Category Archives: Worldliness

On Exodus? From What?

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.”

So wrote Alain de Botton, philosopher, in 2004. His name for this affliction – Status Anxiety – is the title of an accessible book on the subject.1Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005 Outlining its role in Victorian snobbery, class conflict, consumerism, the idea of ‘meritocracy’ and many other things he makes a persuasive case for Status Anxiety as a pernicious source of unhappiness in all eras and cultures – but especially in the West today.

De Botton suggests also that religion, especially Christianity, might be a cure. Could this offer insight into our ongoing hesitation over ‘mission’, and maybe much more than that?

Status Anxiety in the Church

Take, for example, the ‘shock’ expressed by the late Cardinal Bernardin Gantin in 1999, for the rampant ‘social climbing’ of bishops who had looked to him, as a Vatican official, for transfer to ‘more prestigious’ dioceses.2See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin If other Vatican officials were not prone to the same affliction would there have been a ‘Vati-leaks’ affair in 2012, or a papal retirement the following year?

[It is, of course, untrue that Irish parishes and dioceses are ranked in much the same way by Irish clergy, and that transfer to the least prestigious (poorest) parish or diocese is regarded as demotion – even if scurrilous rumours of this persist!]

Take also the embarrassment suffered now by sincere clergy over the plethora of questionable clerical titles such as ‘Monsignor’ (My Lord) or ‘Canon’. Would so many of those have been invented if ordination was an instant cure for the yearning for higher status?

Take then something far more pernicious – the practice by Irish bishops until 1994 of secrecy on clerical child sex abuse. When the bishops of Ireland admitted in December 2009 that this had arisen out of a desire to preserve ‘the reputations of individuals and of the Church’ were they not also admitting to the role of clerical Status Anxiety in the deepest church scandal of our time?3Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland

The Crisis of Faith Formation

Why, finally, are Irish bishops so slow in getting to grips with what is now an existential problem for Irish Catholicism – described in the August 2022 national synodal report as ‘a crisis in the transmission of faith’?4Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23 Why the failure, over decades, to conduct and publish research on the effectiveness of school-dependent faith formation – to get to the root of the indifference of so many baptised teenagers while still at school? Are we to believe there is no fear of further embarrassment by Irish campaigners against faith schools, on foot of any such research?

Could it be also that although now committed – at least on paper – to permanent synodal ‘mission’ we lack even a clear view of the ‘salvation’ from the ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ that the ‘Good News’ promises? Are we Irish Catholics largely inarticulate about our faith simply because we have failed to recognise that our own national history of imperial conquest and occupation has made us especially inclined to doubt our own value – i.e. to suffer from Status Anxiety – and embarrassed even to admit this to be an ‘affliction’ in need of a spiritual cure?

If the sixth commandment was especially emphasised in the past by Irish clergy was that because we could not see the repeated ban on covetousness in commandments nine and ten as a warning against desire for the higher status that our wealthy neighbours, secular or religious, might ‘show off’ in their possessions or titles? Has our inability to categorise status seeking as a spiritual problem – and often also our uncritical embracing of a ‘meritocratic’ ethos in our schools – been a huge beam in our discerning eye – an inability to focus something deeply problematic that was always in plain sight?

Have we even yet fully absorbed the meaning of the Catholic social principle that all of us, as children of God, are already strictly equal in dignity – and St Peter’s own mature conclusion that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10:34)?

Could it even be that Status Anxiety is at the root of the ongoing reluctance of many priests to engage in fully committed synodal discussion?

On Exodus?

‘We are a people on Exodus,’ said Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry in 2016.5‘Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’ This reminder of the association of the God of Israel, and of Jesus, with ‘redemption’ – i.e. with liberation from enslavement – surely prompts a critical question for faith formation today: From what enslavement is the Gospel offering us – the people of Ireland and the world – liberation today?

‘From the power of evil’ is surely true, but also far too abstract to be helpful. In what visible, real phenomena do we see that power of evil begin to work?

If we find that question baffling, could that be the root of our problem with articulating the ‘Good News’ to younger generations?

That Jesus of Nazareth, though born in poverty, was entirely free of Status Anxiety is a dominant theme of the Gospels. ‘Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God in all honesty, and that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you,’ say those seeking to entrap him in political opposition to Rome (Matt 22:16). ‘Why do you eat with sinners?‘ is another frequent complaint (e.g. Luke 5:30).

‘Why do you worry about what you wear?’ Jesus asks in return (Matt 6:28). Berating the tendency of religious hypocrites to dress up to impress others was he not identifying their Status Anxiety as their core problem? (Matt 23:5)

Before the crisis of the crucifixion the apostles were also clearly trapped in deference to the honour pyramids of their world. ‘An argument also began between them about who should be reckoned the greatest.’ (Luke 22:28) James and John, the sons of Zebedee, looked for a promise of the highest places in Jesus’s future kingdom (Mark 10:35-45) – pointing to what lies at the root of all conflict. Then finally Jesus’ forecast of his own crucifixion – the fate of a rebellious slave – was for Peter an impossible prospect (Matt 16:22). As Jesus’ first lieutenant, how could he himself now escape ultimate social disaster?

So when Peter told Jesus that his crucifixion ‘must not happen’, and Jesus called him ‘Satan’, are we being told to look to Peter’s fear of shame – to his Status Anxiety – as the wellspring of all evil?

Overthrowing the Judgement of the World

Our sense of identity is held captive by the judgements of those we live among.

This for Alain de Botton is the self-imprisoning consequence of Status Anxiety. All seeking of the positive regard of others can follow only from the mistake of attributing to those others the authority to evaluate ourselves. Who can justly claim such authority?

When Jesus asked his critics why they looked only to one another for glory was he not nailing a mistake we all tend to make? When he assured his more attentive listeners that some Galileans recently slaughtered by Pilate were not worse sinners than anyone else was he not revealing that Jews of that time were drawing exactly that conclusion from Roman occupation and brutality – that this was a ‘thumbs down’ from their own God as well? (Luke 13:1-4)

‘Do not judge,’ insisted Jesus. The religious elites of his time, the pharisees and scribes, were inclined to do exactly that. An ability to memorise and deploy any of the 613 laws of Leviticus led naturally to hypocrisy and judgementalism – and therefore also to extreme Status Anxiety on the part of the poor and illiterate. Is not that what it was to be ‘poor in spirit’?

I have overcome the world,’ said Jesus in response to his own impending judgement (John 16:33). Did he not obviously mean that he had overcome the human tendency to internalise the criticism and judgement of others – including those at the summit of the honour pyramids of his own time, in both ‘church’ and state?

Saying this, has he not told us also the purpose of the crucifixion: to subvert our tendency to fear the judgement of others, a tendency that empowers all who are ready to exploit it – from schoolroom and workplace and media trolls to religious charlatans, globalising entrepreneurs, racist agitators and scandal-hungry journalists?

How could Jesus have challenged us to face, and to overcome, in prayer, our own fear of shame if he had not faced that same challenge?

That Jesus’ resurrection was for the first Christians liberation from the fear of being looked down upon, especially by Rome and by their own religious elites, is altogether plain in the detail and conviction of the New Testament texts. What else could St Paul have meant when he wrote of a ‘new creation’? (2 Cor 5:17)

And was not Status Anxiety – this human tendency to doubt our own value as we are – also the original human frailty attributed to Adam and Eve in the Genesis allegory? Do we need seriously to rethink what we mean by original sin?

Lying at the root of all social ambition was it not Status Anxiety that drove Alexander the Great, the Pharaohs and the Caesars? Is it not the wellspring of all modern imperialism, inequality, oppression and conflict – and now of the rampant desire to be media icons?

Deployed now by social media as a core strategy for making digital addicts even of children, is not the fostering of Status Anxiety – via the lottery of ‘going viral’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘influence’ – the most pernicious of global plagues?

Is the Gospel truly irrelevant there, especially for the victims of all ages?

Salvation?

Jesus insisted: ‘whoever sees me sees the one who sent me‘ (John 12:45). Why then is Christianity, and Catholicism – and faith formation – still vexed by the medieval notion that the crucifixion of Jesus was demanded by a heavenly father who needed ‘satisfaction’ for the offence caused to him by sin? Why this attribution to God the Father of the same affliction of Status Anxiety that Adam and Eve – and medieval monarchs – had, when Jesus had no such problem?

The earliest Christians made no such charge. They clearly understood the passion and resurrection of Jesus in a totally different way: as liberation for themselves – by the Father – from fear of judgement and humiliation by the ‘principalities and powers’ of their own time (e.g. Rom 8:38).

Why should we not believe that the challenging and healing of Status Anxiety – essentially fear of shame from the negative judgement of others – was from the beginning the purpose of the Incarnation, the intention of the Trinity? When we say in the Creed that we believe in Jesus as final judge of ‘the living and the dead’ have we ‘relativised’ all other judges?

As for the Eucharist don’t we need to restore its meaning as a celebration of release from fear of the judgementalism of our own time, if we are to be joyfully ‘on Exodus’?

From what do we think we have we been liberated when we say:

‘Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free.’ ?

As for the marginalised and the self-harming and the lonely – all those who are supposedly in need of our ‘mission’ – from what do they need liberation most of all? If we do not already know, why is that?

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, A de Botton, Penguin 2005
  2. See Wikipedia article on Bernardin Gantin
  3. Statement of the Winter 2009 Conference of Bishops in Ireland
  4. Synthesis of the Consultation in Ireland for the Diocesan Stage of the Universal Synod 2021-23
  5. Bishop Donal McKeown welcomes delegates to the European Laity Forum Study Assembly’, June 23, 2016 – Irish Catholic Bishops Conference website.
[This article appeared first in The Furrow (Maynooth) in January 2024.]

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The Gospel as a Takedown of Celebrity

Mind you tell no one anything! said Jesus to the man he had just cured of leprosy in the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark. (Mark 1: 44)

Repeated many times in this Gospel, this warning by Jesus has puzzled commentators for centuries. As Jesus had already begun his public ministry at the river Jordan, and already signed up the earliest apostles for his mission of declaring the Kingdom of God, why did he then repeatedly warn against what our world calls ‘publicity’?

Almost always the explanation given by scripture commentators is that it wasn’t yet time for him to be ‘raised up’ on the cross in Jerusalem, to become celebrated by the sensation of his Resurrection within three days.

It follows that the glorious culmination of the Christian story is almost always misunderstood as a return of the visible individual person, Jesus Christ. Until then, despite the power of the Holy Spirit, it seems we must think there is something profoundly lacking on earth – because the King of Kings is not here, visibly, to take charge.

Many Christians even seem to believe that in the interim the power of evil must be stronger than the power of grace and that the world is headed for some kind of cataclysm in which God the Father finally loses patience and empowers some Christian leader to do what Jesus refused to do: knock all other human heads together to create a single global Christian kingdom, with Jesus then enthroned in Jerusalem as global monarch.

That Jesus must always have wanted to be celebrated in the twenty-first century sense – i.e. to be sometime a single visible personality and a focus of endless fascination for a global TV audience – is a key component of this typical misunderstanding of the Second Coming of the Lord – because of course then, it is supposed, he will indeed reign from some earthly place as King of the World, and even of the Universe.

The Failure of Christian Monarchy

That Jesus might have seen celebrity itself – the making of any living individual human an object of fascination and ‘crowd sensation’ – as hugely problematic and even disastrous – and might have come to warn against it, is not considered. In my own church the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1978 to media stardom was seen for decades as beneficial for the cause of the Gospel. That too has become problematic – in light of the known internal abuses of power by Catholic clergy that John Paul II knew of from at least as early as 1984 – and did too little to resolve1See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/. Thankfully a successor pope has set out from the start of his term of office in 2013 to demystify himself, and to point to the need for ‘walking together’ as equals to renew the church.

To continue to misunderstand the Gospel in this way is to fail to notice what history itself – and especially recent history – reveals about the problem of celebrity and the impossibility of a single global centre of government, or living individual, ever bringing about the kingdom of God. It is also to ignore the power of the Holy Spirit of God to move multiple human beings simultaneously in service to one another – directed not by some living super-person but simply by the needs of their neighbours and the wisdom gifts of the Trinity.

In the coronavirus pandemic of 2019-22 what purpose was served by the cult of celebrity when the direst need of so many was the compassion of their nearest neighbours, and no single global master plan could have made a difference in time? In multiple locations celebrated political individuals failed dismally to lead effectively, and more often became serious obstacles to the resolving of the surrounding crisis. Everywhere the elderly found themselves dependent upon the persons nearest to them – often people they had underestimated, at the very base of the social and economic pyramid.

Celebrity is essentially a mistaken fixation with individuals who become the focus of media attention for as long as it takes disappointment to set in. No wonder we hear so much now of ‘imposter syndrome’ – the latest celebrity’s inevitable fear of being shamed by some very different revelation, in tomorrow’s press.

This ‘take’ on where human history is heading – based upon the assumption that God could have no objection to celebrity as such – ignores everything that has been learned about the dangers of celebrity, and the cult of celebrity, in the global TV era. It also ignores the warning that the Gospel story itself gives us in its dramatic essence: we humans raise people up in expectation of endless sensation, and then, if they disappoint us, to exult in tearing them down. A celebrity is always a person from whom far more is expected than can be delivered – and therefore also a scapegoat in waiting, the person whom everyone will all too often agree to shame and vilify.

The Caesars Were Celebrities

The Caesars – the emperors of Rome – were the greatest celebrities of the ancient world, their power attained and maintained by the most ruthless use of force. Beginning with their founding ‘God’ – Julius Caesar (who envied Alexander the Great) – they were expanding the Roman empire to its greatest extent in the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 BCE – 14 CE) and the first century of the Christian era. It was during the reign of Augustus that Jesus was born, but from 312 CE until our own time Christians have tended also to look to Christian ‘strong men’ to protect the faith and the church – despite endless disappointment.

However, no Christian king in history has come close to realising the kingdom that Jesus spoke of – the Kingdom of God. Just as the story of Julius Caesar reveals the huge danger of murderous jealousy that arises out of the successful ambition of one man, the Gospel reveals the problem of rivalry that arises when any one living individual is identified as ‘it’ by their followers – the jostling for preference and promotion. Commonly called ‘palace rivalry and intrigue’ it happens even in the Vatican, where, above all, we should expect to see strict observance of the Petrine and Catholic principle that ‘God has no favourites’ (Acts 10: 34-48).

Jesus reveals, by his death as well as his verbal teachings, that it was never the intent of the Trinity to reign over us. Instead their kingdom can be realised only within and among us – when we turn to the ever-present source of all truth, wisdom and love.

This kingdom is always both close to us and distant from us – close because the gifts of the Holy Spirit are equally accessible by everyone through mindful prayer; distant because mindful prayer is almost always postponed until every other means of satisfying our needs and desires is exhausted. Too often these desires are unwise, causing greater suffering – and this endless delaying of wisdom is the cause of the sufferings of the least powerful people on the planet.

These futile desires are also, now, the root of a planetary crisis. Utter disaster looms unless we all soon ‘wise up’. The Gospel warns us not to look to celebrity, or to celebrities, to save ourselves. By far the greatest figure in all human history, Jesus of Nazareth is waiting always for our attention to turn to the Good News of the Gospel: the kingdom of God is still on offer, to everyone. We simply need to ‘think again’ about where we are going, and why equality is always a mirage.

From the time of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) the prideful search for celebrity, for the admiration of ‘the world’, has lain at the root of all inequality and violence – including the violation of the Earth itself. That is why Jesus overcame the world by allowing it to crucify him: we are here to love and to serve, not to be objects of envy and fascination. There never was any other way of saving us humans from ourselves – and of saving our world as well.

Only when we have realised the promise of the first Pentecost, that there is to be a second Pentecost – a complete realisation of the power of the Holy Spirit to make us wise – could there be a second visible coming of the Lord. Only then will we be ready, realising that it is the same Lord who has been with us, through the same Holy Spirit, all along.

Notes

  1. See, e.g., https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/shame-john-paul-ii-how-sex-abuse-scandal-stained-his-papacy/

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21st Century ‘Status Anxiety’ is Gospel ‘Worldliness’

Status Anxiety and the Scam Economy’: that’s the title of an opinion article in the New York Times, mid-March 2019. Triggered by the revelation of high-profile cheating in the admissions process to elite US universities such as Harvard and Yale, the article lists a series of such obsessive efforts to acquire or retain status in a ‘highly stratified society’ in just the last two decades.

Central to all of these is an obsessive anxiety over how one is perceived, in line with a principle attributed to Ivanka Trump: “Perception is more important than reality. If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is in fact true.”

Long gone in Ireland are the days when ostentatious fasting or prayer – or climbing Croagh Patrick in bare feet – could have earned social prestige, but that does not mean that the malady that underlies all ‘showing off’ has gone away.  To the extent that we believe that some kind of favourable social feedback is necessary to establish our own importance and dignity we remain forever trapped in Status Anxiety.  Spectacular glamour at the racetrack or the award ceremony and ‘hugging of the altar rails’ belong to different Irish eras but to exactly the same need for social reinforcement of our ‘right to be here’.

This is far from being a problem of only the socially elevated and frivolous. Severe consequences can follow for those who conclude that the social verdict upon themselves must necessarily be negative. In early March 2019 BBC NI reported that on average 28 cases of self-harm present themselves daily at NI hospital casualty departments.  Practices such as self-cutting are closely connected to the power of media to convince us that if our own image is not reflected back to us, or if we are ‘trolled’, we must not deserve to exist. 

Given that so many Irish young people are known to complain that ‘the Mass is not relevant to our lives’ it is now a matter of serious frustration to me that I have never yet heard a homilist point out that the Christian Creed is  essentially a refutation of the authority of all fashionable judgement. It insists that a man who was socially disgraced and obliterated had not only been raised to life by God but made the final arbiter of all ‘success’. The Gospels underline the message: the first shall be last and the one who was rejected would become the cornerstone of God’s kingdom.

This delay in ‘take up’  of the relevance of the Creed is due, of course, to the fact that in living memory Catholic clergy occupied the highest social status in Ireland. While the letters page of ‘The Irish Catholic’ are still  full of indignant resentment of the capture of Irish print and digital media by ‘forces hostile to the church’, how much current clerical despondency is due to the same misperception: that while ‘the church’ is socially reviled it cannot have any future.

That this is a profound mistake is plain from the recent historical record.  Irish Catholic clergy were never closer to disaster than when they themselves were Ireland’s brokers of honour and shame.  Irish anti-clericalism flourishes on a vivid folk memory of the parish priest who had the power to eject an unfortunate woman from her family home and even from the parish, and we will be reminded of all that soon again in the continuing story of the ‘Tuam babies’. 

It is time to recover the full import of Jesus final warning:

‘Listen; the time will come — indeed it has come already — when you are going to be scattered, each going his own way and leaving me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me. I have told you all this so that you may find peace in me. In the world you will have hardship, but be courageous: I have conquered the world.’ (John 16: 32,33)

All inequality and injustice, all motivation towards social ascent for oneself and all social contempt for others arise from the mistake of believing in the authority of the society that envelops us to judge ourselves and others. 

To overcome this problem there is no alternative to the seeking of relationship with a higher authority, one that is timeless and transcendent, one that has ‘no favourites’.

And that is why the development of a habit of continuous prayer is crucial to our own health and the recovery of the church.  We need also a revised understanding of the history of the church. Clerical social elevation – and especially clerical capture of political power – was the root source of Irish societal revulsion toward Christianity.  And the roots of the church’s earlier evangelical spread lay in its earliest indifference towards social contempt.

It is time to understand why Jesus would tell us we are blessed when we are abused.  To be socially reviled is to have no option but to search for another deeper source of self-acceptance.  When we look, seriously, where Jesus looked we find the treasure hidden in the field – and can never again take fashionable judgement – the supposed wisdom of current public opinion – seriously. 

Far from being the end for Irish Catholicism, the secularist seizure of media power in Ireland – the power to award both honour and shame – needs to be seen as a liberation of the Irish Church. It marks a necessary separation of the church from ‘the world’, a separation necessary to the understanding of Jesus’s mission. We cannot find the Father so long as we ‘look to one another for glory’ – and he was never closer to us than he is just now, when we are truly ‘poor in spirit’.

Views: 177

2018: A year of rescue from the belly of the whale?

So impossible is the Bible story of Jonah that we surely must take it as a sacred allegory, a storied metaphor for the many and varied disasters that can transform completely the lives of those who suffer them.  Any of us can get thrown overboard when we least expect it these days – and then find ourselves in an impossible darkness, a place of disorientation and apparent defeat.

So has it been in recent years for all who remember a totally different ‘Catholic Ireland’ – when the church’s future seemed secure, and no shipwreck was on anyone’s horizon. Now we find ourselves both underwater and in the dark, thrown off the deck of a secularising Ireland by those who have decided that we and our faith stand in the way of all ‘progress’.

As if to wave a final goodbye, Patsy McGarry of the Irish Times told us on Nov. 7th, 2017 that our schools had failed to provide Ireland’s commercial and banking elites with the moral backbone to resist the excesses of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

“Would developers have been as reckless had church-run schools been effective? Would bankers have driven the economy over a cliff? Whatever happened that laudable ‘Protestant probity’ once associated with Irish banks?”  These and other questions underlie the growing defection of younger generations from church practice, according to McGarry.

The mention of ‘Protestant probity’ tells us that we are not the only ones to be thrown off the deck:  Christianity itself is to be challenged, and probably all religion –  charged with  moral bankruptcy.

This is, of course, grist to the mill of the Enlightenment’s claim that reason, shorn of Christian faith, can deliver Utopia – and that Catholic schools especially are a barrier to that.  That Ireland’s developers and bankers might in fact have been in thrall to the economic ideology of the Enlightenment (beginning with Adam Smith) rather than to the call of the Christian Gospel did not occur to Patsy McGarry.  ‘It’s all the fault of faith schools’ is the more saleable cry of the moment.

Yet before we all protest this obvious scapegoating of the churches we need to remember  why Jonah had found himself on board that ship to begin with.  Had he not been running away from  the risk of facing Nineveh with its imperfections?

To the same effect, was Catholic social teaching ever advanced with sufficient strength by our clergy and educationists in Ireland – in all schools and parishes – as part of a critique of the social blindness of our rising commercial and political elites?  Similarly,  was ‘worldliness’ ever unpacked as we lauded the effectiveness of our schools in producing ‘successful people’.  Can anyone remember a homily – or a clergy-led parish discussion – on the dangers of measuring ‘success’ in terms of social acclaim, or on the vanity of celebrity-seeking?  Who has heard a sermon on the silliness of supposing that an iPhone X, or even an iPhone XXX – or a Lamborghini – will make us instantly, more worthy?  Are Catholic teenagers even yet being told in school and church that the aim of becoming famous just for the sake of being well known is the very last word in futility?

Following Vatican II, did any parish community anywhere in Ireland experience regular opportunities for critical discussion of the huge changes that came to Ireland then – of the rising power of media to make us ‘lose the run of ourselves’, and of the moral dangers of excess that could come with easier times?

And must we not indeed wonder why Ireland’s political elites – mostly the products of our Catholic schools – are so complacent in the face of the homelessness of so many children, while so many adolescents wait endlessly for attention to their mental health issues, and so many urban families wonder if their incomes will cover their mortgage payments next year?

It could not be a better time to ask such questions, with Ireland set to receive a visit from the Pope in 2018.  In the whale’s belly still – in terms of morale – we have an opportunity this Advent to reflect not only on the problems of the family but on the necessary role of the family in teaching social solidarity, moderation and generosity of spirit.  The decades of denial of adult dialogue that underlies the serious weakness of the Irish Church can now be repaired, beginning in 2018 – if our bishops especially have had enough of the whale’s belly.  Who better than Francis to pull us out?

This is a time for reorientation, and the means for that lie to hand.  Cardinal Kevin Farrell (Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life) assures us that the pope will challenge us to a new era of mission – and not just to mission in Ireland. To begin to consider that is to address the question of what underlies the pursuit of social acclaim through personal aggrandisement – globally. What have we Catholics lost as a result of our demotion by media, other than our complacency and our illusions?  Do we really need to restore those?  Are we now not in the very best position to proclaim that God loves  us even so – and to ask the most searching questions of an Ireland once more in ‘economic recovery mode’?

For example, how wise is it to suppose that if we can accumulate a  million ‘Likes’ on social media, or two million Euro in business, or even a few movie Oscars or a houseful of sporting trophies – we have added anything of real importance to our central ‘being’?  Are all of the ‘games’ that the world now arranges for us not in fact a whirlwind of distraction from the reality that we were always, and will always be, ‘somebodies‘?

That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.
That the value of every human person is sacred from the beginning, and then unchangeable forever, is central to Christianity.  The whale’s belly is merely a ‘wake up’ call to the futility of trying to add value to ourselves – by ‘looking to others for glory’. No message is more needed by an Ireland in thrall to the illusion that we do not already possess the treasure that we seek.

Yes, folks, this is indeed an early plug for Christmas 2017!  Rescued as we soon again will be from the fear that we have been forgotten, we Catholics will be very well placed indeed to ask such questions, and to deliver that message.  We might even be ready to tell Pope Francis  next August exactly what he needs to hear.  Trained well by experience of ‘social trauma’, and woken up to the central ‘good news’ of the Gospel, we can and must become the ‘field hospital’ for the many other casualties of entirely bogus ‘failure’ in Ireland.

It will soon be time for all of us to wake up to rescue from the belly of the whale – to the realisation that we must not look to media – the new brokers of honour and shame – to pass the final verdict on the record of  our church in Ireland.  What matters is our own relationship with the living truth, the Lord who forgives and then restores the soul. There is no such thing as a ‘ruined life’ when the Lord dwells within and among us – so why not wake up fully right away to the challenge of using all of our gifts to restore the dignity of the poorest in our society?  Is this not what our missal texts are telling us these days?

Our Irish church is surely called just now – by the times we are still going through as well as by Pope Francis – to become yet another ‘sign of Jonah’ – proof of the power of the Holy Spirit to ‘make all things new’.

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‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

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Christendom compromised Christianity – and gave birth to Secularism

knight in battle
Christendom – the long era of confusion of the Christian cross with the sword – the symbol of coercive state power

When Archbishop Michael Neary said in November 2014 that we are hearing the ‘death rattle’ of Christendom he was clearly not saying that secularism has defeated the church – as the Irish Catholic mistakenly claimed in its headline of November 13.  (‘Church has ‘lost the battle’ with secularism – archbishop’)

The term ‘secularism’ does not appear at all in the Archbishop’s complete homily. A close reading makes it clear that Dr Neary distinguishes between Christendom and Christianity, that he has not given up on the latter, and that he is therefore not at all as pessimistic as the Irish Catholic’s headline could suggest. He has simply recognised that a long era in the history of the church has come to a close.

Dr Neary describes Christendom as a ‘shared set of assumptions about life and its purpose, reflected in use of language, in culture and in the law’.  These shared assumptions were always formed principally by a close relationship between church and state. This relationship created a social envelope in most of Europe from the fourth century onward – an envelope into which most people were born and from which they gained their understanding of the faith.

This relationship between church and state always severely distorted the church’s message and limited its evangelical impact – giving rise to the very scandals that led to the secularist reaction in the modern era. When the church aligned itself with emperors and kings who had acquired their power by violent competition, its bishops were soon mostly recruited from these very same military-aristocratic elites, and the Gospel message of social humility, peace and welcome for the stranger was necessarily compromised.  The pattern of seeking to ‘convert’ social elites in the expectation that their underclasses would then conform made clergy generally content with mere conformism, not at all the same thing as deep Christian conversion.

The worst scandals of Christendom followed: the persecutions of Jews, ‘witches’, ‘heretics’ and other minorities, the horrific excesses of the Crusades, the churches’ alignment with European global imperialism, and even the corruption of popes and papal courts. From the latter followed the splintering of western Christianity in the 1500s and the inter-Christian religious wars that had alienated so many by the end of the following century. This set the scene for the 18th century reaction historians call the ‘Enlightenment’, the cradle of modern secularism. The ideal of a better world was taken over by democratic political reformers – and this process was consolidated in the later 1700s when Christian hierarchies threw their lot in with the landowning ascendancy from which they themselves had too often been recruited.

And that was when Ireland’s major seminary, Maynooth, came into being – formed in 1795 by an alliance of landowning aristocrats and Catholic bishops who were equally determined to oppose social and political transformation.  Is it any wonder that modern Catholic social teaching never gripped the imaginations of most Irish secular clergy, and has therefore made so little impact on our political culture? Instead our clergy remained predominantly socially and politically conservative – setting the church up for the secularist reaction of recent decades.

It was the Irish church’s consequent blindness to social elitism and snobbery that led to the worst scandals of the present. In the wake of Irish political independence in the last century the dangers of a close relationship between church and state were illustrated in church-run institutions that cruelly abused the most socially disadvantaged women and children – a scandal still being revealed.

The 'Cross of Sacrifice', Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, 1918. What does the image of the sword on the cross convey to you?
The ‘Cross of Sacrifice’, Ypres Reservoir War Cemetery, 1918.  What does the image of the sword on the face of the cross convey to you?

Another effect of Christendom was the unbalancing of Catholic moral theology. Beholden to social elites, clergy too often became blind to the origins of elitism, violence and injustice in the disease of Status Anxiety (what the Gospel calls ‘worldliness’), and in the sin of covetousness – yearning for what the wealthiest have. Clerical attention became diverted instead into a fixation with the minutiae of people’s sexual lives. This imbalance inevitably distorted the theological understanding of many generations of Catholics.

It is clear from the scriptures that the weight of divine anger falls against injustice and lack of social compassion – the specific faults of social elites – but this emphasis was far too often replaced in Catholic preaching and censure by an obsession with sex. The God whom so many now reject is this same sex-obsessed – and non-existent – God.

Given the distorting straitjacket of Christendom it is truly miraculous that Christianity nevertheless survived – in the lives of saints, in the best theology, in the mystical tradition and in the arts. Nevertheless the long alignment of the church with social elites and the state had done so much damage that an anti-religious secularism was inevitable.

So the death of Christendom is not to be lamented. Instead its benefits should be welcomed and even celebrated – as the necessary precondition for the next phase in the history of Irish Christianity.

The very rapid growth of Catholic Christianity in China – under a regime that regards it with the deepest suspicion and refuses relations with the Holy See – proves that the faith can flourish without the church-state relationship characterised by Christendom.  So did the very rapid growth of the church in the Roman empire before it was legalised by Constantine.  Many Chinese Christian intellectuals also trace the decline of the western church to the church-state relationships of Christendom, and fear the corruptive potential of state patronage in China.  We should pay very close attention to that perception.

The 13th century Franciscan movement was essentially a protest against the corruptions of Christendom, so the reign of the first pope to be called Francis is an ideal moment to begin a new era in Ireland.

 

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The Real Root of Inequality?

Blog_the_abyss_of_inequality

“Rising income inequality troubles Americans,” wrote Shamus Khan in the New York Times (Dec 14, 2013). That’s why the paper commissioned a series on the very same issue, calling it “The Great Divide“. What truly seems to wind up Wall Street is the fear that capitalism and the American Dream may even be facing eventual divorce.

For some a dread prospect looms:  that Karl Marx might have been right in predicting that capitalism leads inevitably to such vast income inequality that middle-class markets for ‘fetishised’ commodities actually dry up.

Even as a student in the 1960s I wondered why a society founded on the Enlightenment ideal of social equality had become so vastly unequal in less than two centuries – so this recent American pondering on the same problem was fascinating stuff. So was the prediction of the touring French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the same America as early as 1835: “But men will never establish any equality with which they can be contented”. American discontent, he argued, must be never-ending: based as it is upon the desire to ‘get ahead’ it must always be mostly frustrated by the very same desire in others. In the rural backwaters of the ‘old world’ (Europe) De Tocqueville knew of peasants who were far poorer than most Americans ‘yet their countenances are generally placid and their spirits light‘ – simply because, he argued, they didn’t have that particular American discontent.

102626504-income-inequalityGiven the Enlightenment origins of the science of Psychology, it is remarkable how little attention has been paid by that discipline to the roots of social inequality. ‘Social Dominance Theory’ claims to explain how and why dominant groups maintain themselves – and there are very persuasive theories also on why individuals tend to join groups to begin with. However, as far as I can see from a month’s scanning of research abstracts, there is as yet no overarching psychological theory of today’s out-of-control social inequality that could withstand historical validation also.This might yet emerge, however, from a more closely focused and long-term study of our human need to secure, maintain and enhance our self-esteem. The ‘Self-Uncertainty’ theory of why we tend to join groups is that the latter reduce our tendency to be uncertain in early life about both ourselves and our world. Successfully serving the interests of a dominant group brings positive feedback and acclaim from its other members – reassurance that we have made the right move, a kind of ‘uncertainty damping’.

Making our group’s worldview our own also tends to lessen our uncertainty about everything else. Today’s economically dominant groups must surely flatter their members to an extent that would beggar Croesus, and convince them that they are ‘righter’ than anyone has ever been.

In 2004 the philosopher Alain deBotton put a closer focus on a particular variety of human uncertainty – our uncertainty about our own value. Calling this complaint ‘Status Anxiety’ he argued that it lies at the root of all social snobbery, and even at the root of such modern malaises as depression and addiction. In a supposedly ‘meritocratic’ society those who don’t make it are lacking – by implication – in merit itself – and are therefore denied even the right to value themselves. This makes them far less fortunate than de Tocqueville’s happy peasants, who had no reason to suppose in the 1830s that the aristocrat or bourgeois in the biggest house did not depend primarily – even at table – on the labour of those who lived in the smallest.

The reason this should interest all Christians is that de Botton argues persuasively that what he calls ‘Status Anxiety’ is what the Gospels call worldliness – the very moral challenge that Jesus himself claimed above all to have bested. “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

In expounding the divinity of Jesus, how come Christian preaching and theology has placed so little emphasis upon this claim, emphasising instead Jesus’ celibacy as proof of his freedom from sin? Why exactly is it that Yves Congar’s summary still holds valid: “In the Catholic Church it has often seemed that the sin of the flesh was the only sin, and obedience the only virtue?” Why have I (worshipping in Ireland) never yet heard a homilist unpack worldliness as status-seeking – or indict snobbery either – not even in the wake of revelations of devastating abuse of the poorest in Ireland’s Catholic-run 20th century institutions?

burke_cm3“Which of us is the greatest?” asked even the apostles. The last pope may well have been unshipped by the same fixation among his subordinates. His successor, thankfully, seems to be not only totally free of Status Anxiety but ready to make it a major target. In Evangelii Gaudium (93) Francis zeroes in on Jesus’ indictment of that complaint: “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44)

This opposition of faith and status-seeking surely needs to be carefully studied by those preparing a ‘New Evangelisation’ now – and seeking a sharper focus on the relevance of Christianity to the problems that secularism hasn’t solved. Such eminent spiritual guides as Richard Rohr OFM have been persuasively arguing for years that all of us need to go on a spiritual journey that has no shortcut – not even through intensive religious instruction – to a mature faith. It is because we are uncertain of our value that even religious professionals can be ambitious for religious acclaim from one another – the origin surely of diseases as various as celebrity evangelism, Vatican careerism, clericalism and what we Irish call ‘lay popery’. To all of this Francis gives the title ‘spiritual worldliness’. It is usually only a deep personal crisis of some kind that can – through heartfelt prayer – shake us free of the delusion that our value depends upon what others think of us – facing us with the stark reality that those others tend to have exactly the same unease.

It was surely the clerical Catholic church’s thirteen-century association at its summit with the ‘movers and shakers’ of the secular world that led to its current crisis of credibility – its eye-shutting at status seeking and its sex-fixated moral theology. The threat of ‘aggressive secularism’ will never be faced down by mere intellectual rivalry with it. We all need to become aware of our tendency to contribute to inequality by engaging in any kind of grim competition – and to establish by our own ‘self-dying’ that the roots of modern inequality lie in a problem targeted squarely in the Gospel.

So the Franciscan revolution in Rome is potentially far more than a change of style. It is visibly a return to the most important moral critique of the Christian tradition – the assault on self-promotion. The greatest game afoot now is surely to beat anti-religious secularism, joyfully, to the only solution to the global problem of unsustainable inequality – a deeper, thoroughly actuated, spiritual wisdom.

(16/08/2014)

 

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The crisis in secular society offers an opportunity for the church

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Nov 2011

The recovery of the Catholic church in Ireland will occur just as soon as its leaders realise that they need to share responsibility with lay people for evangelising secular culture.

The summer months of 2011 saw an intensification of the crisis of the Catholic Church in Ireland.  The Cloyne report showed how the powers exercised by Catholic bishops could be used to frustrate even the church’s own child protection guidelines as late as 2008.  Once again, despite the warning provided by previous scandals,  an Irish bishop had totally mishandled this issue – to the detriment of victims of abuse, and to the disgrace of his church.  With other dioceses now undergoing investigation, we wonder how Irish Catholic bishops can ever regain the trust and confidence of their people.

Soon after, something entirely different happened in a neighbouring society.  London, Birmingham and other major British cities were convulsed by terrifying riots that saw wide scale looting and destruction.  In the aftermath over 1,300 rioters were brought before emergency courts – and media commentators agonised over this unexpected event.  Many spoke of the alienation of too many young men from modern society, but none saw any easy solution.   The most honest pundits confessed to total bewilderment.

How would the Irish Catholic church react if similar events were to take place in Irish cities?  There is no precedent for the emergency that would then present itself, and no precedent for the calling together of the Irish faithful to respond to such a secular crisis.  And that encapsulates the problem of the Irish Catholic church today.  With no reason to believe that what happened in Britain could not happen here, our Irish church occupies itself entirely with internal diversionary matters – for example, ‘World Youth Day’ and the Eucharistic Congress scheduled for 2012.

It is a state of affairs that cannot continue.  Sometime soon Ireland will reach a tipping point – a severe and immediate crisis that will precipitate a realisation on the part of church leadership that the division of the church into clerical insiders and non-clerical outsiders simply cannot and must not be maintained.   We are sleepwalking at present on the edge of a cliff, maintaining a model of church that prevents us from doing something basic to the health of every social entity –  communicating with one another over a host of vital issues.

We obviously need to communicate, for example, about the desperation of so many young people, and about the vulnerability of the family – and the role of adult males in mentoring and providing role models for young men.  We need to acknowledge also that the fragile forces that prevent the collapse of any society into chaos are in need of support from every concerned citizen.  We need to talk about the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the vast disillusionment that has overtaken Irish society in recent years.  We need to discuss how we are to counter the dangerous negativity that threatens to overwhelm Irish life, and to replace it with a soundly-based optimism. In a climate of deep cynicism created by so many failures of leadership, we need to restore confidence in the possibility of unselfish public service.

We need to develop together also a deeper understanding of the perils of consumerism and the relevance of the Gospels.  It simply will not do to go on moralising about ‘materialism’ from the pulpit when it is absolutely clear that we humans are entirely uninterested in ‘matter’ for its own sake.  What drives consumerism is the search for social status, the status that is supposedly conferred by possession of advanced technology and expensively ‘styled’ possessions of all kinds.  Churchmen need to become aware that the search for status is a problem they also have – it is actually the root cause of their aloofness, their preference for the company of their peers and their distance from their people.

This ‘Status Anxiety’ is also the trigger for ‘contagious greed’ – the infectious manias that drove, for example, the Irish property bubble, and even, partially, the craze for ‘designer drugs’.  At a more benign level ‘contagious greed’ even maintains the higher consumer spending that economists tell us we need to revitalise the global economy.  We really need an opportunity to discuss all of this – because unbridled contagious greed is also obviously the trigger for looting.

How many Irish priests and bishops are able to connect in their homilies these obvious phenomena of Status Anxiety and infectious greed with Jesus warnings against seeking status and against coveting a neighbour’s possessions?

Is it too dangerous to ‘go there’, perhaps?   Is Status Anxiety also the root problem of the Irish church, the source of clerical aloofness – the basic reason that Catholic clergy – and especially Catholic bishops – are afraid to make open discussion the weekly diet of a church in deep crisis?  Was it also the underlying reason for the cover-up of clerical child abuse? Are clergy basically fearful of losing their status in the church if they lose control?  Is clerical Status Anxiety the root cause of the widespread weakness of preaching at Mass these times?

Preaching would be far stronger also if clergy could confidently assert that it is possible to overcome status anxiet’.  That is in essence what Jesus did – and what Francis of Assisi and every other great saint of the church did.  They lost the fear of descending to the base of society because they were already secure in the love of God.  When secular commentators ponder the nature of ‘strength of character’ we all need to be ready to point out, confidently, the source of the greatest strength. Spirituality is not just for monks – it is the soundest basis of moral character and of civic responsibility.

If the seeking of status is the root source of the growing secular crisis, how is the church to say so if it cannot criticise and dismantle its own status pyramid?  How many humiliations must the church experience before it chooses the path of humility willingly?

It will choose that path soon enough in any case – there will be no alternative.  With austerity set to intensify in Ireland in the months ahead the scene is set for a tipping point that will get us all talking at last – and using the Gospel as a source of salvation.

That cannot happen soon enough, but why do we need to wait?  The relevance of the Gospel to every major problem threatening us is clear enough.  It is only our absurd church structures that prevent us from sharing our understanding of that, and from bringing far better news to a secular society desperately in need of hope.

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Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed out to us to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.

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Of Good and Evil: IV – Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jun 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we mistakenly suppose that it is the better possessions of others that make them seemingly more important than we are. And that if we can acquire those possessions we will magically become just as worthy.

I distinctly remember throwing a shameful tantrum at the age of about ten. Five years earlier I had learned to read well and began to devour print. I became fascinated by my favourite authors and took a strong notion to become a writer myself. I was certain I absolutely needed what I supposed successful writers used: a particular brand of fountain pen. My parents were watching every penny back then – and sensibly refused my request. I sulked for weeks – instead of writing just as well with a pencil.

I was suffering from a complaint that afflicts all of us, contagious desire – desire we acquire from others whom we mistakenly suppose to have greater value and importance than ourselves.

A similar thing happened to St Augustine of Hippo when he was about sixteen. He and some friends became fascinated by the ripe pears visible over the walls of the garden of a wealthy man of their town – and conspired to raid the orchard. Augustine remembered vividly afterwards that once he had stolen the pears he had no real interest in eating them. This disturbed him greatly. He became convinced that his moral lapse was the result of an irrational or ‘disordered’ desire – it made no sense.

He was right, of course. But he never quite put his finger on the cause of this lapse.

It was probably contagious desire, resulting from his mistaken young man’s fantasy of possessing something that symbolised the higher status of the owner of the orchard.

The Financial Crash

In Ireland these days people argue endlessly over the cause of the present global financial and economic crisis, and especially over the Irish version of it. The temptation to point the finger at individuals is overpowering. But the root cause was something we are all afflicted by.

It was contagious desire. The bible calls it covetousness. It can also be called mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics the desire of someone else.

“Do not covet your neighbour’s ox … or his wife … or anything your neighbour owns!” This emphatic warning in the Ten Commandments of the Bible is there because that library of ancient books is centred largely on the afflictions that result from ignoring this warning.

For example, the unjust treatment of Joseph by his brothers, because of their contagious desire for the object that signified his father’s greater favour – his ‘many coloured coat’. Or King David’s disgrace over his desire for Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. Or Absalom’s sad end as a result of his desire for the power and status of his father, King David.

The Bible is not the only ancient religious text to warn of this problem. “Why do we desire what others desire?” asks the Tao Te Ching, the Chinese classic. The unknown author was lamenting the greatest evil to flow from this affliction. When rulers coveted the lands and cities of other rulers, and could deploy armies to acquire them, thousands could die in the wars that followed.

In 2001 there came an early warning of the financial collapse that hit us all in 2009. To maximise their own income from bonuses, executives of the huge US corporation ENRON had dishonestly concealed the increasingly weak position of the firm and published false accounts showing false profits. This led to the collapse of the firm and the ruin of many investors and employees.

Analysing the causes afterwards, the financial wizard Alan Greenspan, head of the US central bank, the ‘Fed’, noticed that individual executives in ENRON had felt compelled to keep pace with one another in claiming these bonuses. He called the phenomenon ‘contagious greed’ – because the word covetousness had long seemed to be old fashioned, and its meaning had been almost lost. At least he had noticed how we ‘catch’ desire from one another.

We saw, and marvelled at, another example of essentially the same thing in Baghdad in 2003 – the looting of most of the priceless treasures from the Iraqi national museum. If we supposed then that we westerners were immune to such behaviour, we now need to think again. Irish bankers who just had to follow risky international lending practices were convinced that if they did not do so they would be seen as incompetent. Contagious desire can lead to a manic rush for treasure out of fear of being left behind and made to look foolish by those leading the charge. Our own greatest national financial treasure – our reputation for integrity and good judgement – has been almost lost in this manic rush.

This fear of being made to look foolish also clearly originates in the fact that we are chronically unsure of our own value.

It is high time we recovered the meaning of the words ‘covet’ and ‘covetousness’. Words such as ‘materialism’ and ‘consumerism’ are weak and misleading by comparison. They merely describe our behaviour without getting to its root and its cause – a desire for the status of another person, who is apparently ‘better’ than ourselves. A multinational cosmetics empire has been built on the assurance that in buying something as trivial as a hair dye its customers can automatically become ‘worth it’.

The Environmental Crisis

It is critically important for us to understand contagious desire and its spiritual root for another reason. It is contagious desire that lies at the root of the world’s environmental crisis. This was proven by the sudden fall in the world price of oil when demand suddenly collapsed in the western economies. Demand is artificially inflated when we become convinced our desires – all of our desires – are needs that must be met. With everyone bidding to surpass everyone else in terms of status, we were on a race to disaster.

The French Jesuit scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, was convinced that the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a crucial part of the story of all life on planet earth. He felt sure that learning what Jesus had to teach was crucial to the survival and protection of all life on earth. He was correct – and we are just beginning to understand why.

Unless we can learn, really learn, that our value does not depend upon the possession of material symbols of status, the near future of the planet will be dominated by environmental decay, the extinction of many living species, internal social conflict, and brutal warfare over increasingly scarce resources.

“See the lilies of the field – they do not toil or spin – yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these!”

“Sell what you have and give to those in need. This will store up treasure for you in heaven! And the purses of heaven have no holes in them. Your treasure will be safe — no thief can steal it and no moth can destroy it. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.”

“Impractical! Impossible!” we tend to cry. “If everyone is to become a pauper who will remain to support us?” We miss the point. Generosity removes the sense of inequality that status-seeking creates. The giver honours the recipient, restoring his sense of his own value and dignity. If everyone is generous everyone is also honoured. The root of all envy, covetousness and violence, is destroyed.

By ‘sell what you have’ Jesus meant ‘sell what you have over’. He made this clear in the instruction: “He that has two coats , let him give to him that has none; and he that has food, let him do likewise.”

At the height of the Irish boom, businessmen who possessed only a share in a helicopter felt inferior – not ‘worth it’ – in the presence of an acquaintance who owned a private jet. That was the craziness of the time. Yet all along both men were equally worthy, as were the mechanics who serviced these machines, and the begging homeless people they sometimes passed in central Dublin.

We can only return to reality when we realise that our value is something gifted us at birth, something that cannot be alienated from us by the entirely superficial differences we create among ourselves.

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