Tag Archives: David

What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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Harry Potter and the disappearing student

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Dec 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Protecting the Absolute Truth

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life, March 2001

At about the time that Dominus Iesus hit the news I heard a woman friend say, in more than a little frustration: “I say the creed every Sunday – but I still don’t really know what it means for me!”

As Dominus Iesus begins by reciting what we call the Nicene Creed as the essence of the absolute truth it defends against ‘relativism’, I find this an interesting coincidence. If the creed is the closest we can come to a summary of the absolute core of our faith, yet that summary baffles and frustrates an intelligent person with a lifetime’s experience of listening to it, we have a problem. Especially in explaining and justifying that faith to a younger generation whose attention span is determined by television.

Thinking about this further I remembered an exchange I had once had with an enthusiastic opponent of the church. “If you believe you possess the absolute truth,” this chap insisted, “you will feel yourself entitled to impose it upon me at whatever cost. Religious faith is necessarily abusive.”

Before protesting in the name of the many gentle and faith-filled people we know, we would do well to ponder the historical context from which this perception comes. The Nicene Creed dates from the fourth century CE– which means that it was already seven centuries old when the first Crusade led directly to the slaughter of 40,000 Muslims and Jews by Christian knights in Jerusalem in 1099 CE. Presumably some of those knights could have recited a version of this formula if asked to do so. Certainly Pope Urban II, who inspired this first crusade, could have done so.

The point is that an ability to recite the Creed seems to be entirely compatible with an ability to disembowel someone who doesn’t accept it – as indeed some of these Christians did – in the search for the gold they believed their enemies to have swallowed.

This seems to mean that we can hold staunchly to ‘the faith’ while simultaneously associating Christ – its centre – with the most frenzied violence. A question follows inevitably: of what use in the end are verbal formulae, since even the greatest of them may be deprived by their staunchest adherents of any meaning? A second question follows for the creed specifically: what absolute truth does it relate that we must hold superior to the religious wisdom of the rest of humanity? This meaning cannot be immediately conveyed by the words in which it is expressed – for otherwise no Christian could have betrayed it. And my friend could not have been frustrated by her inability to catch its meaning for her personally. We are faced with a fundamental problem of meaning – the meaning of the events the creeds relate.

Starting with this second question, it is clear that both creeds are a kind of compressed narrative relating the relationship of the Trinity to human history and to human concerns. Centrally they relate the incarnation, condemnation, execution, resurrection and ultimate elevation of Jesus of Nazareth to the role of supreme King and Judge.

The meaning of any narrative cannot be determined in complete isolation. For example, we cannot fully interpret Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar or Macbeth unless we become somehow involved in the problem of political ambition as posed by western culture. When Cassius suborns Brutus we will fall asleep unless somehow engaged in the problem posed: how can male self-respect survive under an emerging tyranny and personality cult? The meaning of the narrative – that is, the truth conveyed dramatically by it – is that we have here a dilemma of real, general importance – especially in eras of politically concentrated power such as that of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Yet we recite the creed as though its meaning were somehow contained within itself – in complete isolation from the rest of human history. And it is this that effectively deprives it of any meaning, any significance, for us. It becomes a formula that might be in Chinese for all the difference it makes to how we think about our dilemmas and fixations today. We may congratulate ourselves on not confusing the Nicene with the Apostles Creed, but its meaning must be for God to interpret, as we leave it fully behind us when once this test of memory has been passed.

What happens if we do something that at first appears irreverent – juxtapose it with other well known texts and narratives – ‘stories’ – that might be comparable? The most obvious is the story of David as related in the Old Testament – as David was the model hero in the Jewish mind.

David’s story is again one of youthful recognition by God, and also youthful glory as the slayer of Goliath. This achievement sent the Philistines home straightaway, and rescued Saul, the first Jewish king, from military humiliation. But humiliation of another kind soon followed, for the women of Israel then made David supreme in their songs, to Saul’s chagrin. The result? The king whom David had rescued became his bitterest enemy – for kings were supposed to be the supreme military heroes of their people. The hero raised up by God necessarily humiliates the one who is not – and murderous violence follows, for a king cannot abide humiliation.

Further, when David finally succeeds to supreme leadership he cannot resist the temptation to possess the more beautiful wife of Uriah. What is the point of being king if someone else has precedence in this respect? Murder follows – disgracing even David. He is subject to the condemnation of the prophet Nathan. Later he witnesses his own son Absalom fall victim to envy of his own father.

How does the story of Jesus compare? He refuses to engage in a struggle for supremacy, accepts humiliation to the extreme of a felon’s death – but is then raised up by God to everlasting life and a supreme kingship.

The pattern is simple, affecting all three of the greatest kings of Israel: worldly ‘glory’ corrupted all three; early acceptance of the antithesis of worldly glory won for Jesus an everlasting kingship. We would be wise to meditate upon this.

If it is argued that Jesus, by virtue of his divinity, was incomparable with any other historical figure, Jewish or otherwise, why should Paul need to insist that the name of Jesus ‘is above every name’ (Phil 2:9)? Why should he also insist that the crucifixion was ‘foolishness to those who were perishing’ (1 Cor 1:18). Clearly the shame attached to being a Christian in Paul’s time was by virtue of comparisons made between the humiliation of the cross and the worldly enthronement awarded to the archetypal heroes and kings of Israel. The resurrection was important not simply because it represented victory over physical death, but because it awarded a supreme and timeless elevation above all the heroes of the ancient world – the essential proclamation of Stephen for which he too was murdered.

The creeds therefore are a narrative which associate ultimate divine acclaim with the acceptance of worldly humiliation – because this acceptance avoids the pitfalls of earthly enthronement – specifically the humiliation of others and the rivalry and conflict that follows. Blessed are the poor in spirit – i.e. those who accept humiliation – for their lives are indeed laid down prostrate before the ambition of others. Jesus’ end is the logical culmination of a life lived in rejection of the climb to religious and political power – the rejection narrated in his sojourn in the desert.

The creeds therefore occupy a dimension of human experience that lies between glory and disgrace – as awarded by ‘the world’ as it existed in ancient times. If this dimension does not exist today, then the kingdom of God has already been achieved, and we are all truly equal in dignity and justice. If it does exist today, it is of the utmost consequence that we relate the creeds to it – for otherwise they will remain mere totems – formulae that we can recite one moment and disgrace the next.

Worldly ‘glory’ in the ancient world is ‘celebrity’ in ours: the disgraced of the ancient world are the ‘losers’ in ours. The distinction is not essentially monetary: it is the dimension between those who are known and acclaimed in local or global terms, and those who are considered of no importance, and exploited or abused. Money happens to be a common benchmark of achievement and status – as well as the means by which we require the necessities of our physical survival, and that is why it is important. In one respect history remains fixed in one place: in awarding esteem unequally. In the kingdom of God – always present where Jesus is present, and always absent to the degree the world intrudes – people are equally esteemed. In that kingdom – which can never be achieved by violence – everyone is free of everyone else’s ambition and contempt, for no-one needs to climb above others to experience self-esteem. It is therefore the only kingdom in which genuine freedom and peace applies – for no-one needs to dominate to ‘keep order’.

Joseph Campbell somewhere relates the result of a poll which showed that most black teenagers in the US – the world standard for historical success – want above all to be celebrities – ‘rich and famous’. The pop diva Madonna intends to pursue her career (we are told) until she is ‘better known than God’. In a recent interview a young ‘lager lout’ insisted that he drank himself insensible once a week to forget that he had no ‘status’. Young men in Ireland routinely commit suicide out of self-condemnation – confirming the perceived verdict of the world. Daily the media recount the doings of people who are famous merely for being well known – and few in Ireland any longer want to be priests or nurses, for these roles have lost all ‘glamour’. ‘Glamour’ too is the need of a fifteen year old English girl who wants a breast implant, encouraged by her mother – and of millions of middle-aged women throughout the west terrified of growing old.

Common to all of these pathologies of modern life is the notion that we are the sum of what others think of us, that our self-esteem must be dependent upon the esteem of others.

Much violence is closely related. US teenagers carry guns – and often use them – to keep or earn ‘respect’. The Littleton massacre was planned by young men who insisted they were at the base of their school’s pyramid of esteem. David Copeland killed four people with nail bombs in England recently because ‘if no one remembers who you were, you never existed’. Alexander’s, Napoleon’s and Hitler’s problems were remarkably similar.

It is precisely because the creeds relate directly to these pathologies that they are of unique and global importance – for ‘celebrity’ on western lines is now a global phenomenon. So are the media, creating another global phenomenon – the ‘wannabe’ who can’t be, at least not on Hollywood terms. For if we are all esteem-seekers we must nearly all be esteem-poor – only those whose self-esteem is secure can actually award esteem to others.

What are the implications of all of this for ‘absolute truth’ and its protection? The elevation of verbal formulae per se as totems is clearly inadequate. The source of the ‘sin’ overcome by the crucifixion is not the experimental insights of daring theologians, but history’s pyramids of esteem of which the church itself is still, sadly, one. A church structured in this way cannot explain the creeds because it denies in practice the principle they proclaim – that Christian leadership demands humility above all else.

When asked ‘what is truth’ by his final earthly judge, Jesus offered no Catechism, no creed – simply the witness of his integrity. An ultra-verbose and remote ecclesiastical leadership bankrupts the creeds by depriving them of witness, and thus of meaning. It is time to let love – the absolute truth and the great gift of many of the church’s least educated people – lead it towards that kingdom in which all are equally esteemed. Foolishness may sometimes be spoken there, but it will do far less damage than an absolutism of the word that imposes silence while itself betraying the Word, who never silenced anyone, and who fled from celebrity rather than seek it.

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The Myth of Materialism

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2001

Ecclesiastics are never done complaining about ‘materialism’. A search in the Web archives of the right-wing Catholic news agency CWN – which meticulously reports the statements of the Vatican – turns up thirty-one high-level statements referring to it since 1996. It has become the cliché of choice in describing the errors of the age. Commenting upon the Pope’s Lenten Message this year, Archbishop Josef Cordes spoke of the ‘materialism in which we are immersed’ as the explanation for the loss of the sense of the spiritual dimension to life.

Presumably this cliché rests upon the assumption that since there is a philosophical phenomenon we can justly label ‘materialism’, the acquisitiveness of modern society derives from it, and from nothing else. This assumption doesn’t hold any water – humans have always been acquisitive, as all ancient literature, including the Bible attests. And modern acquisitiveness is essentially no different.

A single evening’s perusal of the products of the mass-market advertising industry reveals that matter per se is the last thing people are interested in. Where are the ads for ‘two tonnes of lead’ or ‘one ton of stainless steel’ or even ‘three ounces of gold’? Nowhere. When people have satisfied their basic material needs for food and shelter, and the basic comforts, they spend their surplus on something else entirely.

What that something else is can also easily be gleaned from mass-market advertising. A certain expensive shampoo will put women among the Jennifer Anistons, making them as ‘worth it’ as she is. If you can afford a Rolex watch – and many can these days on hire purchase – you join Andre Agassi on the lawns of Wimbledon. A powerful motor bike will put Northern Ireland’s young men on the Isle of Man circuit, in pursuit of the status of local hero and world legend the late Joey Dunlop. A powerful computer will give Internet access for your garden furniture business – and dreams of a global commercial empire – or allow you to invent another generic software application and follow Bill Gates to the top of the Fortune 500 rankings. Wealthy Londoners will gladly pay Harrods prices for white goods – for the mere possibility of rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi – or even the owner, for he too is media-beloved. And the public flaunting of mobile phones and off-road vehicles is largely down to yearning to be considered as important as the owners of penthouses and landed estates.

‘Rankings’ are what it’s all about. People measure their worth in terms of where they believe they are in what is now a global pyramid of worth or esteem, maintained lovingly by the media whose bread and butter it is. They keep us fixated on the daft notion that some of us are infinitely more important than most of us – and most people cannot live spiritually with this sense of their own insignificance. This is why we are endlessly acquisitive. We are addicted not to matter, but to its symbolic significance when shaped in a particular way, and then associated with celebrities – because where they are (or where we think they are) is where (we think) anyone of importance should be.

The Bible most clearly reveals that things have always been this way. In the Ancient world, top status went to military heroes like Alexander, and, in the Jewish tradition, David. The young women who swooned then over David’s ‘tens of thousands’ of victims do so now over Willy Wales’s inheritance of good looks, the throne of England and the media’s fascination. Saul’s sense of humiliation at being merely credited with ‘thousands’ is mimicked by the young men who set out to joyride and destroy the powerful cars they will never be able to earn lawfully – with similarly murderous and suicidal results.

To put it another way, ‘the world’ is as it has always been – a source of spiritual fascination and distraction from the ordinariness of our own lives, and the fact that, nevertheless, we are loved by God. It makes us endlessly dissatisfied to be who, and with whom, and where, we are. It even alienates us from the present moment, placing us spiritually in the future, towards which we then frenetically move seven days a week. Even the business courses that the already affluent purchase at exorbitant prices are called ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ or some such, for we always must be in pursuit of something, in flight from ourselves and from the present. And from the fact that 200 million children – for example – are in severe physical distress around the globe, a distress that could be alleviated by turning just a proportion of the West’s surplus wealth to their extreme need.

All of this is so obvious that it is the inability of the intellectuals at the summit of the church to see it, and note its spiritual significance, that becomes the real mystery. Why are ecclesiastics always maundering on about ‘materialism’ when it comes nowhere near to naming the real source of acquisitiveness, this sense that people have of their own unimportance unless they acquire the symbols of celebrity, the sense of being ‘worth it’?

The answer is cruelly obvious. These ecclesiastics have generally no sense of their own unimportance. Quite the reverse. Although the verbal truth they utter is supposedly centred upon the life of a man whose life’s journey was downward to ultimate humiliation, they are themselves the winners of the race for eminence within their own institution.

The common effect of this upon their own spirituality needs no elaboration from me. In May 1999, Cardinal Gantin, who had for fifteen years been Prefect of the Vatican Office which assists the Pope with the nomination and transfer of bishops, complained trenchantly about the naked careerism of many bishops, which had, he said, “altered” the nature of episcopal service.

They sought promotion to get on to “a good thing”, he claimed, and to meet more influential people who could help their careers. “Even those making these requests – and sometimes they did so jokingly, and other times not, considered that they were expressing a legitimate desire”. “Other times I happened to hear at the end of an episcopal ordination some bishop shouting ‘ad altiora’ [to the highest posts]”. (Catholic Herald, May 21st, 1999)

The symbols of status that bishops pursue, are, of course, in some respects different from those sought by the business executive. There is no real equivalent of the bishop’s mitre or coat of arms in the business world, or of the prestigious diocese – but these had their equivalents in the heraldic devices, coronets and landed estates of the nobility of the ancien regime. The unique symbols of Episcopal importance are thus simply the shadows of those of yesterdays secular hoi polloi – and therefore intensely a reminder of the sheer snobbery of the past.

Until the church at its summit grasps the parallel here with the upwardly-directed yearning of the secular person, it will fail to measure the significance of this in impoverishing the church itself spiritually. Upwardly directed bishops cannot dignify their priests and people – i.e. assure them of the love of a God who really exists – if they believe that they themselves will only be really ‘worth it’ if they become Cardinals, or even Pope – for this too is dire spiritual poverty.

Indeed, if the gospels are studied carefully it could even be that they will not even understand ‘Sin’ either. Those who came to Jesus for forgiveness seem to have been distraught above all about their own lack of worth, their own inability, due to poverty, measured by their inability to afford the services of those who cluttered the path to temple sacrifice and cleansing. He never asked them to name their sins, but simply forgave them, assuring them of his Father’s love. The pyramid of esteem and power within the church is a scandalous betrayal of that life, and its ultimate sacrifice – and is itself a source of the distance that many, many people mistakenly believe lies between themselves and God.

The cult of the papacy, tended assiduously by the Curia (which would itself be just another bureaucracy without it), is thus itself a major source of spiritual poverty in the church, for the papacy is at the summit of the pyramid of esteem that the church became in the fourth century. When we watch now those 1979 videos of the papal visit to Ireland, by far the most embarrassing aspect is the sight of Irish bishops, including Eamonn Casey, preening themselves in the august presence – as though the summit of their lives had been this few days of closeness to a reigning monarch and Time’s Man of the Year. The parallel to those legendary millions in the UK who dream nightly of tea with the Queen is too close to be missed.

The recent visit to Belfast of the Dalai Lama presented an entirely different social role and style for the spiritual leader – one of unselfconscious informality and simplicity. Here was someone who did not need to stand upon his own dignity – respect was elicited by virtue of the respect with which he treated everyone he encountered. In stark contrast, probably the single greatest failure of the present papacy is its failure to attack the cult of celebrity which so disfigures this era, by insisting upon the equal dignity of all in the sight of God – indeed by deliberately repudiating the idea that Popes are more important than anyone else. Could it be that the superior spiritual presence of the Dalai Lama is related to the fact that, like Jesus, but wholly unlike the Pope, he has nowhere to lay his head? I believe so – and see an obvious solution.

The enormous and widening gulf that now separates hierarchy and people in Ireland has much to do with the contrary obsession with status and dignity. And when we remember that lack of self-esteem is a common feature of so many of today’s addictions, neuroses and psychoses, this upward obsession of clericalism becomes more tragic yet, for it is precisely what prevents the church living up to the standards of its founder, for whom a genuine compassion for the poor in spirit, i.e. the unesteemed, was central. By contrast, Irish people these days swap stories of the snobbery of bishops who seem to value lay people in terms of the marques of cars they drive.

Nothing essentially separates the mitre-bound cleric from the penthouse-bound yuppie – each is equally obsessed with symbols of status – with what ‘the world’ thinks of him. Status-seeking is the essence of worldliness – the fact that the ambitious cleric seeks status within an ecclesiastical institution makes no essential difference. It simply explains why Jesus resisted the second of his three temptations – to amaze the temple elite by throwing himself from its summit. Thank goodness we have many priests still who understand this passage more clearly than their bishops.

We are all equally sinful (i.e. ‘worldly’) and equally ‘worth it’ (i.e. the love of God). When all bishops realise this, and begin descending rather than climbing – the Pope too – then only will they get to grips with the ‘spiritual impoverishment’ of our times and show true leadership. Wittering on about ‘materialism’ – from the palaces inherited from the ancien regime – just doesn’t cut it anymore. Like the sin of the Pharisee who condemned the tax collector, it completely misses the mark.

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