Category Archives: Key Ideas

Rethinking Catholic Formation

Views: 14

Sean O’Conaill  ©  Reality Feb 2011

As more and more teenagers and young adults fall away from the practice of the faith, we need to rethink the timing of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation.

~*~

For the earliest Christians, initiation into the life of the church was a deeply experienced event occurring in adulthood. Those who had actually known Jesus of Nazareth, and who had experienced the Pentecostal flame, were profoundly changed by that experience, and spoke of a ‘new life’ beginning at that point. So did St Paul, who had an equivalent experience. As an often persecuted minority living in an environment that was usually unpredictable, those early Christians had a highly compressed sense of future time. Typically they expected that the ‘end times’ – the return of the Lord and the ‘coming of the kingdom’ – could happen very soon, quite possibly in their own lifetime.

Consequently they saw the baptismal initiation of other adults into this new life as the most urgent priority, and as the sacramental equivalent of the Pentecostal experience. All New Testment accounts of Baptism are accounts of the Baptism of adults. Preparation for this event was at first also an urgent affair, stressing the ethical challenge that Jesus had posed, rather than setting out a systematic Christian theology. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find an account of the instruction and Baptism of children. That is not to say that this didn’t happen: it is more than likely that parents would have wanted their children to be instructed and baptised – but we have no account of that in the New Testament.

It’s clear instead from the earliest accounts that the church grew rapidly at first mainly through the deep conversion of adults who were attracted to the spirituality, discipline and warmth of the Christian community. Baptism typically celebrated the conscious beginning of an adult life of faith – after a period of formation known as the Catechumenate. The profound culminating experience of Baptism was thought of as the beginning of an eternal life in union with the Trinity. ‘Salvation’ was believed to begin with this experience – this ‘dying to the self’ – rather than after physical death.

As these early centuries passed and the church grew rapidly, that early sense of urgency gradually evaporated also. With the Emperor Constantine’s legalisation of Christianity early in the fourth century, persecution ceased and new questions arose. If Baptism was actually necessary for salvation, what happened to the ‘catechumens’ – those waiting for Baptism – if they died beforehand? Prudence counselled the wisdom of earlier and earlier baptism. So did the strictest teachings on original sin developed by St Augustine of Hippo. By the end of the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm.

By that time also, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman empire. Infant baptism and the expectation that children would grow up within a Christian society meant that an entirely different sequence had overtaken Christian formation. Instead of first being instructed in the faith and then freely choosing baptism as adults, most Christians were first baptised as infants and then received as they grew some kind of formal or informal Christian education.

This had profound implications. For those baptised as infants – the overwhelming majority – there was no longer an overwhelming sacramental ‘rite of passage’ into an adult life of faith. It was simply assumed that the Christian social environment would gradually complete the process begun for the infant at Baptism.

The Catholic educational system we know today was first developed in this ‘Christendom’ social context – in which the state and the surrounding society supported the church and protected it from unorthodox ideas. The Protestant Reformation of the 1500s did not radically change this system in Catholic societies. The development of Catholic schooling in the modern era continued to be based upon the assumption that the individual baptised in infancy would be somehow formed into Catholic adulthood by the Catholic environment, especially the school. Increasingly, responsibility for Catholic education was delegated to professionals – trained Catholic teachers who were usually at first also priests or religious.

The assumption that this Catholic sacramental and educational system would in itself automatically ‘form’ adult Catholics was never subjected to a radical open questioning by the leaders of the church. This was despite the fact that the history of the church shows that many of its greatest saints had experienced a deep adult conversion arising out of unpredictable life experience – usually a deep personal crisis of some kind. (St Augustine of Hippo, St Patrick of Ireland, St Francis of Assisi, St Alphonsus de Liguori and St Ignatius Loyola spring readily to mind.)

In the eighteenth century the secularising intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment began seriously to undermine this ‘Christendom’ environment. Even Catholic schools had eventually to devote the bulk of their curriculum to secular subjects. In our own time in Ireland we have seen the rapid disappearance of priests and religious from Catholic schools – and at the same time the development of a powerful ‘youth culture’ that erodes parental influence during the child’s early adolescence.

Yet still today the ‘cradle’ Catholic child will usually receive the three Christian rites of initiation – Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation – before adolescence sets in – as though Christendom was still in place and no environment hostile to faith awaited the teenager. The assumption of major responsibility for formation by the school has meant that typically parents feel incompetent to assist in the formation of teenage children. We still tend to rely upon our schools to do what we have been taught to believe they always did: form the Catholic adult. If they don’t succeed we often assume the fault must lie with the educational professionals.

Our sacramental system continues to deny most ‘cradle Catholics’ what the earliest Christians all took for granted – an adult sacramental ‘rite of passage’. Thus the Catholic teenager has no such event to look forward to, no opportunity to opt in as an adult. (Neither ordination nor marriage adequately fill this need.) It is a huge mistake to take teenagers for granted – this is undoubtedly a major cause of many of them opting out.

Since infant baptism became the norm in the fifth century the most rigorous teachings of St Augustine on original sin and salvation have been modified by Catholic theology. We no longer believe as he did that the unbaptised are denied heaven. Even less rigorous teachings on the existence of Limbo for unbaptised infants have been superseded. The Holy Spirit is now believed to be at work in the conscience of all humans, and the church teaches that divine grace will save the eternal lives of all who sincerely respond. It follows that the original argument for infant baptism has evaporated.

As for our Catholic formation system, it has always been the case that life experience will raise questions that children usually have neither the ability nor the need to think deeply about. Many adult Catholics will attest to later life experiences that made early instruction deeply meaningful for the first time. The deepest ‘conversion’ is almost always an adult affair. Nevertheless ‘adult faith formation’ is still just an option for a minority.

Those who have deeply studied the development of religious faith now agree that this usually happens in a sequence of stages. One of these is typically a period of the deepest questioning of early life instruction. A mature adult faith involves a deep experience of the mystery and beauty that lies behind childhood conceptions that are typically too literal and naive. It follows that it was always a mistake to suppose that faith can be guaranteed by childhood instruction alone, and to trust that Catholic schools should be able to ‘produce’ committed and fully formed Catholics.

The question must therefore arise: why is our formation system, including the timing of our sacraments of initiation, not now undergoing a radical reappraisal? Current circumstances for Catholicism in the West are increasingly closer to the crisis of the early church than they are to the era of Christendom – so why do we continue to behave as though Christendom was still in place?

It seems to me that three interrelated shifts need now to take place in our formation system.

First, we need to switch our major formation effort from childhood to adulthood. This does not mean that we abandon child religious education, but that we cease to think of it as a stand-alone system for ‘perpetuating the faith’. It means also that we need explicitly to tell our children that the deepest Christian faith does not usually come through school instruction, but through adult experience and through the graces available when we meet a crisis in our teenage or adult years.

Second, responsibility for adult formation must be relocated in the Christian community and combined with the missionary and evangelical effort that will now be required to meet the all-enveloping crisis we are facing. Adult faith formation must become part of the ordinary experience of all Catholics – not just an option for those who can afford the cost and the time. Catholic parents who are developing their own faith will need to become much more involved in the Christian formation of their teenage children. Those who argue that Catholic formation must be left to ‘the professionals’ need to recall that the word ‘professional’ is derived from the verb ‘to profess’, i.e. to adhere to and to avow, a faith. It is faith itself that best develops faith, and faith cannot be guaranteed by any professional training.

Thirdly, the adult experience of deep conversion must receive some kind of liturgical celebration, a ‘rite of passage’ organised by and for the Christian community. It simply does not make sense to confine all Catholic rites of initiation to the pre-adolescent phase of life when we know that the Pentecostal experience is almost always an adult experience, and when we know also that there is no eternal penalty for those who die unbaptised . We need to rethink the sequencing of our Catholic sacramental system, timed and structured as it is for an era that is now rapidly passing into history. As it stands it fosters clericalism – the assumption of all major responsibility for the church by ordained clergy, and the abdication of that responsibility by most of ‘the people of God’. It is clericalism above all that stands in the way of a revitalised church.

Christian faith in the end is not something passively received as a child, but something deliberately embraced as an adult. Our Catholic formation and sacramental system needs urgently to reflect that fact, while there are still some of us left.

The Dark Materials of Children’s Fiction

Views: 28

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2004

New Line Productions, whose brilliant fantasy film The Return of the King won eleven Oscars in the spring of 2004, will release in 2005 or 2006 the first of a series of films based upon His Dark Materials, the epic trio of novels written by the English author Philip Pullman.

Pullman is an evangelical secularist and leading light in the UK’s ‘National Secular Society’, currently opposing the use of taxpayers’ money to fund any school in which religious belief is taught as truth. He is a close friend and ally of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for whom all religion is a mental aberration, and Catholicism especially so.

The Return of the King was the culmination of a three-movie epic based upon the fantasy The Lord of the Rings by the Catholic academic J.R.R Tolkien. While the Catholic Herald considered this epic a thoroughly Catholic and morally healthy allegory on original sin, it has described His Dark Materials as “truly the stuff of nightmares” and “worthy of the bonfire”.

Given Pullman’s deft exploitation of Catholicism’s historical authoritarian scandals, especially the Inquisition, this latter judgement could not have been better calculated to arrive on the long list of evaluations that appear inside the covers of paperbacks these times – and so it does on the pages of His Dark Materials, at Pullman’s request.

However, it is easy to understand the Catholic Herald’s indignation.  His Dark Materials pits two twelve-year-olds against a villainous power called ‘the church’, to break its cosmic hold over multiple universes in the name of ‘the Authority’, an arrogant, deceitful and decrepit ‘God’. They are presented quite deliberately as a new Adam and Eve who reverse the expulsion from Paradise by rescuing the dead from an underworld of deception to which the lie of ‘heaven’ has consigned them, and who assert the right of all children to grow into sexual maturity and responsible adulthood, freely making their own moral choices.

‘The church’ in the world of Lyra Belacqua, the first of these children, is ruled by a collection of institutions known as ‘the Magisterium’. The leader of the revolt against ‘the Authority’, Lord Asriel, is described as allowing a “spasm of disgust … to cross his face when they talk of the sacraments, and atonement, and redemption, and suchlike”.

However, this world is not quite Earth, but an Earth-type planet in another universe that interpenetrates ours. Pullman is playing with the notion made popular by speculative physics and cosmology that all historical possibilities eventuate somewhere, mixing elements of Milton’s Paradise Lost with history, science fiction, fantasy, New Age romanticism and anti-Catholic polemic. Lyra is a rebellious and adventurous urchin aroused by ecclesiastical tyranny directed against her friends.

The focus of this tyranny is a fear of ‘Dust’. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ has discovered that a mysterious elementary particle tends to accumulate around adults, and has concluded that this ‘Dust’ is somehow connected with original sin. Through an institution known as the ‘General Oblation Board’, run by Lyra’s sinister mother, it has set up a laboratory in Lapland to see if, by operating upon children, it can prevent their corruption by this ‘Dust’.

To describe this operation it is necessary to explain that in Lyra’s world every human is accompanied by a visible daemon – a kind of external alter ego or twin soul of the opposite gender that always stays very close. Lyra’s daemon is called Pantalaimon. Like the daemon of every child his ‘form’ is not fixed. He can become a moth or a mouse or an ermine or a leopard, as circumstances demand, or as his desire takes him. He is also Lyra’s dearest companion, advising, warning, chiding and so on.

I must say that my first reaction to Lyra’s daemon was to suppose that she was a witch-in-training, and that the ‘daemon’ was her witch’s ‘familiar’ – but in fact the idea is closer to one expressed by Socrates – that he had an inner spiritual ‘voice’, close to a ‘muse’.

This fancy, the external shape-shifting daemon, is a brilliant fictional device that allows Pullman to explore the ‘soul’ of a character, even when that character has no human companion to converse with and is in dire straits.

It also allows him to devise the horrific experiment ‘the church’ is practising in Lapland at a place called Bolvangar – to see what happens when the bond between the child and the daemon is severed by a kind of guillotine. Will this prevent the accumulation of ‘Dust’, ‘saving’ the soul of the child?

Pullman’s purpose is clear enough. In Lyra’s world ‘the church’ is perversely prepared to destroy the true personality of a child in order to ‘save’ it – depriving the child of its dearest companion, its soul. It is also prepared to prevent the child developing into an independent adult. The symbolism of the ‘cutting’ of the bond between child and daemon is further developed in the following passage, in which one of Lyra’s allies, a true witch is exhorting her fellows:

“Some of you have seen what they did at Bolvangar. And that was horrible, but it is not the only such place, not the only such practice. Sisters, you know only the north: I have travelled in the south lands. There are churches there, believe me, that cut their children too, as the people of Bolvangar did – not in the same way, but just as horribly – they cut their sexual organs, yes, both boys and girls – they cut them with knives so that they shan’t feel. That is what the church does, and every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling. So if a war comes, and the church is on one side of it, we must be on the other, no matter what strange allies we find ourselves bound to.”

This obvious allusion to the castrati who once sang in the Sistine chapel reveals Pullman’s skill in weaving the most sensational facets of the church’s history into his narrative texture. It also, of course, tips his hand, undermining the power of the story as allegory and leading his readers by the nose to his own fondest conclusions.

The first novel in the series, Northern Lights, is nevertheless a brilliant work of imagination, and the writing is way above the norm for children’s fiction. His descriptions of the Aurora, of journeys across snowbound moonlit landscapes and other arctic scenes are breathtaking. Judging by the message-boards on websites devoted to the novels, children are deeply gripped by the idea of daemons, and by other extraordinary creations such as armoured polar bears who can speak and work metals. The novels are already a ‘phenomenon’, long before children will get a chance to see the film renditions. They are also far more sophisticated and involving than the Harry Potter stories of J.K. Rowling.

But how should Christian adults react to all this? Supposing a ten or twelve year old were to quote the above passage to a parent or an RE teacher – what would they say? And what on earth should our own magisterium make of all this, given that its supposed twin in an alternative universe already figures among the villainous and overbearing powers of the story? (The chosen director of the forthcoming films, Chris Weitz, has declared that although the film script will not refer to ‘the church’, the term ‘magisterium’ will be kept for the dark overbearing power.) To react as the Catholic Herald has done would be to add grist to Pullman’s mill and to become part of his publicity machine.

The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has already ploughed an entirely different furrow – one of welcoming the raising of great theological questions in children’s fiction and of rebutting the notion that the ‘God’ of His Dark Materials needs any defence. The drift of his assessment is that Pullman is merely excoriating the darkest and silliest Gnostic excesses of Christian fundamentalism, and that this is not at all a bad thing to do. His major misgiving is not so much over Pullman’s work as over the capability of the average believer to cope with the issues he raises.

Pullman insists that he is merely supporting values such as love, freedom, responsibility and compassion – and attacking nothing more laudable than fear, a misguided adult desire for control, and intellectual tyranny. This is all very well, up to a point.

That point came for me in the second novel, The Subtle Knife, when, on our planet Earth, the second of Pullman’s child protagonists, Will Parry, receives the following abbreviated history lesson from his father:

“There are two great powers … and they’ve been fighting since time began. Every advance in human life, every scrap of knowledge and wisdom and decency we have has been torn by one side from the teeth of the other. Every little increase in human freedom has been fought over ferociously between those who want us to know more and be wiser and stronger, and those who want us to obey and be humble and submit.”

‘Those who want us to obey and be humble and submit’ are, inevitably, ‘the church.’ By clear implication, all of the church’s enemies belong to the
children of light.

The best defence for Pullman here is that Will’s father, John, is about to expire and so has little time for nuance. Even so, how on earth could Pullman have entirely left out of Will’s education the capacity for tyranny, torture, conspiracy and lies of secularist authoritarians – from Napoleon I through Bismarck to Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Ceausescu, Sadaam Hussein and Kim Il Sung? Would he not need some small warning that all of us are prone to self-regard and a love for power, and that distrust of soutanes and zucchettos should not veer over entirely into naïve adulation of everyone damning God and dressed in mufti or military fatigues?

Will’s history lesson raises an interesting and crucial question for Catholic education. How effective are these novels, and others like them, in influencing the macrohistorical judgement of the children we educate?

By ‘macrohistorical’ I mean the ‘short story’ we compile for ourselves to summarise the meaning and overall drift of the past. I have seen a TV documentary on children’s fiction in which a young girl, no older than fourteen, delivered the following verdict on His Dark Materials:

“It shows how bad the church always was, and how silly Christianity is.”

Pullman couldn’t have asked for a more concise summary of the message of his own parable – for that, in the end, is what His Dark Materials attempts to be – a kind of secularist’s Pilgrim’s Progress for children, an Anti-Narnia. (Pullman’s contempt for C.S. Lewis knows no bounds.)

The problem with countering such ‘stories’ is that it is the more scandalous aspects of Christian history that tend both to accumulate in secular histories, and in the imagination. When events such as the Inquisition, the wars of religion, and the burning of witches are encountered by children in the context of both ongoing church scandals and stirring propaganda like His Dark Materials, what is the overall effect? What ‘story’ do Catholic children wind up with?

Someone needs to do some research on this, but in the meantime my inclination is to urge strongly upon all educators the need to be aware of what is flying underneath the radar into Catholic schools in the form of compulsively readable children’s fiction that is also blatant propaganda for evangelical secularism. Teachers of History, RE and English literature need to be especially concerned about this, and to develop a collaborative response.

The nub of this response should be, I believe, to point out that power over others is an essentially secular concern, that the clerical church became scandalous only when it bought too heavily into that secular concern, and that it will now do far better when it has been detached from it. And that despite these distortions of the church’s mission in the past, there was always in the background a church of wisdom and compassion whose positive contribution to human development far outshines that of militant atheism.

What would be the measure of our success? Nothing less, I believe, than the emergence of liberating Christian fiction from among our pupils, set in the real world of children today, and just as compelling as Pullman’s work. We need to ponder hard on the fact that Irish Catholic education has never yet done anything like that.

However, a morning spent interviewing six young Catholic readers of His Dark Materials, ranging in age from 12 to 17, has convinced me that there is no need for extreme alarm over the impact of these books. Three of these children read the stories as mere escapism, unrelated to their own lives, and had not noticed the agenda. The other three had noticed the anti-Catholic polemic, and two of these had found it ‘over-the-top’. The third had noted that their church did indeed hold to a defined truth, and was in that sense ‘authoritarian’, but did not seem unduly troubled by this. The eldest boy was impressively sophisticated in his understanding of what Pullman is up to.

My overall conclusion is that, far from wringing our hands over the possible impact of these films when they arrive, we should seize the opportunity to point out both the silliest excesses of secularist polemic, and the considerable shortfall in the Enlightenment’s programme to perfect the world by reason alone. Children need to know, for example, that ‘terrorism’ emerged out of the secular authoritarianism of the French Revolution, and that it is the secular God of North Korea who is currently testing chemical weapons on the bodies of children.

~

His Dark Materials consists of three novels by Philip Pullman: Northern Lights, (known as The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. They are published by Scholastic Children’s Books.

Anglican Archbishop Rowan Williams laudatory comments on the London stage production of His Dark Materials are at :

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2004/mar/10/theatre.religion

There is an interesting discussion between Pullman and the Archbishop at:

http://www.secondspring.co.uk/fantasy/williams_pullman.htm

Probably the best website to sample children’s reaction to the novels and to keep up to date on the forthcoming films:

http://www.bridgetothestars.net/

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

Views: 51

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.

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

Views: 61

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

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: III – A Portable Faith

Views: 53

Sean O’Conaill © Reality, 2004

Terrified and alone, a fifteen-year-old boy once stood on a hillside in Ireland and stared into the immense emptiness of the night sky. His life hung by a thread: the tolerance of strangers who now owned him as a slave and might kill him at any time. Those who loved him were far away, on the other side of the sea. Probably by now they had given him up for dead, and were praying for his soul.

But was he totally alone? His parents had assured him it was never so, for everywhere on earth was the true domain of the Great Ones who could be called to the aid of the afflicted. What was that his mother had said once when he was only half-listening?

“Though you walk in the valley of the shadow of death, no evil need you fear: his rod and his staff will protect you. Just call him then, and you will see!”

With nothing to lose, the boy called out then – not so loud as to alarm the animals he tended, or the humans further off.

“O Lord of heaven and earth, come to my aid! Ward off from me all danger, and bring me home at last!”

Nothing happened, it seemed. The sky was still as empty as it had been. But, strangely, the boy felt less afraid. Deep inside he felt a sense of warmth: much as he had felt once when he had fallen heavily as a child and been lifted and hugged tight by his father.

Encouraged the boy then began to pray as his mother had taught him: Our Father, who art in Heaven …

And as he did so, through wind and rain, his confidence grew that the Great Ones, the Trinity, were holding him close and guarding his life. They were greater than the Gods his captors prayed to, for they were a unity, not a constantly competing and bickering family – like the human family of wild Irish who now owned Patrick and held his life in their rough and callous hands.

~oOo~

This is just one way of telling a tale that Patrick, the Roman Briton, would tell one day in his own way. But what does virtually every Catholic chapel in Ireland do with this story? It makes of this teenager an aging patriarch, over-dressed in mitre and green chasuble – a stiff bishop in full regalia. This is a most ghastly miscalculation that makes it virtually impossible for any teenage boy today to identify fully with Ireland’s patron saint.

And this at a time when Ireland is full of lost boys, all searching for a heroic model. They can find one in Luke Skywalker of the Star Wars fantasies, or in Prince Aragorn – or the ring-bearer Frodo – of the Lord of the Rings – but not in Patrick of Ireland, or even Jesus of Nazareth himself.

Why not?

Because Irish clericalism tends to clericalise all Christian heroes.  Patrick never actually wore a mitre, because mitres didn’t exist for another six hundred years after his death. But those who selected the icons of Catholic Ireland in the nineteenth century were all patriarchal clerics, so Patrick became, fatally for the Church, a patriarchal cleric.

And so the most extraordinary and inspirational fact about Ireland’s early Christian history has almost been lost:  that it was into the heart and mind of an unordained teenager that the Trinity came most powerfully to Ireland first, in the fifth century after Christ.

As someone who taught teenagers in Catholic schools for thirty years, I am now greatly concerned about the drift of young people from faith and practice. It is as though Anthony de Mello is absolutely correct in his assessment of most Catholic child education.  “We inoculate the young with religion – so that they won’t catch it when they become adults!”

Yet, to be sure, there are interesting and vital exceptions.

“What do you think it all means then?” I once asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer science student.

“God loves ye!” she replied, after no more than a moment’s hesitation.

The manner in which she said this conveyed far more than any three words usually do – especially that there is indeed a loving transcendent spiritual being who is accessible to us, and whose love is both universal and unconditional.

Christine obviously felt confident not only that she was loved by this being, but that everyone else was also. So confident that she could say so to me, a virtual stranger, and to anyone else who might need that truth.

The great tragedy of Irish Catholicism today is that, despite the immense effort we have put into Catholic education, so few adults have Christine’s grasp of the Gospels, or Christine’s confidence that they can communicate it in the simplest of language.

In my final years as a secondary teacher I was increasingly struck by how tongue-tied and embarrassed our senior pupils could get when asked the question I had asked Christine. Although all had been selected at the age of eleven for their intelligence, it was as though they believed they had been asked a question they couldn’t presume to answer, as though the art of summary was inappropriate when applied to anything as weighty as Catholic doctrine.

After all, the Church’s own summary of its teaching, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, runs to almost seven hundred pages. So anxious are our bishops to teach everything, and to avoid error, that nothing less will do. The unintended effect of all this is to intimidate most of us laity, rather than to make us confident that we know what it’s all about. And so we have become a tongue-tied people.

Not simply tongue-tied but paralysed, it seems, for many of us lack the confidence to express the love of God by loving one another. Indeed there are many still who seem to believe that being a Catholic is all about being right . That is, they seem to believe that they own the truth – a truth that gives them a privileged relationship with God. And that everyone else is to be pitied for their ignorance of it.

But the Church teaches that all truth is part of a hierarchy. This means simply that all of the books that have ever been written about the faith are an elaboration, or working out, of higher truths to be found in the Bible and in the Church’s own traditional interpretation of it.

Jesus himself said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”. He said also that children would understand him better than adults, so it is more than likely that at the summit of the church’s hierarchy of truth there is something very simple and portable.

Something like Christine’s “God loves you!”

Certainly these days we Catholics need a portable faith – something we can carry lightly as a source of happiness and wisdom for ourselves and others. The authoritarianism of the hierarchical church, and the huge range of its published teachings, can be immensely burdensome and intimidating for anyone, and this is a problem that desperately needs to be resolved.

A true story told by Fr Owen O’Sullivan O.F.M. in his book The Silent Schism makes this point better than I ever could. Forced to withdraw from a region on the frontiers of Angola in the 1980s, due to the spread of civil war, he and his missionary colleagues tried to foster lay leadership by photocopying the daily mass readings and leaving these with literate lay leaders who might not see another priest for years.

When the priests returned after an interval of many months they found that a group of four small churches had somehow become twenty.

When they asked how this had happened they were told by the lay leaders that one Sunday the gospel reading had told the story of the disciples sent out by Jesus to spread news of the kingdom, and of how they had brought the simple message “Peace!” to the surrounding villages. Wasn’t this the message that their own region of Africa needed just then, and couldn’t they do the same? So they did, with the result the priests had now found their church had expanded more quickly driven by inexpert lay enthusiasm, than it ever had through expert priestly evangelisation.

This story strongly suggests that what everyone essentially needs to know is that a relationship with Jesus is the source of all lasting peace and happiness and that whatever other questions we may have, he will provide the answers either in the church’s published teachings, or in the personal wisdom of someone he will help us to meet.

One ancient source of such wisdom is the summary of faith that Catholics repeat every Sunday at Mass – the Nicene Creed. The Apostles Creed often said as part of the Rosary is a simpler version. However, because we all learn these as children they are almost boringly familiar to us. Every Catholic today who seriously wishes to develop a personal, portable understanding of the faith must take a totally new look at these prayers to see what they are saying.

Although they were originally drawn up to put an end to disputes about basic truths that convulsed the early Church, and although they describe a physical universe that modern science and space travel has exploded, the Creed tells a simple true story with one overriding idea: compassion. The Great Ones that Patrick prayed to are determined to rescue us from our own misuse of the freedom they give us – especially our tendency to victimise one another in our struggles for recognition and power. The apostles themselves shared this weakness – as they revealed when they asked Jesus:“Which of us is the greatest?”

Jesus asks every one of us a different question: “What would happen to the world if everyone instead wished to be the least?”

He asks us that by living the answer – by showing infinite compassion for all the victims of the human search for wealth and power, and by becoming such a victim himself.

No age has ever been more competitive than our own. And no age has ever had more victims than this one. Meanwhile many of our most advanced scientists and philosophers assure us that life has no meaning – that it is merely the product of billions of years of Darwinian evolution. The wisest of them tell us that we must ourselves construct our own meaning.

But Patrick was wiser still. That lost teenage boy trusted to what his parents had taught him – in essence the truths related in the Nicene Creed – that there is a power above that is interested in us, that can change and inspire us – and give us the courage to meet all of the crises of life. We need simply trust in the Lord, and pray.

That portable faith is the secure foundation of all that we need now, in the deepest Catholic crisis in Irish history.

‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

Views: 21

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life March 2004

Church-of-Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman – recently retired from parish ministry in Co Cork – is chiefly concerned in this work1Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003 to stem the decline of what she calls ‘moderate Christianity’ – especially here in Ireland. By ‘moderate’ she means non-fundamentalist – and she ascribes this decline largely to “the unwillingness of all the churches, in all countries but perhaps especially now in Ireland, to look honestly and openly into what we say we believe”.

Opening with the familiar tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she soon makes it clear that she shares the embarrassment of Episcopal bishop J.S. Spong at having to utter the Nicene creed as part of a religious service, as though it was in all respects literally true.

“Sunday by Sunday, countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good.”

Canon Wakeman soon makes clear which creedal doctrines she sees as causing this finger-crossing: the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She points out that surveys of belief increasingly find that many Church of England clergymen don’t actually believe these doctrines – less than half in the case of the virgin birth. (Unfortunately she provides no supporting data on the finger-crossing, so ‘countless’ it remains.)

At this point Canon Wakeman reaches for the now-familiar theory that the left and right halves of the human brain have different functions: the left is ‘analytical’, the right ‘intuitive’, and so on. She offers the possibility that religion belongs properly to the intuitive side, while doctrine tends to be a left-brain analytical and organisational matter. In the Creeds, she fears, “Christians are being asked to state that poetic-paradox statements about God are literally true”.

At this point, I must confess, alarm bells were insistently ringing for me. Are the categories ‘poetic’ and ‘literal’ (or ‘factual’) necessarily mutually exclusive? What would happen to the poetry of the Creeds, or of the Gospels for that matter, if we were to insist that they were merely poetic (i.e. fictive), and not, or not necessarily, substantially true in a historical sense. And if Christianity belongs wholly in the realm of the intuitive and fictive, who will then find it compelling as a source of meaning? Certainly the Gospels and the creeds have poetic resonance, but their endurance to this late date has surely had to do essentially with their claim to a substantive historical and factual foundation – an actual intervention by a transcendant reality into human history.

Would Canon Wakeman attempt to discern the actual as distinct from the poetic truth about such an intervention? Disappointingly for me, she ends this chapter on doctrine by proposing that Richard Dawkins’s objections to the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption are valid on the grounds that this elevation of a material body into a heaven is comprehensible only within the ‘flat-earth’ vertically ordered universe of the early first millennium.

This, for me, is an unfortunate descent into Spongian rhetoric. It is also strangely dated scientifically, stuck somewhere before 1900 C.E. – as though ‘hard’ matter had not been discovered in the last century to be mostly empty space, to consist otherwise largely of vast quantities of energy, and to be gravitationally compressible to the point of its own disappearance. Given also the theoretical possibility of multiple invisible further dimensions within what we perceive as empty four-dimensional space, just how much ‘commonsense’ certitude can there be these days on the actual nature of ‘space’ and ‘bodies’?

The fact is, surely, that the most advanced physics today has destroyed the ‘commonsense’ Newtonian universe that underpins atheistic certitude, and is as inscrutable on the precise nature of physical reality as theology ever was on the subject of heaven. I strongly wish the progressive school would progress to the point of acknowledging this. If we are to update the Creeds (an exercise not attempted in this book), we must do it properly and not leave ourselves with something that would have been spanking new and acceptable to, say, Charles Darwin.

Furthermore, for theologians, heaven has almost always had more to do with a relationship of unity with God than with questions of ‘where?’ or ‘how?’ Is there for Canon Wakeman, I wondered at this point, truly a God to relate to?

Again unfortunately, her chapter on ‘How we experience God’ is centred once more on the assertion that we experience God with the ‘right’ brain, whereas doctrine is a ‘left’ brain activity. This is ultimately inadequate, as it seems again to fudge the issue of truth. Can we really deal with people who ask “Is there truly a God?” by saying something like:

“Well, the right side of my brain – the poetic side – says ‘yes’, while the left side, the analytical side, is far less sure of it.”?

If we do we should be well prepared for the next obvious question: “But isn’t the right side of your brain the bit that makes things up?” Where, I wonder, would the Canon go from there?

On the grounds of their poetic resonance she is willing to accept doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Fall and the Resurrection as ‘basically life affirming’ but, she insists, the concept of atonement “(that Jesus died to placate an angry God) seems to have no salvageable aspect”.

If that particular theory of atonement is the only acceptable one within the Anglican communion I shudder at such authoritarian rigidity. Especially because the earliest understanding of atonement centred upon the idea of release (or redemption) not from a debt owed to God, but from the power of evil, personified as Satan. Canon Wakeman is here identifying a travesty of Anselm’s feudal satisfaction theory of atonement with the Creeds – a clear anachronism.

The point is important, because Canon Wakeman has begun by arguing that a twenty-first mind cannot truly accept a first- or even fourth-century worldview. Given Rene Girard’s anthropological analysis of the Gospel text as an exposure of the process of scapegoating violence in the ancient world – a process still ongoing in phenomena as diverse as the war on terrorism and schoolyard bullying – the first century understanding of atonement may well in fact be bang up-to-date.

Catholic demythologisers might note at this point that this must score as a plus for the Catholic catechism, which is non-definitive on theories of atonement. It does not insist that God demanded satisfaction (or substitution for that matter) – merely that Christ’s suffering and death has forever reconciled us with God2But see Article 615 of the 1994 Catechism: 615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.. Atonement is simply at-one-ment – final reconciliation. The doctrine in itself is not definitive on how Jesus reconciles. For me – poetically and factually – God moves towards us – and reveals himself through -Jesus – in the way that the father of the prodigal son ran to meet him on his return. (And of course I can say so while acknowledging that to speak of God as merely male is inadequate.)

In a chapter on ‘Some Basic Christian Doctrines – and New Ways to Express Them’ Canon Wakeman comes closest to defining her positions on revelation, the nature of God, and the sonship, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. She dwells sensibly upon the ineffability of God, but her account of the concept of revelation seems woefully inadequate, leaving out as it does the centrality of Jesus to the concept – the belief that it is through the revelatory Jesus above all that we come to know the ineffable God.

This is important, because the statement ‘Jesus is God’ needs to be understood as a statement that speaks as much about God as about Jesus – an assertion that we come to understand the goodness, intentions and wisdom of God uniquely and indispensably through him.

And this in turn means that the statement ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ could never have been fully understood in a simplistic biological sense – as though anyone ever thought he already knew who and what God is and how exactly he could become a biological parent. The doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus are best understood as expressing a belief in the unique filiation of Jesus – the belief that his filial relationship to, understanding of, and fidelity to the being he himself called ‘Abba’, was of an order way beyond the sonship of, for example, David – so far beyond it that Jesus became for Christians the definitive, sufficient and indispensable authority on who God is and what he expects of us. Literal biological sons (e.g. Absalom) were not uniformly faithful to their parents, so that to say of Jesus that he was the ‘literal’ son of God would not pay him a unique compliment. ‘Light from Light, True God from True God’ on the other hand suggests true fidelity to and identity with the spiritual essence and benevolent purpose of God. This is a far higher claim that does not insist upon a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘sonship’ (whatever ‘literal’ might mean in this context).

Canon Wakeman would probably object that the doctrine of the virgin birth is surely insisting upon some kind of biological sonship. As biology was an unknown science in the fourth century it could be argued equally that it is no more than an attempt to explain and justify the exaltation of Jesus to the pinnacle of the revelatory process – to explain how he could have become what he was, so entirely unaffected by, yet opposed to, the evil he confronted.

Canon Wakeman rejects even the use of the word ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, and prefers this formula: ‘In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began.’

I must confess that I find this embarrassingly twee – a sentimental reduction that is not only condescending but completely incapable of explaining the commitment-unto-death of so many of those who followed Jesus – precisely because they believed in his revelatory uniqueness.

It’s clear soon enough what consequences flow from such negativity. To begin with, although Jesus’s crucifixion was the result of an ‘archetypal’ confrontation between good and evil, the concept of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ can only be understood through the unacceptable Anselmian lens, and must go. With it goes, of course, any notion of an historical centrality for the Gospel story.

Was ‘Abba’ a right-brain mytho-poetic (i.e. fictive) construct of Jesus? If so, did Jesus confront bogus religion and endure crucifixion essentially because he had a dangerous habit of talking to himself? Canon Wakeman does not address such questions – but they go to the heart of the larger question of whether Christianity is worth saving

And inevitably, Jesus’s bodily resurrection must go the way of ‘literal’ sonship. The intense sense of loss that was felt by the closest followers of Jesus, and their recollections of his life and teachings, led to a conviction that he was in some sense still present, and must therefore have survived death. It was the surviving Christian community that created the right-brain myth of the bodily resurrection. The possibility, strongly argued by the NT texts themselves, that it was on the contrary the unexpected eventuality of some kind of actual tangible resurrection that restored the already dispirited and fragmenting Christian community, is not one that Canon Wakeman can entertain.

A few historian’s questions surfaced in my mind at this point. If this was all there ever was to Jesus, why did his followers soon go to the suicidal lengths of making of this rejected one the cornerstone of more than one separated and excoriated community within, and then outside, Judaism? Was Stephen’s self-sacrificing testament merely another (right-) brainstorm? And why did Paul take the equally dangerous and inexplicable course of substituting belief in a liberating Jesus for rigid adherence to the minutiae of the Jewish law as expounded by the religious elites of his time – the belief system for which he had earlier been willing to kill Christians on the grounds of the threat they posed to it? Why were they such a threat?

These questions are important, I believe, because they relate to the origins of the historical phenomenon of global Christianity that lasted the two millennia needed to justify any discussion today on the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you reduce Jesus to the status of another prophet – even a supreme prophet (and Canon Wakeman shies away even the use of the word ‘unique’ to describe him) – you are faced with the problem of explaining the emergence of Christianity from Judaism as a quite separate belief system that was willing to endure the most frightful persecution that followed. No amount of right-brain poetry can fully explain the often horrendously risky dynamism of the early church.

What other consequences flow from progressive reductionism, in Canon Wakeman’s view? Can we still celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example? Yes, we are assured – the celebration of light piercing the darkness and the victory of life over death is beneficial – and the soul does indeed need the periodic renewal that Lent can provide. The Bible can be read for its nourishment of the right brain – but the idea of divine inspiration is liable to nourish fundamentalism and so should be discarded. Lectio divina, however, is encouraged.

As for the future, Canon Wakeman sees little hope for ‘moderate’ orthodoxy, which is slowly ‘dying out’. The future lies either with reaction (going backward and tightening up) – the road taken by fundamentalism – or progressivism (going forward and loosening up) in the style of her book. The preservation of an ‘exclusive’ core of doctrine is a futile exercise. The future of ministered sacraments is tied to the problematic future of ministry itself, and we should encourage one another to see the beauty of the natural world as ‘sacramental’.

Was Jesus even archetypally sacramental? As Canon Wakeman quotes Schillebeeckz and admits that Jesus was at least an archetype of some kind, one might expect that she would explore this possibility at least. Unfortunately she doesn’t – leaving me with essentially the same disappointment that I had with J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’. If Christianity is worth saving shouldn’t its reductionist saviours at least attempt to be inspirationally reconstructive of the primacy of the person at its centre – if only to mitigate the pain of those exposed to so much reduction? A Chapter on ‘Jesus for Our Time’ or ‘What Jesus teaches us about God’ suggests itself – but perhaps that might be the theme of a sequel to this book.

I certainly hope so. I have learned much about progressivism from this book. Unlike Spong’s, the canon’s style is never insufferably self-congratulatory. The very last thing a minister of the Gospel should be is hypocritical or dishonest – and Canon Wakeman has certainly acquitted herself on that score. She has read widely and produced a highly stimulating and provocative text that can be easily absorbed. How would her views of Jesus and God be affected by reading Girard, I wonder, supportive as his work is of orthodoxy, and of the Bible as a supremely revelatory text – and from an unexpected rationalist direction? (So far, I believe, Girard remains undiscovered territory for progressives – suggesting that it is essentially an Anglican phenomenon).

Although Canon Wakeman’s argument rests largely upon the conviction that the decline of moderate orthodoxy has to do centrally with the prevalence of finger-crossing during the creed, she provides no data that would confirm this. A survey or even a poll would surely be possible. I can only say that I see the creeds not as an insistence upon an ancient physical cosmology but as an affirmation that, in all eras, there is, factually, a transcendant moral cosmos to which we also belong, and from which we can draw inspiration and strength – especially through the one whose belief in it was both absolute and fatal to himself. I neither cross my fingers nor switch off my left brain when I say them.

Central to the phenomenon of progressivism so far, it seems to me, is an unnecessary intellectual embarrassment – an overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the fundamentalists and ‘creationists’ who have rejected so much of modern science. It originates, I suspect, at academic dinners when, reaching for the salt, the Christian theologian is assailed with a smirking “Not another Saviour, I hope?” from the eminent evolutionary biologist in the next seat. The need to make one’s own faith unembarrassing in such company is necessarily acute – and an unremitting reductionism is obviously one way to go.

But what of the intellectual hubris such a sally implies – that our own era has not only answered every important question but saved everyone in need of saving – as the archetypal anti-Christian programme, the Enlightenment of the 1700s, expressly promised? It often implies also that what is positive in modern secularism owes nothing to orthodox Christianity – as though values such as liberty, equality and fraternity originated fully formed in the mind of the late 1700s, had no earlier provenance, and have by now anywhere been fully achieved. There is so much ignorance and insouciance in such a worldview that it surely requires challenge rather than encouragement.

Era-chauvinism is as close as I can get to a name for the phenomenon – the Panglossian view that of all past and possible eras this one is by far the wisest – and especially because we are so knowledgeable, and first century folk were so superstitious.

Of course it is essential to detach Christianity from bigotry and obscurantism, but the surgery required to do this must not pierce the heart that keeps Christianity alive: the belief that, independent of both sides of our brain, there truly exists a spiritual entity that intends our good, knows and understands us intimately, and wishes to release us from cyclical self-harm.

This book has not convinced me that ‘progressive Christian’ surgery has left Christianity with a heart that can still beat. One simply cannot save Christianity by implying (without quite saying) that Jesus’s faith in Abba was no more than a right-brain poetic fancy. The death of what this kind of progressivism proposes to save would surely be too high a price to pay for the approval of an intellectual elite that is often every bit as arrogant and insouciant as the one Paul found in the Athens of his day. And, let’s face it, nothing less than the final death of the Christian tradition will fully satisfy that self-satisfied coterie anyway.

Notes

  1. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003

Restoring the Authority of the Church

Views: 18

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The full twenty-volume Oxford dictionary distinguishes two basic meanings of ‘authority’: first, the power to enforce obedience;  second the power to influence action, opinion or belief.

It is clear that two entirely different forms of power are involved here.  The first is linked clearly with enforcement.  A military commander has this kind of authority, as he can deploy actual force to arrest and sequester a rebellious officer.  So long as any agency can deploy some kind of decisive sanction against anyone, it possesses the ability to enforce its ‘authority’.  This authority may not be loved – may in fact be detested – but its coercive clout gives it a weight it would not otherwise possess.

But there is another entirely different kind of authoritative power – one that emerges out of the freely-given respect of one person for another.  Once that respect has been earned, the one who has earned it enjoys a power of influence that does not rest upon coercive capability.

It is perfectly clear that the Catholic Church in the West presently stands at a point in time when its leadership no longer possesses either kind of authority to the degree that it did even a century ago.  No longer in a position to direct the state anywhere in the northern hemisphere, that leadership cannot deploy coercive power – unless perhaps against its own direct or indirect employees.  And having lost the trust and confidence of most Catholic lay people, that leadership has lost the power of influence also.

It is against this backdrop that we presently conduct a debate on ‘the moral authority of the Church’.   Far too often this debate focuses upon the authority of the hierarchy – as though ‘the Church’ as a whole is still to be identified in some crucial sense with its leadership.  But the fact is that the authority of the church is a matter for the whole church – and it would be a profound mistake to work towards any restoration of hierarchical authority that would provide it once again with any degree of coercive power.

Recovery by the hierarchy of the power of moral influence is another matter – but this rests entirely with the success of the hierarchy in recovering its own integrity.  To the degree that it remains many steps behind the process of media exposure of its own secretive maladministration it currently lacks a visible corporate integrity  – whatever about the personal integrity of its individual members.  It will take some years – at least a decade – for the hierarchy as a body to persuade the wider church that its love of truth, and its love of its own laity, are once more beyond question.  And as this must depend also upon profound changes in Rome it is far from certain to occur even in that timescale.

But even that desirable eventuality would not give the church the authority to which it now needs to aspire.  We live in an era when appeals to the authority of another party are absolutely worthless, and even ludicrous, in any discourse about faith with anyone of a different mindset.  To say “the Pope (or the magisterium) teaches x” will immediately invite the response “But what do you believe, and why?” from anyone who disagrees.  To respond to this with “I believe what the Church teaches, because it tells me I must” is to invite incredulity or scorn.  Such an assertion lacks, in a word, authority – because the free personal, reasoned commitment of the witness is lacking – the persuasive evidence of a personal comprehension of, and free personal commitment to, whatever is being upheld.

This is so not just because our Church leadership currently lacks visible integrity, but because the same process of erosion of faith in institutions is endemic in the secular world also.  Deluged as we are by palpably false commercial information, we are not impressed when politicians employ focus groups to determine their manifestoes, and spin doctors to package presentation.  Because most information comes at us now in an exploitative stream, all truth claims are diverted into a long mental queue that we label ‘only possibly true’ – and may never reach the mental desk at which personal life decisions are made.

It is this above all that those who currently exalt the authority of ‘the magisterium’ need to understand.  Catholicism is currently getting a drubbing in the secular media not simply for being dysfunctional on matters of sexuality, but for brainwashing people – and especially children.  The exaltation of the authority of the magisterium – explained in simplistic terms as the bishops—sets every Catholic child up as conclusive proof that this is true, because it demands of that child intellectual deference to patriarchy as a badge of loyalty – as a virtual definition of what a Catholic actually is.

That this process does not prepare Catholic children for the egalitarian cut-and-thrust of third level education, or for the harsher secular marketplace, is surely plain for all to see.  The virtual collapse of Catholic identity at the age of eighteen shows that a whole new approach is needed in the understanding of authority.  A patriarchal definition simply doesn’t cut it any more – and it never did.

When we hear in the Gospels that Jesus taught with authority, we cannot suppose that this authority rested on reference to what others may have taught him.  It is clear, certainly, that he knew his Hebrew sources – but that is clearly not why people came to listen.  The truth he carried was patently also carrying him – it had been freely embraced and integrated at the deepest personal level.  What he believed was patently what he believed – not simply what he had been taught to believe.  No other explanation is possible of how he could, when his life was at stake, say ‘I am the truth’.

It should be clear to all by now that there is all the difference in the world between a faith that is inherited, and a faith that is freely and deliberately embraced.  In the first case the individual is enveloped in a specific culture which creates a powerful incentive merely to conform.  Conformity rather than integrity becomes the highest virtue taught.  So enveloped, the individual is essentially passive – like the infant upon whom the water of baptism is poured.  In the second case it is the individual who, as an autonomous adult, freely chooses a given faith from a range of alternatives.  In that case it is the chosen church that becomes the passive object towards which the adult believer consciously moves.

It is crucially important for the church as a body to understand that the first kind of faith, which we may call received faith, is a most delicate and fragile plant – very unlikely to withstand an unfavourable climate.  It is only the second kind – chosen faith – that is likely ever to amount to an authoritative faith – one that can confidently engage in adult discourse.  Received faith may eventually mature into chosen faith – but one of the biggest problems in our church is that it tends to behave as though no such transition is necessary for the lay person – or as though received faith is or at some point automatically becomes chosen faith.

Such an assumption is highly dangerous not only because it is fundamentally mistaken but because it underlies what is probably the single most important point of difference between the lay person and the cleric or religious.   For the latter, faith is far more likely to be chosen, and therefore more informed and authoritative.  Most important, that adult commitment is liturgically celebrated in a ceremony of ordination or free commitment to vows. Here we find the essential weakness of Irish Catholicism – the essential reason for the diffidence and passivity – and lack of authority – of the typical Irish Catholic lay person.  For if we laity do not need a chosen faith – if our received faith is considered forever sufficient – we are never actually invited into Christian adulthood, and may forever remain spiritual children.

Indeed, given that this has all been fairly obvious for some decades, there is good reason to believe that the permanent  spiritual childhood of the laity is something that is actually preferred by Catholic paternalism at the summit of the church.  Clericalism rests upon the need of laity for a ‘Yes, Father’ relationship – one in which the priest will remain the autocratic and dominant – and thinking – force.  Far better then, that laity should never move beyond a childish dependency and a school-based understanding.  Nothing else can fully explain the lack of commitment to adult education by the self-described magisterium, and the failure to provide the structures for upward communication and adult participation required for full implementation of Vatican II.

The continued dogged adherence to the bestowal of all three sacraments of initiation before puberty, and to the complete absence of any liturgical expectation or celebration of adult lay commitment, leaves Irish Catholicism especially firmly in Craggy Island territory.  This is precisely why the sudden loss of authority by the Catholic hierarchy has been so devastating.  In a decade it is as though the Irish Catholic Church has actually disappeared from the national landscape – with secularist media commentators going so far as to suggest that it is currently undergoing its ‘last rites’.  Soon enough we will experience in Ireland what has already happened in Italy – a demand that the Church records the free decision of Irish Catholics to repudiate their baptisms – in the same way that it recorded their involuntary baptism after birth.

It seems to me that if we Irish Catholics-by-choice wish to make ourselves, and our children, authoritative as Catholics – fully committed and confident carriers of our saving truths – we need either a postponement of the sacrament of Confirmation, or a new sacramental/liturgical event which might be called Affirmation.  Either way, Confirmation or Affirmation should celebrate the free and deliberate decision of  mature adults to commit entirely to the truths of the faith.  And all teaching prior to this should emphasize the crucial importance of that moment for the person concerned – of the necessity of complete freedom as the only context in which any adult faith commitment can be made.

At present we make the appalling mistake of supposing that of necessity what has been taught and apparently received has also been freely chosen – that committed Catholics will emerge inevitably from a process of catechesis controlled by the catechist.  They cannot, because to say ‘I believe’ implies a complete freedom not to say it – and that context of freedom we never provide.  “We were taken for granted!” This is one young student’s damning verdict on this process – a verdict seemingly repeated by the majority, to judge by the total indifference of the vast majority of baptized students in Irish universities to the ministry of their chaplains.  And it is confirmed by all we have recently learned about the collapse of sacramental observance among those in the age range 18-30.

On the other hand, to hear a young adult say, with full confidence and in complete freedom ‘I believe’, restores in an instant the authority that has been lost by the church – for at that moment the faith has found another free adherent.

So in the end, authority and freedom are inseparable – and the authority of the church is inseparable from the mature freedom of its members.  It is no coincidence that the authority of Catholicism should have reached its nadir in the West under a ‘magisterium’ that is so needlessly afraid of freedom, so determined to preserve at all costs the fiction of a morally inerrant clergy, and the absurd contention that loyalty and deference are the same thing.

To restore the authority of the Church it is now of paramount importance that laity be invited liturgically into chosen adult faith – and organizationally and intellectually into parity of esteem.  The authority of the hierarchy in the wider secular world will rest ultimately on the integrity of its contention that our church, from summit to base, offers enhanced and equal personal dignity to all – and only we Catholic laity will be in a position to vouch for this from personal experience.

At present we truly cannot – because to do so would be to speak against the truth of our own experience.

Encounters with the Force

Views: 9

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2002

Back in 1977 in Dublin I took my daughter aged seven and my eldest son, five, to see the first of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, now entitled A New Hope. When we got home the five-year-old solemnly related the entire plot, scene by scene, to his grandfather. The latter was so impressed that he just had to watch the Christmas TV premiere a few years later, aged about 70 – totally enthralled. Our attic still holds boxes of the spin-off merchandising that boomed in the wake of the series and made Lucas one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in cinema.

All of these films centre on the struggle of the Jedi knights – assisted by the light side of ‘The Force’ – against the disciples of the dark side, especially the towering Darth Vader. Half man, half glistening ebony machine – head and face hidden by a black mask like the coal-scuttle helmet worn by the Wehrmacht in World War II – the cloaked Vader strode onto the deck of a captured starship in the very first sequence of A New Hope, and became every child’s icon of dread. In the latest film, Attack of the Clones, the second ‘prequel’ to the first-produced series, we are to learn how it was that Vader, who had himself been a Jedi apprentice, began his journey to the dark side.

(Lucas originally conceived an epic series of nine films – three series of three. He made the middle series first, and is now two-thirds of the way through the first series. He presently insists he won’t actually complete the last three – but somebody probably will.)

The whole story, we are told, took place in a distant galaxy ‘long, long ago and far away’, where a multi-world republic is subverted by a sinister imperial tendency linked with the dark side. This device allows Lucas to blend elements of medieval knight-errantry with inter-stellar technology, ancient myth and mysticism – to tell the kind of riveting yarn that earlier generations would have experienced in the Arthurian knights of the round table.

The preferred weapon of the Jedi is not a ‘blaster’ – a projectile weapon – but a light sabre, a sword whose blade is a shaft of luminous energy. This weapon not only allows Lucas to recreate the fencing duels of Robin Hood and the samurai in a different cosmos, but to explore the idea of ‘the Force’ itself. Letting the Force flow through him, the Jedi can learn to anticipate and use his light sabre to deflect a plasma bolt fired at himself. (Jedis typically try diplomacy before resorting to defensive violence.)

What is the Force? The script limitations of an action film don’t allow Lucas much scope for theology, and on the whole this is probably just as well. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first-produced films, is schooled by the old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as follows:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Observing this lesson, the contraband smuggler Han Solo laconically observes:  “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Solo’s hard-bitten pursuit of profit serves as counterpoint to Luke’s search for a cause. However, Solo is also smitten by Princess Leia, leader of the republican remnant. She can handle a blaster as well as anyone – and this earned her points with seventies children, despite her very impractical coiffure of two enormous side buns which must have given her a headache.

Meanwhile Darth Vader, on the enormous pursuing battle cruiser, is demonstrating the power of the dark side to a sceptical imperial officer by raising him by the throat from his seat with an invisible hand.

Pushing the special effects of the 1970s beyond their previous limits Lucas achieved in A New Hope an unprecedented persuasiveness for the science fiction genre. Using profits from the spin-off merchandising he stayed at the leading edge in this field, designing state-of the-art cinema technology in both sound and vision. The latest film was shot with specially designed digital movie cameras – heralding the end of the ‘spool’ era, and the distribution of all movies by digital means. (Though it will take time for all cinemas to make use of this.)

Lucas, raised as a Methodist and later influenced by the cult mythology guru Joseph Campbell, tells us that he introduced the idea of the Force to get children to think about spirituality. “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realised there was another relevance that is even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps. A whole generation was growing up without fairytales.”

Elsewhere, expanding on this he says: “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.”

Interviewed about his latest film and asked if he knows yet what turns Anakin Skywalker, the nine-year-old hero of the last film, into Darth Vader in the next, Lucas answered:

“Yes, I know what that is. The groundwork has been laid in this episode. The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion – of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides – the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction.”

So, the light side of the Force demands that its disciples, the Jedi, master themselves in order to use the Force, which gives them powers of mind control, anticipation and telekinesis (a limited ability to move objects with the power of thought). Interestingly also they are supposed to remain celibate – another of the things that the nineteen year old Anakin Skywalker has problems with in the latest film!

It’s no secret now that Anakin, who will transmute into Vader in the next and last ‘prequel’, is Luke’s own father. We learned this in The Empire Strikes Back – when Luke was learning to control his own impulsiveness. Obi-Wan Kenobi, played majestically in the first series by Alec Guinness, had been Anakin’s mentor before he became Luke’s. In A New Hope Obi-Wan fought a final duel with Vader, dematerialising as Vader’s light sabre swept through him. Then he became a wraith who returned to mentor Luke at the climax of the film, the breathtaking battle with the Death Star, a space battle station the size of a small planet. Luke’s mentoring was continued by the diminutive Yoda, drawn by computer in this latest film.

Luke learns from Yoda in Empire that he himself is his own most dangerous opponent, and loses his arm in a duel with Vader. His sidekick Han Solo is immured in a block of ice at the climax, but resurrected in part three – Return of the Jedi. In that film Luke manages to control his anger, resisting torture to give his father, Anakin/Vader, a chance of redemption. Does Vader take it? Go watch the film, which will certainly be reprised soon in the wake of the prequel. (Digital TV will probably run all of the previous four films in plot sequence.)

Although it’s at first sight odd that Lucas would tell the story of the son before that of the earlier life of the father, it’s also oddly right – as evil for the 1970s generation is the more important problem to understand just now, especially for an America fascinated by military technology and sure of its own virtue. Anakin was a nine-year-old slave in
Phantom Menace, recruited to the Jedi because of his uncommon empathy with the Force. His journey to the dark side is for me almost as compelling as that of the youthful Michael Corleone in the Godfather series – that other transposition of a medieval family honour code into a twentieth-century republican setting. It’s also right that new generations of children will have immediate access on video and digital TV to Vader’s chance of redemption by his own son – something that couldn’t happen to Michael’s father, the brooding Vito, played by Marlon Brando.

Although Lucas has been criticised for ‘mindless hokum’ it is remarkable that anyone in mass entertainment should set out to deal seriously with the themes of good and evil, self-control, self-sacrifice, corruption, redemption – and even life-after-death – in a medium seemingly designed for popcorn and short attention spans. His meticulous eye for detail in the design of everything from starship interiors to planetary topography, clothing, strange animals and robots create a visual feast for children of the space age.

My fascination with these films began as soon as I saw my own children hooked. They tell us that most children are still thrilled by ancient themes of heroism and self-sacrifice – and in need of a spirituality, a sense of a deeper reality lying behind the one-dimensional digital world that we now live in. As this planet’s own beauty is increasingly tortured by technology, an escape into the awesome mysteries of the unexplored extra-terrestrial cosmos becomes increasingly necessary for rising generations, and Lucas has done as much as Gene Roddenberry (the creator of
Star Trek) to liberate the child’s cosmic imagination.

The films also show us what Cervantes dealt with in Don Quixote – the power of male nostalgia for a role in which knightly virtues of discipline, military skill and valour still make sense. We long for a world in which good and evil appear in such stark contrast that choices become easy again, and our own role becomes clear. In the wake of what US citizens now call 9/11 we also need a mass cultural experience that will allow angry Christians to reflect on how this very anger, encased in awesome military hardware, can easily shift the West again to the dark side of another civilisation’s experience. (There’s absolutely no sign that Christian fundamentalism is making any effort to develop that understanding.)

And although the technologies on view in that distant galaxy are awesome, Lucas is at pains to underline the dangers and limits of technology itself. Vader’s lack of compassion is connected with the fact that he is mostly prosthesis.  A New Hope conveys the message that technology can be a hindrance to spirituality. At the climax of the battle with the Death Star, Luke prepares to use a complicated computerised bomb sight to lob a small nuclear device down a narrow shaft in the battle station to detonate at its heart. At Obi Wan’s whispered command he pulls this technology aside and trusts to the Force instead. The subsequent detonation was cheered wildly in all cinemas in the US in 1977. Youthful courage, spiritually empowered, had transcended even the computer age.

That there is indeed a cosmic spiritual ‘force’ or power for good is an essential part of the Christian message, and that courage and self-sacrifice express this power most nobly is part of that message also. Do we need to worry that Lucas does not introduce explicit Christian concepts such as the Trinity and grace, and above all the truths of the personhood of God and the incarnation? Just a little – but these lacunae give all teachers their own role and relevance – and after all we don’t know yet how redemption is achieved in other galaxies! (Although we can be sure that fundamentalism won’t cut it.)

And the fact that the hero of the present series transmutes into the villain of the second gives scope for raising with older children the sophisticated issue of the ambiguity of all military heroism – the fact that great evil can flow from the age-old association of heroism with violence. This, after all, was the tragedy of Christendom – its beautiful origin in a rejection of violence and its disgrace in the wake of the military adventurer Constantine’s confusion of cross with sword. (The stories of the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur’s knights were a mediaeval attempt to reconcile those contradictions.)

That five-year-old who encountered the Force for the first time in 1977 is now a thirty-year-old computer programmer. He doesn’t think that children as children really ‘get’ the Christian echoes of these films explicitly, but sees them now himself. ‘Star Wars’ remains a vivid memory for all three generations still, and exercises a mysterious fascination as a shared experience that annihilates the almost sixty years between us. And all three will again get to see Attack of the Clones  this year, God willing.

We worry greatly these times about the growing gap between adolescents and the mean age of clergy. How does one go about teaching Christianity to the children of cool? Nothing is more certain than that we all need to experience at least some of what’s cool, and start from there. Lucas gives us reference points, characters and visuals that everyone in Christian education, and every parent, can know and make use of.

So this summer all you uninitiated Jedi should ‘get out more’, switch off your theological bomb sights, let the Force flow through you, and then go figure out how to explain why prayer, grace and the Holy Spirit are so much cooler. And make sure it’s all in a film script that will have children of all ages cheering their heads off.

Is God Dead?

Views: 29

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  Oct 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rehabilitating Satan

Views: 24

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

Since the 18th century Enlightenment, western modernity has ridiculed the notion of an intelligent power of evil separable from us yet bent upon our destruction, and has optimistically trusted in the power of reason to deliver Utopia. Post modernism has lost confidence in reason and banished all optimism, but remains closed to any spiritual dimension. Both God and Satan remain banished from the media discourse of most of those who seriously debate human affairs – including the question of where the world may be going. Even Christian theologians, although defensive of God, seem often slightly embarrassed by the question of Satan – as though he were a kind of demented and distant relation with obscure and unmentionable, and maybe even absurd, criminal tendencies who is best forgotten.

The fact that Hollywood has enthusiastically adopted this embarrassing relative doesn’t help matters. As lascivious progenitor of a human Antichrist bent upon world domination he becomes merely ridiculous – even more so than Dracula, Dr No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Yet the pervasiveness of evil in our time – never more horrifically demonstrated than on September 11th, 2001 – defies our expertise, and whatever optimism we can still muster. The West’s technological sophistication – quite capable of ending global deprivation – was turned against it with terrifying effect. America, ‘land of the free’, was attacked as though it was a global tyranny to be fought by the most merciless of means.

‘Diabolical’ we may say – at a loss for words of sufficient force – even while knowing that it is the demonisation of America by militant Islam that explains that day. That is, when we humans decide that any physical entity is ‘the root of all evil’, we will justify any means to destroy it – and that attempt becomes itself an archetype of evil. Nazism justified the Shoa in precisely the same way – ‘international Jewry’ had supposedly conspired against and humiliated Germany during and after World War 1, so its destruction was a holy duty. Yet this systematic attempt to destroy an entire people became itself the archetypal example of ‘diabolical’ evil in modern times.

Accusation is the essence of the demonisation process – the loading of blame onto a specific human target. If we identify the specifically demonic act as one of accusation we can make use of the insights of René Girard (succinctly presented in a recent post-retirement work *) both to interpret what is happening, and to predict what lies down the road. Girard the anthropologist needs to do no more than minutely describe a repetitive process of mimetic rivalry, accusation, violence and concealment to justify his theories. Christian faith can go beyond this to accuse the spirit of evil, Satan, which lies behind this process, tempting us to accuse one another.

The USA’s finger was within hours of the US catastrophe pointed at Osama bin Laden, catapulting him to world notoriety and, apparently, global Islamic fame. Within a month western high explosive – often with ‘NYPD’ painted on the casing – was ‘rearranging the rubble’ in Afghanistan, and causing much ‘collateral damage’. Soon Osama bin Laden was in turn accusing the USA of being the source of all that is wrong in the Islamic world, and urging Jihad.

What I propose here is simply that mutual demonisation is an inevitable consequence of the banishment of Satan, understood as ‘the accuser’ – the spirit of accusation – from human discourse. That is, if we fail to see the resort to mutual accusation as the imitative demonic process common to protagonists on the brink of conflict, and to stand apart from it, we, almost consciously, join the dance of death. Our common enemy is this spirit of accusation, busy on both sides. Unrecognised it operates freely through us – raising our arm to point in accusation, and to hurry us to arms. And once we use them we will, knowingly now, validate one another’s accusations. Thus Satan the accuser becomes also Satan the destroyer.

“How can Satan drive out Satan?” Jesus asked. Unless the accused is totally alone and powerless, the result of accusation is invariably counter-accusation. We have seen this law survive thirty years of conflict in Northern Ireland, perfectly intact. It is the veritable source of human historical inertia, the repetitive resort to violence. It would be catastrophic if this same dynamic were now to polarise the West and Islam.

Of course accusation to be plausible will usually seek, and find, justification for itself. Bin Laden’s direct part in the September 11th atrocity may be hard to prove conclusively in court, but it fits perfectly his openly espoused programme of killing Americans wherever they can be found, and he explicitly approved and exulted in the attack afterwards. Moreover his wealth and energy will inevitably place him somewhere in the paths of some of the perpetrators, and in the weave of events, leading to the disaster.

But the purpose of accusation is more than to apportion blame. It also deflects attention from the accuser – often in a crisis likely to reflect badly upon that accuser. Bin Laden did precisely the same in forecasting US atrocities in Afghanistan as a means of winning support in Pakistan, and of deflecting attention from the appalling scale and manner of death in Washington and New York.

To date I have not heard any US politician ask why the appalling weaknesses in US internal air security, spotted by the plotters probably as early as 1996, were not eliminated by those charged with this responsibility by the Washington administrations of both Bill Clinton and George Bush. Could the reason be that both of the great American political parties have been catastrophically remiss – for purely wealth-driven reasons? And when the plight of the Palestinians is raised as a cause of Islamic fundamentalist wrath, the hawkish response is to allege that some kind of moral equivalence is being argued. To placate American opinion – severely shocked by this unprecedented blow to its heart – the military hardware they finance through taxation must be put in motion eastwards, even if this does cause further havoc among the desperately poor of Afghanistan. As I write, Americans wait for some kind of dénouement there in the arrest of Bin Laden – so the deflective power of accusation is still doing its job.

The best of all lessons on the proper Christian approach to accusation is the story of the woman accused of adultery in the Temple, in Jesus’ presence. He did not address the accusation, but the accusers. Accusation deflects attention and focuses anger elsewhere by implying a moral imbalance between accuser and accused. Not only is the accused guilty, the accuser is also innocent. The scapegoating violence that normally followed such a charge was intended to envelop Jesus also – either in complicity or opposition. His direct appeal to the self-knowledge of the accusers – and to their knowledge of one another – prevented the throwing of the initial and always fatal stone.

To allude to Satan then in this context is to point to the power of the spirit of accusation in unifying one community against another. Evils exist both in a seriously sick western culture that threatens an unmodernised Islam, and in an Islamic fundamentalism that naively scapegoats America – and these must both be addressed.

When addressing the problems of the west – especially an unbounded and glorified consumerism that unbalances the world and threatens its environment – we may be temped to resort to the accusatory word ‘greed’, especially in relation to America. Yet the Bible does not make this accusation. Again it places the blame for all our weaknesses upon a spiritual entity that tempts us, without being an essential part of us. ‘You shall be as Gods!’ – this is the original temptation: to forsake the obscurity and dependence of the creature for the glory and power of the creator. To say ‘yes’ to this temptation is to admit the spirit of material dissatisfaction and ambition – the very core of Western economic dynamism and military power.

When the artist known as Madonna can assert that she will continue her career until she is ‘better known than God’, she unwittingly validates completely this biblical diagnosis of what is wrong with all of us. Our self-regard depends more and more upon the degree to which we suppose we are regarded by others – and this is the root source of our acquisitiveness. Possessions are the social symbols of success, of ‘worth’, and money the means by which these symbols are to be acquired. Celebrity is the final seal: ‘I am known by millions, therefore I exist’.

The Enlightenment was therefore entirely wrong in supposing that the concepts of sin and Satan are an indictment of humankind. Instead they are a means by which the perennial evils we visit upon one another are explained in terms that deny us the right to accuse one another, and also offer us the means of a full reconciliation, in mutual respect.

Thus when President Bush tells an American audience ‘we are the greatest nation on earth’ we need not say ‘There you are – American arrogance and imperialism!’  We can say instead that in a moment when American self-respect has been seriously damaged the temptation to hyperbole has proved irresistible. And when bin Laden identifies America as the root of all evil we can ask ‘What role, then, does Satan, the tempter, play in your theology?’

And when right and left fall into separate bitter camps over the relative evil of ‘terrorist’ and state violence we can point out that the debate needs to move on – to identify the spirit of self-exculpation and accusation in both camps as the root of the problem. Islamic societies seem to be as easily deflected from the horrors of September 11th as Americans are from the sufferings of Palestinians and other Muslims due to Western failure.

There is no doubt that otherwise we must all seek a violent righteousness – a position of moral unassailability from which we can indict everyone else. We will continue forever demonising one another until we can recognise that the temptation to do so – a temptation that is resistible – affects us all, afflicts us all, but is nevertheless separable from our better selves. And this tempter has the same name in both the Bible and the Quran.

  * I See Satan Fall like Lightning : René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)