Where There Is Danger Grows the Saving Power
Let Us Dream by Pope Francis
The pandemic is history in the making, bringing changes to our lives that would have been thought impossible. Its effects have been borne unequally though, revealing the fault-lines of inequality, and reminding us just how precarious life really is. Together with resurgent populisms and looming climate disaster, there is a lot to be pessimistic about.
Into the fray steps Pope Francis. Let Us Dream is his call for change, a discussion of a wide range of issues such as ecclesiastical politics, good ecological living, poverty, the coronavirus, and the role of women in society.
With so much global uncertainty, it is easy to feel overwhelmed or paralysed: what can I do to save the environment?
There are two easy responses. The first is to indulge in our grief and long for everything to be overthrown, so as to wipe our hands clean of the need to actually do anything. The second is to harden our souls to the plights of others, and meet their suffering with indifference.
“Indifference blocks the spirit by closing us to the possibilities that God is waiting to offer us, possibilities that overflow our mental schemes and categories.” (20). For change to happen, we must first “go to the margins” of society to see what it is really like. But after looking and feeling, we must discern and act.
To read of poverty and suffering in the news is one thing, but to see it with your own eyes - to see the teeming squalor of Argentinian shantytowns, where lockdowns have confined people to tiny homes without running water - is another. This kind of encounter gives us a more tangible situation to focus upon, inviting us “to ponder, and to respond with hope” (11): we are moved, we are worried, but we are also compelled to action.
This follows the example of Christ, who moved among prostitutes, tax collectors, bandits, and other sinners. It’s an ethos at risk in the coronavirus age, with masks and lockdowns and other restrictions limiting our ability to make face-to-face connections. Those who love each other have a strong need to physically connect, to see, to touch, to satisfy the deep human impulse which draws us towards each other.
If the church loses this connection with the people - if she does not walk with the poor - then she may “[fall] back on the old temptation to become a moral or intellectual elite.” (120). Walking with the poor is not just about making them mere objects of paternalism, but empowering them to organise justice for themselves, so they may be the subjects of their own lives.
Francis uses the word perisseuo to describe this possibility of being moved to action. It is the Greek word used in psalm 23to refer to the overflowing of the cup:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
God’s grace is not contained to any particular vessel, and there can be no everlasting figuration of temporal power that would perfectly capture it. We need to be capable of being moved, of having our old routines and categories overthrown. This is a case for change as well as preservation.
Tradition accommodates both. Francis denies traditionalism as a return to how things were, or as a frozen set of decrees that determine all forms of human association forever. Tradition is, in Gustav Mahler’s words, “not the worship of the ashes, but the preservation of the flame.”
Fundamentalism does not respect this balance. It offers a single formulation of the truth which reduces all questions to a single political answer.
The truth may be unyielding, but it also reveals and can therefore deceive. Francis compares the Hebrew and Greek words for truth: the Hebrew “emet” means firmness, fixity, that which does not deceive or change, while the Greek “aletheia” means that which reveals itself.
Truth is eternal, but its eternity is only ever glimpsed at. This is why Francis speaks of “discerning” the truth, of adopting an attitude which requires us to “leave space for this gentle encounter with the good, the true, and the beautiful.” (55). We must allow our cups to be filled up.
The encounter is not just a journey to the margins of society, it is also the resolution of tension between its elements. These tensions don’t have to erupt in violence. To understand how this is possible, Francis borrows some concepts from the philosopher Romano Guardini.
Guardini distinguishes between contraposition (Gegensätze) and contradiction (Widersprüche). Contraposition involves two poles in tension that pull away from each other: horizon/limit, local/global, whole/part. Life is full of these polarities, which interact in a “fruitful, creative tension.”
On the other hand, contradictions demand that we pick sides: good or evil, right or wrong. These are not complements or counterparts, but negations of each other: where good flourishes, evil must languish.
Contrapositions might cause conflict - when we confuse them for contradictions - but they also open the way for dialogue and understanding. Francis quotes Patmos by Friedrich Hölderlin: “Where there is danger/Grows the saving power also.” By being open to dialogue and “walking together”, we have the possibility of resolving these tensions within a greater whole that respects both.
This is an intriguing idea, though it’s not always clear whether a particular dichotomy would be a contraposition or contradiction. I would have liked to see Francis give some examples; alas, this is not really a philosophy book, and his discussion is brief. However, based on comments made elsewhere, the European Union might be seen as an example that navigates the tensions of local/global.
We might turn contrapositions into contradictions, but the opposite tendency is also a danger: to treat all contrapositions as equally valid in their own right, thus siloing off communities and people. Such relativism rejects solidarity and cuts us off from the common good. The end of this turning inwards is what Pope Francis calls “the isolated conscience”.
No one chooses his identity freely. We are born into families and communities, with a particular upbringing, all of which determines who we are more so than our individual choices. This ultimately ties us together in bonds of mutuality and reciprocity.
The isolated conscience rejects this. He neglects his stake in society and refuses to participate - to even acknowledge - the common good. He understands others only through sterile analytical or legal categories, an act which puts him outside his own people, literally beyond the understanding of himself: for “the people” is not a logical concept. “It can only ever really be approached through intuition, by entering into its spirit, its heart, its history and traditions.” (102).
The distinction between contraposition and contradiction helps us make sense of what Pope Francis means by “the gentle encounter”: we all walk different paths, and the only way to navigate our differences is to allow for the encounter with one another, out of which may flow a genuine connection and a fruitful resolution. Without this connection, we are paralysed - impotent, helpless, strangers even to ourselves.
In addition to this more philosophical discussion, Let Us Dream also has lots of practical methods for applying these ideas to your own life. For example, as an antidote to an isolated conscience, Francis discusses how the sixth-century monk Dorotheus of Gaza - who spent long periods in the desert alone - would practice “self-accusation”, a searching for his own faults: “In accusing ourselves, we ‘lower’ ourselves, making room for the action of God to unite us.” (74).
He also discusses sound ecological living. The environment is not a problem that can be separated from how we live our everyday lives. Global perspectives tend to prescribe universal political or technocratic solutions, which operate somewhat in isolation of our personal lives and commitments.
Francis is weary of this. In his encyclical Laudato si’ - written just before the Paris Accords, and apparently a strong influence on them - he cautions against the organisation of humanity along technocratic lines. Technocratic mindsets do not respect the limits of nature: “We begin to believe in power, confusing it with progress, so that whatever boosts our control is seen as beneficial.” (34). Yet this is exactly what puts creation at risk.
Francis also makes the case for allowing women to make more contributions within the church. He explains why they should be allowed to participate in the dicasteries (the departments of the Holy See). Regarding whether women should be able to become deaconesses, he argues yes. The role of deacon has always been more integrated with the local life of a community, in the distribution and management of food and alms, but also in the daily life of the laypeople. Women have always been an important part of this, and so may yet have roles to play as deaconesses.
This seems convincing. But Francis stops very abruptly at the idea of women priests. If women can be deaconesses, why can’t they also be priests? His opponents - both TradCaths and liberals - seem to have a point here: his position feels like an unsatisfactory midpoint. I didn’t see why he was able to draw the line where he does. This is a very broad book though, covering too much to let it dwell too long on one subject, which perhaps lets him get away with skipping on detail here.
If there is an overarching lesson in this book, it is that our troubles cannot be overcome by any one solution: a reduction of the problem of climate change or social injustice to political organisation is exactly the kind of exasperated thinking which confuses power with progress: if only our mastery over nature were greater, and we just used it in the right way, all of our problems would go away…
Let Us Dream makes the case for a re-imagining of human affairs along the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. It has serious philosophic and theological content, without being too dry or abstract to apply to your own life. And I was impressed with just how well-written it was, not only in the breadth of literature drawn upon, but also in how the editor, Austin Iverleigh, has phrased every sentence.
Grief and fear are the easy emotions. What this book offers is hope: an openness to the possibility of our worldly categories being filled up and overflowing with God’s grace.
Psalm 23:5. New International Version of the Holy Bible. Published by The Zondervan Corporation, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (1988).