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CeCSUR—An Italian Experiment in Contextual Theology


CeCSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences), in connection with the theology faculty of Italian Adventist University in Florence, Italy, celebrated its 15th anniversary this week with the presentation of the book Bioethics.[1] Its author, moral philosopher Luisella Battaglia of the University of Genoa, is a member of the Rome-based CNB (National Bioethics Committee) and the invited lecturer for the B.B. Beach[2] Lectures 2022. Regarding a recent trend in some Italian regions (Marche, Umbria, Abruzzo) of retreating and restricting the application of Law 194 (1978) on abortion, Battaglia recalled how the struggle for fourth-generation rights over the body, health, etc., needs to be defended to counter a trend that wants to turn history’s clock backward. But this defense of acquired individual rights must not lead us to reinforce anthropocentrism, which a defense of these rights unwittingly drags along with it.

In other words, one has to play on two fronts, on the one hand "claiming" those rights and on the other hand "broadening" them to other non-human subjects. Bioethics cannot be merely clinical and human-centered but rather must more broadly address the total life of the biosphere. The work of authors such as James Lovelock,[3] Carolyn Merchant,[4] Henry David Thoreau,[5] Jules Michelet,[6] Aldo Leopold,[7] Arne Naess[8] and Luisella Battaglia, addresses a necessary "Geo-ethics" and, following Stephen Toulmin[9] and Michel Serres,[10] proposes that an urgent a new covenant be established with nature.

Recalling the recent passing of Bruno Latour on September 9 (a defender and promoter of a cultural and political earth-centrality), Battaglia observed that bioethics was not actually born in the 1970s with the founding of the world's two first bioethics institutions: the Hastings Center in New York and the Kennedy Institute, Georgetown University in Washington. Nor was it begun with Rensselaer Van Potter’s book Bioethics.[11] It was actually born in the 1920s with Fritz Jahr, a German philosopher and plant-world psychologist. In 1927, he not only invented the word "bio-ethics"[12] but gave it the broad definition of all that is living, which today seems more than ever necessary to recapture. Moreover, adds Battaglia, this orientation to the whole-of-living was also an important part in the reflections of contemporary physician and theologian Albert Schweitzer.[13] It was Schweitzer, in the 1920s after first returning from his Gabon hospital in Lambaréné, who proposed—as the center of his cause—a defense of life in all its forms. Schweitzer is the perfect counterpoint to those with anthropocentric bias who want disjunction and hierarchy with the defense of human life considered more valuable, leaving respect for non-human forms of life as subordinate.

For the past 15 years, CeCSUR has been promoting, starting with Adventist identity, a close and honest dialogue with leading Italian authors from the fields of philosophy, anthropology, economics, psychoanalysis, medicine, sociology, art, and religion. The intention is to create an ever-widening space that promotes and makes possible responsible reflection in dialogue with contemporary culture. It’s a crossroads of environmental, social, and cultural phenomena. This is rapidly transforming the profile of families, communities, interpersonal relationships, and society itself. Such dialogue appears not only desirable but necessary and even imperative. The underlying motivation nurturing this initiative is to avoid the seemingly safe but counterproductive and sometimes self-defeating path of a religious apologetic afraid of losing its center. And it wants to avoid the equally easy path of a naive adaptation to given reality or simple, uncritical alignment with the fashions and cultural moods of our current world.

Over the years, our Florence Adventist faculty, on the magnificent campus of Villa Aurora, has been privileged to dialogue with Giacomo Marramao,[14] Elena Pulcini,[15] Carlo Ginzburg,[16] Adriana Cavarero,[17] Rosi Braidotti,[18] Roberto Esposito,[19] Carlo Galli,[20] Remo Bodei,[21] Gianni Vattimo,[22] Umberto Galimberti,[23] Massimo Recalcati,[24] Bruno Forte,[25] Jürgen Moltmann,[26] Eilert Herms,[27] Bernd Janowski,[28] Pierre Gisel[29] and Denis Müller,[30] among others. These discussions not only gave us Florentine Adventists a better understanding of the geographical and cultural area where we are called to work and witness, it also has positively altered the identity and image we had of ourselves. We could better visualize our strengths but also our weaknesses. And above all, it reminded us of the common good that we all—secular or religious—must promote and defend with diligence and enthusiasm.

A contextual theology, such as the one promoted by CeCSUR, has various registers, two of which are "perception" and "expression." The first is an "afferent" exercise that takes us from the world and reality toward faith. At this level, faith allows itself to be instructed by reality, i.e., from an external source. It rejects the spiritual solipsism that continually threatens it with the temptation to close in on itself. Faith treasures and transforms this reality. We come to faith in God not only through the revelation of his Word but also through his incarnation in the world. The second is an "efferent" exercise that takes us from faith to the world. At this level, faith confidently dares to articulate a word, a message for the world. It does not let itself be blocked, either by the uncertainty of not knowing everything or by the presumption of knowing everything. Theology is always "theologia viatorum"—theology on the road, on pilgrimage, happily stammering, confidently uncertain, estranged from and allergic to a synthetic and totalizing word. It is a conscious exercise of witnessing in the world, and in dialogue with the world that God has so loved and that is the focus of his care and attention. Theology is listening and speaking. It is neither certainty nor uncertainty but trust and relationship—the willingness to be together and converge, disagree, and argue in front of and with each other. It is commitment and vocation to bonding that welcomes but does not swallow—care and witness of a Word that attests but does not crush. It is persuasion, incoming and outgoing. It tries to persuade the other because it has already allowed itself to be persuaded by others, by the All-Other and by the others in whom the All-Other wonderfully embodies itself with confidence.

Theology in this dialogical vocation can no longer remain "ecclesiocentric" or even "bibliocentric." This does not mean that the church and the Bible are no longer necessary. They are central dimensions of faith. They are spaces that guarantee faith and must remain so. But not as centripetal dimensions, instead as centrifugal ministries. Church and Bible are transitive realities of service and witness on behalf of others, not ends in themselves. Predominant in this perspective is the idea of a faith in dialogue, of a faith in service to the kingdom of God that transcends, without breaking down, the denominational borders of churches. But by such overcoming it ennobles and makes them even more valid, as they then may be put in service to the "common good." This is expressed in the biblical kingdom of God metaphor, the load-bearing center of Jesus's message in the gospels, which we must recover and promote.

Notes & References:

[1] Luisella Battaglia, Bioethics, (Milan : Editrice Bibliografica, 2022)

[2] Bert Beverly Beach:

[3] James Lovelock, Gaia. A New Look At Life on Earth, (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

[4] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, And The Scientific Revolution, (San Francisco: Harperone, 1990)

[5] Henry David Thoreau, Life in the Woods, (London: Castle, 2007)

[6] Jules Michelet, La mer, (Paris: Hachette, 2012)

[7] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985)

[8] Arne Naess, The Ecology of Wisdom, (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010)

[9] Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology. Postmodern Science and Theology, (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1982).

[10] Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, (Dearborn : University of Michigan Press, 1995)

[11] Rensselaer Van Potter, Bioethics: Bridge to the Future, (Hoboken: Prentice Hall, 1971)

[12] Fritz Jahr, Bio-Ethik. Eine Umschau über die etischen Beziehungen des Menschen zu Tier und Pflanze, "Kosmos. Handweiser für Naturfreunde," vol. 24, 1927, pp. 2-4.

[13] Albert Schweitzer, Kultur und Ethik, (München: C. H. Beck, 1996)

[14] Giacomo Marramo, The Passage West. Philosophy After The Age of the Nation State, (London: Verso, 2012)

[15] Elena Pulcini, The Individual Without Passions. Modern Individualism and the Loss of the Social Bond, (New York: Lexington Books, 2012); Care of the World. Fear, Responsibility and Justice in the Global Age, (Berlin: Springer, 2013).

[16] Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and Traces. True False Fictive, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)

[17] Adriana Cavarero, Judith Butler, Bonnie Honig, Toward a Feminist Ethics of Nonviolence, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2021); Adriana Cavarero, Relating Narratives: Storytelling and Selfhood, (London: Routledge, 2000); Adriana Cavarero, Inclinations. A Critique of Rectitude, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016)

[18] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects. Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory, (New York, Columbia University Press, 1994)

[19] Roberto Esposito, Immunitas. The Protection and Negation of Life, (Cambridge: Polity, 2017); Communitas. The Origin and Destiny of Community, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010).

[20] Carlo Galli, Political Spaces and Global War, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

[21] Remo Bodei, The Life of Things, The Love of Things, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015)

[22] Gianni Vattimo, Beyond Interpretation: The Meaning of Hermeneutics for Philosophy, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997)

[23] Umberto Galimberti, The Decline of the West in the Reading of Heidegger and Jaspers, (Milan: Feltrinelli, 2017)

[24] Massimo Recalcati, The Telemachus Complex. Parents and Children after the Decline of the Father, (Cambridge: Polity, 2019)

[25] Bruno Forte, The Portal of Beauty. Towards a Theology of Aesthetics, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2008)

[26] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993)

[27] Eilert Herms, Phänomene des Glaubens. Beiträge zur Fundamentaltheologie, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006)

[28] Bernd Janowski, Konfliktgespräche mit Gott. Eine Anthropologie der Psalmen, (Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 2003)

[29] Pierre Gisel, La théologie. Son statut, sa fonctions, sa pertinence, (Paris : PUF, 2007)

[30] Denis Müller, L'éthique protestante dans la crise de la modernité. Généalogie, critique, reconstruction, (Genève : Labor et Fides, 1999)


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Photo Credit: Hanz Gutierrez for Spectrum Magazine

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