Category Archives: Religions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views: 12

After Ferns: the Rise of Christian Secularism?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does Religion Cause Violence?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Northern Ireland: Christians in Conflict?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Sep 2003

This simple equation has been one of the clichés of western journalism for most of my lifetime. If anyone wanted proof that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was socially divisive and a source of violence, look there, to the six counties of Ireland’s north-east.

Although we in Ireland have always known that politics was a more potent source of Irish violence, there has always been even here a certain pandering to the secular myth that religion and violence are bedfellows. We will point to Ian Paisley as the exemplar of the violent bigot who, while steering personally clear of activities that would have landed him in the H Blocs, steered others in that direction. And we will say things like: sure isn’t republicanism a kind of religion too.

Never mind that virtually all the men of violence clearly had an entirely secular axe to grind: republicans in their belief that the Pearsite tradition had forever made sacred the ideal of a thirty-two county state; loyalists in their addiction to Protestant domination as a political cause. No-one has ever argued, in my recollection, that the secular myths that sustained Irish violence raised serious questions about the beneficence of secularism per se. Via Irish secularist intellectuals like Eamonn McCann, secularism became the holy cause that would bring peace everywhere, especially in this “priest ridden”country.

It is time we looked with far more jaundiced eyes at the non-violent claims of secularism. The arms race, and the arms industry, were, and are, entirely secular activities. So is politics, the source of virtually all twentieth century wars. The violence of the Soviet Union, of communist China, and of fascist Italy and Germany, stemmed entirely from secular ideologies, and made a target of the spiritualities that underlay the greatest opponents of violence – the churches.

It is time especially to do this in Ireland, where the churches are still being targeted by secular ideologues as the major obstacle to peace. Isn’t the Orange Order, a religious organisation, at the root of the Drumcree conflict? And isn’t it the Catholic desire for a separatist educational system, and the reactionary Protestant bigotry that results, at the root of the Holy Cross scandal?

It takes only the slightest element of religiosity in any Irish conflict to get the secularists going about the baneful influence of religion – but no-one ever points to the violence inherent in all secular utopian dreams. Or to the obvious fact that the drive for power in human affairs – an entirely secular preoccupation – lies at the root of virtually all violence.

This summer in Northern Ireland my wife and I took a holiday in County Fermanagh. My wife Patricia has wanted for many years to visit the Marble Arch caves in South Fermanagh, close to the border with Monaghan.

On our route from Coleraine lies Omagh, and specifically the Ulster-American folk park lying just south of that city. For many years this complex has been a splendid resource for all those seriously grappling with the problem of educating young people in the North to the importance of mutual respect for differing traditions.

It divides the young person’s experience into Old World and New World. The old world is the nineteenth century peasant world of the region – Protestant and Catholic. A Presbyterian meeting house lies close to a Catholic primary school – and the visiting pupil will experience both as part of a single Old World order in Ireland – as well as the atmosphere of a forge, where the farmers of both traditions would have met and mingled.

The New World is the world of the American homesteader, of the log cabin, the Conestoga Wagon, the snake fence, the long rifle and the general store. The latter is fully fitted with all of the stock in trade of the store in, say, the movie Shane.

In between lies the experience of the emigrant ship – and all children must pass through this to reach the New World. There is no way in which a Protestant child could fail to associate much Irish emigration with famine and despoliation – while Catholic children will learn about the kinship ties that often bound Ulster and New England non-conformists.

We history teachers are worried these times about the failure of experiences of this kind to make much impact upon children from interface areas who have been schooled in tribal loyalties, and in the historiography that goes with them. We cannot measure their impact upon thousands of other children making up their own minds on such issues, and looking for consolidation of their inclinations towards peace. It is the home that has first, and longest, impact upon all children – but all NI schools in my experience have tried hard – especially in the history classroom – to gain some kind of purchase upon the bigotry that would otherwise have overwhelmed them.

As a consequence, NI schools generally remained oases of calm in the most violent times, even in interface areas – and this has been acknowledged by psychiatrists treating the child victims of violence. The Holy Cross nightmare was terrifying precisely because it was the first of its kind – and it remains a unique reminder of what might have happened elsewhere if schools, and the churches that support them, had pitched into the conflict in the way the myth of religious violence suggests they should.

This summer, the Ulster-American Folk park in Omagh was host to families from all backgrounds in Northern Ireland. We found them there, sampling Ulster drop scones and wheaten bread along with New England candle-making.

We found them also in Enniskillen, visiting the pre-reformation Christian remains on White island and Devenish island. Tired of the endless tendency of politicians to claim their allegiance to tired secular myths, many in Ulster are looking for the historical truth, and making excellent use of the resources available to them.

And they are doing this in the context of a miraculous calm. This summer there was no serious violence accompanying Orange celebrations. It seems that the shame of Drumcree has had its impact now – and the Holy Cross issue no longer dominates urban headlines.

Suddenly Limerick and Tallaght are more dangerous places to be than Derry or Belfast. Will the secularists notice this, or will they look for religious influences over Limerick stabbings or Dublin shootings? It is time they woke up and realised that it is the supposed peacefulness of secularism that is the greater myth.

What might southerners do to consolidate this new peace in the north? Realise what an exciting place it is just now – especially for a holiday. Please come north now, you southern Christians and tell us what we need to hear – the simple truth. All of Ireland is free at last – and nationalist and unionist as well.

It is fitting that this message should come from the churches – because they have performed unacknowledged marvels of restraint to bring it about.

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Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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The Day the World Changed – 11/09/2001

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality 2001

For most of my lifetime I’ve been teaching history and current affairs, and in that lifetime already there have been days of special significance.

The night in 1962 when JFK told us about Soviet missiles on Cuba; that other awful night in 1963 we learned he had been assassinated; the day of the first serious violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969; the day in 1989 the Berlin Wall came down.

Yet none hit me with so much force as Tuesday 11th September 2001 – the day over 3000 people died in deliberate air crashes in New York and Washington. On my screen as I write there is a shot of Flight 175 about to pass through the enormous glazed wall of the World Trade Centre south building. I keep it there as a memento of an era that is about to pass away, a reminder that we are now in a different time. And that we owe to those dying and about to die at that moment – and to those they left behind – a monument that will do justice to their loss.

That image perfectly expresses the vulnerability of the US, at that moment the world’s only superpower.  Its terrifying nuclear missile shield, its strategic bomber force, its air and army and naval bases throughout the world, its nuclear submarines, its dozen floating airports, its huge external and internal intelligence services the CIA and FBI – all had been powerless to protect its most vulnerable citizens as they began their innocent day.

Superpower?

All of which raises a critical question: Is the concept of the superpower itself a dangerous illusion when only one superpower is left to become a target of a terrorism that it cannot directly engage with superpower arms?superpower Is the vastness of its strategic military strength, and the global nature of that power, now an invitation to the murder of its own citizens from within, and to a global religious war?

The concept of the superpower emerged in the period after 1945. Two powers had contributed most to the defeat of the axis powers – the  USA and the USSR. Only one as yet possessed a nuclear capability, but by 1962 this inequality had disappeared and the world stood poised on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The superpowers were already competing also in space, and it was the US decision to build a defensive satellite shield against nuclear missiles that finally broke the USSR’s capability to compete in the late 1980s. The collapse of the soviet empire from 1989 left one superpower only, with an apparently global dominance.

But global dominance – the aspiration of conquerors from Alexander to Hitler – is a dangerous position to be in. In fighting the Cold War US support for Israel was a potent source of alienation of Islamic peoples who sided with the Palestinians who were being squeezed out. Geared for nuclear warfare, or conventional warfare with forces prepared to engage in pitched battles, the US now faced a new and subtle enemy whose strength was anti-western fanaticism and an ability to improvise.

“They have woken a mighty giant,”  President Bush has now assured us, paraphrasing the Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbour. But Yamamoto had actually said ‘sleeping giant’ – and this seems far more appropriate as a comment on September 11th. There is a sense in which the entire political and military leadership of the US was indeed asleep on that morning, and was then woken out of a complacency of catastrophic proportions.

As all the ingredients for the disaster were already known to be present, future historians will set their students the task of explaining why the disaster was allowed to happen. Fanatical middle eastern suicide bombers had attacked US targets before, and had recently killed hundreds of Israelis and severely damaged a US warship; hundreds of men from middle eastern lands deeply alienated from the US were known to be in the US; US flying schools did not require security clearance for their pupils; US internal air security was known not to prevent the carrying on board of potentially deadly weapons; the flight decks of these aircraft were known to be accessible to armed passengers.

Nothing more was required to allow the most appalling internal disaster ever to befall the US at the hands of its enemies – and these facts all lay before those charged with the defence of US citizens during the years this plan was meticulously prepared.

To argue that no one could foresee this is specious: these terrorists had foreseen it, probably as early as five years before. Specific US politicians and military and security and intelligence personnel had the task of outguessing the nation’s enemies, of thinking the unthinkable in order to prevent it, during that time. They either failed to do so, or were discouraged from pursuing the issue Scapegoating of individuals is pointless: there was a national failure of leadership at the summit, affecting the previous Democratic presidency of Fulbright scholar Bill Clinton as much as that of the Republican George Bush, and Congress also under both administrations. No-one at the summit wanted to think the unthinkable, although that is precisely what terrorists do.

Now that the US is attempting to build an alliance against terrorism it needs to avoid words and actions that must prevent that alliance ever becoming effectual. Words like ‘Crusade’ – for the Islamic world this has the same overtones as ‘Jihad’ for the west. The Crusades were Christian military expeditions against the Islamic rulers of the Holy Lands in the Middle Ages, called initially – and inexcusably – by the Papacy. An estimated 40 – 70,000 Jews and Arabs perished in the rape of Jerusalem by western ‘Christian’ knights in 1099 CE. The fact that George Bush did not apparently know this, and did not employ an adviser who could tell him, shows clearly the absence of a due respect for Islam at the summit of government at this critical moment.

The alliance must also avoid the indiscriminate use of force anywhere in the world. As I write, US military strikes of some kind against Afghanistan seem a possibility – with consequences that could include the alienation of much of the Islamic world from any anti-terrorist alliance. Since the bin Laden argument is that the US is bent upon global domination, unilateralist action by the US against any Islamic nation can only strengthen the bin Ladens and enhance their reputation.

US after 9-11What is needed above all is for the US to rethink its role and posture in the world. Is it bent upon economic and cultural as well as military dominance, or is it the big brother that guards the freedoms and dignity, and cultural identity of others as determinedly as its own?

At a critical moment in the development of the Irish peace process the London government found it useful to say simply that it had no longer any strategic interest in retaining control of Northern Ireland. This allowed most republicans to stack, if not yet to relinquish, their arms and bring us peace of a kind. Something similar is required from the US to clarify its intentions, especially with regard to the Islamic world and Israel. This could also strengthen its relations with the western powers.

When those who devised the US constitution wondered how to express the essential equality of the states that belonged to it, they decided that the US Senate would each have just two members from each state. This reassured those who argued that states with smaller populations would be always outvoted and ignored. The nearest thing we have to a world congress, the UN, gives greater power to the permanent superpower members of the Security Council. It must surely be obvious that when the list of superpowers is reduced to one, the credibility of the UN as an impartial body must be weakened. The time has come to re-examine its constitution – and here also the US must play a crucial role.

Having climbed to the summit of world power, the US has now to decide how that power is to be used within a framework of mutual international respect. Respect is only possible within a framework of equality. Equality was the original program of those who framed the US Declaration of Independence of 1776, and makes a perfectly respectable program now for a new world order. Is the administration of George Bush up to this – or will the US go on defending a supremacy that must remain a target for all the ‘young guns’ that must emerge to challenge it – with heaven knows what consequences for its own citizens, as well as the rest of the world?

What is power?

As I watched the aftermath of this shocking catastrophe in New York I had as a guest in my home a Dutch naval officer, one of a group of eight Christians visiting Coleraine from the Hague. “What is power?” Rudolph Francis asked at one point.

The question is so appropriate. These hijackers had armed themselves with nothing more than information, basic flying skills and knives. The information allowed them to co-ordinate the seizure of four planes that had left three different airports within fifteen minutes of one another. Knives and piloting skills allowed them to turn three of these into flying bombs of great destructive power, aimed at the political and economic capitals of the world’s only superpower. The factor that stunned the US – their willingness to give their lives for this enterprise – has undoubtedly helped to shape the history of the next century. It is equivalent to the assassination by Serbs of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary in 1914. The consequences of that action included the Great War and the downfall of that empire, with consequences that still reverberate in eastern Europe.

What will be the consequences of September 11th, 2001? One possibility, which must at all costs be avoided, is another ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and Islam. To avoid it we must all become far more aware of the multitude of different cultures, beliefs and attitudes to be found among the world’s one billion Muslims. Islam is at least as diverse as the Christian world. The fanaticism of the suicide hijackers is fuelled by a perception of the west, led by the US, as a purveyor of a corrupt globalisation, threatening to Islamic faith and culture. The best way for the west to undermine that perception is to rediscover the Gospels, which threaten no-one.

Our own church could begin by acknowledging – in a substantial document – the disastrous error of the Crusades, called initially by Pope Urban II in an address that was not recorded verbatim. One version of it has him asking:

“Can anyone tolerate that we do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited Earth?”

As this ‘take’ on the papacy’s attitude to Islam would align it with a possible tide of anti-Islamism today, it is all the more necessary that the church distance itself from this discreditable era of its history. This beautiful Earth is not a western or Christian domain but a dear heritage of all its children. Our Bible – some of which we share with Islam – records that we are one family, from the beginning, and our gospels insist that we are destined to be at peace. Most Islamic scholars share this vision, so the earth need not become a battlefield between any two or more great faiths.

And this vision of a world enjoying a secure diversity is perfectly compatible with the greatest traditions of the USA. To protect its citizens it reconciles in its constitution the principle of the separation of the three different elements of state power, with the other vital principle of national unity against external aggression. It can now lead the world to a permanent peace by placing equal emphasis upon both principles in a genuine new world order. The world’s peoples and faiths can unite as one world against fanatical violence, in defence of the freedom of all to be themselves.

And the idea of a New World Order was, of course first floated by the first President Bush. It is time for us all to begin thinking about what the phrase might mean.

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