Mercy, Part I

by Michael Sean Winters

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Next week, I will run a series of curtain raisers for the Synod on the Family, to be held in Rome this autumn. The center of discussion in advance of the Synod has so far been dominated by Cardinal Walter Kasper’s talk to the cardinals at the February consistory. While that talk certainly can stand on its own, it seems to me that it flows so concretely from Kasper’s book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life, that it is worthwhile to look at his arguments therein before proceeding to consider how mercy must and can figure into discussions about family life.

Kasper notes that his book is not as original as people might think. Most obviously, as the subtitle indicates, he believes that mercy is at the very heart of what the Church is and does, or should be. He notes that the introduction of Mercy Sunday into the liturgical calendar of the Church. He notes that in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI “proceeded no longer from justice, but from love as the basic principle of Christian social teaching,” a deviation from past social encyclicals.

Yet, as Kasper contends, the role of mercy in the divine economy has suffered from criminal neglect. “The failure of theological reflection concerning the message of mercy, which is central to the Bible, has allowed this concept to be downgraded, degenerating into a ‘soft’ spirituality or a vapid pastoral concern, lacking clear definition and forced somehow to suit each individual. Such a soft praxis may be understandable to a certain degree as a reaction against a ruthlessly rigid, legalistic praxis. But mercy becomes pseudomercy when it no longer has a trace of trembling before God, who is holy, and trembling before his justice and his judgment.” Kasper believes the failure of theological reflection to adequately grapple with mercy is rooted largely in the difficulty our dominant metaphysical tradition poses. Kasper states clearly that this metaphysical thinking “should in no way be fundamentally questioned,” but that our understanding of God’s mercy “derives not from the metaphysical essence, but rather from the historical self-revelation of God….On the basis of its metaphysical starting point, dogmatic theology has difficulty speaking of a compassionate God.” Apart from the theological difficulties, which Kasper will address in the text, he notes at the outset that the metaphysical conception of God, standing alone, has served theology better than it has served the Church: “Pastorally, this conception of God is a catastrophe.” And, it will be the task of theology to retrieve mercy and place it at the center of theology again, so that our pastoral practice can better reflect God’s self-revelation.

Despite the criminal neglect of mercy in some theological traditions Kasper goes on a hunt for what he terms “approximations” rather than foundations for wrestling with the concept of mercy. For example, he recounts the early Church confronting Stoicism and notes that the Church Fathers did not endorse the ideals of indifference to suffering and denigration of compassion as unworthy of a reasonable person. He notes that both Augustine and, later, Aquinas “[s]uch compassion and such mercy are for Augustine and Thomas not only a feeling that is elicited by the experience of another’s suffering. They are not only affective, but also at the same time effective dispositions, which strive to combat and overcome the deprivation and suffering…Mercy can be ascribed to God only in the secondary sense of active and effective resisting and overcoming of deprivation and suffering.”

Kasper runs the gamut, from the ancients through medieval theology to Kant and beyond, right up into our own time, analyzing how different theologians and philosophers have grappled with mercy. He discusses how different religious traditions deal with the concept and voices his suspicion of any attempt to argue, in a sophisticated or unsophisticated manner, that “all religions are alike” at least at some level of abstraction. He writes: “The attempt to dissect and abstract such an essential core from the religions arises from the Enlightenment thinking of the West, but not from the religions’ own respective self-understanding. What appears to be peripheral to an Enlightened mentality is most often sacred to the respective adherents of these religions.” One wishes that our political class would think such thoughts before reducing religious expression to some lowest common denominator of ethicism. I need scarcely point out that Kasper’s treatment of different religious traditions is exquisite in both its sensitivity and its nuance.

Most of us Christians grew up with the idea that the God of the Hebrews was an angry God. Certainly, many Christians have conceived him as such. But, Kasper sets out to destroy this myth and largely succeeds. Indeed, the whole story of God’s interaction with the Jews is impossible to understand in human, philosophic terms. Kasper looks at the Hebrew word Hesed and writes:

Applied to God, the concept expresses an unexpected and unmerited gift of God’s grace – transcending every relationship of reciprocal fidelity – that exceeds all human expectations and bursts every human category. To think that God, who is all-powerful and holy, concerns himself with the distressing and self-caused situation of human beings, that God sees the wretchedness of poor and miserable people, that he hears their lament, that he bends down in condescension, that he descends to persons in their need and, despite every human infidelity, concerns himself with them again and again, and that he forgives them and gives them another chance, even though they had deserved just punishment – all of this exceeds normal human experience and expectation; all of this transcends human imagination and thought. In the message of God’s hesed, something of the mystery of God, which is closed to human thought in and of itself, is revealed. We can have knowledge of this mystery only through God’s revelation.

Kasper notes that revelation of God’s own name also touches the theme of mercy, but this became obscured because the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures with which early Christians worked, “interpreted the revelation of God’s name according to Hellenistic philosophical thought  and translated it as ‘I am the one who is.’ This translation made history and shaped theological thought for many centuries. On the basis of this translation, one was convinced that what is the highest in thought – Being – and what is highest in faith – God, correlate to each other.” That is all true, so far as it goes. And the development of the Church’s understanding of God is never outside the workings of Providence. It turns out that Athens and Jerusalem both contribute to the life of the Church. But, Kasper wants to retrieve the Hebrew sense of the difficult-to-understand revelation of God’s name, and points out that it has more of a sense of presence than the Greek: “In the revelation of his name, God thus enunciates his innermost reality: God’s being is present for his people and with his people.” In the second revelation of God’s name (Ex 33:19), God tells Moses that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” Kasper comments, “God’s mercy is understood here not as the nearness of a close pal, but rather as an expression of God’s absolute sovereignty and his irreducible freedom. Yahweh doesn’t fit into any box, not even in the box of compensatory justice.” Finally, in Exodus 34, God offers Moses a third revelation of his holy name in which “mercy is not only an expression of God’s sovereignty and freedom; it is also an expression of his fidelity.” Kasper surveys other aspects of the witness to God’s mercy provided by the Hebrew Scriptures. The “wrathful God of the Old Testament” does not survive this chapter and, for me at least, the connection between the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures has never been so well demonstrated as in Kasper’s treatment.

Tomorrow, I will continue my examination of Kasper's book.

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