Category Archives: Jesus

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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How White Men Lost the Meaning of Redemption

For the earliest Christians, Jesus’s Resurrection had set them free from the worst kind of fear – that the judgement of Rome was God’s judgement also. Without an army, Jesus had defeated the world’s greatest power, simply by speaking the truth. The still living Jesus, their brother and Lord,  was now judge of the living as well as the dead. In their own minds and hearts, whatever others might think, they were beloved children of the only God who mattered.

If Crucifixion could not disgrace or kill Jesus it could not disgrace or kill those who believed that Jesus was indeed the way, the truth and the life.

And so St Paul could write :  Now this Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3: 17)

This was why Jesus was also called ‘Redeemer‘ – liberator – because his forgiveness, experienced before Baptism, had also liberated his earliest followers from the fear that eternal death would follow not only from the mistakes of their own earlier lives but from crucifixion

To redeem‘ was literally to buy the freedom of a Roman slave, so those earliest Christians were truly free in the most important sense.  The greatest power that Rome had – the power to both kill and shame by crucifixion – had been set at nought by Jesus.

That cruel Roman world was passing away.

Two thousand years later a Christian descendant of African slaves in the USA was to write as follows:

“The cross stands at the centre of the Christian faith of African-Americans because Jesus’ suffering was similar to their American experience. Just as Jesus Christ was crucified, so were blacks lynched. In the American experience, the cross is the lynching tree.”
(James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree,  Orbis Books, 2013)

James Cone was describing the belief that had led Martin Luther King to give his own life for the cause of African American civil equality in the USA, the Civil Rights campaign of 1956-68.

The same belief – that God and history are always on the side of the enslaved and the abused – the rejected ones – continues to make history today.

The paradox is that James Cone’s own ancestors had been enslaved by white Europeans who also thought themselves Christians. Those white Europeans had instead used the Bible to justify their own greed and brutality.

The white American landowners to whom they had sold their slaves had given the same Bible to those slaves in the hope that it would teach them obedience.  They had no expectation that something utterly different would happen:

Those slaves now saw in the story of the Israelites in Egypt their own story – and in the crucifixion they saw the lynchings that became all too frequent after the US Civil War defeat of the slave-holding southern states, in the period 1865-1945.

How had it happened that white European slavers – and even kings and popes – had forgotten what St Paul had also written about the Kingdom of God called into being by Jesus long ago: “There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither slave nor freeman, there can be neither male nor female — for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3: 28)

The answer lies in an event that happened just three centuries after Jesus’s time on earth: the decision of the Roman Emperor Constantine to claim in 312 CE that the God of Jesus had helped him win power over his rivals, and would help him to further victories if he marched under a Christian symbol of that time – known as the Chi Rho.

The Chi Rho – early Christian symbol formed by placing the first two letters of the Greek word ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (Christos) on top of one another. It was adapted to become the battle standard of the armies of the Roman Emperor Constantine 312-337 CE

Not all Christians were convinced of the truth of Constantine’s claim – for it was also known that Constantine had earlier claimed the support of the pagan God Apollo.  However, a majority of the Christian bishops decided that the sufferings of Christians under periodic Roman persecution had finally been rewarded, and did not contest this claim.  By the end of that century, 400 CE, Christianity had replaced belief in the ancient Roman and Greek Gods as the official religion of the Roman empire.

This had a profound impact on European Christianity from then on, in three main ways:

  • First, as the Christian church was now under the protection of a military Roman upper class, it came itself to be organised in the same way – with Christian clergy organised also as an officer class and social hierarchy throughout western Europe.
  • Second, the social importance of Baptism lessened greatly.  Originally received by adults converted by the ‘Good News’ of Jesus life, death and resurrection, Baptism became gradually a sacrament received in infancy in Christian families.  This strongly contrasted with the rising social prestige of the adult sacrament of ordination – the gateway ‘rite of passage’ to the Christian clergy, the church’s own officer ranks.
  • This in turn meant that ‘Redemption’ for most European Christians no longer meant freedom in the present from fear of the judgement of others, but merely a promise of eternal life after death – if one was obedient to the Christian clergy who now formed society’s moral and intellectual elite. 

This was Christendom – an era that began in the 300s CE and lasted, as a semi-Christian society, until 1914 CE.  Its downfall came when five ‘great’ European imperial powers fought World War I, the most absurd and costly war in history – the Great War of 1914-18 – all claiming that the God of Jesus would help them to victory.

This disaster – its effects still ongoing – has greatly weakened those Christian churches that had supported those imperial powers. It has led many Christians in all traditions to recall that Jesus began his ministry by resisting the temptation to seek any form of political or ecclesiastical power, and that he died holding to that same course. Christendom was obviously not the Kingdom of God, and this is slowly being understood.

James Cone’s statement quoted above helps us greatly both to pinpoint the greatest mistake of European Christian churches in the past and to chart the future.

At the highest level of the church today it is also understood that the importance of Baptism took a negative turn following the Constantinian conversion in the 300s CE:

” Theology and the value of pastoral care in the family seen  as domestic Church took a negative turn in the fourth century, when the sacralization of priests and bishops took place, to the detriment of the common priesthood of baptism, which was beginning to lose its value. The more the institutionalization of the Church advanced, the more the nature and charism of the family as a domestic Church diminished.” (Secretary General to the Vatican Synod of Bishops, Bishop Mario Grech, Civilta Cattolica, 16th October 2020.)

And that is why defending the importance of Baptism and raising its status in the church needs to be a priority for all Irish Catholics today – especially because of the continuing power of clericalism – a mistaken exaggeration of the importance of ordination.  Clericalism pays only lip service to Baptism.  In particular, Irish clericalism still denies the baptised people of God the ordinary necessity of frequent dialogue. This in turn means that clergy are too often unable to help lay people to develop a mature Christian faith that is free of the need of clerical approval and oversight.

Yet, in 2020, as Catholic clerical morale reaches its lowest ever ebb in Ireland, many Irish Catholic lay people are discovering that the Holy Spirit, the counsellor promised by Jesus, is always at their elbow, reminding them that with the fullest understanding of the Apostles Creed comes a freedom greater than they have ever known. It does not matter that due to its mistaken alignment with wealth and power in the past, Catholicism is written off by today’s fashionable opinion-makers.

Those same opinion-makers existed in Jesus’s time – he called them ‘the world’. Knowing that world was passing away he left to all Christians a far greater faith in the living presence of the Holy Spirit and in the better world to come.

In the end all human judgement and social and spiritual pretence is set at nought by the Cross. It is our pride, our mistaken pursuit of superiority, that leads to snobbery, inequality, clericalism and injustice in all eras.

Prayer – especially reflective prayer on the Apostles Creed – will remind us that it is the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who are the true Lords of Time.  As ever we are all equally and infinitely loved, and need to believe this firmly to become a true Christian community – and heralds of the world to come.

[This article was published first at:  https://acireland.ie ]

Views: 304

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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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: V – Snobbery and the Gospels

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

‘Master, we know … that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you …’ (Matt 22:16)

Jesus did not value people for their social status or wealth. It is surely this characteristic above all that draws most of us to him. We cannot read more than a few chapters of any one of the Gospels without realising that here was someone who never looked down his nose at humble people – someone who was always drawn to those ‘the world’ despised.

Not only was Jesus not a snob, he was an anti-snob. He took on the world’s pyramid of esteem – topped as usual by religious and political elites – and revealed its pretentiousness.

To get a complete mental fix on ‘snobbery’ we can think of a phrase that provided the title of a recent book of popular philosophy:  Status Anxiety*. Those who suffer from snobbery are insecure in their self-esteem, so they need the esteem of others, especially of those ‘highly placed’. The more social esteem they have, the higher their supposed status. They are perpetually anxious about this status.

Hyacinth Bucket of the TV comedy series Keeping Up Appearances is a classic snob. Terrified that someone might suppose her to be ‘lower class’ she insists on pronouncing her name ‘Bouquet’.  She collects prestige china, and visits English stately homes in the hope of meeting their aristocratic owners. The actress who plays Hyacinth, Patricia Routledge, catches perfectly a recognizable type of middle aged, well-to-do suburban Englishwoman.

We can’t be certain of the precise origin of the word ‘snob’, but it may have come from the abbreviation ‘s.nob.’ (for sine nobilitate – ‘without nobility’, a ‘commoner’) written in the 1820s opposite the names of Oxford and Cambridge university students who were not well connected.

To put that kind of ‘nobility’ in perspective we need to remember that aristocratic titles were originally granted to those who performed some service for a medieval king – and that the special talent of medieval kings was for murdering peasants en masse in the gentlemanly sport known as warfare. The original aristocrats in France were called ‘the nobility of the sword’ for this reason. These medieval ‘knights’ were very effective mass murderers because they encased themselves in steel armour – an advantage not bestowed upon the unlucky peasantry.

The Roman nobility of Jesus’ time – especially the Caesars – were equally implicated in mass murder. Knowing this perfectly well, Jesus was not in awe of them – or of the Jewish religious elites either. He recognised all elitism for what it was – a pretence at superiority, and a source of violence and injustice.

Alain deBotton, the author of Status Anxiety, notes that Christianity has usually managed to convey to Christians that they are equal in the sight of God. He also points out, however, that the churches were mostly unsuccessful in levelling the social status pyramids outside the walls of churches and monasteries.

The reason for this is fairly simple. By the year 312 the Christian community in the Roman empire had acquired considerable size, wealth and prestige. In that year a contestant for the imperial throne named Constantine decided to win over the Christians to his own political cause. He did what imperial candidates almost always did in this situation. He claimed an encounter with a God.

This vision was different, however, because Constantine claimed he had met not a pagan god such as Apollo, but Jesus Christ. The latter had shown him (he said) a vision of the cross, and, inscribed in the heavens above it in Latin, the words “In this sign, conquer.”

Today we can say with complete certainty that this vision was not genuine. Constantine never read the Gospels, and supposed that the God of the Christians was not unlike Mars, the Roman God of war. This militaristic Christ was completely out of character with the gentle person who waved away the sword of Peter in Gethsemane. He was also out of sync with the pacifism of the many Christian martyrs willing to suffer death rather than serve in the Roman army in the early centuries of the church.

This ‘vision’ was also the decisive event in the heretical identification of the Christian cross with the sword of the crusader and the imperial conqueror. It was, in other words, the historical source of the many centuries of murderous ‘Christian’ scandal for which Pope John Paul II felt obliged to ask pardon before the whole world in the year 2000.

Yet the Christian bishops of 312 swallowed Constantine’s story whole. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (the ‘father’ of Church history) applauded Constantine (who went on to murder his wife and eldest son – after his ‘conversion’) in the most sickening terms. Eusebius was therefore also the true ‘father’ of Catholic snobbery – a disease that has disfigured the church ever since.

The spectacular conversion of Constantine set a new fashion for conversion of the military elites of first the Roman empire, and then of the barbarian states which followed it. Everywhere over the next five centuries the church fell under the power of rulers who were usually entirely ignorant of the Gospels. Sadly, some Christian thinkers adapted easily to this situation, developing theological ideas which portrayed God himself as an almighty snob who demanded ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

We can call this process the secularisation, or worldly contamination, of the church, because soon enough its bishops were part of this worldly aristocracy. As kings could often appoint bishops, they usually appointed the younger sons of the aristocracy. The popes themselves became political rulers – engaging in warfare, territorial acquisition and political intrigue. This system, called ‘Christendom’, baptised social inequality and so bore absolutely no resemblance to the ‘Kingdom of God’ that Jesus had described, but the illiteracy of most people in the Middle Ages prevented them from realizing this.

All over Europe, and in Ireland too, Christian missionaries placed the highest priority on the ‘conversion’ of the ruling classes. They ignored the fact that in most cases these conversions were merely a matter of snobbish imitation of those who set all trends – the powerful. Inevitably these aristocrats were taught to see their own good fortune as ‘God’s will’, and therefore to see the bad luck of their inferiors as ‘God’s will’ also. To pacify the latter, ‘salvation’ – which was for Jesus a new life that could begin anytime – was misrepresented as beginning only after death. In that way the miseries of the lives of ordinary people in aristocratic societies were justified.

Nevertheless, the story of Jesus – the king born in a stable who shared the lot of the least powerful – somehow kept alive for the poorest in Europe a dream of a better world. In the Middle Ages one reader of the Bible came up with the verses ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’  Inspired by stories from the Bible he (or she) was asking if God really approved of social inequality – and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was insistently raising the same question.

In the 1700s, following a scientific and economic revolution, a new educated lay elite emerged in Europe. Opposed to aristocratic bishops, it was determined to build a new world on the principles of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. Although Pope John Paul II admitted in 1989 that these values were also Gospel values, his predecessors in the period 1789-1900 condemned this revolutionary programme out of hand. The reason was that almost all bishops (popes included) were drawn still from the European nobility.

That is why modern egalitarianism (the movement towards social equality) tends to see Christianity as a force opposed to equality. It is also the main reason for the Catholic hierarchy’s dislike of liberalism and socialism – because these movements have greatly weakened the intellectual influence of the clerical church over the past two centuries.

However, two centuries after the birth of secular liberalism, western secular society today is still almost as unequal as the Church. Why is this?

The answer is that Status Anxiety (which Jesus called simply the power of ‘the world’) compels us to compete with one another. It is, in fact, the explanation for the biblical sin of  covetousness. We seek self-esteem through raising our status by greater wealth or celebrity. This inevitably means that we compete and conflict with one another. This is the everlasting problem of our species – and it now threatens the survival of our planet by involving us in endless competitive consumerism.

No longer based mainly on success in warfare, our status pyramids today are ‘meritocracies’ – ruled by those who have turned knowledge itself into wealth and power. The world’s most moneyed individual, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft – the supplier of the basic software for most of the world’s microcomputers – is a perfect example.

And our ‘poor in spirit’ are those who watch this parade of ‘success’ from the shadows of our urban wastelands. Their handicap is their own lack of talent for worldly competition, for winning these ‘glittering prizes’ of the twenty-first century.

There is only one solution to the problem of Status Anxiety – a solution that many in the secular world are now also pursuing: spirituality – a way of being that frees us from the compulsion to seek the approval of others.

The greatest spiritual teachers in all traditions have somehow made contact with a spiritual dimension that raised them to a new level of being – in which we realise that no-one ever truly has higher status than anyone else. All of them shared one outstanding characteristic: they were so secure in their own self-esteem that they had lost all snobbery. St Francis of Assisi was a typical example.

The greatest of all was Jesus of Nazareth, who died to bring all of us into relationship with this dimension. He knew that its ruler was none other than the heavenly father of the Old Testament prophets – the father he called ‘Abba’ – Dad.

The result of all status-seeking throughout history is a power pyramid that crushes the losers and tempts the winners to self-destruct. The Gospels reveal this truth to us, and invite us into relationship with the Father and the Son – through the Spirit who dwells within the heart and mind of those who truly seek this relationship.

Only in this relationship with the Trinity can we Christians, working alongside all those with a similar vision, build together – slowly – a truly peaceful, just, free and equal world.

Jesus called that ideal and spiritual world ‘the Kingdom of God’.

*Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton 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: 26

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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Disempowerment in the Church

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 1998

The dramatic speed of the Catholic clergy’s loss of power and influence in Ireland in the past decade is at once a great upheaval and a great opportunity. Disorientation causes anxiety, but makes us also open to the possibilities of new directions. There are aspects of ‘Catholic Ireland’ that we would be foolish to try to resuscitate (chiefly clerical supremacy), and aspects of western secularism we would be unwise to adopt (the shopping mall as Holy of Holies). We are at once passionately aware both of the valuable aspects of our culture that are in danger of dying, and of the meretricious nature of much of what threatens to replace it. We are at a moment of supreme crisis and opportunity.

Inevitably there will be those who will wish to row Ireland back to clericalism – the ideology supporting clerical power – as though it were synonymous with Christianity. For these, Christ is essentially a cleric in love with clerical power, so the solution must lie in the restoration of a pyramid of clerical influence.

I would chart a different direction, based upon an understanding of Christ as layman
– subversive of pyramids in general, and therefore entirely in tune with the one of the great ideals of the modern age – the equalisation of human dignity. Christianity, I believe, is about the virtue of disempowerment rather than empowerment – understanding ‘power’ as domination, control of others.

Jesus disempowered himself

It is unnecessary to reproduce here the scriptural passages that illustrate Jesus’ self-disempowerment: his rejection of the temptation to worldly power by Satan (Matthew 4: 8-10) ; his refusal to be made king following the miracle of the loaves and fishes (John 6: 14,15); his rejection of the path of messiahship as understood by Peter (Matt 16: 21-23); his declaration that the apostles must not ‘lord it over one another’ as the gentiles do (Luke 22: 24-27); his self-abasement in the washing of the feet (John 13: 3-8); and finally his submission at Gethsemane and crucifixion on calvary. Jesus rejected the option of worldly power, deliberately making himself vulnerable to the power brokers of his time. This is not just part of the story – it is the story.

Traditionally – that is to say clerically – this is all explained in terms of the necessity for the crucifixion as a means of buying back or redeeming humankind after the fall. Yet this simply moves the question somewhere else. Why did the Father charge such a high price? Could it be to idealise a life lived without ambition to self-advancement, in a world where this ambition creates injustice and destroys community? This, after all, is the problem of every age – particularly our own. Clericalism has always advocated that we follow Christ – except in this central dimension of disempowerment. The reason for this exception is simple – clericalism is about empowerment, not disempowerment, and therefore cannot ‘image’ the latter.

It seems to me that we would all do well to ponder John 13: 3 – in which God’s power is associated not with the glorification of Jesus, but with his washing of the feet of the apostles, in the role of the domestic servant or slave. God’s power is here defined not as supremacy, but as service. Here and now in Ireland we are at a moment when the meaning of this can strike home with great effect. If divine power is in fact to be expressed in terms of service, then the Church in Ireland still holds divine power, not by virtue of clericalism, but through the unconditional service it still gives in many spheres, through both religious and lay people.

Something else we must notice: it is to the suffering, vulnerable Jesus that we humans are drawn in times of trauma, not to the image of Christ as King. It is the image of the cross that binds the church together, not the clerical pyramid that the church became in the fourth century. In fact that pyramid has always been a source of scandal and division, as Balthasar acknowledged in his work ‘The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church’. Worldly power can corrupt, and has corrupted, the church – but the church of service survives.

Understood in this way Christianity can resolve the great conundrum of our time: how to harness the creative power of individualism to the needs of community. If we invert in our minds the normal social pyramid of respect, placing the powerless at the summit of it, we redefine ‘success’ as service and low consumption. Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who consume least and do not think highly of themselves. Suddenly the Sermon on the Mount becomes a formula for saving the world, including the environment, from human selfishness.

Reclaiming Secularism

In this analysis Christianity is not the inevitable victim of secularism, but its eventual fate. The Judeo-Christian perception of the individual as supremely precious to God (as in the parable of the lost sheep) is brought to full fruition in Jesus, the immensely gifted individual who chose to die in service, rather than live in ambition. Liberalism is inadequate, because it takes us only as far as self-indulgence (the prodigal son). Christianity takes us further – into love of the Father which expresses itself as obedient service. This, and this alone, is true freedom.

Understood this way, rampant secularism does not demand the restoration of its social antithesis, clericalism, but its reclamation as lay service and generosity. In fact, as we know, there are many secularists in Ireland who already show this spirit while wanting nothing to do with clerical Catholicism – in St Augustine’s words they ‘belong to God but not to the church’.

In this analysis also, clericalism becomes a hindrance to the development of the church – because it associates Christ with a struggle for power rather than with self-denial and service. What the world needs is not clericalism but a secularism that goes beyond self-indulgence.

It follows that the nature of Christian authority also needs to be redrawn for the global church.

Rethinking authority and obedience in the Church

The decade of disempowerment of the Irish Catholic church coincides with a story of declining influence for the papacy in the west generally. Seeking to stabilise the Tridentine pyramid by a succession of edicts on contentious matters such as priestly celibacy and female ordination, the latter end of the papacy of John Paul II has attempted to place such matters within the scope of papal infallibility, and to silence dissent by making it an object of canonical sanction. It has also attempted to restrain those influences tending towards the expansion of the role of the laity in the church into areas once the monopoly of the priest.

As for matters that have transfixed ordinary catholics in countries as far apart as the USA, Ireland and Austria – the clerical sex scandals – the Vatican has presented an appearance of total indifference.

This stoical defensiveness may be seen as the culmination of a long-term historical trend of reaction against the weakening of the papacy throughout the past five centuries of modern history. Before the Reformation the Popes were the rulers of sizeable territories in Italy, could still wield very considerable influence over western European states and were virtually sovereign in defining truths of all kinds. Now the Papacy clings to a miniscule territorial residue in the city of Rome, has completely lost its control of most branches of knowledge, and has difficulty in enthusing even its bishops for the minute control it now seeks to exercise over discourse within the church. It has experienced gradually the kind of disempowerment which has come so quickly and recently in Ireland.

However, that disempowerment is a loss of the kind of power that Christ deliberately renounced and never used – the power to compel, to silence and to subordinate. That power had been denied the church during its years of most dramatic growth in a Roman empire that often persecuted it. It was acquired as a gift not of God but of a declining secular empire, and it transformed what had been intended as a vehicle for the promotion of the kingdom of God into an ally of dynastic power, aristocratic hierarchy and educative monopoly. The contradictory society advocated by Christ became just another power pyramid mimicking the social hierarchy of the world. The papacy spoke, of course, of the uniqueneness of the kingdom of God, but contradicted that kingdom in its own culture. (The Vatican’s recent search for a replacement for the murdered commanding officer of the Swiss guard reminded us that candidates are still specifically sought for their connections with aristocratic families!)

Vatican II was, of course, supposed to put an end to this kind of disintegrity. The church’s present condition results from a conflict between the libertarian culture proposed by Vatican II and the authoritarian culture of the Vatican itself, fighting the last rounds in a centuries-old battle for survival as apex of an authority pyramid. The papacy’s present problem is that it confuses authority with control. Intent upon safeguarding what it defines as orthodox belief, it silences theologians for dissent and attempts to place certain issues – notably female ordination – beyond discussion and debate.

The nature of authority today

Implicit in these actions is a perception by the magisterium that the authority of the church rests upon the purity and internal consistency of its teachings. In fact, authority today rests upon something entirely different – the perceived integrity of the truth claimant – the degree to which the claim is validated in the behaviour of the person or institution making that claim.

A recent example was the hilarious contradiction between the ‘back to basics’ claimed moral ethos of the last Tory government in GB and the tide of ‘sleaze’ – sexual and venal licence – that overtook the party itself in its last years. The correctness of the party’s verbal morality was not questioned. The party lost authority – the power to influence its hearers – solely by virtue of the fact that it had no perceived integrity. It lost the subsequent general election in 1997 to a party which had already embraced the ethos of the Tories but was perceived as less hypocritical, cynical and arrogant. Its authority rested, and rests still, not upon what it says, but upon the degree to which it is perceived to be faithful to what it says.

There are two reasons why this should concern the Vatican. First, Christ’s claim is threefold: he is not simply the truth, but the way and the life as well. His call to us is not just to believe what he believes, but to follow him. Were we to follow the magisterium, and do nothing else, we would simply become sources of complacent wisdom occupying grandiose real estate in the capitals of major cities – fountains of knowledge essential for salvation, but entirely unable to live the life that Jesus lived, to image the truth as he did. The Vatican images clericalism, not disempowerment and service, and is therefore culturally counter-evangelical.

Second, the information and media revolutions now ongoing create a raging torrent of information, of claims to truth relating to all intellectual disciplines and moralities. There is a global free market in wisdoms, and these too have become interchangeable and disposable. The scientific approach to truth – the building of conceptual models to explain phenomena, to be forgotten when a better model comes along – now influences the process by which we arrive at philosophies of life. Thus, Catholicism as truth system and culture is evaluated and compared, and even ‘tried on’, with everything else available. The authority of the Popes to silence theologians is entirely irrelevant when measured against the failure of the authoritarians to image what their truth advocates – a life of poverty, simplicity, self-sacrifice. Catholicism is not working today, not because the church is divided on matters of belief but because it has failed to discover and propagate a lifestyle which resolves the conundrums of Christian practice in the world. The truth is that we in the west do not clearly know how to be practical Christians today, and the presence or absence of a catechism, the silence or noise of a liberation theologian, is irrelevant to this problem.

It needs to be said forcefully also that clericalism is actually delaying the finding of a solution. It can survive only by fostering the infantilism and passivity of the laity.

One important source of this passivity is the clerical complexification of the faith, its transmutation into a vast textual mystery requiring years of study to master. The Spirit is entrapped in all of this, rather than released. The layman is thus made aware of his own incompetence, as a means of maintaining the clerical pyramid. There is an overwhelming need for prioritisation and elucidation of fundamental truths, so that the essential simplicity of the Christian challenge can be recovered, and the spirit catch fire. The rate at which pentecostalism is overhauling the Catholic church in Latin America, in terms of religious practice, should be a warning and an inspiration. Catholicism must become portable – a spirit informed by key truths, rather than an inert body of knowledge so vast that it intimidates and baffles all but the supreme owners of the mystery.

The significance of the Internet

In this context – the problem of turning theory into practice – the Vatican’s approach to the Internet is hilarious. Exhilarated by the power of the medium to broadcast information cheaply it has created a sumptuous website complete with renaissance buttons to all the news and instruction in the Holy See’s present stall. It revels in the number of ‘hits’ recorded. It simply doesn’t understand that the Internet’s most significant effect is to transform information consumers into information producers, all convinced they have a corner on the truth, all equipped to seek the rest of it, and to propagate their own truth. So the total of information available grows exponentially. The effect of this is a further diminishment of the power of any single voice, and the devaluation of all individual truth claims. With the commercialisation of the Web goes another sad fact: most of what we see is designed to exploit us in one way or another. In this company the Vatican site – associated as it is with a body of men intent upon selling us their minutely ordered brand of truth, but unable to prove in their lives the value of their product – is scarcely more impressive than an anti-dandruff shampoo advertisement.

In fact the Internet marks the end of the influence of all authoritarian pyramids. Because it allows networking at all levels, and multi-directional communication, it permits individuals their own intellectual odyssey in their own time. In this context the notion that any topic might be ‘off limits’ is merely quaint and archaic – effectively an incitement to debate it all the more. And this is exactly what has happened with the topics so identified on all the Catholic mailing lists and newsgroups on the ‘net. The silencing of dissident voices is completely pointless. The CDF’s declaration of excommunication of the Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya actually boosted the sales and intellectual currency of his books. Now reconciled with the church, he can reflect that the CDF’s only achievement was to make him something of a celebrity.

If the centre of the clerical church is genuinely to address the problem of evangelisation today it must reconcile itself to this global free-market in information, and stop pontificating. It must become streetwise without sacrificing the love at the heart of our faith – (become as wise as foxes and gentle as doves). Above all, it must realise that we live in a society in which nothing travels ‘down’ the network unless even more is allowed to travel ‘up’. St Peter’s square is no longer a microcosm of the world. There is no mass audience out there any more, mouths agape to hear the truth from on high. What we have now are millions of individual pilgrims, each reading from an improvised map and determined upon an individual journey. The survival of
Catholicism depends no longer (if it ever did) upon unanimity, but upon the validity of its own claims to truth and inspiration – the fact that this truth is the ultimate destination of all journeys, the omega that embraces everything.

So, today, the individual is ‘converted’ not by mass media or by institutions, but by collision with other individuals of like mind. It follows that the centralisation of authority in a single individual or agency actually deprives society of truth by denying those individuals their autonomy. In relation to spiritual authority the Papacy is where the Kremlin was in relation to economic authority in the mid 1980s – more an obstacle than an inspiration. This is the challenge and the opportunity for those concerned about the church’s authority – to close the gap between Pope and person in the same way Jesus did. Not by looking for the highest pinnacle from which to exhort and pontificate, but by dealing with individuals as individuals on the same eye level. This demands the deliberate abolition of the hierarchy of respect implicit in the present church, the centralisation of authority and initiative which paralyses and demeans both the laity and the God in whom we believe. Jesus was a layman in the most important sense. Far from setting out to empower an elite he accepted the baptism of John, for whom salvation was as free and achievable as Jordan water. In today’s world the church and its wisdom will either be laicised or it will perish.

Authority and the individual

For the individual human being the authority of Christ derives from the deliberate vulnerability of Jesus, not his remote kingship. His truth did not empower him – instead it caused his death and proved his unexampled integrity. This is elementary. It is through Christ’s death, as well as his word, that we are saved. Christianity can only be a heroic commitment to service out of love, and Jesus can only be loved for his submission to powerlessness and crucifixion. He inspires by virtue not of a sovereign kingship based upon military sanctions, but by virtue of his refusal to exercise that kind of power.

It is from this inspiration alone that obedience emerges in the church, not from simple submission to authority. Christ did not upbraid or fire or silence his fickle apostles after the resurrection. Of Peter he simply asked ‘Do you love me’? If this love is not present in the relationship between Christians at all levels in the church we are again like the gentiles who ‘lord it over one another’. This love cannot be inspired by an authority which seeks to monopolise initiative and lacks complete integrity – that togetherness of word and deed that closes the chasm between the two.

Christianity is an invitation to moral heroism, addressed to the individual. It cannot function properly as an educational, social or political imposition. That invitation cannot be clearly heard in a church whose authority system seeks to impose and maintain itself by unilateral edict from on high. That it is heard at all in these circumstances is evidence of the power of God in opposition to the declining influence of structures made impotent and irrelevant by His democratisation of knowledge.

The challenge in Ireland

Thus, in Ireland and globally, the church is faced with both the crises and the opportunities of clerical disempowerment. Led by clerics, it is still too inclined to bemoan the anticlericalism of modernity. Deprived of worldly power it has an opportunity to test the charismatic effect of offering service, rather than domination – through its laity. Nowhere is that opportunity more obviously on offer than in Ireland today. We are now fully involved in the Church’s western struggle to go beyond clericalism. We will either break new ground here, or wait for it to be broken elsewhere.

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