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Challenging the Murphy Report?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life February 2014

On June 1st 2009 the radar image marking the position of Air France flight 447 over the mid-Atlantic suddenly disappeared, as did 228 human beings. Irish lives too were lost in that tragedy. For over two years its cause was mysterious – because of the difficulty of locating and recovering the plane’s flight recorders from deep ocean water.

Those recorders were retrieved in the end because Air France was able to arrange for a French submarine to scour the bed of the Atlantic over a wide area and over a lengthy period, in search of the unrecovered wreckage of the plane. That meticulous search was finally successful in April 2011, and experts were then able to determine the probable cause of the crash. This had been the icing-over of the plane’s airspeed sensors as it flew through a system of thunderstorms. That alone would have resulted in a loss of instrumentation that would probably have left the pilots not merely disoriented but very likely to misunderstand the situation, and likely then to take actions that would prove disastrous. The discovery of the vulnerability of that aircraft model’s speed sensors was vital in allowing the instrumentation of the Airbus 330 to be made more secure, and in making all air travellers safer.

I particularly noted that determination on the part of a national airline to retain the trust of its passengers because I was trying at the same time to assess the level of interest of our Catholic episcopal magisterium in discovering the answer to another mystery: why its ‘learning curve’ on the issue of clerical abuse of children had failed ever to rise, over many centuries, to the knowledge that this abuse was deeply dangerous to children. Since we know now that the Church Council of Elvira had condemned clergy sexual intimacy with minors in the early fourth century, and know also that St Peter Damien had strongly warned the papacy against retaining these clerical malefactors in ministry in the early eleventh century (for serious moral reasons), it struck me that our church could surely do with a thorough ‘submarine’ study of the history of this malady – to discover exactly why it had not led the world in revealing both the factuality of adult-child sexual abuse and, even more important, its dangers. Why had it still needed to learn this from the secular world in the 1980s?

It was in Nov 2009 – while the remains of Flight 447 were still being sought – that the shock of the Murphy Report on the role of church and state authorities in the handling of abuse in Dublin archdiocese struck Ireland, causing deep anguish to Irish Catholic clergy and people. As a parent who knew some sufferers of clerical sexual abuse I received the Murphy report as a timely vindication of the position they had always taken – that Catholic bishops and their administrative staffs had grievously and unjustly erred in their handling of the issue. I took as a genuine milestone the following excerpt from a statement of the Irish Bishops’ Conference in response to the Murphy Report on Dec 9th 2009:

We are deeply shocked by the scale and depravity of abuse as described in the Report. We are shamed by the extent to which child sexual abuse was covered up in the Archdiocese of Dublin and recognise that this indicates a culture that was widespread in the Church. The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the Church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again. We humbly ask for forgiveness.

Already, of course, beginning in 1994, the Irish church had taken serious steps to make sure that the children of the church should be safer from this crime, and this too was welcome. However, the loss of trust in the episcopal magisterium was still seriously deep and in need of full repair. Why, for example, had it taken the public revelation of the phenomenon of clerical child abuse by Belfast families in 1994 (N.B. not by our bishops or other clergy) – to kick-start the first search for church guidelines for protecting children, when Irish bishops had taken the first steps to protect church finances from damages claims caused by clerical sex abuse as early as 1987?

And why then had it taken a state inquiry to persuade men ordained to be the shepherds and guardians of the Irish Catholic family to admit to a cover up? These questions too suggested the need for a full church-sponsored inquiry into whatever had caused its own inner house, its episcopal magisterium, to fail to prioritise the protection of the Irish Catholic family and to protect the wider church’s trust in the integrity of its leadership – a trust that is surely necessary for the survival of its prestige.

We still do not know the answers to these questions – in the midst of the deepest crisis the Irish church has ever known. This adds to the mystery of the failure of the global church to set out as of yet to discover the full history of this disaster. Why, in short, do Catholic bishops still seem less concerned to restore the trust of their people than a 21st century airliner has shown itself to be in regaining and retaining the trust of its passengers – by uncovering the full story of a disaster, at whatever the cost?

Very surprisingly for me in this context, a recent publication – ‘Untold Story’ by Padraig McCarthy – suggests an entirely different course of action – that Irish bishops might instead consider rebutting altogether the charge of cover-up, as well as the charge that in explaining their failures in Dublin up to 1994 solely in terms of a ‘learning curve’ they were being evasive.

For reasons of health I cannot submit myself to the full rigours that McCarthy has obviously endured in re-examining the full report over the past four years. I am already satisfied, however, that he makes a good case for the occasional fallibility of the report, and especially for the fallibility of its language. That linguistic precision failed at least once with disastrous consequences for the wider clergy of the Dublin diocese. In its account of what was known of clerical child sex abuse among Dublin clergy the following paragraph occurs:

1.24 Some priests were aware that particular instances of abuse had occurred. A few were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye. The cases show that several instances of suspicion were never acted upon until inquiries were made. Some priest witnesses admitted to the Commission that they had heard various reports ‘on the grapevine’.

This paragraph alone suggests that the commission did not review the final draft of the report with a keen enough eye to basic comprehensibility, let alone with an eye to how it might be used by media queuing up to summarise and sensationalise it. As the word ‘some’ can mean a percentage anywhere between one and ninety-nine, what on earth is that word ‘some’ doing in this paragraph – both as the initial word of the very first sentence, and initially again in the last? As to the ‘majority’ who ‘chose to turn a blind eye’, was this a majority of the initial ‘some’ or of the entire cohort of ordained men serving the Dublin diocese over the period in question? The impossibility of making any sense of what a ‘majority’ of ‘some’ might mean, and the media deadlines and competition that advised editors in favour of the easy option, led to media accounts of the report that took by far the most sensational and damning option. The consequent suffering of all Dublin clergy, and of all Catholic clergy must have been intense.

The Murphy commission has been seriously at fault at the very least in not withdrawing and rewriting this paragraph. As it stands it weakens the report’s authority by failing to make any useful sense, and by allowing an interpretation that is argued against by the commission’s own finding that those clergy who knew the details of these abuses of children followed a policy of secrecy.

There is another reason for changing that paragraph. The commission does not ever say clearly what it means by the term ‘cover up’. It is therefore open to readers of the document to interpret ‘chose to turn a blind eye’ as equivalent to ‘cover up’ – and from there to proceed to a conclusion that a majority of Dublin clergy were covering up criminal abuse.

There is another lack of clarity in the report – to do with frequent use of the term ‘learning curve’. McCarthy find this especially damaging because he feels that the commission’s rejection of the explanation given by clergy dealing with the issue – of why they did x when they could have done y (and absolutely never did z!) – i.e. that they were on a ‘learning curve’ – imputes to them a blanket dishonesty.

He quotes the following from the report:

1.14 The volume of revelations of child sexual abuse by clergy over the past 35 years or so has been described by a Church source as a ‘tsunami’ of sexual abuse. He went on to describe the ‘tsunami’ as ‘an earthquake deep beneath the surface hidden from view’. The clear implication of that statement is that the Church, in common with the general public, was somehow taken by surprise by the volume of the revelations. Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation, the commission does not accept the truth of such claims and assertions.

McCarthy goes on to argue as follows:

What the commission is actually saying is this (please pardon my blunt translation):

“Officials of the archdiocese of Dublin and other Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on ‘a learning curve’ in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation over several years, the commission does not believe them. The commission believes that they were repeatedly telling lies. We, the commission, say very clearly that there was no such learning curve. The commission believes that we cannot trust what these people say.”

They make another equally serious charge (again my words):

“These people say that they were on a learning curve – that they

did not have sufficient knowledge and understanding prior to the late 1990s. We do not believe them. We believe that they did have the requisite knowledge to deal effectively with the allegations of child sexual abuse and that they deliberately chose not to do so. They deliberately turned a blind eye and let children and families suffer.”

(Unheard Story p. 39)

McCarthy follows this by proving conclusively that Dublin administrators could not have known in, say, 1980 what they knew by, say 1994.

I can agree that again here the language of this paragraph of the Murphy report can bear the interpretation that McCarthy gives it. However, having read, several times, all of those passages in the Murphy report that speak of a ‘learning curve’ , I believe that McCarthy’s summary is mistaken. I believe that instead the commission was saying something more like the following:

“Your explanation of your actions over a long period in terms of a ‘learning curve’ is in the end incomplete, unconvincing and evasive. It’s true that you did not know in 1980 what you knew by 1994. However, you did know of cases of clerical sexual abuse of children in the 1960s and 1970s, and you knew from then also that these actions were repugnant both to the law of the Irish state and to the laws of the church. You may not have been aware all along of the full consequences of these actions for the long-term health of the children concerned, or of the typical chronic recidivism of paedophiles, but you had no reason whatsoever to believe that such an experience for a child – an experience categorised as a crime by both legal codes – would be harmless. You must therefore have had deep misgivings in returning these men to ministry, misgivings about the possible dangers to other children if these men were to reoffend – as some had already done. In failing for so long to explore options for dealing with offenders that could have involved a civil criminal investigation – and in failing also to explore the full possibilities of canon law for removing offenders from Catholic ministry – we believe that you were not constrained simply by lack of experience and knowledge but by the conviction that these offences must not become a matter of public knowledge.

“The ‘learning curve’ explanation of your conduct for so long is therefore in the end both inadequate and evasive – because you have not admitted that your belief in the need for secrecy to avoid scandal, and not just your lack of knowledge, was at all times what also constrained you in the period before 1994, and you must know that it was.”

I come to this conclusion simply because of the volume of evidence covered by the commission in the report – evidence that was easily sufficient to convince it of the conclusions it reached. The absence of any general warning – at any stage before 1994 – to Irish families that caution over child safety in a church context would be sensible speaks emphatically of a reluctance to admit even that sexual abuse by a priest could ever occur. The uniformity of administrative clerical practice in Dublin archdiocese until 1994 – in never choosing an option that would put the facticity of Catholic clerical sexual abuse into the public domain – speaks to the same conclusion. In that year, 1994, the phenomenon of child sex abuse by some Irish clergy was revealed for the very first time to the Irish public by civil legal court actions initiated by Catholic families – NOT by any Catholic cleric in Dublin or elsewhere. It was only then that the ‘learning curve’ of Dublin diocesan administrators rose to embracing options that they had previously avoided. And it was only then that the Irish magisterium began the search for guidelines for dealing with offenders and for ensuring the protection of the children of the church.

McCarthy’s efforts to interpret every avoidance of any option that would result in public revelation until then as entirely explicable and excusable in terms of the limits of the knowledge they had, and/or of the psychiatric advice they had received, and/or in terms of the unproven effectuality of other options – are in the end unconvincing. I cannot and will not impute to any individual at any stage a primary intent to cover up a crime, but the sheer volume of such incidents and the uniformity of clerical practice in avoiding all options that would have led to public revelation, speaks to a conviction until 1994 on the part of all clergy who dealt with these matters that such public revelation of clerical sexual misconduct must be excluded as an option – whatever else they knew or didn’t know.

The commission’s account of the diocesan use of psychiatric advice speaks to the same conclusion:

1.38 Archbishop Ryan failed to properly investigate complaints, among others, against Fr McNamee, Fr Maguire, Fr Ioannes*, Fr (Name withheld) Septimus* and (Name withheld) . He also ignored the advice given by a psychiatrist in the case of Fr Moore that he should not be placed in a parish setting. Fr Moore was subsequently convicted of a serious sexual assault on a young teenager while working as a parish curate.

1.50 In the case of Fr Payne he (an auxiliary bishop) allowed a psychiatric report which was clearly based on inaccurate information to be relied on by Archbishop Ryan and subsequently by Archbishop Connell (see Chapter 24).

1.71 The Commission is very concerned at the fact that, in some cases, full information was not given to the professionals or the treatment facility about the priest’s history. This inevitably resulted in useless reports. Nevertheless, these reports were sometimes used as an excuse to allow priests back to unsupervised ministry.

This is important because McCarthy makes much use of the failings of psychiatry to justify his conclusions that diocesan officials were indeed on a ‘learning curve’ in their handling of abuse. It’s clear that both psychiatrists and clerical administrators were indeed learning as they went along, but that clergy were also operating within the ‘no publicity’ constraint, even in having recourse to psychiatry. They could never allow themselves to learn that state prosecution could be an option until the secrecy that they themselves had maintained had been exploded.

For much the same reasons I have the same difficulty with McCarthy’s position on the commission’s charges of ‘cover up’. In a chapter dealing with this he writes:

Perhaps the commission interprets as a cover-up the efforts of the diocese to deal with the situation without handing the whole thing over to state authorities, but at the time there was no legal obligation to do this.

I must say that I find this argument, at this late stage, quite staggering. There has been much recent public attention to the problem caused to families if abuse of one family member by another is ignored and not challenged, and general agreement that this kind of cover up is entirely wrong – quite apart from what the law may have to say about that abuse. To ensure the safety of younger family members, the abusive member needs to be confronted and those younger members need to be informed of the danger.

Leaving entirely aside the role of the state in dealing with clerical child abuse, the church too is a family, all of whose members have needed to know – and have had a right to know – of the danger of clerical child sex abuse ever since Irish bishops have known of the problem, and have known also that men who have abused in this way have been, as a matter of policy, sometimes returned to ministry. Keeping the phenomenon of Catholic clerical child abuse entirely to themselves in these circumstances was always a breach of trust, and therefore morally repugnant – completely irrespective of state legal requirements. It was a sin against family.

It is specious to argue in this cause that bishops could not ever have divulged information that could have damaged the reputation of individuals. What they could have done since the knew of the possibility of clerical sex abuse occurring was simply to find a way of warning their people that it could occur. That they never did that speaks also of a church denial of information – i.e. of a cover-up that actively endangered all of the children of the church – especially when, by the early 1980s they were aware of the wider incidence of the problem.

Total exculpations of diocesan clerical administrators also tend to ignore the claims of the magisterium to be a teaching corps – i.e. a corps that could claim to teach the whole church and the wider global society – especially about matters of family. All Catholics could feel justly proud today if their magisterium had faced with fortitude the ordeal of revealing to their people that Catholic clergy could err in this way – before secular society had evolved to the point of forcing them to acknowledge it. “Why didn’t they tell us!” – this is what we lay people all now tend to ask. Our church leaders could have taught and led the world – instead of waiting to become an object of media execration.

That this leadership could have happened in Dublin also is proven by the resignation statement of Bishop Moriarty of Kildare and Leighlin on Dec 24th 2009. (He had earlier served as an auxiliary in Dublin archdiocese.)

It does not serve the truth to overstate my responsibility and authority within the archdiocese. Nor does it serve the truth to overlook the fact that the system of management and communications was seriously flawed. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I accept that, from the time I became an auxiliary bishop, I should have challenged the prevailing culture.

It does not serve the church’s best interests to say its leaders were no more dilatory in facing this problem than the surrounding society, and that it’s leaders should therefore be completely exonerated. If the church is ever to lead anyone, all of its members need to see the necessity, sometimes, of taking risks to effect change. This is especially true for all of those in a position to be especially aware of faults, and of injustice, within the church itself.

I find it interesting to speculate, for example, over the reasons for the deep anger felt by St Peter Damien over what he described as moral corruption of the young by clergy in the early second millennium. Morality is our church’s ‘core business’ – in the deep belief that to be moral is to be deeply happy also. The deep demoralisation experienced by all who suffer abuse suggests that a remoralisation of the church is necessary if we are to address a whole series of problems, from addiction to school and workplace and digital bullying to clinical depression. If we are to do that we need to find a way of talking honestly together about all kinds of abuse, including clerical and family sexual abuse. I don’t believe we can move to that stage if we now set out to roll back the major findings of the Murphy report – including the finding that our ‘learning curve’ was retarded, and not completely unconsciously, by episcopal secrecy – by a cover-up.

In a very real sense the cover-up mentality is not yet completely behind us. How many Irish priests feel strong enough now to initiate a discussion with lay people on this whole issue? And how many of us laity would feel ready to be entirely open about, for example, the issue of family abuse, in such a discussion? We all need to pray hard these days for all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. When will church bells toll to convene us all for the most candid verbal communion?

Thankfully the new papacy has shown signs of a willingness to take risks on behalf of a more open church. I have not lost hope that someday we will know the full story of the church’s unspectacular learning curve on clerical child sexual abuse – over sixteen centuries. We will not finally be able to declare the era of cover up behind us until the church at its summit has commissioned as unremitting an investigation of its tragically slow ‘learning curve’ on clerical child abuse as Air France undertook into the causes of the crashing of Flight 447.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

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.

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Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2005

A ‘paradigm shift’ is a radical discontinuity in the way in which we humans structure our mental picture of reality. Perhaps the most dramatic example was the impact of the new cosmologies of Copernicus, Galileo and Newton upon the late 17th, but more especially the 18th, century. The educated classes of Europe were by then faced with the indisputable reality that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that universal laws of gravitation and motion governed the relationships of all heavenly bodies. Writing about 1730, Alexander Pope declared that before Newton:

Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

But, as this quotation also illustrates, this particular paradigm shift did far more than provide a new cosmology. It created both a new intelligentsia, based upon secular scientific and technical expertise, and a new interpretation of history. Christian theologians and philosophers lost their pre-eminent intellectual status, and ‘salvation’ ceased to be the dominant historical theme. All at once the intellectual life of Europe became focused upon the belief that history was not static or cyclical but linear – moving especially from darkness into light, led not by the churches but by secular science. The possibility of total enlightenment took hold of the educated imagination, and the modern age had arrived.

Since then there has been a succession of lesser intellectual ‘paradigm shifts’. The theory of evolution provided by Darwin in 1859 is one such, and Einstein’s theories of Relativity in the early 20th century another. These revolutionised Biology and Physics respectively. In the course of the same century, Freudian psychology completely changed our perception of human sexuality. The impacts of quantum physics and ‘big bang’ cosmology are ongoing. The process of globalisation, begun by European voyages of exploration in the 1400s, has recently accelerated with the arrival of cheap air travel, globally mobile capital, and the Internet. This process has intermingled all cultures and faiths, laying siege to the certitudes of the past.

However, the optimistic belief of the early Enlightenment that human reason could easily construct a perfect world suffered a series of shattering reverses. These began with ‘The Terror’, the orgy of blood-letting that followed the French Revolution of 1789, giving us the new and still indispensable word ‘terrorism’. Two world wars and the Holocaust had a similar impact in the 20th century. So did the ignominious failure of the Soviet Marxist system in the recent past.

The possibility of total enlightenment has also receded for many intellectuals. ‘Post-modernism’, born to some extent out of disappointment that secular utopianism led more often to hell than to heaven, now insists that we are fundamentally unable to escape from our own subjectivity: all paradigms are purely mental and therefore fictive, so (it is argued) we can never create solid intellectual foundations for our own convictions. All we have is a multiplicity of ‘stories’, no one of them capable of claiming superiority to any other.

The question of what happens to God in all of this is of critical importance for all religions. The notion that our perception of God might also require a ‘paradigm shift’ has alarmed some and enthused others. Among the latter, Anglican Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ fame in the 1960s stands out. Arguing that we can no longer believe in a ‘God out there’ he has influenced many in a search for ‘God within’. Among these in our own time are the Episcopalian Bishop John Spong, who has in turn influenced, among many others, Church of Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman, whose book ‘Saving Christianity’ I reviewed here recently.

Adrian B Smith’s The God Shift* is a continuation of the same theme, but this time by a Catholic priest. Beginning with the observation that many are now abandoning religion and embracing ‘spirituality’ he argues that a number of factors now tend towards a profound shift in the human perception of God. This paragraph is typical:

“It is my contention … that … for too long we have overemphasised the transcendence of God at the expense of appreciating God as immanent. The former causes us to think of God as aloof from creation and ourselves as miserable sinners seeking to placate a father-God or to win the love of a tolerant God. To restore the balance by emphasising more the immanence of God will enable us to appreciate that spark of divine life within all people and cause us to treat the natural world not as a dead, soulless machine existing purely for our use but as a reflection of its creator. The lack of this sense of the Divine within ourselves causes us to lack self-esteem and seek our self-worth instead in our role in society, our possessions, our personal achievements and our sense of superiority over others. Happily, we can recognise in some current trends – the feminist, ecological and human rights movements – a reawakening to the immanence of God.”

He places approaches to Christology within a similar progressive framework, arguing that there has been a shift from ‘Top Down’ to ‘Bottom Up’ approaches, presenting these as contrasting syllogisms:

Christology from above:

God is like this and this.
Jesus is God.
Therefore Jesus is like this and this.

Christology from below:

Jesus is like this and this.
Jesus is the icon of God.
Therefore God is like this and this.

For someone like myself, not well grounded in theology, but strongly inclined towards a Christology from below, this sort of thing is interesting and useful. So is the account of the new physics, in which the conceptual frontiers between matter and energy tend to dissipate. That matter appears to be – to put it crudely – compressed energy – or rather energy behaving in a remarkable way to provide the visible world with its apparently stable atoms and molecules – is a profound shock to a simplistic perception of reality. So is the revelation that it is the relationships between sub-atomic particles that provide this stability, not the particles themselves. Matter is not a hard and simple reality but a profound mystery in itself.

Similarly, the book’s account of the emergence of ecology, establishing the interconnectedness of all life, is useful. So is the summary of the collision between the world’s great religions and the discernment that all speak of love as the highest virtue.

I was particularly struck also by the author’s perception that human hierarchies are a barrier to spiritual development, and that Jesus of Nazareth clearly lived within a non-hierarchical spiritual paradigm. This I believe to be profoundly true, and the root source of the attraction to Jesus that we find in the humblest people. It is true also that people grow and learn far more easily in a non-hierarchical context, and that this realisation appears to be a significant feature of our era.

However, does all of this mean that we humans are undergoing some kind of rapid and beneficent species evolution, an evolution in consciousness? One gathers as much from the following:

“The development of our consciousness is precisely what is new. The leap we took out of the mythical Eden from subconsciousness to self-consciousness is now being followed by a further leap to super-consciousness. We are evolving from a physical to a metaphysical vision of reality. From viewing our world as purely physical, as scientists and western religions have done, we are beginning to appreciate the presence of consciousness in all matter. The “Gaia Hypothesis” of James Lovelock that planet Earth is a single, living, self-regulating organism – is witness to this. We are moving beyond the limitations of our rational minds, beyond what we learn through our five senses, beyond the boundaries of space and time, to the exploration of inner, deeper realms. We are stretching the boundaries of our consciousness. It is at this point in our history that we are moving beyond our physical potential to explore our spiritual potential.”

In the week I first read this paragraph I learned also that suicide bombers had taken a further toll in Iraq; that two teenagers in every classroom in these islands may be self-harming due to loss of self-esteem; that a fifteen-year-old had taken her own life in Belfast, following the suicide of her boyfriend – which had in turn been caused by the killing of his sister in a ‘hit-and-run’ accident; that Arab militias in Darfur were still burning African Sudanese alive – and that the consumption of fossil fuels had reached levels that OPEC could not meet due to problems caused in the Soviet Union by a struggle for power between the industrial oligarchs and President Putin.

Most Russian young people (we learned in the same week) admire those same moneyed oligarchs almost as much as rock stars, despite their virtually certain involvement in the murder of at least fifteen journalists in Russia since 2000 – journalists who have had the temerity to investigate their links with political corruption and organised crime.

Meanwhile the world’s most powerful republic was focused upon a different struggle for power between two highly moneyed patricians – a struggle that seemed oblivious to the environmental catastrophe that is already making densely populated but low-lying portions of the earth’s surface uninhabitable (e.g. the Maldives). This was confirmed by news from Greenland in the previous week that the arctic ice sheet is diminishing at an unprecedented rate.

And the news that many millions in China now aspire to an SUV (the ubiquitous, ridiculous, dangerous and environmentally indefensible ‘off road’ vehicle now preferred for ferrying children everywhere) was hardly cause for celebration either.

So who exactly, I wondered, are the ‘we’ who have leapt to ‘super-consciousness’? Clearly it is not a majority of the human population. And if it is only a small minority of intellectuals, is the ‘we’ justified in anything other than self-congratulatory terms? Is it anything more than a repetition of the New Age rhetorical claim to era-superiority that we have been hearing, without any real justification, for decades?

Certainly it is possible for individual humans to develop greater insight and maturity – and a deep sense of God within – over a lifetime – but this has been happening to individuals for thousands of years. What characterised all of them was a realisation of the futility of most human desires, and a valuing of simplicity. Three distinctive marks of our age are, on the contrary, an elevation of desire itself to the status of supreme cultural and economic good, an infatuation with consumption and novelty, and an increasing violence.

I say this not because I am out of sympathy with my own era, and stuck in some mistakenly idealised past, but because I cannot ignore the fact that the data I receive from news streams daily is presenting me with an almost total contradiction to Adrian Smith’s optimistic claims. Humans in the aggregate are as far as ever from the super-consciousness that he claims to be the distinctive feature of the age. The pressure of an extremely doubtful future may be forcing increasing numbers to seek a deeper spirituality – but this has happened often in the past and simply cannot justify a claim that ‘we’ (i.e. the race) are undergoing some kind of evolutionary shift into ‘super-consciousness’.

Although ‘The God Shift’ is therefore a useful overview of some encouraging scientific and cultural developments, as well as a highly readable example of its genre, it is lamentably superficial in its understanding of the weaknesses that still afflict us. For example, the author admits that he doesn’t understand why humans build hierarchies – wondering, without much conviction, if these might originate in the need to overcome gravity!

This is especially telling in the context of his conviction that the human arrival at self-consciousness, as recorded in Genesis, was an unalloyed good. It was indeed an evolutionary event of enormous importance – and inseparable from our human nature – but it had profoundly problematic consequences. Self-consciousness involves a critical awareness that others are conscious of us – and it is only then that we develop a dangerous desire to be highly-regarded. That is precisely why the self-conscious teen female is often currently aspiring to a breast implant.

That kind of self-regarding desire explains everything from conspicuous consumption to personality cults to mimetic rivalry, celebrity, power-seeking and violence – and human hierarchy arises easily out of all of these. Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced, of course, ‘Bouquet’) illustrates the point weekly on pop TV: it is precisely because she is self-conscious that she wishes to collect prestige china and rub shoulders with England’s aristocracy. Tony Blair’s meritocratic makeover of the British Labour party bears a similar explanation. (There is no more self-conscious politician on the planet.)

For the same reason, self-consciousness explains the spiritual problem identified by Thomas Merton as the construction of the ‘false self’ – the problem identified by Jesus as hypocrisy. The original hypocrite was just a Greek actor, who, significantly, wore a mask. Modern culture provides an unprecedented variety of masks designed to flatter the wearer, and some of these are fashioned by a New Age ideology that has yet to recognise that human culture is still grounded not in super-consciousness but in mindless and deeply destructive imitation of one another.

It is self-consciousness also that explains the individual’s fear of opposing the crowd, and thus the mindlessness and danger of the crowd itself – and mob-violence, and, incidentally, the crucifixion.

It is remarkable that the ‘super-consciousness’ claimed in this book does not include an understanding of the connections between human self-consciousness, human vanity, human hierarchy, human hypocrisy and human violence. Especially when some of the available literature so well explains all of this.

Scanning the reading lists that followed each chapter of this book I noticed a very striking absence of any reference to the work done on mimetic desire and violence by the Girard school. As this is profoundly illuminative of the Gospel texts, as well as modern consumerist culture, and as Girard has been publishing since the 1970s, I am at a loss to understand it – especially because Girard’s work provides every reason for optimism in the project of making a non-fundamentalist Christianity relevant to post-modernity.

The gathering human crisis will soon oblige people to grow rapidly in spiritual wisdom if the species is not to destroy itself in competition for declining fossil fuel resources. The message that they have already reached ‘super-consciousness’ is, like the first reports of Mark Twain’s death, premature. It is also strikingly similar to the flattery that this year’s presidential contenders feel obliged to heap upon ‘the great American people’.

And it is therefore, like all flattery, a profound mistake. Every one of us does indeed need to ‘evolve’ – but we must all begin with a radical honesty about our current temptations and failings. These are essentially identical to the spiritual shortcomings of our species from the beginning. Nothing could be more spiritually dangerous for an intellectual today than the conviction that he, or she, has become ‘super-conscious’. The correct name for this notion is spiritual inflation.

Other paradigm shifts notwithstanding, so long as vanity remains a human constant, we humans will remain trapped in that paradigm, and in the negative consequences of self-consciousness. Our cosmologies may change, but we will show-off nevertheless (perhaps with a lecture on cosmology). Vanity in 2004 is as pervasive as the SUV, the plasma-screen TV and the cosmetics industry, and global terrorism is born of frustrated envy of those who can afford all of these.

Super-consciousness, when it arrives, will be conscious of that to begin with.

*The God Shift: Our Changing Perception of the Ultimate Mystery, Adrian B Smith, Liffey Press, Dublin 2004

Views: 28

The Dark Materials of Children’s Fiction

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/

Views: 10

Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life April 2004

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value,” observes Alain deBotton, author of an unfashionably lucid recent work of philosophy entitled Status Anxiety  1Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004. This affliction compels us to seek the attention and admiration of others – a quest virtually guaranteed failure since so many are now seeking the same from us.

Having reached much the same conclusion about the deepest human problem in a reflection on the history of Christianity published in 19992Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999, I was intrigued especially by deBotton’s account of the role of Christianity in ameliorating Status Anxiety down the centuries. This account is not as detailed or complete as one would wish, but his conclusions are provocative and potentially fertile for others who might wish to take up the theme.

To begin with, he brackets Jesus with Socrates as an outstanding example of indifference to the opinion of others, and understands the Gospel concept of ‘worldliness’ as virtually identical to Status Anxiety – quite correctly in my view. He also correctly credits the Churches with insisting upon the equality of all in the sight of God. However, he goes on to insist that Christianity for most of its history did not seriously challenge, even philosophically, the worldly status pyramids outside the sacred spaces of cloister, chapel and cathedral.

He points out that St Augustine’s ‘two cities’ model of history did not allow for the defeat of the worldly, and therefore status-ridden, earthly city by the Church (the City of God) before the day of judgement. Though Christendom could affirm the dignity of the peasant ploughman – for example through the corporatist social model of John of Salisbury – (for whom rulers supplied the mind and peasantry the feet of society) – it has been less effective in ameliorating the impact of meritocratic ideas upon those of low status in a modern society. So much for the penetration of Catholic social teaching, and of Vatican II, into deBotton’s consciousness – but this is significant in its own way.

Meritocracy has, deBotton insists, increased rather than reduced Status Anxiety. In medieval society ‘the poor’ tended to think of their work as useful, of their lot as inevitable, and of their status as both acceptable and none of their own fault. However, the eighteenth century changed all of that. In came the ‘new story’ of Adam Smith – that it was the entrepreneurial spirit that not only produced most wealth, but made wealth potentially limitless. Social Darwinism – the theory that ‘success’ was proof of a genetic and even moral superiority – followed in the nineteenth century. This was countered for a time by ideological socialism, but the recent victory of laissez faire economics and liberal democracy has consolidated the status of a new aristocracy rooted in ceaseless energy, shrewd investment and entrepreneurial cleverness. The seemingly absolute and final ascendancy of a so-called meritocracy implies that the unsuccessful are without any merit – a supremely dispiriting conclusion for them at least.

The most entertaining part of the book is a robust treatment of snobbery, a term that may have originated in the 1820s with the use of ‘s. nob.’ to abbreviate ‘sine nobilitate’, inscribed opposite the names of non-aristocrats in Oxford and Cambridge examination lists. The snob is forever fearful of being considered insignificant through association with the common herd. A Punch cartoon of 1892 (reproduced in deBotton’s book) captures the problem precisely by observing a trio of stately London ladies parading through a park. One of these is looking after another similar trio that has just passed by. She says:

“There go the Spicer Wilcoxes, Mamma. I’m told they’re dying to know us. Hadn’t we better call?”
“Certainly not, Dear!” Mamma replies. “If they’re dying to know us they’re not worth knowing.  The only people worth Our knowing are the people who don’t want to know Us!”

When we recall that the person at the summit of that Victorian status pyramid was a monarch distinguished only by her longevity (and at one stage ironically hailed as ‘Mrs Brown’ by the London mob for her attachment to a Scottish manservant) we have even more reason to laugh at the follies of snobbery.

Snobbery and Status Anxiety are, of course, one and the same. Television situation comedy has exploited a rich vein here in recent years in the UK – in series such as Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Keeping up Appearances. The belief that advantages such as wealth and education – and country houses and exclusive china – make people somehow ‘better’, more worthy of respect, is, seemingly, a universal and timeless illusion.

That Christian thought and instruction should ceaselessly puncture snobbish pretensions is clear, but the fact is that the mainstream churches have never made a serious direct assault upon snobbery since Constantine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon on the subject – although I have been bored to tears all my life by the theme of ‘materialism’. As people acquire expensive property and luxury goods for reasons of status, never for their material composition, that complaint has always missed the mark.

Here in Ireland this failure to indict snobbery from the pulpit and the schoolroom has been especially destructive of the moral persuasiveness of Catholicism in a society aspiring to equality. It has allowed middle class prigs to dominate, and even to characterise, the public face of the church, while the inhabitants of our inner cities now tend to see Catholic bishops as snobbery in purple – simply because they almost always behave as remote grandees rather than accessible and socially relaxed pastors. Bishops generally have been delegating to others the virtue of humility since the fourth century – and this has now become the outstanding scandal in the Church, the root source of its alienation of egalitarian societies.

The part played by Irish Catholic snobbery in the maltreatment of those at the base of the secular period – too often by those at the base of the clerical pyramid – in mid twentieth century Ireland is something that surely needs to be explored in the context of the scandal of child abuse in Ireland. Status pyramids always deprive those at their base of a sense of their own dignity, and brutality is an almost inevitable consequence.

We need to re-evaluate also the devotion by the Irish church of so much educational capital to the children of the middle classes. The assumption that this investment would guarantee the fidelity of the Irish meritocracy to the values and truths of Catholicism was clearly sadly mistaken. There is now not a single national news medium in Ireland that can be said to be sympathetic to and supportive of the church – proof that its efforts on behalf of the middle classes are now interpreted as part of a right wing political agenda rather than as an example of social concern.

And in the context of the growing problem of bullying in our schools, and the self-hatred and self-harming that can follow, the failure of Irish Catholic education to make any explicit connection between social derision and the Gospel account of the crucifixion must be regarded as another disastrous failing.

All of this casts an interesting light upon deBotton’s analysis of the historical failure of the mainstream churches to tackle the spiritual challenge of snobbery in society at large. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that snobbery has become deeply embedded in the church itself.

Just as the secular world is now full of wine, food and all kinds of consumer snobbery, so do we find in the church the liturgy and sacred music snobs who just cannot abide the typical novus ordo mass or folk music hymns. There are even fashions for styles of meditation, for theologians and philosophers – and even ‘spiritualities’ – but little intellectual attention to fashion itself. The awarding of ‘papal knighthoods’ – even to globally notorious pornographers – speaks for itself – as does the English Catholic Herald’s obsession with eulogising supposedly high status converts to Catholicism such as Alec Guinness and Ann Widdecombe. Opus Dei’s recruitment priorities and social attitudes are snobbery incarnate. (It never fails to remind us of its founder’s alleged noblesse.)

Meanwhile we are urged by hierarchs to ‘engage with culture’ – without reflecting upon the very essence of culture itself – its mimetic character. That is what fashion and culture essentially are – the mimesis or imitation of the behaviour of those who have somehow acquired status. No Catholic bishop to my knowledge has yet connected the careerism of bishops – the subject of Cardinal Gantin’s astonishingly frank post-retirement outburst in 1999 – with status seeking in the secular world. This does not bode well for an effective ‘engagement’ by Irish bishops generally with the culture of meritocratic Ireland.

And this means that there is also scant hope at this stage for an effective national response to the challenge of ‘new evangelisation’. True evangelisation elicits an awakening from the mimetic compulsion to seek status and celebrity, an awakening to the good news that one is lovable for oneself and so can be both autonomous and spontaneous. Those who would propose to lead a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland would need to be sure they have experienced this themselves.

DeBotton reminds us poignantly of one of Tolstoy’s greatest characters – Ivan Ilyich – who discovers on the brink of his own death that the status he has achieved in late 1800s St Petersburg does not mean that he is truly loved by either friends or family. He has sought all his life the regard of others, and so has taught his children to do the same. His supposedly cherished beliefs are the fashionable opinions of others, and nowhere near his heart. His work colleagues’ tepid sympathy cannot disguise their greater interest in who will benefit most from his demise.

Late nineteenth century St Petersburg was no less, and no more, Christian than 1950s Ireland – because (as Cardinal Cahal Daly has acknowledged in the case of Ireland) conformity in pursuit of status had become in both the norm – and conformity is just another word for fashion.

How could Christianity and conformity ever have become confused? It happened, surely, as soon as Constantine’s opportunistic vision was blessed by the Catholic bishops as the real thing, and this Caesarean mass murderer was eulogised in the most excruciating terms by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the proto-typical Catholic snob. This set a new priority for evangelism itself: to convert the socially elevated, because this would guarantee the setting of a spectacular conformist fashion among their ‘inferiors’. This fashion was already established in continental Europe before Patrick came to Ireland, and even Patrick could see the advantage of converting political and social elites first of all.

Thus the support of social elites became essential to the power of the Church all over Europe. And it was the social elitism of the Irish Catholic church that placed it in opposition to the equalising, and therefore, in that limited sense, more truly Christian, tide of modern secularism. Clerical elitism is also the root cause of the tide of clerical scandals that we have seen over the past twelve years – scandals that egalitarian secularism could almost gleefully exploit.

Work such as deBotton’s suggest, therefore, an essential preliminary to any attempt at a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland – a revision of the history of the Church that correctly identifies Christendom as a failed attempt at evangelisation-through-elites – and military elites at that. It failed because it compromised the Gospels which are centrally an assault upon elitism itself, and especially elitist violence. It failed also, probably, because the Christian God could not let it succeed while remaining true to the radical egalitarianism of his Son.

I do not believe that neo-scholastic philosophy has yet produced a book as relevant, fascinating and revealing as this on the problem of status-seeking – one of the key components of the global environmental and social crisis. This too underlines the fact that the best of secular thought has much to teach the church – especially when secular thinkers reflect honestly upon the mysterious failure of secularism to achieve its original 18th century programme. When the apostles asked ‘which of us is the greatest?’ they were revealing what Christianity, and secularism, need to recognize as the basic human flaw – our boundless desire for priority, measured in the deference of others.

  1. Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004
  2. Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999

Continue reading Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

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‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life March 2004

Church-of-Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman – recently retired from parish ministry in Co Cork – is chiefly concerned in this work1Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003 to stem the decline of what she calls ‘moderate Christianity’ – especially here in Ireland. By ‘moderate’ she means non-fundamentalist – and she ascribes this decline largely to “the unwillingness of all the churches, in all countries but perhaps especially now in Ireland, to look honestly and openly into what we say we believe”.

Opening with the familiar tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she soon makes it clear that she shares the embarrassment of Episcopal bishop J.S. Spong at having to utter the Nicene creed as part of a religious service, as though it was in all respects literally true.

“Sunday by Sunday, countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good.”

Canon Wakeman soon makes clear which creedal doctrines she sees as causing this finger-crossing: the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She points out that surveys of belief increasingly find that many Church of England clergymen don’t actually believe these doctrines – less than half in the case of the virgin birth. (Unfortunately she provides no supporting data on the finger-crossing, so ‘countless’ it remains.)

At this point Canon Wakeman reaches for the now-familiar theory that the left and right halves of the human brain have different functions: the left is ‘analytical’, the right ‘intuitive’, and so on. She offers the possibility that religion belongs properly to the intuitive side, while doctrine tends to be a left-brain analytical and organisational matter. In the Creeds, she fears, “Christians are being asked to state that poetic-paradox statements about God are literally true”.

At this point, I must confess, alarm bells were insistently ringing for me. Are the categories ‘poetic’ and ‘literal’ (or ‘factual’) necessarily mutually exclusive? What would happen to the poetry of the Creeds, or of the Gospels for that matter, if we were to insist that they were merely poetic (i.e. fictive), and not, or not necessarily, substantially true in a historical sense. And if Christianity belongs wholly in the realm of the intuitive and fictive, who will then find it compelling as a source of meaning? Certainly the Gospels and the creeds have poetic resonance, but their endurance to this late date has surely had to do essentially with their claim to a substantive historical and factual foundation – an actual intervention by a transcendant reality into human history.

Would Canon Wakeman attempt to discern the actual as distinct from the poetic truth about such an intervention? Disappointingly for me, she ends this chapter on doctrine by proposing that Richard Dawkins’s objections to the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption are valid on the grounds that this elevation of a material body into a heaven is comprehensible only within the ‘flat-earth’ vertically ordered universe of the early first millennium.

This, for me, is an unfortunate descent into Spongian rhetoric. It is also strangely dated scientifically, stuck somewhere before 1900 C.E. – as though ‘hard’ matter had not been discovered in the last century to be mostly empty space, to consist otherwise largely of vast quantities of energy, and to be gravitationally compressible to the point of its own disappearance. Given also the theoretical possibility of multiple invisible further dimensions within what we perceive as empty four-dimensional space, just how much ‘commonsense’ certitude can there be these days on the actual nature of ‘space’ and ‘bodies’?

The fact is, surely, that the most advanced physics today has destroyed the ‘commonsense’ Newtonian universe that underpins atheistic certitude, and is as inscrutable on the precise nature of physical reality as theology ever was on the subject of heaven. I strongly wish the progressive school would progress to the point of acknowledging this. If we are to update the Creeds (an exercise not attempted in this book), we must do it properly and not leave ourselves with something that would have been spanking new and acceptable to, say, Charles Darwin.

Furthermore, for theologians, heaven has almost always had more to do with a relationship of unity with God than with questions of ‘where?’ or ‘how?’ Is there for Canon Wakeman, I wondered at this point, truly a God to relate to?

Again unfortunately, her chapter on ‘How we experience God’ is centred once more on the assertion that we experience God with the ‘right’ brain, whereas doctrine is a ‘left’ brain activity. This is ultimately inadequate, as it seems again to fudge the issue of truth. Can we really deal with people who ask “Is there truly a God?” by saying something like:

“Well, the right side of my brain – the poetic side – says ‘yes’, while the left side, the analytical side, is far less sure of it.”?

If we do we should be well prepared for the next obvious question: “But isn’t the right side of your brain the bit that makes things up?” Where, I wonder, would the Canon go from there?

On the grounds of their poetic resonance she is willing to accept doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Fall and the Resurrection as ‘basically life affirming’ but, she insists, the concept of atonement “(that Jesus died to placate an angry God) seems to have no salvageable aspect”.

If that particular theory of atonement is the only acceptable one within the Anglican communion I shudder at such authoritarian rigidity. Especially because the earliest understanding of atonement centred upon the idea of release (or redemption) not from a debt owed to God, but from the power of evil, personified as Satan. Canon Wakeman is here identifying a travesty of Anselm’s feudal satisfaction theory of atonement with the Creeds – a clear anachronism.

The point is important, because Canon Wakeman has begun by arguing that a twenty-first mind cannot truly accept a first- or even fourth-century worldview. Given Rene Girard’s anthropological analysis of the Gospel text as an exposure of the process of scapegoating violence in the ancient world – a process still ongoing in phenomena as diverse as the war on terrorism and schoolyard bullying – the first century understanding of atonement may well in fact be bang up-to-date.

Catholic demythologisers might note at this point that this must score as a plus for the Catholic catechism, which is non-definitive on theories of atonement. It does not insist that God demanded satisfaction (or substitution for that matter) – merely that Christ’s suffering and death has forever reconciled us with God2But see Article 615 of the 1994 Catechism: 615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.. Atonement is simply at-one-ment – final reconciliation. The doctrine in itself is not definitive on how Jesus reconciles. For me – poetically and factually – God moves towards us – and reveals himself through -Jesus – in the way that the father of the prodigal son ran to meet him on his return. (And of course I can say so while acknowledging that to speak of God as merely male is inadequate.)

In a chapter on ‘Some Basic Christian Doctrines – and New Ways to Express Them’ Canon Wakeman comes closest to defining her positions on revelation, the nature of God, and the sonship, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. She dwells sensibly upon the ineffability of God, but her account of the concept of revelation seems woefully inadequate, leaving out as it does the centrality of Jesus to the concept – the belief that it is through the revelatory Jesus above all that we come to know the ineffable God.

This is important, because the statement ‘Jesus is God’ needs to be understood as a statement that speaks as much about God as about Jesus – an assertion that we come to understand the goodness, intentions and wisdom of God uniquely and indispensably through him.

And this in turn means that the statement ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ could never have been fully understood in a simplistic biological sense – as though anyone ever thought he already knew who and what God is and how exactly he could become a biological parent. The doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus are best understood as expressing a belief in the unique filiation of Jesus – the belief that his filial relationship to, understanding of, and fidelity to the being he himself called ‘Abba’, was of an order way beyond the sonship of, for example, David – so far beyond it that Jesus became for Christians the definitive, sufficient and indispensable authority on who God is and what he expects of us. Literal biological sons (e.g. Absalom) were not uniformly faithful to their parents, so that to say of Jesus that he was the ‘literal’ son of God would not pay him a unique compliment. ‘Light from Light, True God from True God’ on the other hand suggests true fidelity to and identity with the spiritual essence and benevolent purpose of God. This is a far higher claim that does not insist upon a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘sonship’ (whatever ‘literal’ might mean in this context).

Canon Wakeman would probably object that the doctrine of the virgin birth is surely insisting upon some kind of biological sonship. As biology was an unknown science in the fourth century it could be argued equally that it is no more than an attempt to explain and justify the exaltation of Jesus to the pinnacle of the revelatory process – to explain how he could have become what he was, so entirely unaffected by, yet opposed to, the evil he confronted.

Canon Wakeman rejects even the use of the word ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, and prefers this formula: ‘In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began.’

I must confess that I find this embarrassingly twee – a sentimental reduction that is not only condescending but completely incapable of explaining the commitment-unto-death of so many of those who followed Jesus – precisely because they believed in his revelatory uniqueness.

It’s clear soon enough what consequences flow from such negativity. To begin with, although Jesus’s crucifixion was the result of an ‘archetypal’ confrontation between good and evil, the concept of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ can only be understood through the unacceptable Anselmian lens, and must go. With it goes, of course, any notion of an historical centrality for the Gospel story.

Was ‘Abba’ a right-brain mytho-poetic (i.e. fictive) construct of Jesus? If so, did Jesus confront bogus religion and endure crucifixion essentially because he had a dangerous habit of talking to himself? Canon Wakeman does not address such questions – but they go to the heart of the larger question of whether Christianity is worth saving

And inevitably, Jesus’s bodily resurrection must go the way of ‘literal’ sonship. The intense sense of loss that was felt by the closest followers of Jesus, and their recollections of his life and teachings, led to a conviction that he was in some sense still present, and must therefore have survived death. It was the surviving Christian community that created the right-brain myth of the bodily resurrection. The possibility, strongly argued by the NT texts themselves, that it was on the contrary the unexpected eventuality of some kind of actual tangible resurrection that restored the already dispirited and fragmenting Christian community, is not one that Canon Wakeman can entertain.

A few historian’s questions surfaced in my mind at this point. If this was all there ever was to Jesus, why did his followers soon go to the suicidal lengths of making of this rejected one the cornerstone of more than one separated and excoriated community within, and then outside, Judaism? Was Stephen’s self-sacrificing testament merely another (right-) brainstorm? And why did Paul take the equally dangerous and inexplicable course of substituting belief in a liberating Jesus for rigid adherence to the minutiae of the Jewish law as expounded by the religious elites of his time – the belief system for which he had earlier been willing to kill Christians on the grounds of the threat they posed to it? Why were they such a threat?

These questions are important, I believe, because they relate to the origins of the historical phenomenon of global Christianity that lasted the two millennia needed to justify any discussion today on the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you reduce Jesus to the status of another prophet – even a supreme prophet (and Canon Wakeman shies away even the use of the word ‘unique’ to describe him) – you are faced with the problem of explaining the emergence of Christianity from Judaism as a quite separate belief system that was willing to endure the most frightful persecution that followed. No amount of right-brain poetry can fully explain the often horrendously risky dynamism of the early church.

What other consequences flow from progressive reductionism, in Canon Wakeman’s view? Can we still celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example? Yes, we are assured – the celebration of light piercing the darkness and the victory of life over death is beneficial – and the soul does indeed need the periodic renewal that Lent can provide. The Bible can be read for its nourishment of the right brain – but the idea of divine inspiration is liable to nourish fundamentalism and so should be discarded. Lectio divina, however, is encouraged.

As for the future, Canon Wakeman sees little hope for ‘moderate’ orthodoxy, which is slowly ‘dying out’. The future lies either with reaction (going backward and tightening up) – the road taken by fundamentalism – or progressivism (going forward and loosening up) in the style of her book. The preservation of an ‘exclusive’ core of doctrine is a futile exercise. The future of ministered sacraments is tied to the problematic future of ministry itself, and we should encourage one another to see the beauty of the natural world as ‘sacramental’.

Was Jesus even archetypally sacramental? As Canon Wakeman quotes Schillebeeckz and admits that Jesus was at least an archetype of some kind, one might expect that she would explore this possibility at least. Unfortunately she doesn’t – leaving me with essentially the same disappointment that I had with J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’. If Christianity is worth saving shouldn’t its reductionist saviours at least attempt to be inspirationally reconstructive of the primacy of the person at its centre – if only to mitigate the pain of those exposed to so much reduction? A Chapter on ‘Jesus for Our Time’ or ‘What Jesus teaches us about God’ suggests itself – but perhaps that might be the theme of a sequel to this book.

I certainly hope so. I have learned much about progressivism from this book. Unlike Spong’s, the canon’s style is never insufferably self-congratulatory. The very last thing a minister of the Gospel should be is hypocritical or dishonest – and Canon Wakeman has certainly acquitted herself on that score. She has read widely and produced a highly stimulating and provocative text that can be easily absorbed. How would her views of Jesus and God be affected by reading Girard, I wonder, supportive as his work is of orthodoxy, and of the Bible as a supremely revelatory text – and from an unexpected rationalist direction? (So far, I believe, Girard remains undiscovered territory for progressives – suggesting that it is essentially an Anglican phenomenon).

Although Canon Wakeman’s argument rests largely upon the conviction that the decline of moderate orthodoxy has to do centrally with the prevalence of finger-crossing during the creed, she provides no data that would confirm this. A survey or even a poll would surely be possible. I can only say that I see the creeds not as an insistence upon an ancient physical cosmology but as an affirmation that, in all eras, there is, factually, a transcendant moral cosmos to which we also belong, and from which we can draw inspiration and strength – especially through the one whose belief in it was both absolute and fatal to himself. I neither cross my fingers nor switch off my left brain when I say them.

Central to the phenomenon of progressivism so far, it seems to me, is an unnecessary intellectual embarrassment – an overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the fundamentalists and ‘creationists’ who have rejected so much of modern science. It originates, I suspect, at academic dinners when, reaching for the salt, the Christian theologian is assailed with a smirking “Not another Saviour, I hope?” from the eminent evolutionary biologist in the next seat. The need to make one’s own faith unembarrassing in such company is necessarily acute – and an unremitting reductionism is obviously one way to go.

But what of the intellectual hubris such a sally implies – that our own era has not only answered every important question but saved everyone in need of saving – as the archetypal anti-Christian programme, the Enlightenment of the 1700s, expressly promised? It often implies also that what is positive in modern secularism owes nothing to orthodox Christianity – as though values such as liberty, equality and fraternity originated fully formed in the mind of the late 1700s, had no earlier provenance, and have by now anywhere been fully achieved. There is so much ignorance and insouciance in such a worldview that it surely requires challenge rather than encouragement.

Era-chauvinism is as close as I can get to a name for the phenomenon – the Panglossian view that of all past and possible eras this one is by far the wisest – and especially because we are so knowledgeable, and first century folk were so superstitious.

Of course it is essential to detach Christianity from bigotry and obscurantism, but the surgery required to do this must not pierce the heart that keeps Christianity alive: the belief that, independent of both sides of our brain, there truly exists a spiritual entity that intends our good, knows and understands us intimately, and wishes to release us from cyclical self-harm.

This book has not convinced me that ‘progressive Christian’ surgery has left Christianity with a heart that can still beat. One simply cannot save Christianity by implying (without quite saying) that Jesus’s faith in Abba was no more than a right-brain poetic fancy. The death of what this kind of progressivism proposes to save would surely be too high a price to pay for the approval of an intellectual elite that is often every bit as arrogant and insouciant as the one Paul found in the Athens of his day. And, let’s face it, nothing less than the final death of the Christian tradition will fully satisfy that self-satisfied coterie anyway.

Notes

  1. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003

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The Search for Spiritual Intelligence

Sean O’Conaill  © Spirituality 2003

When I began my teaching career in 1966 human intelligence was still considered to be a single indivisible entity, easily measurable as  ‘IQ’.  Now the convention is to believe that there are at least eight, and possibly nine, different kinds of human intelligence.  The ninth, currently under consideration, is spiritual intelligence, labelled SQ for convenience.  A search of the Internet will discover at least four books on the subject.

A quick reading of these will discover tantalising glimpses of the phenomenon, but no clear delineation.  Other kinds of intelligence will either discover or discern something ( e.g. scientific and mathematical intelligence) or create something (e.g. artistic and musical intelligence.)  What specific work does spiritual intelligence actually do, or what does it create?  The existing literature is unhelpful here.  Richard Wolman* delineates eight ‘dimensions’ of SQ, but these are merely descriptive of the behaviours of those considered spiritually focused – such as religious observance or the reading of sacred texts.  There is a strong element of condescension here, a tendency to equate spiritual intelligence with mere awareness or activity rather than with any clear achievement.

Another peculiarity of this literature is its tendency to draw most of its inspiration either from oriental sources such as Buddhism, or from contemporary science – such as research into the human brain.  The foundational spiritual texts of the west, collectively known as the Bible, receive generally little more than a passing nod.  Does the biblical concept of wisdom relate to SQ, and if so how?  Nowhere so far is this question pursued in any systematic way.

One way of approaching this is through the fascinating story of Isaac Newton’s famous quarrel with the German intellectual Gottfried Leibniz.

By 1684 Newton’s greatest work had been completed, but not yet revealed to the European intelligentsia – including the discovery of the prismatic nature of white light, the universal principle of gravity and the laws of motion.  In that year  Leibniz published a paper on Calculus, a new branch of maths, which Newton had himself already developed, again without publishing.  Unable to believe that Leibniz might independently have made exactly the same discovery, Newton accused him, quite unreasonably, of plagiarism.  He pursued the matter even beyond Leibniz’ death, encouraging his own doctoral students to make overt attacks upon Leibniz in their theses, remaining fixated on the matter for the last twenty-five years of his life.

The point is, of course, that although there is no doubting Newton’s superb scientific and mathematical intelligence, we find him here gripped unknowingly by an overwhelming desire for the renown of primacy in this one discovery, even though it was far less significant than his other work, and even though this quarrel diminished his stature in European intellectual life during his own lifetime.  He was, in a word, unwise.  So are those now notorious scientists who have faked research or altered research data to prove their own already-published conclusions.

All competitive desire for renown is mimetic desire – an imitative desire acquired from the simple cultural fact that others possess the same desire.  The Newton-Leibniz story establishes both that there is a distinctive and important kind of intelligence different from the superb scientific intelligence that Newton undoubtedly possessed, and that its absence in matters of this kind is a serious and self-destructive human flaw.

The reason this story should arrest the attention of SQ theorists is that the Bible may easily be described as a text centred upon the human problem of mimetic desire.  To take an extreme example, the Herod who slaughtered the innocents in Bethlehem could not tolerate the possibility that his own primacy might be challenged in his own lifetime by some upstart.  His problem was that his self-esteem had become indissolubly attached to his conscious possession of renown.  It was essentially the same fixation of another Herod that doomed John the Baptist a generation later.  And Newton’s fixation with Leibniz was the same problem.

Renown is an almost archaic term.  To distinguish it from self-esteem we might call it other-esteem – the esteem of others.  According to the biblical texts, its loss, or the possibility of its loss, can drive people to extremes.  For Saul the loss of the other-esteem of the women of Israel was the source of his vendetta against David.  For Solomon, the other-esteem his wisdom brought was also the source of his apostasy from the God who had answered his prayer for wisdom.

Solomon’s earlier resolution of the problem posed by the two women who claimed the same child is a fascinating example of biblical wisdom.  So familiar is it that we may miss its full significance.  We need to note not so much the innocent mother whose love for her child allowed her to give it up, but the guilty woman who was willing to allow it to be divided.  She had woken first, realising that she had rolled on her own infant in the night, smothering it.  Remembering that in that culture a woman’s status was tightly bound up with fertility, we need to empathise with her predicament:  soon the other woman would wake up, becoming the first to scorn her neighbour’s carelessness.  This day this useless mother would become identified as such – losing all other-esteem among her peers.  But the living infant was all that differentiated her from the successful mother still sleeping close by – hence the substitution.  Her ‘covetousness’ was irresistible, as her final shame was imminent.

Solomon’s wisdom penetrated to the heart of the crime, understanding the difference between love and desire, and understanding also the problem posed to the guilty woman by the threatened loss of other-esteem.   The living child could cover her shame – and so could a half child divided at the command of the king.  The real mother, on the other hand, was willing to accept shame to save the child.

No matter what else may have changed since Old Testament times, the fear of shame is a constant.  It lies at the root of much criminality and addiction – and especially at the root of many instances of outrageous violence in our own time.  David Copeland, the bomber of gay bars in England in 1999, insisted:  ‘If no-one knows who you were, you never existed.’  And Robert Steinhaeuser, who killed sixteen in a school in Bavaria in April 2002, was facing his parents’ imminent discovery that he had been prevented from sitting final exams by the school in question – for forging medical notes to explain his frequent absences.

Given the self-conscious anguish of adolescents over everything from acne to lack of the (media-defined) perfect body, it is a remarkable fact that Catholic education still lacks a proper appreciation of the significance of the spiritual intelligence of the Bible.  As a teacher for thirty years I can attest to its supreme relevance in the rough and tumble of a teenager’s life.

In one instance, two fifteen-year-old girls who had been close friends fell out bitterly over the leading role in a school musical.  Shiela (not her name) was originally chosen for the part, which she acted very proficiently.  Then it was discovered that her singing voice simply hadn’t the range for the music she was required to sing.  She was asked to relinquish the part, which was then given to her friend Patricia (another pseudonym), who had been learning the role while watching Shiela.  The two were irreconcilable, as Shiela insisted that Patricia had betrayed her.  Furthermore, Shiela insisted that she could not remain at the school, and had to be relocated.

Of course there was bad management here on the part of those producing the show – but the story illustrates the power of mimetic desire to cause conflict, and the connection of self-esteem with other-esteem in the minds of even the most intelligent young people these times.

In another case, more recently, a teenager entered a media competition for one of the singing ‘bands’ that now proliferate  – a competition for which she was ineligible as she was younger by two years than the required minimum age.  When she won a much-coveted place through sheer talent, she was interviewed live for a TV ‘profile’ – and inadvertently let slip her real age.  When this was noticed she was caught on camera in a series of increasingly embarrassing attempts to justify her original lie – until her family (very belatedly) decided to end her misery.

In both instances, the mimetic desire for other-esteem had profoundly affected the behaviour and self-esteem of young people whose Catholic education had no explicit relevance to this problem.

The phenomenon of bullying could on its own justify the teaching of spiritual intelligence in school.  Bullies are essentially mini-warlords making a bid for the bank of other esteem in their class or year group.  Very often they are themselves driven by fear of shame – perhaps over lesser academic ability.  By orchestrating contempt against an even more vulnerable member of the group they can deflect shame from themselves, and enjoy the eminence of power, as well as the certitude that they themselves will not suffer shame.  The fear they deploy – of being shamed –  will keep it at bay.

Does a fiercely competitive educational system inevitably deploy fear of shame as means of motivating children?  If so, is it spiritually intelligent?

And how many teachers of RE would be able to point to the treatment of the adulterous woman in St John’s gospel as an archetypal example of bullying?  Jesus’s riposte is far more than a brilliant stratagem.  It identifies the purpose behind all such violence – to relieve everyone’s fear of shame by depositing all shame on this one execrated individual.  Every stone thrown at her would be an unloading of the sin of the one who threw it, a statement of personal inculpability.

And this in turn allows us to see Jesus’ acceptance of crucifixion as a willingness to be the scapegoat for the sake of our enlightenment, our realisation of what lies behind all such scapegoating.  Indeed the entire life and mission of Jesus can be understood as an exposure of the cultural processes through which elites not only acquire power and other-esteem, but deploy shame to maintain their power.

How was Jesus able to plough this extraordinary furrow, facing the extremity of crucifixion – the instrument of ultimate shame – totally alone?  This is the central mystery of our faith, the question that faces us with a wondrous truth:  that he was in his deepest consciousness connected to a source of truth that allowed him to do without the other-esteem of his enveloping human culture.  No other explanation is possible for his unique achievement in ‘overcoming the world’.

Spiritual intelligence depends in the end upon spirituality – upon relationship with this extraordinary source of wisdom that allows love to overcome desire.  We need to see this as the central purpose and theme of biblical revelation – connecting this with the problems of shame as our culture defines them for individuals.  The teenagers who today live in fear of shame, and in constant search of media attention, need to understand that the Bible addresses their predicaments like no other book, and draws them to an alternative and unfailing source of self-esteem.

The West will understand spiritual intelligence fully only when it looks with unbiased interest at the resource that lies under its nose, separating it from the uncomprehending triumphalism of Christian fundamentalism.  For their own survival the mainstream churches need to discover this first – that the Bible is as rich a source for understanding ourselves, and modern culture, as for understanding God.

(*Richard N Wolman, Thinking With Your Soul:  Spiritual Intelligence and Why It Matters, Harmony Books)

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The Lost Sin

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003

As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”

But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.

According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because  he possesses it.  So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could.  And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot.  In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.

To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else.   One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.

As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment.  The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias.  But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products.  Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.

Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation.  The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel.  Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them.  Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege.  Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king.  And so on.

In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion.   Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence.  In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion.  Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.

This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence.  He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice.  Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.

In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance.  In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins.  And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.

More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire.  Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners.  Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy.  Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice.  Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him.  Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas.  The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.

It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures.  The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus.  ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger.  He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague.  Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.

And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely.  None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.

Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general.  The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals.  Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement.  This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.

So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely.  It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption,  environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms.  Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.

In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God.   Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess  (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.

But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II.  The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles.  But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles.   And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality.   The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself.  Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.

Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years.  David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared:  “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.”  Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father).  More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.

All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes.  Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?

As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also.  It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity.  This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus.  Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island.  (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.)  It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority.  And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days.  To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.

Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west.  And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.

But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium.  Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great?  What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness?  And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood  would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw.  Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity.  Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.

Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally.  Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival.  Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.

There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?

(*René  Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)

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Encounters with the Force

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2002

Back in 1977 in Dublin I took my daughter aged seven and my eldest son, five, to see the first of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, now entitled A New Hope. When we got home the five-year-old solemnly related the entire plot, scene by scene, to his grandfather. The latter was so impressed that he just had to watch the Christmas TV premiere a few years later, aged about 70 – totally enthralled. Our attic still holds boxes of the spin-off merchandising that boomed in the wake of the series and made Lucas one of the wealthiest and most influential figures in cinema.

All of these films centre on the struggle of the Jedi knights – assisted by the light side of ‘The Force’ – against the disciples of the dark side, especially the towering Darth Vader. Half man, half glistening ebony machine – head and face hidden by a black mask like the coal-scuttle helmet worn by the Wehrmacht in World War II – the cloaked Vader strode onto the deck of a captured starship in the very first sequence of A New Hope, and became every child’s icon of dread. In the latest film, Attack of the Clones, the second ‘prequel’ to the first-produced series, we are to learn how it was that Vader, who had himself been a Jedi apprentice, began his journey to the dark side.

(Lucas originally conceived an epic series of nine films – three series of three. He made the middle series first, and is now two-thirds of the way through the first series. He presently insists he won’t actually complete the last three – but somebody probably will.)

The whole story, we are told, took place in a distant galaxy ‘long, long ago and far away’, where a multi-world republic is subverted by a sinister imperial tendency linked with the dark side. This device allows Lucas to blend elements of medieval knight-errantry with inter-stellar technology, ancient myth and mysticism – to tell the kind of riveting yarn that earlier generations would have experienced in the Arthurian knights of the round table.

The preferred weapon of the Jedi is not a ‘blaster’ – a projectile weapon – but a light sabre, a sword whose blade is a shaft of luminous energy. This weapon not only allows Lucas to recreate the fencing duels of Robin Hood and the samurai in a different cosmos, but to explore the idea of ‘the Force’ itself. Letting the Force flow through him, the Jedi can learn to anticipate and use his light sabre to deflect a plasma bolt fired at himself. (Jedis typically try diplomacy before resorting to defensive violence.)

What is the Force? The script limitations of an action film don’t allow Lucas much scope for theology, and on the whole this is probably just as well. Luke Skywalker, the hero of the first-produced films, is schooled by the old Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi, as follows:

“The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”

Observing this lesson, the contraband smuggler Han Solo laconically observes:  “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.”

Solo’s hard-bitten pursuit of profit serves as counterpoint to Luke’s search for a cause. However, Solo is also smitten by Princess Leia, leader of the republican remnant. She can handle a blaster as well as anyone – and this earned her points with seventies children, despite her very impractical coiffure of two enormous side buns which must have given her a headache.

Meanwhile Darth Vader, on the enormous pursuing battle cruiser, is demonstrating the power of the dark side to a sceptical imperial officer by raising him by the throat from his seat with an invisible hand.

Pushing the special effects of the 1970s beyond their previous limits Lucas achieved in A New Hope an unprecedented persuasiveness for the science fiction genre. Using profits from the spin-off merchandising he stayed at the leading edge in this field, designing state-of the-art cinema technology in both sound and vision. The latest film was shot with specially designed digital movie cameras – heralding the end of the ‘spool’ era, and the distribution of all movies by digital means. (Though it will take time for all cinemas to make use of this.)

Lucas, raised as a Methodist and later influenced by the cult mythology guru Joseph Campbell, tells us that he introduced the idea of the Force to get children to think about spirituality. “Rather than do some angry, socially relevant film, I realised there was another relevance that is even more important – dreams and fantasies, getting children to believe there is more to life than garbage and killing and all that real stuff like stealing hubcaps. A whole generation was growing up without fairytales.”

Elsewhere, expanding on this he says: “I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people–more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system. I wanted to make it so that young people would begin to ask questions about the mystery. Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to ask the question, ‘Is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen. I think you should have an opinion about that. Or you should be saying, ‘I’m looking. I’m very curious about this, and I am going to continue to look until I can find an answer, and if I can’t find an answer, then I’ll die trying.’ I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith.”

Interviewed about his latest film and asked if he knows yet what turns Anakin Skywalker, the nine-year-old hero of the last film, into Darth Vader in the next, Lucas answered:

“Yes, I know what that is. The groundwork has been laid in this episode. The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. The issue of greed, of getting things and owning things and having things and not being able to let go of things, is the opposite of compassion – of not thinking of yourself all the time. These are the two sides – the good force and the bad force. They’re the simplest parts of a complex cosmic construction.”

So, the light side of the Force demands that its disciples, the Jedi, master themselves in order to use the Force, which gives them powers of mind control, anticipation and telekinesis (a limited ability to move objects with the power of thought). Interestingly also they are supposed to remain celibate – another of the things that the nineteen year old Anakin Skywalker has problems with in the latest film!

It’s no secret now that Anakin, who will transmute into Vader in the next and last ‘prequel’, is Luke’s own father. We learned this in The Empire Strikes Back – when Luke was learning to control his own impulsiveness. Obi-Wan Kenobi, played majestically in the first series by Alec Guinness, had been Anakin’s mentor before he became Luke’s. In A New Hope Obi-Wan fought a final duel with Vader, dematerialising as Vader’s light sabre swept through him. Then he became a wraith who returned to mentor Luke at the climax of the film, the breathtaking battle with the Death Star, a space battle station the size of a small planet. Luke’s mentoring was continued by the diminutive Yoda, drawn by computer in this latest film.

Luke learns from Yoda in Empire that he himself is his own most dangerous opponent, and loses his arm in a duel with Vader. His sidekick Han Solo is immured in a block of ice at the climax, but resurrected in part three – Return of the Jedi. In that film Luke manages to control his anger, resisting torture to give his father, Anakin/Vader, a chance of redemption. Does Vader take it? Go watch the film, which will certainly be reprised soon in the wake of the prequel. (Digital TV will probably run all of the previous four films in plot sequence.)

Although it’s at first sight odd that Lucas would tell the story of the son before that of the earlier life of the father, it’s also oddly right – as evil for the 1970s generation is the more important problem to understand just now, especially for an America fascinated by military technology and sure of its own virtue. Anakin was a nine-year-old slave in
Phantom Menace, recruited to the Jedi because of his uncommon empathy with the Force. His journey to the dark side is for me almost as compelling as that of the youthful Michael Corleone in the Godfather series – that other transposition of a medieval family honour code into a twentieth-century republican setting. It’s also right that new generations of children will have immediate access on video and digital TV to Vader’s chance of redemption by his own son – something that couldn’t happen to Michael’s father, the brooding Vito, played by Marlon Brando.

Although Lucas has been criticised for ‘mindless hokum’ it is remarkable that anyone in mass entertainment should set out to deal seriously with the themes of good and evil, self-control, self-sacrifice, corruption, redemption – and even life-after-death – in a medium seemingly designed for popcorn and short attention spans. His meticulous eye for detail in the design of everything from starship interiors to planetary topography, clothing, strange animals and robots create a visual feast for children of the space age.

My fascination with these films began as soon as I saw my own children hooked. They tell us that most children are still thrilled by ancient themes of heroism and self-sacrifice – and in need of a spirituality, a sense of a deeper reality lying behind the one-dimensional digital world that we now live in. As this planet’s own beauty is increasingly tortured by technology, an escape into the awesome mysteries of the unexplored extra-terrestrial cosmos becomes increasingly necessary for rising generations, and Lucas has done as much as Gene Roddenberry (the creator of
Star Trek) to liberate the child’s cosmic imagination.

The films also show us what Cervantes dealt with in Don Quixote – the power of male nostalgia for a role in which knightly virtues of discipline, military skill and valour still make sense. We long for a world in which good and evil appear in such stark contrast that choices become easy again, and our own role becomes clear. In the wake of what US citizens now call 9/11 we also need a mass cultural experience that will allow angry Christians to reflect on how this very anger, encased in awesome military hardware, can easily shift the West again to the dark side of another civilisation’s experience. (There’s absolutely no sign that Christian fundamentalism is making any effort to develop that understanding.)

And although the technologies on view in that distant galaxy are awesome, Lucas is at pains to underline the dangers and limits of technology itself. Vader’s lack of compassion is connected with the fact that he is mostly prosthesis.  A New Hope conveys the message that technology can be a hindrance to spirituality. At the climax of the battle with the Death Star, Luke prepares to use a complicated computerised bomb sight to lob a small nuclear device down a narrow shaft in the battle station to detonate at its heart. At Obi Wan’s whispered command he pulls this technology aside and trusts to the Force instead. The subsequent detonation was cheered wildly in all cinemas in the US in 1977. Youthful courage, spiritually empowered, had transcended even the computer age.

That there is indeed a cosmic spiritual ‘force’ or power for good is an essential part of the Christian message, and that courage and self-sacrifice express this power most nobly is part of that message also. Do we need to worry that Lucas does not introduce explicit Christian concepts such as the Trinity and grace, and above all the truths of the personhood of God and the incarnation? Just a little – but these lacunae give all teachers their own role and relevance – and after all we don’t know yet how redemption is achieved in other galaxies! (Although we can be sure that fundamentalism won’t cut it.)

And the fact that the hero of the present series transmutes into the villain of the second gives scope for raising with older children the sophisticated issue of the ambiguity of all military heroism – the fact that great evil can flow from the age-old association of heroism with violence. This, after all, was the tragedy of Christendom – its beautiful origin in a rejection of violence and its disgrace in the wake of the military adventurer Constantine’s confusion of cross with sword. (The stories of the search for the Holy Grail by Arthur’s knights were a mediaeval attempt to reconcile those contradictions.)

That five-year-old who encountered the Force for the first time in 1977 is now a thirty-year-old computer programmer. He doesn’t think that children as children really ‘get’ the Christian echoes of these films explicitly, but sees them now himself. ‘Star Wars’ remains a vivid memory for all three generations still, and exercises a mysterious fascination as a shared experience that annihilates the almost sixty years between us. And all three will again get to see Attack of the Clones  this year, God willing.

We worry greatly these times about the growing gap between adolescents and the mean age of clergy. How does one go about teaching Christianity to the children of cool? Nothing is more certain than that we all need to experience at least some of what’s cool, and start from there. Lucas gives us reference points, characters and visuals that everyone in Christian education, and every parent, can know and make use of.

So this summer all you uninitiated Jedi should ‘get out more’, switch off your theological bomb sights, let the Force flow through you, and then go figure out how to explain why prayer, grace and the Holy Spirit are so much cooler. And make sure it’s all in a film script that will have children of all ages cheering their heads off.

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Harry Potter and the disappearing student

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2001

English public schools always breaks up for Christmas – and Hogwarts is no exception. Strange, really, since Hogwarts is an academy for wizards and witches, and therefore (according to Christian fundamentalists and even some toy store chains), a global focus of neo-pagan demonic power and a corruptor of childhood innocence.

Hogwarts is, of course as fictional as its most renowned pupil, Harry Potter. Each of the seven years that Harry spends there is to be recorded in a novel for children – boys especially – by J.K. Rowling. Four have already been written.

At Hogwarts one finds the familiar cast of the typical English boarding school yarn – the wise and indulgent Head whose gift for moral discernment has nodded strangely in the appointment of a sinister teacher or two; the sadistic, sneering student bully and his henchmen; their victims – and the heroic Harry and his mates who stand in the way. But instead of Latin, Maths and French, Harry and his coevals take Sorcery, Magical Animals and Divinisation classes. And where Harry’s predecessors had to deal with German or Russian spies or drug runners, Harry has to match wands at the denouement with the sinister Lord Voldemort, an arch wizard bent upon global thraldom. It is essentially youthful joie de vivre against the controlling mind of the overbearing adult, white magic against black, good against evil – and guess who wins in the end.

The young (and the wannabe young) tend to love these stories partly because the school is indeed, after the family, the power structure within which their own life drama begins – a challenging microcosm of the adult world within which some kind of glory is sought and all kinds of humiliation skirted. They love them also for the rich Halloween detail and humour which make lessons riotous – apart from the inevitable one or two in which the teacher burbles on endlessly on, say, astrological charts, as her predecessors would have done on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. Rowling takes her other world scholarship on everything from dragons and unicorns to leprechauns and giants with almost Tolkien-like gravity – but also improvises joyously.

Should we worry about all of this? Yes indeed. Rowling’s imagination does seem strangely bare of biblical reference, and Harry’s Christmas is a matter of mere digestive excess, in the tradition of Enid Blyton. If the rich historical significance of Christmas and Easter in the defeat of the powers of darkness can find not even an allegorical echo in the most popular child fiction of the moment, there is indeed something wrong. Christianity, one gathers from the minimal reference in these books – and from the po-faced fundamentalist campaign against them – is a portentous and tedious feature of the Muggle world – something to escape from in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, who headed down river in spiritual revolt against soap and psalms as well as fear of an abusive parent.

Muggles, for the uninitiated, are those who can never get to Hogwarts, because they are simply unendowed with magical powers. Following the murder of his parents by Voldemort, Harry was raised by his Muggle Aunt and Uncle, suburban tyrants who gave him the cupboard under the stairs to sleep in. They spoil their only son, Dudley, who bullies Harry until he finds himself transmuted into a variety of animal forms, and humiliated in various other ways.

Oddly enough, it is in the humiliation of Dudley that Rowling comes a little unstuck. Magic is after all an extension of human power and when it is used to humiliate, laughter cannot be entirely unalloyed. Dudley’s obesity is precisely the kind of vulnerability that bullies exploit in the Muggle world – so his likely destiny as the archetypal spoiled suburban child is eventually itself oddly affecting. Perhaps Rowling will find some way of redeeming this particular Muggle in the end.

The straightened circumstances of the Weasleys – the wizarding family that provides Harry with an occasional holiday refuge from his Muggle cousin’s – is also a little difficult to fathom, as the ability to transmute anything into anything else should surely be commercially exploitable without breaching wizarding rules. However, Ron Weasley’s penurious decency is a necessary foil to Harry’s exceptional talent and destiny, preventing him from getting above himself.

The Weasleys are derided for their penury by the school cad, Draco Malfoy – scion of a wealthy and ambitious family inclined towards Voldemort – so Harry’s friendship with Ron makes him a defender of the weak and the poor against the power-hungry. This is in the best traditions of children’s fiction, entirely compatible with Christian principles, and one marvels again at the obtuseness of those who condemn these books as a threat to these. They sometimes wonder why the Narnia stories of C.S. Lewis have no current equivalent in children’s fiction – without realising that their own lack of humour goes a long way towards explaining why.

Lewis’s medievalism led him to allow his child characters to play in a rather priggish way at Kings and Queens in Narnia, learning chivalry from Aslan the wise lion. Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save the most selfish of the child characters was Lewis’s rather awkward attempt at explaining Christian redemption to children. Lewis could never see that the idea of kingship – the ultimate elevation of the individual in the ancient and medieval worlds – has always itself been associated with the problem of victimisation – as the Bible itself reveals, for example in the story of David. In this sense Rowling’s imaginative world marks an advance on that of Lewis – for Rowling identifies ambition and the desire for power as in themselves morally dubious.

The suggestion that these stories may draw children towards the occult seems fatuous: children playing at magic will quickly find (as I did) that the books don’t provide enough straight wizarding instruction to conjure up a packet of liquorice allsorts. Although demons do turn up rather frequently, Hogwarts is no den of iniquity: it springs straight from the magical underworld of King Arthur’s mentor, Merlin, and its sense of humour is very similar to that of T.H. White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, a joyous retelling of the boyhood of Arthur.

The success of Harry Potter reveals clearly once again what Mark Twain so beautifully demonstrated in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: that children have an entirely healthy desire to turn the world upside down. Christian educators should wonder why it is that this same desire cannot yet be identified in children’s fiction with the purpose of the Gospels. When Harry rejects the option of power and success on his induction into Hogwarts, and at important crises thereafter, why can none of the fundies find an echo here of Jesus’ option to join the sinners in the Jordan (the occasion of his first recognition by the Father in John’s gospel), followed immediately by his rejection of both political and religious power in the desert, and his rejection of the option of force (i.e. worldly power) at Gethsemane. Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not of this world – but that children would be at home in it. As children feel entirely at home in Hogwarts it is reasonable to suppose that Christian educators would carefully study that world before banning it from their own library shelves.

Every child wants not only to turn the world upside down, but to save it – and that is why children identify with Harry, with Merlin, with Arthur, with Robin Hood, with Huck Finn in his saving of the slave, Jim, and with George Lucas’s creation, Luke Skywalker.

Luke’s recognition as destroyer of the awesome spherical Battle Station in the final scene of the first of the ‘Star Wars’ films gives us insight into every boy’s desire for recognition as hero and saviour. Somehow, for Christian education to touch the boy at the deepest level our practical theology must place Jesus in that heroic context, offering a meaningful, non-soppy heroism to children today, connected to the cosmic context in which their minds now operate. The feminising and over-spiritualising of Jesus we have inherited from an Italianate piety that essentially invites Catholic boys to be Mammy’s boys has not yet been properly eradicated from our Catholic culture – and the over-theologising of Jesus that grips the academic theologian’s imagination is equally misconceived as a means of capturing the hearts and imaginations of young men.

The Lucas stories, the Narnia books, the Potter stories and the Tolkien books all demonstrate the desire of children to live in a world that they can master and mould, escaping from the one they patently can’t. That so many now seem to want to escape from Christianity also is a problem that deserves the most careful thought.

I am convinced that the problem is precisely that theistic Christianity has largely remained the intellectual property of those governed by fear of the future, by fear of freedom, and by nostalgia for a buttoned-up past. Far from seeming subversive to the young, it is seen as supportive of an adult controlling instinct nostalgic for Victorian order – if not something even fustier. It is an Anne Widdicombe preserve (she would make a marvellous Muggle Tory school inspector double-taking the absence of maths and economics from the Hogwarts curriculum), and therefore something to avoid at all costs.

We are faced with the problem of explaining redemption in imagery that can grip children as the best children’s art does – and neither a retreat to Lewis’s medievalism nor censorship will answer. The truth is that we adults are lacking the kind of grasp of the gospels that would allow us to do this persuasively in our children’s imaginative world – and this is a fundamental reason for the current evangelical shortfall of Christian education. For most of the children who leave our schools our ‘good news’ is a complicated, incoherent and meaningless adult tale that takes place in a world entirely remote from their own, for the support of an institution to be ruled forever by an oligarchy of old men dressed in skirts. So it is very stale news best forgotten, rather than a possible vital centre of their own life’s journey.

This is our fault (I speak as a parent and former teacher) – not theirs or J.K. Rowling’s.

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