The following remarks were delivered by Cardinal Robert Sarah at the November 20 presentation in Rome of his book God or Nothing, published in English by Ignatius Press and translated by Michael J. Miller. Miller also translated Cardinal Sarah’s speech for CWR.
Allow me first of all to express my most sincere gratitude to Cardinal George Pell, to His Excellency Abp. Georg Gänswein, and to His Excellency Abp. Rino Fisichella for having accepted the invitation to present my book. In particular I thank you for your kind words of praise in my regard, and especially for what you said about my book, God or Nothing. Moreover I wish to thank those who promoted and organized this fine presentation ceremony: Dr. Paul Badde and Dr. Davide Cantagalli. Finally I wish to thank each one of you for your presence. His Excellency Abp. Georg Gänswein reminded us that today we celebrate the memory of Pope Saint Gelasius. This is a sheer coincidence, because today is my fifth anniversary as a cardinal.
How did the book God or Nothing come about?
To tell the truth, I had never thought of writing a book, until now. One day Dr. Nicolas Diat came to see me for an exchange of ideas about various questions and, at the end of a second meeting, proposed that I write a book about my life. I replied that it was not at all interesting, that there were so many lives finer and richer than mine, but—I added—by means of an interview we might possibly touch on some current ecclesial and social questions about our increasingly globalized and confused world. Even in the Catholic Church we no longer have a safe doctrinal and moral path. Everyone proclaims his own opinions and value with absolute freedom. I too would like to proclaim my faith and my fidelity to Jesus, to the centuries-old Magisterium of the Church. We began therefore with the first two chapters that relate my personal experience, lived out in a particularly difficult socio-political context—that of the revolution in Guinea with Sékou Touré, with extremely tense relations between the Church and the State of Guinea, difficulties and tensions that resulted in the expulsion of the first archbishop of Conakry, Msgr. Gérard de Milleville, the arrest and incarceration of the second archbishop of Conakry, Msgr. Raymond Marie Tchidimbo, the expulsion of all the missionaries in May of 1967, and 26 years of dictatorship and persecution. I, myself, in April 1984, was put on a list of persons to be eliminated, but was spared death thanks to Divine Providence. When I think back on my life, on my “nomadic” vocational journey—Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea again, France, Senegal—I clearly discern in it concrete proof of divine predilection toward me.
After these first two chapters, there are some reflections on the popes, the Church, Rome, the modern world, Africa, the profound crises in anthropology and faith in the Western world, morality, truth, evil, prayer, etc. But God is truly the heart of God or Nothing. Why this title? Because today we observe an eclipse, an absence of God from the political, economic, and cultural world. The real crisis that our world is going through now is not essentially economic or political, but a “crisis of God.” Of course, people talk today only about the economic one: in the development of the economic power of Europe—although its original orientations were more ethical and religious—the economic interest has become more and more exclusively decisive. The man of yesterday, like today’s man, without distinction as to race, skin color, culture, country, or continent, is oriented almost exclusively toward the possession and use of material goods. And in the more specific cultural context of Western society, it is no exaggeration to say that man works, organizes, and manages human, political, economic, and commercial relations, starts wars, produces weapons of mass destruction, invades and conquers countries solely or almost exclusively to exploit and accumulate their material riches, in support of his own authority and hegemony. Under the pretext of bringing democracy, peace, and freedom, the West has created chaos in many countries, especially in the Middle East. My judgment may be inaccurate or exaggerated, but we cannot deny the present reality. Above all, Western culture has progressively organized itself as though God did not exist: many today have decided to do without God. As Nietzsche declares, for many in the West, God is dead. And we are the ones who killed Him, we are His assassins, and our Churches are the crypts and tombs of God. A lot of believers no longer attend them so as to avoid smelling the putrefaction of God; but in doing so, man no longer knows either who he is or where he is going: there is a sort of return to paganism and idolatry; science, technology, money, power, unbridled freedom, and endless pleasures are our gods.
I maintain that what we are experiencing today, especially but not only in the West, results from the fact that we have abandoned God in order to assign importance to “nothing.” Of course, the economy, politics, science, technology, and major advances in the fields of health care and social communications are not “nothing,” but in comparison to God they truly are “nothings.”
In God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In him, all things continue to exist. He is the Beginning, the seat of all Fullness, Saint Paul tells us; apart from him, nothing reigns: everything finds in God its own being and its own truth; otherwise it is “God or nothing.” Certainly, there are enormous problems, often painful situations—human life can be difficult and distressing; and yet we must recognize that God is the one who gives meaning to everything. Our worries, our problems, our sufferings exist and preoccupy us, but we know that everything is resolved in him, we know that it is God or nothing, and we perceive this as a self-evident truth that impresses us not from outside, but from within the soul, because Love is not imposed with violence, but by seducing the heart with an interior light.
With God or Nothing I would like to manage to put God back at the center of our thoughts, at the center of our action, at the center of our lives, in the one place that he should occupy, so that our journey as Christians might revolve around this Rock who is God, around this solid certitude of our faith.
Without praise, without prayer, without adoration and therefore without God, there is nothing but wars, division, and bewilderment. Without God in the heart of man, there is only hatred, strife, and conflicts, as we see today. I would like to illustrate this assertion of mine with this story taken from the hagiographic legend of the Muslim “saints.” We know from experience that having an unfriendly or bad neighbor can make life unpleasant. But this difficulty can last 20, or at most 50 years, and then death separates us. But living with a bad neighbor for eternity is much more unpleasant, and so it is better to know him first. Abdalwânid Ibn Zeid wanted to know who would be his neighbor in paradise. He was told: “O Abdalwânid Ibn Zeid, you will have as your neighbor Maïmouna la Nera.” “And where is this Maïmouna?” he asked. “She is from Banou un-Tel, in Koûfa.” Abdalwânid Ibn Zeid arrived in Koûfa and inquired about Maïmouna. They answered that she was a madwoman who pastured her sheep near the cemetery. Abdalwânid Ibn Zeid went to the cemetery and found Maïmouna in prayer. Maïmouna’s sheep were grazing by themselves, but what was even more astonishing and marvelous was that the sheep were mingled with wolves, and the wolves were not devouring the sheep and the sheep were not afraid of the wolves. When Maïmouna had finished praying, Abdalwânid Ibn Zeid asked Maïmouna: “How is it possible that the wolves get along so well with the sheep?” And Maïmouna replied: “I improved my relations with God and He improved the relations between my sheep and the wolves.”
Human efforts, political or diplomatic negotiations alone, will not succeed in attaining unity and reestablishing peace among men, because there is a virus of division, of disunity that is harbored in the hearts of men since original sin. The unity of the sons of God is a work that only Jesus can accomplish through the Holy Spirit, but without prayer the Spirit runs into a closed door in our souls. Let us therefore make more room for prayer and adoration in our lives, and then each one of us will be able to say: “I improved my relationship with God and He improved and pacified the relations among men and among peoples.”
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