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Stefan Orth

I and I

 

From: Herder Korrespondenz, 5/2009, P. 217-219
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

"What counts at the end of the day am I." After the brilliant success of the slogan "stinginess is cool" no advertising has so provoked as this motto as a common denominator for the offerings of that bank. There may be various aspects of monetary transactions: whether current account, deposit, saving with a building society or provisions for one's old age, and even consideration for others may at least be strategically necessary or useful, but what matters in the end is only what it brings to me. So it is at least suggested. And is it not also perfectly legitimate to expect of a bank that its services are entirely tailor-made for my needs and that I do not need to be satisfied with a lack of service or even with poor yields?

 

Egoism can be Found Today in Many and Diverse Forms

But advertising is obviously deliberately playing with lower instincts. Clear and immediately plausible maxims have success in an increasingly complex world where everybody in many and diverse ways is involved in contexts actually alien to him and in too complex structures. Many things might be taken into account regarding one's own action, from differentiated ethical considerations up to emotional involvements, but ultimately this should not be of crucial importance for my decision-making, I can and should completely concentrate on me - for then I can also rely on me. At least I have then not to blame myself if the set goals are not achieved.

Is here not that egoism put in a nutshell that one can see today in many and diverse forms? Does one not much too often openly bank on the unrestrained, absolutized self-interest as the ideal way to success, power and fame? Just think of Oliver Kahn, undoubtedly a gifted goalkeeper, who published his memoirs with the simple title "I"; with it he wanted primarily to point to his mental strength to which he also owes his successes. Compared with that, one can interpret it as an ironic comment on this development when a pop duo today gives itself the name "I and I".

But the "elbow mentality" is de facto not just a well-worn word. Often enough it depends on will power and the ability to assert oneself, on steadfastness or even obstinacy; displaying one's own capabilities and performance leads faster to the desired goal, as it were, counterfactually to the repeatedly stressed importance of social competences. This does long since not only apply to the professional world and the labour market, especially now when the scope becomes closer again, or to the diverse social and political conflicts. Much of the current discussions on school and university is fed by the concerns of parents, teenagers and adolescents that, all things considered, the organization of the education system is too little oriented towards one's own real interests, which can only be satisfied by countable things.

Here inter alia the churches rightly protest, as stereotypical as the Sunday sermons, pastoral letters, interview statements up to the extensive documents of the different committees might be.

 


218

Where it is not degenerated to an empty formula, the Christian conception of man reminds of the fact that the individuals as images of God are not thrown back on their own resources, but they for their part are, according to their own ability, also responsible for the near and all the distant neighbours. A key statement of the Christian faith reads: Every individual counts. But just this establishes, at least before God, a fundamental equality relativizing any egoism.

There is no need for you to join in that farewell to the modern age, which sees Christianity on a wrong path since the confrontation with the Enlightenment and its specific focus on one's own self, which complains about the anthropocentrism of today's theology and sees today to a large extent a destructive subjectivism at work in the Central European average faithful's mind [Normalbewusstsein]. For those vulgar forms of the present egocentricity are ultimately distorted images of the modern thought, and that's why a meticulous differentiation between self and self was necessary.

 

In Catholicism there's an Argument about the Differentiations

In the current situation there is within Catholicism a more or less vehement dispute not least about such differentiations. To what extent can and must Christianity and thus also the Catholic church take a positive view of that modern awareness of freedom that results from the reflection on man and on the self-perspective characteristic for him?

The underlying considerations must not simply be copied uncritically, but they should in any case be taken seriously for the sake of one's own credibility and persuasive power. You must above all not evade them. Here are the roots of the worry about the lifting of the excommunication of the four bishops of the "Priestly Society of Saint Pius X", and in large parts of the faithful these worries continue to exist also after the end of the "Causa Williamson", regardless of the attempts to appease the media public. To what extent are the diagnoses of the present time and the therapy proposals of the Pius-Brotherhood to be taken into account within the Church's majority opinion?

After all, it is no coincidence that in their ranks the philosophical meditations of René Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") are regarded as the basic evil of the "modernism" about which today is complained within the Church. The Cartesian theses are indeed one of the main impulses to the thought of the modern age. But the question remains whether they have - as assumed - directly and inevitably led to the nihilism in the wake of a Friedrich Nietzsche, and whether one is allowed therefore to hold them liable also for all other undeniable shortcomings of Western civilization, including the wide-spread agnosticism. The preservation of the official church positions and the refusal to deal constructively with the achievements of the Enlightenment reached here far into the 20th century. It was the Second Vatican Council that has definitely set new accents, also by resorting to earlier traditions of Christianity. This is especially true with regard to the concept of conscience as, from the perspective of religious beliefs, an important focus of the modern concept of freedom. A number of contentious points follow exactly from this definition that does certainly not have arbitrariness as its goal.

In "Dignitatis humanae", the Declaration on Religious Freedom of the Council it says for example that also in religious matters nobody must be forced to act against his conscience, nor must he be prevented from following his conscience. The right to religious freedom had "its foundation in the very dignity of the human person" (no. 2). On that occasion it is explicitly pointed to the fact that this insight could be gained by reason itself and that it also corresponded to the biblical revelation.

An important motivation for this reorientation was not least the experience of the major ideologies of the 20th century. Both sides were contemptuous of the individual and his rights and distorted the community spirit into the dominance of the masses spreading fear and terror. That the church here adopted beliefs which it - to its own disadvantage - had long enough ignored or even fought does not necessarily mean that there are not good reasons for them, both from the perspective of the tradition and the logic of the Christian faith. According to the theologian Thomas Pröpper the thought of freedom of the modern era had even in its "opposition to the Christian faith" a greater affinity to the Christian faith as the ways of thinking in former eras.

 

Advocates of Anthropological Approaches had to Struggle with a Number of Misunderstandings

As is well known several theological schools have done significant preliminary work for it: e.g. the French "nouvelle théo1ogie", which to a considerable extent owes its impulses to the reading of the Fathers of the Church, but above all also, up to Karl Rahner, that line of forming theological theories which - after the state of shock triggered by the modernism crisis at the beginning of the 20th century - dared again to tackle the traditions of the Enlightenment.

Catholicism here made up for what in the Protestant tradition, starting from Martin Luther's "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise", was de facto accomplished sooner. On the basis of a higher regard for the individual it was easier to continue critically and constructively the dialogue with the contemporary philosophy of the following centuries.

 


219

Also after the Second Vatican Council this discussion has been going on in the Catholic Church as well as in theology. Here the advocates of decidedly anthropological approaches had of course to fight against a number of misunderstandings which made the acceptance of their theses more difficult. Or had the reference to man's autonomy too quickly reminded of the black masked, so-called autonomists for whom resistance to law and order is the prime objective?

 

Man's Life Fundamentally Owed to and Dependent on Others

Those inquiries that had to be taken more seriously went from a suggested oblivion of the body over forgetting others up to the supposition that taking one's starting point from the reflection on the self would necessarily result in taking no account of historical and social contexts. Anyhow, in the course of the debates it could, not least through the inquiries of the new political theology, be demonstrated that the prevailing anthropocentric thinking does not necessarily lead to a problematic self-fixation.

Just from the reflections on man as a subject the key insight results here: the individual fundamentally owes his life to others and is dependent on resp. related to others; the ethical demands on the individual arise from it; no 'I' without a 'you' that has first addressed me; no 'I' without a 'we'.

Every theological reference to man as subject with an I-perspective results in ethics that are interested in everybody's well-being. That "option for the poor" called for by the Bible can not least also substantiated in this way. It leads to the readiness to give if possible also the weakest the same scope for freedom [Freiheitsräume] to which all people are entitled, and therefore to give first of all preferential treatment to them for the sake of equal starting conditions. Precisely for this reason also the concrete historical and social circumstances and effects of faith and of its reflection must not be left out of consideration.

Needless to say, what matters to theologians can also not be the level of interpersonal relationships alone. "What counts at the end of the day am I". This maxim, thought through logically, indicates also a simple materialism to which any transcending, but above all the admission of one's own inadequacy as well as the grandeur of a totally different One remains closed. But if human beings come upon their own dark abysses, their limitations and finiteness, in view of those circumstances entirely new perspectives open up by the question of fulfilment of one's own life.

In the dialogue with the philosophical positions developed since the Enlightenment the quite differently proceeding theological approaches were in the past decades able to show that, starting from the reflection on man, the openness to God is not only a matter of faith. It can, also regardless of religious commitment, rationally be demonstrated to everyone who is ready for the discussion in question, especially in reference to their own experiences. It is a different matter that this has also consequences for our talking about God and his love for man, which this way can be demonstrated more convincingly.

As we could already learn from the mystics, those gifted thinkers and religious virtuosi of the Middle Ages, out of the reflection on oneself can also arise that devotion which takes Jesus of Nazareth as its model and therefore sees itself as discipleship of Christ. It could not least be learned here that such an access to faith does just not mean to dissolve or eradicate the divine revelation in the self, but rather from the repeatedly troubled self-confidence to gain those beliefs which let you frankly and openly answer.

 

To Live the Christian Faith on the Basis of one's own Beliefs

It would be wrong to strengthen, by referring to the personal freedom of each human being, those tendencies that want to force faith away into the private sphere. Conversely asked: In which other way could today the Christian faith be lived if not on the basis of one's own conviction? This means always more than simply to take over traditional views. On the other hand, their importance for one's own faith is thus not necessarily belittled. I have, however, simply to adopt them.

Exactly in this sense it is, when all is said and done, just not about the "freedom from", the breaking away from all influences and rules; at stake is the "freedom to", the insight adopted by you and therefore presumably less shakeable, the insight into what at the time is demanded by ethics and religion. This is irreplaceable, not least in the media society with its hunger for authentic statements about what enables people to live today. Are not today in demand the testimonies of those who, when it is about their faith, not simply refer to what "the church" believes or pretends to believe but who are able to say "I"?

What counts at the end of the day am really I who am able to take decisions and to be responsible for them. But it is something else that really counts.

 

Link to 'Public Con-Spiration for-with-of the Poor'