Louvain Studies special issue on ‘relation, vulnerability, love’

by Lieve Orye

Several treads of thought woven at the Anthropos conference in 2016 have been rewoven into paper and digital format. A Louvain Studies issue (41(3), 2018) has been published recently with contributions of several keynote speakers and respondents. You can find a table of contents and links to further information at the ‘Special Issue Louvain Studies 2018’ page on the conference archives website.


As editors, Yves de Maeseneer and I feel that this special issue has become a well-woven cloth, a colorful tapistry of thought and reflection on the what and how of theological anthropology in the 21st century. We particularly would like to draw attention to the last article in this issue, ‘Weaving Theological Anthropology into Life. Editorial Conclusions in Correspondence with Tim Ingold’. In this last contribution, we weave together five key themes that have been raised in the different contributions of this issue, and we do so in conversation with the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold. This weaving together confirms the terms ‘relation’, ‘vulnerability’ and ‘love’ as key for theological anthropology in the twenty-first century.


A first theme is theological anthropology’s conversation with the discipline of anthropology. The first section addresses Michael Banner’s call for a more thorough anthropological turn for theological anthropology. Following a line of connection starting from anthropologist Joel Robbins, who has inspired Banner in taking this turn, towards Ingold, we argue that the latter’s understanding of anthropology as ‘philosophy with the people in’ turns him into a much more interesting conversation partner for a theological anthropology that wishes to pay attention to the work of being human and being moral ‘on the ground’.

The second section finds a similar opening for conversations between theology and anthropology in relation to evolutionary perspectives. Here we make the connection with anthropologist Agustín Fuentes’ work in order to open up such a space. Fuentes does important work, as both Jan-Olav Henriksen and Markus Mühling appreciate. But, we argue here again – in line with Mühling’s contribution – that Ingold’s reflections in conversations with evolutionary theorizing take us onto a fundamentally different path towards a fully relational theological anthropology.

A second theme is woven through these first two sections. Being human is a practice, notes Banner. Or, as Brian Brock indicates with the help of Barth, we exist in our acting. In Ingold’s relational anthropology ‘to human’ is a verb; being human is a never-ending task. In these understandings, a perspective that sees knowing-in-being as primary is indicated. We argue with Ingold that Henriksen’s emphasis on what is specifically human is important to keep, though within a framework that goes beyond a human-animal and a culture-biology divide by prioritizing movement and life in a forward-going approach.


The third and fourth themes, addressed in the third and fourth sections, must be seen, with Ingold, as two sides of the same coin. The third theme involves a weaving together of Ingold’s primacy of knowing-in-being with Banner’s and Brock’s existing-in-believing. This further opens up a discussion of enskilment, of tradition and way-formation, and of imagination and vision in a relational, participative perspective.

The fourth theme, however, clarifies with the help of Elizabeth Gandolfo and Paul Fiddes that such knowing-in-being fundamentally involves exposure and existential risk in a ‘wild’ world. Vulnerability surfaces as a key notion here. We follow Ingold in taking a step beyond James Gibson’s ecological psychology which was key in Mühling’s contribution, towards an understanding of the world, not as a given, but always on its way to being given.

The fifth theme brings us to theology’s areas of concern in the conversation with anthropology. Theology ‘from a wound’ points to the dark side of wildness and vulnerability, and to the need to discern when and how to embrace or to resist vulnerability. Importantly, such discernment and resistance happen through existing-in-believing: precisely a believing and acting that discovers through participation that love is the deepest reality.


As organizers of the Anthropos conference 2016 and as editors of this Louvain Studies issue, we hope that several of the threads of thought and reflection developed and woven together at the conference, in the conference blog and in the journal issue will find further life, growing into further thoughts, comingling with other lines, taking up other forms and shapes. But even more, we hope that these threads of thought might find ways to correspond and comingle with lines of life, nurturing these towards a more sustainable world. Our hope is that theological anthropology in the 21st century will be a discipline with a critical agenda, in line with Joel Robbins’ characterization of theology and anthropology as critical disciplines nourished by O/otherness, and that, in line with Tim Ingold’s characterization of anthropology, it becomes shaped by a method of hope.

I do not call you refugees... any longer

by Adanna James

My last few blogs have sought to use theological and philosophical insights to reflect on current situations taking place in Europe, among them the refugee crisis and terror attacks. Not much has changed in the climate of Europe since my last blog. In some ways one can even say that the situation has intensified regarding these two issues, which is why I approach this blog with some apprehension. I want to continue to try to use theological insights to reflect upon the refugee crisis ever aware that it is a crisis of majestic proportions. This latest insight I draw from political theology and it concerns the theme of friendship particularly in the context of crisis. In Guido de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account he argues for friendship as a form of political action especially in politically unsettling situations. It is my hope that this could help envision imaginaries for political action beyond the ordinary to respond to the refugee crisis.

Friends in Dark Times


In de Graaff’s Politics in Friendship he makes a claim for the inherently political nature of friendship or its “parapolitical” nature which connotes the sense that it exists alongside politics in a significant sense. His focus is not so much on defining friendships but on observing how they take place as supports to political systems. He does this by looking at friendship through the lens of judgement.  Judgement stands out for him as the defining mark of that which is political, set apart from other forms of public, social life. The aim of judgement is “safeguarding the integrity of public life in society” against injustice which threatens the common good. This renders the political space an interventionist authority in the affairs of public life. De Graaff’s focus, however, are those times when such judgement is aborted or not practiced by political authorities due to widespread corruption, for instance. The example used throughout his work is Nazi Germany and comes mostly from Hannah Arendt’s reflections on judgement and “the dark days of Nazism.” In such cases an emergency situation develops where judgement is urgently necessitated and has to be undertaken by citizens in lieu of political authorities who fail to practice judgement. This emergency judgement is meant to intervene in the thoughtlessness of corrupted political systems offering a space and opportunity to reflect by expanding one’s imaginations to see through the eyes of others. This results in a common sense which takes into account real, non-imaginary others and a faithful representation of their perspectives. In so doing judgement also affirms the plurality inherent to the public realm which is often usurped in times of political darkness. Judging entails judging with others, others who one chooses to live with.  For de Graaff these others are friends. These friendships not only arise out of judgement, but are acts of judgement and common sense. Judgement is then expressed in the faithfulness of friendships as opposed to broken down systems and pronouncements.

Friendship as a preventative measure

There is no debating that the ongoing Syrian civil war with its fallouts of a refugee crisis and terror attacks (both in Syria and Europe) can be described as a dark political time which threatens not only the common good of the people of Syria, but also, in a widening global village, a worldwide common good. As the threat of terror attacks looms over Europe, it is therefore necessary to remain vigilant against political actions which may lean in the direction of a failure of right judgement and common sense, where vengeance may be employed and the recognition of the plural aspect of the public space denied. For de Graaff, friendships not only act in defiance of corrupted political spaces, they can also prevent the corruption of the political space.

I call you friends

"Mama is an angel". "Every morning when she wakes up, she comes and kisses us." These words describe the everyday happenings in the relationship between 82 year old grandmother Panayiota Vasileiadou and the five Syrians she now lives with after opening her home to them. Of how this relationship began the BBC reports that Haja, a 22 year old Syrian who had fled the city of Aleppo in February and had found himself in Idomeni, a border village between Greece and Macedonia, came by Panayiota’s home to borrow a cooking pot one day. When the pot was returned he appeared at her home with nine other friends who were drenched. The report states of Panayiota, “I was afraid at first but one of them was holding a six-month old baby…” Following this, others came asking to take a shower at her home. Panayiota also stated that she would see some of them walking on the road, but that they did not come to ask for help. She would offer them toast, eggs, cheese pies. Soon thereafter she would invite five of them to come live with her in her home. The report also states that some neighbors were not in agreement with her actions of opening her home to the Syrians, “fearing an influx of people with extremist views.” But, as Panayiota says, she was able to sympathize with the plight of the refugees “because I suffered the same. If I hadn’t experienced that, I wouldn’t know. I have been through all those difficulties myself... the cold, the hunger, everything.” "Today they are refugees but we were also refugees in the past." Panayiota was referring to the horrors of her past when she fled her village, Chamilo which was burnt to the ground in 1941 during the Nazi occupation of Greece.

While it is difficult to make comparisons between Nazi Germany and the current European political landscape, I still think that a parapolitical nature of friendship can be discerned in this story of Panayiota and the five refugees. Her act of opening her home can be seen as a parallel to what the BBC has described as the controversial decision on the part of Macedonian political authorities to shut its borders with a 40km fence, resulting in more than 10,000 refugees being stranded in squalid conditions in the village of Idomeni. Panayiota’s act of befriending the Syrians also offers a response of judgement that takes into account real, non-imaginary others. This occurred when she took a second look at the nine Syrians who came to her for help, noticing that one was carrying a baby. Her own fears were dispelled in that moment of judgement which arrested a cycle of fear, rejection and anger in response to the current political climate of terror attacks. The story ends with Panayiota calling on the politicians to open the borders. She asserts that the refugees are not beggars and should be allowed to get on with their lives. She adds "I'll miss them if they do manage to move on - especially the girls. They keep me company. We talk and we laugh even though we cannot understand what each other is saying…"

This alternative form of political action that friendship offers is not a naïve response to the current crisis. It does not boast of providing solutions. However within it I see possibilities for saving persons, particularly members of the Christian community, from a sense of apathy in the wake of political situations that appear insurmountable.



Will Ross, “The Idomeni Grandmother who helps Syrians on a monthly pension,” BBC News, 25 April 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36127051 [accessed 8 April 2016].

Guido de Graaf, Politics in Friendship: a Theological Account (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014).

125 years after Rerum Novarum: privilege and common vulnerability

by Ellen Van Stichel, a re-post of her contribution to the monthly newsletter of CTEWC, The FIRST

Two events

15th of May 2016.  We’ve celebrated that 125 years ago pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum novarum. Probably every Catholic community, within every country, maybe even every continent has its own way to remember this memorable fact. For (continental) Europe in general and for Belgium in particular, the importance and impact of the letter cannot be overestimated.  Rerum novarum shaped our civil society, with Catholic movements in different sectors (employees; employers; farmers) and different kind of members (men, women, youth) still being associated with it today; it shaped our political framework, with the close link between these movements – particularly the Catholic Labour Movement – and the Christian Democrat party. Every year the Catholic Labour Movement commemorates Rerum novarum on the Feast of the Ascension of Christ. Hence, this year was a special year, a year to reflect on what it still means today. Hence, the question came: “what is its relevance for Catholics today and what does it say about our ‘DNA’ as Catholic organizations?”

21st of March 2016, a day before the terror attacks in Brussels. I started reading The Power and Vulnerability of Love of Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo. A day later, this quote gained even more pressing meaning and relevance.

How can we move beyond the anxiety surrounding personal, familial and national vulnerabilities to respond nonviolently to our own vulnerabilities and to care about and respond with compassion to the vulnerabilities of other human beings, all of whom are 'some mother's child'? When our own vulnerable lives and dignity have been harmed by injustice, violence and aggression, how can we move beyond the violation, heal our wounds and refrain from striking out in violence to wound vulnerable others in return? How can we transform our fear of the 'other' from violent scapegoating into compassionate solidarity with all of vulnerable and suffering humanity? (29-30)


A connection

These two very different events have been in my mind in the last months. Is there a connection? The more I think about it, the more I believe so, though I’m only hinting at it for now. It is theological work under construction.

Many things can of course be said on the timely relevance of Rerum novarum – and many elements are outdated because of how the world or our world views have changed. One of the most important and still relevant features of Rerum novarum was, I believe, its recognition of structural causes of the fate of laborers (despite its older view on charity which was also still present in the encyclical). At least pope Leo XIII recognized that poverty is not merely a personal matter, but has structural causes – something we easily tend to forget also today towards people who seemingly do not ‘want’ to contribute to society, let alone towards people who are calling upon our compassion and responsibility by knocking at our borders. While little Aylan found at the shores of Turkey could still raise a wave of solidarity, a few months later the tide has turned. The right-wing focus on personal blame for misery and poverty is convincing more and more people across Europe, in Belgium, of their analysis. The created false dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – be it the ‘lazy and unwilling unemployed’, the ‘migrants who had all the chances but did not take them and now have become our enemies as terrorists’, the ‘refugee’ or the ‘poor in the South’ – is breaking solidarity down and uplifting indifference instead. Because we are not responsible, so the argument goes. Aren’t we?

Here Gandolfo’s analysis of the link between vulnerability and privilege appears to be insightful.

Privilege is the product of human anxiety over vulnerability; it is a collective attempt to alleviate anxiety through control of vulnerability. It is an attempt to control assets for protection from and resilience to vulnerability. But privilege also produces heightened vulnerability and suffering because it robs entire populations of access to assets needed for coping with both natural and socially produced threats to their well-being(141).

But these privileges are so self-evident and hidden, that indeed a right-wing politician can gain a lot of positive public opinion in stating that ‘I’m not responsible for Aylan.’ The ‘moral cost’ which ‘entrenches and implicates the privileged in global and local structures of dominance, oppression and violence’ (145) can easily be overseen.

privilege as anti-carnational versus a recognition of common vulnerability as DNA of Catholic movements

The Incarnation, God being born in the same way as other human beings, and thus taking the risk of going through this vulnerable process, implies, still according to Gandolfo, that it is impossible to merely seek for invulnerability through faith (as if we could ever reach invulnerability, an impossible mission). Rather, she continues, ‘clinging to privilege as a bulwark against vulnerability is paradigmatically anti-incarnational and blocks our union with the One whose love renounces all privilege in becoming human.’ (234) Very strong language, that holding on to privilege is not only sinful but even ‘anti-incarnational’! ‘If even God incarnate embraces relationality and embodiment, along with the dependency and vulnerability that they entail, then who are we to attempt to eschew these human realities with assertions of autonomy and unencumbered self-control?’ (235). Quite the opposite, the Incarnation, with the Spirit, enables and empowers us to feel ‘compassionate solidarity’ with each other.

‘There will always be poor among you,’ Jesus said. Hence an invitation to keep on looking for ‘the poor’ in the margins of our (global) society, and to search for ways to include them and struggle for one society against the dichotomous tendencies. An invitation also to read societal issues not only through the lens of conflict, but also of our common vulnerability (which is not to say that struggle is not necessary and we just have to accept a consensus model of the powerful over the weak, but with Gandolfo I believe it changes the perspective if we start from common vulnerability). And to be aware of our own privileges - which help us to protect our own vulnerability but may increase the vulnerability of others instead - and to keep on criticizing them, both personally and structurally. (Challenging questions when having the luxury to plan my own work, being able to write this contribution from home, with a nice view of the spring garden in a lovely house, I must admit.) How nice and meaningful it would be if this would be the DNA of those Catholic movements, and of all theologians, in today’s civil society for the next 125 years…


Kneeling Down as an Exercise of Mercy

Yves De Maeseneer

Last month I received the request to write a short article for the monthly magazine for pastors and pastoral volunteers, active in the diocese of Antwerp. For the Holy Year of Mercy they had chosen the parable of the Good Samaritan in order to illustrate the different aspects of mercy. The Samaritan is a model of what it means to stop and see what is going on, to kneel down at the other in distress, to invest out of your material and financial resources. They asked me to explain what kneeling down could mean for Christians today in the context of Antwerp. This is a revised translation of my contribution:

For this year of mercy Filipino bishops chose the following slogan: ''If we want renewal, let us learn how to kneel again." It is hard to imagine that Belgian bishops would have formulated similar advice. It would have shocked many Belgian faithful as old-fashioned. Indeed, in most parishes, the pews were removed to create room for comfortable seating.  Undoubtedly, this older furniture was reminiscent of a time when people were living on their knees, belittled by men of authority and power.  Are Christians not called to stand on their feet in the light of the Resurrection?

Indeed.  But it also true that we have become mainly a ’sitting Church’.  It is somewhat ironic that thousands of young people rediscover the power of faith precisely in those places where there are no seats.  In the chapel of Taizé, for instance, they are sitting on the ground, or kneeling on prayer stools. When I was in Cologne for World Youth Day 2005, my most intense experience was to be with a million young people in silent adoration, together with the pope, kneeling before the Eucharist.

A Complex Gesture

Kneeling is a gesture in which you make yourself smaller. It expresses an attitude of humility. Humility is not the same as being humiliated.  The word ‘humility’ is derived from the Latin word humus, which means ‘earth’.  By kneeling you deliberately increase your contact with the earth. It also implies that you give up your freedom of movement. The position renders you defenseless, incapable of flight. Curiously, it is at once a powerful gesture. In this blog post I will briefly explore what the practice and symbolism of kneeling can teach us about the way of mercy to which human beings are called.


Kneeling is painful.  As a bodily practice it confronts us with our vulnerability. The one who kneels expresses his distress.  Not coincidentally, the only ones still kneeling in public today are beggars who petition for a gesture of mercy.  Traditionally, Catholics kneel to confess their guilt and pray for mercy.  Kneeling was also perceived as a form of penance.  It is not only a sign of repentance, but also a first step to recovery. The physical act of kneeling embodies the searching for a new relationship to God, to yourself and to others – think of Rembrandt's painting of the prodigal son who falls into the arms of his father.


Oh Come Let Us Adore

Part of the contemporary resistance towards kneeling is due to a tradition which considered it as an expression of servility. The model was that of the medieval vassal who submits himself to his overlord. Thus, the symbolism of kneeling was closely associated with worldly forms of hierarchy. In this light, one can read Jesus’ explicit refusal to kneel before Satan in exchange for power over the kingdoms of the world as a critical reminder. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Mt 4:10), continues to be the warning of Jesus against misplaced earthly submission.

For Christians the genuine model of kneeling is given by the three Wise Men falling down in adoration at the manger (Mt 2:11). They recognize God's glory in the lowly form of a newborn child. Their story made me aware of the fact that a child may be the only occasion for which Modern people spontaneously drop to their knees.  Kneeling down is a way to position oneself face to face with the little.  But that is not yet worship. What is needed is a radical change of perspective, which allows us to recognize God in our fellow human beings, especially in those most marginalized.  Kneeling is a practice which directs us to see the humility shared between the vulnerable child, the suffering persons we encounter, and Christ in the Eucharist. In this way, it is a practice which aids us in adoring God through our bodily postures, making us more like Him in His humility. 


Egyptian desert father Abba Apollo once said that the devil has no knees.  The devil is not able to kneel and worship. There is a further elaboration of this thought in a tradition concerning Lucifer’s fall. It is told that the real stumbling block for Lucifer did not subsist in the recognition of God's majesty.  What the highest angel could not accept was that God commanded him and his fellow angels to serve the human creatures. In Lucifer’s view, God’s love for humanity disrupted the hierarchical order.  Lucifer's ultimate nightmare was ‘to bend the knees for an earthworm, a lump of earth and clay’ (as the Dutch playwright Vondel has it in his Lucifer).

Lucifer illustrates how power and prestige have a disorienting force. Kneeling in adoration is a counter-practice to Luciferian pride, aiding us in finding our right orientation.  It is also a form of concentration.  Personally, I experience this especially when I'm kneeling on a prayer stool that I got from Taizé. The position requires me to ground myself and at the same time to straighten my back. What happens in kneeling is that my field of view is reduced.  Paradoxically, it is precisely my choosing to refrain from physical mobility that is the condition for being moved intensely in mind and spirit.  This spiritually receptive attitude of the body is crucial for a life of mercy.


Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from:  http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015

Foot-washing at L'Arche, Chicago, 2015. Borrowed from: http://www.larchechicago.org/news/foot-washing-2015


There is a close link between kneeling and the commandment of charity.  Jesus makes this clear, not only in the parable of the Samaritan kneeling down at a human in need, but also on the last night of his life, when he gave a sign of his love by kneeling down and washing the feet of his disciples.  In kneeling, he gives us the example of how to love one anotheras he loved us.

In his meditation on the Gospel of John, Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, wrote: "The history of humankind radically changed at the moment when God was kneeling humbly before us and searched for our love."

In the story of the feet-washing we find an interesting contrast between Jesus and Judas.  "Knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3), Jesus dares lay down his power and kneel in radical service. About Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, the text literally reads that Judas “lifted his heel against him” (John 13:18).  Kneeling down is presented here as the opposite of trampling.

In contemporary training for nurses and care-givers, one of the first lessons in ergonomics is that bending through the knees is essential if you want to raise someone. We could take that simple lifting technique figuratively. If you really want to help someone in need, you cannot do good ‘from above’.  Like Jesus, we have kneel down, literally and figuratively, leaving behind any pretense of condescension.  Christ teaches us that true service always requires an approach from below.

Learning to kneel

There are many occasions in which we can exercise ourselves in kneeling both as a bodily practice and as an inner attitude. One can think ofprayer, the encounter with children, contact with injured people, gardening. The Filipino bishops suggest the liturgy as a training school.  In Belgium the only time in the liturgical year that Catholics are still in the habit of kneeling is Good Friday. Its rich symbolism may serve as a final word on kneeling and mercy. During the veneration of the cross, we go forward one by one to kneel in silence before the cross, to touch it reverently, or even to kiss it. As such we kneel before Jesus, reciprocating his own gesture of foot-washing. In this gesture people lay down their burdens and those of others in order to take up the yoke of Christ’s humility. In the depths of our manifest sorrow, we kneel with the Crucified to rise from the dead again.

A Composition of Compassion

By Sander Vloebergs

This blog is a theological-artistic exploration of Laudato si based on the themes of gender and pain. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical pieta composition and the pain that runs through it.


Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power (Laudato si 241).

The world is in pain, Mary is grieving and the Crucified mourns for the injustice that befell the Creation of the Father. In this contemporary story about the de-creation of the world, everyone seems to weep. The excruciating pain of the dismembering of the Earth blurs the lines between the protagonists of salvation history. In this blog I want to explore the divisions between the bodies in pain. Does suffering bring the Mother, the Father and the Son closer together? Can the Father weep like a Mother?  

Laudato si and Gender

Critics like Emily Reimer-Barry recently explored the papal document Laudato si and highlighted the gender roles that are used to name God and the earth. It seems that this document balances between a stereotypical gender division on the one hand and the new emphasis on gender diversity – encouraged by the feminist movement – on the other. Reimer-Barry detects an ambivalence. On the one hand, the pope explores new ways to encourage a loving relation with God and the Earth that challenges traditional oppressing relations. On the other hand the pope seems to sometimes reduce paradoxes – who are characteristics of a dynamic spirituality – to dualities that are mutually exclusive. The dynamic interplay between powerful and vulnerable, earth and heaven, man and woman seems to come to a halt occasionally. This creates an unhealthy constellation that supports oppression and power structures. The Father-image is a good example of this ambiguity.

The pope uses the name Father to stress the mutual relationship between Creator and creation. He explains his choice in Laudato si 75: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” The Father-metaphor reminds us indeed of our spiritual and material dependence on the Creator. Nevertheless, Reimer-Barry points to the dangers of narrowing down the richness of the Father-metaphor. She writes: “This image [of the Father], drawn from human experiences of power and property ownership, is more akin to a patriarch who rules over his household than a loving companion who nurtures new life and cares for the vulnerable”. The wrong use of the image of Father could indeed make God a patriarch. The Father then becomes a ruler and is no longer a parent, He is no longer vulnerable. Vulnerability is traditionally described as a ‘feminine’ characteristic. Nevertheless we need the transgression of the classical gender divisions to come to an accurate perspective on the richness of the Father-metaphor. How can we enrich our metaphor of ‘Father’? What does it mean to be a father in the first place? (see Yves De Maeseneer's blog Child calls father to fatherhood). These reflections are not alien to the pope’s thinking.

Feminist theology encourages people to call God Father and Mother. This idea challenges the western dualistic way of thinking. God is both man and woman, He/She has female and male characteristics. Reimer-Barry regrets that the pope sometimes follows the dualistic divisions. She says: “By adopting masculine language for God and feminine language for Nature, Pope Francis carries forward a long-standing cultural metaphor that has been dangerous for women, given that it fails to recognize the equal dignity of women in shaping culture”. She continues: “In this worldview, to be masculine is to be strong, rational, active; to be feminine is to be weak, emotional, passive”. Nevertheless, the pope doesn’t make these divisions all the time. By emphasizing the vulnerable caring characteristics of the Father, the pope transgresses the gender roles. The Pope’s Father-image is grounded in a rich spirituality that recognizes vulnerability as a strength. The Father “also shows great tenderness, which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility” (LS 242). He is not an oppressing patriarch but a caring parent. The Father is not a distant spectator of creation’s painful history. He chose to become vulnerable, to share blood and tears, to exchange Love and pain with his Mother Nature (the creation).

An Artistic-Theological Reflection

The Pieta – my drawing – spins around the point of vulnerability and compassion and creates an artistic Utopia where the Father can be the Mother and where the Creator can touch his creation. On this blank page Mary is allowed to be Jesus, crucified created matter that bleeds because of the sins of the world. Her openness for groundless divine Love brought her to the cross. Her lamentations finally died in a lifeless silence as her bones lay still in the hands of her Mother-Creator, wearing the face of the Son. In this Pieta, Jesus becomes the suffering Mother. Through the eyes of the Son, the Father weeps about the faith of his creation. He is powerless and vulnerable. In this last act of kenosis his tears mingle with the blood of the earth. When He sees the lifeless body of his creation He dies with Her and becomes nothing, an endless abyss of Love. This wounding/wounded Love moves beyond identity in the nameless ineffability where the protagonists of the passion story are transfigured into their essences: the lovers game between lover and beloved, Creator and Creation. Vulnerability allows humans to be humans, God to be God and both to be lovers. The vulnerable compassionate Father grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor with the heart of the Mother and the eyes of the Son.  



Conference announcement: Relation, Vulnerability, Love 15 -17 September 2016

From the 15th till the 17th of September 2016 our research group Anthropos will organize a conference on the following theme:





Relation, vulnerability, and love are three concepts we consider important for a theological anthropology for the 21stcentury. Moreover, it is a trilogy we read in crescendo. That is, the primacy of relationality leads us to understand vulnerability as a universal human condition that is the condition of possibility for both suffering and flourishing. We take up the recent emphasis that vulnerability is not only to be understood as an exposure to suffering but also as an opening up in trust to relations with the other and with the world. Vulnerability is thus also understood as ex-posure, as leaving or being drawn out of one’s position(s) to open up toward the new. Love is the Christian notion that indicates the deepest reality of such relationality and vulnerability as well as its eschatological destiny.  We are especially keen to explore how the concept of love can deepen theological reflection on being human understood as being in relation, in vulnerability.

However, we are not only interested in the exploration and critical discussion of these three notions as a set of key concepts for theological anthropology’s speaking of what it means to be human, but also in their relevance as an indication for how theological anthropology is to be done. We aim to explore how these three concepts help us in doing theological anthropology as an endeavor both in dialogue with the human sciences and philosophy and as nourished through and tested in relation to the concrete socio-political, cultural and ecological challenges that urge us to question/re-imagine what it means to be human. 

Further information about keynote speakers, call for papers and practical matters will appear on the RelationVulnerabilityLove2016 blog in due time.


A bench is so much more than a piece of wood and metal. It is a meeting place, a hub of relations, where strangers meet,  where ongoing lives briefly mingle, where unexpected conversations unfold,  and where traces of one's presence are left behind. It is a place of decision, where to sit? Next to someone else and risk being spoken to or at just enough distance to be able to remain quietly in one's own private space?  For some it is a place of survival away from the cold of the ground when a bed and a home are no longer available, or a resting place when walking can only be done for short distances before the pain starts again. For others, it is a place of contemplation, of taking a moment to see the world go by, of observing others and wondering about what it means to be human. It can be a place where angels are met, it can be a place where new relationships start. In how many ways is it a place of love? Of God's love?

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.





The Alphabet of Love in Wordle shape

With the Anthropos research group we will organize a conference on the theme "Love       in Vulnerability: Theological Anthropology in the 21st century", 14th till 17th of September 2016, Leuven.

As a first appetizer we have reshaped the Alphabet of Love that filled the pages of this blog a year ago, as an indication that both the content andthe shape of theological anthropology will be of importance.

Disability, Vulnerability, the Caribbean: an [un]easy association?

By Adanna James

Thinking thought usually amounts to withdrawing into a dimensionless place in which the idea of thought alone persists. But thought in reality spaces itself out into the world. It informs the imaginary of peoples, their varied poetics which it then transforms, meaning, in them its risk becomes realized.[1]

Vulnerability as common human condition

Standing in front of others in a teaching capacity is always a big risk, and the risk is amplified when the content of knowledge being presented has not emerged from the context one finds oneself in at a given point in time. This was the case as I attempted to bring the insights gained from disability theologians mostly based in a European/North American setting to persons attending the 2015 School of Liturgy in Trinidad where I facilitated a workshop on including disabilities into parish life over the summer.[2] So, was it worth the ‘risk’ that Edouard Glissant refers to in the opening lines of this blog? Did these insights inform the imaginary of the people gathered before me, their varied poetics? Most of the insights shared came from Thomas Reynolds’ reflections in his Vulnerable Communion (2008) and his thesis that we share a common vulnerable human condition and so all share in the experience of disability.[3] Reynolds draws from Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals (2001)  where the link is made between being born instinct-deprived, in terms of our inability for immediately getting on in the world as compared with other intelligent animals, and as a result being necessarily dependent on others to a greater degree. Also highlighted were Reynolds’ views on the protective strategies developed by us as human beings to deny our vulnerability which lead to the exclusion of persons with disabilities. Participants were then asked to reflect on their own personal life situations of exclusion, which ranged from being made to feel unwelcome at parish events to being asked to leave a public venue without explanation, and to find comparisons between those experiences and that of persons with disabilities. Experiences of those with disabilities were shared by parents who were part of the workshop. One parent shared how she felt after a stranger physically pulled away from her son upon learning that he had autism. This portion of the workshop was also most mentioned during feedback sessions. Participants highlighted its revelatory effect, in making them aware of the deep impact their experiences of exclusion had had on them as well as causing them to see how much their own experiences had in common with those with disabilities. Our common vulnerable human condition seemed to have been acknowledged.

Caribbean vulnerability

However, something disturbed me on a profound level coming out of the workshop. I wondered how it was that persons coming from the Caribbean, a region that has been so formed and marked by the imprint of vulnerability from its origins in the genocide of indigenous populations, the atrocities of slavery, indentureship, colonization to present day vulnerabilities because of global economic crises, natural disasters etc. had reflected so little on their own personal experiences of vulnerability and disability. On an academic level there is no dearth to Caribbean reflection on vulnerability in the region. Guillermina De Ferrari in her Vulnerable States (2007) explores the tendency among Caribbean scholars to highlight vulnerability, particularly of the body.[4] In identifying this tendency, she turns to Edouard Glissant’s  categorisation of three phases of Caribbean literary production that each zoned in on vulnerability from a different perspective. The first phase, Acts of Delusion, produced texts meant to justify both land and body possession in the Antilles. This was done through landscaping and bodyscaping, presenting fantasized images of the land as empty, unknown and free from ownership and the natives and slaves as desirous of being possessed. The second category, Acts of Survival, represented the artistic production of slaves, meant to preserve identity and memory against Acts of Delusion. The third category, the Passion for Memory is where De Ferrari locates contemporary Caribbean scholarship. This phase is described by Glissant as both “compensatory and recuperative” of the vulnerability of loss, especially the loss of history. This is done through an artistic imagination that counters history and re-symbolises the deluded realities that marked the first phase of Caribbean literatures. Re-appropriation of metaphors of Acts of Delusion takes place; the land now becomes ‘unconquerable’.  Other terms like ‘resistance’ and ‘transcend[ing] limitation’ reveal the direction the re-symbolising process takes.

Resisting/Welcoming vulnerability?

As I encounter this last phase I am forced to admit of a difficulty in assimilating disability theology and Caribbean experience. Has this liberationist, emancipatory, passion for Memory turn in which most contemporary Caribbean authors find themselves made it difficult to speak of a vulnerable human condition of disability that is not to be transcended nor resisted but welcomed in order to discover the human togetherness that Henri Nouwen and some disability theologians speak of? Has the Caribbean experience revealed a different kind of vulnerability and suffering, one that can’t be “domesticated’ “integrated” or accepted as “an unavoidable part of our human condition”?[5] Reynolds battles with this idea of suffering as he uses Stanley Hauerwas to reflect on this issue, where Hauerwas affirms suffering as inevitable and states that we suffer the existence of others. Reynolds’ resolution lies in his thesis of the recognition of a mutual vulnerability in our relationships; this opens us up to love and causes us to attend to others’ specific needs. Is this a nut too hard to swallow given our actual vulnerable reality in the Caribbean? I think I’ve reached the first serious junction in my research. Ideas anyone?


[1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997). Glissant is a poet/novelist from Martinique, a French dependent in the Caribbean and is one of the Caribbean’s leading postcolonial authors. He is most known for his Poétique de la Relation 1997 and le Discours Antillais 1997.

[2] The Trinidad School of Liturgy is held every year and gathers together representatives from parishes throughout the country including other islands for one week to be educated on aspects of Catholic liturgy.

[3] See Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

[4] Guillermina De Ferrari, Vulnerable States: Bodies of Memory in Contemporary Fiction (Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2007).

[5] Reynolds quotes here from theologian Stanley Hauerwas. See Vulnerable Communion,109-111.




Templeton prize awarded to Jean Vanier: From Politics to Love, L'Arche and belonging

Lieve Orye

We live in a society that makes work of joining up while forgetting the work in joining with.


In March, good news spread around the different l’Arche communities in the world. Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, has been awarded the Templeton Prize.  It will be formally presented to him at a public ceremony at the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London on Monday, May 18. L’Arche communities are important for showing concretely “the central role of vulnerable people in the creation of a more just, inclusive and humane society”, as the Templeton Foundation website phrases it. Quite often one can find the l’Arche community mentioned in discussions of theological ethics and in theology and disability discussions. Michael Banner, for instance, in Ethics of Everday Life (2014) mentions these communities as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ and notes that ethnography of such a community would help us understand the possibilities of a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship (58). Banner also sees them as communities that embody a regard for the suffering other. The one who suffers is not to be a passive recipient of care but is recognized as an active giver whose gifts one must learn to receive (102-3). Here as well Banner insists that it would be necessary to subject L’Arche to the critical ethnographic gaze, to study carefully and closely how it provides a new social topography, a counterpractice to ambivalent humanitarianism (104).  Some key issues are given here: countercultural ‘alternative kinning’ and a plea for ethnography, or rather, a plea for ‘learning from and thinking with’ the concrete l’Arche communities.

Alternative kinning: beyond rights, towards love

‘Alternative kinning’ seems to me a topic high on the agenda in theology and disability and even in theology and ethnography discussions, though it is not often put in these terms. In a previous blogpost Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s reflections on disability and inclusion and/or pluralism were briefly discussed. She as well emphasizes the importance of studying how these take shape in practice and, based on her own participant observation in a multiracial church that also welcomes people from group homes, she sees how practices of inclusion and pluralism still leave the other easily marginalized. She suggests the addition of a new category: “’receiving from the other’ as a crucial element of  real (ecclesial) welcome”. John Swinton (2012), who nominated Jean Vanier for the Templeton prize, says something very similar when he makes a plea to exchange the language of inclusion for that of belonging, or maybe better, to embed the first in the second. “To belong”, he notes, “you need to be missed”(183). The language of disability categorizes and allows the categorizer to stay with and hide safely behind that language and its distancing position; the language of disability and inclusion describes thinly allowing the describer to keep control of the relationship and avoid the call that can be heard as well as the weight of responsibility that can be felt in the thickness of reality. Such language only gives thin terms that lead only to thin inclusion. The step forward, for Swinton, lies again in ethnography, more particularly in Clifford Geertz’s often mentioned distinction between thin and thick description. Where thin description gives only the bare bones of a phenomenon, thick description strives to see the whole of a thing (180). Thin descriptions allow the describer and the reader to keep reality sanitized, removing the real call, the real involvement, the real guilt, but also the real gift, the real encounter. Swinton’s call for a thick description expresses the wish to really see and to belong with the other, realizing that one’s own belonging cannot be full belonging if others are merely included.

Let me thicken this with two pieces of anthropological material to show how the issue of thin and thick description relates to the issue of inclusion versus belonging.

Clifford Geertz’ Thick description and participant observation

At the start of his Balinese fieldwork Clifford Geertz found himself and his wife ignored by the villagers who seemed to be looking through them as if they were not there. He tells in his writings how they felt “as ephemeral and insubstantial as a cloud or a gust of wind” (Lee & Ingold 2006:67). But when, during a police raid on a cockfight they had come to watch, they turned and ran with the rest of the crowd, the situation changed abruptly. Rather than remaining privileged anthropological visitors who simply could have identified themselves to the police, they had accompanied the villagers in their flight. Afterwards, their fieldwork opened out successfully, Geertz noted. Jo Lee and Tim Ingold see this as follows: “With the run, it seems, the anthropologists suddenly came down to earth, were able to make their bodily presence felt, and could thenceforth participate with the villagers in the ebb and flow of everyday life” (idem). Running with the villagers meant that Geertz’s movements and those of the people he was with were grounded in shared circumstances. Walking with them allowed him to get to know them and learn from them.

Or to put it another way, we cannot simply walk into other people’s worlds, and expect thereby to participate with them. To participate is not to walk into but to walk with – where ‘with’ implies not a face-to-face confrontation, but heading the same way, sharing the same vistas, and perhaps retreating from the same threats behind (Idem).

Such participation as joining with is what makes the vast difference between thick and thin description, not the detailedness, nor the articulatedness of it. That such thick description is a challenge becomes clear when in going back home, the ethnographer often soon forgets in his writing up and in his theorizing the walking with and being together or reduces this to a mere means that allowed for the construction of ‘knowledge about the other’.

Alternative kinning as belonging, as joining with

Such forgetting or reduction also lies behind the language of inclusion. I would say with Ingold, - who in The Life of Lines (2015) discusses the vast difference between seeing the world and being human in terms of an assembled, joined up collection of blobs and seeing the world and human becoming primarily in terms of ongoing lines that join and correspond and carry on – that the language of inclusion involves a joining up of people, attempts an assembling of people and things in terms of their interests and needs, whereas the language of belonging involves a recognition that people join together, walk with each other, receive each other as gift. With Swinton and Ingold, we can say that when lives are joined, not joined up, one will be missed. For Vanier, it is the power of loving one another and the sharing of gifts that overcome difference and exclusion. Swinton adds that you belong when your gifts are longed for and that “such longing is not discovered through politics or argument, but only through the gesticulations of God’s love towards human beings as they are embodied within the lives of those who have come to know and love God and who long for the love of God to become the pivot point for the redemption of the world” (183-184).

To understand properly what L’Arche as an example of ‘alternative kinning’ is about, we first have to learn to see the world, human becoming and participant observation not in terms of joining up, intersubjectivity, interaction and inclusion but in terms of joining with, or as Ingold calls it, ‘corresponding’. Within this ongoing world, through participant observation, we might then learn from and with L’Arche communities how in their Christian going on God is present. For Swinton, there is a difference between a thin, self-centered love and a spiritual love that signals the Kingdom through small gestures – gestures, I would say, that again and again invite and take up the invitation to join lives, for the duration of a moment, for the duration of a joint activity, with the promise to be willing to see what comes next in growing together. As Christians, we are called to look away from ourselves and to look to Jesus to find ourselves. For Swinton, such a way of looking at one another through Jesus offers us a thick description of what it means to sit with the marginalized, to befriend the stranger, to offer hospitality to those radically different from one’s self. These words tell us of a thick reality in which the principle of joining up, the principle of likeness, is exchanged for the principle of joining in grace.


Banner, M. (2014) Ethics of Everyday Life. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Ingold, T. (2015) The Life of Lines. Routledge: London.

Lee, J. and Ingold, T. (2006) “Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing,” in Locating the Field. Coleman, S. and Collins, P. (eds.), Berg: Oxford, pp. 67-86.

Swinton, J. (2012) “From Inclusion to Belonging: A Practical Theology of Community, Disability and Humanness,” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, 16(2), 172-190.

The photograph was taken in Montreal, 2009. Sans Oublier le Sourire is a French Canadian organization that promotes participation and belonging for its members.

Love-making in public: Another look at Paris

by Adanna James

“… Oh listen Lord if you want to know…what the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of …” Jackie DeShannon, US, 1965
“ Please give a helping hand oh Jah, …what we need is love, vice versa love …” Barrington Levy, Jamaica, 1993. 
  “…People killing, people dying, children hurt and you hear them crying …Father, Father Father help us, send some guidance from above, cause people got me questioning where is the love,” The Black Eyed Peas, US, 2003

Popular culture has a way of reminding us theologians and other academics that we’re always a step behind when it comes to discerning what society needs. Long before the anthropological shift in justice discourse advocating love as central to justice, artists were making connections between injustices in the world, the need for love as a way of countering them, and an appeal to a Divine Reality to make it all possible. 

While the connections made in academic theology prove more complex, there is a similar concern about the prevalence of injustices in societies today. This prompted philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in her 2013 Political Emotions, to question the taken-for-granted assumptions about the human condition undergirding dominant justice discourse. No longer should we assume that we, rational human beings, would simply act in accordance with the demands of justice once it could be seen that an ideal situation of fairness was being maintained for the benefit of everyone’s individual pursuits, as was broadly assumed in the dominant justice discourse.  Nussbaum sees another side to us human beings, a side we rather refuse to see: those aspects of our animal nature which remind us of our helplessness, vulnerability and mortality. It is precisely this refusal – or ‘anthropodenial’ as Nussbaum calls it – that is often responsible for tendencies such as narcissism, anxiety and disgust for and stigmatisation of others. This same emphasis on the denial of our vulnerability and fear of difference is shared by theologian Thomas Reynolds in his 2008 Vulnerable Communion as he writes on the topic of disability. But whereas Nussbaum focuses more on individual human beings and our emotions, Reynolds highlights networks of relationships. He speaks of the ‘cult of normalcy’ that works to establish standards of what is normal, at the same time denying vulnerability. 

Both authors however, make the case for love. “Love is what gives respect for humanity its life,” writes Nussbaum (2013:15). Reynolds, in a similar vein, comments: "Love is the relational power that animates belonging together, It gives and receives life, and the process radiates joy" (Reynolds 2008:119). He further states that to counter the effects of marginalisation and exclusion of difference, love must be measured by an empowering justice that makes way for more love. Reynolds, however, pays more attention to our relationships and the necessity of being in vulnerable connection to each other. “Love involves welcoming another into a space of mutual vulnerability” (Reynolds 2008:119). Such an encounter is one of immediacy, a concept he takes from existentialist philosophers like Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber and uses to emphasise the mutual exclusiveness of ‘becoming involved’ as opposed to  ‘objectifying another’.   

I think both Nussbaum and Reynolds bring interesting thoughts to the table on making love public. Perhaps if we were to reflect on a specific example, for instance, the recent tragic happenings in Paris, we could better see what both authors contribute to the debate on love's public significance.

Looking at the recent terror attacks in Paris, we could say that it was possible that Parisians as well as non-Parisians worldwide, seeing these media images, could identify with the vulnerability of the victims. These images captured the shooting and killing of a police officer and terrorist, frightened hostages running and screaming, flowing tears of loved ones. The responses to these images and reality were profound. Among them, mass demonstrations congregating persons of different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds under the banner (even if just for a day) of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Nussbaum’s theory of love being a powerful motivator in upholding the tenets of justice could find resonances here. 

At the same time, the response borne out of fear of vulnerability, visible in Reynolds’ ‘cult of normalcy,’ could be seen in numerous events and discussions surfacing after the event, including PEGIDA marches against the Islamisation of Germany. It seems in that instance that an objectification of the other stood in the way of immediacy of encounter. There was no recognition of mutual vulnerability that could result in openness to others, compassion and fidelity.

But I’d like to highlight one example that shows the power of immediate encounter in mutual vulnerability.  A BBC report looked into how the terrorist attacks were being interpreted within the French school context, particularly in predominantly Arab immigrant communities. Some teachers spoke of the difficulties in generating empathy among the students for the victims of the attacks. "Twelve people were killed…it didn't mean much to them," one teacher remarked. But an interesting dynamic was noted when the minute of silence was observed. Unlike the previous time when the minute of silence was not respected by students in various schools, (after the 2012 killings in Toulouse and Montauban by a radical Islamist) the called-for silence was instructed to be observed in schools only after prior discussion was held (on the instruction of the Education Ministry). One teacher confessed that she was unable to hold back her tears during these discussions. The result: silence. It appears that the teacher’s display of vulnerability brought students into a space of mutual vulnerability, opening them up to her as well as the people she spoke about and cried for. It is precisely through such encounters that a compassionate feel for the injustices that lie beneath the objectifying gaze that separates us from each other can be nourished. 

My suggestion finally is this. Before moving too quickly to discussions of press freedom, migration, religion and the Enlightenment, perhaps a deeper, public engagement of our vulnerability as it presented itself to us during the days of the attacks will help steer discussions, decisions and actions in more just ways. Our artists, after all, do seem to know what they’re singing about… “what the world needs now, is love, sweet love….. “

Henri Astier, “Charlie Hebdo Attack: French Values Challenged in Schools.” BBC News Paris, January 30, 2015 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31027152 [accessed February 3 2015].
Martha Nussbaum, Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013
Thomas Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press , 2008.

Child calls father to fatherhood: An interview

Yves De Maeseneer

You would expect that a religion that professes God as Father is blessed with a rich theology of fatherhood. Interviewed at the occasion of Father’s Day (in Belgium June 8), I have been facing a certain perplexity. What does it mean to be a father? Even our rich Leuven library was not of great help. I share this interview as an invitation to explore the topic further. 

Why do Christians call God Father?

"Jesus taught us to address God as ‘abba’, Aramaic for ‘papa’. As such we respond to the fundamental revelation that each of us is a child of God. In the New Testament stories, God speaks in a direct way only twice: at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor. On both occasions, God reveals Godself as Father, using a formula by which Jewish fathers acknowledged their children after birth.

"In Hebrew culture, a man recognized a child at the time when it was brought to him by taking the newborn on his knees and addressing it. You become father by receiving it. Hence, "thou art my beloved Son." (Mk 1:11) According to the Christian tradition, Jesus has opened the way for every human being to be adopted as a child of God.

Are you suggesting that all forms of paternity are fundamentally marked by an adoptive dimension?

"In many cultures, even today, giving birth is a women’s matter. Men typically wait for the child outside. Even if men are present, they experience that the difference between father and mother is the most palpable at birth: the father is standing next to his wife and therefore outside. Already in pregnancy there is a physical bond between mother and child which the father can never have. The relation between father and child is always marked by a distance, which only becomes proximity through word and gesture, when the father commits himself and says ‘You are my child’.'"

Paternity is a choice?

"You become father when you turn toward your child. While the first effort of a mother is to let the child go, the first act of the father is to turn toward it. It is an act in freedom and love, which I experienced as a vocation. The child calls the father to fatherhood."

What do children teach a father?

"Cynicism is a major challenge in our culture. Grown up men are expected to judge reality from a negative a priori. Children show that this cynicism is a lie. My children – now four and two years old – have taught me hope and joy. I think it is this talent for joy and hope, which made Jesus enjoin his disciples ‘to become like a child’.

Jesus also said, "whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me" (Lk 9:48).

"With this statement Jesus invites every Christian to live in the image and likeness of the Father by participating in God’s fatherhood. I think of Henri Nouwen’s famous meditations upon the parable of the prodigal son. After he had identified himself with the youngest ánd the eldest son, he finally discovered that all of us are challenged to become like the merciful father in our relationship with others."

Does the Gospel provide us with a more elaborate role model of the good father?

"No. Joseph is outshone by Mother Mary. Jesus, Peter, John, Paul,… none of them is mentioned as raising children. In the New Testament narratives, father figures are lacking. This lack of father talk is not so surprising – men rarely talk to each other about their fatherhood experiences. Our society has a rich offer of clubs, magazines and websites for moms, but paternity remains in the shade. Christian tradition and theology shares this lack of attention with our culture in general. A detailed reflection on what it means to be a father is still to be developed."

Is it different in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Jewish patriarchs?

"The German Benedictine Anselm Grün considers the figure of Jacob as the archetypal father. This does not mean you'll learn much in Scripture about how he deals with his children. What you get, is the picture of an unsteady man. Contrary to his twin brother Esau, who is his father’s favorite, Jacob is more of a mama's boy. Yet it is this ‘fatherless’ figure, who has to go the difficult road to become a father. First we see how the young adult tries to become a man by making a career – not eschewing fraud. Crucial is that he has to leave home. Along the way he dreams a dream in which God blesses him with the promise "I'll be with you, wherever you go" (Gen. 28:15). To me this version of God’s name (YHWH) points to the core of fatherhood: the promise to always be there for your children. In this same dream God sent Jacob on his way. Paternity is both: to encourage your children to go into the world, while reassuring them of your assistance.

In fact Jacob really becomes father in the night wrestling with the angel (Gen 32:23-33). This struggle with the insecurities, anxieties and doubts that you experience as a father, Jacob does not win. He shall receive a blessing and an injury. Being a father is to find blessing in order to become a blessing for your children. But with that blessing comes the injury of powerlessness: as a father you do not have your life and that of your children in your hands. Significantly, the injury is at the hip, the place where a person in ancient times put his hand to make an oath. The wounded hip is symbol of weakness and fidelity alike. Fatherhood is about accepting frailty through promise.”

Is not the first duty of the father to establish the law?

"Oddly enough, that aspect is not made explicit in the story cycle of Israel’s patriarchs. Classical psychoanalysis would ascribe to the father the role of legislator, but at crucial moments in life fatherhood is rather about giving space and freedom. The tragedy of an authoritarian father figure is that he denies his children this space and trust. Empirical research among teenagers in our own time has shown that in many Western families it is rather the mother who is experienced as guaranteeing order – her strictness being most effective because it is typically combined with emotional warmth. Today’s father is often the one who plays with the kids and helps them explore the limits."

Children grow up. Fatherhood is also releasing?

"The father is left behind and has to let his children go. That too is an important aspect of the parable of the prodigal son. As at birth the father had to bridge a distance which is not there for the mother, he is also the parent who has to encourage the children to go and leave home. It seems often easier to let go for fathers than for mothers. The real challenge for fathers is rather not to distance themselves too much, and to keep on being there for their children.”

(English translation of an interview by Kris Somers, in the Catholic weekly Tertio, June 4, 2014. Read the complete file on paternity www.tertio.be)


The Beatific Vision through Blurry Eyes: Natural Childbirth and our Spiritual Condition

Julia Meszaros

Contemporary Western hospitals offer – and at times impose – an ever growing range of medical interventions to the labouring mother. These are sometimes life-saving. Yet they often also come with risks that should preclude unreflective usage. In light of this, a small but growing number of young parents and parents-to-be are rediscovering the beauty and the benefits of natural childbirth – that is, of seeking to allow one of human life’s most integral and mind-blowing events to take its natural course. Alongside certain health benefits, this rediscovery, I wish to suggest, is of direct significance from the perspective of theological anthropology. For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God.

Nativity  by William Blake

Nativity by William Blake

The birth of a child begins perhaps with excitement, perhaps with fear, but in any case with pain. At the beginning, one might still be oblivious of the extent to which this pain will gradually undo one of our most cherished dispositions – that of being in control, and of being able to withdraw from whatever threatens our autonomy. Even the pain seems, initially, to be what we want, what we have long been waiting for. In a sense, we still ‘possess’ our body. As labour progresses, however, our posture of self-control increasingly crumbles. What we begin to experience is something we have not signed up for at all. The indescribable scope of the pain that simply overcomes us is entirely unexpected and uninvited. We are faced with something we are sure we cannot shoulder. Like when reaching a new stage in the spiritual life, we want to run away, for the sake, it feels, of preserving our very life. (This is where, in an un-induced childbirth, the first medical intervention – the epidural – usually comes in).

In order to continue the process naturally there is, as any midwife will (in one form or another) confirm, only one strategy: to let go. To let go of being in command, to let go of the need to maintain a dignified appearance, to let go of our attachment to comfort and the picturesque, and above all, to let go of our human rationality, which tells us that it is impossible. Instead of fearing for our life, we are called to trustingly place our life in the hands of God. We may feel that we may not make it. More viscerally than ever before, we become aware that our life is not our own, that everything hinges on God’s will. To this we can now only surrender, humbly and hopefully.

Such a profound act of self-surrender does not in any way put an end to our suffering. Yet it brings with it an unknown peace that makes the suffering bearable, even as it gets greater still. And in allowing us to hand ourselves over to the present moment, it allows us to meet Christ crucified, there with us: fragile, aching, undone.

And just as we have entered into this fellowship most deeply – everything is miraculously made new! We are met by new, unknown life, and a sense, not merely of relief, but of an unknown, perfect bliss. In the matter of an instant, the pain that was is cast into oblivion and we are overcome by an unspeakable awe and love that extends to all the world, to the unknown creature before us, as much as to our spouse and companions, and the nurse who only just popped in to the room.

This, then, is how life comes into the world. In experiencing the birth of a child, we are blessed with a spiritual lesson. If we let ourselves in for it (and provided, of course, that we encounter no complications), we are given a glimpse of how and why to enter into the abyss. We are taught, almost by force, a self-surrender that is entirely antithetical to our worldly disposition, yet that allows us to meet Jesus, who has come so that we may have life (John 10:10). Indeed, in giving birth to a child we receive nothing less than a foretaste of the beatific vision.

All things being equal, then, the pain and labor of natural childbirth can be a spiritual blessing and resource. It teaches us that, with God, all is possible and that, from our suffering, new life can spring. For this reason alone, we must continue to aspire to and value natural childbirth. For, if we believe in life after death, then our positive experiences of suffering in the context of giving birth might give us hope also with regard to suffering in the context of approaching death. 

Politics, Love and the Inner Life

Julia Meszaros

What, if any, is the role of Christian love in the political sphere? Where politics is understood as the Machiavellian effort of securing power over others, of erecting barriers rather than of breaking them down, the answer is, most likely, ‘none’. The case is similar where Christian love is deemed to obstruct a Nietzschean will to power, where it is seen to breed nothing but weakness and resentment. Is Christian love not inherently paternalistic, as the problematic implications of traditional forms of development aid might suggest?

Even a more favourable view of Christian love does not amount to its political relevance. Christian love, like other moral and religious convictions, is, so contemporary manifestations of liberalism tend to imply, a private matter. Good citizenship, so this argument would imply, rests on whether we hold to the principles of freedom and justice, keep the law, and cast our vote.

Indifference as a failure of love


Yet, can these important ‘public’ acts and commitments be separated from my ‘private’ life, from my interior disposition and, more particularly, from Christian love? The fact that the default mode in which we live our lives is one of indifference towards the other suggests otherwise. Retreating, by and large, into the private sphere of work, homes and cars, we typically vote only according to our own immediate (especially financial) interests; we have a flippant relationship with the law (tax law being a prime example); and we often look past the old, the sick and the homeless. These tendencies slowly but surely undermine our political structures and principles in a way that inevitably damages first of all those who are most vulnerable. 

And this, I now want to suggest, is because our sins of political indifference and materialistic individualism constitute nothing less than failures of love. They manifest a lack of passionate concern for the other and for the Good that unites all human persons. And it is for this reason that they present an almost insurmountable political challenge. For love cannot be politically enforced.

Love’s ground in the inner life

Interior Castle.jpg

One reason for this is that love, like its opposite, indifference, consists in a particular disposition towards the world. As much as it is an act, love implies a valuation of and delight in the other, a profound longing for the other’s well-being. And as such, love is inseparable from a particular inner life—from the cultivation of truthful perception for instance and of our conscience and, ultimately, of a life of prayer. For love is ultimately rooted in a love of Love itself—in that Spirit of Love which animates our own love.

The inner life as a political challenge

The political importance of our inner lives that follows from this is one of the modern state’s greatest challenges. For contrary to socialism’s assumption that the political sphere can foster, even produce, the kind of persons it needs for its own vitality (on the principle that a good society makes good individuals), love is not learnt through political programmes and policies but only through love itself—that is, through free relationships of love. And contrary to contemporary political liberalism, a state religion of neutrality and disinterestedness is likely to foster a hazardous sense of the political irrelevance of the inner life. 

What, then, is the political realm to make of the fact that love and, with it, the individual person and their inner life, form the inevitable foundation of a vital society? How can we acknowledge the political relevance of our inner lives without giving up on our liberal principles of freedom and toleration?


An albeit rather personal response to this difficult question was, perhaps, offered by the new Pope Francis, minutes after his election. After greeting the cheering crowds, the Pope, a powerful leader, bows before them. And before giving them his blessing, he asks them to pray for his blessing. And rather than asking them to say the ‘Our Father’, he asks them to pray in silence, thus underling the simultaneously communal and individual nature of prayer. This act of humility is at once a political act and an act of love: the leader places his trust in his flock and unambiguously affirms the importance of each individual and his or her inner life of prayer and of love, for the whole. In doing so, Francis boldly proclaimed that even in a world tormented by war and poverty the individual’s turn inwards, Augustine’s reditum ad cor, is no luxury. Indeed, it is the first step towards building the fraternity of the true polis.

This post is an excerpt of a paper given at the workshop Politics of Love? Christliche Liebe als politische Herausforderung (org. Anthropos Research Group and Katholische Akademie Berlin), Berlin, 21-23 March 2013.

Julia Meszaros is a post-doctoral researcher at the K.U. Leuven and a member of Anthropos, a research group in theological anthropology.