On God

POPE FRANCIS & RABBI ABRAHAM SKORKA

Originally published in Argentina in 2010, On Heaven and Earth is an open and expansive dialogue between Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) and Abraham Skorka (a Rabbi and biophysicist) in which they share their thoughts on religion, reason, and the challenges the world faces in the 21st Century.

Skorka:   It has been many years since we first met and a brotherly bond has been forged between us.  While studying the books of the Talmud, I found one that says that friendship means sharing meals and spending time together, but in the end it points out that the sign of a real friendship is the ability to reveal what is in one's heart to the other person.  That is what happened over time with the two of us.  I believe that undoubtedly the most important thing that brought us together was, and still is, G-d, who caused our paths to cross and allowed us to open our hearts to each other.  Although we broached many topics during our regular conversations, we never spoke explicitly about G-d.  Of course, it was always understood that He was present.  It would be good to start this exchange, which we plan to leave as a testimony of our dialogue, by discussing Him who is so important in our lives.


Bergoglio:   What a great word, path!  In my personal experience with God I cannot do without the path.  I would say that one encounters God walking, moving, seeking Him and allowing oneself to be sought by Him.  They are two paths that meet.  On one hand, there is our path that seeks Him, driven by that instinct that flows from the heart; and after, when we have encountered each other, we realize that He was the one who had been searching for us from the start.  The initial religious experience is that of walking: walk to the land that I am going to give you.  (Gen 12:1)  It is a promise that God makes to Abraham.  In that promise, in this, in this walking, an alliance is established that consolidates over time.  Because of this I say that my experience with God takes place along the path, both in the search and in allowing myself to be sought, even if it may be by diverse paths — of pain, of joy, of light, or of darkness.


Skorka:   What you have said reminds me of a few biblical verses.  For example, when G-d tells Abraham: "Walk in my presence and be blameless." (Gen 17:1)  Or when the prophet Micah needed to explain to the Israelites what G-d wanted from them, and he tells them to "do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your G-d." (Micah 6:8)

Without a doubt, experiencing G-d is dynamic, to use a word that we learn in our mutual study of basic science.  (Abraham Skorka is a doctor of chemistry, and Jorge Bergoglio is a chemical technician.)  However, what do you think we can say to people nowadays when we find the idea of G-d to be so mangled, profaned and diminished in importance?


Bergoglio:   What every person must be told is to look inside himself.  Distraction is an interior fracture.  It will never lead the person to encounter himself for it impedes him from looking into the mirror of his heart.  Collecting oneself is the beginning.  That is where the dialogue begins.  At times, one believes He has the only answer, but that's not the case.  I would tell the people of today to seek the experience of entering into the intimacy of their hearts, to know the experience, the face of God.  That is why I love what Job says after his difficult experience and the dialogues that did not help him in any way: "By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you." (Jb 42:5)  What I tell people is not to know God only by hearing.  The Living God is He that you may see with your eyes within your heart.


Skorka:   The Book of Job teaches us a great lesson because — in short — it says that we can never know how G-d reveals Himself in specific circumstances.  Job, a just upright man, wanted to know why he had lost everything, even his health.  His friends told him that G-d had punished him for his sins.  He responds by saying that even if he had sinned, he had not been that bad.  Job is comforted only when G-d appears to him.  His questions are not answered, but the touch of G-d's presence stays with him.  We can find several things in this story that shape my personal perception of G-d.  First, Job's friends show themselves to be arrogant an nonsensical by espousing the theory that "You have sinned, therefore G-d has punished you," transforming G-d into some sort of computer that calculated reward or punishment.  At the end of the story, G-d tells Job — who had railed so much against the injustices of his Creator — that he should intercede and pray for his friends, because they had spoken falsely about Him.  (see Job 42:7-8)  Those who had cried out in suffering, demanding heavenly justice, were pleasing in G-d's eyes.  Those who insisted on a simplistic view of G-d's nature were detested by Him.  As I understand it, G-d reveals himself to us subtly.  Our current suffering might be an answer for others in the future.  Or perhaps we ourselves are the response to something from the past.  In Judaism, G-d is honored by our compliance with the precepts that he revealed.  As you mentioned, each person and each generation must find the path on which they can search for and feel His presence.


Bergoglio:   Exactly.  We receive creation in our hands as a gift.  God gives it to us, but at the same time He gives us a task:  that we subdue the Earth.  This is the first form of non-culture:  what man receives, the raw material that ought to be subdued to make culture — like the log that is transformed into a table.  But there is a moment in which man goes too far in this task;  he gets overly zealous and loses respect for nature.  Then ecological problems arise, like global warming, which are new forms of non-culture.  The work of man before God and before himself must maintain a constant balance between the gift and the task.  When man keeps the gift alone and does not do the work, he does not complete his mission and remains primitive;  when man becomes overly zealous with his work, he forgets about the gift, creating a constructivist ethic:  he thinks that everything is the fruit of his labor and that there is no gift.  It is what I call the Babel syndrome.


Skorka:   In rabbinic literature, there is a question as to why G-d did not like the Tower of Babel.  Why did he halt construction by making people speak different languages? In reading the text, the simplest explanation is that the attempt to build a tower reaching Heaven was part of a pagan religion.  The act was an expression of arrogance toward G-d.  The Midrash (The Midrash is a group of homiletic texts from wise men of the Talmud, presenting non-literal interpretations of the BIble.)  states that what really bothered G-d was that the builders were more concerned about losing a single brick than with losing a man who might fall from such a great height.  The same thing happens now — there is a tension between the gift and the work.  There needs to be a perfect equilibrium because man needs to progress so that he can become more human.  Even though G-d is the one who planted and created everything, man is the focus of the material world and the greatest divine work.  The way we are living today, the only thing that matters is the success of our economic system, and what is least important is the well-being of mankind.

Bergoglio:   What you have said is brilliant.  The Babel syndrome is not only a constructivist posture, but there is also the appearance of a confusion of languages.  That is typical of situations in which there is an exaggeration of the mission, ignoring the gift, because in that case pure constructivism carries with it the lack of dialogue that at the same time entails aggression, misinformation, and annoyance ... When one reads Maimonides (Ed. note: Maimonides, born Moses ben Maimon 1138-1204, is regarded as the greatest Jewish philosopher and rabbi of the medieval period.  He combined religious Jewish tradition with Aristotelian philosophy, especially in his masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed.)  and Saint Thomas of Aquinas, two nearly contemporary philosophers, we see that they always start by putting themselves in the position of their adversary in order to understand them;  they dialogue from the standpoint of the other.


Skorka:   According to the Talmudic interpretation, Nimrod was a Babylonian dictator who held a tight grip on everything, and that is why the people spoke only one language — his.  This tyrant ordered the construction of a tower that would reach Heaven in order to leave his mark, and thus, presumed rather arrogantly to be physically closer to G-d.  The point of the building was not to benefit mankind.  The betterment of people's lives held not importance.  By building only for themselves while using one despotic language and not a universal one, each person was punished by being made to speak a language that no one else could understand.  This is a very important story and it is always incredibly relevant.

 

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio & Rabbi Abraham Skorka. "On God." chapter one from On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Image Books, 2013): 1-7.

Excerpted from On Heaven and Earth by Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka. Copyright © 2013 by Jorge Mario Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

For more information, visit ImageCatholicBooks.com

For years Cardinal Bergoglio (then Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and Rabbi Skorka were tenacious promoters of interreligious dialogues on faith and reason. They both sought to build bridges between Catholicism, Judaism and the world at large. On Heaven and Earth brings together a series of these dialogues where both men talk about various theological and world issues including God, fundamentalism, atheism, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, same sex marriage and globalization. From these personal and accessible dialogues comes a first-hand view of the man who is now Pope to 1.2 billion Catholics around the world.

THE AUTHORS

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis) is the first Latin American to be elected to the chair of Peter. A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he was ordained as a priest in 1969. He served as head of the Society of Jesus in Argentina from 1973 to 1979. In 1998 he became the archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in 2001 a cardinal. Following the resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, February 28, 2013, the conclave elected Bergoglio, who chose the papal name Francis in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi. He is the first pope to be a Jesuit, to come from the Americas, and to come from the Southern Hemisphere.

Rabbi Abraham Skorka is an Argentine rabbi, biophysicist, and book author. He is rector of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires, the rabbi of the Jewish community Benei Tikva, a professor of biblical and rabbinic literature at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, and honorary professor of Hebrew law at the University of Salamanca.

Copyright © 2010 Jorge Mario Bergoglio & Rabbi Abraham Skorka




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