Category Archives: Status Anxiety

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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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: 197

‘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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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.

Views: 38

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.

Views: 27

Of Good and Evil: III – Vanity and Humility

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  May 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may need constant reassurance from others. We may need to be ‘first’ wherever we go.

One day early in the century before the Christian era two young Roman army officers were passing a small village in conquered Spain.

“What a dump!” said one, in educated Latin, pointing to the village.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome!” said the other.

This second speaker was Gaius Julius Caesar. He eventually became the first man in Rome by becoming one of the most effective mass murderers in history – in the cause of expanding the Roman empire into France, England and Germany. However, to become first in Rome in that era was to invite the deadly envy of other ambitious men. Caesar’s life ended when he became also probably the most famous assassination victim in history, in 44 BC. He was then declared a God by those who set out to avenge him. The name ‘Caesar’ was subsequently given as a title to all Roman emperors.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome.”

“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (John Milton’s Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’)

“Lord, which of us is the greatest?” (the apostles to Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem)

The most dangerous ambitions in history have been driven by a profound mistake, a mistake that now threatens not only the lives of many individuals but the survival of all humanity: the belief that our value depends upon what others think of us. This belief lay at the root of the greatest war in history, because it was the deepest conviction of another conqueror, Adolf Hitler. It lies at the root of much, perhaps most, psychological disturbance. It also drives all those who centre their lives on winning the admiration of others.

It leads to the problem of vanity – pursuit of the admiration of others.

We are so unsure of our own opinion of ourselves that we tend to overvalue the good opinions of others. This is why those who are told they are especially gifted tend to become vain, while those who are never praised, or who suffer too much criticism or bullying, tend to become depressed, or even self-destructive.

And bullying itself arises out of competition for the good opinion of the group, or the classroom, or the workplace. And so does all social hierarchy and injustice. The question ‘which of us is the greatest’ not only started a row among the apostles – it continues to plague the church and all society.

Jesus said: “you must be as little children”. The child has not yet been caught in the net of others’ opinions. Well aware of his own smallness the little child is content simply to explore the wonder of the world. He is unselfconscious – that is, usually unaware that others are conscious of him. His emotions and words are spontaneous, uncalculated. He is content to be loved. He knows nothing, yet, of ambition or admiration.

The human problem really begins at adolescence when we become acutely aware of our own bodies, and therefore of what others think of us. Electronic media have made this problem critical, by making it possible for any individual to become globally admired – or reviled. Conquering the world in Caesar’s time could only be attempted militarily. Nowadays it is the global media that decide who is ‘first’.

Many parents now spend serious money to send their children to ‘X Factor’ talent schools. How many have reflected on what they may be teaching their children? How many such children receive the message: “Your value depends only upon what others think of you!”

If a fifteen year-old girl deeply believes this, and is then rubbished by some shallow talent show judging panel, what conclusion will she come to? It could be: “I am rubbish.”? Such a self-dismissal, following a public humiliation, could be a death sentence.

Nothing is more dangerous than to believe that our value depends upon what others think of us. And nothing is more dangerous nowadays than the technology that increasingly transmits this message into the home – especially if there is no critical counter-message coming from attentive parents.

Such as: “You are made in God’s image!”

As God is the spirit of love, it follows that to be made in God’s image is to be created with the potential for love – that is for respecting everything God has made, including ourselves and all other humans. There is no greater gift or attribute. The beautiful woman who does not have it is uglier than she knows – and this is true of all celebrities.

And this is why the gift of honest love is greater than all flattery or adulation. These latter things are deeply dangerous, because they can lead to arrogance and narcissism.

Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God

Beginning as it did in the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, the life of Jesus of Nazareth had a deep historical significance. Contradicting the conqueror’s conviction that the value of his life depended upon what the Roman world thought of his military prowess, Jesus taught an entirely contrary truth. “Your value depends only on what God thinks of you.”

Recognising especially the oppressed and afflicted of his own time Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. We enter this kingdom when we understand what Zacchaeus understood as soon as Jesus called him down from his tree: that we too are deeply loved by the one who made us, and can never lose that love. This experience in itself heals the deepest sorrow we can suffer: the sorrow of believing ourselves to be of no value.

The spirit of love is also the spirit of humility, which is not at all the same thing as self-abasement. Humility derives from the deep conviction that we are already loved, and so do not need the admiration of others.

Some scripture scholars are baffled by the fact that repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark Jesus tells his followers not to speak of the wonders they have seen him perform. These scholars miss the fact that people can be fascinated by someone for entirely the wrong reason – and that such fascination is deeply dangerous for all concerned. Especially because it can fixate upon something other than the power of love, and entirely miss the most important truth about the kingdom of God: that God’s love is equal for all of us. The search for living ‘icons’ – people of special fascination – is a mistake – just like the flattery offered by Peter to Jesus when he insisted that he must not be crucified.

“This must not happen to you, Lord!”

That was equivalent to saying: “You must be another Caesar – the one who crucifies, not the one who is crucified”.

The world in Jesus’ time was poised between those two tendencies – vanity (or ‘worldliness’) and humility – an equal respect for all. Noticing this in Jesus his enemies said:

“We notice you do not regard the rank of any man. Tell us then, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.”

But Jesus asked:

“Of what benefit is it to you to gain the whole world, if in the process you lose your own soul.”

Our soul is our deepest self, which needs to love and to be loved, not to be admired. Gaining the world is what Caesar gained, the world’s fascination with his military invincibility.

The world is always poised between these two tendencies, because we are all faced always with the choice between vanity and humility, worldliness and love. The peace of the world has always depended upon our choice.

And so, now, does the survival of the human ecosystem.

Views: 30

Of Good and Evil: II – The Human Problem

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Apr 2010

What do the following have in common:

  • the wealthy banker who takes out massive loans from his own bank in order to enrich himself still further – ruining both the bank and his own reputation;
  • the global pop ‘icon’ who is so dissatisfied with his own appearance that he disfigures himself through repeated and unnecessary plastic surgery;
  • the successful professional boxer who incriminates himself by involvement in drug trafficking;
  • the brilliant politician who looks for huge handouts from wealthy business men so that he can afford the lifestyle of an 18th century landowning aristocrat;
  • the farmer who ‘diversifies’ into risky property development – just in time to lose everything in the collapse of the property market;
  • the civil servant who is so afraid to challenge an obviously unjust system of state ‘care’ for impoverished children that he helps to disgrace his country many years later when the horrific scale of the injustice is revealed;
  • the gifted athlete who injects anabolic steroids to win Olympic gold;
  • the brilliant scientist who fakes research results to make a bid for the Nobel prize;
  • the government minister who uses his ministerial expense account to hire a limousine at absurd cost to take him from one airport terminal to another – and is later forced to resign over many other excesses of the same kind?

Long ago St Augustine put his finger on what is constant in our extraordinary human tendency to harm ourselves: our endless dissatisfaction. But what is the root of that dissatisfaction?

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

Almost from birth we humans confuse our needs with our desires – and our desires can become limitless and wholly destructive. This problem is chronic in the sense that we can never say we are wholly immune to it. The best we can ever say, in the contemporary idiom, is that we are ‘in recovery’.

Ireland is currently in recovery from the greatest period of self-indulgence and self-harm in its history – but anxious to believe every rumour of a resumption of economic growth and a return to the times of plenty .

Because we are chronically unsure of our own value as we are.

Brilliantly insightful into the historical problem of evil, St Augustine of Hippo explained this problem in terms of Original Sin – an inherited defect to do with an act of disobedience as soon as the first humans were created. Deeply troubled by his own youthful sexual excesses, Augustine seems to have believed that the first sin – the sin described in the Book of Genesis – was essentially a sexual sin and that all sin is transmitted through sex – and many Christians still focus on sexuality as the central human problem.

But Genesis does not say that, and can be interpreted in an entirely different way. What it tells us is that from the very beginning humans responded to a temptation to disobey God. The temptation was to believe that if they disobeyed they would become ‘as Gods’.

They could not have responded to that temptation unless they had a pre-existing problem – before they ever got around to sex.

They could only have wanted to be ‘as Gods’ if they were already chronically unsure of their own value as mere humans. They were already vulnerable to temptation. This is the root of the problem of being human.

The Problem of Consciousness

Every one of us is given early on the gift of consciousness, of growing awareness of the unpredictable context into which we are born.  Immediately this gift poses a problem: we become aware of our own smallness in comparison to what surrounds and encloses us. Definitely not ‘masters of the universe’ we are faced with the inescapable fact of our own total powerlessness.

Soon enough we become aware also of larger, more powerful beings on whom we are wholly dependent. And soon enough after that we become aware that those beings are aware of us, and very capable of judging and punishing us. If we are fortunate we will experience their unconditional love, but the chances are that this love will be imperfect and conditional: we will be loved best if we ‘behave ourselves’.

There is now conclusive evidence that the more variable and unpredictable the love experienced by a child, the more likely that child will be to suffer extremely from the basic human problem.

Our problem of being chronically unsure of our own value.

Self-consciousness

Every adult has seen the following happen at some stage. A child is playing happily, not conscious of being observed. She seems entranced by a simple toy – maybe as simple as a cardboard box.  She is singing to herself, and throws the box, to see it bounce and tumble.

Then she suddenly becomes aware of us observing her – and everything changes. Fascinated a moment ago by the box, she is now dominated by her awareness of being observed – and starts to show off.  She has become self-conscious.

Everything changes when we become conscious of being observed by others. That fact becomes a dominant fact – the fact that we are ‘under observation’. And especially so at puberty, when ‘how we look’ becomes so important. If we are already unsure of our own value, and not reassured by the praise and admiration of others, our vulnerability grows further.

This unsureness can be vastly increased by the electronic window in the corner – the window into a vastly greater sea of observers, most of whom look very different to ourselves. The TV screen fixates on and tracks ‘personalities’ with gifts and ‘looks’ that are obviously much more fascinating than our own. Some are declared ‘icons’ – uniquely valuable beings. This window never seems to find us here in our own little corner – so we must be of little value.

No wonder that today so many of us have totally lost any sense of our own value – to the extent of becoming easily capable of extreme self-harm through addiction, self-isolation, depression, unnecessary plastic surgery, crime -even suicide. The planet itself is threatened by insatiable human desire.

Because we cannot live happily if we are convinced we are of no value.

If we are fortunate we will know at least one person who is sensitive and attentive to us as a person – and constantly caring. The unselfish love of a parent or aunt or friend or spouse can make a huge difference to our self-esteem. It can help us grow into persons who are less unsure of their own value – and even capable of showing the same loving attention to others. This seems to prove the truth of a saying often repeated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “A person becomes a person through other persons.”

However, there does seem to be always a deficit of love in the world, and a continuing problem of people seeking a sense of their own value, self-harming if they cannot find it, and harming also those who need their attentive love.

We would definitely mostly be lost if there were no power outside ourselves seeking to make up that deficit, no transcendant source of unconditional love that intervenes in human history to convince us of our value, whatever deficit of love we have ourselves experienced.

That source of boundless compassion springs from an understanding of why we are the way we are – the creator’s understanding of the problem of the conscious creature. So that source is infinitely forgiving of our tendency to harm ourselves. It is a mistake to believe that the God-given rules we so often break were intended to trip us up and send us to Hell. They are there to keep us safe.

We are already half way to Hell if we mistakenly suppose ourselves to be unloved and unlovable. And half way to Heaven when we realise our mistake.

Views: 30

Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

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