On Exodus? From What?

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.”

So wrote Alain de Botton, philosopher, in 2004. His name for this affliction – Status Anxiety – is the title of an accessible book on the subject.1Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005 Outlining its role in Victorian snobbery, class conflict, consumerism, the idea of ‘meritocracy’ and many other things he makes a persuasive case for Status Anxiety as a pernicious source of unhappiness in all eras and cultures – but especially in the West today.

De Botton suggests also that religion, especially Christianity, might be a cure. Could this offer insight into our ongoing hesitation over ‘mission’, and maybe much more than that?

Status Anxiety in the Church

Take, for example, the ‘shock’ expressed by the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin in 1999, for the rampant ‘social climbing’ of bishops who had looked to him, as a Vatican official, for transfer to ‘more prestigious’ dioceses.2See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin If other Vatican officials were not prone to the same affliction would there have been a ‘Vati-leaks’ affair in 2012, or a papal retirement the following year?

[It is, of course, untrue that Irish parishes and dioceses are ranked in much the same way by Irish clergy, and that transfer to the least prestigious (poorest) parish or diocese is regarded as demotion – even if scurrilous rumours of this persist!]

Take also the embarrassment suffered now by sincere clergy over the plethora of questionable clerical titles such as ‘Monsignor’ (My Lord) or ‘Canon’. Would so many of those have been invented if ordination was an instant cure for the yearning for higher status?

Take then something far more pernicious – the practice by Irish bishops until 1994 of secrecy on clerical child sex abuse. When the bishops of Ireland admitted in December 2009 that this had arisen out of a desire to preserve ‘the reputations of individuals and of the Church’ were they not also admitting to the role of clerical Status Anxiety in the deepest church scandal of our time?3Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland

The Crisis of Faith Formation

Why, finally, are Irish bishops so slow in getting to grips with what is now an existential problem for Irish Catholicism – described in the August 2022 national synodal report as ‘a crisis in the transmission of faith’?4Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23 Why the failure, over decades, to conduct and publish research on the effectiveness of school-dependent faith formation – to get to the root of the indifference of so many baptised teenagers while still at school? Are we to believe there is no fear of further embarrassment by Irish campaigners against faith schools, on foot of any such research?

Could it be also that although now committed – at least on paper – to permanent synodal ‘mission’ we lack even a clear view of the ‘salvation’ from the ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ that the ‘Good News’ promises? Are we Irish Catholics largely inarticulate about our faith simply because we have failed to recognise that our own national history of imperial conquest and occupation has made us especially inclined to doubt our own value – i.e. to suffer from Status Anxiety – and embarrassed even to admit this to be an ‘affliction’ in need of a spiritual cure?

If the sixth commandment was especially emphasised in the past by Irish clergy was that because we could not see the repeated ban on covetousness in commandments nine and ten as a warning against desire for the higher status that our wealthy neighbours, secular or religious, might ‘show off’ in their possessions or titles? Has our inability to categorise status seeking as a spiritual problem – and often also our uncritical embracing of a ‘meritocratic’ ethos in our schools – been a huge beam in our discerning eye – an inability to focus something deeply problematic that was always in plain sight?

Have we even yet fully absorbed the meaning of the Catholic social principle that all of us, as children of God, are already strictly equal in dignity – and St Peter’s own mature conclusion that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10:34)?

Could it even be that Status Anxiety is at the root of the ongoing reluctance of many priests to engage in fully committed synodal discussion?

On Exodus?

‘We are a people on Exodus,’ said Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry in 2016.5‘Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’ This reminder of the association of the God of Israel, and of Jesus, with ‘redemption’ – i.e. with liberation from enslavement – surely prompts a critical question for faith formation today: From what enslavement is the Gospel offering us – the people of Ireland and the world – liberation today?

‘From the power of evil’ is surely true, but also far too abstract to be helpful. In what visible, real phenomena do we see that power of evil begin to work?

If we find that question baffling, could that be the root of our problem with articulating the ‘Good News’ to younger generations?

That Jesus of Nazareth, though born in poverty, was entirely free of Status Anxiety is a dominant theme of the Gospels. ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you,’ say those seeking to entrap him in political opposition to Rome (Matt 22:16). ‘Why do you eat with sinners?‘ is another frequent complaint (e.g. Luke 5:30).

‘Why do you worry about what you wear?’ Jesus asks in return (Matt 6:28). Berating the tendency of religious hypocrites to dress up to impress others was he not identifying their Status Anxiety as their core problem? (Matt 23:5)

Before the crisis of the crucifixion the apostles were also clearly trapped in deference to the honour pyramids of their world. ‘An argument also began between them about who should be reckoned the greatest.’ (Luke 22:28) James and John, the sons of Zebedee, looked for a promise of the highest places in Jesus’s future kingdom (Mark 10:35-45) – pointing to what lies at the root of all conflict. Then finally Jesus’ forecast of his own crucifixion – the fate of a rebellious slave – was for Peter an impossible prospect (Matt 16:22). As Jesus’ first lieutenant, how could he himself now escape ultimate social disaster?

So when Peter told Jesus that his crucifixion ‘must not happen’, and Jesus called him ‘Satan’, are we being told to look to Peter’s fear of shame – to his Status Anxiety – as the wellspring of all evil?

Overthrowing the Judgement of the World

Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.

This for Alain de Botton is the self-imprisoning consequence of Status Anxiety. All seeking of the positive regard of others can follow only from the mistake of attributing to those others the authority to evaluate ourselves. Who can justly claim such authority?

When Jesus asked his critics why they looked only to one another for glory was he not nailing a mistake we all tend to make? When he assured his more attentive listeners that some Galileans recently slaughtered by Pilate were not worse sinners than anyone else was he not revealing that Jews of that time were drawing exactly that conclusion from Roman occupation and brutality – that this was a ‘thumbs down’ from their own God as well? (Luke 13:1-4)

‘Do not judge,’ insisted Jesus. The religious elites of his time, the pharisees and scribes, were inclined to do exactly that. An ability to memorise and deploy any of the 613 laws of Leviticus led naturally to hypocrisy and judgementalism – and therefore also to extreme Status Anxiety on the part of the poor and illiterate. Is not that what it was to be ‘poor in spirit’?

I have overcome the world,’ said Jesus in response to his own impending judgement (John 16:33). Did he not obviously mean that he had overcome the human tendency to internalise the criticism and judgement of others – including those at the summit of the honour pyramids of his own time, in both ‘church’ and state?

Saying this, has he not told us also the purpose of the crucifixion: to subvert our tendency to fear the judgement of others, a tendency that empowers all who are ready to exploit it – from schoolroom and workplace and media trolls to religious charlatans, globalising entrepreneurs, racist agitators and scandal-hungry journalists?

How could Jesus have challenged us to face, and to overcome, in prayer, our own fear of shame if he had not faced that same challenge?

That Jesus’ resurrection was for the first Christians liberation from the fear of being looked down upon, especially by Rome and by their own religious elites, is altogether plain in the detail and conviction of the New Testament texts. What else could St Paul have meant when he wrote of a ‘new creation’? (2 Cor 5:17)

And was not Status Anxiety – this human tendency to doubt our own value as we are – also the original human frailty attributed to Adam and Eve in the Genesis allegory? Do we need seriously to rethink what we mean by original sin?

Lying at the root of all social ambition was it not Status Anxiety that drove Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs and the Caesars? Is it not the wellspring of all modern imperialism, inequality, oppression and conflict – and now of the rampant desire to be media icons?

Deployed now by social media as a core strategy for making digital addicts even of children, is not the fostering of Status Anxiety – via the lottery of ‘going viral’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘influence’ – the most pernicious of global plagues?

Is the Gospel truly irrelevant there, especially for the victims of all ages?

Salvation?

Jesus insisted: ‘whoever sees me sees the one who sent me‘ (John 12:45). Why then is Christianity, and Catholicism – and faith formation – still vexed by the medieval notion that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by a heavenly father who needed ‘satisfaction’ for the offence caused to him by sin? Why this attribution to God the Father of the same affliction of Status Anxiety that Adam and Eve – and medieval monarchs – had, when Jesus had no such problem?

The earliest Christians made no such charge. They clearly understood the passion and resurrection of Jesus in a totally different way: as liberation for themselves – by the Father – from fear of judgement and humiliation by the ‘principalities and powers’ of their own time (e.g. Rom 8:38).

Why should we not believe that the challenging and healing of Status Anxiety – essentially fear of shame from the negative judgement of others – was from the beginning the purpose of the Incarnation, the intention of the Trinity? When we say in the Creed that we believe in Jesus as final judge of ‘the living and the dead’ have we ‘relativised’ all other judges?

As for the Eucharist don’t we need to restore its meaning as a celebration of release from fear of the judgementalism of our own time, if we are to be joyfully ‘on Exodus’?

From what do we think we have we been liberated when we say:

‘Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.’ ?

As for the marginalised and the self-harming and the lonely – all those who are supposedly in need of our ‘mission’ – from what do they need liberation most of all? If we do not already know, why is that?

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005
  2. See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin
  3. Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland
  4. Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23
  5. Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’, June 23, 2016 – Irish Catholic Bishops Conference website.
[This article appeared first in The Furrow (Maynooth) in January 2024.]

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About Sean O'Conaill

Retired teacher of high school history and author. Now editing here and on acireland.ie - and campaigning for immediate implementation of Article 37 of Vatican II's 'Lumen Gentium'. A fuller profile can be found at 'About / Author' from the navigation menu above.

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