For the Christian tradition, Christmas reminds us of the birth of Jesus, who is confessed in the Creed as “the only begotten Son of God.”
But the ongoing celebration of Christmas – year by year –also reminds us that the understanding of what we profess in the Creed is not yet complete.
The poet Pablo Neruda once wrote: “Being born is not enough. To be born again every day, we are born”. Being born for Jesus is not enough. To be born again every day and for every single creature, that is what is meant when we proclaim: “A child is born to us”.
If the Son of God is not going to be born in us, in our soul – and not only in the flesh in Bethlehem or Nazareth – in vain and null would the Son of God be laid in the manger.
But after centuries we have been repeating the Creed, we are still far away from the manger where Jesus has been laid. We are still at the margin of the manger. Being “one with the Father” or as the Creed says “consubstantial” is not something to be considered an exception or exclusivity, but as a gift God shares with all of us. Not only a child, a son has been born to us or for us, but most essentially “in us.”
Recognizing that Jesus is “the only son of God,” consubstantial of the Father, does not make this Jesus an exception, and outsider of the created order we live in, thus leaving us off from the mystery, at the margin of the manger.
Christmas reminds us that we too are children of God “begotten” from eternity in the same way it is said of Jesus of Nazareth. We all are sons of God. No less God than Jesus.
We are not at the margin of God’s divinity. We are laid in God’s divine manger. Paul reminds the church in Galatia that the same Spirit of Jesus is sent into our hearts to cry out “Abba, Father!”. And Paul consequently says: “So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then also an heir, through God.” (Gal 4:5).
All the so-called Christian “mysteries” proclaim this essential truth. Christmas is the celebration of who we are: we are the unborn, the only begotten son of God, true God from true God. As the prologue of John clearly states: “We are granted the power to become children of God, we who are born not from blood or human desire or human will, but from God.” (Jo 1:13)
Unfortunately, a narrow-minded understanding of the Trinitarian doctrine has “blocked” this amazing Good News and has laid us off from the Father’s bosom, at the margin of the manger.
We came to believe that Jesus’ divine sonship (according to God’s nature) is something “exclusive” to him, as if this divine consubstantiality, being one with God, being in the form of God, being equal with God, is something reserved only to Godself, a thing to be grasped, and not to be shared. But God’s very essence is “grace.” God’s very being is “being-with-us.”
Not only the crumbs that fall off the manger have been given to us, as if we were inserted into the Crèche setting but set aside as God’s adopted children.
We are sons of God, God’s “begotten” sons and daughters of God. In ancient Rome, we should be reminded that the “adopted” child is not less but more than being the “natural” or “biological” child. According to the Roman understanding of adoption, the true heir of the family was not the “natural” son or born “by blood”, but the one the paterfamilias, for example the emperor was choosing as His heir. “Being a son” means therefore “being heir” – as Paul says in the letter we have heard – “if a son then also an heir, through God,” and not by blood.
We are “children/sons of God,” since we share the same divine nature as Jesus does. The traditional distinction between “natural” son of God – Jesus – and “adopted” sons of God, being by “grace,” is missing the true point and the core of the Good News of the Gospel.
God is “grace.” If God by nature is grace, it follows that to be children of God by “one” with God. Being born not by blood but through God.
In his address to the Roman Curia, on Dec 22, Pope Francis has warned against “crystallizing the message of Jesus in a single, perennially valid form. Instead, its form must be capable of constantly changing, so that its substance can remain constantly the same.
True heresy consists not only in preaching another gospel (cf. Gal 1:9), as Saint Paul told us, but also in ceasing to translate its message into today’s languages and ways of thinking, which is precisely what the Apostle of the Gentiles did. To preserve means to keep alive and not to imprison the message of Christ.”
This is the Good News of Christmas. We are not at the “margin” of the “manger.” Our heart is the manger where the son of God is laid so that He may continuously be born in us. The best way to deepen this truth, in life, intelligence and in the church, is to imitate Mary who “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” In her flesh, Mary conceived Jesus after nine months. In her heart, Mary gave birth to the Son of God for all her life.
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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