone, inside and outside the Church, to rethink the crucial question, because everyone has accepted that the world can be built while setting aside the problem of meaning, with the consequence that the meaning has been lost–made more and more abstract or sentimental. And the world itself has been lost along with all interest in it. For without interest, what are we free for? As someone has said, we would be free only for nothingness.
Bersanelli: Man’s decline derives from what he calls “correlation between science and praxis,” as if the natural mechanism, possessed by means of scientific discovery, claims to become the principle that moves man in relationship with reality, so that “dominion over creation–given to man by God and lost through original sin–would be re-established.” Here lies the deluding face of a mentality that presumes that scientific reason can answer the need for redemption, for salvation. We see it very clearly at the level of education. A young person, a student, our children, and we ourselves are unconsciously tied to an idea of the good and of self-realization that starts off from a mechanism and not from a presence that embraces the infinite desire of the heart. It is difficult to escape from this position, so the Pope invites us to broaden our reason and our desire, to the whole breadth of their nature.
Esposito: Augustine says that when we hope, we desire happiness, but if we were to be asked what it is, we would have to admit that it is unknown, because every time we try to grasp hold of it, it escapes us. In contemporary culture, this means that the question dries up with time–if a possible correspondence is lost in the dark, then the question withers away. For man, it is impossible to maintain the whole breadth of his desire, unless he meets a gaze, someone who begins to sketch the outline of an answer. For this reason, I think the most philosophically important steps of Spe Salvi are the story of Bakhita, the African slave, and Le Bao-Thin, the Vietnamese martyr, because they say that a man can go on looking and asking, that is, desiring happiness, only if he senses that an answer is possible or, rather, if the answer begins to make itself present. These are far more than edifying stories told to arouse emotions.
Bersanelli: “Man’s situation, in view of the imbalance between his material capacity and the lack of judgment in his heart, becomes a threat for him and for creation.” This judgment in his heart is not a question of feeling or emotion, but a reason that is able to read human experience and its relationship with reality.

You have hinted at the reduction of both human and Christian hope to an individual phenomenon. Can we go back to this theme?
Esposito: It is a theme apparently intra-ecclesial, but in reality it is very existential. Christian hope is communitarian: I cannot conceive the good only for myself, but also for the person I love, then for the people I belong to, and then for the whole world. The Pope writes: “Our behavior is not indifferent before God and therefore is not indifferent for the unfolding of history.” Hope is only in an infinite that gives itself to us and stakes everything on our responsibility. In contemporary philosophy, another philosopher, Hans Jonas, answered the argument of Ernst Bloch, maintaining that the problem is not so much hope, but rather responsibility; however, he placed these in opposition to each other. This dualism is superseded in Christianity, because in so far as hope is a future that touches you now, it makes you tremble at injustice and evil, in a moving embrace that is realistic and down to detail, like that of Christ for the world.
Bersanelli: The Pope directs our eyes to Christian experience: “Modern Christianity, faced with the successes of science in progressively structuring the world, has to a large extent restricted its attention to the individual and his salvation. In so doing it has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognize sufficiently the greatness of its task.” On the contrary, the task is in all we do. It is not just giving a lecture about human salvation, but perceiving it as a present fact, in the materiality of our life, of our work, of teaching and of research; it is carrying the whole of my humanity and all the humanity around me towards its ultimate horizon–hardly a private matter!
Esposito: Right at the beginning, the Pope says that we are “redeemed” in hope. When we say “redemption,” we color this word either in an eschatological sense (heaven that is beyond) or in the moral sense. But in Spe Salvi, there is a powerful recovery of what the ancient philosophers spoke–salvation is “saving the phenomena.” All of me, even the details, even my evil, can be embraced or, better, it is embraced now, and this is the present promise of fulfillment. We, on the other hand, risk always projecting redemption into a future, who knows where and when, that has nothing to do with the man I am now, but with what I must be in the end, therefore with our capacity for moral betterment–finally we will do what we ought to do!
Bersanelli: Christ’s salvation is the truth of the present, of the relationship with “imperfect” things. “His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect.” Hope lies not in overcoming imperfection, but in recognizing the truth present in the sign, which is redeemed–it becomes something out of this world. Knowledge, too–the discovery of the mysteries of the universe or of evolution on earth or of the snowflakes that fall from the sky–is satisfying if it is within this being a sign of Him. Hope lies not in the fact that I know, but in the fact that, by knowing, I discover the love from which everything comes (“the love that moves the sun and other stars”), and this happens in the present. The Pope’s position introduces a perspective different from our usual position before all things.
Esposito: It is the same novelty that we find as regards the thing closest to us, our “I,” because it gives a new density to the word “life,” which is no longer an instinctive biological dynamic, which projects itself in ideas and projects, but at last becomes experience. The reality most my own, my “I,” is a “given” that carries in itself the infinite trace of its “giver.” And the full experience of life is being able to realize it.

Reason and freedom. “Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency–it is progress towards perfect freedom,” the Pope says, exposing the pretension of modernity.
Bersanelli: My “I” is radically dependent–I do not make myself! And this dependence finds a marvelous sign in the way nature is built around us. Scientific results over the last fifty years have shown us how incredibly dependent we are from the point of view of the material conditions of our existence. We are dependent on the environment and on the history of the universe; on the age of primordial plasma, fourteen billion years ago; and on when the galaxies, the stars, and our planet were formed. The idea of overcoming our dependence, even on a natural level, is pure illusion.
Esposito: This is really an impressive revolution brought about by Christianity. If we think of it, the two words that indicate best the “cages” of existence–dependence and need–are given a completely new meaning, because dependence is freedom before a “you,” it is a loving experience, the discovery of a meaning that corresponds to the person’s and society’s need for life. Beyond or, rather, at the root of all theories of dependence as alienation and of all the analyses of needs, both material or spiritual, from Marx to Freud, up to post-modern sociology, if we cannot identity what the ultimate need is, we remain bogged down in our utopian and powerless attempts to free ourselves from it. Or, as is the case for most people, we conceive ourselves as a need without satisfaction, like someone who is hungry and theorizes that there can be no bread–this is the aridity of nihilism.

The theme of hope is intertwined with modern man’s desire to be a protagonist, and the title of the Rimini Meeting 2008 is set in this context: “Either Protagonists or Nobodies.” On the other hand, for some time now, Fr. Carrón has been insisting that, to this end, man has a broken relationship with reality, which has no longer been the terminus of progressive evolution and human growth, but an obstacle to be gotten rid of; a limit to overcome. But turning one’s back on Christ has had the opposite effect to that desired: the destruction of humanity. This finds interesting confirmation in Spe Salvi. Now, once that is established, where can we set off from? In philosophy and science, what rekindles the spark?
Bersanelli: This crisis of the relationship with reality that history has brought us to and this presumption of being protagonists has led to an aridity in our relationship with things. We make a lot of discoveries, and it is as if we were just as before–they do not move us at all. In the scientific field, there is almost embarrassment if we are moved at all before what we observe and discover. It is an aridity that is theorized and lived more and more, and this leads to an incapacity to connect things, a difficulty in seeing the whole picture. The lever for starting off again is a loving knowledge. When I give a lecture, I hope that my students, as they learn astronomy, can be my companions in my sense of wonder before things. This is a principle that has consequences for how a research project is planned, for how a working group is organized, or for how the success or failure of a project is judged.
Esposito: The novelty in my relationship with my students is that interest for their own “I” is rekindled. When we speak of verifying reality, we often think of reality as the sum of the things that are outside us that we can list. This is nihilistic ontology. Instead, reality is something that happens to me, and the fact that I am touched by this and understand it is an integral part of reality. Reality corresponds to me, if I correspond to it–it is a true encounter! I always tell my students: philosophical research will never come to an end, because every generation, indeed, every man, is called to become aware that reality is, as it were, waiting for each one of us, your gaze, your “yes” in order to be what it is. If there is this gaze, unforeseeable things happen, which could not have been seen a priori. This is how ideas are born. The Mystery is not an enigma, but something absolutely reasonable; it is what is unleashed when an “I” encounters reality. This is the beauty of philosophical research.

Hope and faith… Many entrust to hope the task of producing a certainty about life, deceiving themselves that things will go better if circumstances change. The Pope affirms that the opposite is true: either there is something in the present or our hope is empty, and we see its disappointing fruits. In Is It Possible to Live this Way?, Fr. Giussani says, “Certainty in the future is based on something present that is known with certainty” and goes on to tackle the question of faith. How does the encyclical help in deepening the theme of faith?
Bersanelli: All too often, we put our hopes in the future: “You’ll see that things will be different tomorrow!” as the song says. This is the only sad possibility remaining when there is no experience of faith, a fact recognized that offers a solution. We wish irrationally for a better future when we do not recognize a fact as something that offers a solution now–not in the sense that it solves all the problems, but that it resolves my ultimate need, my solitude before the question of who I am. What gives me hope is coming across someone who resolves this.
Esposito: Living is always a reaching forward; man is a bundle of desires, of tensions, of expectations. At the natural level, his greatness is this restlessness. As the Pope tells us, every expectation vibrates with a memory; and memory is the awareness in time of what I have been given and am given now. Only this permits me realistically to continue reaching forward. Faith does not close the human question, but launches the “I,” as Fr. Giussani said, in the universal comparison. It is like a plumb line that measures the depth of every instant. A Christian can reach forward because there is someone who is holding him–the Father.
Bersanelli: It is wonderful to see that this transforms and arouses interest for normal, day-to-day things. In curiosity and affection for work, for the relationship with one’s colleagues, for the meeting for launching a satellite, what do we begin to desire in these little things? That they be vehicles of hope, a sign for me and for those around me of that hope that moves all things. The desire grows that through that imperfect, ephemeral detail, the face of that Presence that sustains hope may be revealed.
Esposito: This is why the Pope quotes a stupendous saying of St. Augustine, that the true exercise of desire is prayer. Philosophically speaking, from the “lay” point of view, I find it a flawless position because, at a certain point, you understand that you can truly hope only if you say, “Come!” to that “known unknown” from which you expect everything.