Category Archives: Mindsets

The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

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Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

The Story of the West: IV – The Rise of Capitalism

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Sean O’Conaill © Reality Jan 2007

Until fairly recently, as we have seen, historians have favoured a view of history that praises ancient Greece and Rome, and then extols the modern period beginning about 1450. And they have depicted the period in between – from about 476-1450 – as a period when nothing happened. Very often they associate the supposed stagnation of these ‘Middle Ages’ with the ‘dead hand’ of the Catholic church.

Secularist writers often take this approach because they are committed to a view of history that gives little credit to Christianity for anything. Greek ‘reason’ and the rise of secularism explain everything that is good about the modern world, they suppose. As we have seen, this is a blinkered view that ignores much recent historical research. We now know that the Middle Ages, in comparison to ancient times, were enormously progressive, and were in fact the cradle of the very best features of our own era.

And this applies to economic development also. The unprecedented wealth produced by modern methods of economic management derives historically also from the Middle Ages.

To admire the architecture of the ancient world – of Athens or Rome – is usually to forget that these buildings were the result of extraordinary human misery. Slavery in the ancient world was unimaginably brutal. Slaves mostly worked the land, and it was their produce that went to finance and feed and build the cities, where only the landowning elites lived in anything like luxury. Most people lived in nauseating slums that fostered disease. So focused were the wealthy on the consumption of surplus wealth that there was very little reinvestment, which meant that there was very little economic progress either.

Slavery also meant that there was very little technical development in Ancient Greece and Rome. Why spend money developing water power, for example, when Rome’s wars brought slaves who could provide the power needed for milling or paper-making?

So the fall of the Roman empire was not a global disaster, as was once thought. The collapse in the supply of slaves meant that now for the first time there was an incentive to innovate. Out of this incentive arose, for example, the overshot water wheel – powered by water directed onto the top of the wheel to give added impetus. The padded horse collar was another such medieval development, allowing horses to pull far heavier wagons, and, for the first time, ploughs capable of turning the heavier soils of northern Europe.

These technical developments waited only upon secure conditions for the investment of surplus wealth. We now know that this happened first in Medieval monasteries, not in Protestant Europe after the Reformation of the 1500s. Such monasteries were often enormously productive as a result of centuries of land development. Some became giant complexes in which water power was applied to the making of paper, metal working and the milling of grain.

This fact alone is enough to undermine the old belief that it was the ‘Protestant work ethic’ that began the economic miracle of the modern world. R.H. Tawney argued in 1926 that it was hard-working Protestants, whose pleasure-hating moral code condemned luxurious living, who first amassed the capital necessary for continuous reinvestment in economic enterprises. In fact this had begun to happen many centuries earlier in the monasteries of that supposed enemy of all progress – the Catholic church.

Furthermore, it was the steady development of Catholic theology that allowed this economic development. St Augustine began the reconsideration of ancient taboos against the raising of prices to meet demand by arguing that the monetary value of an article could legitimately relate to whatever a customer would be willing to pay. Later, scholastic theologians in the monasteries and universities of Catholic Europe came to argue that the charging of reasonable interest on loans was also morally acceptable. Banking, a vital source of credit for investment, could not have progressed otherwise.

And this development in Christian theology too was directly related to the growing economic power of medieval monasteries.

It was Catholic theology also that first gave real security to what we now call the ‘entrepreneur’ – the would-be capitalist considering investing his wealth in, say, a mining enterprise or the building of a dam to produce water power. The problem with doing that in a society ruled by landowning aristocrats was that the political power, added to the jealousy, of the ruling classes could all too easily lead to the confiscation of any productive enterprise – without compensation to its founder.

This was why China, for example, fell behind medieval Europe in enterprises like mining. A thriving Chinese metallurgical industry was at one point totally destroyed by state and aristocratic interference.

In medieval Europe, on the other hand, scholastic theologians developed a sophisticated theory of property rights, which gave entrepreneurs unprecedented security when it came to investment. Just as Catholic theology undermined slavery, so did it also create a favourable climate for risk-taking economic enterprises.

For all these reasons it is now recognised by leading economic historians that the ‘Protestant work ethic’ had absolutely nothing to do with the origins of western capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of surplus wealth – for the simple reason that capitalism emerged centuries earlier in the most unlikely setting – medieval Catholic Europe.

And it was Catholic centres of medieval trade in Italy – especially Venice and Genoa – that pioneered modern systems of book-keeping and banking that allowed for sophisticated international trading relationships and business practices to develop. The later development of great Protestant trading nations such as England and Holland owed everything to this earlier economic development in southern and Catholic Europe.

The deepest ignorance continues to prevail, however. In a recent letter to the Irish News a proponent of the cause of secularism as the font of all progress again referred to the Middle Ages as the ‘Dark Ages’ – because they were ages of faith. We now know beyond doubt that this misconception is based entirely upon ignorance and prejudice. When all of Western Europe was wholly Catholic it was also progressive in many ways.

And the central key to all this progress was Christian theology, which was itself always in development. Arguing consistently for the dignity of the individual human being, it fostered a progressive mindset. It brought an end to the slavery of the ancient world. It inspired the setting up of great medieval universities and the development of true science.  It led to modern theories of human rights, and it created the conditions for the unprecedented economic progress of modern times.

Now, of course, Christian theology is on the defensive at the very time that western capitalism and science – unshackled from Christianity – threatens our world with nuclear terror, mass addiction and environmental catastrophe. In two final articles in this series I will argue that Christian theology has yet another contribution to make to the history of our world – the understanding and overcoming of all the major dangers that now threaten the human family.

The Story of the West: I – The Idea of Progress

Views: 56

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006

We all live today in a climate of crisis. For us Catholics there is a particular crisis in our own church in Ireland, in Europe and North America (‘the West’) – raising deep questions about its future in this part of the world.

And our internal Irish and western Catholic crisis is being exploited by those who believe that all religion is a barrier to progress. Only irreligious secularism, they believe – a total focus on the here-and-now and a rejection of any idea of God – has any future.

But secularism now has its own deep crisis. The original secularists of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century never foresaw problems like global warming or global terrorism or mass addiction or the use of automatic weapons by teenagers in schools.

Thoughtful secularists are aware of this crisis of secularism. Perceiving a decline in community values throughout the west they now ask where such values come from, and how they are to be communicated to younger generations. Paradoxically, they often find that Church schools seem to be most effective in this regard. This leads some to look for dialogue and a fruitful relationship with the churches.

This series of articles will argue that a fruitful dialogue can indeed take place between Christianity and secularism. There are key attitudes we share – and one of these is a belief (despite the present crisis) in the possibility of human progress. Because we often understand the term very differently we need urgently to discuss what we mean by ‘progress’ – but to do this fruitfully we need to understand where that idea comes from in the first place.

The story of the West – the societies fringing the North Atlantic – is a story of unprecedented progress – an economic, scientific and technical progress that has precipitated the great global environmental and human crisis of our own time. If we are to deal together with that crisis we need to reach a common understanding of where that idea of progress comes from, and what it must mean for all of us today.

Progress and the Ancient World

We all tend to simplify the past – to bend it into a simple narrative or story that we can carry about in our heads as easily as possible.

Jesus Christ and Christianity are central to that story for us Catholics. Our map of the past will often tend to emphasise the violence and brutality of the ancient world, the goodness of Christ, and the relative peacefulness of Christian Europe before the extraordinary violence of modern times. We will tend to locate the origins of our present world crisis in the decline of Christian faith in recent centuries. Our hope for the future will be very much bound up with our hope for a revival of that faith.

The secularist map of the past will be very different. It will tend to emphasise the importance of reason and science in history. It will tend to credit the ancient Greeks with laying the foundation for a victory of reason and science over faith. It will blame Christianity for the Inquisition and other intolerances of the Middle Ages, and even for the aggressiveness of the Bush administration in Iraq. It will credit the secular ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century with restoring the importance of reason and with advancing the scientific and technological revolutions of our own time. It will place all of its hope for the future in reason and science also.

When John Paul II clashed in his last years with those drawing up a constitution for European Union, he held in his head the Christian map of the history of the West. Those who refused to include any mention of God or Christianity in that constitution had in their heads this second secularist map. These two clashing views of the past couldn’t agree.

But there is nevertheless a core shared idea in both maps, both ‘stories’ of the past – the idea of progress itself. Westerners all tend to believe, or want to believe, that history is going somewhere, not simply repeating itself endlessly.

What Christians need to be aware of is that the more positive aspects of the story of the west do indeed have to do with a victory of reason (however incomplete).

What secularists need to be aware of is that the idea of progress itself did not come from the ancient Greeks, or from any ancient civilisation, but from the people of Jesus – the Jews – and from Jesus himself.

Not even the most advanced of the ancient Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, believed in progress. They held that even though there might be temporary improvement in the technology or prosperity of a society over short periods, everything happened in cycles. Decay would inevitably follow any temporary improvement, and nothing dramatically new or different could ever happen. History was essentially cyclical, not progressive. No ancient Greek predicted the modern world or the scientific and technical revolutions that produced it.

The intelligentsia of Ancient China were more secular than religious, but believed essentially the same thing – that the wisdom of the ancients would never be improved upon. So China never developed a belief in progress, or in a progressive science, until awoken by the West in modern times.

Abraham had an entirely different vision of the future – of his descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven, and of God being with this people throughout their history. Moses and Jesus shared that vision – and it permeates the whole of the Bible.

The idea that history is essentially linear – moving towards a destination – and not cyclical (endlessly repeating itself) – comes from the Judeo-Christian tradition. So does the essentially hopeful element in that worldview – that there can be a ‘New Creation‘. St Paul centred his belief in a ‘New Creation’ upon the redeeming life of Christ.

Christians need to know this because all beliefs we share with secularists are a starting-point for discussion. Our idea of progress must always, of course, be centred on the primacy of our relationship with Christ. We must continue to question a notion of progress that is entirely material and external – focused upon technology and science.

And we should notice something else: many entirely secular people today are now focused upon something that isn’t completely material either: self-improvement. As the crisis of secularism grows, self-improvement literature has almost taken over from Christian literature in our secular bookstores. Books such as The Power of Positive ThinkingThe Road Less Travelled and The Power of Now are often avidly read by the most secularised modern people. The best of this literature can be a pathway away from materialism and into a worldview that Christians can agree with – especially the realisation that wisdom is more important than knowledge.

True, St Augustine would probably say that much of today’s secular self-improvement literature is ‘Pelagian’ – that is, that it exaggerates our power to improve ourselves without God’s grace, which we cannot control or acquire simply by willing it. Christians will never forget their need for relationship with God, from whom all grace flows. We can also take the opportunity to point out that the problem of addiction in modern culture tends to support this point of view.

Addiction is now as pervasive a part of our modern crisis as technology. And the most universally attested method of self-help for every kind of addiction is the ‘Twelve Step’ process. And the first of the twelve steps, the step that every addict is advised to repeat every day – is an acknowledgement of his own inability to control his addiction. The second flows from it: the decision to commit himself to the care and support of a ‘higher power’.

The most strident secularists – apparently committed to driving Christian faith back into the catacombs – seem not to have noticed this. The Twelve Step process, originated by two US Baptists in the 1930s, is the most powerful evidence in the western world today of our deep-seated need to be in relationship with a power outside ourselves – a power that wishes us well, that seeks to enlighten us, and that does not desert us even when we flee from it.

For, co-operating with that power, there is indeed such a thing as progress, and technological progress is part of it. But personal progress must always take priority, and personal progress can only take place in relationship.

And the amassing of material wealth – the origin of today’s environmental and human crisis – is merely another form of addiction. Many honest secularists are recognising this as well.

So, the key to the future lies indeed in clinging to a belief in progress, despite all current difficulties. And the concerns of Christians are now beginning to converge with the concerns of thoughtful secularists – especially the concern to pass on a viable shared sense of values to rising generations.

Progress is therefore indeed a Christian idea – but Christians must not be triumphalist about this, or about anything else. The irony is that in unconsciously adopting Christian ideas, secular culture has often employed them more effectively than the churches themselves. This series of articles will examine this cross-fertilisation of ideas, and outline a possible future based upon the translation of the Christian ideas of redemption and salvation into terminology that secularists will be able to make sense of, without distorting their meaning.

The Story of the West

Views: 21

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2006 – Mar 2007

As secularism advances in Ireland, so does the myth that Catholicism and Christianity had little to do with the success story of Western civilisation.  In this series for readers of Reality I set out to show that from the beginning Catholic Christianity played an essential role in the rise of the West.  I argue also that the present Earth crisis can be overcome only by a fruitful dialogue between secularism and Christianity.

For this series I was indebted to Rodney Stark’s recently published volume Victory of Reason (Random House, 2005) – a lucid synthesis of the argument for the role of Christianity in the rise of the West.  I strongly recommend it as a sourcebook for bibliographical data on all of the historical research that went to support the argument outlined here, and also as a very readable ‘short course’ in Western History.

The Idea of Progress
© Reality, Oct 2006
The hope and expectation that the future will be better than the past emerged out of one ancient tradition only – Judaism and then Christianity.  And the survival of hope for the world now depends upon a fruitful dialogue between Christianity and secularism that will restore a shared sense of values to the West.

Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution
© Reality, Nov 2006
Though Ancient Greece is usually presented as the original source of western science, a key requirement of modern science – systematic experimentation – developed in only one civilisation: Christian Europe.  The cause of this was a key Christian belief:  that God had created a rational universe.

The Origins of Freedom
© Reality, Dec 2006
Is secularism really the original source of the freedoms of western civilisation? This article argues that those origins lie neither in modern secularism nor in ancient Greece, but in the New Testament and the Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages.

The Origins of Capitalism
© Reality, Jan 2007
Did the West’s economic miracle of the past few centuries begin, as was once thought, with the ‘Protestant work ethic’, or did it have a much earlier origin – in the Catholic theology of the Middle Ages?

Earth Crisis
© Reality, Feb 2007
The rise of the West to global dominance has created an intense global crisis. An analysis of this crisis supports the argument that Christianity will again be crucial to the survival of the human community on planet Earth.

Mastering Contagious Desire
© Reality, Mar 2007
From the tragedy of Charles J Haughey to the Enron Disaster and the global environmental crisis – all are linked by a simple human characteristic that was identified long ago in the Bible.  A deeper understanding of covetousness could revolutionise Christian moral perception and meet the global crisis that now faces us.

Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

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Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

How did ‘The West’ – shorthand for the societies fringing the North Atlantic – arrive at global cultural, political and economic dominance in the modern era? Challenged to answer this question in as few words as possible, the average historically literate product of a western university might well produce something like the following:

“Modernity is essentially based upon a preference for reason before religious faith, and the journey towards the dominance of reason began in ancient Greece. Laying the foundations of modern science and of personal and political freedom, this Greek achievement was buried for over a thousand years by the rise of Catholic Christendom in the first Christian millennium. Although these ‘Dark Ages’ were not as dark as was once thought, they were nevertheless a period of relative inertia, characterised by religious faith and political tyranny.

“The recovery of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks in the 1400s led to a cultural Renaissance in western Europe, a period of global exploration by European powers, a Scientific Revolution and a renewed interest in democracy. The Protestant Reformation in the West assisted the victory of science and democracy by weakening the obscurantist power of the Catholic church and enabling the rise of capitalism through the ‘Protestant work ethic’. The Enlightenment of the 1700s prioritised reason above faith and led to the emergence of modern secular democracies, in which capitalism, science, technology and individual freedom finally triumphed.”

The questions raised by such a narrative have so far been eclipsed by its simplicity and rhetorical convenience. Weren’t even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks defenders of slavery and owners of slaves? How did western modernity recover the ancient Greek legacy if it had been so thoroughly buried by Catholic obscurantism in the ‘Dark Ages’? And weren’t the Catholic republics of Genoa and Venice pioneers of capitalism long before the Reformation? Such questions have been asked but have not yet weakened the essential thread of the narrative: Reason, science and freedom – the foundation of all progress – began in ancient Greece, were obscured by Catholic orthodoxy, and could only re-emerge when the Catholic monopoly was overthrown. (The story of Galileo was, of course, the ‘proof text’ of this narrative.)

Rodney Stark’s robust assault upon that essential narrative is all the more intriguing because it comes not from a Catholic apologist but from an agnostic sociologist. In Victory of Reason* he insists that, on the contrary, freedom, reason, science and capitalism – and even the very idea of progress – owed most to the very phenomenon that secular orthodoxy tends to regard as the darkest historical force: the theology of the early Church fathers and the scholastics.

To begin with, he insists, the greatest of the ancient Greeks didn’t even believe in progress. Although Aristotle thought he was living in a ‘Golden Age’, he, and all ancient Greeks, saw history as essentially cyclical, with periods of decay inevitably following every period of advance. He believed, for example, that the technical achievements of his own era would not be bettered in any future era.

And for this very reason, coupled with their lack of belief in a rational unitary deity who had created a rational cosmos, the ancient Greeks did not originate the linkage essential for true science – between theory and research. Aristotle, the ‘great empiricist’, contradicted Alcmaeon’s theory that goats breathed through their ears but does not record any experimental troubling of any goat to prove his point. He believed also that stones of different weights would fall at speeds proportionate to their weights but never tested this by experiment either – for example by dropping stones of two different weights but the same volume from the same high cliff to see if the heavier would indeed reach the ground below before the lighter. It simply never occurred to him to devise repeatable experiments or systematic observations, so he, the most scientific of the ancient Greeks, was never a true scientist.

Rodney Stark contrasts this Greek intellectual pessimism with the attitudes of some of the early Christian fathers, most notably Augustine. From the beginning Christians, like Jews, believed that history was not cyclical but moving forward inexorably in linear fashion towards a future end point. And the fact that Jesus never left a single definitive text like the Quran meant that theologians were free to attempt to discern answers to all the questions he did not resolve, using reason (i.e. logic) as their method.

Of all the great religions, Stark insists, Christianity was alone in believing that reason ruled all things, since they had been created by a reasonable God. “Heaven forbid,” declared Augustine, “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

If reason could discover more about God, it followed that the natural world, created by the same God, should also be rational, full of secrets waiting to be discovered by reason. Far from rejecting theology, the great scientists of the early modern era, such as Newton, saw science as the handmaiden of theology. It was this that led Alfred North Whitehead to declare in 1925 that “The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that there is a secret, a secret that can be unveiled. … It must come from the medieval insistence on the rationality of God.”

Even Bertrand Russell was mystified by the failure of the Chinese to develop science, since the intelligentsia of ancient China had rejected popular religion and theism. The reason, Stark insists, was that for that very reason they never developed a rational theology either. Mystical works like the Tao stressed not a caring creator God of reason but an ineffable essence wrapped in mystery, lacking all personality, desire and intention. The Chinese view of history was also therefore non-progressive. How could there be an attempt to discover what could not exist, since the ancients had known all that was to be known?

And if Greek thought would lead of its own accord to science, why didn’t that happen within Islamic culture, which had also inherited the Greek legacy? The reason again was the lack of systematic theological inquiry within Islam, the conviction that all that needed to be known had already been revealed in the Quran.

It was, uniquely, Christian theology also that led to the western understanding of individual freedom. Whereas Greek tragedy held individuals (Oedipus, for example) to be the necessary victims of circumstances outside their control, Shakespeare’s Hamlet chooses his own fate. Stark traces this shift to the Christian emphasis upon individual responsibility by Jesus himself, an emphasis that continued throughout the Middle Ages.

This also marked a shift in the dignity to be accorded to every individual, without exception. There is simply no equivalent in classical thought to Paul’s insistence that for God there are no distinctions between ‘male and female, slave and free’. On the contrary Plato believed, with Hitler, that there was indeed such a thing as a ‘slavish people’, and both he and Aristotle kept slaves.

This theological emphasis upon the moral equality of individuals, without distinction of gender, class or race, meant that there was always an ambiguity and tension in the continuation of slavery in the late Roman imperial and then the medieval period under baptised Christian rulers. Contrary to some authorities, serfs were not slaves as they were free to marry and their children could not be taken from them, and it was in Christian Europe alone that the institution of slavery gradually became odious. Stark declares emphatically: “Slavery ended in medieval Europe [only] because the church extended its sacraments to all slaves and then managed to impose a ban on the enslavement of Christians (and of Jews).”

The later enslavement of non-Europeans by Christian Europe was, of course, especially odious, but here again the main early impetus for an end to the practice globally came from Christianity alone. Islam could not be in the vanguard of liberty for the simple reason that Muhammad, totally unlike Jesus of Nazareth, was also a slave owner. (And Voltaire, high priest of the Enlightenment, invested the unprecedented profits from his writings in the French slave trade based at Nantes.)

Turning to economic and technological advance, Stark summarises a lot of recent research to explode the myth of the Middle Ages as a period of even relative stagnation. First, it was during this period after the fall of Rome that Europe advanced ahead of the rest of the world in the use of water power. By the thirteenth century paper was being manufactured using overshot water wheels – something that had happened nowhere else until then. Similar innovation occurred in wind power, the shoeing and harnessing of horses, fish-farming, crop rotation, shipbuilding, and, more lamentably, the use of gunpowder in warfare.

In Education the medieval church universities were an advance on anything existing in the ancient world because, far from simply recycling ancient lore, they gained fame by innovation. Moreover they educated far more students, who were taught not simply to study ancient sources but to critique and improve on them. Without them there could not have been a Copernicus, who drew on medieval authorities also for his heliocentric theory. Kepler’s discernment of the elliptical orbits of the planets rested upon centuries of planetary observation. Newton’s reference to the ‘giants’ upon whose shoulders he had stood should no longer be thought to exclude the products of medieval Catholic universities. It was in the late Christian Middle Ages that the systematic linkage of theory and research, the foundation for true science, first occurred.

Turning then to capitalism Stark explodes the notion that Europe had to wait for the ‘Protestant ethic’ to produce the essential characteristic of capitalism – the systematic reinvestment of profits to produce further income. It was Augustine who first taught that the price of an article could legitimately relate to the desire of a potential buyer, and that therefore wickedness was not inherent in commerce. Later theologians further undermined, and eventually overthrew, the ban on usury – the lending of money at interest. It was large medieval monastic institutions that became the first stable capitalist institutions in history – reinvesting in, for example, overshot water power for a variety of enterprises. Subsequently, the Mediterranean Catholic republics of Venice and Genoa developed a more advanced capitalism than had existed anywhere in the world until then.

Essential to this historical process was the Christian concept of moral equality – the true source of the notion of inalienable human rights. It was this, not classical philosophy, that first drew limits to the legitimate power of governments. Whereas China had developed a thriving iron industry at one point in its history, this was undermined by a government and ruling class that had the power to strangle it. Medieval capitalist institutions in Europe usually escaped such a fate because Christian theology protected them – and for no other reason.

‘The Rights of Man’, that cornerstone of modern secular ideology, did not therefore spring new born from John Locke and the Enlightenment, or from ancient Greece, but from a long tradition of Christian theological emphasis upon the moral equality of all humans, beginning with the the Sermon on the Mount.

On a negative note, although Stark takes pains to insist that he uses the word ‘capitalism’ to describe an economic rather than a political and social system, his entirely positive ‘take’ on capitalism, without reference to current issues of global injustice and the environmental crisis, is a little disconcerting. His facile dismissal of liberation theology underestimates its continuing positive impact in societies where a corrupt capitalism is still wreaking havoc.

However, there are so many other good things in this reasonably priced book that it can heartily be recommended to all who have either a basic historical education, or an interest in acquiring one. Every teacher of history in a Catholic institution should acquire a copy. It is an important milestone in the overthrow of that mistaken ‘grand narrative’ of western history that underpins the rhetoric of a rampant and often daftly anti-Catholic secularism.

Indeed ‘The Victory of Reason’ suggests an entirely new historical apologetics founded not upon defending Christendom, or a Christendom model of church, but upon discerning the thread of progressive and optimistic faith in reason that links the best of modernity with the early and medieval church. Voltaire’s 18th century historical schema was a self-regarding story of ancient classical enlightenment obscured by blind Biblical and Catholic faith, but then recovered by his own heroic movement – the modern Enlightenment. It was based upon an entirely ignorant perception of the Middle Ages, but has cast a fog of intellectual odium over the Judeo-Christian tradition for more than two-and-a-half centuries. That fog is, thankfully, beginning to lift – allowing us to see clearly, and to counter, the absurd hubris of an anti-Catholic secularism that is still too often wrapped in the darkest Voltairean self-delusion.

So in due time will, doubtless, the pall that now hovers over the history of the Catholic church in modern Ireland. Catholicism has been, for over fifteen centuries, the essential source of the cultural vitality and distinct identity of most Irish people. Now that we know that Catholic theology is the most important source of all that is best in modernity, we can surely be joyfully modern and Catholic as well. The great tradition of Catholic theologians and philosophers who had more faith in reason than most contemporary philosophers is a far more secure and hopeful foundation than that self-declared and morbid cul-de-sac, postmodernism.

*The Victory of Reason, by Rodney Stark, Random House, New York, 2005.

After Ferns: the Rise of Christian Secularism?

Views: 26

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2006

The Ferns report forces those Catholics who read it to pinch themselves hard at least twice.

The first pinch is for the startling revelation that, in the words of the report itself “bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children”. As I pointed out in an earlier article this is not strictly true – because those children were a vital part of the church. However, if we rewrite this sentence to read “bishops put the clerical governing system of the church before children” this verdict becomes unquestionable – and even more damning.

The second pinch is for the revelation that it is now to the secular state, and secular society, we must look to realise key Catholic values, such as the safety of children, the inviolability of the family, the primacy of truth and the dignity of the unordained.

This second pinch needs to be a really hard one – to make sure we stay awake and absorb all of the consequences. One of these consequences is surely that we must seriously consider the possibility that for lay Catholics – deprived of all direct influence over their church’s clerical governing system – the way forward is to exploit the opportunities provided by secular society for the realisation of our gifts and social vision as lay Catholic Christians.

I don’t know the religious affiliation of Judge Murphy and the other members of the Ferns inquiry team. What I do know is that by acting with diligence and integrity they have done more to vindicate some key Christian and Catholic values than most of our bishops. In particular, acting under an entirely secular remit, they have made our church a safer place for our own Catholic children than it was when our bishops had total and unquestioned control of it.

This raises a most serious question over the conventional wisdom that secularism and Catholicism are incompatible. Two things now seem clear instead. First, our church as currently organised makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Catholic bishops to behave with complete integrity – and therefore to model Christ. Second, Catholic lay people have more freedom to act creatively as Christians in their role as citizens of a secular republic than they do as members of their own church.

This second revelation will take time to sink in. When it does it will make us realise that we are now in an entirely new era in the history of the Irish church. Before Ferns (BF) we were taught to see secularism as a threat to faith. After Ferns (AF) we must see less of a threat than an opportunity in the secular world – to exercise leadership in making our society a safer and happier and more hopeful place for all children, and to rescue the reputation of our church.

That is not to say that the old war between secularist intellectuals and church leaders will come to an end overnight. The secularist tendency to see religion as a threat to freedom will continue, and so will the conservative Catholic clerical tendency to see secularism as a threat to faith. But those secularists who accept that the secular state does not automatically deliver a caring and decent society, and needs to find its values wherever it can, and those Catholics who believe in the timeless validity of Christian values, can engage in a new and fruitful dialogue.

However, this possibility didn’t begin in 2005. The conflict between secularism and faith has been based from the beginning upon some fundamental misconceptions – especially the failure to see that some of secularism’s enduring key values were from the beginning derived from Europe’s Christian heritage.

Throughout the world only three centuries ago the state’s role was still confined to keeping order internally and keeping external threats at bay, by naked force. It wasn’t until the 1700s that a new generation of European thinkers conceived the possibility of building a perfect society by uniting the power of the state with the power of the rational human mind, empowered by Newtonian science. These intellectuals, called in France the philosophes, were the founders of modern secularism, because they saw Christian clerical thought as both elitist and defeatist.

That is, they saw in the doctrines of original sin and Christian salvation after death a pessimistic acceptance of an unjust world order which placed a landowning social elite in permanent control of the world. A legally privileged landed aristocracy dominated the conservative political systems of Europe, while the younger brothers of that aristocracy ran the established churches of Europe. This was the ‘Old Order’ – the Ancien Régime – which needed overthrowing by a rational secular revolution.

This was the beginning of the clash between secularism and religion that still continues today. However, as John Paul II himself remarked in 1980, the key values of the very first secular revolution in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were essentially Christian values.

They were not seen as such in 1789 because the leaders of the established churches of that era were themselves aristocrats who saw their world as the best that was possible, given the sinfulness of our species. Also, secular thinkers who found themselves opposed by Christian clergy, saw Christianity as focused upon the next world rather than upon improving this one. The very first intellectuals to use the term ‘secularism’ were Englishmen who saw the Anglican church as the conservative ally of the Tory politicians who opposed social progress.

The ultimate fall from power of the old landowning classes, and the decline in the political power of the churches, has made that original quarrel obsolete. Once the churches became focused upon issues like poverty and the education of the underclass they effectively became part of the effort to equalise the benefits of modern life – part of the original secularist revolution.

The quarrel continued largely because clergies resented the loss of their role as the dominant thinkers of their societies, and because the secular revolution moved on to espouse new causes like sexual liberation, which have become increasingly problematic. But classical liberals more concerned about economic injustice than the sexual revolution, and Christian intellectuals focused upon social justice rather than maintaining clerical control, have a huge amount in common nowadays.

The Ferns report in Ireland should be a moment of epiphany for Ireland’s Catholic leaders – because it represents a moral victory for the secular principle of achieving accountability by dividing up the powers by which society is governed . It was a free media who began this process by focusing a national spotlight upon victims of clerical child sex abuse. It was an aroused public opinion that then forced an elected government to set up the Ferns inquiry team. And that team was composed of members of Ireland’s secular intelligentsia, including the judiciary. The beneficiaries of this process are the abused children of Catholic families – the disempowered members of the church that failed to deliver justice to them through its own governing system. And that failure clearly had to do with the lack of structures of downward accountability in the church itself.

But even if Ireland’s Catholic bishops learn nothing from these events, the attitudes of Irish lay Catholics will be profoundly affected. They have seen that basic Christian values are not a monopoly of their clergy, and can be better implemented by secular means.

Meanwhile across the Irish sea the leaders of Britain’s ‘New Labour’ secular establishment try to set in motion what they call the ‘respect agenda’ – an end to ‘yobbism’ and ‘neighbours from hell’, to rampant school and workplace bullying, to teenagers spitting in the faces of pensioners, to racial and religious insults. Secularism, it seems, is now casting around for ways of reviving basic community values and respect for the weak – to save us from the appalling consequences of a complete breakdown in civil society.

We may well be closer to the same situation in Ireland than we would wish, and ‘equality of respect’ is too close to ‘equality of dignity’ for us Catholics to miss. The time has come to be fully Catholic in the secular world, without seeking to restore the unquestionable power of clergy.

It is time for Christian secularism – because secularism needs to return to its original aspiration towards a truly just and peaceful world, and because Christianity remains the greatest source of inspiration, wisdom and consolation for all who aim at that goal.

Does Religion Cause Violence?

Views: 65

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2005

Since the horror of 9/11 in 2001, our news has been dominated by acts of terrorism. Now in Iraq we find young American males pitted against young Arab males. The former are often ‘born again’ Christians who believe their God wants them to support the state of Israel and fight a ‘crusade’ against Islamic aggression. Their opponents are usually Islamic fundamentalists who believe that their God wants them to replace western secular culture with a global Islamic state.

In July 2005 this war of terror came uncomfortably close. At least two young Irish people were murdered by bombs in London and Turkey. Those of a secularist mindset in Ireland felt confirmed in their faith. One letter writer to the Irish Times wrote:

“Can there be any doubt the greatest curse afflicting humanity is religion of all denominations?”

Is religion – either Christian or Islamic – the root cause of the horrors of the present moment – and should we all therefore become atheists preaching a total secularism and an end to all religious belief?

Certainly the UK’s National Secular Society thinks so. Throughout its website it refers to Northern Ireland as conclusive proof of the violence caused by religious belief, and advocates the end of state support for church schools. It is committed to pushing religious belief out of the public square. If this programme succeeds, Christian faith will be hidden away in our homes, almost stigmatised.

Catholics in Ireland will need to think hard if they are to meet these arguments, and prevent a further weakening of religious belief here.

They could begin by reflecting on the truth of Northern Ireland violence. It never did have a primarily religious origin. It was, in fact, primarily driven by political ideologies based upon secular values – specifically the ideologies of British imperialism and Irish nationalism.

To prove this it is necessary only to point out that throughout the period 1969-1994 there never was a theological debate between those who took up the gun and the bomb in Northern Ireland. Those who led Unionist and Loyalist reaction against the civil rights movement did so on the grounds that it was a front for an Irish nationalist movement to create a United Ireland. The movement that caused most nationalist violence, the PIRA, never had a religious programme or objective either: its ideology was based upon the supposed inevitability of a thirty-two county Irish Republic.

The fact that Unionism used the Protestant identity of the NI majority as a binding force originated simply in the fact that English political regimes from Henry VIII onward had combined church and state, making the former serve the latter. This was, from the beginning, the exploitation of religious belief for purely secular ends. Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries, for example, purely for dynastic reasons. Their lands would become state property, to be used to buy the support of the British upper classes for the Tudor regime. If you were a ‘good Protestant’ the argument went, you had to be a British political loyalist also – and self-interest delivered the same message.

This meant in Ireland that to be on the contrary an Irish nationalist you should reject not merely the monarch as head of state, but as a religious head also. Irish separatism became politically Catholic – but this never meant that Irish separatists were motivated primarily by any form of Christianity. Their goal was a state defined simply in negative terms: it would be non-British.

Far from being enthusiastically Catholic in any religious sense, PIRA and Sinn Fein were often hostile to a church leadership that from the beginning opposed their campaign of violence. Not even John Paul II in 1979 could make any impression on their commitment to violence in pursuit of an entirely secular goal.

It is ironic, and deeply dishonest, that the prostitution of religion for secular ends in these islands should now be exploited by secularists as a reason for getting rid of religion altogether.

However, to find the best argument against the scapegoating of religion for violence we merely need to remember the record of the most completely secularised political movements of the 20th century – especially Communism. Because they were the most thorough attempt to suppress religious belief altogether, secularists should be able to point to Communist regimes as the pinnacle of human civilisation – oases of peace.

In fact we now know that they were murderous on a scale that defies comprehension. Lenin, the great secularising hero of the Soviet Union, was murderous from the beginning – arguing that richer peasants who opposed the state seizure of their crops should be strung up as an example. His fiendish successor Stalin, decided to murder them all – and was equally brutal with all his political rivals. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was known that at least twenty million people had been murdered under Stalin alone.

And earlier this year the first thorough and independent biography of Mao Zedong – the Chinese Communist hero – reported that he had been at least equally violent. In China too as many as 20 million peasants may have perished as a result of an absurd secular ideology and personality cult of the great leader. To arguments that peasants were dying of famine in unprecedented numbers, Mao once responded that their bones would fertilise the soil.

In North Korea still today, a secular ‘God’ – Kim Jung Il – uses the same appalling terror to maintain his regime. Western secularists turn a completely blind eye. They ignore all the evidence that secularist superheroes have consistently gotten rid of God in order to become Gods themselves.

That was true of Adolf Hitler also. The fact that he had been baptised a Catholic – like most Austrians – is often used to pillory Catholicism. Those who do so always ignore the fact that he rejected the faith he had inherited, and espoused the beliefs of the fanatically anti-Christian German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This thinker insisted that the Christian ethic of service and humility was unworthy of man’s potential for decisive and domineering action. It was this secular ‘superman’ ideology, not any variety of Christianity, that grounded the faith of the worst of all twentieth century mass-murderers.

All violence flows from a simple human flaw – the tendency of our species to be self-regarding and to compete for superiority. From the beginning the core of western religious belief has been a perception of this flaw, and a discernment of a higher value system that could take us beyond violence. That is why vanity and covetousness top the list of sins perceived by western Christianity – just as the Chinese Tao asks ‘why do we desire what others desire’, in a lament over the causes of war.

It is not enough for Christians to make this argument verbally however. It is high time for Christians of all traditions to go beyond verbal Christianity and to combine in reaching out to the more pacific strands and tendencies of moderate Islam.

Already we can discern the background of some of those who killed over fifty people in London in July. Sharing the predicament of young NI Catholics in the 1960s, many young Islamic males are well educated but alienated from British culture by a concealed but pervasive racial bias there. This makes them all-too-easy recruits for Islamist fanatics who want to overthrow western secular culture altogether.

As the former Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out also, people of deep Islamic faith are far less offended by western Christianity than they are by the vulgar sexualisation of much of western secular culture – the ethic of pleasure at all costs, of substance-abuse and seduction.

Like us Christians, they wonder why, if secularism brings peace, there is a horrific escalation in violence among young people in the UK – even in the classroom. Those who have studied this discover a clear pattern – these young people are invariably afflicted with very low self-esteem due to fractured parental relationships, or even abuse within the home. Deprived of proper parenting, and the self-esteem that flows from that, they seek a violent reputation in gang culture instead.

Prioritising the importance of marital fidelity and parental responsibility, the churches have always been a bulwark against family breakdown. The ‘whatever’ sexual ethic of modern secularism is, on the contrary, a very definite source of major youth violence in western society today.

Westernised Muslims can often see this more clearly, but they can also come to appreciate the more positive aspects of western culture. They have in many cases come to appreciate the principle of a separation of church and state, and many Muslim young women in particular are far from convinced of the need for the spreading of Muslim Sharia law across the globe.

It is vitally necessary that all of those committed to peace, and with a deep religious faith, should be talking to one another and combining their efforts to meet the current challenge.

Catholic leaders in Ireland should not be complacent either. Their failure to empower and encourage their lay members in this regard could well reap a tragic fruit in the future, as Ireland’s culture and population becomes more varied. Our national talent for making friendly contact with people of a different culture needs to be harnessed to the cause of making our faith a vibrant force for community harmony.

And secularists who seek to scapegoat religion for violence should re-read Animal Farm, expand their focus, and recognise the pacific core and purpose of all the great faiths. This is no time for the opportunist politics of the latest atrocity.

Facing ‘the Dictatorship of Relativism’

Views: 14

Sean O’Conaill © Reality July/August 2005

Of all the dangers that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw facing the church, relativism was the greatest. Just before his election to the papacy he warned the church’s cardinals, gathered in Rome, about the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. This ‘call to arms’ may well have secured his election.

As Pope Benedict XVI, how will he address that danger? This question has enormous importance for the church.

To understand ‘relativism’ we need to understand that the human family has come through an astonishing expansion of knowledge in the past four centuries – an expansion that is still accelerating.

This has given birth to attitudes that are sceptical of the claims of any religious faith. These attitudes are broadly termed ‘secularism’.

We need to understand also that the movement of human populations has intermingled all the world’s faiths. No large city on earth now has a population that is uniformly of one religious faith.

And this means that any claim by any faith to ‘absolute’ truth – to a truth that must be true for everyone – is potentially explosive.

And this, of course, is what many religions do claim – to have a ‘saving truth’ that is necessary for the salvation of the world. We Christians are so sure that Christ takes us to ‘the Father’ that we believe that, in time, this truth should be shared with, and by, the entire human family.

And we Catholic Christians believe that our church has a ‘fullness’ of Christian truth that obliges us to deny that it has only equal status as truth, with other Christian traditions.

For every convinced religious believer, the truth in which he believes is the only complete or absolute truth – the only truth that is always and everywhere true.

Secular wisdom, on the other hand, insists that to maintain peace in the ‘global village’ no claim to absolute truth can be accepted. Many secularists believe, therefore, that relativism – the belief that all truth claims are only equally valid (and therefore also equally false) – is the only ‘faith’ that can bind a modern society together. This attitude is shared by most of those who govern modern western societies.

And this is what Pope Benedict XVI means by ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Serious problem for the church

There is no doubt that relativism poses a very serious problem for the church. On the one hand we must hold to whatever gives us a unique identity as a ‘faith family’ – for otherwise we will lose both our faith and our identity. We will also allow to perish a body of truth that we have been entrusted with by two millennia of Catholic tradition. This is a huge responsibility and trust.

There is no doubt also that many young educated Catholics are being influenced by relativistic attitudes prevalent in universities – and this must somehow be countered.

But on the other hand we have an obligation to maintain peace and friendship in a modern multi-faith society.

We Catholics have somehow to find a way of passing on a vibrant faith without making that faith a force for intolerance, division and even violence.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many people on both sides of it see no hope of any compromise. Some secularists see all religion as necessarily ‘wrong’ and divisive. So they ‘evangelise’ by claiming that only relativism can save the world – by insisting that all religion is ‘bunk’!

And on the other hand there are many religious believers that see secularism as a threat they must oppose. This attitude drives, especially, Islamic fundamentalism.

In Ireland also, many Catholics feel oppressed by the secularisation of our society in just a few decades. Some look back with nostalgia to a time when our church almost owned the public spaces in our cities – through which Catholic processions often passed on certain feast days.

Now Ireland too is becoming a multi-faith society, while trying to maintain a tradition of welcoming strangers. How are we to remain both confidently Catholic and respectful towards those with radically different beliefs – beliefs that may even include a strong desire to convert all of us from our own faith?

The power of love

Oddly enough, the solution to this huge problem may lie in something Benedict XVI himself said, almost casually, in 1996. Faced with a reporter’s question on the apparently greater power of evil in the modern world he said:

“This is the question that I would ask of God: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who failed?”

He went on:

“But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the non-divine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”

This perception – that our God wishes to rule us without imposing himself upon us – suggests a simple solution to the problem of reconciling adherence to absolute truth with social peace: that while we hold our truth firmly we see its essence as a love that cannot impose itself on others – because love cannot coerce.

That is to say while holding ourselves bound by our own truth, we can simply lose the need for others to share that belief now. Indeed, in communicating our belief that God does not coerce, we pass on a key part of our truth – a truth that can be shared, and can bind the whole human family.

Such a truth – that God has asked us to unite the human family in love and freedom – can be shared with all faiths that prioritise love. And all the great religions do so.

If we prioritise love – as God seems to – we can surely tolerate divergence of faith on other matters – without betraying faith to relativism.

False argument

The great argument of relativism – that it alone can bind a multifaith society together in peace – is false in any case. In all the great cities of the world people of strong religious faith are meeting to discover what they have in common.

And in many cases they are finding that the supreme being they worship prioritises an unconditional love – a love of the stranger, whatever his belief. For Christians, that truth is plainly seen in, for example the parable of the good Samaritan – because for Jews of Jesus’ time the Samaritan was not a Jew.

In this way the global family is setting out on the same pilgrimage that John Paul II began with the leaders of many other faiths in Assisi in 1986. On that pilgrimage we can each describe the God we hope to meet at the end. Disagreeing amicably on the journey, we can all bear witness to the falsehood of the claim that only relativism – the belief that there is no great truth – can unite us in peace.

Differences within the Church

This solution could also guide how our church also deals with divergent view within itself – for example on the issue of the ordination of women and married men. Clearly, the unity of the church requires some kind of unity in the regulations it makes for itself. But does it require also the suppression of those views with which the church leadership may disagree at any given time?

Surely the prioritisation of love within the church would counsel also the toleration of the expression of divergent views?

The opposite view – that it can’t – surely implies some weakness in the arguments for the official view. If it is love that binds the church together also, and love forbids coercion, how can love, and truth, be retained by what amounts to coercion within the church?

As Pope John Paul II’s top theological ‘policeman’, Pope Benedict feared that to give liberty to ‘powerful intellectuals’ was to endanger the faith of ‘simple people’. But simple people have a surprisingly strong grasp of what they believe, and usually also have a quite sceptical attitude towards ‘powerful intellectuals’. Deluged by claims to truth that are obviously false they are learning to sift what they hear.

They will even more readily look to the papacy for direction if it too shows confidence that God’s truth will prevail over all contradiction – by the power of love alone.

And that is what the Vatican II document on religious freedom proclaimed also: that truth conveys itself by virtue of its own truth. It does so, surely, by prioritising, not knowledge propositions – but God’s uncoercive love of us all.

The Dark Materials of Children’s Fiction

Views: 28

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.bridgetothestars.net/

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: X – The Emerging Church

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Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

Nothing could be more obviously needed by the Catholic Church in Ireland than a clearly defined role for lay people – a role in renewing and revitalizing the whole church.

And nothing could be more obviously lacking in our church at present than structures that would require and allow lay people to meet creatively – under the banner of their church – at parish, diocesan and national level – to respond to the current crisis by building a prayerful sense of common purpose and ownership of our own faith.

The fact that four decades after Vatican II the Catholic church in Ireland has a conference of bishops, and a conference of priests, but still no conference of the Catholic laity – is a monument to the inertia of the church’s leadership, to Irish Catholic clericalism and to hierarchical disloyalty to Vatican II.

The fundamental problem of clericalism is that it is obsessed with the status of clergy – an entirely worldly concern. It fears lay people exercising initiative, freely debating the multitude of problems that beset their church and society, and taking action to put them right. It privileges clerical control, so it places a high value on lay docility and passivity and prefers lay people to be in a permanent state of inadequacy and need. Raising lay obedience to the pinnacle of its value system, it trains us for permanent inertia.

“Leave everything always to us!” This is the central message of clericalism. “We will do all your thinking for you, and tell you when and how to respond.”

As a result our church is in deep danger of disappearing altogether when the present generations of clergy pass on – as they are rapidly doing. No adult in Ireland is now unaware that the continuity of the faith is critically challenged. Clericalism is building nothing to replace itself, because it can envisage nothing but a clerically-controlled church.

And lay people are especially disheartened when some of those priests who have sought a reputation for forward thinking have been heard to say to their new and fragile pastoral councils: “What you propose is not going to happen: remember I am the parish priest”.

Yet the conviction behind this series of articles is that already lay people are being called into thought and action – and are laying the foundations of a different kind of church. A deep sense of crisis is calling people into prayer, and the continuing absence of an adequate clerical response to that crisis is forcing lay people out of their inertia. When clerical leadership fails, lay people are clearly themselves called to lead.

This does not mean that we are called to promote and preach new and radical theologies. Our specific task as laity has been already clearly defined by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God. Our current priority is to understand what that means, and to communicate that meaning to one another and to the secular world in which we live.

I am convinced that it means infusing secular space with the values and wisdom of the Gospels – so that no one is abandoned to loneliness, depression, addiction, suicide or neglect. It means understanding why secularism alone is not enough, and why prayer is necessary to human health and development. It means nothing more than making Ireland a truly welcoming, safe and compassionate society.

The ideology of secularism began just two-and-a-half centuries ago, when many intellectuals in western Europe became convinced that religion was the source of most human problems. Under the banner of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ secularism set out to change the world – as though nothing more than a snappy slogan was needed.

This movement had no sooner begun in 1789 than it discovered it needed a guillotine to get rid of its opponents. And then these same secular evangelists began to use the same guillotine on one another. Their outstanding legacy to the world was the word ‘terrorism’

Two-and-a-half centuries later freedom, equality and brotherhood are in as short supply as ever – and terrorism is a global problem. And the Gospels tell us why.

The reason is that whatever slogans we may agree with one another politically, we are all secretly afflicted with a tendency to put ourselves first, by acquiring a superior status. (‘Lord, which of us is the greatest?’).

This is a moral and spiritual, not an intellectual, problem – and it has therefore only a spiritual solution. Every one of us needs to be engaged daily in a struggle with our own selfishness, our own ego.

The most effective means of waging that struggle is to understand that true freedom and self-respect lie in meeting the needs of others – the reason Jesus calls us to serve. If we use our personal gifts merely for personal advancement we miss the joy that lies in using them freely for others.

Many people in Ireland today are discovering exactly that. The search for spirituality – and for answers to problems such as addiction, depression, family breakdown and loneliness – are all leading us in the same direction. We cannot find personal fulfillment as isolated individuals: we are fulfilled only when somehow we are involved in meeting the needs of community.

The search for status – for the admiration of others – the search that underlies excess consumption and workaholism – is the root of most social problems – including the collapse of community. If there is nothing beyond this world (the basic precept of advanced secularism) then every one of us must compete for status with everyone else – by building the largest palace on the outskirts of town, with the most expensive cars in the driveway. Every town in Ireland is now encircled by these ridiculous monuments to human vanity – while community collapses.

And so everyone who lives in such a palace must also become increasingly security-conscious. Soon enough in Ireland the rich will be doing what the rich elsewhere are obliged to do: building high walls and fences around their palaces to defend ourselves against the envy they evoke, permanently protected by closed circuit TV.

It is the search for social status that underlies both social violence and the environmental problem. The iron law that tells us that we must desire what others find desirable is heading the human population rapidly towards social and environmental catastrophe. This iron law is nothing other than the biblical sin of covetousness.

Spirituality – the search for a relationship with the Spirit of Goodness and Truth – leads us on another path: towards personal frugality and an ethic of compassion, generosity and service.

This union of religion and spirituality is the challenge that Vatican II threw down to Ireland and the whole of the church forty years ago. It threatens no-one, and can answer the supreme question that secularism poses: how can we be prosperous and happy as well?

It can meet also the other challenge that Vatican II threw down – to ‘engage with culture’. How are we to avoid absorbing every new cultural wave that rolls in from across the Atlantic or elsewhere? (Some of these now encourage children to engage in sexual activity as soon as they reach puberty.) How are we to define, improve and preserve our own cultural identity, bequeathing solid values to our children?

The answer lies in understanding why we so easily absorb the culture of others. The reason is nothing other than a lack of self-respect – and this too is a deep spiritual problem. To overcome the fear of being different we need to understand that spiritual development offers especially the courage to be different – the courage to be ourselves. For Christians, this is the great gift and programme of the Holy Spirit.

Understanding all of this – and much more – is the wisdom that Ireland now needs. To develop this wisdom lay people need to be meeting together as adult Christians, taking responsibility for the first time.

Too many of our clerical leaders are, so far, afraid to sponsor and encourage this process – because they are still mostly wedded to the strange notion that the Holy Spirit wants clergy to be always in charge.

Their own inertia – and the growing confidence and independence of the Irish laity – is proving something else: that God gives intelligence to everyone, and calls everyone to prayer, so that we can freely spiritualise our own lives, and spiritualise also the secular space we occupy. The many thoughtful responses this series of articles has received from lay people prove exactly that.

So lay people must not feel guilty that they have outgrown the inadequate structures that the clerical church provides the wider church. Growth is the particular business of the Holy Spirit, who is calling us into a new maturity. The decision taken recently by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin that all parishes in his Dublin archdiocese should have parish councils, and his challenge to clerical authoritarianism, are pointing the way forward for clergy in all dioceses.

Our challenge as laity is to humanise and spiritualise a secular world that does not understand the limits of mere secularism. That is our own lay task, our own adventure – and no one is entitled to take it from us. We need no-one’s permission to begin it, as we have always been called to do it – by our baptism and by the Eucharistic liturgy.

For the moment we must use every means and opportunity that secular space provides. In time, as usual, the clerical church will catch up – and belatedly sponsor a process that it cannot, and must not, stop.

Fifteen centuries ago when the faith was new in Ireland, our missionary saints set out to restore Christian values to a world devastated by imperialistic and militaristic values. Now Ireland has been given a different challenge: to put our faith to work to meet the challenge of a fundamentalist secularism that does not understand its own shortcomings, or why the world it has built is headed towards disaster.

We Catholics in Ireland are now called to respond to that challenge, and to teach the world once more. This time we must teach by doing – by helping to build a compassionate, just, free and wise society, using the insight and inspiration that the Gospels provide.

There is probably no town or village in Ireland where some have not already begun.