Monday, June 8, 2009

Leonardo Boff at 70 – Pt. 1: Landmarks of a Life

On the occasion of his 70th birthday in December 2008, Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff gave two major addresses -- one about his life and the other about his theological perspective as they have evolved over the years. These talks are available in their original language in the Portuguese section of Leonardo's Web site (click on "Balanço aos 70"). We are pleased to bring them to you in English for the first time, translated by Rebel Girl. With his typical wit, Leonardo signs the two addresses "theologus et peregrinus peccator".

1. Acknowledgments

First of all I thank God for having reached this age. The psalm (90:10) says it well: "Seventy is the sum of our years, or eighty, if we are strong." He is, as the Scriptures say, "the sovereign lover of life" (Wis. 11:26). He includes me in His love.

Then I want to thank my earthly family. I am not going to talk about them so as not to cry because they are inside me and I miss them a lot.

In this context I cannot forget the Monteiro Miranda family and my companion Márcia and her six children with whom I share life and who ground me in the reality in which all we human beings live.

Then I feel a duty to thank the Christian community. It has given me the faith, love and hope of Jesus. It nourishes me with its dream of a new heaven and a new earth, a new man and a new woman as well as the resurrection of the whole universe, the Body of the Triune God.

Thanks also to another spiritual family, the Franciscan family that inherited the legacy of St. Francis, the most human of all human beings. From them I learned that life is only truly complete when built with tenderness and strength and in fraternity with all things.

I would like to thank those peregrinantibus mecum, those who have walked in pilgrimage with me over these many years, those men and women with whom I shared life, dreams, struggles, tribulations and progress. They are so many that I cannot name them.

I want to express joy at the double literary tribute that has been paid to me. First the book, Leituras Criticas Sobre Leonardo Boff (“Leonardo Boff: A Critical Reading”) organized by Prof. Juarez Guimarães, working together with the Instituto Perseu Abramo and the Universidade Federal do Belo Horizonte. Notable names of our country and abroad honor me. Then I also want to express my appreciation and gratitude to the special issue of the journal Estudos Teológicos of the Escola Superior de Teologia (EST) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Brazil. It is the result of a debate that lasted a week with specialists who have studied my writings thoroughly and have made relevant comments and criticisms from which I learned a lot. They highlighted the similarities and differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic-Franciscan perceptions.

My gratitude also goes to all who organized this celebration of 70 years: universities, organizations, groups, people, especially the Center for the Defense of Human Rights in Petropolis, of which I am honorary president, the Serviço de Educação e Organização Popular (People’s Education and Training Service -- SEOP) which I also helped to found and, last but not least, the Bennett Institute of the Methodist Church that has always been on my side. It was in their facility that an act of atonement was celebrated on the occasion of "obsequious silence" imposed by the Vatican in 1985.

Finally, I thank all who have come this night of December 9th here in Rio de Janeiro, some from far away who have drawn near because of affection.

I will not say many words. Nor will I make a review at 70 as I did at 50 and 60, because it is not the occasion. I just want to highlight some salient landmarks, a blind reading.

2. The Landmarks

a) Old

First I have to say and acknowledge that I am old. According to conditions in Brazil, I am officially old. However, I do not want to view being old merely through the lens of biology. Still there is in old age the unstoppable loss of vital capital and a slow collapse of the senses. But old age is more than its biological dimension. It is the last stage of life, the last chance that life offers us to continue to grow, reach maturity and, finally, finish being born.

If we see clearly, we begin to be born one day but we are not born just yet because we are not yet ready. We ourselves are always in genesis, working, suffering, rejoicing, frustrated, establishing relationships, loving and creating meaning for our short passage through this small planet. We keep slowly being born, in installments, until we finish being born.

Aging is the last chance to give the final touch to the statue that we carved of ourselves.

Old age has its advantages. You no longer need to use the masks that life imposes at every moment. Because life is like a theater in which you are asked to play several parts. You wear the mask of a man, a friar, a priest, a theologian, a writer, a lecturer, a former fan of Canto do Rio and then of América and I don’t know what else. Now as an old person, you have the right and privilege to be yourself and get rid of the masks.

It is not an easy time because we often identify with the masks. But when they disappear, your own identity breaks through. So scary questions arise: Who are you, finally? What are you really doing in this world? What are your fundamental dreams? What demons torment you? What is your place in the design of the Mystery?

At this moment, we leave all comrades behind. We are alone with our loneliness. And there is no more hiding behind masks and roles. “Ego sum factus quaestio magna,” St. Augustine says. "I have become a great question to myself."

Life in old age imposes this requirement: that we confront, with fear and trembling, the ultimate postponed questions. So in fact we can mature, gain gravitas and finish being born. It is a chance to appear wise. It is illusory to think that wisdom comes with many years of age. It does not. It is the spirit, the courage with which we face these unavoidable issues that can make us wise. So we have completed the task of our life. We leave the stage. We enter the silence. We die. If not loaded with days, at least full of experience and -- who knows? -- of wisdom.

Well, I have come to this last stage of life. My father who died at 54 did not arrive, nor my mother who died at 64, nor my dearest sister Claudia who was transfigured at 33 years of age. I have arrived and it is by the grace of God.

So, to address these questions, I should take time, renounce many vicissitudes, talk less, meditate more and carry onward the long journey of life that is towards the heart. And then prepare for the Great Encounter. Descend as Christ did into the heart of the universe -- there where the heart of stone, the heart of the flower, the heart of every living thing, the heart of the human being, and the heart of the universe are a single heart. Meet with God, the heart of hearts, the originating source of all being, of all goodness, all love, all tenderness and all compassion.

If being old is to experience this process, then: Welcome old age! Blessed be old age! It is not punishment but grace upon grace. It allows us to experience what St. Paul tells us: "although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. " (2 Cor 4:16).

So, I'm an old man on the path to the source of eternal youth that is God.

b) Christian

I am old and I am a Christian. What did Christianity teach me, in sum? Many things, but I want to stick to the essentials. Christianity made me see that, basically, there are only two mysteries: God and the world. Why does nothing exist without God? He knows neither yesterday nor tomorrow. Only now. He is eternity, the absolute limit of reason. And when I start to think about it, I almost go mad. And the world. Why does the world exist by God’s side? What does it mean? Perhaps the mirror in which God wants to see Himself, allowing us to see Him too. But they are not separated by an abyss. This was a misunderstanding in the Greeks’ thought and in ours: God, transcendent, and the world, immanent. In fact, they are not. There is openness: one within the other, one present within the other forming one large Heart. Imagine the joy of knowing that we are not just in the palm of God’s hand, but in His very heart. And that God is not solitude but communion. He is made of the eternal relationship between the three divine Persons. It is not without reason that the whole world, as quantum physicists and modern cosmologists tell us, is made of relationships and nothing exists outside of a relationship because the World and God are alike, one is the image and likeness of the other. So that this would be really true, God Himself came to us and became human. So we can speak of: "what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands ." (see 1 Jn 1:1). This God is so human that He is divine (Fernando Pessoa). He wanted to walk, rejoice, suffer, live and die with us that we would have the absolute certainty that God is never far from us in any way. That we are of His house. And when we die, He comes and takes what is His and sets us within His family. He did not want to create a new religion or a new synagogue called the Church, or appoint heirs, but He wanted a new man and a new woman. He launched a dream and a movement that reach us to this day.

Therefore, this God is not just a nameless Mystery. He is life, communion and love. And if He is love, communion and life, then that means it matters to Him that the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the hungry are filled. He is not indifferent towards the passion of His sons and daughters. He suffers with them and His resurrection symbolizes an insurgency against the violation of the life of the latter.

c) Franciscan

I am old, Christian and Franciscan. What does being Franciscan mean to me? Being Franciscan is finding in the figure of Saint Francis a door through which to enter and discover the one true Christ, the one who was a craftsman and a Mediterranean peasant, so anonymous that the chronicles of the time, whether from Jerusalem, Athens or Rome did not even give notice of His birth and death. He was a poor man, considered crazy by His family (cf. Mk 3:21), who left along the stony paths of Palestine to preach a dream, the Kingdom of God that is a creation reconciled to God, viewed as Father, in justice, in love, with care for each other and forgiveness and that starts with the poor. Crucified, risen, making a revolution within evolution, showing that the goal of creation is good. Resurrection is also an insurrection against a type of justice that condemns the innocent.

But what Francis taught is finding God in creation.With great humility he placed himself at the feet of all beings. He fraternized with the dark forces of Mother Earth and the beneficent brilliance of the Sun. He made himself brother of the flowers of the field, the birds, wind, rain, the stars, the Sun and the Moon and even death. Therefore he treated all beings with courtesy and tact. His world is full of magic, enchantment, and music.

From Saint Francis I learned that being Christian is not enough. We must be good, humane, tactful, sensitive, loving and tenderly embrace every creature including the voracious brother wolf of Gubbio. So, we do not live in a vale of tears, but on a mountain of blessings. As Gaston Bachelard reminds us, "we don’t look like sons and daughters of necessity, but like sons and daughters of joy."

d) Theologian

I am old, Christian, Franciscan, and a theologian. What is a theologian? He is an almost impossible being. He raises an unheard-of aspiration: to think of the Ultimate Reality, God, and try to express it in appropriate words. At the outset he realizes that this task is impossible. Still, he tries to; his words seem more lies than truth. How does one express what is by definition Inexpressible? He who comes before all that comes before and existed prior to any word? Since he does not give up, he has no other alternative left but to go back to the creatures, taken from God, illuminated by God. They are all made sacraments of ineffable reality. So all theology is forced to express the discourse about God as the discourse about the world. As the old masters would say: Theology is endowed with two eyes (ante et retro occulata) -- one turned backward that captures the signs left by God in history, in the lives of the people, masters, saints and Sacred Scriptures -- not only the Judeo-Christian ones but also the Sacred Scriptures of the people. And the other turned forward, reading the signs of the times, the intimations that come to us from reality and that challenge our consciences. By combining the two eyes we create a theology true to tradition while faithful to current history. It is ancient and modern and always contemporary.

Looking with the eye in the front towards the unjust, oppressive and painful situation of most of our brothers and sisters, I felt conscience bound to be a liberation theologian. The moans of the slaves of Egypt, the cry of the exiles of Babylon, of yesterday and always, the invectives of the prophets, the practice of Jesus and the Apostles force us to engage in the liberation of the oppressed, starting from their faith and their historical strength. If we are not liberation theologians in our context, it is difficult to escape being criticized for cynicism and inhumanity. Indeed we would place ourselves outside the heritage of Jesus who was a liberator, not because we say it but because the founding texts of the Gospel show Him thus. And the liberation has to be integral: not only freeing oppressed people, but the whole community of life that groans and Earth, our common home, devastated by the voracity of productivism and consumerism. If we do not free the Earth all the other liberations that assume as a precondition the living, healthy and whole Earth, will be meaningless. In recent years I have fought for this truly urgent cause: to articulate the cry of the poor as the cry of the earth, the cry for liberation.

Because of being a liberation theologian, I have known tribulations. I have had to justify myself before the highest doctrinal offices of the Church and suffer discrimination from brothers in the faith to this day. But this suffering is nothing compared to what the poor suffer. It is a privilege to participate, even a little, in their sorrowful passion.

e) Human

In the end, I am old, Christian, Franciscan, a theologian and a man.

Being human, fully human -- that is the challenge. I suspect that old age, Christianity, Franciscanism, and theology are nothing but paths and allowances that God and we ourselves created so that we can come to be what we are – human beings. “Be what you are” the ancient aphorism of wise people of all cultures states. Perhaps the greatest mystery after God would be the universe and, within the universe, the human being – man and woman.

Who are we? I don’t know. I can hardly guess. I only know for certain that I am a contradictory being – both wise and demented; on the one hand self-centered, and on the other open to others; bearing a symbolic dimension that makes me listen to the Word that comes from all sides, capable of love and compassion and also bearing a diabolic dimension that makes me reject, get angry at, and offend others. In spite of this union of opposites, I feel that I am seized by a hunger for infinity and that I am surprised to also be an infinite project. And I get the Augustinian cor inquietum as long as it does not rest in the Infinite.

I am more and more convinced that the supreme ethical imperative is to treat human beings humanely. Treating them humanely implies accepting the ambiguous human condition and therefore being patient and compassionate with the shadow side and also being supportive and inspirational to the luminous side.

This understanding of myself deepens and becomes more complex because of my ongoing preoccupation with the new cosmology, astrophysics, new anthropology and Earth science – encompassed the word “ecology” – subject of my studies for almost 30 years now.

From that it is clear that the universe has been in labor 13.7 billion years for complex orders to emerge – webs of relationships and information systems that allow for life and, as the greatest expression of life, reflective awareness. For that to be possible, a subtle balance of all the energies and evolutionary movements occurred. Otherwise, we would not be here to celebrate this feast. It is as if the universe presaged our irruption in advance and organized itself in such a way that finally this rare being that I am and every one of us is could emerge. The end of the universe as we know it culminates in each one of us. Through our awareness the universe and Earth think about themselves. Through our love and our tenderness all things are attracted as if falling in love with each other.

Who are we? As I mentioned earlier, perhaps the mirror in which God Himself wants to see Himself. At the moment of His superabundance, He created something outside of Himself, distinct, a conscious alterity with whom He could communicate in love, understanding and kindness. We are the fruit of this divine self-communication. In a word: we are God by participation. He created us so that we could love Him in return. So that we could love God too. Perhaps the greatest contribution of Duns Scotus – the medieval Franciscan theological genius – was understanding the divine plan of the emergence of the human being in creation: God wanted someone outside of God who could love God as God loves Himself. Therefore he planned the holy humanity of Jesus. So that He could love God divinely, He raised Him to the level of the divine. Then, being man, He could love God as God loves Himself.

And having said this, I will say nothing more because it would water down what I have said.

3. Conclusion: God has the last word

Let’s see where I have come: I am old, Christian, Franciscan, a theologian and a man and finally, through participation, God. And God along with all of you. Is this madness or the supreme discovery? Mystics of all times, from East and West, have testified: We are called to experience non-duality. Not simply the Tao and the World or God and Creation but the Tao in the World and as the World, God in Creation and as Creation. And they have called this experience blessing, satori, nirvana, grace and mystical union or, in the words of St. John of the Cross: “beloved soul transformed in the Beloved”. It is the supreme wisdom.

At this time in my life, the two basic questions that Saint Francis, my spiritual father, always posed to himself in form of prayer always come back to me, almost obsessively: “Lord, who are You? And who am I? You are the Almighty Lord of Heaven and Earth and I a despicable worm, your lowly servant.” Since biologists have taught us that 4/5 of living beings are made up of nematode worms (cylindrical worms) – those that keep the earth ever fertile and able to produce life – it is a cosmic privilege for us to be worms, even despicable ones.

The two questions are sighs of the soul and, in fact, have no answer because both we and God are a mystery. Therefore the questions always return like a refrain. Witgenstein, a philosopher who turned into a mystic at the end of his life, stated it well: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be quiet.” Thus all religious discourse is called to withdraw into noble silence or silent reverence.

I suspect that our knowledge of God has the structure of longing. This is a presence and an absence. A presence in memory and in the heart and an absence in the senses. Therefore it is an absent presence or a present absence. Every longing produces a noble sadness in us -- joy with an undercurrent of sadness and sadness alleviated by joy.

The only speech allowed, because it does not seek to define and hardly even signals or suggests, would be poetry. It keeps the longing for God and respects silence, the silence within the absolute presence, inexpressible in words.

In this spirit, during a tormented night – a sort of struggle between Yahweh and Jacob – I wrote:

I feel a great void within me
So big, the size of God.
Not even the Amazon, that river of rivers,
With all its tributaries can fill it.

I try and try again
To heal the wound that kills.
Who or what spell
Can staunch or tie this vein?

Can the finite contain the Infinite
Without going mad or suffering/
It can’t. And so I cry out

Against this dying without dying
The Infinite implodes within the finite!
The void within my being is God!

1 comment:

  1. I am printing this long one tomorrow in the Xerox, I don't like to read too much on the monitor. I want to learn more about this man and why not very popular in Rome. Thanks for all this hard work of translating. J.