Roger Burggraeve is one of my colleagues at the K.U.Leuven Faculty of Theology, a Salesian professor of moral theology who retires this year after a long and fruitful academic career and committed pastoral service, e.g. in the Salesian centre “Eigentijdse Jeugd” in Groot-Bijgaarden near Brussels. Roger has been working intensively on the thought of the Jewish French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and it does not come as a surprise that in his honor an international conference was organized in Leuven during the past week under the title Responsibility, God and Society: Theological Ethics in Dialogue. I was very fortunate to participate in the last day of this conference, this morning, when the Flemish scientific and pastoral community honored him. The theme of the morning was “kenosis”, and first a talk was given by a colleague from Kampen in the Netherlands, Renée van Riessen, precisely on comparing the understanding of kenosis in Jewish and Christian perspectives. As a specialist in Levinas’ thought, she used his writings to make her point that Jews probably more than Christians emphasize human ethical responsibility because of God’s kenotic zimzum movement in creation, where God allows the emergence of a space where God is not. I must admit that I was not convinced that Renée van Riessen fully grasped the encounter tension involved in the interplay of transcendence and immanence, so typical for Christianity. Using Barth as a sparring partner with Levinas is, of course, already limiting oneself to a very specific and outspoken Christian tradition. Nevertheless, something very important comes to the surface here: are Christians not easily prone to evade their responsibility by referring to an intervening God?
R. Burggraeve’s contribution, a talk on Am I My Brother’s Keeper? On the Meaning and Depth of Our Responsibility, was brilliant. Roger clearly acknowledged the roots of his thought in Levinas’ work: some thirty years ago Levinas was giving a conference precisely in the same room where we were all seated now, and its topic was humility and kenosis, using biblical references to Cain (Gen 4,9) and to Abraham in conversation with the God who wants to destroy Sodom for its inhuman evil, its crimes against humanity (Gen 18). One feels how Roger’s thought is connected with a deep and very human appropriation of biblical texts, an appropriation that is born out of a concern for shedding light on the concrete life of concrete human beings who are caught up in ambiguous processes and histories of growth. It is wonderful to see how much Roger’s own life is involved in this processes … one senses how the effort to understand the biblical texts has gone the joyful and costly path through his own life.
In Roger’s talk the fundamental issue was about a choice: what kind of society and community do we want to live in? Do we want the coldness of the world of Cain, where nobody cares for his or her brothers or sisters (and where, supposedly, God would then care for each one of us separately), or do we want a world in which as Abraham does we plead with God for our fellow human beings, even when they are evildoers? Indeed, in the case of the story of Abraham and God at Sodom, the starting point is the anger of a God who revolts against the evil done by the people of Sodom. The situation is so harsh, that God wants to go and see, and that he takes a decision to destroy the city of Sodom: its people are really committing crimes against humanity: God is full of rage when confronted with that kind of evil. This is unacceptable to God. Although God is a bit afraid to do so (Roger suggests that God already suspects that Abraham may disagree), he consults with his friend Abraham. The latter responds: “How can you, God, risk to kill innocent and righteous people while destroying the city of Sodom? Is such an anger justified, that to eradicate evil you’re willing to sacrifice some innocent people?” Of course, Abraham’s counter proposal is as excessive as God’s plan: “Even if there are only a few righteous people, should you not because of them save also the evil ones?” It reminds me of the excessive claim of apocatastasis: the belief that everything and all (even the devil) will be saved and end up in heaven … indeed, everyone is loved by someone else … if someone ends up in hell, this means that also those who love this evil person end up in hell, as their love cannot be complete … Does belief in apocatastasis not mean, however, that we do not take evil serious?
This kind of questions is typical for Roger and his way of thinking moral theology and moral growth: human beings have to answer questions in a complex and complicated world, where evil and good, joy and despair intermingle. Such “discernment” is a real conversation with God in such a way that it is a conversation with ourselves, with people around us and with the world in which we live. Roger went on and looked at the double attitude of Abraham in the conversation with God: on the one side he is well aware that he belongs to an ambiguous world, that he is mortal and vulnerable, but on the other side, he is not afraid to address God directly, to disagree with God and to challenge God. This is what Cain does not do: he does not present his grief to God, he does not sue God for injustice in receiving Abel’s but not his offerings. Then, this source of injustice can work in him, up to the point of enabling him to kill his brother and so to destroy his deep connectedness with his brother. The friendship of Abraham with God – an adult friendship in which Abraham can and has to be his real self, even if that means disagreeing with God and speaking out against him on behalf of fellow human beings – guarantees Abraham’s connectedness with the world and his fellow human beings.
Roger emphasizes that deep ontological connectedness that is also a theological statement and reality. I know this is life giving theology. I hope Roger will continue to work on these lines, to publish, and to commit enthusiastically to human beings who grow in their discernment processes, in the tension between the “meilleur humain possible” and the “humain souhaitable”, in the tension between the best we can do and the vision that throws us always beyond even that best.
Addition on 080920: The original Flemish version of Roger’s talk, “‘Ben ik dan de hoeder van mijn broeder?’ Over de ziel en reikwijdte van onze verantwoordelijkheid”, has been published in Collationes: Tijdschrift voor Theologie en Pastoraal 38(2008):3, 239-261.