BIA Benedict XVI Institute for Africa
Agbaw Ebai

Agbaw Ebai Ashley

Catholicism and Irrational Public Power

The Gospel of John opens with the enigmatic faith of the community of the beloved disciple: “In the beginning was the word.” (John 1:1). Catholic exegesis has often interpreted these terse words of John’s gospel in the light of the Genesis account of creation, in which the creative Word of YHWH brought forth order out of the chaos of primeval history. Perhaps, in the context of the crises of public display of might as power, governance as willfulness, and politics as the absolutism and totalitarianism of the strong, noticeable the world over, the author of the fourth gospel might very well have some lessons to offer Catholic politicians and all men and women of goodwill.

In choosing to begin his gospel with the word, – otherwise translated logos or reason, John was not simply engaging in a pleasantry of Hellenistic semantic accommodation of political correctness. He was making a profound statement about God, about human beings, and most importantly, about human relations in the world, the domain of social constructs and political activity. It was not simply acquiescence to the God of Greek philosophy. It was a definite hermeneutic that marked the liberation of the human being from a dull, boring and crippling obscurantism of a faith that was terrorizing and suffocating. John’s Prologue was therefore a fundamental statement about the primacy of reason in the community of humankind. It was also much more!

It was a breaking forth of the limits of rationality, opening up a widened horizon in which the sustainable foundations of reason, of the human capacity to act rightly, was grounded on the stable foundation of a rational God, God’s eternal Son, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. John’s Prologue meant that rationality was the natural product of the incarnation, and the path to all human endeavors, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Consequently, the Catholic political tradition has consistently understood politics as a reasonable act, motivated by a rational discernment process, faced with the choice of between good and evil, with the common good as the greatest goal. Catholicism could not assent to the fluidity advocated by the types of Friedrich Nietzsche, his forebears and his descendants, for whom there was no stable ground for acting morally and justly. The underlying force driving all human activity to Nietzsche is the human will, understood in the sense of positivism and voluntarism: a will to power, a will for freedom and the domination over all other things and persons. Ever-shifting and struggling wills mean openness to different perspectives, Nietzsche argues.

Perhaps Nietzsche might have had it right when he pointed out in Beyond Good and Evil that because language has this tendency toward fixity, it expresses the world in terms of facts spoken definitively. What Nietzsche and his radical atheistic secular successors might have overlooked is that the spoken word, reason, is the fundamental cross-cultural faculty that makes human interaction and communicability possible, in the very first place. Without the commonality of reason, a man from Mamfe might never engage in a meaningful dialogue with another from South Korea, even after learning the Korean language! It is therefore not a question of a stable dogmatism, but an experience of the basic spectrum of interactability, of human and social cohesion. The question could be narrowed to a single point: between John and Nietzsche, who offers a more compelling account of human socio-political activity? A nuanced response might be appropriate.

However, that John’s gospel encapsulates and speaks the last word of God in the incarnation of the Logos has many implications for Catholics involved in political activity. It demands a consistent attempt to act reasonably, because to act otherwise is contrary to the nature of God, as Ratzinger argued in his most-insightful lecture in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg, on Tuesday, 12 September 2006. To act reasonably, likewise challenges the Catholic politician to refrain from all forms of threats, exploitation and intimidation, for, to cite Ratzinger at Regensburg once more, “to convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or any other means of threatening a person with death” (#13). Acting reasonably, also invites the Catholic politician to challenge the deafness to the divine that is ubiquitous in many political circles in the post-modern Western world. In the final analysis, acting reasonably is to keep the interior window of one’s life open to the fresh breeze of God, that enlightens the mind and leads the heart to discover in the art of politics and governance the great good of God, of peace, of justice, and above all, of truth! These are the lessons John’s Prologue of Reason teaches the Catholic of today, lessons critical and crucial for State and Church.