Anthropological relevance of reconciliation

The term reconciliation offers a splendid insight into our relational character as humans. Reconciliation always presupposes a preceding relational rupture.

It is well known that contemporary philosophical reflection, thanks above all to personalism, has widely re-evaluated the notion of relationship, putting it in connection with that of identity and thus making a decisive contribution to overcoming interpretations of identity uncritically based on modern individualism and subjectivism, which understandably struggled to account for the anthropological relevance of reconciliation.

That is why we must first of all focus on this decisive aspect of relationships.

Only in the light of the intimate connection between relationship and identity will it be clear that reconciliation, insofar as it re-establishes relationships that were previously interrupted, is by no means a secondary element, a simple “making peace” with others and with God, but touches, on the contrary, our deepest identity as humans. Reconciliation is about our very being.

The human being is a structurally related being, in the sense that the human is constituted as a man and as a woman precisely from and thanks to the network of relationships in which that person is concretely inserted. And that has been the case since the beginning of each individual’s life. The human person is, in fact, not only from a biological point of view, but also from a social and anthropological one, the result of a relationship between a man and a woman. Any sons and daughters are almost the embodiment of their relationship. Human beings do not bring about their own existence but emerge from the relationship that unites their parents. And this filial relationship between parents and children involves masculinity or femininity, which are therefore not only a biological and cultural fact, but also anthropological, precisely because they indicate, with the language of the body, a structural being in relationship with and for someone. This is something every human experiences.



And it is highly significant that the terms used to assert the identity of each new human being are all terms whose meaning is semantically structured by relationality, starting with the most fundamental one of son and daughter: in fact, we use the terms son and daughter always and only in relation to a father and a mother, terms that in turn are relational.

Indeed, the personal name itself, which establishes the irreducible identity of the son and daughter as distinct from all other members of the family and society, is a name that is given by others, by the parents. And it is precisely this name, by which others call him or her and by which he or she is called to relate with them, that will allow the sons and daughters to become aware of themselves and their uniqueness. Being called therefore depends on the possibility of the son and daughter giving expression to their own identity, which is not only social, but also exclusively personal. If a child can say “I,” this is done not from a solipsistic Cartesian gaze, but only because others call him or her by name.

The important question of the name is at the same time also an indicator of the wider and more complex phenomenon of language, which defines the most proper dimension of the human being, the symbolic one, through which, since prehistory, the human being has related to reality in an absolutely original way compared to other living beings. On the other hand, one never uses language – which is itself a structure of signs – except within relationships that extend from the family to society, which form in turn a dense and complex network of relationships.[1]

Finally, it should not be forgotten that all the relationships that make up the human being are contextually dynamic complex realities, and therefore subject to continuous challenges, changes, tensions, progresses or regressions, and to the possibility of breakages and failures that may prove definitive.

What we have said allows us to state that when relational breaks and failures occur, they fundamentally affect the personal and social identity of those involved in different ways, depending on the importance and depth of the relationships at stake. Therefore, the theme of reconciliation is vital for the human being, precisely because it depends on the identity of each person, on whether or not he or she can be recognized by others, and also by himself or herself.

A postmodern liquid questioning of the relationship?

At first glance, this fundamental enhancement of the relational dimension of human identity today would seem to be radically questioned by what, starting with the well-known sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, is usually called “the postmodern liquid society.” According to this, in fact, we are witnessing a rapid weakening of relationships, even those traditionally considered to be the most fundamental, the sexual ones. They are reduced to moments of rapid emotional consumption, so that they follow one another frantically, according to the “disposable” mode of the consumer society, of which they are a significant expression.

This inevitably affects the identity of the person, who in this context ends up taking on ever weaker and more fluid contours. This is a process largely favored also by the porosity of the boundaries between the real and the virtual that the explosion of the new means of communication has objectively provoked, to the point of encouraging a mimetic game of playing roles, which can sometimes take on pathological dimensions. This phenomenon affects individuals’ relationships and their relationship with personal and social identity, so much so that traditional relationships are perceived as socially problematic, as they are characterized by stability and immutability that hinder the postmodern game of playing roles.

In reality, if it affects individual relationships, playing roles does not affect at all what we could define as the “relationality” of the human being, that is, our being ontologically constituted by relationships. On the contrary, it highlights it even more, expanding it in a perspective that tends to be infinite. In fact, the frenetic postmodern liquifying of identities is proof that, without relationships, the human being is destined – both socially and individually – to anthropological death, which arises from the fear of remaining without any relationship, in total solitude.

And it is precisely due to the fear of this anthropological death that we can trace the typically postmodern anxiety. This is linked to psychic fatigue that the playing of roles in today’s fluid society seems to impose more and more on social actors. It thus allows the ontologically relational dimension of human identity to emerge.

All this cannot but affect reconciliation, in the sense that, if fluid relations and identities would seem on the one hand to weaken the need for reconciliation, since the rupture of relations becomes the very condition of their anxiety-ridden consumption; on the other hand, it is precisely the frantic postmodern search for identity that makes it possible to situate reconciliation at its deepest level: the level of the human being’s very relationality, with its basically infinite character, which continues to make the heart restless, constantly threatened as it is by anthropological death.

This is affirmed in anticipation of a better understanding of the consequences that the current crisis of the consumerist model of society, based on the false assumption of unlimited growth, will inevitably also have on the relationship between identity and relationships.[2]

Covenant with God, foundation of the relationship

If one adopts the perspective of the human being’s ability to relate, it is highly significant that the Old Testament largely privileges the category of covenant to express the human being’s relationship with God. It is a reality that goes beyond the cultural conditioning within which it came to light and on which depend the categories that in the Jewish Scriptures most directly express reconciliation with God. These are the categories of expiation and remission of sins, which are present in Leviticus and in the Priestly document.

Even simple recourse to the covenant shows how a relationship with God has to do with our nature of relating, which, on the anthropological level, establishes the complex identity of every man and every woman. In this perspective, the relationship with God appears as the ultimate foundation of such a relating nature, which, not by chance, tends to be infinite. It is a foundation characterized by an essential gratuitousness. The initiative of the covenant, in fact, is always and only in God’s hands. God proposes it, not out of regard for humanity and our true or presumed merits, but only out of fidelity to himself.

In this relational gratuitousness, in which all human action becomes a grateful response to a divine love that is both prior and fundamental, the human being can find the ultimate guarantee that allows relationships to be considered reliable, so as to be able to navigate the problematic, sometimes dramatic, concrete relational events with which life is interwoven.

But like any other relationship, the one with God is in turn under tension and also runs the risk of breakage and failure. After all, the whole of the Old Testament is nothing more than the account of the troubled events linked to this fundamental relationship, from which, however, the gratuitousness of God’s love and his fidelity in all trials always emerge.

It should be noted immediately that the rupture of the relationship with God does not only affect one dimension among the others, that is, the religious dimension – as a sociological focus on the religious phenomenon might suggest – but it hurts the very relational capacity of the human being, that is, a person’s power and willingness to enter a relational network: a power and a will that constitute the ontological dimension of personal and social identity.

In this context, it becomes highly significant that Gen 3, the classic text on the breaking of the relationship with God, speaks of it by making explicit reference to the most anthropologically significant relationship, that between man and woman. Already in Gen 1-2 being created in the image and likeness of God is closely associated with being male and female, to the point of expressing, precisely in their being one flesh, the One being of God, confessed in the Shema Israel.[3]

This matrimonial symbolism is also closely linked to the theme of the covenant, since, as contemporary exegesis teaches us, the whole story of Gen 2:4b-3:24 has its roots precisely in the wedding interpretation of the covenant between God and Israel expressed by the prophets. The dramatic events of this alliance, culminating in the exile in Babylon, are here universalized and projected by the sapiential tradition into the primordial alliance of humanity with the Creator, in critical dialogue with the Mesopotamian culture of the time.[4]

In this way, the relationship with God and the relationship between man and woman are closely linked. The breaking of the covenant with God has deeply wounded the first and fundamental relationship that makes the human being the image and likeness of God, that is, the marriage relationship; and it has produced inevitable repercussions on broader family and social relationships, as appears in the subsequent account in Genesis.

Therefore, in Israel, monogamous marriage does not take place in the social context, in which, on the contrary, it is rather problematic, as can be attested not only by the polygamy of the patriarchs, but also by the much later case of Elkanah, the bigamist father of the prophet Samuel (cf. 1 Sam 1:1-8), not to mention the kings, starting with David. The slow perception of the value of monogamous marriage, which tends to be indissoluble, takes place in close correlation with the prophetic challenge of idolatry and with the emergence of the dramatic and indissoluble fidelity of God to the covenant with his unfaithful people. This will culminate in the prophetic announcement of the new covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but its social effects will not be automatic, as witnessed by the dissolubility of the monogamous marriage admitted by Deut 24:1-4.

A triadic relationship severely compromised by idolatry

Now, entering more directly into the account of Gen 3, we can see how, eating of the tree of good and evil, symbol of the wisdom that is born of the Torah, the woman, a figure of the unfaithful people, makes herself the foundation of the relationship, attributing to herself what belongs only to God, the only true origin of good and life (cf. Gen 3:6). The rupture arises here from having listened to the serpent’s false deception of the woman being able to be God (cf. Gen 3:1-5). By giving the fruit to the man, the woman therefore presents herself to him as the origin of the Law, and therefore a substitute for God, that is, an idol.

For his part, eating the fruit offered to him without objecting, the man stupidly assigns to the woman this false divine status, making her his idol and losing in this way wisdom, as happened to old Solomon, who was the remote cause of the Babylonian exile and whose figure seems to echo here in Adam.

If then before the Fall man received from the hands of God, in an ecstatic sleep, the woman, with ecstatic and grateful wonder for her beauty, almost to involve God himself in his falling in love (cf. Gen 2:21-23), now man’s desire to become god has actually reduced the woman, masterpiece of creation, to become the prey and object of his concupiscence and of his violent male power (cf. Gen 3:16). The rupture of the relationship with God has therefore induced man and woman to become gods to each other, relegating to oblivion the fact that they have both received each other from God and thus attributing to each other illusory divine prerogatives that in reality they have never enjoyed.

Soon they will discover how, deprived of that fullness of life without end that comes from God alone, their relationship becomes idolatrous, falsely attributing to themselves and to each other the foundation of their relationship, whose integrity is so seriously compromised. In this idolatrous relationship the other, no longer perceived as a gift from God, becomes in fact only a prey and is in turn perceived as a predator from whom there is a need to defend yourself, firstly by protecting your body from indiscreet exposure, because it is placed under the concupiscent and instrumentalizing gaze of the other (cf. Gen 3:7).

The only thing that reigns unchallenged here is the obsessive fear of losing oneself, that is, the anthropological fear of death that finds its true origin in the rupture of the relationship with God. The loss of the reference to God, the only guarantor of the reliability of a relationship that, as such, never fails, now makes it impossible to give oneself to another openly and freely for what he or she really is, with the positive aspects and the limitations. Seen in this light, the frenetic postmodern hunt for identity reveals its most subtle idolatrous dimension, at least to the extent that, precisely through this hunt, the individual only aims to nurture the dominion of narcissism over oneself and over others.

Yet, despite everything, the woman will retain her crucial role in the divine plan. She herself will become the repository of a promise of salvation and, as Eve, will be the mother of all the living, demonstrating that sin could not take possession of life (cf. Gen 3:15, 20). Precisely to prevent this disastrous eventuality, the progenitors are driven out of Eden (cf. Gen 3:22-24). This is a clear allusion to exile, which will become a new exodus, and to the promise of the new covenant, which will nourish the hope of the exiles and renew the faith of Israel.

Reconciliation is already announced at the moment of the breaking of the alliance, allowing us to glimpse its effects on the relationship between men and women, which in the meantime has become a privileged symbol of the alliance itself. This reconciliation can only take place by virtue of God’s gratuitous fidelity to the covenant, behind which one can glimpse God’s fidelity to his creation. Reconciliation thus ends up taking on a structurally triadic dimension.

Jesus, a surprising fulfillment

Turning to the New Testament, one cannot help but be struck by the fact that in it the notion of an alliance loses the centrality it had in the Old Testament. Now at the center of the scene there is no longer the God of the covenant, but the Father, whose kingdom Jesus announces: a kingdom that often has explicitly nuptial characteristics, as emerges from the banquets and from parables, in which however the Bridegroom of Israel is no longer God, but Jesus himself.

We then notice how the term “Father,” which in the New Testament, with a few exceptions, becomes synonymous with God,[5] is a term that possesses an even more radically relational dimension than that of a covenant. To affirm that God is Father means, in fact, to say that putting oneself in relationship is part of the very being of God, as the dogmatic and theological tradition later will sustain when it speaks of the Son as homoousios (of the same substance) of the Father, and of the subsisting relationship within the Trinity (the relatio subsistens of Saint Thomas).

Here it is revealed to us how our human relational ability has its roots in the very mystery of the One, Triune God. It is not surprising, then, that it is precisely the healing of relationships, that is, reconciliation, which is most dear to the Father. He is not just any father, but he is always and only the Father of Jesus, whose most important characteristic is a love that embraces the just and the unjust, and in which justice and mercy meet until they become one and the same (cf. Matt 5:43-48). Now Jesus announces and makes present in a nuptial way the kingdom of this Father, presenting himself, however, unlike the rabbis of his time, as celibate.

At this point it becomes decisive to understand well the exact meaning of this paradoxical celibacy of Jesus. First of all, it must be linked to the prophetic celibacy of Jeremiah, which has an explicitly nuptial character, for God imposed celibacy on the prophet to signify the barrenness of the initial covenant with Israel that He would have liked to have been fruitful. In this way Jeremiah carries, inscribed in the flesh of his celibate masculinity, the drama of the nuptial covenant with God that is about to break (cf. Jer 16:1-13), a parallel to what had previously happened with the problematic family life of Hosea.

In this perspective, the celibacy of Jesus must be connected above all to Israel and expresses well, like that of the prophet Jeremiah, the deep desire of God to place himself in a nuptial relationship with his people. But in Jesus it takes on different meanings from Jeremiah, because in his case it is a celibacy for the kingdom of the Father. Faithful to the prophetic tradition, for which the only true king of Israel is God, Jesus makes this kingship present through words and signs, but at the same time announces it as eschatological.

The celibate masculinity of Jesus therefore makes present the deep divine desire for communion with his people, and at the same time projects its full realization in an eschatological horizon. This prophetic and eschatological celibacy of Jesus is not, therefore, as is all too often claimed, an element of rupture with respect to the Jewish tradition.

However, in the Synoptics, and even more in John and Paul, Jesus is much more than a prophet: he is above all the Son of the Father. Therefore, his celibacy also has a deeply filial meaning. Jesus communicates, through his virginal masculinity, his being entirely from and of the Father (the Son begotten from the Father, the Council of Nicaea will say). In the case of Jesus, we are faced with a celibacy that is prophetically nuptial in relation to Israel and filial in relation to the Father. In it virginal masculinity expresses the divine desire for an eschatological nuptial fullness with Israel, and the Son takes the place of the Bridegroom, whose role in the prophetic tradition was reserved for God alone.

In this perspective, the proclamation of the Kingdom becomes for us the proclamation of the possibility of a fullness of relationship with God capable of healing all other relationships, first of all that between man and woman. If the rupture of the relationship with God has resulted in a substantially idolatrous relationship between man and woman, reconciliation with God, made possible by the Son and Spouse who became a “eunuch for the kingdom,” will reopen the road to the “beginning.” This is announced by Jesus himself in Matt 19:1-12, and will be achieved through his death and resurrection.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.

In these words of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed we recognize, expressed in a synthetic and normative way, the conviction of the Church that there is a very close relationship between the death of Jesus on the cross and reconciliation with God. This conviction will then be interpreted in various ways by theological tradition over the centuries.

In the light of what we have seen, we can affirm that the death of Jesus is salvific for us, because he lived it from the fullness of his filial relationship with the Father and with the deep desire to reopen the nuptial communion of God with humanity, that is, precisely through the two elements that are the basis of his virginal masculinity.

As for the fullness of Jesus’ filial relationship with the Father, we can say that it is a matter for the Son to verify, precisely in the dramatic clash with death, the reliability of his filial relationship, and therefore of paternal love. And precisely because it is a death marked by the human rupture of the relationship with God, the Son actually finds himself where we are, the place of sinners. Tradition has tried to express this through the concept of “vicarious substitution,” a concept taken up in various ways even by many contemporary theologians.[6]

This perspective finds in the cry of abandonment of Jesus on the cross (cf. Mark 15:34) its most concise and profound expression. Above all, we have Jesus being One with the Father recalling the Shema Israel. This happens precisely at the moment of Jesus’ maximum distance from the Father, in an occasion of abandonment lived in solidarity with love for humans, who voluntarily and sinfully withdrew from the Father, because they were seduced by the demonic lie.

Now, this very solidarity also affirms the radicality of the nuptial dimension of divine love for every human being, whether man or woman. On the wood of the cross the Son becomes, as a new Adam, one single flesh with humanity lost in the depths of evil, giving himself for us, to make humanity his Bride without spot or wrinkle, but holy and immaculate (cf. Eph 5:25-27).

Here we have the full realization of the kenotic movement, begun with the incarnation and suggestively defined by the Fathers as an admirabile commercium, or even  a commercium caritatis (Augustine). It is celebrated in the Eucharist, which is the memorial of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also a wedding banquet in which the new Adam gives his body and his blood, that is, all of himself, to his Bride, the new Eve, to form with her one flesh. In this way he can make his own, in full truth, the astonished words of the first Adam before the woman given him by God in the garden of Eden: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23).

Now the body of the Bride is called, through the repetition of the sacrament, to belong ever more deeply to the Bridegroom, so as to become ever better the body of Him. For the Christian, being in Christ therefore means sharing in his filial love for the Father, becoming ontologically “children in the Son,” to use another expression of the Fathers. And it means becoming more and more one with Him in a spousal way. This is not in the abstract, but within a new and concrete network of relationships, that of the Church, which is placed in the role of Bride for the Son, confirming the primacy of the female figure already contained in Gen 3:15. With respect to the Father, each one is in fact individually a son or daughter, and is so as a member of a body that belongs nuptially and eschatologically to the Bridegroom Son, thus conferring on reconciliation its essential ecclesial and social dimension, in which it finds the ultimate verification of its relational truth.

This primacy of femininity in human relations with God and the rediscovery of the centrality of the wedding metaphor, such that today “in this regard believers can experience what is called the progress of Revelation”[7] show that the reconciliation between man and woman passes through a reconsideration of masculinity and femininity. They should no longer be understood as two rigidly separated realities in a constant struggle for power, but as two relational polarities such that one can never be without the other.

This reveals how the rigid playing of roles in many traditional societies – including Christian ones – denounced by feminist culture and even earlier by the story of Gen 3, as well as the postmodern abandonment of sexual distinction, are in fact united by an identical experience of the relationship with God. In this way, precisely in their mutual opposition, they present themselves as “crazy truths” (Chesterton), whose respective demands can only find their proper place if they are re-thought and lived on the basis of the rediscovered reliability of the relationality that God has given us in the new Adam.

Waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom

Throughout history, the memorial of the wedding is continually repeated by the Bride waiting for the coming of the Bridegroom. This is because, in the time of the Church, being the ecclesial body of Christ, it must be continually rebuilt, fighting against the forces of evil that tend to break up this new network of reconciled relationships born of the death and resurrection of the new Adam. This reconciliation will only find its full completion with the Parousia, which will not destroy, but will transform the flesh with the power of the Spirit, as has already happened in the male body of the risen Son, a body that has preserved its filial and prophetically nuptial masculinity, thus showing that “the sexual identity of the person is not a cultural or social construction: it belongs to the specific way in which the imago Dei exists,”[8] which extends into eternity, where the risen Son “remains a man” and his Mother “continues to be a woman.”[9]

And if the resurrection from the dead of the Son and the ascension into heaven of the Mother have already definitively realized the filial and maternal dimensions respectively of their sexual identity, we cannot say the same of their prophetically nuptial dimension, since it is defined in close relation with the new Eve, figure of redeemed humanity.

Human corporality with its masculinity and femininity, is therefore the cornerstone of salvation (caro cardo salutis.)[10] It refers to that relationship which is a constitutive part of the mystery itself of that God who can affirm his being One only on the basis of the distinction of the three divine Persons. The whole history of salvation originated from him and will only be fully realized when, in the Spirit, the whole body of the Bride is transformed in the power of the Spirit.

Only then, in fact, when evil and death are defeated forever, may a definitive reconciliation come to all our relationships that have often been deeply wounded along the rough path of history,  first and foremost the relationship of man and woman. Only at that moment will all relationships be finally preserved in the intimacy of una caro, who will bind together, indissolubly and forever, the new Adam and the new Eve, to the glory of God the Father.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 3, no. 9, art. 3, 2019: 10.32009/22072446.1909.3

[1] Cf. P. P. Donati, Sociologia della relazione, Bologna, il Mulino, 2013.

[2] Cf. S. Latouche, Come si esce dalla società dei consumi. Corsi e percorsi della decrescita, Turin, Bollati Boringhieri, 2011.

[3] This fundamental link between Gen 2:24 and the Shema Israel is sharply highlighted by G. Berheim, “Matrimonio omosessuale: ciò che spesso si dimentica di dire” in Il Regno/Documenti 2013, No. 1, 63. The author was Grand Rabbi of France when he wrote this text as a contribution to the public debate on the controversial French law.

[4] Cf. G. Castello, “Il racconto delle origini” in Rassegna di Teologia 53 (2012) 17-28; Id., Genesi 1-11. Introduzione e commento alla  storia delle origini, Trapani, Il Pozzo di Giacobbe, 2013, 25-45.

[5] Cf. K. Rahner, “‘Theos’ in the New Testament” in Id., Saggi teologici, Rome, Pauline, 1965, 497-585.

[6] We can recall here, in the Protestant tradition K. Barth and J. Moltmann; in the Catholic tradition, G. Martelet and, above all, H. U. von Balthasar and N. Hoffmann.

[7] G. Mazzanti, Uomo e donna. Mistero grande, Cinisello Balsamo (Mi), San Paolo, 2013.

[8] Cf. International Theological Commission, Communion and Service. The human person created in the image of God (2005), No. 32.

[9] Ibid. No. 35.

[10] Cf. Tertullian, De resurrectione carnis VIII, 2: CCL, 2, 931.