Christianity Is an Event
Starting with this month’s edition, Traces will be publishing
a series of interviews with outstanding personalities of international culture,
about themselves and have something to communicate. The first of these interviews
is with Pietro Citati, writer, historian and intellectual whose wide-ranging
interests include Islam, Judaism, Christianity, tradition, law, mercy, and Catholicism
edited by Luca Doninelli
This conversation takes its cue from Citati’s book, Israele e l’Islam.
Le scintille di Dio [Israel and Islam. The sparks of God], published by Mondadori,
275 pp. However, it’s history began in 1987, when the Italian weekly Il
Sabato asked me to interview Citati regarding his book on Kafka, which had just
been published by Rizzoli. In that book, Citati stressed the religious dimension
in Kafka’s work and, partly for that reason and partly because we liked
Kafka a lot (and we still do), we had the idea of organizing a meeting in Milan
with Citati on the great writer from Prague, a meeting which eventually took
place at Milan State University. The simplicity and the attention of those present,
the acuteness of the questions, the naïve boldness of the youngsters filling
the hall so impressed Citati, that he tells me he would very much like to repeat
that meeting today. (For my part, as I entered the lounge of the Citati’s
house, I remembered it well, after sixteen years; it was he who asked to read
my short stories and encouraged me to publish them. However, in these matters
there are no debts. As Betocchi said, “it’s life that counts.”)
In your book, I sense a difference between the tone in the pages dedicated to
the history of Israel and that in those about the Islamic myths. In the former
there is more history, and in the latter more literature. Is this perhaps the
difference between the God of Abraham and the God of Mohammed?
What you say is partly true, but only partly, because first of all Allah is a
new Yahweh: there’s the same ardent monotheism, the same tremendum, and,
at the same time, the same gentleness, the same mercy–especially in Allah.
There is the same distance, too. Both Yahweh and Allah are gods at the same time
very far away and very near. Allah says, “I am nearer to you than your
jugular vein.” In short, in these two religions there is a repetition of
the way of inventing the sacred. The great difference lies mainly in what you
said, in the fact that Islam produces a quantity of mythical imagination unknown
in the Hebrew religion.
Why is this? After all they are similar peoples, living in not very different
There are two reasons for this. The first is that for the Bible there is only
one creation: the first man is Adam, and then comes Sin, then the expulsion from
the Earthly Paradise. For Islam, on the contrary, there is a people that lives
in the stars; it is androgynous and Islamic, since Mohammed went up there to
them to convert them. As for the human and sinful world here below, here, too,
there are two kingdoms: that of Adam and that of Solomon, which is the kingdom
of absolute fantasy. These two worlds intertwine. The Thousand and One Nights
is not an obscene book, as stupid Muslims sustain today, but an esoteric book,
in which the religious side becomes more and more fantastic.
I insist, though, that the Bible is a book written by men, a history in which
God is the protagonist, whereas the Koran is a book that has God as its author,
and does not recount a historical event. This makes Islamic monotheism more absolute
than the Hebrew version.
Yes, the Koran follows an analogical line, not a historical one. And it’s
true that its monotheism is the most absolute of all, more than the Hebrew version
(which includes not only Scripture but also the Kabbalah, for example, which
is full of divine and diabolical emanations) and the Christian version, which
is the least rigid of the three, since the very conception of God as Trinity
includes an infinite number of relationships between the three Persons.
In your view, what is the meaning of the word “mercy,” which
as an attribute of God in both religions?
Today there are more modern words that have taken the place of “mercy”–compassion,
for example, which means a loss of oneself in the pain of others. But mercy is
much more because, unlike compassion, it implies a judgment. There is no mercy
without judgment. To Ibrahim, who asks how it is that His mercy allows him to
sin, Allah replies, “If all men were innocent, on whom would I bestow my
Grace?” In man, justice and forgiveness cannot go together; one is either
just or forgiving. God, instead, is just and forgiving at the same time, and
this is mercy.
It can’t be said that what we see these days reflects this image.
An Egyptian boy once told me that he could no longer be a Muslim because he is
fond of wine…
This happens because Islam (and current Catholic thought, for that matter) has
completely lost its self-awareness. Today, Muslims know practically nothing about
their religion. A sect that has always been in the minority and despised by Islam
enjoys great consensus today–people for whom not drinking alcohol matters
more than the relationship with God.
And what about Christianity?
It’s the same problem. What I have said applies to Christianity, too. Today,
Christians don’t even know the Gospels. The great tradition that began
with the Gospels, and passed through Origen, the Church Fathers, St Augustine,
Scholasticism, and the great mystics of the 15th–17th centuries, has been
almost completely interrupted. Catholic thought is reduced to a rehash of concepts
born in other contexts, from Heidegger to Lévinas, not to speak of Gadamer.
It is a “Gadamerized” Christianity. I think the reason for this phenomenon
lies in the fact that it is difficult to sustain a tradition, whereas it is easy
to simplify it. The Christian tradition is so rich that it is difficult to be
faithful to it, whereas it is easier to reduce it to the little formulas that
the priests repeat in Church.
In any case, if it is any consolation, though I think not, I can tell you for
certain that the Islamic tradition is even worse off. The great Islamic theologian,
Ibn Arabi, is proscribed, as is the great Sufi tradition. They have been sentenced
with real condemnations. The disasters we see today are a consequence of this
loss. Today, Islam is a series of ritual prescriptions, but its true nature is
quite different. The Islamic tradition is a tradition of faith and of Grace.
It would seem more a tradition of Law. The concept of Law has a decisive weight
in the Islamic world.
If you read the endless Islamic literary tradition, in the end you will agree
with me. Islam is faith and Grace. The loss of self-awareness lies at the origin
of all evils. I would add: self-awareness and awareness of others.
After three centuries of tolerance? After three centuries of égalité?
Shouldn’t the opposite have happened?
The true human attitude is not tolerance, but knowledge of who you are and of
who the others are. Tolerance is born of the conviction that your own traditions
and the traditions of others are harmful, and should not be known, but abolished–so
tolerance is violent.
In the third part of your book, called “The sparks of God,” you focus
your attention on great characters of Judaism, but on those at the margins of
Israel’s religious tradition: Joseph Roth, Hannah Arendt, Bruno Schulz,
Simone Weil. Why?
I think that these characters are not real saints, but figures who in some way
have to do with holiness. I’m not sure what they have in common. For that
matter, I wouldn’t even know what makes a saint a saint. An intense religious
experience perhaps? I would say it’s not enough. Relationship with God?
This is more probable. These characters of mine had a strong relationship with
God. Even Roth, for all his drunkenness, had this relationship. I don’t
know if they are saints; what is certain is that they are not secularists–that
is to say, they have nothing of the secularist blindness. Secularists are never
attractive. Arendt, Roth, Weil, and Schulz are great figures of modern Judaism.
The great modern Jews always sit astride more that one religion. Kafka practiced
various religious hypotheses, Roth was a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim all in
one, while Simone Weil was above all Christian.
Recently, you declared that you feel more Catholic as time goes on.
It’s what I would want. When I was young, I was a stupid secularist, too.
Today, I like Catholicism, I like its infinite multiplicity, the infinite wealth
of the relationships of reciprocity between the three Persons of the Trinity
and Mary, who practically doesn’t exist in the Gospels, and whom the power
of Christianity has made into a goddess. Finally, I like Catholicism for the
idea that God is reflected in the world. Think of extremely “popular” realities,
like the Neapolitan manger scene, with all its various characters, each one at
his trade: the shepherds with their dogs and sheep; the fishmonger; the lemon
vendor; the baker’s boy; someone dropping off to sleep; another there on
his knees, contemplating that Child. It is the blessing of all the forms of Creation.
This blessing exists only in Catholicism.
Yet I feel uncomfortable when I am called a “Catholic writer.” You
are either a writer or not.
It’s clear. These are stupid things. Or we begin to call “Catholic” writers
like Marcel Proust, who was much more catholic than many of today’s theologians,
who literally run away from Christianity. The fact is that, these days, “Christianity” is
mostly taken to mean ethics. The reduction of religion to ethics is a real catastrophe.
At the origin of Christianity we have thieves, a crime, anything but ethics!
In any case, ethics is so boring that, if it were just a matter of ethics, being
religious would not be worthwhile. Christianity is a religious event, but hardly
anyone says so these days.