Tag Archives: Copernicus

The Story of the West: II – Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Nov 2006

How did Europe come to dominate the world by 1900?

The reason is simple: the ocean-going ships that first explored and mapped the whole world began their voyages in Europe in the 1400s AD. They were followed by European soldiers who built global empires for countries such as Spain, Portugal, England, Holland and France.

And these imperialistic adventurers were usually accompanied by Christian missionaries who spread the Christian faith globally also.

And this is why, throughout the world, people speak of this as ‘the twenty-first century’. The first truly global calendar was European and Christian also, and so were the first accurate world maps.

This is what people mean when they speak about ‘the dominance of the West’. Western European countries began this period of western dominance, and the USA has continued it, right up until our own time. But how had this happened? Why did ‘the West’ become the first globally dominant civilisation.

The simplest answer is that it was western Europe that first fully exploited technical advances such as the compass, the fore-and-aft sail and gunpowder. These allowed European ships of the 1400s to navigate when out of site of land, to sail at an angle into the prevailing wind, and to overcome most opposition they met with. And it was the wealth of European trade that developed these ships and financed these voyages.

But why was Europe the most technologically and economically developed part of the world by the 1400s AD?

Most historians still tend to credit the culture of ancient Greece. The Greeks believed in the power of reason and began the systematic collection of knowledge that laid the foundations of modern science.

However, as we saw last month, the ancient Greeks did not believe in progress. Nor did they invent true science.

Science is not simply the haphazard collection of knowledge. It involves the systematic testing of every theory – either by experiment or observation. Only if repeated experiments or observations do not disprove a theory can it be accepted as scientifically proven.

The most scientific of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle, was an avid collector of information and ideas – but he never set out to test these ideas systematically. For example, he believed that heavier objects will fall faster than lighter. He could easily have devised an experiment to test this – for example by dropping stones of different weights from a high cliff at the same time, and having someone down below observe if the heavier did indeed reach the sand below before the lighter. He never did. Nor did any other ancient Greek.

The reason was simple. The ancient Greeks tended to believe that the spirit world was constantly interacting with the material world, changing the appearance of things – and making it impossible for humans to trust their own senses. Unseen spirits could easily interfere with two falling stones, to deceive any observer – so what could be the point of devising such an experiment?

For true science to happen, people had to believe that the natural world was ordered by a rational being according to unchanging natural principles lying waiting to be discovered. This attitude could never have developed in ancient Greece – or in any other ancient civilisation.

The reason that true science did not develop in the ancient world had therefore everything to do with the pagan belief systems of that world. Pagan Gods were believed to share the weaknesses of gifted humans, especially vanity, and the natural world was believed to be populated by a variety of invisible spirits with human failings also. Furthermore, pagan Gods were believed to be incapable of truly loving their worshippers – they were far too great to have any real interest in us humans.

If Gods could behave unreasonably, then the natural world could not be subject to reason either. And if Gods were uninterested in the fate of humans they could have no interest in our questions either.

The modern belief that all of nature is subject to unchanging laws – laws that lie waiting to be discovered by the human mind – required fist of all the belief that God is a rational, and consistent being. It required, in other words, the coming of Christianity and the rise of Christian theology.

No other religious tradition ever developed anything like Christian theology – a systematic attempt to explain reality in terms of a rational, creator God. And that is why true science developed first in Christian Europe

Nowadays it is often alleged that Christianity is all about ‘blind faith’, and that the coming of Christianity delayed the emergence of science and reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christian theology was founded on the premise that everything had been created by a loving and reasonable God. The greatest Christian theologians had far more faith in reason than many of today’s greatest intellectuals.

“Heaven forbid,” declared St Augustine (354-430 AD), “that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals. Heaven forbid that we should believe in such a way as not to accept or seek reasons, since we could not even believe if we did not possess rational souls.” 

Furthermore Augustine believed that such a search would be fruitful, declaring that although ‘certain matters pertaining to the doctrine of salvation’ could not yet be understood, ‘one day we shall be able to do so’.

This confidence in the power of reason to produce new knowledge was the cause of the development of Christian theology in the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome. It was also the reason for the foundation of the Christian universities after about 800 AD.

By the beginning of the modern period c 1450 AD, the Church was the most important source of support for Europe’s universities. Centuries of planetary observation in these provided the knowledge needed by the Polish Catholic priest, Copernicus, to frame his revolutionary theory that Earth and all of the other planets rotated around the sun. He hit upon this theory in the early 1500s AD.

Later, in the 1600s, Galileo’s support for Copernicus led to a papal ban – for which Pope John Paul II eventually apologised. This famous and unforgivable episode is often used by anti-Catholic intellectuals to prove that Christian faith and reason are incompatible – but these same intellectuals have never even tried to explain why the Scientific Revolution begun by Copernicus and Galileo began in Christian Europe and nowhere else.

This paradox puzzled none other than the famous atheist English philosopher Bertrand Russell. If religion was the source of all ignorance, why then had ancient China not been the cradle of the scientific revolution – as the intellectuals of ancient China had been sceptical of all religion?

Russell’s collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, provided the answer. The intellectuals of ancient China had no confidence that progress in knowledge was possible, because they believed that everything that could be known was already known.

Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, were convinced that, in Whitehead’s words “there is a secret … which can be unveiled”. He went on to explain that this conviction originated in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”. Faith in a rational God led to the conviction that nature too must be rationally ordered – and it was this conviction that led to the scientifically-based world we know.

Unfortunately, the historical education of most of the West’s secular intellectuals has not kept pace with their scientific and technical expertise. This is why Pope John Paul II could not persuade the leaders of the European Union to include mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in their now-delayed constitution for the enlarged EU. They are mostly simply unaware that there would not be a European Union had it not been for centuries of rational Christian theology.

Recent events in our church have also had the effect of giving many of us Catholics an inferiority complex about the history of our church. It is time we knew better – and began the task of making our church once more a beacon of enlightenment in the darkness of our own time.

Far from delaying the emergence of our modern science-based society, Christian and Catholic faith was in fact the original cradle of the modern world. We will see later how it will also provide solutions to the most critical problems of our own time – such as the threat to the environment.

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Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christology from above:

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

Christology from below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bishop J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must change or Die’

Spong on Spong 1 – Ditching the Old Man

Anxious to find out what all the fuss was about I bought the paperback version of Episcopal Bishop JS Spong’s “Why Christianity Must Change or Die”(HarperCollins 1998). I was impressed straightaway that its Alpha and Omega – Foreword and Epilogue – are essentially devoted to Spong himself – his Journey out of Theistic Darkness and his confidence that in the end the Christian world will follow Him. In between we get flashes of lightning like the following (I give the whole paragraph because it epitomises Spong’s dialectical and literary style):

“The opening phrase of the Apostles’ Creed speaks first of God as the “Father Almighty.” Both of these words offend me deeply. Here the mystery that I treasure in God begins to be filled with limiting cultural definitions. The word Father is such a human word – so male, so dated.’ It elicits the traditional God images of the old man who lives just beyond the sky. It shouts of the masculinity of the deity, a concept that has been used for thousands of years to justify the oppression of women by religious institutions. That history and that practice repel me today. The Christian Church at times has gone so far as to debate whether women actually had souls and whether girl babies ought to be baptized. That Church universally relegated women to clearly defined secondary roles until the latter years of the twentieth century, when that sexist prejudice began to dissipate. Even the recent ecclesiastical breakthrough in some faith communities, which has allowed women to be pastors, priests, and bishops, is embraced by only a small minority of the Christians of the world. The Church dedicated to the worship of a God who was called “Father” has consistently justified its rampant discrimination against women as the will of this patriarchal deity or, at the very least, as something idolatrously called the “unchanging sacred tradition of the Church.” I do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity. I am no longer tolerant of gatherings where all the participants are men, sitting in a solemn assembly, clothed in their ecclesiastical dress, and acting as if they can determine what a woman may do morally with her own body. I have no interest in being part of an institution that is so deeply biased against women and intends to stay that way.”

In this rebuttal of the creed this is absolutely all there is on the term ‘Father’. ‘Father’ means ‘patriarch’ only, we are told, and even this term is sold short, as merely the bête noir of feminism. ‘Father’ as ‘Abba’ – with all the richness of the relationship that this implies – receives not even a defensive mention. There is not even a nod to the fidelity of the God of the Old Testament, drawn by Christ in human terms in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The term ‘Masculine’ is used, without any attempt at analysis, as a pejorative term equivalent to ‘machismo’ – an example of opportunistic rhetoric every bit as reprehensible as the maleist distortion of the term ‘female’.

Spong’s dismissal of the rest of the Apostles’ creed is every bit as unscrupulous and perfunctory as this example. Leave this man in charge of the family jewellery store and you will come back to find he has sold gold as lead. This is bad enough – but then you have to put up with him flashing in your face the brass pennies he has sold it for – in this case the applause of the more superficial proponents of the women’s liberation movement. (It’s time we accepted that feminism is often just another ideology, a bias as unbalanced and self-serving as masculinism – but don’t expect Spong to offend his feminist readership by saying so.)

Why the continual self-referencing? (‘Both of these words offend *ME* deeply?’ ‘That history and that practice repel *ME* today?’. ‘*I* do not care to worship a God defined by masculinity,’ and so on.) This self-absorption is the most consistent theme of the book, and it gives the game away. Spong suffers from the debilitating illness that afflicted his mentor, Bishop John Robinson of ‘Honest to God’ – a fundamental embarrassment that his calling has associated him with ‘Theism’. There he is in this antique jewellery shop when all the salesmen who visit show him the glitzy early success of rationalism. “Where is your Old Man in the Sky?” they ask. As insecure as an adolescent with acne, he immediately values the family stock in terms of this patently absurd caricature – and sells it off at their altogether self-interested and superficial valuation.

Notice too the dismissal of the term ‘Father’ as ‘human’ and therefore ‘dated’. Spong is not a humanist either, it seems. His ‘intoxication’ with God is a mystical affinity with ‘The Ground of All Being’ (henceforward ‘Goab’ here for the sake of economy). Goab cannot be in any sense human – because, it seems, if you allocate any aspect of the human to Goab you are anthropocentric and a believer in ‘The Old Man in the Sky’. The possibility of a creative conscious being in love with his creation, and supremely in love with the only one of its creatures aware of its own certain death, is not admitted. Spong lives intellectually ‘in exile’ from the theistic thought systems of the church.

Inevitably then, the Lord’s Prayer later goes the way of the Apostle’s Creed. According to Spong, Jesus made assumptions in that prayer that ‘exile people’ (Spong’s disciples) are not capable of making.

He assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as “Father.” He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven.” Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.  Those were all aspects of a theistic belief system that simply is no  more. The concept of a personal deity who directs the affairs of  individual human history from a vantage point above this earth,  watching, intervening, rewarding, and punishing, has died.

 In a thoroughly Goabian Church, then, Jesus is to be patronised for his theism and gently put right. Later he will be taught – by Spong – how he should have prayed. Where Jesus had Good News for mankind, Spong has better news for Jesus – he needn’t any longer believe in ‘the Father’.

Those of you who are still awake may anticipate a problem here. Did not Jesus explain his mission in terms of his love for and obedience to ‘the Father’? If Jesus was guided in everything up to and including the crucifixion by nothing more than mistaken ‘assumptions’ how can he remain the central figure of the enterprise that Spong is supposedly rescuing from itself – Christianity?

Let’s keep that important question for the second item in this series.


Spong on Spong: 2 – ‘Rescuing’ the Son

You will all remember that in my first bulletin from Bishop Spong’s ‘Why Christianity must Change or Die’ I described how God the Father had been summarily fired by the good bishop for political incorrectness. (Father = Patriarch, and just look at what patriarchy has done to women! Spong is offended. End of ‘argument’.)

The Lord’s Prayer must therefore be dumped also, because it is addressed to the Father. Why does Jesus, author of the prayer, not go the way of the Father? Has he not made three false theistic assumptions?

The answer lies in Bishop Spong’s long training as a Baywatch lifeguard. No sooner does John Shelby see Jesus going down for the third false assumption than he streaks to the water’s edge, dives in and comes out with a Jesus that even a non-theist can love. Jesus’ outstanding features as a human being are then analysed: his inclusiveness, his assault upon those barriers which separate Jew from Samaritan and Gentile, male from female, adult from child, pure from ‘unclean’, sane from mad, high born from low born; his ability to be totally present to whomever he is addressing; his freedom to be himself in all circumstances – even facing death; his faithful love of the twelve, despite their shortcomings; his extraordinary capacity to forgive even his enemies, remaining consistent until the excruciating end.

This is indeed an impressive list, and straightaway one wonders how Jesus has acquired these characteristics, and how the good Bishop will explain them in psychological, historical and spiritual terms.

He doesn’t.

This extraordinary human being, Jesus, is presented as emerging from nothing, through no clear process of human and social development. The question of how this extraordinary man came to be what he was is left completely unanswered. Were Spong arguing that Jesus is theistically divine this would be understandable. But Spong, the rationalist, fails completely to account for Jesus the man.

Why is this? I’m not a trained psychologist but I know for certain that the human personality grows mainly through mimesis – the imitation of qualities present in those adults who have nurtured the child. In particular I know that what one becomes as a man has an enormous amount to do with the personality and attention of one’s father. Richard Rohr distills a lot of this in ‘The Wild Man’s Journey’ – arguing that one of the great problems in the typical male spiritual journey in this era is ‘the father wound’ – the typical father’s failure to admire and recognise the son’s self, and the son’s inability to forget and overcome this.

A story from the Vatican 2 mailing list illustrates this need beautifully. A contributor remembers:

“sitting by a poolside in Israel in 1982 and hearing a child shout, “Abba, look, look. Amma, look, look.” I did a double take wondering what was going on and it was a darling little boy asking his parents to applaud his diving skills.”

 “Abba, look, look.” It is so important that the Father sees what the boy can do, and acknowledges it admiringly. This need stays with the boy throughout his life. His sense of who he is, his evaluation of himself, continues to depend (albeit to a diminishing degree) upon the father’s recognition. Asked to give a talk in my own parish church some months ago it was still important to me (now 55) that my Dad, (now 86), should be there, and should approve. Without that recognition from the father for the younger man the soul can shrivel and die. The person that emerges from this deprivation is psychologically unsure and indecisive, the very opposite of the Nazarene.

Jesus’s psychological poise MUST have owed enormously to how he felt Abba’s recognition – and Abba for Jesus was Spong’s ‘Patriarch’. There is absolutely no way you can separate Jesus’ ‘Theism’ from his psychological, intellectual and spiritual poise, and towering personality.

Why separate them? Why does Spong feel obliged to ditch Jesus’ theism? Here are the passages in which he does so, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.

“(Jesus) assumed, first, that God was a person who could be addressed as ‘Father’.”

 The word ‘assumed’ is, of course, insufferably patronising in this context. The truth is that this highly intelligent young man *firmly believed* that he could address his God AS ‘Abba’. If this ‘Abba’ did not recognise Jesus – in a manner communicable to Jesus – how did the boy Jesus become the most extraordinarily balanced male in human history? Spong’s a priori assumption that this extraordinary individual could have developed *in the absence of the Abba who is so passionately addressed* is psychologically spurious and nowhere justified in his book.

All of us are capable of hearing imaginary voices, if we listen hard enough, but how many of us are absolutely convinced that the voice we hear is not our own? If Jesus couldn’t tell the difference, why was he so present to all he met, so ‘there’, rather than wrapped in some kind of psychosis? There is a mystery here that Spong does nothing to explain. Obliged by his rationalist assumptions to discount the possibility of a human dialogue with a personal God, he extols a human being who is simply inexplicable in non-theistic terms. Yet he prefers his rationalism. This, for a bishop ordained into theism, is simply perverse.

“He assumed, second, that this divine being was external to life, or “in heaven”. (Spong)

 If Jesus assumed this, and this only, how could he have addressed Abba? If the Lord’s prayer was to be heard by Abba, then Abba for Jesus could not simply be external, beyond the furthest boundary imagined by Jesus. Abba had to be in some sense here present and listening also. This Spong has a curiously one-dimensional mind: ‘Father’ must mean simply ‘Patriarch’, not also ‘Abba’; Abba cannot be for Jesus both here, and out there.

This is supremely important, for Spong is at pains to insist that the theistic mind of Jesus’s time saw God as an embodied reality out beyond the sky. Clearly Jesus saw nothing of the kind. Why is Spong at so much pain to belittle the intellectual sophistication of the ancients, when the truth is clearly before him?

“Finally, he assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name.” (Spong)

 It’s clear from the context that Spong is referring here to “hallowed be thy name”. But how does Spong reach HIS assumption? If I say to God ‘Thou art Holy’ I am making no assumption about what God likes to hear. I am simply declaring how I feel about God. For Jesus, the Father is Holy. He says nothing of how this statement is received by God.

This is important, for Spong in his dismissal of Theism makes much of our supposed assumption that God (‘Ground of All Being’ for Spong) *needs* to be worshipped. The little boy heard at the swimming pool shouting “Abba” was simply delighting in his Father’s presence, not making a statement about what his father needed to hear. There is absolutely nothing in the text of the Our Father that compels us to believe that Jesus “assumed that this male deity delighted in our recognition of the sacredness of his name”. He is addressing the Father, not obliquely commenting upon him.

Yet if the Father is pleased by the Son’s recognition, why cannot this simply be the same joy that the poolside father will feel when he sees the little boy jump joyfully into the pool? There is no solipsism in this either. Holiness is simply the essence of goodness, a goodness greater than ours. The holiness of the Father, Abba, will simply express itself in the joy that he is recognised – why must this be an introverted need to be worshipped? When we say ‘Hallowed’ to God we are simply in ‘praise’ mode. What Spong makes of this is clearly forced to suit his own conclusions – it does not arise inevitably, or even naturally, from the text. His three “assumptions” turn out to be spurious.

We are discerning here the nature of Bishop Spong’s dialectic. It is not scrupulous exegesis and logic, but a rhetoric which does not hesitate to misrepresent and distort the text if this will suit his purpose. That purpose is a rejection of theism on the grounds that modern science has made it impossible. So theism has to be a belief in the materiality of God out there beyond the sky. It’s clear from the Gospels that for Jesus Abba was non-material and spiritual and therefore everywhere present. It is also clear that his relationship with Abba was something far more than fantasy. Spong will distort the text to keep this from us. He will also allege that theism requires a self-absorbed deity. This too is a distortion of the entire Bible, in which the overwhelming presence is a God who endlessly gives of himself. Spong is fundamentally unreliable in relation to the core text of his profession, and perversely so, simply to serve the needs of his rhetoric.

If Spong will deliberately misrepresent the Bible, what will he do to the findings of modern science? Fasten your seat belts, folks, we’re in for a bumpy, and mysterious, ride.


Spong on Spong 3 – Too much Faith in Reason

Bishop Spong’s rejection of Theism claims the scientific achievements of the modern period as sufficient reason. Yet his account of this rationalistic demythologisation is strangely dated. There is much on Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Freud – but no adequate analysis of the uncertainties – the rediscovered mysteries – of current microcosmic and macrocosmic science. And absolutely no assessment of the problem of human evil.

Atheistic rationalism is grounded upon nothing more than a *belief* that we all know what matter is, and can predict in all circumstances how it will behave. Recent science proves that we don’t and can’t. Elementary particles are divisible beyond our conceptual grasp, and are bound together in relationships we cannot explain. The atom is over 99% empty space – which means that we are also. At the particle level the act of scientific observation actually produces the behaviour being observed – questioning the rationalist assumption that science could and would objectively explain everything in time. Matter is also just another mode of energy, as Einstein predicted and nuclear physics proved. Thus, matter too, we now know, is just as mysterious as spirit – is in an important sense spiritual – but don’t expect Spong to tell you this.

Also lacking is any serious analysis of our expanding knowledge of the universe – its origins and extent. We now know that it is actually far vaster than had been thought as late as the 1960s, and that the possibilities for life elsewhere in space are virtually limitless. The origin of all that exists is explained generally in terms of an original ‘big bang’ – but this takes us through one door only to encounter another that is unopenable: a spontaneous generation of the universe is far more difficult to accept than the Resurrection. Those few people who can speculate in this mysterious area are dealing in theories which are not only esoteric for most of us, but completely unverifiable – one of the preconditions for the kind of empirical rationalism that Spong appears to believe has explained, or will explain, everything. Out of nothing has come all of this beautiful cosmos, this wonderful womb in which we get to learn from and love one another? Give me a break!

Find a humble scientist (and many of them are far more arrogant than any medieval theologian) and he will admit that human birth is a falling from one womb into another. From a place in which as far as the child is aware there is nothing but darkness, warmth, movement, and sound – into this far vaster womb we call the universe. If we retain any sense of wonder and humility we must acknowledge that we have no more reason to believe this visible universe is all there is than that our mother’s womb was all there was.

So the macrocosm (everything we can observe) is as impenetrable to science as the microcosm (the tiniest particles) – for the simple reason that we live within, rather than outside of it. At both ends we are faced by mystery – but again Spong says nothing of this.

In psychology, similarly, Freud’s dismissal of theism is boosted at the expense of Jung’s far more important work on the psychological importance of religious myths as carriers of profound truth. As to the newfound interest of anthropology in the texts of the bible, there is no mention – even though Rene Girard’s work began in the 1970s, and has profound implications for Freudian analysis both of mental illness and religion.

Nor does Spong refer at any point to one of the most baffling scientific problems: the nature and origin of human consciousness. Why does each one of us have this inner presence, this extraordinary front row seat from which we observe, and know we are observing, a drama that becomes more amazing with every triumph of science? For each of us the profoundest mystery is: “Why am I here?” Science will never be able to answer this, because the answer must be particular, rather than general, and discovered by ourselves. It must address the extraordinary uniqueness of every one of us. Theism answers this question and provides an answer in terms of our being at home here, a dearly loved project of a loving creation from the beginning. The grandeur of this answer, present in all the great religions, allows us to repossess the sense of individual personal worth that mere rationalism has arrogantly and stupidly ripped from us.

Why does Spong so persistently load the dice against our doing this? It seems he is a convert to rationalism as implacable enemy and replacement for theism, and has all the enthusiasm and partiality of the convert. He does not seriously investigate the phenomenon of post-modernism – in many ways a rebuttal of the enlightenment hubris to which Spong gives himself so naively. He does not want to investigate the possibility that mere rationalism has had its day – it might prove that the stock he has sold off for pennies has a fundamental value of which he understands little or nothing.

This value was never to be found in the bible’s analysis of material reality – but in its exploration of the human spirit, that spirit’s evolving relationship to the cosmos, and the nature of good and evil. Significantly Spong gives no adequate analysis of the profound evils by which humanity is currently beset – in particular the impact of human selfishness upon community in the First world, upon the material suffering of the third – and upon the internal and external stability of both.

Spong will tell you nothing either of the total failure of the rationalist assumption, dating from the enlightenment, that rationalism could replace religion as the foundation of human goodness and social harmony. Had this prediction been valid the twentieth century would have been the most enlightened and peaceful on record, based upon one or other of the ideologies formed in the 1800s – most obviously Marxism. Now we know that no ideology, no set of abstract ideas, provides a blueprint for individual and social happiness – that all can create tyrannies greater than any that existed in the pre-modern period. Knowing nothing of this it is understandable that Voltaire and the philosophes could easily dismiss the idea of original sin. Spong has no such excuse.

It follows that he has no understanding of the crucifixion, other than as a test of courage that Jesus could heroically pass. That anthropological science, another fruit of the enlightenment, could discover an historical significance in this event that Spong knows nothing of is the most extraordinary measure of his lack of depth. I will cover this in a fourth and final piece.


Spong on Spong: 4 – No need of Redemption?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Bishop Spong’s “Why Christianity must change or die” is its treatment of the crucifixion, and the Christian liturgy related to this. In the chapter ‘Jesus as Rescuer’ Spong presents the traditional redemption story as meaningless to moderns because of its origins in the story of the fall of man and the notion of an original sin which evolutionary theory has exploded. There was no perfect beginning to creation that man through Adam and Eve spoiled by disobedience. So humankind does not need rescuing, or redemption, and so we do not require a theology or liturgy that dwells on this. The crucifixion was a test that Christ courageously passed – that was all. The story of an obedient son accepting a Father’s commission to endure crucifixion is dismissed in the usual self-referential way: “I would choose to loathe rather than worship a deity who required the sacrifice of his son.”

What then of human evil – for example the problem of inherited ethnic resentment that perpetuates violence in modern society? You will search and search in vain in this book for an extended treatment of the problem of evil. It is written in what amounts to a moral innocence, reflecting the calm of its author’s study, rather than the seething world outside. Considering the ocean of blood shed in this century – largely by devotees of modern ideologies emanating from the Enlightenment – this is a quite extraordinary circumstance. It is as though the enlightenment prediction of a perfect society based upon reason had been fulfilled rather than completely ridiculed by the global catastrophes of the twentieth century.

Associated with this strange void is the lack of any perception of the reality that human beings can change, and change profoundly, when they experience the trauma of suffering. Spong’s elect – the ‘exile’ Christians who cannot accept Theism – seem fully formed by rationalism, incapable of moving beyond it. There is no acknowledgement of the phenomenon known as conversion or metanoia, through which people can move from one plane of being onto another.

Over the past two years I have met with dozens of everyday people who have been profoundly changed and tempered by an experience associated with suffering. Without exception the start of the process was an emotional identification with Christ on the cross. That led then to profound grief, and then to an absolutely unshakeable belief in a real, personal, spiritual reality. Grief and joy became mingled. They emerged as new people, confident of the love of God. Without exception they are theists who can say the Lord’s prayer with full conviction.

These are not poseurs, because they have absolutely no illusions about themselves. They have great humility and personal buoyancy as well as faith. They speak of their experiences with some reluctance in case they might be thought self-advertising. Far from being fundamentalist, they are anxious to grow in their understanding of God.

Some of these people’s sufferings are associated with political violence. The outstanding examples in my experience are the McGoldricks, who lost their only child to sectarian assassination in Craigavon in 1996. The chances of them finding Spong’s book enlightening are zero. It simply doesn’t connect with their experience. The Christ of the gospels dwells within them, and they are sure of the love of the Father.

But what of the historical significance of the crucifixion, its part in the the story of mankind generally? Spong has evidently no notion of this either.

As Gil Bailie’s ‘Violence Unveiled’ was published to great acclaim in 1995, there is no excuse for this. Bailie summarises the work of Rene Girard, Professor of French Literature and Civilisation at Stanford University. That work advances with astonishing clarity and erudition the thesis that all ancient religions were based upon the scapegoating mechanism as cultures collapsed into reciprocal violence. The origins of that violence (and violence today) lie in mimetic desire – the desire to possess what someone else possesses. In the story of Adam and Eve that mimetic desire is to become ‘as Gods’ by eating the forbidden fruit. This leads to the fall – and almost immediately Cain kills Abel, because the latter is seen by Cain as enjoying the favour of God – mimesis again. This problem is as prevalent today as it was in humankind’s earliest times. Saddam Hussein’s and George Bush’s mimetic desire for the oil wealth of the gulf; Milosevich’s desire for heroic status as conqueror of Serbia’s claimed national territory; Irish Nationalism’s and Unionism’s desire to control the territory of Northern Ireland. In the Bible, mimetic desire is ‘covetousness’.

In ancient times reciprocal violence created a state of terrible fear and tension – it could lead to the complete extinction of a society – so ‘it was better that one man should die than that the nation perish’. The selection of the victim fastened usually upon some unfortunate whose death would not provoke revenge from any sizeable quarter. The individual marked by some physical handicap (e.g. Oedipus) was an outstanding target. He would be accused by all of some horrendous crime. This person would then become a lightning rod for the violence of the entire society, and die, often from stoning (because in this way no-one could claim to have had no part, and all could remain undefiled by the blood of the victim).

Once the deed had been done, the memory of it would become troublesome, so the victim, who had in a sense ‘saved’ his people, would become an object of religious veneration. The violence was then veiled by the substitution of an animal sacrifice for the original victim, and a myth would develop to explain this rite. Such myths and rites are found in all ancient cultures without exception.

What makes the Judeo-Christian tradition different is that through the prophets this murderous process was gradually unveiled, and then completely revealed by Jesus. Caiphas also uses the primordial words ‘It is better for one man to die …’ But the innocence of this one man, his total lack of mimetic desire, was borne witness to by his disciples, and by those who saw him move from trial to crucifixion without responding to violence with violence. In a single life this man reveals ‘things hidden from the beginning of the world’, and exposes the process of sacrificial murder. He also bears witness to the sacredness of the individual life, and to God’s concern for that individual.

Here we have the origin of the Mass (which substitutes bread and wine for the body and blood of the ancient sacrifices), as well as the principle of the inviolability (rights) of the individual. Christ is the origin both of modern liberalism, and of the Church. These are seen by hierarchs as opposed to one another because the church leadership mimetically desires the power of the state (a mortal sin not yet confessed), and is thus in practice at odds with its founder.

However, in the Mass and in its teachings the church bears witness to its founder’s selfless pursuit of the good of the individual through self-sacrifice. This is why we must expect charisms in the grassroots, rather than in Rome. The Vatican is a kind of exoskeleton for the soft heart of God. Catholic hierarchs have scandalised the world by often sacrificing individuals to save themselves. (Among the latest victims are the children unprotected from the known predilections of paedophile priests.) You will recall that Christ finds and binds that individual to him (the lost sheep) by sharing his pain. In my experience this is the almost universal pattern of genuine conversion. The freedom of the individual to wander is accepted and vindicated – the shepherd follows her/him, simply by imaging suffering.

The crucifixion has therefore both a cosmic and an individual significance. It gives us a framework both for humanising the macrocosm, and for reconciling the individual to the creator. But in this cause the church’s mimetic desire for the power of this world must be mercilessly exposed. Christ’s love of individual human freedom – which also comes from the Father – must be vindicated. This can only be done by obliging the leadership of the church to embrace the vulnerability and brotherliness of Christ – for the first time in almost sixteen hundred years.

We cannot explain Jesus’s acceptance of this revelatory crucifixion except in terms of a cosmic concern for every single one of us. The Father, like all good fathers, wants us to run to him joyfully, not to sidle in from fear. Like Bishop Spong I detest clerical patriarchy, but I must speak up for the cosmic entity with a human heart and mind that recognised Jesus as his son, and gave him direction. Without that theos we are all lost – as a race and as individuals.

Here is Rene Girard on the importance of the crucifixion:

“To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind. Violence is the controlling agent in every form of mythic or cultural structure, and Christ is the only agent who is capable of escaping from these structures and freeing us from their dominance. This is the only hypothesis that enables us to account for the revelation in the Gospel of what violence does to us and the accompanying power of that revelation to deconstruct the whole range of cultural texts, without exception. We do not have to adopt the hypothesis of Christ’s divinity because it has always been accepted by orthodox Christians. Instead, this hypothesis is orthodox because in the first years of Christianity there existed a rigorous (though not yet explicit) intuition of the logic determining the gospel text.
A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.”

(Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, R. Girard, 1978)

That this conclusion could be reached by the scrupulous interpretation of ancient texts shows what life is still left in Theism.

And if that non-violent deity could so love Christ, so fill him with wisdom and strength, are we not entitled to believe in the Resurrection also? Obviously the apostles did, and they, like the referee, were far closer to the ball.

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