Sofia #80 - Eitorial by Dinah Livingstone

The English words worth, worthy and worship are all related, and this issue asks what a human life is worth – how do we value our own life on Earth and the lives of others.

Paul Overend explores the meaning of worship and worth. He says the term ‘worship’ makes him uncomfortable because it still has connotations of feudal homage and links with a hierarchical social order, legitimised by God, ‘the Most High’ at the top. He would prefer to attend to ‘something actually worthy of my concern, such as places of neglect, disaster, abuse’, and thinks ‘worship as a term might be retained for the recognition of the worth of other human beings, of other species, of the environment, of our selves’.

Don Cupitt’s article argues that ‘the classic distinction between two worlds, Heaven and Earth, the Invisible and the Visible, the Spiritual and the Material, the supernatural and the natural, is coming to an end. It is a strong plea for the worth of ‘this world, the present moment, ordinary language and everyday life.’

Michael Morton’s article Pastoral looks at how the scriptural metaphor of sheep and shepherd has been claimed by two opposing tendencies in Christianity – the ‘marginalised’ and the ‘authoritarian’. In St John, he says, ‘the image of the sheepfold and shepherd may well allude to a community on the margins’. The Gospel was first and foremost ‘good news for the poor’ – the anawim, ‘the lost and forgotten ones’, as in the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor, blessed are the dispossessed...’ However, Morton says, ‘within 170 years a three-rank hierarchy developed and gave the church a very different kind of “pastoral” governance.’ Among their insignia of office bishops have stylised shepherds’ crooks, sometimes made of ivory, silver or gold..

This issue opens with the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal’s Message to Berlin, which he sent to the PEN Writers’ Congress that took place in Berlin in May 2006 on the theme of ‘Writing in a World without Peace’. He was unable to attend himself (he is now over eighty years old), so he was invited to send a Message.

As a younger man, Cardenal joined the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, Kentucky, where his novice master was Thomas Merton. After leaving the Monastery, he was ordained Catholic priest in 1965 and founded a peasant community on the Solentiname Islands on Lake Nicaragua. (In his Memoirs, Cardenal says that Merton wanted to join the Solentiname Community but his Order would not give him permission.) The Community produced remarkable primitive paintings (one is on the front cover), poetry, and took part in the overthrow of the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza.

Cardenal is one of the most famous poets in Latin America. After the Triumph of the Revolution in 1979, he became Minister of Culture. With the watchword ‘The triumph of the Revolution is the triumph of poetry’ his ministry immediately began setting up poetry workshops all over the country and published a magazine Poesía Libre on rough brown paper bound with string, which was available very cheaply in outlets like supermarkets. Nicaragua is famous for its poets and the magazine published well-known names, translations from many countries and had a section of poems from the workshops. (Poetry is also ‘incarnate word’). Cardenal was one of three Catholic priests in the Sandinista government – his brother Fernando Cardenal SJ was Minister of Education (and led the famously successful literacy campaign in 1980 )and Miguel D’Escoto SJ was Foreign Minister. All three were suspended from saying Mass by the Pope.

Ernesto’s Message to Berlin denounces President Bush as the new Hitler: ‘Just as there was a time when Hitler was the cause of wars, now the cause of wars is Bush.’ He agrees with the German writer Günter Grass that ‘terrorism can only by fought with more economic justice’. He quotes Psalm 85: ‘Justice and Peace have kissed each other.’ and says: ‘That is because justice and peace go together. There is no justice without peace or peace without justice.’ Two other Beatitudes are: Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice and blessed are the peacemakers.

The recently published study in The Lancet estimates that 1 in 40 Iraqis have been killed since the invasion in 2003 – more than 650,000 people. That is a far higher civilian death rate than under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The figure was defended by Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in an article in The Guardian on October 12th 2006, which concludes: ‘We are one human family. Let’s act like it.’

This sounds the same note as Ernesto Cardenal: ‘Our weapon against war is humanism, since our country is Humanity.’ The Catholic priests in the Sandinista government worked harmoniously with non-religious colleagues who proposed (in the words of Interior Minister Tomás Borge) ‘a sane and kindly humanism that sees the liberation of humanity as the chief object of culture’. As a Catholic priest, Cardenal believes human life is holy because it was created by God and because the Word became flesh in a human body. Inspired by liberation theology, his God is a humanist God. Other Christians, in Latin America and elsewhere, seem to worship a very different God – the God of the conquistadors, of the rich and powerful, the God who told Bush to invade Iraq. We in SoF may regard both Gods as human creations, but we still need to exercise discernment and decide which we prefer, who we can work with.

This issue also carries a review of an Introduction to Radical Theology. The term ‘radical’ here refers to philosophical radicalism. Again, not all forms of radical theology are humanist: some concentrate so exclusively on ‘ideas’ or ‘language’ that they ignore the fact that we are mortal bodies; some are so privatised or individualistic that they ignore the social body, the human species. Discernment is equally necessary with regard to those who hold that gods ‘reside in the human breast’.

A disembodied theology can ignore justice; justice is concerned with habeas corpus. Cardenal believes human bodies are holy because the divine Word became flesh. Others share his humanism but do not think it needs a supernatural guarantee. We may read the Christ epic of incarnation, passion, resurrection and the final coming of the ‘reign’ of justice and peace on Earth as a story of the ‘emptying’ of the divine into the human, of naturalistic humanism as the outcome, the fulfilment of a supernatural story. At least, even if we do not take its supernatural elements literally, the Christ epic can still be seen as (and inspire) a humanist project. Or not.

It is up to us whether we recognise ‘the worth of other human beings’, whether we value ‘this world and everyday life’ (for everybody, not just ourselves, not just maintaining our own garden), whether we try, as Amnesty puts it, to protect the human, whether we want ‘good news for the poor’, the anawim, the lost and forgotten ones, whether, as Cardenal urges at the end of his Message to Berlin, we defend peace and justice, and defend human bodies.