Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Saying Goodbye to the Savant of Our Times

It has been over a month since his funeral, and even longer since his demise from this world, but the heart still feels the void of Pope Benedict XVI's passing.

I did not start out as a fan of Pope Benedict XVI, on the contrary, at his election, influenced by the reportage in the international media, I was aghast that the “Panzer Cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler” had been elected Pope. Surely this was a disaster I thought to myself.

At some point, however, I chided myself; surely as a scholar I had an obligation to first engage with his written works and then form an opinion about the man? And so began my felicitous encounter with his opus. I read one, and then another, and then many more of his works (I am still far from reading all his works) and was smitten.

There were several reasons for my conversion, and I will commence with the secular reason, for this was how I first approached him. My intellectual formation, since my time in the National Law School of India (between 1995 and 2000) was in what could be called the critique of modernity. Remember that this was the time when India had what I called its “Woodstock moment”. Many young people from the middle-class were in support of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, critiquing the mega developmental projects which were displacing communities and bringing impoverishment to them. I did not travel to the Narmada Valley like so many of my peers but restricted my support and engagement with the issue through scholarly engagement: reading, writing papers, and trying to understand the issue from a philosophical perspective. Modernity, I was convinced, as I still am, was a poisoned apple.

The result of this conviction, both personally and among my peers, was an embrace of the non-western (since the West was identified with modernity). As my scholarly career developed, I encountered Latin American and Southern European scholars who were also opposed to western modernity and proposed alternate models for our world. They offer concepts like ubuntu, and the Andean Pachamama in contrast to the certainties of the Western model. I soon realised, however, that these alternative models could not afford us a new way forward.

The critique of modernity often naively suggests that the non-western models displaced by western modernity are capable of offering peace to a divided world. However, there is much in these models which is offensive to the liberal values that we hold on to, even as we critique western modernity.

For example, these models are rooted in violence. How could I forget that the pre-Columbian Andean cultures routinely offered human sacrifice? Sacrifices prohibited after the coming of the Spaniards and the Portuguese to that continent? Just as they prohibited the burning of widows, and the killing of lower-caste slaves for occult reasons, in this subcontinent? The apparently pacific contemporary cult of Pachamama, and other such cults, therefore, owes more to the Catholic Iberians than its proponents would like to admit. The critique of modernity, therefore, was not providing any solution to the civilisational crisis that we were in.

It was at this point that I began reading the works of Pope Benedict XVI. In particular his encyclicals, Deus Caritas Est, Spe Salvi and Caritas In Veritate, which I now recommend to all – not just Catholic – discerning readers, and especially to you, dear reader. Reading these texts, I realised that I was in the presence of the savant of our times. Someone who had something to offer our world which seems to be increasingly spinning out of control. Benedict XVI was also critiquing modernity, he was, however, doing it from the location of Christianity, and suggesting – a suggestion I now wholly endorse – that Christianity can offer not just a critique of modernity, but a path out of the problems it has caused.

More interestingly, Benedict XVI was not simply proposing membership in the Catholic Church, or certain non-negotiable rules. Rather, I realised as I read the first volume of his biography of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, he was offering a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is this encounter and engagement with Christ, he suggests, which is capable of, to borrow a Christian metaphor, turning our water into wine.

What perhaps convinced me instinctually then, which I am now able to reason out, is that the Christian faith, through the imitation of Christ whom the adherent knows personally, is able to deal with the question of violence. Violence is the central issue that plagues every civilisational model. Christ’s response to violence, was – through his death on the cross – to embrace it, an option adopted by Christians through the centuries. Where they have done so, their action has been exemplary.

And so, it turned out that my engagement with Benedict XVI's secular arguments led to a profound spiritual conversion. This was, I believe, because he managed the delicate balance between rigorous scholarship and affective tenderness, the latter born from his own love of a Christ who was personally known and experienced.

Benedict XVI was also able to critically intervene in another intellectual question that I had been wrestling with. He has drawn much flack for the role Europe plays within his philosophy, accused of being Euro-centric. But rooted in his appreciation of Catholicism, Benedict saw Europe as not simply existing eternally, but rather born from Christianity, or rather, a contemplation of Christ. Thus, when he engaged with Europe, or proposed Europe as a model, he was offering the Europe born from Christianity, not the Enlightenment project of bourgeois Europe that is itself in such a mess these days.

Through this nuance that Benedict brings, I was able to graduate my own critique of modernity. The position was no longer simply anti-west, rather it was critical of the bourgeois Europe that was divorced from Christ. For westernised Christians like myself, this nuance is useful in intra-Catholic debates, especially those among Catholics in India. Too many Catholics effectively wind-up embracing nationalism as their religion, when they de-westernise their faith practices. What we need to do instead, is to disengage from the modernity that has insinuated itself into Christianity and Catholicism. This is a delicate, intellectually demanding project, and we could have well done with Benedict XVI’s continued guidance through such a project.

However, perhaps Benedict XVI has done enough. He has left us a wealth of reflections, and more importantly an affective path through which to deal with this project. To once again paraphrase scripture, he has finished the race, he kept the faith. Now there is in store for him the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award him.

Adeus Papa Bento, rogai por nós. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 8 Feb 2023)

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