Category Archives: Kingdom of God

What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

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

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

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

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

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

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

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

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

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Understanding the Downward Journey

Sean O’Conaill © Spirituality 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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