Rik Torfs - former rector of KU Leuven
(an adaptation of the meditation held at the Celebration for the Opening of the Academic Year in the Hooglandse Kerk, 2 September 2018)
So, I am very happy to have a recital here today. All the more as a church lawyer. Also because it is a celebration that does not comply with the Protestant and also not the Catholic rules.
Anarchy is always a source of innovation.
I would like to start with a quote from someone from whom I have surprisingly learned a lot. A Dutch person, that is also not impossible ontologically, but someone who has left his country. That was Monsignor Wim de Bekker, the former bishop of Paramaribo. I once accidentally sat there during an Easter mass. He said there: "You find the source by going against the current."
That is something that cannot be denied even for a physicist or scientist, who is even closer to the truth than a sociologist. Indeed, you have to go against the grain to find the source. To get back to the ideas that inspired you during your childhood, that made you who you were then and that you hopefully stayed in part. That is the thought.
Now, if you ask people if they are going against the grain, they will all say "yes". Everyone calls themselves a revolutionary. Even the most beaten office clerk who hasn't been allowed to speak up by his wife at home for 20 years will say, actually I'm a revolutionary. And a trail of glitter appears in the corner of his eye. Yet I think that we often follow the trend, follow the trend, thoughtlessly and at the same time adopt an image of innovation. That is how it often goes.
What are some of the things we can chase today without any risk? And without courage
I see three points:
The first is: moral rigor. Much less is allowed than before. Freedom, joy, the jolly 70s of which some of you unfortunately still bear traces, I see. Well, those years are over.
Now applies zero tolerance. Many people have an example function, so to speak. And zero tolerance is spoken in a low voice. Because if you say it in a higher voice and in Dutch, a fortiori with a Flemish accent, that rustling in the margin still seems possible.
Zero tolerance. And a contractual conception of the morality of guilt and penance, what goes for what, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Forgiveness is a wimpy thing, and mercy is a trace of a lost religion. Someone who makes a mistake can be written off forever, the harsh morality.
A second point: the ratio. Now that the gods breathe more difficultly and for many faith is something very difficult, even impossible, faith in reason grows, as the solution to everything.
Maybe science can solve any problem that might arise. We count on that.
It used to seem a little different. You had hesitant philosophers, especially French, who were the first victims to make the craziest statements under the influence of wine and often suffering from AIDS. Michel Foucault, for example, the relativity of things. The point of view. Jacques Derrida. Went that way too. But apparently we have to get away from that. We must have one clear truth, and even the behavioral sciences previously noted for a certain modesty and slight hesitation appear today as guardians of absolute truth.
Sometimes I think that scientists who - in the past especially - were very fond of philosophy, today wallow in statistics as the main source of knowledge. Why?
Philosophy is often too good to be true and statistics too true to be beautiful and often not even true. That is the second point.
Then you have one third point tribal thinking. I remember that people used to say from a Christian inspiration: every person is unique, no matter how strange and crazy and strange that person is. Today people seem to be mainly part of a group. He is a woman, or rather she, or a transgender or an elderly person or a doctor or someone of foreign origin. The individual is drowning in neotribal thinking. Real respect for people is disappearing into broader categories.
Those are three trends of today. For people who, quite rightly, are only now starting to listen: the first: absolute morality, the second: absolute belief in reason and the third: the individual who must yield to neotribal thinking.
How can we find the moral courage to counter this? Well, then my thoughts dwell for a moment on a figure formerly better known in our regions, namely the late Jesus Christ. Who in a fantastic way in the story of Zacchaeus breaks through all things, which today are increasingly taken for granted. And to substantiate my thesis I have six points, then there is music.
The first point is this: Zacchaeus' story is a story. It is not a closed system. It is not a theory into which reality must unwillingly fit. That is not true. In that sense, this way of thinking is even more in line with the thinking of, say, the current Pope Francis - this just casually - than with that of his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were in fact fans of their own ecclesiastical system. and wanted to defend it rain and dawn against everything and everyone, often at the expense of man, among other things at the expense of sexually abused man.
That is my first point. Zacchaeus' story has the charm of being a story. That we don't fill everything up.
The second point is this: it's not just a story but Jesus is doing things we wouldn't expect from him. He is friendly to Zacchaeus while logic would command us to remain gruff to this slightly corrupt man. If the world is divided between good and evil then Zacchaeus belongs to evil. But all this is not so easy for Jesus. As a Catholic, what I still am and will always be, I get to hear: "yes, but you are saying that now but what would Jesus have said about this?" And my interlocutors are already looking with a stern look for an inexorable correction. They think Jesus would have gotten into it quite a bit. But his strength is precisely that he always surprised and, thank God for us, he had a fair amount of sympathy for evil and for the slightly imperfect man. That was the second point. What Would Jesus Say? Well, Zacchaeus' love of money and corruption does not prevent him from making contact with him.
Then there is another point, point three. The Gospel text also shows how Zacchaeus, not a sweetheart, makes an effort to see Jesus. The double in man. He is short in stature, usually a sign of intelligence, and climbs a tree to see Jesus. Why is he actually doing that? We do not hear that. He may be moved by all kinds of ideals, but maybe not at all, maybe he's just curious, or mostly that, and why not? Why do the motives for the good always have to be one hundred percent pure? Pure morality does not help us here either.
The scene continues, that is point four. Jesus sees Zacchaeus, asks him to come down, and then does something that is actually relatively rude. He invites himself to Zacchaeus. Usually it is the other way around. If you have to contend with neighbors who are constantly inviting themselves to yourself, you will still take a detour when you threaten to meet them. But here it is the guest who chooses and the strange thing is that the host is happy because he is chosen to host that man at his expense. I also think that is a plus. We are not used to that. It all turns around and of course you have people who say, "How is it possible that he is coming to visit this sinner?" While among the spectators, due to a twist of fate, there were many pious, almost perfect people. But the perfect fell by the wayside. That must be bad for moral absolutists.
After that we have the next point and that is point five. Jesus does not ask Zacchaeus. He does not say, "Good friend, get virtuous from now on or try to be a little less corrupt." Or "exercise some kindness while practicing the virtue of corruption." He doesn't say any of that. He could also come to a ban. The finger. Moral theologian Roger Burggraeve says that prohibition is not necessarily bad. Because it sets a lower limit, but no upper limit. You can do a lot, be very generous or only partially. But it is precisely through the charisma and the non-judgment of Jesus that Zacchaeus himself comes to a solution. Prohibition is not always necessary to achieve good. On the contrary, it is enough to show everyone what it can be and there it is. That too, I think, is an incredible liberation. Jesus does not say a word about the prohibition. Zacchaeus spontaneously does the right thing.
Finally: point six. Small details certainly count. What is Zacchaeus doing? He donates half of his property to the poor. The other half not? I find that liberating. He keeps the other half for himself. That man thinks: “Yes, I actually want to have a nice life, keep drinking a glass of wine now and then. And if I already deliver half, that might not be that bad. ” Plus also a number of compensation schemes for corruption, which I will leave aside. But he does give up half of it.
Now you can look at that in two ways. You can condemn him for keeping the other half or praise him for having the courage to give up one half. I find the second attitude not only more generous, but also nicer and cozier for the former owner of the entire fortune. That, I think, makes this message incredibly powerful. Absolute morality shattered. The perfectly reasonable solution proves unsustainable and is replaced by a better one. And the tribal thinking, the tax collectors, the bad guys must yield to Jesus' choice for one single person. And in the end he does not say that people should repent to him, but Jesus says, "My job is to look for the people."
In other words, if that is not going against the grain, if that is not a sign of moral courage.
Rik Torfs - former rector of KU Leuven