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 53. Pedagogy of Love – Or our difficulty to understand how God loves us

Fr. Giovanni Boggio is very familiar with the Bible, especially with the Old Testament. He does not let any occasion go by to emphasize the human and religious wisdom of those pages, that is, the Word of God, is capable of giving to man today. Here we are talking about the question of education, that, for love’s sake, takes up the task of correcting error, of punishing mistake, of guiding with firmness toward the goal of maturity. A difficult topic to accept in contemporary culture, often opposite to the idea of mercy that does not agree with biblical data. The true problem is not to lose the goal of education, recognizing that true love knows also to be sweet and strong, tender and demanding. Finally a love always capable of welcoming and accompanying as the good Lord does with each of us.


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53. Pedagogy of Love – Or our difficulty to understand how God loves us

       (Giovanni Boggio)

On Wednesday, February 4, during the Angelus, the pope spoke to the pilgrims about family, underlining in a special way the role of a father in the education of his sons. Starting from a passage of the book of Proverbs (23: 15-16) the pope emphasized the joy of a father in seeing his own son, fully become part of life and completely fulfilled in all his aspirations, thanks to human values that he succeeded in transmitting to him through a constant, but discreet presence during the years of his formation.

In concluding pope Francis added a short consideration about the necessity sometimes of having to correct the son, who makes mistakes. He quoted the remark of a father: “One time I heard in a meeting about marriage a dad saying: “ I must sometimes beat a little my sons … but never on the face in order not to dishearten them.” And the pope commented “How beautiful! He had a sense of dignity. He must punish, but he does it in the right way and has the courage to do it.”

Strangely (till a certain point…) the pope did not quote the verses 13-14 of the same chapter 23, that would have offered an extraordinary biblical foundation to his affirmation that, however, perhaps, he thought, would have been already too risky and certainly against the current.

Considering that those five lines after an intense and reassuring page have already agitated the supporters of a pedagogy, based on ideological assumptions much followed, that denounce as repressive of liberty and dignity of a person any intervention that includes punishment, especially physical. That verb “to beat” even though with exclusion motivated of some parts of the body, did not please the well-intentioned thinkers. The day after, some newspapers ridiculed the affirmations of the pope, recalling the “fist” declared licit by Francis if someone would have insulted his mother.

We cannot pretend from a “lay” journalist the knowledge of all liturgical rubrics, even though it would be desirable a minimum of documentation, required by the professional deontology, when we express judgment on the behavior of persons. If there were this elementary attention, they could have seen that the first reading of the morning mass, celebrated on Wednesday February 4, had some verses from the Letter to the Hebrews that deserve to be read all, even though the quotation is rather long, because they refer to the theme that we are talking about.

“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? [If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. Besides this, we have had our earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not then submit all the more to the Father of spirits and live?” They disciplined us for a short time as seemed right to them, but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness.] At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” (Heb 12: 4-11)

The liturgical text continues still till verse 15, but do not quote vv. 8-10 that I quoted between [ ] Now I do not have the direct testimony that the pope was inspired by this reading to propose the theme of education in his talk, but, knowing his habit of commenting the readings of the day mass, it seems to me logical to think that he did it also in this occasion. It seems to me also very meaningful the fact that in his homily he gave a lot of space to the positive result of well-done education rather than to the moment of correction or punishment for the mistakes done by the son in the period of his formation in life.

The general context of the Letter to the Hebrews is the explanation of the person and mission of Jesus, above all of his quality as priest and victim of the sacrifice of himself. The immediate context is the example that he left us to accept sufferings and the cross in order to obtain for us the liberation from sin. Christians are exhorted to see in the sufferings on account of their faith an intervention of the heavenly Father to free them from sin. As for Jesus the death on the cross was not a punishment but the supreme act of the love of the Father, thus Christians must interpret the hard fight against sin as the expression of the same love.

From human pedagogy to pedagogy of God

The author of the Letter bases his teaching on the experience derived from family life of his age, still influenced by the traditions inherited from nomadism of patriarchal tribes. Missing the proper institution, education of young people was the duty of each father, who had to guarantee the continuation of the family and the tribe. The harsh conditions of life in the desert demanded a severe training that did not leave room for a sentimental counterproductive yielding. If life was hard, it was necessary to train the youth to face it if one wanted that they may not be overcome by overwhelming events. We find ourselves before a realism that seems brutal to our sensibility, but that instead reveal a true love that aims to reach positive results even at cost of some severe actions. The book of Sirach presents a synthesis of an educational method that a good father should follow. I leave to personal reading the whole text (Sirach 30: 1-13), limiting myself to quote one verse only that appears emblematic: “He who spoils his son will have wounds to bandage, and will quake inwardly at every outcry. (v. 7).

In this regard I found an observation that can help us understand in the context of the middle-oriental environment in a comment to the Koran by Magdi Christiano Allam. “For the inhabitants of the step and the desert to follow the right way and to let oneself be guided by those who knew it was often a question of life or death.”(the Koran, explained by M.C. Allam, Library of freedoms, 2015, p. 19).

It is in this environmental and social context that we must put the reflections that the elderly (grandparents would say pope Francis) transmitted to their sons, become fathers in their turn. The books of the Bible that collect this common wisdom, fruit of experience, belong to that group of writings that scholars call Wisdom Literature. The fundamental idea that joins them is that God reveals himself in daily events, ruled by mysterious laws that were not established by men, but were present in nature in a massive manner.

And by whom were they given if not by God? In this perspective human mind was not considered in conflict with God, but was seen as the necessary instrument in order to understand, as much as possible, the mysteries that surround man in his existence and life. The longevity of the elderly was a demonstration that they had overcome successfully the adversities of a hostile environment, had walked a road full of obstacles and therefore were able to teach the young the secrets of their achievement.

If a long life could teach the way of living it well, so much so this must be good for God, who could for a good reason be presented as “the ancient of days” (Daniel 7:9). This expression conveys a long experience, and an idea that can be found in the another way of referring to God as “the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob,” as to say that he summarized in himself the experience of the patriarchs. Therefore this characteristic qualified also God as the “greatest sage” from whom wisdom had originated.

These considerations superimposed in a certain way the plan of action of God on that of man. Or vice versa to imagine that God would behave with men as would a good father who was trying to prepare his sons to face life in all its cruel reality, without deceiving them with false promises.

A typical case of mistaken education

The Bible presents a dramatic episode for the consequences that it caused in the history of the Jewish people. According to the biblical narration, the division of the kingdom after the death of Salomon was to be ascribed to the wrong education given at court to the sons of the king and to their contemporaries, belonging to the noble class that even then lived in unrealistic world. A mistaken education was given to the sons, allowing them to grow favoring their worst inclinations. It is sufficient to read without prejudices the second chapter of the first book of Kings to understand the arrogance and political and human ineptitude of Rehoboam and of the young people grown up with him. We cannot comment the text here, that, however, would deserve an attentive reflection from the point of view of pedagogy.

Returning to the book of Proverbs the exhortation of the two verses not quoted was understandable (23:13-14). The use of the rod at opportune time could avoid that the son be wounded by the sword, that would cause more disastrous damages (you will save him from the nether world v. 14)

I think that it is good to notice also the underlining irony of the comment of v. 13 “if you beat him with the rod, he will not die.”

It is undeniable that the behavior suggested to the father by the book of Proverbs be unbearable for our culture, deformed by centuries of an idealism uprooted from reality and ultimately from the raging of mediate bombardments, that exalt a freedom separated from responsibility and a search of individual pleasure regardless from what form it may come.

But real life is not thus. Only the dominating (and interested) hypocrisy forbids to recognize the failure of an education based on absolute permissiveness that often ends in violent behaviors. But people continue to refuse the strict connection between private and collective violence with an abstract and unreal conception of man. We are witnessing decades of a growing vindication of individual rights in the name of unlimited freedom separated from responsibility.

Cases of teachers of kindergarten schools that mistreat children are justly denounced, but at the same times we should denounce parents, teachers, theorists of pedagogy and the politicians who urge young people to arrogance and violence in order to vindicate true or imaginary rights. And thus many educational agencies have become “bully factories” that have produced in mass clonies of models imposed by consumption and ideologies of comfort.

The failure of this mistaken education is evident to all and starts to give courage to those who already noticed, but who have been marginalized by the dominating pseudo culture. Finally we hear voices denouncing the pseudo education that has produced abuses before which some have not even the shame to act surprised.

Is it the beginning of a change?

I was gladly surprised when I read few days ago the article of Rita Querze’ on the newspaper Corriere della sera (March 14, p. 45), who faced with decision the problem taking a clear stand. The author (defines herself “only a mother”) after having described a distasteful scene (protagonists: a child of 6-7 years old and the mother) asks herself if the right moment has come to intervene in order to change the way of educating children. For their own self interest, if we do not want to rear “a generation of weak, impolite, selfish adults[…] Without counting that the future of our children will be uphill. And then it is better to teach them soon to learn climbing.”

It seemed to me to read the verses of Proverbs that spoke of rod, as I was also hearing the echo of the verses quoted by pope Francis and his comment when I read: “At the end the best relief comes from our boys. When they tell you, proud and strong: “Mother, did you see that boy how he is spoilt? He does only caprices.” With these premises I was not surprised when that mother faced seriously also the last taboo: spanking, challenging even the European Council. And I asked myself: what type of advices does come out from those who have authority but are slaves of prejudices?

Not less damaging is the spreading resignation, that is corrupting many contemporaries, who know only to react thinking and saying: “What can I do?” It is the losing mentality that leads straight to defeat. It is spreading ever more this sense of impotence that paralyzes brains and suffocates any attempt of reaction.

With this I do not want at all to affirm the validity of repressing educational methods of the past, even in church places. Sometimes they were hiding authentic perversions, presented as a desire of mystical practice ( I would want to believe) perhaps also in good faith. To recognize exaggerations and errors of the past does not mean to reject it totally, but commit ourselves not to repeat what reveals itself against the principles that we also follow.

The Jubilee of Mercy

Pope Francis proclaimed next year a jubilee on the great theme of mercy. It will certainly be the occasion to reflect on a fundamental topic to understand our relationship with God, but at one condition that we reflect it on seriously, as the Bible presents it and not filtered through criteria dictated by a dominating attitude of good doers.

I will try to be as clear as possible. If I choose the biblical texts that speak explicitly about mercy of God, who forgives all, even the most repugnant sins and stop at this level of research, I will find an abundant anthology of very beautiful affirmations, that will encourage even the most hopeless to have confidence of obtaining God’s forgiveness.

It is a very beautiful message, of which the world has extreme need. The message springs from biblical texts accurately selected, but is the message transmitted what the Bible wants really to give? It is “in the” Bible, but is it proper “of the” Bible? Is it what God wants to teach? If we concentrate the attention only on the pardon that God gives “to all” without distinction, are we running the risk to attribute to the Bible what is comfortable to us but is opposed to the authentic teaching that it wants to give? To present mercy, isolated from the historical, cultural, religious, literary context, in which the Bible places it means to use the “word of God” as an instrument for what is comfortable to us.

To be yet more clear, if I speak of the love of God who forgives all, I teach a great truth that becomes even more marvelous only if I understand that God always and somehow welcomes the son who “returns to him” after having recognized the failure that led him to wrong choices and reduced him to hunger and disgrace. The biblical texts that we quoted, and many other of the same content, describe the other face of the coin in order to say that God himself sometimes intervenes decisively in the attempt to stop the son from self-destruction. And he does it because he loves him.

From pedagogy of God to pedagogy of man

The authors of wisdom books (and we believe them inspired by God) have the courage to teach it openly, as we said. Pope Francis is along this line, striving not to hurt too much the hyper sensible touchiness of contemporary culture to transmit something of the true biblical message. A message robust, sometimes also rude and brutal given by people used to look directly into the reality and call things by their real name. Even at the time of Jeremiah there were those who for obtaining personal advantages changed the name of things, deluding themselves of changing also reality.

“Listen not to the words of your prophets, who fill you with emptiness. Visions of their own fancy they speak, not from the mouth of the Lord.” (Jer 23: 16-17). Practically, these “prophets” teach that God shows his love by rewarding the criminals and thus making himself their accomplice in doing evil. In this way they prevent sinners to do the only thing that will draw on them the divine mercy: change life and ask sincerely pardon.

The image of a God who pretends of not seeing the tricks of the son and is inclined to close an eye as if nothing had happened, is not surely the icon of God that is presented by the Bible. The good Father of whom also Jesus speaks to us, does not identify with an old man with Alzheimer who forgets all and we can put at peace with simpering and with some placebo in order to abandon him on a wheel chair and we can continue our wild life until the next visit.

Nevertheless this seems to be the idea of God that many Christians have or at least this is the impression that we get seeing spectacular celebrations, pilgrimages, torchlight processions, or when we attend discussions, round tables, pastoral reunions for programming and afterwards we look at the daily life of the baptized in families, at the places of work, in politics, sport and amusement parks.

“I paid my dues to the Boss, I warranted his protection and therefore I am free to do what I please” seems to be the thinking of many Christians, who more or less consciously transmit this conviction to their children in educating them. This mentality is shared by the school environment and poisons necessarily the educational relationships within associations and movements that declare to draw inspiration from the gospel.

A reading of the Bible, even superficial, presents to us a God very much different from the caricature that many nowadays good-intentioned presentations do searching the complicity of God more that his will.

The God of Jesus is certainly good but also severe and demanding with his children, because he loves them. I take on loan the beginning of some parables of Jesus to make an hypothesis on a case that could emblematic: “Who of you, having children greatly loved by him, catching one who is about to cut his wrists, does not intervene to stop him for doing a foolish gesture, even at the cost of using strong manners and, if the situation warranted, to intervene with violence to avoid the worst? Or would you prefer a father who limits himself to become aware of what is happening and then concentrates his love for the son in a beautiful eulogy at the funeral, perhaps even denouncing the corrupt society.”

It is not proper to quote oneself, but in this case it is inevitable because back in 2009 I published in Lettere Giuseppine  (the magazine of the Congregation) a reflection on this same theme. I reflected above all on the experience of saint Leonard had done in his adolescence and that marked his whole life. Saint Leonard understood the greatness of the love of God starting from fear of hell because of his sins, that he committed and considered outrageous so much so to deserve eternal damnation. I compared the pedagogy that God had followed in educating the young “sinner” with that described by the Bible in educating the Hebrew people and concluded that there were no differences: the punishment or also the fear of punishment was in harmony with the start of a race that would have led to the goal of discovering the love of God. To present the goal as an acquired datum from which to start towards other goals it is not only against history and contrary to reason but also cause of misunderstandings that lead to disastrous results, as those that we notice in the education given to young people today.

In those reflections I did not deal with pedagogy followed by Murialdo in the education of young Artigianelli. An interesting topic without doubt, but it would have required a deep research that others could have done with more competence. I thought better to remain still on the biblical context, that was the object of my specific studies, which sometimes seems presented with a certain unconstraint ease. One is free to think and act as he wishes certainly. But we cannot present as a teaching coming from the Bible what is the result of other cultural sources and corresponds to an image of man absolutely unreal.( see From fear to love. Spiritual itinerary of saint Leonard Murialdo, in Lettere Giuseppine, October 31, 2009, pp. 185-190)

I conclude my reflection, that could be further deepened, with the words that pope Francis puts in the mouth of a father, from the discourse from which we got started: “I will be glad every time that I will see you act with wisdom, and I will be moved every time I will hear you talk with righteousness. This is what I wanted to convey to you so that it could become your things: the attitude to feel and act, to talk and judge with wisdom and righteousness. And in order for you to be like that, I taught you things that you did not know, corrected the errors that you did not see. I made you feel a deep and at the same time discreet affection, that perhaps you did not recognize fully when you were young and uncertain. I gave you a witness of rigor and firmness that you perhaps did not understand, when you just wanted complicity and protection. I had to put myself first to the test of wisdom of the heart, and to be vigilant on excesses of feeling and resentment, to carry the burden of inevitable misunderstandings and to find the right words in order to make myself understood by you.”

I think these sentences are but the translation in modern language of what the Bible calls “new covenant” proclaimed in the book of Jeremiah (31: 31-34), actualized by Jesus in his whole life and left to us as a model to inspire our actions. In other words we are dealing with sharing the projects of God, but not because obliged by unbearable laws because incomprehensible, but with a deep conviction, because they are made our own. Pedagogy of God in educating his people becomes thus the paradigm within which to develop every educational relationships in the family, society, and the Church.

Perhaps to the masters of modern “scientific” pedagogy, the one presented by the Bible could appear “scratching” and such seem also to the scholars of the single disciplines: theology, morals, sociology, philosophy that we derived from biblical texts. Things should not surprise us a lot. The reflections in the Bible come from an experience of simple life, that is substantially very similar in all cultures. Modern sciences even though they come from an empirical base worry about organizing collected data, in systematic structures often built to respond to ideological or economical requirements. The problems raised by globalization of educational structures are under the eyes of all people.

If we, at least Christian educators, would try to give more weight to the authentic indications coming from the Bible, even at the cost of going against current, we would realize that something could be truly change for the better.

Giovanni Boggio

We can read the talk of the pope and see the film at the following link:

Other interventions on the same theme you can find on this blog: giovanni boggio blog la scala dei santi.

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