Category Archives: Christology

Why did Jesus of Nazareth accept Crucifixion?

  1. To rescue us from fear of the judgement of others – what Jesus calls ‘the world’ (John 16:33) – by overthrowing, without violence, the judgement of the world of his time, and all time. This fear of judgement, which comes not from God but from the Adversary, is the root of all Status Anxiety (fear of ‘what people think’), status seeking, inequality and violence.
  2. So that we might follow him out of love rather than fear.
  3. To teach us to forgive as He did.
  4. To reveal to us the origin of all violence in Status Anxiety – and the Satanic historical pattern of the accusation and scapegoating of the innocent that arises from the Status Anxiety of those seeking or wielding punitive power.
  5. To give us a limitless horizon – beyond mere consumption, sexual fixation and death.
  6. To offer freedom from fear to those challenged to speak the truth to abusive power, the whistle-blowers who are needed even in the church.
  7. To allow us always to review the history of the church and to lament the Status Anxiety that misled it too often into too close an alliance with state power (c.313 CE to c.1918 CE) under Christendom, and the many victimisations, enslavements and compromises with violence that followed – including the abuse of children by ordained clergy.
  8. To take away even those sins when we have seen them, and properly atoned.
  9. To clarify our understanding of sin as stemming from doubt of our own value, leading to the coveting of status in the positive regard of others – and all other unloving and unjust actions.
  10. To make way for the Holy Spirit, close counsellor of everyone.
  11. To bring us back to the Father our maker – and sender of Jesus our Rescuer and the Holy Spirit our counsellor.
  12. To save the world in an always New Creation – through our conversion and our witness to the Blessed Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who accompany us always and forever.

If the earliest Christians were given new life by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and a vision of a new creation in a violent world now passing away, why should Christians of our time not always see this world of now as equally limited in judgement, and the Trinity as calling them always to a new and peaceful Kingdom of God, beyond all ambition and conflict? The medieval God seen by St Anselm of Canterbury as bent only on balancing the scales of an eternal justice is not the God of the apostles or of Irenaeus or the other early fathers, for whom it was God the Father who had burst their chains by sending them His Son.

Using the psychological and anthropological insights of Alain de Botton and René Girard it is time to return to the early church’s vision of Jesus of Nazareth as Christus Victor, who with the father’s help has overturned the verdict of the world, by exposing the real author of the lies that had condemned him. In the words of Gustav Aulén, interpreting Irenaeus:

First, then, it must be emphasised that the work of atone­ment is regarded as carried through by God Himself; and this, not merely in the sense that God authorises, sanctions, and initiates the plan of salvation, but that He Himself is the effective agent in the redemptive work, from beginning to end. It is the Word of God incarnate who overcomes the tyrants which hold man in bondage; God Himself enters into the world of sin and death, that He may reconcile the world to Himself. Therefore Incarnation and Atonement stand in no sort of antithesis; rather, they belong inseparably together. It is God’s Love, the Divine agape, that removes the sentence that rested upon mankind, and creates a new relation between the human race and Himself, a relation which is altogether different from any sort of justification by legal righteousness. The whole dispensation is the work of grace.” [Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor, 1931. S.P.C.K. edition 1965, p 34.]

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The Mass: a ‘Holy Sacrifice’?

Josefa de Ayala, The Sacrificial Lamb (c. 1670-1684)

Must Catholics believe that God is violent? Taught that the Mass is a ‘Holy Sacrifice’ must we therefore believe that ‘the Father’ required a violent sacrifice to still his anger, and that this is the central message of the Eucharist?

Never having heard an Irish Catholic cleric squarely address such questions, and therefore inferring more than a little uncertainty, I (and others in Ireland) have followed with fascination the key ideas of the late American-French anthropologist René Girard and his collaborators. (These can be traced from the website of the Girardian Colloquium on Violence and Religion.)

René Girard 1923-2015

Girard argues that the historical origins of all religion lie in an attempt to minimise social violence by focussing it upon a single victim. He argues also that the Judeo-Christian scriptures point to a unique critique of this religious violence – and especially of the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. His work has therefore been exploited by some theologians to deny that the death of Jesus, or the Mass, can safely be understood as a sacrifice.

However, Girard himself famously changed his mind on this very issue. Influenced especially by the Austrian theologian, Raymund Schwager, Girard concluded in his mature work that the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ is itself undergoing a shift in the course of the Judeo-Christian texts. The ‘precious gift to God’ aspect of sacrifice had always accompanied the ‘killing’ aspect (for example in Abraham’s intention to sacrifice Isaac). This story shows how this ‘gift’ aspect gradually becomes predominant – in the end supplanting, in Jesus self-giving, the element of priestly killing. In offering himself, Jesus united the always previously separate roles of priest and victim – defining a sacrifice that resists all projection of the consequences of sin onto someone else. This leaves open an interpretation of ‘Christian’ sacrifice as directly oppositional to violence, and as ‘self-emptying’ or ‘self-giving’ – utterly uncompromised by any suffering inflicted upon a third party.

In the latest issue of the Girardian journal Contagion, Anthony R. Lusvardi S.J. argues that theologians who use Girardian anthropology to reject any concept of the Mass as ‘Holy Sacrifice’ are therefore mistaken. Lusvardi tracks this scholarly debate with detailed footnotes and makes the case for regarding the Mass as a divinely inspired act of worship that makes present “that central moment in human history when seemingly endless cycles of violence and falsity are brought to a halt by the limitless self-offering of God” (‘Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”: Mimetic Theory and Eucharistic Theology’, Contagion Vol. 24, 2017 ).

For me this article strengthens a conclusion that it is unnecessary to oppose an understanding of the Mass as ‘holy sacrifice’ on the one hand, to its character as celebratory ‘communal meal’ on the other. If Christian sacrifice is self-giving, the ‘communal meal’ implication also follows logically from that understanding. In this understanding to ‘sacrifice’ is ‘to give completely of oneself’ – a meaning wholly compatible with contemporary understandings of ‘goodness’ and ‘heroism’.  It is the ‘Offering’, the self-giving ritual in which we all can join, that makes possible the communal meal, and no violence is implied by the Christians who practise this sacrifice – even if blood is nevertheless shed by others who misunderstand. The ‘bloodiness’ of Jesus crucifixion was solely due to the human sin that impelled his persecutors, in defiance of God – not to divine need, wish or intent. For Girard, the Calvary event starkly revealed the archetypal practice of scapegoating or ‘lynching’ – the unjust blaming of any individual for any social crisis to save the community. The Cross therefore lies at the root of the principle of ‘human rights’ – in opposition to all scapegoating.

Far from requiring our assent to his ‘divine violence’, the Father can therefore be understood as true to Jesus’ teaching that ‘the Father and I are one’ – in the rejection of violence, as in all other matters. The Mass is a ‘holy sacrifice’ because non-violent self-giving is central to the divine nature – and to heroic human potential also, when aided by grace. It is to that self-offering that all of us are called.

Clerical reticence on ‘divine violence’ and ‘sacrifice’ surely began with the fourth century acquiescence by Christian bishops in Constantine’s assertion that his violent acquisition of imperial power had been sanctioned and assisted by the Christian God. That acquiescence lies also at the foundations of Christendom – the long and often horrifically scandalous imbroglio of church and state that lasted into the twentieth century. Girard’s insights, and those of theologians who continue to be stimulated by Girardian theory, allow for a re-evaluation of all that, without in any way compromising the Creeds. Pacific self-offering was never utterly absent under Christendom, proving the subliminal counteraction of the Cross to all violence.

The secular Enlightenment was partially motivated by a revulsion at the semi-religious wars that followed the Reformations of the 1500s, but is still lacking a convincing explanation of human violence. On the other hand, Girard’s insight into the origins of our own aggressive desire in the desire of someone else – vindicating the thrice-repeated biblical ban on ‘coveting’ – is as copiously illustrated in the daily news as it is in the TV epic Game of Thrones.

Meanwhile Christian fundamentalism continues to scapegoat the Father for the crucifixion, and to cloud our thinking on Christian sacrifice. This can be regarded as a time-limited hangover of Christendom. Anthony Lusvardi’s article well illustrates how Girardian anthropology, and the theology it inspires, give us a far better pair of glasses.

(Anthony Lusvardi’s article is available for download from the website of the Association of Catholics in Ireland, by clicking the title below.)
Girard and the “Sacrifice of the Mass”

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Was Jesus a whistleblower too?

On Jan 24th, 2017 the Irish Government established a commission of inquiry into the origin of false allegations of sexual abuse against the Garda whistleblower, Maurice McCabe. This is the latest in a long series of deeply depressing scandals involving all of the institutions once respected in Ireland, including the Catholic Church. Sean O’Conaill asks why integrity seems to be so rare, and how we are to find it.

Nothing in Ireland has been as dispiriting in recent decades as non-stop revelations of misuse of power and even of serious corruption in high places. All major institutions of church and civil society have been implicated. Not even the major beneficiary of these scandals, the media, have been exempt.

We have long known that all power tends to be abused, but Irish revelations of abuses of power have become almost epidemic in the lifetime of everyone born before 1990 – so much so that we can come to wonder, like Diogenes, whether an honest individual can any longer be found in high places. That whistleblowers – those who shout ‘stop’ to abuses of power – still do surface is a bright light in the darkness, but Garda Maurice McCabe’s experience of malicious ‘blowback’, of the most damaging of false allegations and even possibly of high-level ‘fitting up’, is truly frightening. Everyone who might still be called upon to be a whistleblower in Ireland knows now what could happen to themselves in the very worst case.

The standard secular solution to this problem of abuse of power is to divide and limit power by making it always subject to accountability. Strictly applied this means that everyone exercising power must be ready to account for their actions to someone else, and ready to resign or be sacked if found wanting. Yet here again there is huge depression in Ireland over apparent mass immunity from the accountability principle. The guiltiest individuals will take great pains to hide their tracks, while tribunals of inquiry are always costly and tend to grant immunity to witnesses in exchange for testimony. This then leads to a dispiriting popular verdict on all of Ireland’s educated elites: ‘those people always look out for one another’. In reviewing the Garda McCabe case, and an earlier Garda precedent, the ‘Kerry Babies’ case of 1984, the historian Diarmaid Ferriter concluded recently that the McCabe commission may unveil the truth of what happened – but (he finished) ‘don’t expect justice‘. There is a real danger of the total victory of cynicism in Irish society – even a loss of faith in human nature itself.

Secularism has never stemmed the human desire for privilege

No Irish secularising intellectual has yet pointed out that this near-despair directly challenges the basic optimism of the secular Enlightenment – the belief that human nature, freed by science-based ‘reason’ from religious faith, can build Utopia. Mass rational education alone, it was argued by some in the 1700s, would give everyone an honest livelihood, put an end to all crime and social hierarchy – and create a society at perfect peace. That same faith in reason, to the exclusion of any faith in God, still undergirds the Irish secularising establishment today. I haven’t yet seen any persuasive rationalist explanation of the complete failure of that optimistic 18th century prophecy.

What the secular Enlightenment ‘got wrong’, it seems to me, was to suppose that, freed from ‘faith’ by ‘reason’, everyone – with just enough education – would become heroically virtuous. Those secularising evangelists did not see how dependent we are on others to shape even our desires for wealth and status.  They hugely overestimated the capacity of any of us to stand freely apart from the human context in which we find ourselves. That we are always hugely dependent upon peer groups for self-esteem and self-fulfillment – and even for a sense of personal security and safety – was overlooked. That mass education would produce not equality but a sense of entitlement to privilege among the most successful, was not foreseen.

If we abandon all faith that there can be any higher power than this ‘society’, we may then, as individuals, be totally bereft of support in the face of ‘peer pressure’ – the pressure simply to conform to the norms of the group we aspire to belong to. Secular egalitarianism has never found a cure for the human desire for social superiority, but still cannot acknowledge this failure.

Catholic hierarchy was also a corruptive force in Ireland

The former Magdalen Laundry, Sean McDermott St., Dublin

Far from advocating here a restoration of the power of ‘the church’ as it was before 1992, I would argue instead that the Catholic clerical establishment in Ireland was also oblivious of its own power to corrupt individuals – especially by exaggerating the individual Catholic’s obligation to defer to higher clerical authority in matters of moral judgement, as a matter of faith. Why else would no cleric – and no strong lay voice – have cried ‘shame’ when defenceless young women were imprisoned and shamed by the Magdalen system? Why else would whistleblowers have been so scarce among the religious orders that ran the institutions for helpless children indicted in the Ryan report of 2005? Why else would Bishop Jim Moriarty have been the sole bishop to confess serious personal failure in the handling of clerical abuse in the Dublin archdiocese, following the Murphy report of 2009? And why else would Dublin Gardai in some instances have failed to investigate credible allegations of criminal clerical abuse, at the request of a bishop?

The ‘prevailing culture’ that Bishop Moriarty agreed he had failed to challenge in Dublin was precisely analogous to the culture of toleration by the Gardai of the abuses that Maurice McCabe reported, while the harm caused to countless children by clerical failure was far greater than the harm caused by Garda inconsistency in the awarding of motoring penalty points. We must never forget that the Irish clerical establishment left it to outraged Catholic families to blow the whistle on the fact of – and the deadly dangers of – clerical sexual abuse of children.

This blindness, to the harm caused to the church – the people of God – by the equation of faith with unquestioning obedience to clerical authority, continues to this day. And this in turn is surely the reason that the full contemporary significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is neither seen nor preached by our clergy, in the context of the growing crisis of hope in Irish civic society. Never can it be seen or said (at least in my experience) that in Gethsemane Jesus was resisting precisely that fear of ‘the world’ – the threat of ‘blowback’ from our always hierarchical human power systems – that confronts every genuine whistleblower today.

Instead it is (or at least it was until recently) far more typical of clergy to contrast ‘the world’ with ‘the church’, to characterise ‘the world’ as at best ‘dangerous’ and at worst ‘profane’ while ‘the church’ – always to be equated with clergy – was to be seen always as ‘holy’ and unquestionable. ‘Worldliness’ got translated, mistakenly, as merely getting ‘caught up’ in the pleasures and distractions of the ‘material world’, while Jesus and his clergy could necessarily have their minds only on ‘heavenly things’. In accepting crucifixion Jesus was merely atoning for human historical sin at his Father’s request, not setting an inspiring example of courage and integrity for all of us to try to emulate.

Nothing could be better calculated to make the story of the crucifixion totally incomprehensible to the modern mind – and to make the Catholic sacramental system irrelevant to the crisis of hope that afflicts Ireland today.

Jesus the abused whistleblower

That religious system that Jesus opposed was also abusive of power. It excluded the poorest from a sense of God’s compassion, by imposing money barriers to divine mercy. It shut the Temple door on all of the ‘unclean’, including lepers and menstruating women. What if we were to see Jesus in Gethsemane as an exemplary whistleblower – awaiting the most excruciating humiliation for his rejection of that oppressive religious system? What if we were to see him as standing in solidarity with all who were and still are excluded and oppressed – including the church’s own victims? What if we were to see him at the side of Garda Maurice McCabe – and at the side of the falsely accused priest as well as the clerical abuse survivor – when their trials are at their worst?

In the world you will have tribulation, but be courageous. I have overcome the world.’ (John 16: 33). What if we could believe that here Jesus is speaking precisely to this time in Ireland today – and speaking also for the power of belief in a transcendent reality to give us the integrity we so desperately need, the grace to withstand the world – i.e. ‘the prevailing culture’ of our own peer group’s abuses, whatever those may be – in church or business, bank or civil service, TV studio or political party, policing unit or even Olympic sport?

And what if Jesus’ strength – the grace of integrity – is also the grace on offer in the Eucharist – for those who can believe these things? Those given charge of the Eucharist have surely a special obligation to discover its relationship to the supreme moral problem of our time – the problem of maintaining integrity in the face of corrupt power. That it could have no such relationship is unthinkable.  It is far more likely that integrity and holiness are one and the same.

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Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2005

A ‘paradigm shift’ is a radical discontinuity in the way in which we humans structure our mental picture of reality. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the impact of the new cosmologies of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton upon the late 17th, but more especially the 18th, century. The educated classes of Europe were by then faced with the indisputable reality that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that universal laws of gravitation and motion governed the relationships of all heavenly bodies. Writing about 1730, Alexander Pope declared that before Newton:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

But, as this quotation also illustrates, this particular paradigm shift did far more than provide a new cosmology. It created both a new intelligentsia, based upon secular scientific and technical expertise, and a new interpretation of history. Christian theologians and philosophers lost their pre-eminent intellectual status, and ‘salvation’ ceased to be the dominant historical theme. All at once the intellectual life of Europe became focused upon the belief that history was not static or cyclical but linear – moving especially from darkness into light, led not by the churches but by secular science. The possibility of total enlightenment took hold of the educated imagination, and the modern age had arrived.

Since then there has been a succession of lesser intellectual ‘paradigm shifts’. The theory of evolution provided by Darwin in 1859 is one such, and Einstein’s theories of Relativity in the early 20th century another. These revolutionised Biology and Physics respectively. In the course of the same century, Freudian psychology completely changed our perception of human sexuality. The impacts of quantum physics and ‘big bang’ cosmology are ongoing. The process of globalisation, begun by European voyages of exploration in the 1400s, has recently accelerated with the arrival of cheap air travel, globally mobile capital, and the Internet. This process has intermingled all cultures and faiths, laying siege to the certitudes of the past.

However, the optimistic belief of the early Enlightenment that human reason could easily construct a perfect world suffered a series of shattering reverses. These began with ‘The Terror’, the orgy of blood-letting that followed the French Revolution of 1789, giving us the new and still indispensable word ‘terrorism’. Two world wars and the Holocaust had a similar impact in the 20th century. So did the ignominious failure of the Soviet Marxist system in the recent past.

The possibility of total enlightenment has also receded for many intellectuals. ‘Post-modernism’, born to some extent out of disappointment that secular utopianism led more often to hell than to heaven, now insists that we are fundamentally unable to escape from our own subjectivity: all paradigms are purely mental and therefore fictive, so (it is argued) we can never create solid intellectual foundations for our own convictions. All we have is a multiplicity of ‘stories’, no one of them capable of claiming superiority to any other.

The question of what happens to God in all of this is of critical importance for all religions. The notion that our perception of God might also require a ‘paradigm shift’ has alarmed some and enthused others. Among the latter, Anglican Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame in the 1960s stands out. Arguing that we can no longer believe in a ‘God out there’ he has influenced many in a search for ‘God within’. Among these in our own time are the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, who has in turn influenced, among many others, Church of Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman, whose book ‘Saving Christianity’ I reviewed here recently.

Adrian B Smith’s The God Shift* is a continuation of the same theme, but this time by a Catholic priest. Beginning with the observation that many are now abandoning religion and embracing ‘spirituality’ he argues that a number of factors now tend towards a profound shift in the human perception of God. This paragraph is typical:

“It is my contention … that … for too long we have overemphasised the transcendence of God at the expense of appreciating God as immanent. The former causes us to think of God as aloof from creation and ourselves as miserable sinners seeking to placate a father-God or to win the love of a tolerant God. To restore the balance by emphasising more the immanence of God will enable us to appreciate that spark of divine life within all people and cause us to treat the natural world not as a dead, soulless machine existing purely for our use but as a reflection of its creator. The lack of this sense of the Divine within ourselves causes us to lack self-esteem and seek our self-worth instead in our role in society, our possessions, our personal achievements and our sense of superiority over others. Happily, we can recognise in some current trends – the feminist, ecological and human rights movements – a reawakening to the immanence of God.”

He places approaches to Christology within a similar progressive framework, arguing that there has been a shift from ‘Top Down’ to ‘Bottom Up’ approaches, presenting these as contrasting syllogisms:

Christology from above:

God is like this and this.
Jesus is God.
Therefore Jesus is like this and this.

Christology from below:

Jesus is like this and this.
Jesus is the icon of God.
Therefore God is like this and this.

For someone like myself, not well grounded in theology, but strongly inclined towards a Christology from below, this sort of thing is interesting and useful. So is the account of the new physics, in which the conceptual frontiers between matter and energy tend to dissipate. That matter appears to be – to put it crudely – compressed energy – or rather energy behaving in a remarkable way to provide the visible world with its apparently stable atoms and molecules – is a profound shock to a simplistic perception of reality. So is the revelation that it is the relationships between sub-atomic particles that provide this stability, not the particles themselves. Matter is not a hard and simple reality but a profound mystery in itself.

Similarly, the book’s account of the emergence of ecology, establishing the interconnectedness of all life, is useful. So is the summary of the collision between the world’s great religions and the discernment that all speak of love as the highest virtue.

I was particularly struck also by the author’s perception that human hierarchies are a barrier to spiritual development, and that Jesus of Nazareth clearly lived within a non-hierarchical spiritual paradigm. This I believe to be profoundly true, and the root source of the attraction to Jesus that we find in the humblest people. It is true also that people grow and learn far more easily in a non-hierarchical context, and that this realisation appears to be a significant feature of our era.

However, does all of this mean that we humans are undergoing some kind of rapid and beneficent species evolution, an evolution in consciousness? One gathers as much from the following:

“The development of our consciousness is precisely what is new. The leap we took out of the mythical Eden from subconsciousness to self-consciousness is now being followed by a further leap to super-consciousness. We are evolving from a physical to a metaphysical vision of reality. From viewing our world as purely physical, as scientists and western religions have done, we are beginning to appreciate the presence of consciousness in all matter. The “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock that planet Earth is a single, living, self-regulating organism – is witness to this. We are moving beyond the limitations of our rational minds, beyond what we learn through our five senses, beyond the boundaries of space and time, to the exploration of inner, deeper realms. We are stretching the boundaries of our consciousness. It is at this point in our history that we are moving beyond our physical potential to explore our spiritual potential.”

In the week I first read this paragraph I learned also that suicide bombers had taken a further toll in Iraq; that two teenagers in every classroom in these islands may be self-harming due to loss of self-esteem; that a fifteen-year-old had taken her own life in Belfast, following the suicide of her boyfriend – which had in turn been caused by the killing of his sister in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident; that Arab militias in Darfur were still burning African Sudanese alive – and that the consumption of fossil fuels had reached levels that OPEC could not meet due to problems caused in the Soviet Union by a struggle for power between the industrial oligarchs and President Putin.

Most Russian young people (we learned in the same week) admire those same moneyed oligarchs almost as much as rock stars, despite their virtually certain involvement in the murder of at least fifteen journalists in Russia since 2000 – journalists who have had the temerity to investigate their links with political corruption and organised crime.

Meanwhile the world’s most powerful republic was focused upon a different struggle for power between two highly moneyed patricians – a struggle that seemed oblivious to the environmental catastrophe that is already making densely populated but low-lying portions of the earth’s surface uninhabitable (e.g. the Maldives). This was confirmed by news from Greenland in the previous week that the arctic ice sheet is diminishing at an unprecedented rate.

And the news that many millions in China now aspire to an SUV (the ubiquitous, ridiculous, dangerous and environmentally indefensible ‘off road’ vehicle now preferred for ferrying children everywhere) was hardly cause for celebration either.

So who exactly, I wondered, are the ‘we’ who have leapt to ‘super-consciousness’? Clearly it is not a majority of the human population. And if it is only a small minority of intellectuals, is the ‘we’ justified in anything other than self-congratulatory terms? Is it anything more than a repetition of the New Age rhetorical claim to era-superiority that we have been hearing, without any real justification, for decades?

Certainly it is possible for individual humans to develop greater insight and maturity – and a deep sense of God within – over a lifetime – but this has been happening to individuals for thousands of years. What characterised all of them was a realisation of the futility of most human desires, and a valuing of simplicity. Three distinctive marks of our age are, on the contrary, an elevation of desire itself to the status of supreme cultural and economic good, an infatuation with consumption and novelty, and an increasing violence.

I say this not because I am out of sympathy with my own era, and stuck in some mistakenly idealised past, but because I cannot ignore the fact that the data I receive from news streams daily is presenting me with an almost total contradiction to Adrian Smith’s optimistic claims. Humans in the aggregate are as far as ever from the super-consciousness that he claims to be the distinctive feature of the age. The pressure of an extremely doubtful future may be forcing increasing numbers to seek a deeper spirituality – but this has happened often in the past and simply cannot justify a claim that ‘we’ (i.e. the race) are undergoing some kind of evolutionary shift into ‘super-consciousness’.

Although ‘The God Shift’ is therefore a useful overview of some encouraging scientific and cultural developments, as well as a highly readable example of its genre, it is lamentably superficial in its understanding of the weaknesses that still afflict us. For example, the author admits that he doesn’t understand why humans build hierarchies – wondering, without much conviction, if these might originate in the need to overcome gravity!

This is especially telling in the context of his conviction that the human arrival at self-consciousness, as recorded in Genesis, was an unalloyed good. It was indeed an evolutionary event of enormous importance – and inseparable from our human nature – but it had profoundly problematic consequences. Self-consciousness involves a critical awareness that others are conscious of us – and it is only then that we develop a dangerous desire to be highly-regarded. That is precisely why the self-conscious teen female is often currently aspiring to a breast implant.

That kind of self-regarding desire explains everything from conspicuous consumption to personality cults to mimetic rivalry, celebrity, power-seeking and violence – and human hierarchy arises easily out of all of these. Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, of course, ‘Bouquet’) illustrates the point weekly on pop TV: it is precisely because she is self-conscious that she wishes to collect prestige china and rub shoulders with England’s aristocracy. Tony Blair’s meritocratic makeover of the British Labour party bears a similar explanation. (There is no more self-conscious politician on the planet.)

For the same reason, self-consciousness explains the spiritual problem identified by Thomas Merton as the construction of the ‘false self’ – the problem identified by Jesus as hypocrisy. The original hypocrite was just a Greek actor, who, significantly, wore a mask. Modern culture provides an unprecedented variety of masks designed to flatter the wearer, and some of these are fashioned by a New Age ideology that has yet to recognise that human culture is still grounded not in super-consciousness but in mindless and deeply destructive imitation of one another.

It is self-consciousness also that explains the individual’s fear of opposing the crowd, and thus the mindlessness and danger of the crowd itself – and mob-violence, and, incidentally, the crucifixion.

It is remarkable that the ‘super-consciousness’ claimed in this book does not include an understanding of the connections between human self-consciousness, human vanity, human hierarchy, human hypocrisy and human violence. Especially when some of the available literature so well explains all of this.

Scanning the reading lists that followed each chapter of this book I noticed a very striking absence of any reference to the work done on mimetic desire and violence by the Girard school. As this is profoundly illuminative of the Gospel texts, as well as modern consumerist culture, and as Girard has been publishing since the 1970s, I am at a loss to understand it – especially because Girard’s work provides every reason for optimism in the project of making a non-fundamentalist Christianity relevant to post-modernity.

The gathering human crisis will soon oblige people to grow rapidly in spiritual wisdom if the species is not to destroy itself in competition for declining fossil fuel resources. The message that they have already reached ‘super-consciousness’ is, like the first reports of Mark Twain’s death, premature. It is also strikingly similar to the flattery that this year’s presidential contenders feel obliged to heap upon ‘the great American people’.

And it is therefore, like all flattery, a profound mistake. Every one of us does indeed need to ‘evolve’ – but we must all begin with a radical honesty about our current temptations and failings. These are essentially identical to the spiritual shortcomings of our species from the beginning. Nothing could be more spiritually dangerous for an intellectual today than the conviction that he, or she, has become ‘super-conscious’. The correct name for this notion is spiritual inflation.

Other paradigm shifts notwithstanding, so long as vanity remains a human constant, we humans will remain trapped in that paradigm, and in the negative consequences of self-consciousness. Our cosmologies may change, but we will show-off nevertheless (perhaps with a lecture on cosmology). Vanity in 2004 is as pervasive as the SUV, the plasma-screen TV and the cosmetics industry, and global terrorism is born of frustrated envy of those who can afford all of these.

Super-consciousness, when it arrives, will be conscious of that to begin with.

*The God Shift: Our Changing Perception of the Ultimate Mystery, Adrian B Smith, Liffey Press, Dublin 2004

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IV – Jesus the Layperson

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

We Catholics have always been taught to see the priest as an icon, or model, of Christ – as the best possible guide to how we should live our own lives. So, in our minds eye we may see Jesus as more of a priest than a lay person.

This is especially because the central ritual of the church, the Mass, is led by a priest who takes the place of Jesus at the last supper.

But Jesus was in fact, for almost all of his ministry, simply a layperson who attacked the snobbery of the Jewish priesthood of his time – for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his own priesthood was of an entirely different kind – a kind that we lay people can – and must – imitate if we are to fulfil our own calling as Christians living in the world.

Moreover, the church has always taught that Jesus is prophet and king as well as priest – and prophets and kings were lay people also.

Jesus spent most of his ministry as a lay teacher or Rabbi, living among his disciples in the world. His priesthood began only on the night before he died. It was for his teachings as a lay person that he was disliked by the Jewish elites – and it was for these teachings that he was crucified. It was Jesus the priest who gave us the ritual of the Eucharist – but it was Jesus the lay person who hung on the cross. He was placed there because he had identified with those Jews whom the religious elites called sinners , because he had attacked the Jewish religious authorities for their lack of compassion, and had built up a large following who saw him as the Messiah, or deliverer of his people from oppression. Priests in Jesus time did not do that sort of thing.

Before Jesus all priests had offered victims other than themselves as offerings to God. They had wielded the sacrificial knife against human, and – by Jesus’ time – animal victims. In other words they had shed not their own blood but the blood of someone, or of something, else – to deflect God’s supposed anger from themselves and from those who had provided those victims.

Jesus put an end to this evasive process by replacing a religion of sacrifice with a religion of self-sacrifice.

Alone among the teachers of his time, Jesus had picked up on the profoundly important words of the prophet Hosea, words that Hosea placed in the mouth of God himself:   “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos 6:6). Jesus reminded his enemies of this passage twice in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Matt 9:13).

This is profoundly important, because it makes it impossible for us to believe that God the Father, whom Jesus called Abba , wanted Jesus to die because he needed some kind of sacrificial blood offering. Quite the reverse: he gave us Jesus to stop us victimising one another – to replace victimisation with generosity. If we are hurt, bitter or angry we should never take this out on one another – but carry this cross ourselves.

Down through the centuries many Christians have somehow absorbed this message. Although all my life I have shuddered at the idea of blood sacrifice, I have absorbed from the Mass the conviction that Jesus wants me to take some pain for others. I believe that Jesus has subtly but profoundly changed the meaning of the word sacrifice itself.

When parents at Christmas time deny themselves luxuries so that they can buy expensive gifts for their children they will call that a sacrifice . The priests of Jesus time would not have understood them, but that usage of the word is now accepted and understood by everyone – because of the cross.

That simple act of putting ourselves out for others, if we can make it the centre of our lives, will fulfil our lay role as priests in the world. And since without it the world cannot be changed, that priesthood of generosity is the most important priesthood in the church. The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is an invitation to take the same holy spirit of self-sacrifice into the world – but only lay people can do that to the extent that it needs to be done.

Once, as a teacher, I reprimanded a young pupil for yawning in class. Somewhat hurt, she told me she had been up all night tending to her sick grandmother. That somehow stuck in my mind – as an example of the priesthood of the laity. But did she ever realise that?

It reminds me now to say something else. Although words are a beautiful way of expressing love, they are often useless and out of place. The world is awash with words today – but in desperate need of loving action.

I am now convinced that the leadership of the church is in serious danger of overvaluing words, and undervaluing action. I have found it extremely difficult to get priests to listen when I say that they undervalue the eloquence of Christian action, and make too little of the loving actions of their people – for example their potential to reach out to people in desperate need of self-esteem. The church will not be truly healthy, I believe, until it reverses this order of priority – and makes Christian action the centre of the church’s life.

Jesus was king and prophet as well as priest – and the first two of these are roles that can best be filled today by laity, as we too are baptised into the kingship and prophetic role of Jesus.

As Jesus was a king who insisted the last shall be first , it follows that lay Catholics are implementing that kingship when they work for an equal and just society. Prophecy was always far more a matter of speaking the truth to powerful institutions than of foretelling the future. Both of these roles are required today in a society that is becoming increasingly unjust and unequal, and in a church that has still to rise to the challenges laid down by the second Vatican Council.

Lay people were challenged by the council to consecrate the world to God – but have not yet been given ownership of this great task. The reason for this is the continuing – but now declining – power of clericalism, the mindset that accords to clergy a superior status and a controlling power in the church.

Consecrating the world to God should not, however, be seen as a matter of imposing our faith on others. Although we lay people too must participate in the New Evangelisation we need to avoid the fundamental mistake of coming across as holier than thou . Ireland has had enough of evangelists who do not fundamentally understand what the good news is: that all are loved unconditionally for themselves, even if they do not share our faith.

Despite our best intentions we Christians usually convey the message: “God will love you if you let us tell you how to run your life”. This is evangelisation as manipulation. It is counter-evangelical, because it presents our God as self-absorbed and manipulative.

Do we love our fellow-citizens unconditionally – even if they refuse to believe what we believe? Is our love superior to our need to have our faith confirmed by the conversion of others? If not, we are spiritually unready for evangelisation. We are also intellectually unready, because we have not fully understood what unconditional love means.

It means service that does not require payback of any kind: the kind of service that Jesus gave.

And that, above all, is what we Catholic laity need to pray for above all – for the spirit of love and service – both unconditional.

This is especially true because all Irish people believe they already know the Gospel – and are rejecting our church because they see it as essentially dedicated to its own power and survival. That is the lesson they have taken from the scandals of the past twelve years.

We will only rise to this challenge if we have no hidden agenda to empower our church once more – no agenda other than the service of the needs of the neediest Irish people – especially of those who are today outside the magic circle of secular power and influence.

We will rise to this challenge, I am convinced, if we pray to Jesus the layperson, and ask him to give us the gifts we need to fulfil our own lay role.

Views: 30

Towards a New Evangelism II: The Cursillo in Derry

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life 2001

In March 1997 I made my way for the first time to Termonbacca Monastery in Derry. In the process of retirement due to ill health from the teaching career that had dominated my life for thirty years, I was in shock over the loss of the school and career that had grounded me. Although also now a committed Catholic, I was also seriously concerned, as parent and teacher, with the failure of my church to address the exodus of its teenagers from faith, as well and home and school, at eighteen.

That failure was due, I was convinced, to an ill-conceived and desperate clinging to a patriarchal and clerical ‘Christendom’ model of leadership, when Christendom itself was patently dead, and deservedly so – the root source of the secularism that now dominated the west. Misled by centuries of inherited power, that leadership had become essentially verbal rather than exemplary, a matter of preaching a gospel narrowed to little more than sexual prudishness and perpetuation of the clerical system. Not even the shock of the sexual scandals that had begun with the Casey affair in 1992 had awoken the Irish episcopate to a realisation of the fact that Ireland was now part of the western mainstream, in which autonomous individualism had replaced deferential acceptance of inherited clerical authority.

Which meant in turn that the church was unable to critique the emerging crisis of individualism as a race for ‘success’ which most must lose in the long run, bereft of a community which will love them anyway. An Ireland in which Sunday Massgoing was the natural communal gathering of small local communities had been replaced since the sixties by a media-dominated and urbanised rootlessness that found the Mass incomprehensible and boring – but leadership had failed to react adequately. As a result most of the children I taught – including my own – now found patriarchal Catholicism a self-regarding straitjacket they were obliged to respect for the moment, but were instantly throwing off as soon as they became independent adults. What kind of church would still be around when they needed it, I wondered?

I didn’t expect to find any part of the answer in Termonbacca in March 1997. All I knew was that I was in for a three-day experience of Catholicism to be conducted by a team of laymen. Would they be up-to-speed with a Vatican II model of church? It seemed unlikely.

I was, and I remain, astonished by what I found.

The culture shock began about nine o’clock on Thursday when about seventy laymen were gathered in the coffee bar. Most wore casual clothes and small pewter pectoral crosses – these were the team. The rest of us were the ‘candidates’ – the course members. An atmosphere thickly laden with cigarette smoke and Derry banter was eventually pierced by a call to order from the team leader, or ‘Rector’. The ‘Cursillo’, he explained, was a three-day course in Catholicism, originating in Majorca. He then called the team members to introduce themselves. Most did so nervously and quickly, saying when they had done their first weekend, and how much they had enjoyed it – but finishing with ‘I’m here to serve’. Others launched into a more extended appeal to us to stick it out for the three days – and these were heckled good humouredly by the rest. Three things struck me straight away. These men were mostly unsophisticated, but happy in one another’s company – and totally unembarrassed about their faith. I was having difficulty coping with the noise, the heavy Derry accents and the smoke – but I was also touched and moved in a way I hadn’t expected. I started paying attention, wondering who was orchestrating this bonhomie.

That evening finished with a talk on the Prodigal Son by the first priest to appear. It had an unusually frank and personal character – and this prepared us for what was to follow the next morning. We also had our first experience of Cursillo music – it was in the folk idiom with expert guitar accompaniment, but the singing had a fervour I was quite unaccustomed to – especially from men.

We found ourselves on Friday seated at tables in a conference room overlooking the Foyle, listening to jokes told by team members who were clearly expert and intent on having a good time. This set the pattern for the three days. Life is often critical, but seldom serious, in Derry.

Then the talks began – half given by religious – but it was those given by the laymen that riveted me. These began with a sincere exposition of some aspect of the Cursillo ‘method’ (based upon piety, study and action) but then became an account of those experiences that had led the speaker to faith. Confidentiality prevents me recounting any one in particular – but all remain extraordinarily vivid.

Imagine the worst things that might have happened to any individual in Derry these past three decades – Bloody Sunday, or the aftermath of explosions; attempted sectarian assassination, or the blanket protest in the Maze, or the suicide of a family member, or an experience of child abuse: all against a background often darkened by unemployment, addiction, family violence and the breakdown of relationships. A multitude of the darkest valleys the human soul can experience. Into some of these we were given eloquent insight over three days, and into others I have been led on subsequent weekends on team. They were all very different from the valley through which I was then passing – but were all recognisable nevertheless as ultimate trials of the human spirit. And in all of them there had been a bonding with the Jesus of Gethsemane and Golgotha, an experience of the Church as sacrament of reconciliation, healing and ongoing community through what they call the Cursillo family – and now a joyful pursuit of others undergoing the same trials. The Cursillo framework is the means by which this is accomplished – and this explains why it is still thriving after twenty-two years.

The traditional devotionalist Catholicism that goes along with this has misled some of the more theologically ‘with it’ local clergy to dismiss Cursillo as a remnant of a dying Church. As conducted in Derry it is in fact for me the most astonishing vindication of key elements of Vatican II theology, and a promise of a vibrant church of the future – one fully capable of meeting the challenges we now face.

In particular, although there is a strong Marian element, the practical theology of the Derry Cursillistas is fundamentally Trinitarian. Their overwhelming conviction is the unconditional love of Jesus for all, especially those hurt by life. He is a God who allowed himself to be broken in order to find the broken. The Father is perceived not as inexplicable demander of due punishment for all, but as generous giver of the Son, and celebrator of our return to his house. The Spirit is invoked as the one who enables the speakers to tell their stories, who allows us to be honest and loving – and then joyful in our reunion. Salvation is therefore easily explained: it is the dawning of another life in communion with these Three, one that truly now has nothing worse to fear than the possibility of alienation from them.

How that joy is mediated on the Cursillo weekend I cannot precisely describe, as it could diminish the experience somewhat for those who take on the weekend.

One experience I can recount however. Towards the end of the weekend all get the chance to sit together in a family-sized room, as a member of their table team, in the presence of the blessed sacrament, and to pray spontaneously to the really present Lord. The sincerity with which this opportunity is seized, with complete openness, faith and intimacy, is quite unique in my experience. There is a sense of something shared, of deep communion and warmth, that celebrates the sacrament far more powerfully than is ever possible in the parish church.

The spirit of generosity that grounds the weekend, and the humility with which these men speak of their own lives, has often an extraordinary effect upon the demeanour of the candidates. Often closed and suspicious to begin with, most find that at least one of the team has shared their darkest experiences, and come through with the support of God’s grace. This creates trust and openness, and a willingness to experience the sacraments in a context of welcome rather than criticism. The most sophisticated theologian could not convey more powerfully the love of God for the individuality of every person.

The result is described by a Cursillista friend as ‘the losing of the mask’ – the abandonment of pretence to a disdainful invulnerability and independence, of remaining unwounded by life and needless of community. Realising that their deepest wounds and insecurities are understood and accepted, candidates lose that fear of openness that prevents them from being truly themselves. I have never seen men more freely and joyously respond.

One other experience I remember vividly, as it relates directly to my own professional arrogance. At the end of one weekend, at the feedback session, a young candidate of about twenty went freely to the microphone and explained that as a boy he had been dismissed as uneducable. This had profoundly depressed him, making him socially withdrawn and fearful, and unable to feel positively towards himself. On the weekend he had been accepted so fully for himself that he had lost this fear, and learned to respect himself. All of this he said with perfect lucidity, revealing again the power of Christian community to free the individual from self-dislike – and to unlock people from the prisons that supposedly intelligent people can put them in.

From this, and from many other similar experiences, I have learned that the secular pyramid of esteem, founded so rigidly nowadays on educational and career attainment, is spiritually fatuous and unjust – that when we relate to one another in a context where social status has no meaning we can be most truly ourselves, able to converse and relate as the equals we truly are, separated from secular pretensions. I serve on team knowing that I am valued simply for myself – not for the social accidents that have made me a teacher and writer. With many Derry Cursillistas I have formed enduring friendships which have given me too another life.

Which brings me to the conclusion that we intellectuals are often our own worst problem. Too often educational success has separated us from the experience of the darkest valley that the less educated have been through. We have also been taught the enlightenment’s fear of deep emotion, and its bias towards the mind as the sole repository of wisdom and happiness. So we may suppose that somewhere in our refinements and abstractions the ultimate truth resides, and that the unsophisticated faith of the less educated is somehow inferior and passé. We may also suppose that they should see us as their salvation – when in fact we may have far more to learn from them – especially the gifts of spontaneity and humility, laughter and tears.

Thoughtful Derry Cursillistas generally feel a tolerant sympathy for theologians, who in their view complexify what is really very simple – that Christ’s gift of himself renews simple words like love, peace and joy – cleansing them from the cloying sentimentality and cynicism that have made them almost meaningless. He does this by being, at Termonbacca, the presence that redeems the past, allowing people to share these words, in perfect sincerity, on the weekend, with those still in need of this experience. What they have to learn from an updated Church is therefore far, far less than they have to contribute to it – in wisdom as well as joy.

That the Cursillo framework elsewhere can also be a framework for a more chauvinist and fundamentalist form of Catholicism is clear from certain Internet sites. In Derry it is fiercely egalitarian, keeping structure to a minimum and determined to prove that personal freedom is entirely possible in the context of a genuine love of God and neighbour. Uniting evangelism with a deep sense of community, it has replaced for many the extended family that Ireland has only recently lost. It can also be a foundation for the recovery of a spirituality that truly expresses the Irish character. That Christian evangelism must be far more than a matter of mere words, that it must now be expressed in the rebuilding of community, is proven there conclusively.

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Understanding the Downward Journey

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

The essence of the downward journey is freedom from the illusion that it is the world that gives us both our identity and our worth.

We have almost as much difficulty understanding that biblical term ‘the world’ as we do the nature of God. This shouldn’t be – because our world also is the enemy of the soul. It demands that we compete for its approval. It rewards a tiny minority with its fickle adulation – which often destroys them – and consigns the rest of us to the role of ‘loser’ or ‘wannabe’. It is, in other words, a vast pyramid of esteem, a composite of all the smaller pyramids we pass through in life – family, school, neighbourhood, firm, city, state – and (often if not always) church.

So long as we play the game all these pyramids demand – postponing self-acceptance until we have been accepted or recognised by them – so long will we be Sisyphus, rolling the stone of self-dislike interminably uphill, until our strength gives out. That is a moment of terrible danger – but also a fleeting window of opportunity. It is dangerous because it tempts us to respond with despair, anger and sometimes murderous aggression or suicide. It is also an opportunity because we may then tumble to the essential stupidity of ordering human community, and valuing ourselves, in this way. We may then recognise this tendency as the root of all evil – and understand the cross as an expression of divine solidarity with our humiliation. Unfortunately, the churches’ historical participation in the pyramid system, and the stupid theology that results (e.g. God as medieval king angrily demanding Jesus’s pain in reparation for his lost ‘honour’) may deprive us of this insight.

Even the spirituality market implies a pyramid, at the summit of which must be those who have read deeply the writings of all the accredited spiritual masters from Buddha to Theresa of Lisieux. And so one may buy all of these books and begin the rolling of the stone – perhaps missing the fact that the unique characteristic of the journey of both was not towards the acquisition of knowledge – a matter of addition, and of the head – but towards acceptance of their own vulnerability – a matter of subtraction, and of the heart.

But what is the point of becoming spiritual if you cannot make it work for you? I hear this question – and its ambiguity. ‘Working for you’ could mean doing for you what it did for Buddha or Therese (i.e. make sense) – or it could mean making you well known as a wise and spiritual person. The trouble is that the spirituality market will exploit particularly the second meaning – because your purchases will burgeon with your desire to move always upward, in deep dissatisfaction with where you are, in order to become a spirituality expert. Notice again the world’s magnetic force – you are setting out to be spiritual in order to be ‘up there’ – the antithesis of the spiritual. The last thing you may consider is the possibility of moving in the opposite direction – of seeking to know less by knowing only the most important thing.

That most important thing in the Judeo-Christian tradition – that pearl of great price – is that you are already as loved and as worthy of esteem as you will ever be – already infinitely loved and respected. The condition of not knowing this, and fleeing from it towards the approval of the world, is sin. The tears that follow its discovery are called repentance – in which you weep also for the sin of ever having thought of yourself as unloved – for not having loved yourself as you are.

It follows from this that all of us are equally, and infinitely, loved – and that the pyramids we build are the product of an illusion. That illusion is the notion that the overall sum of our worth is what others think of us – when they are equally insecure. Gripped by this illusion we are slaves to it – and escape is virtually impossible

For Jesus the single most important truth was that he was loved by the creator of all things, the Father. From this great truth – and the relationship it gave him with the Father – came the revelatory journey which unlocked ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’. Essentially what was hidden, and what remains hidden from most, is that the world preserves its power over us not just by insisting that we compete for its approval, but by victimising those at its base. From their plight we must flee – upwards, driven by fear. Ambition – desire to be at the top, adored and invulnerable, draws us in the same direction. Fear and hubris rule the world, imprisoning the spirit of generosity which desperately seeks escape.

These days throughout the west we are amazed by the sudden fall of ‘great men’ who not so long ago ‘bestrode the world’. Their gifts were also their temptation. Their ability to climb the political pyramid made them susceptible to flattery and sycophantic attention of all kinds – and they succumbed to sexual or monetary temptation on a scale that shamed them when revealed. Great wisdom can be gained by pondering the meaning of these events – for they merely reiterate the lives of ancient heroes, archetypally David.

If Jesus was not divine he was then even more mysterious – for neither fear nor hubris determined his actions from first to last (although he experienced – i.e. was ‘tempted’ by both). To the degree that we study him as a mere human he becomes unlike any other man. To the degree that we insist that he was God, he reveals God to be unlike our expectation. For us, both Gods and heroes must triumph and remain invulnerable. Yet Jesus accepted humiliation and defeat, and revealed God as both humble and vulnerable. Psychologically he is impossible to explain – unless we accept the reality of what he insisted upon. That reality was the Father, a spiritual being with whom he could communicate at will, who gave him the specific task of revealing and upending the spirits of fear and hubris which build the pyramids of esteem that govern the world.

Yet Jesus also tells us that those who follow him become his brothers and sisters, to whom he has revealed all that the Father had told him, and with whom he and the Father will live in the same intimacy. How do we find our way to this point of meeting?

Ancient heroes had to do something violently heroic to win the recognition of the world. Think of Theseus who must destroy the monsters who fall in his way as he journeys to Athens to be recognised by his father, King Aegeus. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus was recognised by Abba at the very beginning of his own journey – for doing nothing more than stepping down into the waters of the Jordan, in fellowship with repentant sinners who also sought the baptism of John. This episode is immediately followed by Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, and his rejection of the temptations to ascend the worldly pyramids of state and temple. His mission becomes the granting of forgiveness and esteem freely to those at the base of these pyramids, (usually far from Jerusalem), to whom he gives most of the rest of his life. For this effrontery he is hated ‘by the world’, and murdered by it, in the time-honoured manner.

The downward journey today could well begin with nothing more dramatic than the granting of respect and esteem – that is, of love – to someone we know who has less of these things than we ourselves, and who may have suffered a recent humiliation. If this is difficult, the difficulty lies in our greater respect for the world, the only source of our embarrassment, than for God – so prayer is strongly indicated. And this prayer should be part of our private life – for ostentatious prayer is a prayer addressed to the world rather than to God.

It must be clearly understood that this practice of according respect to those whom the world considers our inferiors must not be condescension – for they are in fact our equals. Its purpose is to discover the kind of relationship that Jesus formed very quickly with people he has just met – a relationship of fundamental equality and mutual trust. He did not presume that his relationship with Abba entitled him to greater esteem – but sought to draw others into the same relationship.

Another aspect of this journey is the discovery that the person next to us at any given moment is often the person to whom we should be speaking at that moment, for the sake of both. This is still a feature of the lives of people who live in remote places – every meeting is seen as an unmissable opportunity for conversation. Yet in our great cities people will often spend hours daily physically close to others with whom they exchange not a word. The convention in the tube in London is to avoid eye contact – so people examine one another surreptitiously, or read, or compute. Fear and hubris rule equally here also – for cities are above all else pyramids of esteem – and the person next to you might be an addict or drug rapist – or snub you as an inferior. Yet what might you be missing as your eyes slide about, looking vainly for an advertisement worth reading?

In particular you might exchange views on the reasons for the exhaustion that inevitably follows the endless busyness of modern city life. The man with the computer was told a decade a go that it would make his life less hectic – but the opposite seems to be the truth. He doesn’t have time simply to ‘shoot the breeze’ – he must switch on in transit and finish that report. The reason probably is that he believes that all his colleagues – his rivals for promotion – have this equipment too, and will steal a march. So it always will be – for it is in the nature of the world to disconnect us from where and when we are, to live in a tomorrow that never comes.

Yet what happens to the exhausted mind is eventually despair – and how will that help the firm? Tireless worship of yet another convoy of ocean-crossing buzzwords must eventually end in burnout – so who benefits? What if we all got together and said no to freneticism, technobabble and jargonising simultaneously? I reckon that nine out of ten eye-sliding city straphangers would find that question meaningful.

In Ireland it is usually in the craik in the pub that we get closest to this kind of common insight – and maybe this is the source of some alcohol addiction also – for the association of alcohol with genuine companionship and relaxation may create the false conclusion that one is impossible without the other. In those hours when today’s humiliations have been related, and their authors properly reviled, we ease down. Our friends are those who do not threaten us, and who can share in our meagre triumphs. Yet tomorrow beckons, inexorable as closing time – and battle is soon joined once more.

The tireless busyness of great cities, audible even through double or treble glazing, sets a rhythm to which we unconsciously dance. That seems to be true of any large community. And the car now allows that rhythm to radiate out into the countryside, far louder now than the hum of bees that used to be a byword for business. The discovery of the process of evolution should impress us with the slowness of God’s time – but instead it seems to have ratcheted even tighter our determination to live in tomorrow rather than today. It becomes daily more difficult to find stillness, to discover the rhythm of God’s tune, and dance to that instead.

That is why there has always been a connection between deep spiritual work, and isolation. We tend to associate the desert into which Jesus went merely with asceticism – but we should note that he went there from the Jordan, directly after the Father’s revelation of himself and recognition of his son. So we can assume that Jesus was simply seeking a stillness and peace within which he could discover the meaning of this extraordinary relationship. The hermitical and monastic traditions – which preserved the church through centuries of corruption of its superstructure – follow the same search for the one who speaks in stillness.

It is also always a search for the self – of who one is – the integrated ‘me’ shorn of pretence, falseness, that personality I put on like a shirt in order to please the world. The knowledge that it is the ‘me’ that I hide from the world that God alone fully knows – this is important knowledge that we have forgotten how to teach in our schools.

It can be rediscovered still in Ireland today – especially in the west. I did not discover that my own desert had been the wilds of Lough Corrib until I found that it was there as a teenager I had found a happiness so mysterious that when I found myself much later in the darkest valley of my own crisis, gratitude came pouring out to whoever had created it – just, it seemed, for me. In Galway again recently, determined to escape the hum of the city, I came upon a dirt road that seemed to follow inland a beautiful small river tumbling towards the sea. My wife and I followed it on foot, and within ten minutes the movement of the breeze and the rush of falling water had enveloped us completely, shutting out the rush of traffic, easing the almost imperceptible tension it builds within us. That was the Sabbath experience we must all seek – the rest from labour that only God’s music can provide.

These then are the elements of the downward journey: a realisation of the Father’s primordial and unchangeable esteem for us as brother or sister of the Lord; a determination to live in this knowledge, giving the same respect to everyone we meet; a seeking of the slower rhythm of God’s time in whatever form of wilderness we can find. Also a willingness to listen for a call that may ask of us a particular service in challenging the world, or serving its casualties. Then we will inevitably find that whatever tortuous route we have followed in life to this point will have a particular meaning for others on a similar path. No life is ever ruined once we again find fellowship with the God who so wisely – like the Father of the prodigal son – gave us our primordial freedom, and will now give meaning and redemption to our utmost waywardness.

Views: 11

Protecting the Absolute Truth

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life, March 2001

At about the time that Dominus Iesus hit the news I heard a woman friend say, in more than a little frustration: “I say the creed every Sunday – but I still don’t really know what it means for me!”

As Dominus Iesus begins by reciting what we call the Nicene Creed as the essence of the absolute truth it defends against ‘relativism’, I find this an interesting coincidence. If the creed is the closest we can come to a summary of the absolute core of our faith, yet that summary baffles and frustrates an intelligent person with a lifetime’s experience of listening to it, we have a problem. Especially in explaining and justifying that faith to a younger generation whose attention span is determined by television.

Thinking about this further I remembered an exchange I had once had with an enthusiastic opponent of the church. “If you believe you possess the absolute truth,” this chap insisted, “you will feel yourself entitled to impose it upon me at whatever cost. Religious faith is necessarily abusive.”

Before protesting in the name of the many gentle and faith-filled people we know, we would do well to ponder the historical context from which this perception comes. The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century CE– which means that it was already seven centuries old when the first Crusade led directly to the slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and Jews by Christian knights in Jerusalem in 1099 CE. Presumably some of those knights could have recited a version of this formula if asked to do so. Certainly Pope Urban II, who inspired this first crusade, could have done so.

The point is that an ability to recite the Creed seems to be entirely compatible with an ability to disembowel someone who doesn’t accept it – as indeed some of these Christians did – in the search for the gold they believed their enemies to have swallowed.

This seems to mean that we can hold staunchly to ‘the faith’ while simultaneously associating Christ – its centre – with the most frenzied violence. A question follows inevitably: of what use in the end are verbal formulae, since even the greatest of them may be deprived by their staunchest adherents of any meaning? A second question follows for the creed specifically: what absolute truth does it relate that we must hold superior to the religious wisdom of the rest of humanity? This meaning cannot be immediately conveyed by the words in which it is expressed – for otherwise no Christian could have betrayed it. And my friend could not have been frustrated by her inability to catch its meaning for her personally. We are faced with a fundamental problem of meaning – the meaning of the events the creeds relate.

Starting with this second question, it is clear that both creeds are a kind of compressed narrative relating the relationship of the Trinity to human history and to human concerns. Centrally they relate the incarnation, condemnation, execution, resurrection and ultimate elevation of Jesus of Nazareth to the role of supreme King and Judge.

The meaning of any narrative cannot be determined in complete isolation. For example, we cannot fully interpret Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth unless we become somehow involved in the problem of political ambition as posed by western culture. When Cassius suborns Brutus we will fall asleep unless somehow engaged in the problem posed: how can male self-respect survive under an emerging tyranny and personality cult? The meaning of the narrative – that is, the truth conveyed dramatically by it – is that we have here a dilemma of real, general importance – especially in eras of politically concentrated power such as that of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Yet we recite the creed as though its meaning were somehow contained within itself – in complete isolation from the rest of human history. And it is this that effectively deprives it of any meaning, any significance, for us. It becomes a formula that might be in Chinese for all the difference it makes to how we think about our dilemmas and fixations today. We may congratulate ourselves on not confusing the Nicene with the Apostles Creed, but its meaning must be for God to interpret, as we leave it fully behind us when once this test of memory has been passed.

What happens if we do something that at first appears irreverent – juxtapose it with other well known texts and narratives – ‘stories’ – that might be comparable? The most obvious is the story of David as related in the Old Testament – as David was the model hero in the Jewish mind.

David’s story is again one of youthful recognition by God, and also youthful glory as the slayer of Goliath. This achievement sent the Philistines home straightaway, and rescued Saul, the first Jewish king, from military humiliation. But humiliation of another kind soon followed, for the women of Israel then made David supreme in their songs, to Saul’s chagrin. The result? The king whom David had rescued became his bitterest enemy – for kings were supposed to be the supreme military heroes of their people. The hero raised up by God necessarily humiliates the one who is not – and murderous violence follows, for a king cannot abide humiliation.

Further, when David finally succeeds to supreme leadership he cannot resist the temptation to possess the more beautiful wife of Uriah. What is the point of being king if someone else has precedence in this respect? Murder follows – disgracing even David. He is subject to the condemnation of the prophet Nathan. Later he witnesses his own son Absalom fall victim to envy of his own father.

How does the story of Jesus compare? He refuses to engage in a struggle for supremacy, accepts humiliation to the extreme of a felon’s death – but is then raised up by God to everlasting life and a supreme kingship.

The pattern is simple, affecting all three of the greatest kings of Israel: worldly ‘glory’ corrupted all three; early acceptance of the antithesis of worldly glory won for Jesus an everlasting kingship. We would be wise to meditate upon this.

If it is argued that Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, was incomparable with any other historical figure, Jewish or otherwise, why should Paul need to insist that the name of Jesus ‘is above every name’ (Phil 2:9)? Why should he also insist that the crucifixion was ‘foolishness to those who were perishing’ (1 Cor 1:18). Clearly the shame attached to being a Christian in Paul’s time was by virtue of comparisons made between the humiliation of the cross and the worldly enthronement awarded to the archetypal heroes and kings of Israel. The resurrection was important not simply because it represented victory over physical death, but because it awarded a supreme and timeless elevation above all the heroes of the ancient world – the essential proclamation of Stephen for which he too was murdered.

The creeds therefore are a narrative which associate ultimate divine acclaim with the acceptance of worldly humiliation – because this acceptance avoids the pitfalls of earthly enthronement – specifically the humiliation of others and the rivalry and conflict that follows. Blessed are the poor in spirit – i.e. those who accept humiliation – for their lives are indeed laid down prostrate before the ambition of others. Jesus’ end is the logical culmination of a life lived in rejection of the climb to religious and political power – the rejection narrated in his sojourn in the desert.

The creeds therefore occupy a dimension of human experience that lies between glory and disgrace – as awarded by ‘the world’ as it existed in ancient times. If this dimension does not exist today, then the kingdom of God has already been achieved, and we are all truly equal in dignity and justice. If it does exist today, it is of the utmost consequence that we relate the creeds to it – for otherwise they will remain mere totems – formulae that we can recite one moment and disgrace the next.

Worldly ‘glory’ in the ancient world is ‘celebrity’ in ours: the disgraced of the ancient world are the ‘losers’ in ours. The distinction is not essentially monetary: it is the dimension between those who are known and acclaimed in local or global terms, and those who are considered of no importance, and exploited or abused. Money happens to be a common benchmark of achievement and status – as well as the means by which we require the necessities of our physical survival, and that is why it is important. In one respect history remains fixed in one place: in awarding esteem unequally. In the kingdom of God – always present where Jesus is present, and always absent to the degree the world intrudes – people are equally esteemed. In that kingdom – which can never be achieved by violence – everyone is free of everyone else’s ambition and contempt, for no-one needs to climb above others to experience self-esteem. It is therefore the only kingdom in which genuine freedom and peace applies – for no-one needs to dominate to ‘keep order’.

Joseph Campbell somewhere relates the result of a poll which showed that most black teenagers in the US – the world standard for historical success – want above all to be celebrities – ‘rich and famous’. The pop diva Madonna intends to pursue her career (we are told) until she is ‘better known than God’. In a recent interview a young ‘lager lout’ insisted that he drank himself insensible once a week to forget that he had no ‘status’. Young men in Ireland routinely commit suicide out of self-condemnation – confirming the perceived verdict of the world. Daily the media recount the doings of people who are famous merely for being well known – and few in Ireland any longer want to be priests or nurses, for these roles have lost all ‘glamour’. ‘Glamour’ too is the need of a fifteen year old English girl who wants a breast implant, encouraged by her mother – and of millions of middle-aged women throughout the west terrified of growing old.

Common to all of these pathologies of modern life is the notion that we are the sum of what others think of us, that our self-esteem must be dependent upon the esteem of others.

Much violence is closely related. US teenagers carry guns – and often use them – to keep or earn ‘respect’. The Littleton massacre was planned by young men who insisted they were at the base of their school’s pyramid of esteem. David Copeland killed four people with nail bombs in England recently because ‘if no one remembers who you were, you never existed’. Alexander’s, Napoleon’s and Hitler’s problems were remarkably similar.

It is precisely because the creeds relate directly to these pathologies that they are of unique and global importance – for ‘celebrity’ on western lines is now a global phenomenon. So are the media, creating another global phenomenon – the ‘wannabe’ who can’t be, at least not on Hollywood terms. For if we are all esteem-seekers we must nearly all be esteem-poor – only those whose self-esteem is secure can actually award esteem to others.

What are the implications of all of this for ‘absolute truth’ and its protection? The elevation of verbal formulae per se as totems is clearly inadequate. The source of the ‘sin’ overcome by the crucifixion is not the experimental insights of daring theologians, but history’s pyramids of esteem of which the church itself is still, sadly, one. A church structured in this way cannot explain the creeds because it denies in practice the principle they proclaim – that Christian leadership demands humility above all else.

When asked ‘what is truth’ by his final earthly judge, Jesus offered no Catechism, no creed – simply the witness of his integrity. An ultra-verbose and remote ecclesiastical leadership bankrupts the creeds by depriving them of witness, and thus of meaning. It is time to let love – the absolute truth and the great gift of many of the church’s least educated people – lead it towards that kingdom in which all are equally esteemed. Foolishness may sometimes be spoken there, but it will do far less damage than an absolutism of the word that imposes silence while itself betraying the Word, who never silenced anyone, and who fled from celebrity rather than seek it.

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Bishop J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must change or Die’

Spong on Spong 1 – Ditching the Old Man

Anxious to find out what all the fuss was about I bought the paperback version of Episcopal Bishop JS Spong’s “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”(HarperCollins 1998). I was impressed straightaway that its Alpha and Omega – Foreword and Epilogue – are essentially devoted to Spong himself – his Journey out of Theistic Darkness and his confidence that in the end the Christian world will follow Him. In between we get flashes of lightning like the following (I give the whole paragraph because it epitomises Spong’s dialectical and literary style):

“The opening phrase of the Apostles’ Creed speaks first of God as the “Father Almighty.” Both of these words offend me deeply. Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions. The word Father is such a human word – so male, so dated.’ It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives just beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and that practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized. That Church universally relegated women to clearly defined secondary roles until the latter years of the twentieth century, when that sexist prejudice began to dissipate. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communities, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called “Father” has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the “unchanging sacred tradition of the Church.” I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity. I am no longer tolerant of gatherings where all the participants are men, sitting in a solemn assembly, clothed in their ecclesiastical dress, and acting as if they can determine what a woman may do morally with her own body. I have no interest in being part of an institution that is so deeply biased against women and intends to stay that way.”

In this rebuttal of the creed this is absolutely all there is on the term ‘Father’. ‘Father’ means ‘patriarch’ only, we are told, and even this term is sold short, as merely the bête noir of feminism. ‘Father’ as ‘Abba’ – with all the richness of the relationship that this implies – receives not even a defensive mention. There is not even a nod to the fidelity of the God of the Old Testament, drawn by Christ in human terms in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The term ‘Masculine’ is used, without any attempt at analysis, as a pejorative term equivalent to ‘machismo’ – an example of opportunistic rhetoric every bit as reprehensible as the maleist distortion of the term ‘female’.

Spong’s dismissal of the rest of the Apostles’ creed is every bit as unscrupulous and perfunctory as this example. Leave this man in charge of the family jewellery store and you will come back to find he has sold gold as lead. This is bad enough – but then you have to put up with him flashing in your face the brass pennies he has sold it for – in this case the applause of the more superficial proponents of the women’s liberation movement. (It’s time we accepted that feminism is often just another ideology, a bias as unbalanced and self-serving as masculinism – but don’t expect Spong to offend his feminist readership by saying so.)

Why the continual self-referencing? (‘Both of these words offend *ME* deeply?’ ‘That history and that practice repel *ME* today?’. ‘*I* do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity,’ and so on.) This self-absorption is the most consistent theme of the book, and it gives the game away. Spong suffers from the debilitating illness that afflicted his mentor, Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – a fundamental embarrassment that his calling has associated him with ‘Theism’. There he is in this antique jewellery shop when all the salesmen who visit show him the glitzy early success of rationalism. “Where is your Old Man in the Sky?” they ask. As insecure as an adolescent with acne, he immediately values the family stock in terms of this patently absurd caricature – and sells it off at their altogether self-interested and superficial valuation.

Notice too the dismissal of the term ‘Father’ as ‘human’ and therefore ‘dated’. Spong is not a humanist either, it seems. His ‘intoxication’ with God is a mystical affinity with ‘The Ground of All Being’ (henceforward ‘Goab’ here for the sake of economy). Goab cannot be in any sense human – because, it seems, if you allocate any aspect of the human to Goab you are anthropocentric and a believer in ‘The Old Man in the Sky’. The possibility of a creative conscious being in love with his creation, and supremely in love with the only one of its creatures aware of its own certain death, is not admitted. Spong lives intellectually ‘in exile’ from the theistic thought systems of the church.

Inevitably then, the Lord’s Prayer later goes the way of the Apostle’s Creed. According to Spong, Jesus made assumptions in that prayer that ‘exile people’ (Spong’s disciples) are not capable of making.

He assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as “Father.” He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven.” Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.  Those were all aspects of a theistic belief system that simply is no  more. The concept of a personal deity who directs the affairs of  individual human history from a vantage point above this earth,  watching, intervening, rewarding, and punishing, has died.

 In a thoroughly Goabian Church, then, Jesus is to be patronised for his theism and gently put right. Later he will be taught – by Spong – how he should have prayed. Where Jesus had Good News for mankind, Spong has better news for Jesus – he needn’t any longer believe in ‘the Father’.

Those of you who are still awake may anticipate a problem here. Did not Jesus explain his mission in terms of his love for and obedience to ‘the Father’? If Jesus was guided in everything up to and including the crucifixion by nothing more than mistaken ‘assumptions’ how can he remain the central figure of the enterprise that Spong is supposedly rescuing from itself – Christianity?

Let’s keep that important question for the second item in this series.

*****

Spong on Spong: 2 – ‘Rescuing’ the Son

You will all remember that in my first bulletin from Bishop Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must Change or Die’ I described how God the Father had been summarily fired by the good bishop for political incorrectness. (Father = Patriarch, and just look at what patriarchy has done to women! Spong is offended. End of ‘argument’.)

The Lord’s Prayer must therefore be dumped also, because it is addressed to the Father. Why does Jesus, author of the prayer, not go the way of the Father? Has he not made three false theistic assumptions?

The answer lies in Bishop Spong’s long training as a Baywatch lifeguard. No sooner does John Shelby see Jesus going down for the third false assumption than he streaks to the water’s edge, dives in and comes out with a Jesus that even a non-theist can love. Jesus’ outstanding features as a human being are then analysed: his inclusiveness, his assault upon those barriers which separate Jew from Samaritan and Gentile, male from female, adult from child, pure from ‘unclean’, sane from mad, high born from low born; his ability to be totally present to whomever he is addressing; his freedom to be himself in all circumstances – even facing death; his faithful love of the twelve, despite their shortcomings; his extraordinary capacity to forgive even his enemies, remaining consistent until the excruciating end.

This is indeed an impressive list, and straightaway one wonders how Jesus has acquired these characteristics, and how the good Bishop will explain them in psychological, historical and spiritual terms.

He doesn’t.

This extraordinary human being, Jesus, is presented as emerging from nothing, through no clear process of human and social development. The question of how this extraordinary man came to be what he was is left completely unanswered. Were Spong arguing that Jesus is theistically divine this would be understandable. But Spong, the rationalist, fails completely to account for Jesus the man.

Why is this? I’m not a trained psychologist but I know for certain that the human personality grows mainly through mimesis – the imitation of qualities present in those adults who have nurtured the child. In particular I know that what one becomes as a man has an enormous amount to do with the personality and attention of one’s father. Richard Rohr distills a lot of this in ‘The Wild Man’s Journey’ – arguing that one of the great problems in the typical male spiritual journey in this era is ‘the father wound’ – the typical father’s failure to admire and recognise the son’s self, and the son’s inability to forget and overcome this.

A story from the Vatican 2 mailing list illustrates this need beautifully. A contributor remembers:

“sitting by a poolside in Israel in 1982 and hearing a child shout, “Abba, look, look. Amma, look, look.” I did a double take wondering what was going on and it was a darling little boy asking his parents to applaud his diving skills.”

 “Abba, look, look.” It is so important that the Father sees what the boy can do, and acknowledges it admiringly. This need stays with the boy throughout his life. His sense of who he is, his evaluation of himself, continues to depend (albeit to a diminishing degree) upon the father’s recognition. Asked to give a talk in my own parish church some months ago it was still important to me (now 55) that my Dad, (now 86), should be there, and should approve. Without that recognition from the father for the younger man the soul can shrivel and die. The person that emerges from this deprivation is psychologically unsure and indecisive, the very opposite of the Nazarene.

Jesus’s psychological poise MUST have owed enormously to how he felt Abba’s recognition – and Abba for Jesus was Spong’s ‘Patriarch’. There is absolutely no way you can separate Jesus’ ‘Theism’ from his psychological, intellectual and spiritual poise, and towering personality.

Why separate them? Why does Spong feel obliged to ditch Jesus’ theism? Here are the passages in which he does so, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.

“(Jesus) assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as ‘Father’.”

 The word ‘assumed’ is, of course, insufferably patronising in this context. The truth is that this highly intelligent young man *firmly believed* that he could address his God AS ‘Abba’. If this ‘Abba’ did not recognise Jesus – in a manner communicable to Jesus – how did the boy Jesus become the most extraordinarily balanced male in human history? Spong’s a priori assumption that this extraordinary individual could have developed *in the absence of the Abba who is so passionately addressed* is psychologically spurious and nowhere justified in his book.

All of us are capable of hearing imaginary voices, if we listen hard enough, but how many of us are absolutely convinced that the voice we hear is not our own? If Jesus couldn’t tell the difference, why was he so present to all he met, so ‘there’, rather than wrapped in some kind of psychosis? There is a mystery here that Spong does nothing to explain. Obliged by his rationalist assumptions to discount the possibility of a human dialogue with a personal God, he extols a human being who is simply inexplicable in non-theistic terms. Yet he prefers his rationalism. This, for a bishop ordained into theism, is simply perverse.

“He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven”. (Spong)

 If Jesus assumed this, and this only, how could he have addressed Abba? If the Lord’s prayer was to be heard by Abba, then Abba for Jesus could not simply be external, beyond the furthest boundary imagined by Jesus. Abba had to be in some sense here present and listening also. This Spong has a curiously one-dimensional mind: ‘Father’ must mean simply ‘Patriarch’, not also ‘Abba’; Abba cannot be for Jesus both here, and out there.

This is supremely important, for Spong is at pains to insist that the theistic mind of Jesus’s time saw God as an embodied reality out beyond the sky. Clearly Jesus saw nothing of the kind. Why is Spong at so much pain to belittle the intellectual sophistication of the ancients, when the truth is clearly before him?

“Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.” (Spong)

 It’s clear from the context that Spong is referring here to “hallowed be thy name”. But how does Spong reach HIS assumption? If I say to God ‘Thou art Holy’ I am making no assumption about what God likes to hear. I am simply declaring how I feel about God. For Jesus, the Father is Holy. He says nothing of how this statement is received by God.

This is important, for Spong in his dismissal of Theism makes much of our supposed assumption that God (‘Ground of All Being’ for Spong) *needs* to be worshipped. The little boy heard at the swimming pool shouting “Abba” was simply delighting in his Father’s presence, not making a statement about what his father needed to hear. There is absolutely nothing in the text of the Our Father that compels us to believe that Jesus “assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name”. He is addressing the Father, not obliquely commenting upon him.

Yet if the Father is pleased by the Son’s recognition, why cannot this simply be the same joy that the poolside father will feel when he sees the little boy jump joyfully into the pool? There is no solipsism in this either. Holiness is simply the essence of goodness, a goodness greater than ours. The holiness of the Father, Abba, will simply express itself in the joy that he is recognised – why must this be an introverted need to be worshipped? When we say ‘Hallowed’ to God we are simply in ‘praise’ mode. What Spong makes of this is clearly forced to suit his own conclusions – it does not arise inevitably, or even naturally, from the text. His three “assumptions” turn out to be spurious.

We are discerning here the nature of Bishop Spong’s dialectic. It is not scrupulous exegesis and logic, but a rhetoric which does not hesitate to misrepresent and distort the text if this will suit his purpose. That purpose is a rejection of theism on the grounds that modern science has made it impossible. So theism has to be a belief in the materiality of God out there beyond the sky. It’s clear from the Gospels that for Jesus Abba was non-material and spiritual and therefore everywhere present. It is also clear that his relationship with Abba was something far more than fantasy. Spong will distort the text to keep this from us. He will also allege that theism requires a self-absorbed deity. This too is a distortion of the entire Bible, in which the overwhelming presence is a God who endlessly gives of himself. Spong is fundamentally unreliable in relation to the core text of his profession, and perversely so, simply to serve the needs of his rhetoric.

If Spong will deliberately misrepresent the Bible, what will he do to the findings of modern science? Fasten your seat belts, folks, we’re in for a bumpy, and mysterious, ride.

*****

Spong on Spong 3 – Too much Faith in Reason

Bishop Spong’s rejection of Theism claims the scientific achievements of the modern period as sufficient reason. Yet his account of this rationalistic demythologisation is strangely dated. There is much on Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud – but no adequate analysis of the uncertainties – the rediscovered mysteries – of current microcosmic and macrocosmic science. And absolutely no assessment of the problem of human evil.

Atheistic rationalism is grounded upon nothing more than a *belief* that we all know what matter is, and can predict in all circumstances how it will behave. Recent science proves that we don’t and can’t. Elementary particles are divisible beyond our conceptual grasp, and are bound together in relationships we cannot explain. The atom is over 99% empty space – which means that we are also. At the particle level the act of scientific observation actually produces the behaviour being observed – questioning the rationalist assumption that science could and would objectively explain everything in time. Matter is also just another mode of energy, as Einstein predicted and nuclear physics proved. Thus, matter too, we now know, is just as mysterious as spirit – is in an important sense spiritual – but don’t expect Spong to tell you this.

Also lacking is any serious analysis of our expanding knowledge of the universe – its origins and extent. We now know that it is actually far vaster than had been thought as late as the 1960s, and that the possibilities for life elsewhere in space are virtually limitless. The origin of all that exists is explained generally in terms of an original ‘big bang’ – but this takes us through one door only to encounter another that is unopenable: a spontaneous generation of the universe is far more difficult to accept than the Resurrection. Those few people who can speculate in this mysterious area are dealing in theories which are not only esoteric for most of us, but completely unverifiable – one of the preconditions for the kind of empirical rationalism that Spong appears to believe has explained, or will explain, everything. Out of nothing has come all of this beautiful cosmos, this wonderful womb in which we get to learn from and love one another? Give me a break!

Find a humble scientist (and many of them are far more arrogant than any medieval theologian) and he will admit that human birth is a falling from one womb into another. From a place in which as far as the child is aware there is nothing but darkness, warmth, movement, and sound – into this far vaster womb we call the universe. If we retain any sense of wonder and humility we must acknowledge that we have no more reason to believe this visible universe is all there is than that our mother’s womb was all there was.

So the macrocosm (everything we can observe) is as impenetrable to science as the microcosm (the tiniest particles) – for the simple reason that we live within, rather than outside of it. At both ends we are faced by mystery – but again Spong says nothing of this.

In psychology, similarly, Freud’s dismissal of theism is boosted at the expense of Jung’s far more important work on the psychological importance of religious myths as carriers of profound truth. As to the newfound interest of anthropology in the texts of the bible, there is no mention – even though Rene Girard’s work began in the 1970s, and has profound implications for Freudian analysis both of mental illness and religion.

Nor does Spong refer at any point to one of the most baffling scientific problems: the nature and origin of human consciousness. Why does each one of us have this inner presence, this extraordinary front row seat from which we observe, and know we are observing, a drama that becomes more amazing with every triumph of science? For each of us the profoundest mystery is: “Why am I here?” Science will never be able to answer this, because the answer must be particular, rather than general, and discovered by ourselves. It must address the extraordinary uniqueness of every one of us. Theism answers this question and provides an answer in terms of our being at home here, a dearly loved project of a loving creation from the beginning. The grandeur of this answer, present in all the great religions, allows us to repossess the sense of individual personal worth that mere rationalism has arrogantly and stupidly ripped from us.

Why does Spong so persistently load the dice against our doing this? It seems he is a convert to rationalism as implacable enemy and replacement for theism, and has all the enthusiasm and partiality of the convert. He does not seriously investigate the phenomenon of post-modernism – in many ways a rebuttal of the enlightenment hubris to which Spong gives himself so naively. He does not want to investigate the possibility that mere rationalism has had its day – it might prove that the stock he has sold off for pennies has a fundamental value of which he understands little or nothing.

This value was never to be found in the bible’s analysis of material reality – but in its exploration of the human spirit, that spirit’s evolving relationship to the cosmos, and the nature of good and evil. Significantly Spong gives no adequate analysis of the profound evils by which humanity is currently beset – in particular the impact of human selfishness upon community in the First world, upon the material suffering of the third – and upon the internal and external stability of both.

Spong will tell you nothing either of the total failure of the rationalist assumption, dating from the enlightenment, that rationalism could replace religion as the foundation of human goodness and social harmony. Had this prediction been valid the twentieth century would have been the most enlightened and peaceful on record, based upon one or other of the ideologies formed in the 1800s – most obviously Marxism. Now we know that no ideology, no set of abstract ideas, provides a blueprint for individual and social happiness – that all can create tyrannies greater than any that existed in the pre-modern period. Knowing nothing of this it is understandable that Voltaire and the philosophes could easily dismiss the idea of original sin. Spong has no such excuse.

It follows that he has no understanding of the crucifixion, other than as a test of courage that Jesus could heroically pass. That anthropological science, another fruit of the enlightenment, could discover an historical significance in this event that Spong knows nothing of is the most extraordinary measure of his lack of depth. I will cover this in a fourth and final piece.

*****

Spong on Spong: 4 – No need of Redemption?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Bishop Spong’s “Why Christianity must change or die” is its treatment of the crucifixion, and the Christian liturgy related to this. In the chapter ‘Jesus as Rescuer’ Spong presents the traditional redemption story as meaningless to moderns because of its origins in the story of the fall of man and the notion of an original sin which evolutionary theory has exploded. There was no perfect beginning to creation that man through Adam and Eve spoiled by disobedience. So humankind does not need rescuing, or redemption, and so we do not require a theology or liturgy that dwells on this. The crucifixion was a test that Christ courageously passed – that was all. The story of an obedient son accepting a Father’s commission to endure crucifixion is dismissed in the usual self-referential way: “I would choose to loathe rather than worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son.”

What then of human evil – for example the problem of inherited ethnic resentment that perpetuates violence in modern society? You will search and search in vain in this book for an extended treatment of the problem of evil. It is written in what amounts to a moral innocence, reflecting the calm of its author’s study, rather than the seething world outside. Considering the ocean of blood shed in this century – largely by devotees of modern ideologies emanating from the Enlightenment – this is a quite extraordinary circumstance. It is as though the enlightenment prediction of a perfect society based upon reason had been fulfilled rather than completely ridiculed by the global catastrophes of the twentieth century.

Associated with this strange void is the lack of any perception of the reality that human beings can change, and change profoundly, when they experience the trauma of suffering. Spong’s elect – the ‘exile’ Christians who cannot accept Theism – seem fully formed by rationalism, incapable of moving beyond it. There is no acknowledgement of the phenomenon known as conversion or metanoia, through which people can move from one plane of being onto another.

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of everyday people who have been profoundly changed and tempered by an experience associated with suffering. Without exception the start of the process was an emotional identification with Christ on the cross. That led then to profound grief, and then to an absolutely unshakeable belief in a real, personal, spiritual reality. Grief and joy became mingled. They emerged as new people, confident of the love of God. Without exception they are theists who can say the Lord’s prayer with full conviction.

These are not poseurs, because they have absolutely no illusions about themselves. They have great humility and personal buoyancy as well as faith. They speak of their experiences with some reluctance in case they might be thought self-advertising. Far from being fundamentalist, they are anxious to grow in their understanding of God.

Some of these people’s sufferings are associated with political violence. The outstanding examples in my experience are the McGoldricks, who lost their only child to sectarian assassination in Craigavon in 1996. The chances of them finding Spong’s book enlightening are zero. It simply doesn’t connect with their experience. The Christ of the gospels dwells within them, and they are sure of the love of the Father.

But what of the historical significance of the crucifixion, its part in the the story of mankind generally? Spong has evidently no notion of this either.

As Gil Bailie’s ‘Violence Unveiled’ was published to great acclaim in 1995, there is no excuse for this. Bailie summarises the work of Rene Girard, Professor of French Literature and Civilisation at Stanford University. That work advances with astonishing clarity and erudition the thesis that all ancient religions were based upon the scapegoating mechanism as cultures collapsed into reciprocal violence. The origins of that violence (and violence today) lie in mimetic desire – the desire to possess what someone else possesses. In the story of Adam and Eve that mimetic desire is to become ‘as Gods’ by eating the forbidden fruit. This leads to the fall – and almost immediately Cain kills Abel, because the latter is seen by Cain as enjoying the favour of God – mimesis again. This problem is as prevalent today as it was in humankind’s earliest times. Saddam Hussein’s and George Bush’s mimetic desire for the oil wealth of the gulf; Milosevich’s desire for heroic status as conqueror of Serbia’s claimed national territory; Irish Nationalism’s and Unionism’s desire to control the territory of Northern Ireland. In the Bible, mimetic desire is ‘covetousness’.

In ancient times reciprocal violence created a state of terrible fear and tension – it could lead to the complete extinction of a society – so ‘it was better that one man should die than that the nation perish’. The selection of the victim fastened usually upon some unfortunate whose death would not provoke revenge from any sizeable quarter. The individual marked by some physical handicap (e.g. Oedipus) was an outstanding target. He would be accused by all of some horrendous crime. This person would then become a lightning rod for the violence of the entire society, and die, often from stoning (because in this way no-one could claim to have had no part, and all could remain undefiled by the blood of the victim).

Once the deed had been done, the memory of it would become troublesome, so the victim, who had in a sense ‘saved’ his people, would become an object of religious veneration. The violence was then veiled by the substitution of an animal sacrifice for the original victim, and a myth would develop to explain this rite. Such myths and rites are found in all ancient cultures without exception.

What makes the Judeo-Christian tradition different is that through the prophets this murderous process was gradually unveiled, and then completely revealed by Jesus. Caiphas also uses the primordial words ‘It is better for one man to die …’ But the innocence of this one man, his total lack of mimetic desire, was borne witness to by his disciples, and by those who saw him move from trial to crucifixion without responding to violence with violence. In a single life this man reveals ‘things hidden from the beginning of the world’, and exposes the process of sacrificial murder. He also bears witness to the sacredness of the individual life, and to God’s concern for that individual.

Here we have the origin of the Mass (which substitutes bread and wine for the body and blood of the ancient sacrifices), as well as the principle of the inviolability (rights) of the individual. Christ is the origin both of modern liberalism, and of the Church. These are seen by hierarchs as opposed to one another because the church leadership mimetically desires the power of the state (a mortal sin not yet confessed), and is thus in practice at odds with its founder.

However, in the Mass and in its teachings the church bears witness to its founder’s selfless pursuit of the good of the individual through self-sacrifice. This is why we must expect charisms in the grassroots, rather than in Rome. The Vatican is a kind of exoskeleton for the soft heart of God. Catholic hierarchs have scandalised the world by often sacrificing individuals to save themselves. (Among the latest victims are the children unprotected from the known predilections of paedophile priests.) You will recall that Christ finds and binds that individual to him (the lost sheep) by sharing his pain. In my experience this is the almost universal pattern of genuine conversion. The freedom of the individual to wander is accepted and vindicated – the shepherd follows her/him, simply by imaging suffering.

The crucifixion has therefore both a cosmic and an individual significance. It gives us a framework both for humanising the macrocosm, and for reconciling the individual to the creator. But in this cause the church’s mimetic desire for the power of this world must be mercilessly exposed. Christ’s love of individual human freedom – which also comes from the Father – must be vindicated. This can only be done by obliging the leadership of the church to embrace the vulnerability and brotherliness of Christ – for the first time in almost sixteen hundred years.

We cannot explain Jesus’s acceptance of this revelatory crucifixion except in terms of a cosmic concern for every single one of us. The Father, like all good fathers, wants us to run to him joyfully, not to sidle in from fear. Like Bishop Spong I detest clerical patriarchy, but I must speak up for the cosmic entity with a human heart and mind that recognised Jesus as his son, and gave him direction. Without that theos we are all lost – as a race and as individuals.

Here is Rene Girard on the importance of the crucifixion:

“To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance. This is the only hypothesis that enables us to account for the revelation in the Gospel of what violence does to us and the accompanying power of that revelation to deconstruct the whole range of cultural texts, without exception. We do not have to adopt the hypothesis of Christ’s divinity because it has always been accepted by orthodox Christians. Instead, this hypothesis is orthodox because in the first years of Christianity there existed a rigorous (though not yet explicit) intuition of the logic determining the gospel text.
A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.”

(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, R. Girard, 1978)

That this conclusion could be reached by the scrupulous interpretation of ancient texts shows what life is still left in Theism.

And if that non-violent deity could so love Christ, so fill him with wisdom and strength, are we not entitled to believe in the Resurrection also? Obviously the apostles did, and they, like the referee, were far closer to the ball.

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