Tag Archives: Creeds

The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

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The Moral Universe of the Creeds

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times January 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twelve Steps to Being Christian

Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2001

How are we to understand and explain the basic vocabulary of Christianity today? It is a truism that people no longer understand ‘Sin’ as our grandparents did – which means that ‘Salvation’ too becomes problematic. Told recently that ‘Jesus Saves’ my twenty-one year old sceptical son inquired ‘at what rate of interest? Most of his generation wishes above all to be saved from the saved – so we surely need to revisit the original story of salvation to understand what relevance it might have in the twenty-first century.

Richard Rohr, the American Franciscan, helps us part of the way by observing that in this era most of the deepest spiritual work is being done in the basements rather than the naves of churches in the US. There, closest to the earth, the twelve-step programmes for alcoholics, gamblers, compulsive shoppers, partner-beaters and every other kind of self-destructive addict are worked through. It is clear that we live in a deeply addictive culture that – in the media cliché – ‘ruins lives’. What is the root of this addictiveness, and how does it relate to ‘sin’ as Jesus might have understood it? And how does the invocation of a ‘higher power’ – the basic strategy of the twelve-step program – relate to what he taught?

Talking recently to a close friend who is working through such a programme, I was struck by his insistence that the invariable problem of the addict is low or even non-existent self-esteem. A childhood deprivation of parental care or affection, an experience of abuse or systematic bullying or humiliation in early life, an inability to keep a job or a partner – these and other examples of rejection, failure, derision or contempt keep cropping up. And the result in the addict is a pervasive sense of shame and fear, a chronic inability to love the self.

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ What happens if we translate ‘poor in spirit’ as self-rejecting – bankrupt of self-esteem – rather than as simply poor in an economic sense?

Coming at this as an historian rather than a theologian I see the ancient world as everywhere a pyramid of esteem or worthiness. At its summit in Jesus’s time were Roman God-Emperors whose exaltation had usually emerged out of military rivalry and conquest. Essentially this applied even in the Jewish world view, where David, the Lord’s anointed, was archetypally a military hero, the boy-slayer of the Philistine giant Goliath and father of Solomon, builder of the first temple.

And it was Herod’s temple in Jesus’ time that was the focal point of the religion of most Jews, the place where sacrificial propitiation of the Deity took place.

But those who came to John for baptism must have been outside the temple system – and the key to this is to understand that temple sacrifice and expiation was a relatively expensive business, involving the hiring of religious lawyers for advice, the purchase of sacrificial offerings, and the making of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem – all seriously problematic for those at the base of the economic pyramid.

It followed from this that the poor were thus also usually the poorest in spirit, the lowest in self-esteem, the shamed, the sinners – the ones looking for an inexpensive route to ritual cleanliness and divine forgiveness. These were the people who followed John and Jesus. Peter’s astonishment over Jesus’ observation that the rich would have trouble entering his kingdom tells us this also: good fortune was interpreted then as evidence of divine favour; ill fortune as proof of God’s anger. This was the reason that Jesus’ forgiveness of sin – offered freely to those who sought his help, without any interrogation – was so astonishing to his disciples, and so bitterly opposed by the hierarchs whose power rested upon respect for the Temple system.

‘You are beloved of God’: this was Jesus insistent message to those who had felt excluded – and this is the Good News. It follows that Jesus was overturning the pyramid of esteem of the Ancient World – and that this was the fundamental reason for Christianity’s growth within the Roman Empire also in the early centuries. Evangelisation was the doorway into divine esteem for those who thought they could never enter. And it was also an entry into the church as community.

‘You are loved by God’ was not, however, news at all to those who already held position in the older Pagan and Jewish pyramids of esteem. They felt sure of it already.

How then did Christianity become in the end so often associated with social respectability, coercion and sexual fear; and salvation a hypothetical eternal life insurance – pie in the sky by-and-by?

History again provides the answer. Christianity’s own success was eventually noticed by one of the many upwardly mobile military adventurers of the ancient world. “In this sign, conquer” – this was the message conveniently seen by Constantine underneath a fiery cross on his way to the battle of the Milvian bridge. Most Christian hierarchs tragically swallowed this gambit whole – as an offer they couldn’t refuse – and the result was a marriage of Christianity with the state that was to persist for more than fifteen hundred years. Augustine’s identification of sin with wayward sexuality rather than social unworthiness allowed the upper classes (of which he was a member) to retain their social eminence as well as their sense of chosenness. Conversion usually became a matter of attaching first the rulers of kingdoms rather than their subjects – these would soon follow out of deference.

It followed inexorably that Christianity would become associated with respectability and coercion, and that gradually the meaning of the story recited in the creeds – would become lost. In particular we lost the meaning of Jesus’ social descent as an expression of divine solidarity with the ‘losers’ of the ancient world. Medieval theology came to explain the crucifixion as the price exacted by a divine system of justice which insisted that God’s ‘honour’ demanded satisfaction by nothing less than the death of his son. Thus the ruling classes of the Middle Ages redefined God in their own image, scapegoating him for the death of Christ, and thus eventually making ‘salvation’ wholly unintelligible. It became merely inclusion in a scheme of divine providence that must wait upon the death of the one ‘saved’. It followed also that it need not mean full inclusion in the benefits of community on earth, and so became valueless to those who remained excluded from it.

But in our own time when the educated classes have mostly followed the Enlightenment in concluding that Christianity was nonsense, this opened the way for the retrieval of the meaning of the crucifixion by those at the base of our own pyramids of esteem in this era. The ‘junkie’ – the one discarded – is the very image of the stone discarded that became the cornerstone of the early church. The crucifixion is essentially not about the physical pain of Jesus, but about acceptance of the obverse of glory – ultimate shame and humiliation – and this can now be recovered when the socially esteemed can find no meaning in it.

The implications of this for evangelisation, and for how we think of ‘church’, are profound. In particular those who wish to revive Christianity in the third millennium must understand that social vertigo is the greatest barrier to success. We need to advance on two fronts – attacking the complacency and the intellectual assumptions of those at the summit of our own pyramids of esteem today, and learning to lose our inherited prejudices towards the socially outcast, the ‘losers’ of the world.

It must surely be obvious that if we organise life as a race, losers must outnumber winners. It follows inexorably that the root cause of failure is nothing other than the worship of ‘success’. Even a meritocracy involves judgement and rejection, i.e. crucifixion. That the UK’s chief executive should be both an enthusiastic meritocrat and an avowed Christian shows how far we need to go still in disentangling one from the other. All pyramids of esteem inevitably create shame at their base.

For on what Christian grounds should we declare that some are entitled to esteem, while others are not? If the answer is that those who don’t work don’t deserve esteem, why then do we tolerate those who live on nothing other than shrewd investments? For their shrewdness? If so our kingdom is for the shrewd only – and our world becomes an intellectual pyramid of esteem, deadly for those whose gifts may lie in other directions. Is this intelligent? More important, is it wise? Most important, is it Christian?

For me, the essence of Christianity is the assertion of the eternal and equal value of every single human person, irrespective of race, intelligence, gender, wealth or whatever. It follows logically that everyone is equally important, equally to be cherished. And that the cult of celebrity must be a target of a revived Christianity also. No-one ever was, ever is, or ever will be, more ‘worth it’ than anyone else.

It follows inexorably also that churches cannot be pyramids of esteem. As a lay Catholic I am now totally alienated from the papal system as it has been exercised in this overlong pontificate. The Pope’s own invitation to the church to reconsider how this office should be exercised should be accepted with alacrity, for celebrity Popes cannot undermine pyramids of esteem without attacking celebrity per se. The notion that you can re-evangelise the west by elevating a single individual to semi-sacred status, upon whose every word we all must hang, is the residual myth of a bankrupt Christendom. It ignores the patently obvious fact that by loading spiritual dignity onto one individual you withdraw it from the rest – the root cause of the sense of spiritual inferiority and incompetence that afflicts many lay Catholics today. It is also spiritually obtuse and abusive, for it deprives even the ordinary Christian of the gift given by Christ – a sense of our own dignity as brother or sister of the Lord. No title can bestow greater honour than this – not even Pope.

Remarkably, one of the essential characteristics of the twelve-step process is the absence of hierarchy, the complete equality of all participants. All acknowledge their own brokenness, so none can claim precedence. Equally, no-one can be shamed or rejected. Yet the need for repentance – for taking full responsibility for all the hurt one has caused to others – is emphasised as an essential part of the process.

“Which of us is the greatest?” This insistent question from the disciples warns us that pride afflicts pastors also. Jesus’s response tells us that the essence of Christian community is nothing other than moral equality.

To the objection that only hierarchy can protect truth there is a simple answer. The creeds hierarchies protect have virtually lost their meaning in the very creation of ecclesiastical hierarchy, including the altogether scandalous notion of ‘princes of the church’. As history proved time and time again – for example, in the Crusades – it is perfectly possible to recite a verbal formula summarising the love of God one moment, and to disembowel someone the next. The urgent task of all Christians is to recover fully the meaning of the creeds. The only recoverable meaning that can change our world for the better is that God in allowing his son to be crucified renounced his own hierarchical privilege in favour of reclaiming those at the base of all worldly hierarchies. If hierarchical Christianity cannot rise to the challenge of such a God, it is unworthy of Him, and deserves to die.

On the other hand, it is the addict’s recognition of his brokenness in that of Jesus on Calvary that suggests that not even the Constantines of this world can prevail in the end. It is the shamed – the most prodigal sons and daughters – who can speak with greatest understanding of the love of the one who scans the horizon for their return, and even sends them his most precious son to meet them at the moment of their own ultimate humiliation.

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