Category Archives: Fundamentalism

‘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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Licensed to Kill

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

Nothing could be more formulaic than a James Bond film – unless we descend still further to the Popeye cartoon.  As it is the Popeye plot that provides the basic framework for this whole style of Hollywood entertainment, let’s look at that plot for a moment.

Always (despite what happened the day before), our hero Popeye and his beloved, Olive Oyl, have no thought of violence as they set out upon their daily idyll – a visit to the beach or mountain perhaps.  Yet out of nowhere appears the enormous Bluto, who beats Popeye senseless and heads off with the protesting female.

At this juncture, an entirely coincidental saving event occurs – contact between Popeye’s failing digestive system and the contents of a can of spinach.  Immediately our hero is restored to redemptive health and strength.  He heads off to rescue Olive, and in the process sends Bluto in a cathartic parabola towards the horizon.  The End.

Only for today, of course.  The success of the formula dictates that Bluto must be even more mysteriously restored for the sequel that will always follow.

Bluto’s epic size and malevolence are essential to the plot – for otherwise Popeye would have no excuse for the violence he must eventually use.  Similarly, Popeye cannot begin the day with a breakfast of spinach – as this would prevent him from suffering victimhood and even imply calculation and foreknowledge (especially if Olive Oyl had cooked it for him).  Everything must be rigged to create the complete moral imbalance that will give Popeye his licence to use maximum force.  He doesn’t even work out at the gym.  He is entirely innocent, and Bluto is entirely guilty.  Otherwise there can be no supremely cathartic, violent climax.

Bond films follow essentially the same logic.  A master criminal with global ambitions usually begins the film by dropping a failing henchman into a tank full of piranha fish, sharks, or crocodiles.  This establishes his Bluto credentials – and so does the unleashing of a world-threatening enterprise that will trigger the involvement of our hero, James Bond.  The latter, virtually on his own, will soon encounter the master criminal, as well as some supremely nubile and vulnerable female.  Both will suffer various trials and torments, until some gadget allows Bond to turn the tables (the spinach factor).  For some unaccountable reason the master criminal will never kill Bond at the first opportunity – but suavely entrust him to a stupid henchman or a lock-up with a large air-vent.

The films end always in a vast investment in stuntmen, catapulted corpses and explosions – and subsequent pneumatic bliss for Bond.  Our master criminal may either be annihilated or saved to conspire another day.  It matters little.  Master criminals are bankable resources – so hack Hollywood writers will work like hospital casualty teams to bring this Bluto, or another, back another day.

Clearly, the Bluto theory of life is commercially viable – as the Bond films have reaped more than $8 billion since the first one, Doctor No, in 1962.  The hugely profitable Die Hard and Lethal Weapon series are also basically Popeye films – as is the ‘Alien’ series in the Science Fiction genre, and Independence Day.  Mass entertainment is hugely indebted to the simple notion that world-threatening, (and female-threatening), malevolence is always out there somewhere – so we must logically be licensed to kill.

Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers has brilliantly pointed out that the Popeye plot predates Hollywood by many centuries.  It is in fact the core of the Enuma Elish – the Babylonian creation myth.  In this, Tiamat, mother of the Gods, sets out to kill her children, the supposedly lesser Gods.  One of these, Marduk, is licensed by the others to prevent this.  He kills and dismembers her – and she becomes the various parts of the material universe.

The essence of the tale is the overwhelming justification for Marduk’s violence – which is wholly just and necessary.  He too, although supremely violent, is innocent.  As he was the Christ figure for the Babylonians, he justified the rapacity of ancient Babylon itself – which included, of course, the enslavement of the people of Israel.

Their Genesis story may well have been written in response to the Enuma Elish.  Its account of the origins of human violence is wholly different: far from originating with creation itself it lies in competing human desire for the same object – the Cain and Abel story.  The geo-politics of the ancient world centred around competition for the fertile river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Those of today centre around oil, in the very same region.  Otherwise little has changed

How far is George Bush from an appreciation of the difference in the Babylonian and Biblical accounts of the origins of violence? On November 3rd a US-owned Predator drone in Yemen fired a deadly missile, destroying a car and six occupants – one of whom was supposedly a high-ranking Al Q’aeda member.  As the US mid-term congressional elections proved the same day, ‘9/11’ has most potently revitalised the Popeye plot as a text for the restoration of the Bush dynasty, with Bin Laden & Saddam Hussein alternating in the Bluto role.  The handlers of the younger Bush have exploited that opportunity to the hilt.  Hollywood keeps in step by giving us yet another Bond film.

Only three years ago, the Bond formula appeared to have been played out.  Media wits suggested in 1999 that the next Bond film should be entitled ‘Enough is Enough’.  Now Al Q’aeda has dusted off the Marduk legend – and the elevation of the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan to megastar status in the years ahead seems likely.  If we in Ireland take the same innocent pleasure in this that we did when John Ford made The Quiet Man, we will have wasted much time (half a century exactly) in learning nothing about the world.

Meanwhile of course, Bin Laden tells exactly the same Popeye-Bond yarn to the Arab world, but casting America in the master-criminal role, and himself as James Bond (or the medieval Islamic equivalent, Saladin).  If he has indeed survived Afghanistan we are only midway through the film – and haven’t seen anything yet in the way of explosions and cartwheeling bodies.

Is George Bush a good or an evil man?  The pundits argue endlessly, when the answer is obviously: Yes.  George Bush is a good and an evil man.  He is endowed with impregnable innocence by the Christian fundamentalism that has incorporated the essence of the Marduk legend into mainstream US Christian thought (we must have, and we alone can be trusted with, a license to kill).  He is also evil in being so deliberately enveloped in self-righteousness that he cannot step into the shoes of a Palestinian or Egyptian or Saudi or Chechen idealist and see how easily he and America become therefore, in their stupefying lack of empathic intelligence and awesome military power, the Bluto of someone else’s nightmare.

The truth is that Genesis is absolutely right.  We humans compete – and it is out of this competition that violence arises, because the elevation of the winner is always, and simultaneously, the abasement of the loser.  The Marduk legend was concocted, and is endlessly retold, merely to justify the violence and the victory of the stronger.  US emergence as sole superpower in 1989 was for many Islamic people their abasement, as it signalled not only the defeat of the Palestinian cause but a single globalised economic system with them, usually, and probably forever, on the outside.

As a durable global peace depends not upon the always unsuccessful expulsion of Bluto, but upon the exposure of the Tiamat/Bluto lie, it follows that Christian education must rapidly understand the application of ancient myth to modern culture and global politics.  It simply isn’t good enough that Christian children in Ireland may well exalt Pierce Brosnan as a role model, when he personifies and exalts a deadly ethic – one that now grips the world in a vice – to buttress a basically commercial and militaristic agenda, and an unjust world.

As long as we humans insist upon having a licence to kill we will go on narrating history as the Marduk legend in Popeye/Bondian terms – interminably rigging the story to justify our own murderous intent (‘republicans’ and ‘loyalists’ please note).  So long as the ‘Christian’ west cannot separate itself clearly from that intent, and that myth, so long will it continue to misinterpret its own basic texts and to betray the humble and pacific God it hypocritically exalts.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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Towards a New Evangelism I: What’s so good about the ‘Good News’?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

“No – I don’t want to hear about Jesus!” This is the signature message of one member of the Internet mailing list alt.recovery.catholic – an international (but mostly north American) e-mail support community. Its members are mostly people whose experience of Catholicism has led them to see it as abusive or addictive.

The message succinctly sums up the problem of the ‘New Evangelism’ so persistently called for by Pope John Paul II. Just as people stopped listening to the boy who cried ‘wolf’ when none appeared, so countless millions in the west today suppose, on the basis of their own experience, that there is nothing especially good about the Christian Good News.

This is particularly true of Ireland, where people often suppose that an experience of nine or more years of Catholic education, and regular family Mass-going, have exhausted the possibilities of the Gospel they experienced there. The perceived de-sacralisation of the priesthood that has followed from a spate of scandals also takes a toll. So does Christian fundamentalism, of all varieties. When you ask perfectly sensible people today if they would like to be ‘saved’, many are liable to ask ‘you mean from the saved?’

Furthermore, the medium by which the Gospel has primarily been communicated for two millennia – the language of the bible and of theology – has less and less traction on human attention. All language has been debased by the children of Madison Avenue. Cynical political spin doctoring has had a similar effect. As the Ulsterman says, “If you believe all you hear, you’ll eat all you see!” In a welter of claims to veracity that are mostly spurious, we no longer associate word with truth. Our perceptual in-tray is labelled “Claims Mostly Unreliable” – and in it we place everything from Reader’s Digest promises of millions to papal encyclicals.

And biblical language has a special problem. ‘Sin’, ‘Salvation’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Atonement’ seem echoes of an age long dead – when every misfortune from floods to disease and earthquakes was attributed to divine anger. This problem is compounded by what might be called the Mandy Rice-Davies bind: the clergyman’s profession of faith is closely connected to his livelihood – so when he insists that God will call all to account at the end of time, people are inclined to think – and more and more likely to say – ‘but he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

A further problem relates to the ‘where’ of evangelisation. Spacial communities once centred on a single market place or village have been shattered by physical and informational communications revolutions – so people may sleep in one location, work many miles away, shop somewhere else, and socialise elsewhere again – and may do their thinking and discussing on the phone or the internet as members of an international work or hobby ‘virtual’ community.

As a possible solution to this problem of lost one-space community, the growth of broadcast media such as radio and television was initially met with as much enthusiasm by churchmen as by politicians such as Roosevelt and Goebbels – but multi-channel satellite and cable TV, as well as the VCR – have fragmented even these communities. Papal spectaculars are one answer – but quickly pall. They are too similar to mass political rallies in which charismatic personalities fly in, get waved at from a distance, and then fly out again, leaving little behind. For lay people wondering about their own lifestyle, there just isn’t any way of following an act like that. Radical change in the way we perceive and respond to life demands far more than a one-day sensation, and schools quickly found that replaying 1979 videos of Ireland’s papal visit was a sure recipe for an ‘Aw, Miss!’ response. Indeed, over-exposure on the media may well have done for the papacy what it has done for royalty – disperse the semi-magical aura with which people surround their mental image of an august person they have never seen.

We can summarise these problems as relating to the What, How, Who and Where of evangelisation. I’ll deal with just the first of these in this article. What exactly is the good news anyhow – in terms that will make sense to people today?

Readers of earlier articles in this series will know that I relate the appeal of Jesus, prior to crucifixion, to the fact that he upended the pyramid of worthiness or esteem that characterised the ancient world. The last would be first, the returned prodigal would be celebrated, the poor were blessed, the rich and powerful were not to be considered more favoured by God. Most importantly this verbal message – which astonished even the apostles – was authenticated by a table fellowship that scandalised the disciples of ritual purity by including the most reviled.

The Good News therefore was that those who had considered themselves at the tail end of the triumphal procession of the ancient world were in fact beloved of the God who was at the summit of it. He was to be glorified precisely because he acknowledged and raised up the lowly. ‘The World’ had got it wrong – and this claim was validated by the willingness of the messenger to associate with, and above all to eat with, the ritually unclean. Word and deed were not separate, but united – reinforcing the credibility of the message. As Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’s comment on the rich young man indicates, in the ancient world one’s sinfulness was a deduction from one’s exclusion, one’s social and spiritual unworthiness – so inclusion in the table of the messenger proved the latter’s integrity and one’s own salvation. The table of Jesus, like the Jordan baptism of John, was a challenge to the Temple system of ritual cleanliness and conformity with legal minutiae and expensive sacrifice – a system of salvation that favoured the relatively wealthy and educated.

A real, enduring fellowship offered to the shunned was therefore inseparable from the idea of salvation – and this association was maintained by the relative social humility of the early leaders of the church, and its rejection by the Jewish and Roman establishments in the first Christian centuries. Salvation is inseparable from a sense of ‘God with us’ – also expressed in the excitement of the Samaritan woman at the well. It was not ‘pie in the sky by and by’ that drew people to Jesus – but simply the fact of his willingness to bring personally the message ‘you are forgiven and loved’ – and to abide with those now evangelised, sharing their deprivation.

It is clear therefore that evangelisation is also non-hierarchical. Jesus’ humility collapsed the pyramid of esteem which had communicated to the rejected the fact of their rejection. As did his washing of the feet. As did the crucifixion most of all.

It follows from this that the Good News would not necessarily be good news for all – and that it was not simply a promise of life after physical death. It was an assurance of the love of God now and forever for those who had been taught by the world that they were of no account – with the sole proviso of genuine repentance. And it was therefore also a questioning of the presumption of those whose worldly success had been thought a sure sign of divine favour.

Sad to relate, this is not quite what the Church relayed to me during my orthodox Catholic education in the 1950s. Then the good news had become ‘the Church is always right’. The reason was simple enough: the Church’s own growth, and especially the Constantinian shift in the church’s social and political status in the fourth century had led to Christian adaptation to, and approval of, social hierarchy per se. Thus, although salvation could still be merited by the poor, their happiness must be deferred in this life. Theology soon explained human hierarchies – even the institution of slavery – in terms of divine preference for hierarchies in heaven also. It was at this point that the gospels became detached from the real world – and almost incapable of fundamentally changing it. Jesus belonged in a landscape of poor people raised by him onto a different plane – but it did not follow that Christian kings would share their tables with the verminous. Their superiority was required in order to maintain Christian order. And it was this Christian order that became Christendom.

A story told by Bede about St Aidan in the seventh century well illustrates this analysis. This spiritual child of Iona, in evangelising Northumbria, impressed its King, Oswald, to the extent that he gave the saint the gift of a valuable horse. When Aidan soon gave this gift to a beggar, the king was angered – to the extent that Aidan lamented his greater valuation of the horse than the beggar. Yet if Kings and beggars were equal in dignity, kingship itself conferred none, so kings inevitably won this argument in the long run. Territorial churchmen in time learned to avoid such sorrow by keeping such gifts, regretfully delegating the virtue of humility to their subordinates. Thus the church became itself a pyramid of esteem, duplicating and ratifying the secular one alongside.

This is where we all come in – close to the terminus of this sad experiment in accommodating the gospels to the injustice of the world. Once the elites originally educated by the Church lost intellectual respect for Christianity, their patronage of the Church could be easily abandoned. The trauma of secularist democratic revolution beginning in 1789 led to a renewed tactical alliance between political aristocracy and Christian hierarchy in the nineteenth century, but this too was fundamentally cynical and tenuous. Although it informed the Roman Curia’s attempted suppression of liberation theology as late as the 1980s, it did so at the cost of that body’s scant remaining moral authority. And this is precisely why the call for a new evangelisation now seems so forlorn. If the gospel doesn’t challenge the world, it must merely support it.

It must be pointed out also here that the fundamental premise of most Catholic education has by now been proved bankrupt: that the education of the sons of the wealthy would ‘Christianise’ society from the top down. Education itself is an empowerment, and when it is bestowed selectively upon those already privileged it can only reinforce their privilege. This is why our intelligentsias endlessly analyse the problems of the world and argue over their solution at the top of towers of steel and glass – without ever getting to the root of the problem: their own preference for height, for remoteness from the mean back streets below. For it is social contempt that the poor feel most keenly, not the material difference that is its sacrament. As anyone who has spent any time with the poor will know, people can be happy with very little until they are reminded by the media of the material differential that excludes them from the award-winning tables of the famous and the well-to-do.

And this is why our society is now so thoroughly secular – in spite of the fact that the elites that govern it are mostly the products of elite Catholic schools. The acceptance by the church of the principle of social hierarchy is an endorsement of the very essence of secularism – worldliness, the assumption that it is the proud, rather than the poor, who are blessed by God , and therefore worthy of their self-conscious superiority.

Yet the paradox is that it is the survival of social hierarchy and privilege that guarantees the permanent relevance of the gospels. Suffering and injustice, exclusion, low self-esteem, addiction, depression – all these are the richest soil on which the good news can take root. Many are reinforced by the media cult of celebrity in our own time – the raising to ikonic status of mere humans as flawed as the rest of us. For the essence of the Gospel is that we are all indeed already and unconditionally loved, and will never be forsaken. All that is lacking is evangelisers so convinced of this that they will not just say it, but live it. Indeed, given the bankruptcy of mere language, and the chasm between the word and the deed in the hierarchical Church, it is the doing of it that can alone now renew the Church.

Who ‘does’ Christian love best today? Obsessed with the danger of getting the theology wrong, our leaders seem to pay little attention to this question. If one truly loves, in the name of the Trinity, their presence is revealed by that love, which speaks of nothing else, so where is the possibility of error? We should be looking for, and encouraging, such people, if only to vindicate the truth we argue over.

Luckily I know some of these new evangelisers, and will write of this next month.

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