Category Archives: The Creeds

René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

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The Creed is for Whistle-Blowers, not Dogmatists

Tony Flannery – who in 2020 asked: ‘What is the point of the Creeds?’

By far the worst thing ever to happen to the Christian Creeds of the early centuries was that they became tools of persecution by hunters of Christian heretics in the Middle Ages. (c. 476 CE – c. 1453)

The second-worst thing that happened to them was their use by the compilers of Catechisms – for the persecution of many generations of Christian children who could be beaten in school for failing to remember what the Catechism said.

With one self-defeating arm of the bureaucracy of  the Catholic Church in pursuit of heretics until recently, it is no wonder that cancelled Catholic priest Tony Flannery should ask in 2020 What is the point of the Creeds?’1‘From the Outside: Rethinking Church Doctrine’, Tony Flannery, Red Stripe Press, 2020

The shortest answer to this question goes as follows:

First, the Apostles Creed is a summary of the faith the led the earliest church through its worst persecutions. It was a passport through persecution, NOT a licence for persecution – and should never have been used for that purpose.

Second, the Nicene Creed is a mere ‘tweaking’ of the Apostles Creed, to insist upon the equality of all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It should never have been used as a tool of religious oppression either.

The ‘Credo’ of Jesus of Nazareth

The English word ‘Creed’ derives from the Latin word ‘Credo’ which means ‘I believe’. Every firm believer is in need of a summary of what they believe – and Jesus’ own people, the Jews had that.  Called the ‘Shema‘ (the Hebrew word for ‘Listen’ or ‘Hear’) it was recalled by Jesus when he was asked, in Mark’s Gospel, what was the greatest of the commandments.

He replied as follows:

‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one, only Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’  (Mark 12: 29-31)

This was a direct quotation from one of the oldest of the Hebrew scriptures, or ‘Old Testament’, the Book of Deuteronomy. ‘“Hear O Israel: Yahweh our God is the one, the only Yahweh. You must love Yahweh your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” (Deut 6: 4,5)

Because the Apostles Creed affirms Jesus as ‘Son of God’ it follows that what Jesus believed is also binding for Christians, so we believe ourselves also bound by the ‘Shema’ as the basis of all other laws, including the Ten Commandments given to Moses.

As explained by Luke Timothy Johnson in ‘The Creed’, the Apostles Creed grew naturally out of the Shema – to explain to Jews and Gentiles why Jesus’s story was central to Christian belief.

Jesus’s Crucifixion was a Beginning, not an End

The earliest Christians believed firmly in Jesus’s survival of crucifixion. What is impossible for many who are attracted to Jesus’s teachings today – the belief that he had been somehow raised from the death proscribed by a Roman governor of Palestine, in about 30 CE — was the firm belief of those who compiled the four Gospels and the Creed.

It is obvious also why that belief was affirmed in the Creed. It reassured the Christian believer that his or her own life would endure beyond physical death –  as a follower of this man who had not been simply obliterated by the worst persecution that the greatest empire of the time could devise.

It is the most grotesque irony of the history of Christianity that the Creed should itself in later centuries have become an instrument of persecution. To call Jesus ‘Lord’ was, for the first Christians, to deny supreme authority to Caesar – and therefore to endanger oneself, as Jesus himself had done by criticising the religious elite of his own time.

On the third day he rose again.

This insistence on the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus is the central and pivotal statement in the Creed – explaining everything that comes before that in the Creed, and everything that followed. For the purpose of the Creed was to assure the believer that in following Jesus, as a mere human, the same victory over death could be achieved. The power claimed by Rome, or any other authority, was thereby ‘relativised’ – reduced to mere appearances and ‘passing away’ – temporary.

That Jesus was human also – as vulnerable to suffering and death as the rest of us – was therefore also to be believed.  For otherwise how could survival of death be possible for merely human believers in Jesus?

But Jesus was also ‘Son of God’ and himself divine.  So therefore, somehow, he had been ‘conceived’ by – or ‘brought into being by’ – the Holy Spirit of God.

How are we to understand today the insistence upon the ‘virginity’ of Mary, the mother of Jesus?  Some scripture scholars tell us that the original meaning of the word did not originally imply that Jesus’s conception happened without sexual intercourse, but that probably cannot be proven,  What is certain is that the process by which Jesus was ‘conceived’ or ‘begotten’ by God was for early Christians a secondary matter – dependent upon the conviction that through Jesus we come to know God – and to know that God is love.

The Creed Summarises the Gospels

Because the Creed was in later centuries used to justify the persecution of Christian ‘rebels’ or ‘heretics’,  it is sometimes alleged that it was the product of the Constantinian Roman Empire – and therefore NOT what Christians originally believed.  This can be disproven simply by comparing it with what is asserted in the four Gospels.

To take just the Gospel of Matthew to start with, it is clear that the belief that God is a ‘Trinity’ of three persons was central to the early church.  Completed probably by as early as 100 CE Matthew’s Gospel gives us in Chapter 28 Jesus’s final instruction to his followers, AFTER the crucifixion:

Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28: 19)

Although the Nicene Creed – to the right – did emerge in the wake of Constantine’s decision to approve Christian belief it is also clearly a mirror of the earlier wording.  What is distinctive about it is simply its insistence upon Jesus as an equal member of the Trinity – something questioned by Arianism, a ‘heresy’ of the time that made Jesus clearly inferior in status to the Father.

In that one Gospel, therefore, completed centuries before Constantine, we find the central beliefs of the Creed – that Jesus had survived crucifixion and taught that God was a Trinity.

The Nicene Creed also affirms the equality of the Trinity

Can Unarmed Love Conquer Death?

Think about it just for ten seconds. Other than the complete faith of the founders of the Christian tradition that Jesus had risen, what else can explain why there ever was a Christian tradition?

That faith has proved far stronger than the Roman imperial conviction that crucifixion would do what the Romans were certain it would do – scrub anyone who suffered it completely from historical memory. 

All merely human empires are built on a premise of permanence via the shaming of others, and almost everyone knows now what a ghastly and doomed premise that is.

The Creed simply means that it is unarmed truth in the face of armed power that drives history forward. Through their courage and their vulnerability, it is the speakers of unarmed truth to power who are best remembered and best loved.

Because, somehow, truth-tellers, whistleblowers, are definitely not ever, in any circumstances – truly alone.

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

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.

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‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

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

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Protecting the Absolute Truth

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life, March 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spong on Spong 1 – Ditching the Old Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Spong on Spong: 2 – ‘Rescuing’ the Son

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

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

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

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

He doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Spong on Spong 3 – Too much Faith in Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Spong on Spong: 4 – No need of Redemption?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Rene Girard on the importance of the crucifixion:

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

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

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

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

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