November 12, 2009

What we can learn from the Scandal of the Cross

Raphael: The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels (The Mond Crucifixion, National Gallery
There was an interesting piece in yesterday’s WSJ op-ed page on the issue of crucifixes in Italian schools (see my previous posts). In particular, after taking note—in line with the most common reactions, here in Italy, to the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights against crucifixes—that “anyone who cares about Italy’s national identity and distinctive traditions […] must give serious weight to the cultural case for crucifixes in schools,” the author pointed out that, nevertheless, “Christians might want to hesitate before adopting this line of argument, because displaying their faith's holiest symbol on these terms could come at the price of its trivialization.”

A Muslim colleague of mine, long resident in Italy, told me on the day after the court’s ruling that he had no objection to crucifixes in classrooms. But he said he found all the talk about the object as a cultural icon to be demeaning, as if placing it on par with the regional costumes worn by folk dancers at holiday celebrations.

That’s a very interesting point, in my view. That’s also part of what I meant when, from the very first post of the series, I conceded that the question in itself is a very broad and debatable one, that there is much to ponder and discuss about it. I dare to say, in addition, that in the light of what our schools have become in the past few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if some Catholic priests (if not the Church itself) were willing to remove motu proprio crucifixes from classrooms! (Hey I’m just kidding …)

But then again, the problem is not primarily a religious one, but rather a cultural (and political) issue, even though this may mean a “trivialization” of the whole issue.

Yet another interesting objection: as the article also reports, Italy’s new opposition leader Pier Luigi Bersani said ancient traditions such as the crucifix “cannot be offensive to anyone.” “But if he is right,” continues the author, “Christians should hardly rejoice.” In fact,

Soren Kierkegaard, who foresaw so much of post-Christian Europe more than a century and a half ago, wrote that a society incapable of taking offense at Christianity is lost to the faith, because it endorses the "glorious results" of the church's human history, instead of facing up to the original humiliation and sacrifice of God-made-man, which by worldly values are a scandal.

Yes, the scandal of the Cross… What a glorious, awesome, beautiful mystery! What an absurd anomaly, especially in today’s world! Because Christianity, as everybody knows, is not the same as the world-system. Christianity is of a different order... Yet, I don’t like the way the article ends:

Politicians naturally avoid such discomfiting ideas for the safety of abstractions like heritage and culture, and so prefer to justify the crucifix as a token of national tradition, without going into gory details. But to regard the object in such a way is to obscure its essential meaning, and thus poorly serve Italian students and citizens of all persuasions.

Politicians, in fact, are not theologians, and most of all, as far as I know, they are part of the world-system, they live in and belong to this world. And Christians involved in politics make no exception, though not without a secret regret. Quite a difficult position, no doubt. And an infinite story as well.

"The language of Europe is translation"

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
As Umberto Eco once perceptively observed, “the language of Europe is translation.” Linguistic diversity, in fact, is a defining feature of Europe, whose cultural heritage includes masterpieces written originally in different languages, but common to us all thanks to a long-standing tradition of literary translation. Eco’s famous statement reappears in Leyla Dakhli’s interesting review (in French) of François Ost’s Traduire: Défense et illustration du multilinguisme. [Thanks: Arthur Goldhammer]