Category Archives: Scripture

Of Good and Evil: II – The Human Problem

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Apr 2010

What do the following have in common:

  • the wealthy banker who takes out massive loans from his own bank in order to enrich himself still further – ruining both the bank and his own reputation;
  • the global pop ‘icon’ who is so dissatisfied with his own appearance that he disfigures himself through repeated and unnecessary plastic surgery;
  • the successful professional boxer who incriminates himself by involvement in drug trafficking;
  • the brilliant politician who looks for huge handouts from wealthy business men so that he can afford the lifestyle of an 18th century landowning aristocrat;
  • the farmer who ‘diversifies’ into risky property development – just in time to lose everything in the collapse of the property market;
  • the civil servant who is so afraid to challenge an obviously unjust system of state ‘care’ for impoverished children that he helps to disgrace his country many years later when the horrific scale of the injustice is revealed;
  • the gifted athlete who injects anabolic steroids to win Olympic gold;
  • the brilliant scientist who fakes research results to make a bid for the Nobel prize;
  • the government minister who uses his ministerial expense account to hire a limousine at absurd cost to take him from one airport terminal to another – and is later forced to resign over many other excesses of the same kind?

Long ago St Augustine put his finger on what is constant in our extraordinary human tendency to harm ourselves: our endless dissatisfaction. But what is the root of that dissatisfaction?

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

Almost from birth we humans confuse our needs with our desires – and our desires can become limitless and wholly destructive. This problem is chronic in the sense that we can never say we are wholly immune to it. The best we can ever say, in the contemporary idiom, is that we are ‘in recovery’.

Ireland is currently in recovery from the greatest period of self-indulgence and self-harm in its history – but anxious to believe every rumour of a resumption of economic growth and a return to the times of plenty .

Because we are chronically unsure of our own value as we are.

Brilliantly insightful into the historical problem of evil, St Augustine of Hippo explained this problem in terms of Original Sin – an inherited defect to do with an act of disobedience as soon as the first humans were created. Deeply troubled by his own youthful sexual excesses, Augustine seems to have believed that the first sin – the sin described in the Book of Genesis – was essentially a sexual sin and that all sin is transmitted through sex – and many Christians still focus on sexuality as the central human problem.

But Genesis does not say that, and can be interpreted in an entirely different way. What it tells us is that from the very beginning humans responded to a temptation to disobey God. The temptation was to believe that if they disobeyed they would become ‘as Gods’.

They could not have responded to that temptation unless they had a pre-existing problem – before they ever got around to sex.

They could only have wanted to be ‘as Gods’ if they were already chronically unsure of their own value as mere humans. They were already vulnerable to temptation. This is the root of the problem of being human.

The Problem of Consciousness

Every one of us is given early on the gift of consciousness, of growing awareness of the unpredictable context into which we are born.  Immediately this gift poses a problem: we become aware of our own smallness in comparison to what surrounds and encloses us. Definitely not ‘masters of the universe’ we are faced with the inescapable fact of our own total powerlessness.

Soon enough we become aware also of larger, more powerful beings on whom we are wholly dependent. And soon enough after that we become aware that those beings are aware of us, and very capable of judging and punishing us. If we are fortunate we will experience their unconditional love, but the chances are that this love will be imperfect and conditional: we will be loved best if we ‘behave ourselves’.

There is now conclusive evidence that the more variable and unpredictable the love experienced by a child, the more likely that child will be to suffer extremely from the basic human problem.

Our problem of being chronically unsure of our own value.

Self-consciousness

Every adult has seen the following happen at some stage. A child is playing happily, not conscious of being observed. She seems entranced by a simple toy – maybe as simple as a cardboard box.  She is singing to herself, and throws the box, to see it bounce and tumble.

Then she suddenly becomes aware of us observing her – and everything changes. Fascinated a moment ago by the box, she is now dominated by her awareness of being observed – and starts to show off.  She has become self-conscious.

Everything changes when we become conscious of being observed by others. That fact becomes a dominant fact – the fact that we are ‘under observation’. And especially so at puberty, when ‘how we look’ becomes so important. If we are already unsure of our own value, and not reassured by the praise and admiration of others, our vulnerability grows further.

This unsureness can be vastly increased by the electronic window in the corner – the window into a vastly greater sea of observers, most of whom look very different to ourselves. The TV screen fixates on and tracks ‘personalities’ with gifts and ‘looks’ that are obviously much more fascinating than our own. Some are declared ‘icons’ – uniquely valuable beings. This window never seems to find us here in our own little corner – so we must be of little value.

No wonder that today so many of us have totally lost any sense of our own value – to the extent of becoming easily capable of extreme self-harm through addiction, self-isolation, depression, unnecessary plastic surgery, crime -even suicide. The planet itself is threatened by insatiable human desire.

Because we cannot live happily if we are convinced we are of no value.

If we are fortunate we will know at least one person who is sensitive and attentive to us as a person – and constantly caring. The unselfish love of a parent or aunt or friend or spouse can make a huge difference to our self-esteem. It can help us grow into persons who are less unsure of their own value – and even capable of showing the same loving attention to others. This seems to prove the truth of a saying often repeated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “A person becomes a person through other persons.”

However, there does seem to be always a deficit of love in the world, and a continuing problem of people seeking a sense of their own value, self-harming if they cannot find it, and harming also those who need their attentive love.

We would definitely mostly be lost if there were no power outside ourselves seeking to make up that deficit, no transcendant source of unconditional love that intervenes in human history to convince us of our value, whatever deficit of love we have ourselves experienced.

That source of boundless compassion springs from an understanding of why we are the way we are – the creator’s understanding of the problem of the conscious creature. So that source is infinitely forgiving of our tendency to harm ourselves. It is a mistake to believe that the God-given rules we so often break were intended to trip us up and send us to Hell. They are there to keep us safe.

We are already half way to Hell if we mistakenly suppose ourselves to be unloved and unlovable. And half way to Heaven when we realise our mistake.

Views: 25

The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

Views: 30

The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

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The Story of the West: III – The Origins of Freedom

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Dec 2007

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ” (US Declaration of Independence 1776)

Everywhere in the world in the time of Christ, slavery existed – in countries as far apart as Ireland and China. Two thousand years later the right to personal freedom is inscribed in the world’s great documents, and protected by most of the world’s governments.

The scourge of enslavement still exists for far too many, of course – but there is a global consensus that slavery is not only morally wrong but economically indefensible. While the ancient Greeks and Romans considered slavery essential to their success, the educated world now knows that slavery makes people unproductive – that we are most industrious when we are personally free.

Where did the idea of freedom come from? Most languages do not even have a word for the idea. It arose in one civilisation only – western Europe, in the Middle Ages. Catholic Europe, that is.

Here again, those who see Christianity as the root of all evil will deny that the Catholic Church could have had anything to do with the ending of slavery. They will point out that Jesus did not directly condemn it, that St Paul taught slaves to be obedient, that popes owned galley slaves as late as 1796, and that it was not until the 1800s that the papacy came finally to declare slavery immoral.

All of this is true – but the historical record is nevertheless clear: all effective anti-slavery movements were deeply influenced by another idea – an idea that developed in Catholic Europe alone, long before the Protestant Reformation: the idea that everyone is essentially equal in dignity.

That idea could not have come from Plato or Aristotle, the great philosophers of ancient Greece. Both believed that some peoples were superior to others, and that the slavery of many was essential to the prosperity and power of the Greek city state. Plato personally owned slaves. The ‘democracy’ of Athens was not based on the principle of ‘one man one vote’, but on the superiority of ethnic Greeks, all of them free to own slaves, who could not vote. In Plato’s ideal ‘Republic’ this elitism would have been retained.

The seed for the overthrow of slavery is to be found in the New Testament alone. St Paul did indeed teach slaves to be obedient, but he also taught masters to treat slaves well “knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with Him”. In other words, in the eyes of God we are all equal: “In Christ Jesus …there is neither slave nor free”.

It was for this very reason that slaves too were to receive the sacrament of baptism. Sacramental equality inevitably slowly undermined civil inequality. After an exhaustive study of the sources the agnostic secular sociologist Rodney Stark insists:

“Slavery ended in medieval (i.e. Catholic) Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians.”

By the third century the church had a pope, Callistus (d. 236) who had himself been a slave. With the fall of the western Roman empire in the fifth century, the pressure to end slavery increased. Priests began to urge the freeing of slaves as an “infinitely commendable act”. By the late 700s Charlemagne opposed slavery. By the 800s slavery was declared by some theologians to be “against divine law”.

Another scandalous era of slavery opened in the West with the voyages of exploration of the 1400s that gave European ships access to black Africa, and the incentive to ship slaves to imperial territories in north and south America. This too the papacy was far too slow to condemn unequivocally, yet even in the 1500s, some popes angrily condemned slavery in the Americas.

By now many Christians held that slavery was positively sinful. Here again we see the possibility for progress in Christian theology – as St Augustine had predicted. And it was this conviction that provided most fuel for the victories of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s.

Uniquely among the world’s Religions, Christianity had not simply argued that all were equal in the sight of God, but provided most of the political momentum for the eventual overthrow of slavery. While the church is often pilloried for the slow progress of freedom in Europe, few secularist intellectuals have faced the reality that elsewhere in the world there was no progress at all. This was true especially of Islam. It was true even of China – often held up by secularists as a more advanced civilisation because its intelligentsia was irreligious.

And it was from these Christian principles of human dignity and human equality that another key modern principle emerged also: the principle of equal human rights.

Secularist opponents of Christianity will deny this, of course. They will argue that the principle of human rights was the child of the Enlightenment, an anti-Christian movement of the 1600s and 1700s.

But we now know that the US Declaration of Independence of 1776 owed its theory of human rights to the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). And that Locke frankly admitted his own debt to Catholic moral theologians of the Middle Ages who had developed the Christian principle of equal human dignity. If all are equal in dignity, it followed that Christians have binding obligations to all other humans. From these binding obligations, and from no other source, proceeds the principle that all humans are owed – i.e.have a right to – e.g. freedom

A further embarrassment for those who want to see the Enlightenment as the original source of freedom and human rights is the fact that the great Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the considerable profits of his own writings in the 18th century French slave trade, based at Nantes.

It was a vast tragedy for the Catholic church that the Christian origins of freedom became hidden even from the papacy in the period after the Enlightenment. Fearing the rise of democracy and the principle of religious freedom, Catholic bishops and popes, usually the sons of aristocratic Catholic families, mistakenly often condemned these. The belief that “error has no rights” was adhered to by Catholic churchmen well into the lifetime of many of us.

It was also a great tragedy for Catholicism in Ireland that when our church did eventually embrace the principle of religious freedom at Vatican II in 1965, our most powerful churchman was Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin. He too believed that error had no rights, and that it was perfectly legitimate for him and his fellow bishops to seek to control the Irish state directly. His extraordinary determination to control every aspect of Irish life until his resignation in 1971 earned for Irish Catholicism a reputation for clericalism and authoritarianism that virtually guaranteed the victory of secularism in the generation that followed.

Archbishop McQuaid mistakenly obliged every Catholic in his diocese to define Catholic loyalty in terms of unquestioning obedience and intellectual deference to him personally. This clericalist spirit still pervaded Catholic Ireland in the era of the council, and sabotaged its liberating potential here. Forced to choose between the role of ‘lackey to the bishop’ and the supposedly secular principle of freedom, many, many Irish people felt obliged, even in conscience, to choose the latter and to reject Catholic belief.

This is one of the most important reasons for the growth of Irish secularism and anticlericalism in recent decades. It explains why our media constantly exploit church scandals and why it is now so difficult for Irish Catholic churchmen to get a fair public hearing, especially in matters like stem cell research.

Catholic authoritarianism has always played into the hands of those who want to argue that the greater freedom of western culture is an entirely secular achievement, and that religion and freedom must always be opposed. And this in turn has led to a situation in Ireland where secularism is now so powerful that many Catholics feel ashamed to identify themselves as Catholics in public.

The solution is not to seek to restore the ‘Catholic Ireland’ of Archbishop McQuaid but to understand the Catholic roots of western freedom and to take pride, publicly, in that fact. We need to make ourselves entirely at home in neutral secular space and to educate ourselves to the facts of western history – refusing to take for granted secularist propaganda aimed at shaming us and driving Catholicism out of the public square entirely.

In particular we need to point out to secularists that the Catholic roots of western civilisation are far more than a matter of Catholic opinion. They are now confirmed by globally renowned scholars who are not even Christian. One of the most important is Rodney Stark, the ground-breaking American sociologist. I have used his recent book Victory of Reason as my most important source for these articles. Written with great clarity and honesty, it should be read by every educated Catholic.

Another is the German atheist philosopher Jurgen Habermas. Disturbed by various decadent tendencies in western society, and by the growing threat of terrorism since 9/11, he made the following declaration in a 2004 essay A Time of Transition:

“Christianity, and nothing else, is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights, and democracy, the benchmarks of western civilisation. To this day, we have no other options. We continue to nourish ourselves from this source. Everything else is post-modern chatter.”

Armed with this same knowledge, Irish Catholics of tomorrow will have no need to feel defensive about their faith or ashamed to proclaim it as the source of their own idealism in the secular world.

Claiming our own place in pluralist Irish secular society we must now also be unafraid to ask anti-Catholic secularists if they really know the origins of the values, and especially the freedom, they hold sacred.

Views: 27

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VI – The World and the Kingdom of God

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

Christians have always seen Christ as a king who will reign visibly some day, but what kind of ‘king’ would he be? How would his ‘kingdom’ differ from a modern state? And in the meantime, how should the idea of ‘the kingdom of God’ influence the way we think about the secular world?

These questions are particularly relevant at a time when western political life seems increasingly corrupt. Modern media place a searing spotlight on all prominent people, revealing their private as well as public weaknesses. The flaws of nearby royalty are now common knowledge, so that the whole idea of a ‘kingdom’ is also out of fashion. We associate it with snobbery and inequality, and we cling to the ideal of a truly equal society. Does this mean we should forget about the whole idea of a ‘Kingdom of God’?

The answer is a definite ‘no’ – because we need to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ to have any hope of building a truly equal and just and peaceful society – especially here in Ireland.

The first thing to note about Jesus is that he differed in a quite remarkable way from the great kings of Israel: he never entered into rivalry with anyone, or sought to exercise an authority based upon force, or even the threat of force. Nor did he ever establish a court from which to overawe people and dominate politically. He had already acquired the only status that mattered to him: closeness to the Lord God of Israel.

The most interesting thing about the kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon is that it was seen by the God of Samuel as a rejection of his own kingdom. The Bible tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” (1 Sam 8:4,5)

Notice that these elders wanted a kingdom such as all the other nations have. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of covetousness – the desire to possess something possessed by others – because they possess it. The supposed greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led the Israelite elders to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had. This was one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord God told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible meaning: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’, begin with the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God. Nor should we suppose that the kingdom of God is incompatible with a modern democracy.

The Bible is also unsparing in its account of the flaws of the three great kings of Israel. Despite their anointing they all suffered from the very sin that lay at the root of the foundation of that kingdom – mimetic desire or covetousness. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and Saul became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with covetousness.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. ‘Renown’ is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had become his undoing also. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’ time.

The whole idea of sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from the people – those ‘subjects’ who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

This is a remarkable account of the consequences of earthly kingship – giving essentially the same reasons for the rejection of monarchy as the American subjects of George III were to use in 1776 – about three thousand years after the foundation of the kingdom of Israel. People eventually resent being treated as inferior by other people who are obviously as flawed as they are.

Here we find the essential difference between Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ and any state built originally in the world by force: it is built first of all within the person, by a spiritual process. Those who live in it are governed by their love of the king who placed it there, not by fear of the consequences of disobedience. Equality is part of its essence. As Thomas Merton observed, the Gospels lead us to a state of mind and heart in which ‘there are no strangers’.

We should remember this when trying to picture any future ‘kingdom of God’ – even one in which Christ visibly reigns. God does not desire our subjection. Indeed God will endure personal humiliation rather than reign through fear: why else would he have tolerated crucifixion in preference to the use of force?

It follows that we need to ponder on ‘the kingdom of God’ to understand the mysteries of our own time – especially the mystery of inequality. Why is it that almost three centuries after equality became the central goal of western political life our societies are still deeply flawed by snobbery and inequality?

Again the bible tells us clearly: we want to be ‘as Gods’ – that is, superior to one another. A perfect political illustration of this is the history of the British Labour party over the last century. Founded to achieve the socialist ideals of people like George Bernard Shaw it became ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, bound to the ‘meritocratic’ ideals of Tony Blair.

A ‘meritocrat’ is someone very like the said Tony – a clever chap who has ‘risen to the top’ because he supposedly ‘merits’ it. It is clear that to rise to the top there must be a ‘top’ to begin with, so ‘meritocracy’ is based upon the acceptance of inequality. And so it is not essentially different from ‘aristocracy’, which means simply rule of the best.

Irish political life demonstrates the same paradox over the same period. In Ireland in 1922 a political elite emerged out of a violent revolution, promising to cherish all of the nation’s children equally. It now secures its own privileges by a taxation system that favours the wealthy. One of its most outstanding second generation products scandalised the country by aping the aristocratic lifestyle of a member of the 18th century Irish ascendancy, complete with country house and lavish entertainment – all financed by corruption.

If this could happen to the revolutionary parties that emerged out of the period 1916-22, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will not happen to parties emerging out of more recent violence. Today’s populist revolutionaries almost inevitably become tomorrow’s aristocratic elite.

The root of inequality lies in the very same ‘sin’ that founded the kingdom of Israel: covetousness, or mimetic desire – we choose our goals and objectives by imitation of those who seem superior. Which means in turn that deep down we are dissatisfied with ourselves, unsure of our own value. We are prisoners of ‘the world’, our own enveloping culture – nowadays represented by the media which tell us who the ‘superior’ people are, and what they own – so that we can know what we should desire.

And this is why ‘the kingdom of God’ is such a crucial concept – because in consciously seeking it we seek also a consciousness of our own value as Christians, followers of Christ. As a brother or sister of Christ we have a dignity that is greater than any honour ‘the world’ can confer – and a true equality also.

We acquire this title and this dignity through our baptism. The unfortunate tendency of our church leadership to confer other supposed honours upon themselves – honours accessible only through ordination – has undermined the dignity of Christian baptism. It has also deprived lay Catholics of the awareness that they are equally invited into the closest possible relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth.

All Christians are now called to develop a ‘kingdom’ spirituality, and to explain to the secular world why inequality arises out of worldliness – the search for status.

If our Catholic leadership is to respond to that call it must begin by ending the radical inequality within the Church, and by honouring the dignity with which baptism endows every lay person.

That inequality represents not the will of God, but the corruption of our church by clericalism – the belief that ordination confers a higher status than baptism. It is also the root of all the problems that now beset us.

Views: 21

The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

When I began my teaching career in 1966 human intelligence was still considered to be a single indivisible entity, easily measurable as  ‘IQ’.  Now the convention is to believe that there are at least eight, and possibly nine, different kinds of human intelligence.  The ninth, currently under consideration, is spiritual intelligence, labelled SQ for convenience.  A search of the Internet will discover at least four books on the subject.

A quick reading of these will discover tantalising glimpses of the phenomenon, but no clear delineation.  Other kinds of intelligence will either discover or discern something ( e.g. scientific and mathematical intelligence) or create something (e.g. artistic and musical intelligence.)  What specific work does spiritual intelligence actually do, or what does it create?  The existing literature is unhelpful here.  Richard Wolman* delineates eight ‘dimensions’ of SQ, but these are merely descriptive of the behaviours of those considered spiritually focused – such as religious observance or the reading of sacred texts.  There is a strong element of condescension here, a tendency to equate spiritual intelligence with mere awareness or activity rather than with any clear achievement.

Another peculiarity of this literature is its tendency to draw most of its inspiration either from oriental sources such as Buddhism, or from contemporary science – such as research into the human brain.  The foundational spiritual texts of the west, collectively known as the Bible, receive generally little more than a passing nod.  Does the biblical concept of wisdom relate to SQ, and if so how?  Nowhere so far is this question pursued in any systematic way.

One way of approaching this is through the fascinating story of Isaac Newton’s famous quarrel with the German intellectual Gottfried Leibniz.

By 1684 Newton’s greatest work had been completed, but not yet revealed to the European intelligentsia – including the discovery of the prismatic nature of white light, the universal principle of gravity and the laws of motion.  In that year  Leibniz published a paper on Calculus, a new branch of maths, which Newton had himself already developed, again without publishing.  Unable to believe that Leibniz might independently have made exactly the same discovery, Newton accused him, quite unreasonably, of plagiarism.  He pursued the matter even beyond Leibniz’ death, encouraging his own doctoral students to make overt attacks upon Leibniz in their theses, remaining fixated on the matter for the last twenty-five years of his life.

The point is, of course, that although there is no doubting Newton’s superb scientific and mathematical intelligence, we find him here gripped unknowingly by an overwhelming desire for the renown of primacy in this one discovery, even though it was far less significant than his other work, and even though this quarrel diminished his stature in European intellectual life during his own lifetime.  He was, in a word, unwise.  So are those now notorious scientists who have faked research or altered research data to prove their own already-published conclusions.

All competitive desire for renown is mimetic desire – an imitative desire acquired from the simple cultural fact that others possess the same desire.  The Newton-Leibniz story establishes both that there is a distinctive and important kind of intelligence different from the superb scientific intelligence that Newton undoubtedly possessed, and that its absence in matters of this kind is a serious and self-destructive human flaw.

The reason this story should arrest the attention of SQ theorists is that the Bible may easily be described as a text centred upon the human problem of mimetic desire.  To take an extreme example, the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem could not tolerate the possibility that his own primacy might be challenged in his own lifetime by some upstart.  His problem was that his self-esteem had become indissolubly attached to his conscious possession of renown.  It was essentially the same fixation of another Herod that doomed John the Baptist a generation later.  And Newton’s fixation with Leibniz was the same problem.

Renown is an almost archaic term.  To distinguish it from self-esteem we might call it other-esteem – the esteem of others.  According to the biblical texts, its loss, or the possibility of its loss, can drive people to extremes.  For Saul the loss of the other-esteem of the women of Israel was the source of his vendetta against David.  For Solomon, the other-esteem his wisdom brought was also the source of his apostasy from the God who had answered his prayer for wisdom.

Solomon’s earlier resolution of the problem posed by the two women who claimed the same child is a fascinating example of biblical wisdom.  So familiar is it that we may miss its full significance.  We need to note not so much the innocent mother whose love for her child allowed her to give it up, but the guilty woman who was willing to allow it to be divided.  She had woken first, realising that she had rolled on her own infant in the night, smothering it.  Remembering that in that culture a woman’s status was tightly bound up with fertility, we need to empathise with her predicament:  soon the other woman would wake up, becoming the first to scorn her neighbour’s carelessness.  This day this useless mother would become identified as such – losing all other-esteem among her peers.  But the living infant was all that differentiated her from the successful mother still sleeping close by – hence the substitution.  Her ‘covetousness’ was irresistible, as her final shame was imminent.

Solomon’s wisdom penetrated to the heart of the crime, understanding the difference between love and desire, and understanding also the problem posed to the guilty woman by the threatened loss of other-esteem.   The living child could cover her shame – and so could a half child divided at the command of the king.  The real mother, on the other hand, was willing to accept shame to save the child.

No matter what else may have changed since Old Testament times, the fear of shame is a constant.  It lies at the root of much criminality and addiction – and especially at the root of many instances of outrageous violence in our own time.  David Copeland, the bomber of gay bars in England in 1999, insisted:  ‘If no-one knows who you were, you never existed.’  And Robert Steinhaeuser, who killed sixteen in a school in Bavaria in April 2002, was facing his parents’ imminent discovery that he had been prevented from sitting final exams by the school in question – for forging medical notes to explain his frequent absences.

Given the self-conscious anguish of adolescents over everything from acne to lack of the (media-defined) perfect body, it is a remarkable fact that Catholic education still lacks a proper appreciation of the significance of the spiritual intelligence of the Bible.  As a teacher for thirty years I can attest to its supreme relevance in the rough and tumble of a teenager’s life.

In one instance, two fifteen-year-old girls who had been close friends fell out bitterly over the leading role in a school musical.  Shiela (not her name) was originally chosen for the part, which she acted very proficiently.  Then it was discovered that her singing voice simply hadn’t the range for the music she was required to sing.  She was asked to relinquish the part, which was then given to her friend Patricia (another pseudonym), who had been learning the role while watching Shiela.  The two were irreconcilable, as Shiela insisted that Patricia had betrayed her.  Furthermore, Shiela insisted that she could not remain at the school, and had to be relocated.

Of course there was bad management here on the part of those producing the show – but the story illustrates the power of mimetic desire to cause conflict, and the connection of self-esteem with other-esteem in the minds of even the most intelligent young people these times.

In another case, more recently, a teenager entered a media competition for one of the singing ‘bands’ that now proliferate  – a competition for which she was ineligible as she was younger by two years than the required minimum age.  When she won a much-coveted place through sheer talent, she was interviewed live for a TV ‘profile’ – and inadvertently let slip her real age.  When this was noticed she was caught on camera in a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to justify her original lie – until her family (very belatedly) decided to end her misery.

In both instances, the mimetic desire for other-esteem had profoundly affected the behaviour and self-esteem of young people whose Catholic education had no explicit relevance to this problem.

The phenomenon of bullying could on its own justify the teaching of spiritual intelligence in school.  Bullies are essentially mini-warlords making a bid for the bank of other esteem in their class or year group.  Very often they are themselves driven by fear of shame – perhaps over lesser academic ability.  By orchestrating contempt against an even more vulnerable member of the group they can deflect shame from themselves, and enjoy the eminence of power, as well as the certitude that they themselves will not suffer shame.  The fear they deploy – of being shamed –  will keep it at bay.

Does a fiercely competitive educational system inevitably deploy fear of shame as means of motivating children?  If so, is it spiritually intelligent?

And how many teachers of RE would be able to point to the treatment of the adulterous woman in St John’s gospel as an archetypal example of bullying?  Jesus’s riposte is far more than a brilliant stratagem.  It identifies the purpose behind all such violence – to relieve everyone’s fear of shame by depositing all shame on this one execrated individual.  Every stone thrown at her would be an unloading of the sin of the one who threw it, a statement of personal inculpability.

And this in turn allows us to see Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion as a willingness to be the scapegoat for the sake of our enlightenment, our realisation of what lies behind all such scapegoating.  Indeed the entire life and mission of Jesus can be understood as an exposure of the cultural processes through which elites not only acquire power and other-esteem, but deploy shame to maintain their power.

How was Jesus able to plough this extraordinary furrow, facing the extremity of crucifixion – the instrument of ultimate shame – totally alone?  This is the central mystery of our faith, the question that faces us with a wondrous truth:  that he was in his deepest consciousness connected to a source of truth that allowed him to do without the other-esteem of his enveloping human culture.  No other explanation is possible for his unique achievement in ‘overcoming the world’.

Spiritual intelligence depends in the end upon spirituality – upon relationship with this extraordinary source of wisdom that allows love to overcome desire.  We need to see this as the central purpose and theme of biblical revelation – connecting this with the problems of shame as our culture defines them for individuals.  The teenagers who today live in fear of shame, and in constant search of media attention, need to understand that the Bible addresses their predicaments like no other book, and draws them to an alternative and unfailing source of self-esteem.

The West will understand spiritual intelligence fully only when it looks with unbiased interest at the resource that lies under its nose, separating it from the uncomprehending triumphalism of Christian fundamentalism.  For their own survival the mainstream churches need to discover this first – that the Bible is as rich a source for understanding ourselves, and modern culture, as for understanding God.

(*Richard N Wolman, Thinking With Your Soul:  Spiritual Intelligence and Why It Matters, Harmony Books)

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The Lost Sin

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

Views: 15

Is God Dead?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  Oct 2001

A Review of I See Satan Fall like Lightning by René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

Neo-paganism more than anything else is the target of this book, but its greatest value is as a succinct introduction to the various other profound works of the author, René Girard. It is also, in the end, a highly optimistic summary of the lasting effects of the Gospel, and a redoubtable assault upon the cosy post-modernist consensus that God is dead (the only significant thing agreed upon). Not so, says Girard – the fact that victims everywhere have become the focus of compassion and policy, and their salvation and protection an essential test of political virtue, is the de facto victory of the cross, and thus of God also – but not the God of power that Nietzsche might have respected.

Girard is a vastly erudite literary academic and cultural anthropologist, rather than a theologian or philosopher, but both theology and philosophy have much to learn from him. As have those biblical scholars whose a priori deconstructions (actually destruction) of the texts they study is another of Girard’s targets. For him the Bible is the book of all books, because, without an elaborate exegesis, it allows us to discover the organising principle behind all ancient culture, without exception.

That principle is scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of a usually marginalized victim, selected by a process of mimetic accusation which holds the victim accountable for the ‘plague’ afflicting a given society, e.g. ancient Thebes in the time of Oedipus. The accuser is Satan, the one also bent upon concealing the injustice of this original crime from the clear gaze of its perpetrators. ‘Plague’ is a metaphor for any crisis threatening the survival of a society, especially internal conflict brought about by mimetic desire. The single victim mechanism unites all in the expulsion of this evil, releasing the tension which might otherwise have destroyed all.

Mimetic desire is a key Girardian concept. It registers the key fact that Madison Avenue confirms daily – that our desires are mostly imitative, an unconscious absorption of the desires of others, interpreted through whatever they already possess. ‘Covetousness’ is the biblical term, a key word in the Mosaic commandments that the ineffable Bishop Spong routinely rubbishes as a party piece. Desiring what others possess – especially if it is, like supreme power, or ‘glory’, unique – is the essential source of internal (as well as external) conflict, and this is precisely why in the Jewish and Christian traditions, desire needs to be understood and controlled.

For those who read both Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and the New Testament first at school, it is fascinating to see both texts fall together under Girard’s lens. Caesar is a military conqueror whose ‘glory’ excites the envy (blocked desire – disguised as patriotism) – of those who murder him. Yet in the avenging of his death he is divinised, creating the title by which holders of imperial power would thenceforth be known, and the principle by which the empire is unified. It was in the reign of the first of these Caesars that Jesus entered the world, the one who renounced worldly power, both secular and religious – conquering mimetic desire – and then clearly revealed the process of mimetic violence in the Passion, recorded in the Gospel narratives. The fact that these narratives were recorded at all was the result of something itself unique in such events – the detachment from the scapegoating crowd of those convinced of the resurrection, and of the innocence of the accused.

Thus for Girard what distinguishes the Biblical texts from all similar founding texts is their revelation of, and intolerance for, the scapegoating process. He insists that all other founding myths, treated so often merely as quaint fictions by modernist conflaters, conceal real foundation murders. The Enlightenment’s tendency to find e.g. ancient Greek civilisation entirely healthy by comparison with Judaism is fundamentally naïve – as evidenced by the known practice on certain festivals of ritually assassinating the pharmakoi – marginalized victims pre-selected for this purpose. Myths for Girard, although correctly decipherable, are essentially lies in the sense that they seek to justify the unjustifiable – but only our possession of the biblical texts allows this decoding.

The most striking defence of this conviction comes in his comparative analysis of the stories of Oedipus and the biblical Joseph. Both are subject to mimetic accusation – Joseph twice, by his brothers and by the Egyptians – but in the Greek legend the guilt of Oedipus is alleged to have been proven, whereas the biblical account insists on Joseph’s innocence on both occasions. His test of his brothers’ willingness to repeat their betrayal of himself in the handing over of Benjamin results in one moving exception, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ substitution of himself for all victims.

Girard’s assault on Nietzsche – for explicitly justifying sacrificial murder – is drastic. He argues that the archetypal modern scapegoating murder, the Holocaust, was essentially a pursuit of this programme, and that had Hitler won the war the Nietzschean programme of undoing the compassion for victims established by the gospels would have been attempted on a vast scale. The genocide of Europe’s Jews would have been not only acknowledged but boasted about – just as such events were justified by spurious accusation in the ancient and medieval world.

That the global historical record might thus have become so easily permanently tainted suggests that Girardian analysis has much to reveal about historiography generally. Northern Ireland is replete with scapegoating violence on both sides of the equation – and it is interesting that the original villain of Irish nationalist historiography, Dermot MacMurrough, was also the victim of an expulsion. Now he is banished historiographically (a kind of perennial classroom ritual) as archetypal traitor – the promised fate of all who collaborate with the enemies of those who claim the sole right to define the nation. MacMurrough’s essential problem was that he lost out in a fratricidal (i.e. mimetic) conflict among Ireland’s own ruling elite – although to listen to the anti-revisionists one would often suppose that never a blow was struck on this island before the Anglo-Normans came. (Lundy, of course, fills the same role on the loyalist side providing the name by which all Unionist compromisers will be known.)

And in the reciprocal accusation that is the daily, dolorous stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland’s extremes one finds Girard’s ‘doubles’ – the rivals for vindication and power that are identical in essentials and in viciousness, but totally fixated on the trivial differences of flags and emblems. Mimetic desire for sole possession of a territory that all could freely share is an exact description of the causes of this conflict, as it is of the Palestinian tragedy. Each extreme attempts to build a worldview, and a historiography, around the right to accuse, and then expel, the other. That they cannot recognise in this Cain against Cain is Ireland’s, and Christianity’s, (and, in the case of Palestine, Islam’s and Judaism’s) greatest tragedy.

Satan as orchestrator of the scapegoating process is first, seducer – the one who tempts all to the fulfilment of all desire. Then he is accuser, the one who points to a (usually lowly) scapegoat who must bear the blame for the social conflict that must follow blocked desire. The advantage of choosing a stranger, (or other marginalized person) is that the accusation can more easily become unanimous. Unanimity over the fallen victim equals a new social cohesiveness – and even eventually in some cases a cult of the victim, who has been paradoxically the restorer of unity and peace. This process, is, for Girard, the invariable origin of pagan cults and Gods. Pagan sacrifice, originally human sacrifice, was the ritualised remembrance of the founding murder, a gradually deteriorating means of maintaining unity.

That neo-paganism should scorn the existence of Satan (i.e. a principle of evil separate from ourselves) is thus a predictable recovery of the blindness that we need in order to resume the heedless fulfilment of desire (facilitated now to some degree by mass production) – and also to resume the hunt for scapegoats. If there is no Satan, then someone else must be to blame for everything. The remnants of the Marxist left will again find their scapegoat in capitalism and its devotees. The right will thus be provided with its scapegoat in the ideological left. The mimetic desire of both for power and control will be invisible to both – and we will soon, it seems, watch the next round of this irrational and bloody two-step in Colombia – (now with Irish participation of some kind!). Girard reminds us that ideologies too became the objects of cults in the aftermath of the enlightenment, and that both must also have their sacrificial victims (e.g. the Soviet show trials). We can easily add the McCarthyite witch hunts in the US, and the Cultural Revolution in China.

That Jesus never accused a human individual, and in the end forgave all, for all time, is in itself the means by which Satan is revealed. He offers us a global unanimity without another victim, and is thus the author of the only kind of globalisation that is tolerable. That he offers us also self-esteem without the amassing of possessions is also the best hope we have of avoiding environmental catastrophe.

This perception of redemption – as the means by which we as a species become aware of the origins of our own violence in mimetic desire, and can thus repent – supersedes the temporary expedients of the middle ages – which explained the crucifixion in terms of the appeasement of God’s anger, or the satisfaction of his honour or justice. These expedients were necessary because medieval order was also founded on scapegoating – of, for example, criminals, heretics, witches, Jews and Islam. Now that the state is revealed as the ultimate ‘legitimate’ user of violence (i.e. victimiser), church/state pacts must always be held at arms length by churchmen. That the Enlightenment itself, in the form of secularism, is forcing this conclusion willy nilly upon even the most reluctant ecclesiastics must be regarded as another proof of the divine constancy.

And the current rows over Catholic anti-semitism and Pius XII can also benefit from a reading of this book. It clearly shows that the reading of John’s Gospel as an accusation against Judaism per se is totally misconceived. The scapegoating mechanism revealed there is identical with processes which are the prevailing theme of the Old Testament also – so Judaism – the transcendant victim culture of the ancient, medieval and modern world – is in fact the cultural vehicle of all divine revelation, and must therefore be eternally revered. And our church’s complicity with anti-semitism is not a specifically Catholic or Christian sin – merely evidence of our own susceptibility to a general human catastrophe – the betrayal of our brothers out of fear. The recent Rwandan horror sucked in many Catholics also – all the more reason for becoming aware of the power of high-level scapegoating accusation to deceive us all – but not a reason for condemning Catholicism per se. Accusation itself is the problem. When we indulge in it – for example in pillorying Pius XII – we participate in the process that eternally seeks to destroy our peace.

There is not a single major problem or controversy of the present or foreseeable future that Girardian analysis does not illuminate, in theistic Christian terms, which makes this extraordinary and virtually unknown academic probably the greatest Catholic mind of our time. Faced now with horrors such as the actuality of racial and ethnic scapegoating in Ireland itself, we need this book on our shelves, and its fundamental insights rapidly incorporated into Catholic education. It is wise, erudite, optimistic and accessible, giving us the means of meeting neo-paganism and relativism head on, but without the awkward divisiveness and self-exaltation of Dominus Iesus. It meets secularism on its own ground, clear-eyed and compassionate – banishing forever the fear that Christianity is historically defunct, or that adherence to Christ is a threat to anyone. It threatens only evil itself, giving it a name we also need not now fear or deny. Girard’s meticulous account of how that evil operates, throughout history, and in the world’s literature, allows us too to see Satan fall like lightning from heaven.

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Towards a New Evangelism I: What’s so good about the ‘Good News’?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

“No – I don’t want to hear about Jesus!” This is the signature message of one member of the Internet mailing list alt.recovery.catholic – an international (but mostly north American) e-mail support community. Its members are mostly people whose experience of Catholicism has led them to see it as abusive or addictive.

The message succinctly sums up the problem of the ‘New Evangelism’ so persistently called for by Pope John Paul II. Just as people stopped listening to the boy who cried ‘wolf’ when none appeared, so countless millions in the west today suppose, on the basis of their own experience, that there is nothing especially good about the Christian Good News.

This is particularly true of Ireland, where people often suppose that an experience of nine or more years of Catholic education, and regular family Mass-going, have exhausted the possibilities of the Gospel they experienced there. The perceived de-sacralisation of the priesthood that has followed from a spate of scandals also takes a toll. So does Christian fundamentalism, of all varieties. When you ask perfectly sensible people today if they would like to be ‘saved’, many are liable to ask ‘you mean from the saved?’

Furthermore, the medium by which the Gospel has primarily been communicated for two millennia – the language of the bible and of theology – has less and less traction on human attention. All language has been debased by the children of Madison Avenue. Cynical political spin doctoring has had a similar effect. As the Ulsterman says, “If you believe all you hear, you’ll eat all you see!” In a welter of claims to veracity that are mostly spurious, we no longer associate word with truth. Our perceptual in-tray is labelled “Claims Mostly Unreliable” – and in it we place everything from Reader’s Digest promises of millions to papal encyclicals.

And biblical language has a special problem. ‘Sin’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Atonement’ seem echoes of an age long dead – when every misfortune from floods to disease and earthquakes was attributed to divine anger. This problem is compounded by what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies bind: the clergyman’s profession of faith is closely connected to his livelihood – so when he insists that God will call all to account at the end of time, people are inclined to think – and more and more likely to say – ‘but he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

A further problem relates to the ‘where’ of evangelisation. Spacial communities once centred on a single market place or village have been shattered by physical and informational communications revolutions – so people may sleep in one location, work many miles away, shop somewhere else, and socialise elsewhere again – and may do their thinking and discussing on the phone or the internet as members of an international work or hobby ‘virtual’ community.

As a possible solution to this problem of lost one-space community, the growth of broadcast media such as radio and television was initially met with as much enthusiasm by churchmen as by politicians such as Roosevelt and Goebbels – but multi-channel satellite and cable TV, as well as the VCR – have fragmented even these communities. Papal spectaculars are one answer – but quickly pall. They are too similar to mass political rallies in which charismatic personalities fly in, get waved at from a distance, and then fly out again, leaving little behind. For lay people wondering about their own lifestyle, there just isn’t any way of following an act like that. Radical change in the way we perceive and respond to life demands far more than a one-day sensation, and schools quickly found that replaying 1979 videos of Ireland’s papal visit was a sure recipe for an ‘Aw, Miss!’ response. Indeed, over-exposure on the media may well have done for the papacy what it has done for royalty – disperse the semi-magical aura with which people surround their mental image of an august person they have never seen.

We can summarise these problems as relating to the What, How, Who and Where of evangelisation. I’ll deal with just the first of these in this article. What exactly is the good news anyhow – in terms that will make sense to people today?

Readers of earlier articles in this series will know that I relate the appeal of Jesus, prior to crucifixion, to the fact that he upended the pyramid of worthiness or esteem that characterised the ancient world. The last would be first, the returned prodigal would be celebrated, the poor were blessed, the rich and powerful were not to be considered more favoured by God. Most importantly this verbal message – which astonished even the apostles – was authenticated by a table fellowship that scandalised the disciples of ritual purity by including the most reviled.

The Good News therefore was that those who had considered themselves at the tail end of the triumphal procession of the ancient world were in fact beloved of the God who was at the summit of it. He was to be glorified precisely because he acknowledged and raised up the lowly. ‘The World’ had got it wrong – and this claim was validated by the willingness of the messenger to associate with, and above all to eat with, the ritually unclean. Word and deed were not separate, but united – reinforcing the credibility of the message. As Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’s comment on the rich young man indicates, in the ancient world one’s sinfulness was a deduction from one’s exclusion, one’s social and spiritual unworthiness – so inclusion in the table of the messenger proved the latter’s integrity and one’s own salvation. The table of Jesus, like the Jordan baptism of John, was a challenge to the Temple system of ritual cleanliness and conformity with legal minutiae and expensive sacrifice – a system of salvation that favoured the relatively wealthy and educated.

A real, enduring fellowship offered to the shunned was therefore inseparable from the idea of salvation – and this association was maintained by the relative social humility of the early leaders of the church, and its rejection by the Jewish and Roman establishments in the first Christian centuries. Salvation is inseparable from a sense of ‘God with us’ – also expressed in the excitement of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ that drew people to Jesus – but simply the fact of his willingness to bring personally the message ‘you are forgiven and loved’ – and to abide with those now evangelised, sharing their deprivation.

It is clear therefore that evangelisation is also non-hierarchical. Jesus’ humility collapsed the pyramid of esteem which had communicated to the rejected the fact of their rejection. As did his washing of the feet. As did the crucifixion most of all.

It follows from this that the Good News would not necessarily be good news for all – and that it was not simply a promise of life after physical death. It was an assurance of the love of God now and forever for those who had been taught by the world that they were of no account – with the sole proviso of genuine repentance. And it was therefore also a questioning of the presumption of those whose worldly success had been thought a sure sign of divine favour.

Sad to relate, this is not quite what the Church relayed to me during my orthodox Catholic education in the 1950s. Then the good news had become ‘the Church is always right’. The reason was simple enough: the Church’s own growth, and especially the Constantinian shift in the church’s social and political status in the fourth century had led to Christian adaptation to, and approval of, social hierarchy per se. Thus, although salvation could still be merited by the poor, their happiness must be deferred in this life. Theology soon explained human hierarchies – even the institution of slavery – in terms of divine preference for hierarchies in heaven also. It was at this point that the gospels became detached from the real world – and almost incapable of fundamentally changing it. Jesus belonged in a landscape of poor people raised by him onto a different plane – but it did not follow that Christian kings would share their tables with the verminous. Their superiority was required in order to maintain Christian order. And it was this Christian order that became Christendom.

A story told by Bede about St Aidan in the seventh century well illustrates this analysis. This spiritual child of Iona, in evangelising Northumbria, impressed its King, Oswald, to the extent that he gave the saint the gift of a valuable horse. When Aidan soon gave this gift to a beggar, the king was angered – to the extent that Aidan lamented his greater valuation of the horse than the beggar. Yet if Kings and beggars were equal in dignity, kingship itself conferred none, so kings inevitably won this argument in the long run. Territorial churchmen in time learned to avoid such sorrow by keeping such gifts, regretfully delegating the virtue of humility to their subordinates. Thus the church became itself a pyramid of esteem, duplicating and ratifying the secular one alongside.

This is where we all come in – close to the terminus of this sad experiment in accommodating the gospels to the injustice of the world. Once the elites originally educated by the Church lost intellectual respect for Christianity, their patronage of the Church could be easily abandoned. The trauma of secularist democratic revolution beginning in 1789 led to a renewed tactical alliance between political aristocracy and Christian hierarchy in the nineteenth century, but this too was fundamentally cynical and tenuous. Although it informed the Roman Curia’s attempted suppression of liberation theology as late as the 1980s, it did so at the cost of that body’s scant remaining moral authority. And this is precisely why the call for a new evangelisation now seems so forlorn. If the gospel doesn’t challenge the world, it must merely support it.

It must be pointed out also here that the fundamental premise of most Catholic education has by now been proved bankrupt: that the education of the sons of the wealthy would ‘Christianise’ society from the top down. Education itself is an empowerment, and when it is bestowed selectively upon those already privileged it can only reinforce their privilege. This is why our intelligentsias endlessly analyse the problems of the world and argue over their solution at the top of towers of steel and glass – without ever getting to the root of the problem: their own preference for height, for remoteness from the mean back streets below. For it is social contempt that the poor feel most keenly, not the material difference that is its sacrament. As anyone who has spent any time with the poor will know, people can be happy with very little until they are reminded by the media of the material differential that excludes them from the award-winning tables of the famous and the well-to-do.

And this is why our society is now so thoroughly secular – in spite of the fact that the elites that govern it are mostly the products of elite Catholic schools. The acceptance by the church of the principle of social hierarchy is an endorsement of the very essence of secularism – worldliness, the assumption that it is the proud, rather than the poor, who are blessed by God , and therefore worthy of their self-conscious superiority.

Yet the paradox is that it is the survival of social hierarchy and privilege that guarantees the permanent relevance of the gospels. Suffering and injustice, exclusion, low self-esteem, addiction, depression – all these are the richest soil on which the good news can take root. Many are reinforced by the media cult of celebrity in our own time – the raising to ikonic status of mere humans as flawed as the rest of us. For the essence of the Gospel is that we are all indeed already and unconditionally loved, and will never be forsaken. All that is lacking is evangelisers so convinced of this that they will not just say it, but live it. Indeed, given the bankruptcy of mere language, and the chasm between the word and the deed in the hierarchical Church, it is the doing of it that can alone now renew the Church.

Who ‘does’ Christian love best today? Obsessed with the danger of getting the theology wrong, our leaders seem to pay little attention to this question. If one truly loves, in the name of the Trinity, their presence is revealed by that love, which speaks of nothing else, so where is the possibility of error? We should be looking for, and encouraging, such people, if only to vindicate the truth we argue over.

Luckily I know some of these new evangelisers, and will write of this next month.

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World and Church Revisited

Sean O’Conaill  Doctrine and Life 2001

The recent long-distance exchange between the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Des Connell, and Irish President Mary McAleese, revived an old and tortured question – the proper relationship of the Church to ‘the world’. Dr Connell emphasised the sadness and waywardness of the modern world, and the need for holiness in opposition to it, quoting in disapproval the president’s call for ‘a revitalized Church comfortably adapted to the modern world’.

He can be justly criticised for not quoting the rest of the sentence from which this came: ‘yet a profound centre of spiritual gravity’ – but nevertheless there seems to remain a fundamental opposition between these two views of ‘the world’. In one it is spiritually dangerous, to be held at a distance and judged and redeemed – i.e. changed – by the Church; in the other it becomes judge of the Church’s ‘relevance’ or health, in the sense that a church ‘out of touch with’ the world is to be considered itself in need of change.

This question, is, I believe, central to the division between what we might loosely describe as the ‘reformist’ and ‘restorationist’ stances within the Church. As there is a critical need to find some common ground these times I would argue that we can find some here – by teasing apart the different senses in which ‘the world’ may be understood.

We may begin by noting that the Bible uses this term in quite different senses. Most Old Testament references are to those inhabited parts of the earth known to the scripture writers. For example:

(Gen 41:57) And all the countries came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe in all the world.

Here ‘the world’ is simply the totality of locations from which the peoples known to the author may come. In Psalms the ‘world’ is also the totality of the human race, to be judged by God:

(Psalms 96:13) They will sing before the LORD, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his truth.

In Isaiah we find a note of condemnation: the world is not merely the created world, but the world of men that stands somehow in opposition to God.

(Isaiah 13:11) I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

Yet this association of ‘the world’ with human arrogance does not completely obliterate the world that is fruitful and good:

(Isaiah 27:6) In days to come Jacob will take root, Israel will bud and blossom and fill all the world with fruit.

All of these usages – positive, neutral and condemnatory – occur again in the New Testament.

(Matthew 5:14) You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.

(Matthew 13:35) So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.”

(Matthew 18:7) “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!”

In John we can find for the first time the usage of ‘world’ in opposition to Jesus – all those who do not recognise him for what he is:

(John 1: 10) He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Yet this world of non-recognisers will nevertheless also be redeemed:

(John 1:29) The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Jesus also directly accuses ‘the world’:

(John 7:7) “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.”

Yet he intends its salvation.

(John 12:47) “As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it.”

After the crucifixion ‘the world’ becomes those who are not the disciples:

(John 15:19) If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.

How are we to make sense of this essentially bipolar attitude towards the world? How can the world be both essentially good, at once a beautiful creation, and at the same time something that opposes the light, from which we must stand apart, whose hatred we must overcome?

An additional problem arises from the specifically modern perception of the world as in a dynamic rather than static condition – in progress – however tortuous – towards Utopia. This perception was at its peak in the 1960s, after nearly two decades of comparative international peace and economic development. The Vatican II document ‘Gaudium et Spes’ (Joy and Hope) caught this perception beautifully, balancing this joy and hope with the ‘grief and anguish’ that is also so much a part of our ‘world’. Three decades later Utopia may well seem further away, certainly in global terms, as possible environmental catastrophe is added to the woes emanating from man’s growing scientific and technical power – with consequences for the entire human family we cannot yet predict. Since the 1960s also – when a repeat of the horrors of Auschwitz seemed unthinkable – we have seen the return of essentially the same scapegoating violence in the Middle East and the Balkans. All of this lends weight to a view of ‘the world’ as fixed in ‘Sin’ – from which the Church should indeed shrink.

Yet the world remains God’s creation, a dear inheritance that becomes even more dear now that it faces environmental degradation at our hands. What exactly is the sin that insidiously threatens our, and its, survival?

Our best way into this, I believe, is to reflect upon the power of ‘the world’ vis-a-vis the individual – a power that has never been stronger in Ireland than at this time. Its unprecedented array of career paths and glittering prizes is unarguably seductive and all-absorbing – as the exodus of so many of our young people from Catholic practice and ‘ethos’ clearly proves. What is the source of this power?

It is, I believe, the same as that which governs mimetic desire or covetousness, the root of the acquisitiveness, miscalled ‘materialism’, I dealt with last month – a search for self-esteem through the esteem of others, especially our coevals. We are, naturally, esteem-seekers, not self-sufficient or independent in our possession of self-esteem. And because we withhold esteem from some, and bestow it upon others, we must always be unequal possessors of self-esteem. A perennial feature of ‘the world’ is therefore the unequal bestowal of esteem – the fact that it is always a pyramid of esteem. It is this feature of our sociability that maintains desire: we are insatiable in this matter of esteem because its complete possession always (or almost always) eludes us.

It follows that ‘the world’ – although always holding the carrot of its esteem in front of us – this thing to be achieved if we buy this or do that – must always deny us its fulfilment. It is the adrenalin of unfulfilled desire that maintains ‘the world’ of desire.

There is, therefore, a dimension in which ‘the world’ is indeed always and forever the same, and dangerous – a desire ‘trap’ that keeps us fluttering in a state of dissatisfaction around the honey pot of fulfilled desire. The world’s tragedy is that it cannot in fact fulfil the desires it creates.

The reason is simple: if all of us are to be at the summit of the pyramid of esteem, who will provide the base? If we are all to be applauded, who is to do the applauding? Maximum esteem implies a world of esteemers, of applauders – so if we all seek it, most must be frustrated – and those few who are not must then be envied, and thus supremely vulnerable to the ambition of those who have been denied what they also seek. Here we find the explanation for the rise and fall of ‘Great Men’. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, archetypally, is driven by the desire for the unprecedented esteem that had been accorded to Alexander – but his very success evokes the murderous envy of those to whom he thus denies the very thing he has acquired. Great Men closer to our own time and place are these days going through a similar experience.

Here we find also the explanation for the vulnerability of celebrities today: no-one is more vulnerable than the Beatle, the one who has climbed the pyramid of (especially female) esteem to its summit. Out from the wings comes the stalker, at once fascinated by, and dangerous to, the object of his (seldom her) fascination.

And so those at the summit of popular esteem and fascination can sometimes go full circle, now desiring that which is possessed by the non-esteemed: privacy. In other words they desire a state of not being an object of fascination, of being unknown.

Yet most of those who are unknown feel for that reason unesteemed, and so simultaneously desire the very thing the celebrity would disown, if that were possible. Desire is never-ending.

Unless we can somehow come fully awake from this fixation and say, truly, that all of us are equally worthy of esteem by virtue of our creation – and live our lives, and relate to others, on that basis. I believe that the Incarnation is, historically, the means by which this is to be achieved.

To the extent that our world proclaims and serves the principle of genuine equality, our church lags behind, remaining itself, by deliberate choice, a medieval pyramid of esteem that must change. To the extent that our world remains actually, and at the same time, a pyramid of esteem that promotes unfulfillable desire, the church must stand apart and proclaim a different value system. These are not irreconcilable positions.

The Church must do, in other words, what Jesus did. Proclaim – in deed as well as in word – a different kingdom in which esteem is as much the birthright of everyone, as is the life they have been given by the giver of everything.

The most extraordinary and mysterious thing about the Gospels is their revelation of a life lived in rejection of the pursuit of worldly esteem, within both the religious and the political worlds – and in proclaiming a different kingdom. It is so outrageously transcendent of all human ‘greatness’ that it will forever critique it. Yet the Church that proclaims this life at the same time retains a culture and structure it borrowed from a world of Emperors and kings, which also awarded esteem with blatant inequality. Why else these days would some Cardinals be elbowing one another for media attention, and careerist bishops be a phenomenon prevalent enough to be deplored by a Cardinal in a position to know?

Which of us is the greatest? This is the game we play daily – as much on the motorway as in the boardroom and the Vatican. It is the original sin, the source of Cain’s intolerance of Abel. Which of us is the least? This is the question asked by Christ, who showed the way. Humility, the essential lived quality of the incarnate God, should also be the essential characteristic of Christian leadership. It is the only source of peace, freedom and mutual esteem in all communities, civil and religious. To the extent that the church superstructure withholds equality of esteem from the least of its members – women especially – it becomes a simulacrum, not a contradiction, of the God-opposing world

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