Category Archives: Morality

Of Good and Evil: A Personal View

Sean O’Conaill  Reality  2010

This series sets out to explain how I came to understand the problem of human fallibility in terms of our chronic uncertainty about our own value.

  1. Dealing with the Darkness – How and why, as a teacher of history and current affairs, I came to a conclusion about the central human problem in 1994 – our tendency to climb.
  2. The Human Problem – Why we tend to come unstuck – our chronic inability to value ourselves as we are.
  3. Vanity and Humility – Wanting to be ‘the greatest’ – a major source of conflict. And the one who taught us to try to be the least.
  4. Contagious Desire – How and why we ‘catch’ desires from others, and why we need to be aware of this problem.
  5. Abba – How Jesus reveals God’s compassion for our deepest failing.

Views: 4

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

Views: 4

Of Good and Evil: III – Vanity and Humility

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  May 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God

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

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

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

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

“This must not happen to you, Lord!”

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

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

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

But Jesus asked:

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

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

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

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

Views: 30

Of Good and Evil: II – The Human Problem

Sean O’Conaill © Reality Apr 2010

What do the following have in common:

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

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

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Consciousness

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

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

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

Our problem of being chronically unsure of our own value.

Self-consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views: 30

Of Good and Evil: I – Dealing with the Darkness

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Mar 2010

As a child of the Age of Optimism – the 1960s – I have never seen a darker time than the present.

And yet it is this deepest darkness that defines the brightest light and draws my eye – and my heart and my mind – towards its source. And that source fills me with a hope that is more deeply grounded than ever.

Graduating from secondary school in Dublin in 1960 I caught the optimism of JFK and Martin Luther King and Pope John XXIII in the years that followed. Although these men were all dead by 1968 – two by assassination – I never doubted that the future must always be brighter than the past. Until 1994.

By then I was 51, and overworking in a Northern Ireland Catholic Grammar school. Fascinated by the digital revolution, I was using the new technology to gather and process news data from around the world for use in my current affairs classes for older teenagers.

That news was increasingly bad. Children were suffering and dying in too many places – victims of an indifference fostered by Western escapism and what we miscalled ‘materialism’. The environment was under increasing threat, and governments were not yet paying close attention. We already seemed to be losing the war against a plague of addiction and its close relative, depression. This in turn was often related to a chronic instability of relationships, captured in a question from an Anne Murray song: “If love never lasts forever … what’s forever for?”

This gathering darkness threatened the future of the children I was teaching, and their children too – and my own children. And Northern Ireland’s own special darkness seemed endless also, as people who were in fact brothers and sisters in Christ persisted in a fratricidal war.

And then in that year, 1994, the clerical child abuse catastrophe erupted in Ireland for the first time.

Already I was deeply frustrated by the failure of the Irish Catholic church leadership to realise the promise of Vatican II. A closed Irish clerical structure had failed the challenge of dialogue with laity that had been issued by the council. So it had also failed to develop the far too passive role of lay people. And so it had also failed to give the children I was teaching a clear notion of their mission within this deteriorating world.

The celebrated and charismatic Pope John Paul II seemed unaware of this problem. And oblivious also to the dangers of the cult of celebrity that enveloped himself – its tendency to make media ‘icons’ of a chosen few and to convince billions of others of their own unimportance.

Waving papal flags was just about OK in 1979 for the first ever papal visit to Ireland, but no more challenging or creative role was discovered by the church leadership for the Irish people of God in the years that followed.

And now in 1994 we learned for the first time that an Irish priest could devastate the lives of children. Worse – although his superiors had been made aware of it, his abuse had continued for decades in his abbey in Cavan and wherever else he roamed in Ireland – and as far abroad as Providence, Rhode Island, USA. Irish church leader had known of this behaviour decades earlier – and failed to stop it in its tracks.

That was not the first major Irish church sex scandal, of course. Two years earlier in 1992 Bishop Eamon Casey had fled from Ireland to escape a media storm following the news that he had fathered a child in 1974. That had been disturbing enough, because Bishop Casey had been one of the most prominent Church leaders in Ireland. But the Brendan Smyth affair was even more disturbing because it revealed a far deeper failure of church leadership than anyone could have suspected. How could the protection of children ever have slipped from the top of any church leader’s agenda?

Trained to suppose that all problems had to be solved in the head, by the rational, logical mind, I was processing all of this depressing data at an increasing rate – and working myself dangerously hard. What exactly was wrong? Why were we so beset by such a multitude of evils? More important, how were we to tackle them?

Yes of course I had always been warned of the problem of evil in the world, but what exactly was the mainspring of that evil? What was the deepest root of our human problem?

Then one evening in the midst of all that my youngest son, aged fourteen, came to see me in my study and said:

“I don’t believe in all this Jesus stuff – and I don’t think anyone else in my class does either!”

That really shook me – because I found myself then unable to explain to my own son why I believed that the biggest mistake we could make in the midst of a gathering world crisis was to let go of our Christian faith.

Always through these years I had been an attentive Sunday Mass goer. The first thing I would do in chapel would be to lift the missalette to scan the scripture readings, especially the Gospel. There was something about that experience that rested the mind and restored the soul. I surely believed that somewhere in that strange, dusty, ancient Palestinian world – and in the words and ceremonies that had emerged from it – lay a treasure and a secret that the world must not lose.

But what was it exactly – what was the relevance of those words and ceremonies to all that was oppressing us in 1994? What did my Sunday have to do with my Monday and the rest of my working week? If I couldn’t put my finger on that, I couldn’t even really do my job – to encourage and maintain the faith and optimism of the children I was teaching – and of my own children too.

So I did then something I should have done much earlier. I began to pray really seriously about all that was worrying me.

This time I didn’t say set, memorised prayers. I took seriously what my church (despite all its faults) had always taught – that there is a spiritual resource or presence that never leaves us, a presence that can be addressed directly. And I did that quietly in my room – confessing my own inability to see any light in the gathering darkness. And I simply asked for help with all that.

In the weeks that followed my life began to change in mysterious ways. Most importantly, I began to notice a pattern in the news stories I was processing for the children I was teaching. One human failing suddenly seemed to me to underlie problems as diverse as global warming, indifference towards 3rd world suffering, the corruption of politicians, the explosion of the cosmetics industry, and injustice of every kind – and even the failure of bishops to protect children.

My first description of this human failing was simply this: people climb!

I meant by this that we humans suffer from a chronic tendency to be dissatisfied with ourselves, and to seek satisfaction by impressing other people. To impress others we need to be noticed by them, and this leads us to climb endlessly – to attract notice.

And it suddenly seemed to me that this was the solution to an historical problem that had always baffled me – the emergence in every human society in every era of some kind of social pyramid. It is our tendency to climb that produces this also – and the snobbery of those who must look down on others. Even the United States, founded on the principle of equality, had become by 1994 just another social pyramid, with most of the graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton looking down on the poor with aristocratic disdain.

And then I realised what had always attracted me to the Gospels. Jesus was the great exception to this historical rule of thumb, that “everybody climbs!” He had done the exact opposite.

I became convinced I had finally managed to connect Sunday with every weekday, and to connect the Bible with my own time. Our God – especially through the Lord of the Gospels – is constantly challenging the pyramids of the world, by challenging first of all our tendency to build them.

Everything I have written since then is based upon that conviction.

Views: 53

The Moral Universe of the Creeds

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times January 2004

Canon Hilary Wakeman suggests (Irish Times, ‘Rite and Reason’, Dec 22nd) that we cannot honestly say we believe the Creed in anything other than a poetical sense, and that dishonesty on this is ‘laying the hand of death on the Church’. From the rest of her article it appears that her argument rests upon the fact that the material cosmos of the Christian Creeds has been dismantled by modern science.

What she, and all modern intellectuals, need to grasp is that the universe of the creeds is a moral as well as a material universe. That is to say the vertical spatial dimension represents not merely what is physically supposed to be above and below a flat or disc-shaped Earth, but what is good and what is evil. This is why God and heaven are placed ‘above’ and Hell is placed ‘below’. Heaven is therefore the ‘place’ of glory while Hell is the ‘place’ of disgrace and shame.

The creedal narrative is therefore telling us that the Christian God is on a moral trajectory that is unexpected – towards shame and disgrace, the lot of the ‘losers’ of the ancient world. (The ‘winners’ were people like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar). Incarnation is the beginning of this narrative, crucifixion and resurrection the dramatic centre, and glorification the end. But Jesus’ glorification was the reward for his acceptance of disgrace and defeat. The ‘meaning’ of the story is therefore that ‘glory’ does not await those who seek to move only ‘upward’ (i.e. those who set out egotistically to ‘reach the top’) – as ‘the world’ has always thought. Humility and service – the centre of the Christian ethic – point in the opposite direction.

Empirical science has no power to destroy the moral universe of the Creeds, because it has yet to show how any ethical code can be derived from the truths it can verify. I suspect that most people who say the creeds have no sense of suppressed dishonesty, because they intuitively know that they are not primarily describing a physical cosmos.

Curiously, it is only the one-dimensional empirical mind that has problems with the notion of a moral universe. The millions who read and watch the Tolkien stories – or the Star Wars and Star Trek sagas for that matter – have no such problem. It’s no accident that Canon Wakeman’s chosen empiricist is Richard Dawkins, who epitomises Enlightenment envy of the Christian clergy’s role in the field that he would wish his own priesthood, the scientists, to dominate: education.

Dawkins supposes (and Wakeman seems to agree) that the Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary, both body and soul, is ‘irrational’ – because Heaven can’t be a physical place that contains bodies. But precisely the same objection has been raised to the Ascension – the event related in Acts 1, when the apostles saw Jesus ascend bodily to the Father. In fact, Christian theology has never been definitive on the non-materiality of Heaven. It emphasises rather that Heaven is essentially a
relationship of full reconciliation and unity with God. A relationship need not be, but obviously may be, something that occurs in some space somewhere.

How may a moral/spiritual universe (if such a thing exists) interact with our material/physical universe? We simply don’t know. But to begin with the Dawkins position that it simply can’t exist, and therefore cannot interact, is surely in itself hubristic and unscientific – especially in an era when physicists themselves declare the possibility of multiple dimensions that we have no normal access to, and when the consequences of supposing the universe to be morally and spiritually empty lie all around us.

It is not empiricism that will invalidate Christianity in the long run, but the failure of Christians themselves to grasp and realise the purpose of a God who challenges ‘the world’ of our own time – the ‘meritocracy’ that tries to make science itself the slave of commerce and the armaments industry, and looks down from towers of glass on the losers of the meritocratic race. This notion that society must always have a ‘top’ in the meritocratic sense is based upon a human frailty identified in the Decalogue – the desire never to be outdone by our neighbour. Scientists are, alas, as prone to it as the rest of us – as Dawkins’s contempt for all religious believers illustrates.

Why should we not live in a moral universe on Sundays, and try to make its values real in the secular moral vacuum through the week? Until science can finally disprove the value of the concepts of good and evil, and derive virtues such as love and compassion from an equation or a drug, we will need great beliefs that leap beyond science. That is why there will always be Christians entranced with the idea of a God who stoops.

Views: 3

Ireland’s Moral Ground Zero

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times Jan 2003

A new year has always been considered a good time for a new beginning.  Never did Ireland have a greater need of one, for there has never been a darker time.

True, in former centuries there have been periods of far greater violence and horror – but always then there was a residual trust in ourselves, a sense that our pain had to do with an alien presence which, once removed, would bring an endless idyll of peace and justice.

These times in Ireland we have totally lost that illusion.  Leadership in the major political party, and in the major church – in a free Ireland – has been fully revealed as fundamentally self-interested, insensitive and inept.  From the high point of national emancipation in 1922 Ireland descended to what must surely be its moral ground zero in 2002.

In May a general election was timed to allow the party in government to present a largely fictitious forecast of the economic climate that would prevail by the end of the year – bankrupting further the esteem in which politicians in Ireland are now held.

In October, Ireland’s only ecclesiastical prince declared on TV that he had failed to show basic Christian pastoral love for the victims of clerical child abuse in his own diocese because he had ‘so much to do’.   More recently it has become clear that we cannot trust him to remember that he told one victim that the rules he had agreed with great fanfare for the handling of child abuse cases in 1996 were mere guidelines, inferior to Canon Law.

Such behaviour corrodes the respect that is owed to the holders of high office – and diminishes the office itself.  We now know that the arrogance of power is not something to which we Irish are somehow genetically or spiritually immune.  We also know that the great gifts supposedly won in 1922 for the Irish people – of freedom and equal dignity for every citizen – are as much in danger from home grown careerists as they ever were from the agents of another state.

Irish politicians who ape the self-interest (and sometimes the cupidity) of the old ascendancy, and Irish churchmen who suppose that the Gospel can be properly exemplified by ‘princes’ in ‘palaces’, are teaching us these times a lesson we must learn quickly if we are not to suffer more of the same.   We are now witnessing the internal moral collapse of the ancien regimes that the rest of Europe went through in the decades before 1789 – a process delayed by our British problem.  Irish nationalism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that Irishmen themselves could never be as corrupt or arrogant as the old ascendancy.  Irish Catholicism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that an empowered Irish clergy would forever disprove the Catholic adage that power itself tends to corrupt.

So, despite all evidence, we are actually far better off than we were a decade ago – because we are no longer naive.  We simply need to face the truth – that we Irish are as prone to the old creeping disease of aristocracy (‘Me First’) in state and church as every other society – and move on from there.

We are re-learning, in other words, that the price of freedom – and equality – is indeed eternal vigilance – even over ourselves.

And we would be most unwise to suppose that because churchmen too have erred, their basic texts must also be tainted.  In July last year  in the USA the Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan attempted a diagnosis of the disease that had undone some of the largest concerns in his own country, beginning with ENRON.  That disease was, he said, ‘infectious greed’ – the tendency for people in a time of economic expansion to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.  ‘Infectious greed’ is clearly none other than the biblical sin of covetousness – the desire to keep pace with our neighbour’s good fortune.

The ongoing technological revolutions provide an endless stream of covetable goods, so we are all tempted, and we fail.  Politicians covet place and position – and the money to achieve both – and they fail.

Ecclesiastics can covet something also – eminence within the clerical elite, so the title ‘Your Eminence’ is an eminently covetable one.  So, along with ‘prince’ and every other worldly title, it should be abandoned in the cause of that ceaseless reform that another Cardinal, Newman, advocated for his church.  So called ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ was patented by the first Catholic bishop to accept the worldly privilege of social elevation.  When Catholic churchmen have all learned to share the same level ground with everyone else – as at least one Irish bishop thankfully has – they will quickly find the time they need to care for those their church has wronged – and even in time recover the integrity and moral authority of their office.

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Towards a New Evangelism IV: ‘Search’

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Of all the problems facing the church, that of passing on ‘the faith’ to a younger generation seems most intractable, yet most crucial. It is at this point that we come right up against the possibility of an unprecedented discontinuity in Irish life. If young people have now decided almost unanimously against the traditional Catholic vocations to celibate ministries, does this indicate a rejection of Catholicism and Christianity per se?

My experience of Cursillo in Derry led me to an offshoot, a ‘cut down’ version of the Cursillo provided for young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, called ‘Search’. Essentially the same features apply: the presentation, over a weekend, of a lifestyle centred on prayer, study and action; the ‘team’ drawn mostly from the peer group, supported by a few unobtrusive older adults; talks involving personal witness as well as exposition, given mostly by young people themselves. Could this formula possibly succeed among a generation now so much younger than the clerical mean in Ireland?

Again I was astonished by what I found: a complete lack of cynicism and derision; a poise and quiet confidence among the young team that I had never encountered previously in this generation; a willingness to be entirely open about the detours from the moral life that young people are now so endangered by; above all a maturity that proved that Christianity is far from being mere sentimentality and wishful thinking.

I was reminded also that nowadays young people are far from insulated from the horrors that can punctuate life in Northern Ireland – including even sectarian murder. Faith that in the darkest valleys the Lord will be found was as much present in the Search experience as in the Cursillo at Termonbacca.

One feature of Search that does not occur on the Cursillo is the dramatisation of issues such as peer pressure in relation to addictive substances or early sex. These are taken very seriously, an echo of the morality plays of the middle ages – and have enormous potential for development as Irish life becomes more sophisticated.

I was above all impressed by the demeanour of these young people before the Blessed Sacrament. Instead of a stiff formalism imposed by adults and undermined by childish giggles, or embarrassed make-believe, I found a relaxed celebration of a sacred presence, all the more sacred because the Lord was clearly understood above all as patient lover and friend of every individual present. Some sang impromptu to guitar accompaniment, while others knelt praying, or read their bibles. There was no orchestration of this, no monitoring adult presence – and no-one was disturbed by my presence either. People came and went quietly, as inclination took them.

This sense of being individually accepted and loved carried over to the relationships between all those present. The entire social and educational spectrum was covered, but the Lord’s inclusiveness was marvellously realised.

There was also a wonderful rapport between the youthful majority on the team, and their mature guides. The latter rely not upon close control but upon trust, built up for weeks before the weekend in planning and prayer sessions. Search was every bit as ‘horizontal’ as Cursillo. Indeed the gratitude of these young people for the trusting care of their elders was openly expressed in the prayers before the Blessed Sacrament that preceded the adult talks.

Speaking individually to some of the Search team later, I found myself talking to adults proud of their faith. This pride came mainly from a sense of doing important work – of proving the relevance of faith to peers often desperately in need of it. Significantly, all insisted that in the Search ministry (for this is what it is) they had received something their Catholic schooling had failed to provide: a context in which they could witness to their own faith, and receive the support of peers, free of the suspicion that they were merely ‘faking it’ for the approval of adult authority.

The essential element was the deep conviction that the spiritual life accords self-respect, as well as a capacity to be of service to those who can lose all direction in total immersion in current youth culture.

“What does ‘Salvation’ mean to you?” I asked Christine, a twenty-one year old computer student.

“That God loves you,” she said, without hesitation. That knowledge, simply expressed, had been gained almost solely through the Search experience – first as a candidate experiencing a weekend provided by others, and then several times afterwards as a member of the team. Christine is in every respect completely relaxed and natural, articulate and intelligent without any sense of superiority.

Christine is also ecumenically engaged, quite at home with Church of Ireland Christians on their annual Summer youth ‘bash’. This too is as true of Search as of Cursillo: pride in being Catholic does not preclude respect for other Christian traditions. Indeed there is often an honest admiration for the sturdy faith that Ulster Protestantism upholds in a generally cynical world.

As with Cursillo, those who gain most from Search make an ongoing commitment to attend regular meetings for prayer and preparation, becoming effectively part of an evangelising community. This last, is, I am convinced the essential secret of any ‘New Evangelism’ today. An evangelism that does no more than verbally assert the existence of a loving God is worse than useless, as it merely replicates the promise of a thousand commercial ventures to ‘change your life’ without changing the communal context in which it is lived.

Conclusions

Listening to ecclesiastics enthusing about the power of modern media to ‘spread the word’ I wonder how long this mirage will deflect the hierarchical church from the reality of the death of Christendom. That was an era when spectacular ‘conversions’ flowed from the success of the Church in commanding the political and intellectual heights. All of us remember when this was true of Ireland also, when much ‘faith’ was mere conformity by the upwardly aspiring.

Now in Ireland the only powerful church is Cynicism, spilling like acid from a thousand journalistic pens and broadcasts. In the general collapse of respect for all institutions, and their most prominent members, the Irish Catholic church is undergoing its most serious challenge since the Reformation. Indeed, the present challenge to Irish Catholicism is in some respects even more serious than that, for the Reformation was weakened in Ireland by the fact that its missionaries were generally considered lackeys of an alien oppressor, and Irish Catholicism was consequently strengthened by its utility as a badge of cultural and political identity.

With political independence the Catholic hierarchy here assumed the position of the Catholic hierarchy of the European ancien régime – elitist, hostile to modernity, (especially the principle of intellectual freedom), and condescending to the social base. Convinced that control of the intellectual heights and of the educational system would mean security for ever, it failed to take the opportunity to build an open egalitarian church provided by Vatican II – and is now reaping the proper reward of such a policy: the almost total collapse of hierarchical authority.

Yet in many ways those Catholics who still joyously serve are proving that a collapse of hierarchical authority is not a collapse of the authority of the Gospels. Wherever compassion reigns, God reigns also. It is only in the context of genuine compassion – not just mere publicity – that a New Evangelism can flourish. Young people who know this, and act upon it, are tomorrow’s church, and to restore our hope, and our authority, we must simply affirm and follow them – allowing them to teach their peers.

In all the examples I have seen of effective evangelism in Ireland today, it is lay people who play the key role – the peers of those who need convincing of the reality of Christian love. They convince not by virtue of their verbal eloquence or theological sophistication, but by their integrity – the fact that they embody genuine faith and the compassion they attribute to God. They also belong to the most morally challenged society in Ireland.

Northern Ireland is commonly considered the worst advertisement for Christianity in the whole of the west. Yet in the personal crises and traumas that it provides, there is a wealth of experience of the reality of grace. Out of these darkest valleys have come people – old and young – who walk more securely and wisely in their faith than I would have thought possible. This too surely is Good News – a promise that for the Irish church as a whole there will indeed be a resurrection, if we can all learn from the experience of humiliation.

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