“Understanding” is not reduced to “thinking”. Understanding is therefore not an exclusively mental activity. The mind moves into the world of objects – “object” is anything that can be observed and measured – and tries to understand them through analysis and reasoning. It is an essential task. However, if we reduce ourselves to it, we remain closed in the worst ignorance.
“Understanding” is equivalent to “seeing”. The Sanskrit root “vid”, from which the Latin verb “video” = “I see” means, at the same time, “to know” and “to see”. This is the understanding I am talking about. And we don’t reach it through the mind, but on the contrary, in the silence of the mind, in a bare attention that transcends forms or objects.
“Understanding” means knowing by experience what we are, “savoring” it in the etymological sense of “savor”, “taste”, “relish”. “Sapore” in Italian language, sapientia in Latin from the same root that has “sap” in English.
In English we use the word “under-stand”, “stay beneath, lower things”. What is underneath, usually, it is hidden. What is hidden, most of the times is a secret. Concealed and covered under the earth. It takes time to get in tune, feel empathetically, therefore knowing what things are in their being “covered” and “veiled”. No objective measurement is allowed at this deep level of reality.
“Here is my secret. It is very simple: one can only see well with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince).
We remain stuck in ignorance, if we detach ourselves from “what-we-are” and “what-is-beneath” and we risk missing our identity, not really knowing the true nature of things and events of what is out there in the world and what happens to our life.
But how can we remain focused on what is essential in life?
I give you an example. Our mind presents the objects of the world as a projector does when it shows a film on a screen. For the objects to appear adequately, clear and distinct, the screen on which the film is projected must be “absolutely” white, with no other objects or things drawn on it. If the movie were projected on a wall where there are various objects of different shapes and colors, the objects that are projected would not be seen clearly and distinctly, but confused and imprecise.
The white screen represents what we call “understanding”, the knowledge of “what-we-are” and “what-is-beneath-reality”. I am not my feelings, my thoughts, my perceptions. If we identify ourselves with things, objects, thoughts, emotions, or perceptions, we risk no longer understanding the substance (sub-stantia, what stays under, under-stands) of reality.
Shortly, if Self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, the identification of the Self with things, objects, thoughts, emotions or perceptions is the beginning of ignorance.
Understanding and wisdom are not something that we achieve. It is already and has always been present. We need only to get out of the bottle of our perceptions, emotions, and thoughts, even from the image we have of ourselves (person, mask) to let “our” water (“finite” form) be “one” with that of the ocean (“infinite” form). By way of trans-formation, conversion, resurrection.
Christmas celebrates the gratitude of our true nature, our being in the infinite (God), and becoming aware of the sapiential experience of transformation that takes place in us any time we let things go and focus on the essential. “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened” (Lk 2:15). What is this thing that has happened? What is the place where the Son of God is born? That place is “in” us, not “outside” of us.
Christmas celebrates our birth into the light, the passage from ignorance to the understanding of “what I am”, letting go of the “little” ego to the greater “Self” of my deep identity that comprehends and embraces all things in the silence of the mind. “While a profound silence enveloped all things, and the night was in the middle of its rapid course” (Wis 18:14).
“So, you must be silent.
Then God will be born in you,
utter his word in you and you shall hear it;
but be very sure that if you speak,
the word will have to be silent.
If you go out,
he will most surely come in;
as much as you go out for him
He will come into you; no more, no less….
When shall we find and know,
this birth of God within us?
Only when we concentrate
all our faculties within us
and direct them all towards God.
Then he will be born in us
and make himself our very own.
He will give himself to us as our own,
more completely ours than anything
we have ever called our own.
“A child is born to us, and a son is given to us.”
He is ours.
He is all our own, more truly ours than anything else we own,
and constantly, ceaselessly, he is born in us.
Johann Tauler (1300 – 1361), disciple of Meister Eckhart
I was born in 1960, in a small town in Northern Italy, Ravenna, which had been the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 6th century. Today it is an amazing, artistic Byzantine town, full of history and cultural heritage, and an important center for European and international meetings. During my youth, I used to go around downtown and stop foreign tourists visiting Ravenna so that I could encounter diverse people and new cultures and learn foreign languages. That xenophilia led me at the age of 16 to apply for an exchange program, AFS (American Field Service), and I spent one school year in Severna Park, Maryland, attending the local High School and living with an American family.
This desire for knowing new cultures and new human frontiers led me to join the Jesuits in 1983, and since then I have been a member of this Catholic religious order. My academic formation was mostly spent in Europe: Milan, where I got my Master of Philosophy (laurea in filosofia); Naples, where I acquired a Master in Divinity (baccalaureato in Teologia); Germany, where I received my Doctorate (PhD) in Sacred Theology at the Jesuit School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt.
A few words of Pope Paul VI inspired my religious vocation: “Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and exposed fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches, there has been or is confrontation between the burning exigencies of humanity and the perennial message of the Gospel, there have been and are the Jesuits.” Since my Master Degree work in philosophy at the Sacred Heart University in Milan, I have been interested in confronting my religious background with other faiths and human experiences. My need to be inquisitive about and critical of human and religious experiences led me to engage several of the ultimate existential questions. In dialogue with modernity, that is with philosophy and science, I am interested in the question of how to understand God’s action in the World and the problem of evil. Since the time of my doctoral thesis I have been in dialogue with other Christians and with other religious traditions. Because of these experiential and intellectual concerns, I feel deeply involved and interested in pursuing a reassessment of what it means to be Christian and Catholic in a pluralistic and globalized world.
Areas of Inquiry and Publications
Catholic theology is usually divided into several fields: biblical studies, church history, canon law, ethics, pastoral theology, comparative theology and systematics. Systematics draws its method both from philosophy and hermeneutics, and from biblical studies and religious studies, and it is usually the largest branch of theology. Systematic theology is also very much interested in asking and answering the so-called “big” or “great” questions, such as: Does the universe have an ultimate origin and goal? What does it mean to be human? What is good and evil? How do we do good? Why do we often fail? Systematic theology also applies its method to specific subjects: Who is Jesus? Who or What is God? Who and What is Spirit? What is Human? How is God related to the world and humanity? What is the Church? My specialty is systematics, particularly as influenced by philosophy and comparative theology of religions. Within systematics, I have done research and teaching in Christology, Trinitarian Theology, Ecumenical Theology (study of other Christian churches) and Comparative Theology of Religions.
It has been a constant in my intellectual formation to integrate reflection with experience. I have been working since 1985 in the Ecumenical movement, especially with Anglicans and Lutherans. As a journalist for the Catholic Journal La Civiltà Cattolica, I attended the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in Canterbury, England in 1988, 1998 and 2008. I also spent periods of time visiting countries with Hindu (India, 1999) and Muslim (Egypt, 2001 and 2004) majorities in order to have a direct experience with these religious traditions and reflect upon them in my research. My pastoral activity as a priest and director of Spiritual Exercises has helped me to listen to the longing of many men and women, within the church and in the broader society, for a deeper spirituality and a renewed sense of the Mystery.
Because of this integration between reflection and experience, I have undertaken new paths of research in systematic theology. In 2005 I published a book on Christology (in Italian), This Jesus. Thinking the singularity of Jesus Christ, which received a wide appreciation and attention in many book reviews (Biblical Theology, New Testament Abstracts, La Civiltà Cattolica, Recherches de Sciences Religieuses, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, Rassegna di Teologia), and in a daily newspaper (“La Repubblica”). The Lateran University in Rome hosted a public presentation of my book (02/27/2007), held by the former Archbishop of Milan and biblical scholar, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, who praised “the comprehensiveness,” “the incisiveness,” and “the theological insightfulness” of my work. Many teachers of Christology in Italian theological faculties use this book as their required textbook: at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Naples, the Theological Faculty of Apulia, and the Theological Institute of Ancona.
In this book, as in other articles and essays on Christology, published in peer reviewed journals of high academic level (Irish Theological Quarterly, ET-Studies, Transversalités, La Scuola Cattolica, Rassegna di Teologia), I explore new approaches to Christology. I have been developing a post-conciliar and relational paradigm to understand the mystery of God. I am interested in the quest for the historical Jesus, especially on retrieving the Jewishness of Jesus. I like to engage in challenging discussions with scholars, both believers and not, on issues related to the resurrection of Jesus and his divinity. One recent example of such publications is: “Dogmatics under Construction. The Challenges from the Jesus Quest for Dogmatic Theology.” (2015). Detailed reference to this and other publications cited in this narrative can be found in my CV.
In 2007 I published in Italian a book on the Doctrine of the Trinity (A Relational God) which approaches the Mystery of God, by inquiring about the Humanity of God in a relational paradigm. This book has received a wide appreciation and attention in many book reviews (Gregorianum, Archivio Teologico Torinese, Euntes Docete). Many who teach the Doctrine of the Trinity in Italian theological faculties use this book as their required textbook: the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Naples, the Theological Faculty of Apulia and the Theological Institute of Ancona.
As a scholarly reflection on my Ecumenical engagement, I have published many articles (both in Italian and English in peer-reviewed journals (Irish Theological Quarterly, One in Christ, Rassegna di Teologia) on several ecclesiological and ecumenical issues. One of the most controversial issues in today’s ecumenical debate is the question of “subsistit,” of how the Catholic church relates to the other Christian denominations.
I apply Comparative theology to the study of Christology, in dealing with the question of the preexistence of Jesus Christ from a Jewish and a Muslim perspective. I am rethinking the major categories of Christology and the Doctrine of the Trinity, like that of “essence” and “person” in dialogue with Asian religions.
The cultural exchange between West and East has influenced not only my research on Christology and the Doctrine of God, but it also triggered in me a new interest in looking at the connection between spirituality, theology and anthropology. First, I revisited the concept of human freedom and the question of evil. On this topic, I published an article in a peer-reviewed journal (Filosofia e Teologia) and four essays in other academic theological publications. Next, I addressed the concept of human body vis-à-vis the mystery of incarnation and sexuality. I have two publications on this topic, one as an article appeared in a peer-reviewed journal (Filosofia e teologia, 2005), “Caro cardo salutis. L’incarnazione come dono di trascendenza,” and an essay published by the title: “Caro Cara. La grazia del corpo. Per una grammatica cristiana della carne” (2007). In a series of articles and essays, published in Italian and German, I rethink new ways to envision Catholic identity in a multi-faith and globalized world, while facing the threats of both fundamentalism and indifference.
Most of these articles and essays have been revised and expanded versions of papers I gave at several International Congresses, from 2005 to 2017: at Centre Sévres (Paris, France); at the American Academy of Religion (Atlanta and Santa Clara University); at the European Academy of Religion (Bologna, Italy); at German Universities (Erfurt and Berlin); at Boston College, Loyola Marymount University, and Holy Cross College; At the Leuven Encounter in Systematic Theology in Leuven, Belgium; at the Italian Theological Association (Turin, Rome, Padova).
According to two contemporary theologians, Ewart Cousins and Leonard Swidler, a transformation of human consciousness has taken place on a global level. We may speak of “a second axial period.” Like the first axial period, mentioned by the philosopher Karl Jasper in the last century, this second period is happening simultaneously in various parts of the planet and is shaping the transcendental paradigm of human consciousness due to the greater interchange between cultures and religions, chiefly through the media and mass migration. As a consequence of this “Age shift,” religions are tempted either to deny each other (fundamentalism) or to impose one above the other (exclusivism-inclusivism). A new way of thinking about the religious experience is necessary; retrieving their nature (“re-ligio” is a Latin word which means to “connect”), religions are learning to relate to each other through a process of mutual understanding, changing their own way of considering the others’ religions, if necessary, and appreciating the values of the others.
I am realizing that former paradigms of theological thinking are outdated and a shift is needed towards a “relational” and “non-dual” approach to reality. By “relational” I mean an idea of being (ontology), in which the whole reality is comprehended as a bundle of “relations” and not of “substances” (self-closed monads). As quantum physics and the evolutionary concept of “emergence” state, the core of reality is intrinsically “relatedness.” By “non-dual” I mean an understanding of thinking (epistemology) that goes beyond the “subject-object” duality. Such a major shift in ontology and epistemology requires a different understanding of systematic theology.
I have already tackled this paradigm shift in a few of my essays and articles, including a 2005 essay “Relational Ontology and Mystical experience” whose ideas were further developed in a 2015 article, “Outlines for a non-theistic foundation of Christian faith".
In the immediate future, I intend to work on a publication which elaborates a theory of theology, shaped by the logic of the Trinitarian idea of God, as “three-in-one,” i.e. as a non-dual paradigm which avoids blurring differences together into an undifferentiated and nebulous monism. For my future research in Christology, it is my goal to publish an English edition of my Italian book on Jesus, by expanding its horizon towards Trinitarian theology and comparative theology, taking advantage of the in-depth study I did on the preexistence of the Word in Judaism and Islam, and on the idea of incarnation in Mahayana Buddhism (Doctrine of the Trikaya Buddha).
The framework I intend to develop for my future research is what can be called a Post-theistic approach to Christian faith. It is an attempt to move beyond the traditional categories of classical theism. Such paradigm shift does not engage only theology but also spirituality, and finally how traditional Christian churches exercise their pastoral ministry and elaborate their liturgies. This transformative vision of the Christian faith has brought me, in these past fifteen years, to offer Contemplative Retreats where elements from Eastern and Western Spirituality are connected together; at the same time, theological workshops for adults to help them articulate their faith-vision with the new scientific world-view which is not more the Biblical one.
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