Tag Archives: Jesus

Facing ‘the Dictatorship of Relativism’

Views: 14

Sean O’Conaill © Reality July/August 2005

Of all the dangers that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger saw facing the church, relativism was the greatest. Just before his election to the papacy he warned the church’s cardinals, gathered in Rome, about the ‘dictatorship of relativism’. This ‘call to arms’ may well have secured his election.

As Pope Benedict XVI, how will he address that danger? This question has enormous importance for the church.

To understand ‘relativism’ we need to understand that the human family has come through an astonishing expansion of knowledge in the past four centuries – an expansion that is still accelerating.

This has given birth to attitudes that are sceptical of the claims of any religious faith. These attitudes are broadly termed ‘secularism’.

We need to understand also that the movement of human populations has intermingled all the world’s faiths. No large city on earth now has a population that is uniformly of one religious faith.

And this means that any claim by any faith to ‘absolute’ truth – to a truth that must be true for everyone – is potentially explosive.

And this, of course, is what many religions do claim – to have a ‘saving truth’ that is necessary for the salvation of the world. We Christians are so sure that Christ takes us to ‘the Father’ that we believe that, in time, this truth should be shared with, and by, the entire human family.

And we Catholic Christians believe that our church has a ‘fullness’ of Christian truth that obliges us to deny that it has only equal status as truth, with other Christian traditions.

For every convinced religious believer, the truth in which he believes is the only complete or absolute truth – the only truth that is always and everywhere true.

Secular wisdom, on the other hand, insists that to maintain peace in the ‘global village’ no claim to absolute truth can be accepted. Many secularists believe, therefore, that relativism – the belief that all truth claims are only equally valid (and therefore also equally false) – is the only ‘faith’ that can bind a modern society together. This attitude is shared by most of those who govern modern western societies.

And this is what Pope Benedict XVI means by ‘the dictatorship of relativism’.

Serious problem for the church

There is no doubt that relativism poses a very serious problem for the church. On the one hand we must hold to whatever gives us a unique identity as a ‘faith family’ – for otherwise we will lose both our faith and our identity. We will also allow to perish a body of truth that we have been entrusted with by two millennia of Catholic tradition. This is a huge responsibility and trust.

There is no doubt also that many young educated Catholics are being influenced by relativistic attitudes prevalent in universities – and this must somehow be countered.

But on the other hand we have an obligation to maintain peace and friendship in a modern multi-faith society.

We Catholics have somehow to find a way of passing on a vibrant faith without making that faith a force for intolerance, division and even violence.

The issue is complicated by the fact that many people on both sides of it see no hope of any compromise. Some secularists see all religion as necessarily ‘wrong’ and divisive. So they ‘evangelise’ by claiming that only relativism can save the world – by insisting that all religion is ‘bunk’!

And on the other hand there are many religious believers that see secularism as a threat they must oppose. This attitude drives, especially, Islamic fundamentalism.

In Ireland also, many Catholics feel oppressed by the secularisation of our society in just a few decades. Some look back with nostalgia to a time when our church almost owned the public spaces in our cities – through which Catholic processions often passed on certain feast days.

Now Ireland too is becoming a multi-faith society, while trying to maintain a tradition of welcoming strangers. How are we to remain both confidently Catholic and respectful towards those with radically different beliefs – beliefs that may even include a strong desire to convert all of us from our own faith?

The power of love

Oddly enough, the solution to this huge problem may lie in something Benedict XVI himself said, almost casually, in 1996. Faced with a reporter’s question on the apparently greater power of evil in the modern world he said:

“This is the question that I would ask of God: Why does he remain so powerless? Why does he reign only in this curiously weak way, as a crucified man, as one who failed?”

He went on:

“But apparently that is the way he wants to rule; that is the divine form of power. And the non-divine form of power obviously consists in imposing oneself and getting one’s way and coercing.”

This perception – that our God wishes to rule us without imposing himself upon us – suggests a simple solution to the problem of reconciling adherence to absolute truth with social peace: that while we hold our truth firmly we see its essence as a love that cannot impose itself on others – because love cannot coerce.

That is to say while holding ourselves bound by our own truth, we can simply lose the need for others to share that belief now. Indeed, in communicating our belief that God does not coerce, we pass on a key part of our truth – a truth that can be shared, and can bind the whole human family.

Such a truth – that God has asked us to unite the human family in love and freedom – can be shared with all faiths that prioritise love. And all the great religions do so.

If we prioritise love – as God seems to – we can surely tolerate divergence of faith on other matters – without betraying faith to relativism.

False argument

The great argument of relativism – that it alone can bind a multifaith society together in peace – is false in any case. In all the great cities of the world people of strong religious faith are meeting to discover what they have in common.

And in many cases they are finding that the supreme being they worship prioritises an unconditional love – a love of the stranger, whatever his belief. For Christians, that truth is plainly seen in, for example the parable of the good Samaritan – because for Jews of Jesus’ time the Samaritan was not a Jew.

In this way the global family is setting out on the same pilgrimage that John Paul II began with the leaders of many other faiths in Assisi in 1986. On that pilgrimage we can each describe the God we hope to meet at the end. Disagreeing amicably on the journey, we can all bear witness to the falsehood of the claim that only relativism – the belief that there is no great truth – can unite us in peace.

Differences within the Church

This solution could also guide how our church also deals with divergent view within itself – for example on the issue of the ordination of women and married men. Clearly, the unity of the church requires some kind of unity in the regulations it makes for itself. But does it require also the suppression of those views with which the church leadership may disagree at any given time?

Surely the prioritisation of love within the church would counsel also the toleration of the expression of divergent views?

The opposite view – that it can’t – surely implies some weakness in the arguments for the official view. If it is love that binds the church together also, and love forbids coercion, how can love, and truth, be retained by what amounts to coercion within the church?

As Pope John Paul II’s top theological ‘policeman’, Pope Benedict feared that to give liberty to ‘powerful intellectuals’ was to endanger the faith of ‘simple people’. But simple people have a surprisingly strong grasp of what they believe, and usually also have a quite sceptical attitude towards ‘powerful intellectuals’. Deluged by claims to truth that are obviously false they are learning to sift what they hear.

They will even more readily look to the papacy for direction if it too shows confidence that God’s truth will prevail over all contradiction – by the power of love alone.

And that is what the Vatican II document on religious freedom proclaimed also: that truth conveys itself by virtue of its own truth. It does so, surely, by prioritising, not knowledge propositions – but God’s uncoercive love of us all.

A Short History of Haute Cuisine Catholicism

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Sean O’Conaill © Irish Times July 2005

(This article was originally published under a title not chosen by me – ‘Celebrity-grovelling and elitist bias of the Catholic Church’ in the  ‘Rite and Reason’ column of the Irish Times. I regretted this nonsensical attribution of snobbery to the church as a whole.  The vice is attributable only to those who approve of, and benefit from, its monarchical and aristocratic leadership structure. I sincerely hope that the assault apparently being made on that by Pope Francis (from 2013) will be sustained and effective.  His term ‘spiritual worldliness’ in Evangelii Gaudium marks for me the first explicit recognition by a pope that much ostentatious Catholicism has far more to do with worldly status seeking than with genuine Christianity.)

~*~

“If Jesus was born in a stable and died on the cross, why does the pope live in a palace?”

This question came at me quite frequently from the children to whom I taught history in a Catholic Grammar school in NI. The safest answer was the triumph of the faith of the early Christian martyrs – in the adoption of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.

It was never a satisfying answer, however, because the child’s question arose from an obvious clash between Jesus’ life of mendicant service, and the role of the pope as an international dignitary, ensconced in one of the world’s prime pieces of real estate, surrounded by priceless artistic treasures.

It arose also from the child’s identification with the ideal of social equality – and I was all too aware of the Catholic hierarchy’s disastrous historic resistance to that ideal until fairly recently. Catholics of my generation will be familiar with Maynooth-trained clergy insisting that people cannot be equal for the extraordinary reason that we are ‘all different’.

How could one explain to that child that Maynooth itself was founded in 1795 in a fascinating collaboration between anti-democratic Catholic hierarchs and British grandees who engineered the Act of Union a few years later? That our ‘national seminary’ arose for reasons that Jesus of Nazareth would have found very strange – an identification of the One True Church with a social order that was passing away because it obstructed the historical advance of a key Gospel value: the equality in dignity of all human beings?

That mis-identification of Catholicism with a supposedly sacred medieval social order is best called ‘Haute Cuisine Catholicism’. It survives still in the cult of the papacy – the automatic transformation of a human being into a sacred icon on his election – epitomised by a recent letter to the Irish Times that ecstatically described the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics as the ‘Benedict XVI sect’.

It survives also in absurd snobberies like ‘papal knighthoods’ – one of which went in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch, probably the world’s greatest pornographer.

Another relic of haute cuisine Catholicism is Opus Dei, whose recently canonised founder made much of his spurious Spanish nobility. This privileged Catholic organisation sets out to recreate Christendom by recruiting today’s young intelligentsia as a new Catholic elite.

The celebrity-grovelling that goes on among so many Catholic newspapers is another such remnant: we are supposed to ‘take pride’ in the fact that ‘famous people’ like Graham Greene, Alec Guinness and (God help us) Ann Widdecombe have ‘joined the fold’. From the Catholic Herald one gets the impression that English Catholicism will finally lose its inferiority complex only when it has recaptured the monarchy from Anglicanism.

The effort put by the Catholic clergy in Ireland into educating the children of the middle classes had a similar elitist bias. The conversion of the European military elite in the middle ages had been followed by the surface conversion of their dependents, and by the hierarchical church’s conviction that it need only retain the allegiance of social elites to discharge its obligation to its founder. Thus blessed by the successors of the apostles, these social elites felt all the more secure.

The liberal capitalism that enabled Rupert Murdoch to buy a papal knighthood through charitable donations has also torpedoed this cosy alliance, however. It was the secular Enlightenment that created modern Europe, so post-modern scepticism has replaced Christianity as the chosen faith of Europe’s technocracy – and, taught conformity at Catholic school, Ireland’s best-educated teenagers now typically conform to this secularist faith almost as soon as they leave.

This is the predicament our Irish bishops now find themselves in. Educated to socialise with an Irish Catholic social elite that is now increasingly no longer Catholic, they also find themselves pilloried by media for whom church scandals are meat and drink. Their laments at the rise of ‘á la carte Catholicism’ invite an obvious retort from our inner cities: why did you abandon the accepted practice of bishops in the first four centuries of the church’s history – of eating regularly with the poor?

The answer is, again, sixteen centuries of haute cuisine Catholicism. This liberated Christendom’s hierarchy from the Gospel obligation of social humility – which was then delegated to the lay poor. With the recent papal enthronement of the cleric who aligned his church with Latin America’s appalling elites, I don’t now expect to live to see its final demise.

As Cardinal Ratzinger once told an interviewer in Bavaria:

“It would be a mistake to believe that the Holy Spirit picks the pope, because there are too many examples of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have chosen.”

Quite.

Is Human Consciousness Evolving?

Views: 46

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

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: IV – Jesus the Layperson

Views: 50

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004

We Catholics have always been taught to see the priest as an icon, or model, of Christ – as the best possible guide to how we should live our own lives. So, in our minds eye we may see Jesus as more of a priest than a lay person.

This is especially because the central ritual of the church, the Mass, is led by a priest who takes the place of Jesus at the last supper.

But Jesus was in fact, for almost all of his ministry, simply a layperson who attacked the snobbery of the Jewish priesthood of his time – for example in the parable of the Good Samaritan. And his own priesthood was of an entirely different kind – a kind that we lay people can – and must – imitate if we are to fulfil our own calling as Christians living in the world.

Moreover, the church has always taught that Jesus is prophet and king as well as priest – and prophets and kings were lay people also.

Jesus spent most of his ministry as a lay teacher or Rabbi, living among his disciples in the world. His priesthood began only on the night before he died. It was for his teachings as a lay person that he was disliked by the Jewish elites – and it was for these teachings that he was crucified. It was Jesus the priest who gave us the ritual of the Eucharist – but it was Jesus the lay person who hung on the cross. He was placed there because he had identified with those Jews whom the religious elites called sinners , because he had attacked the Jewish religious authorities for their lack of compassion, and had built up a large following who saw him as the Messiah, or deliverer of his people from oppression. Priests in Jesus time did not do that sort of thing.

Before Jesus all priests had offered victims other than themselves as offerings to God. They had wielded the sacrificial knife against human, and – by Jesus’ time – animal victims. In other words they had shed not their own blood but the blood of someone, or of something, else – to deflect God’s supposed anger from themselves and from those who had provided those victims.

Jesus put an end to this evasive process by replacing a religion of sacrifice with a religion of self-sacrifice.

Alone among the teachers of his time, Jesus had picked up on the profoundly important words of the prophet Hosea, words that Hosea placed in the mouth of God himself:   “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”  (Hos 6:6). Jesus reminded his enemies of this passage twice in the Gospel of Matthew (e.g. Matt 9:13).

This is profoundly important, because it makes it impossible for us to believe that God the Father, whom Jesus called Abba , wanted Jesus to die because he needed some kind of sacrificial blood offering. Quite the reverse: he gave us Jesus to stop us victimising one another – to replace victimisation with generosity. If we are hurt, bitter or angry we should never take this out on one another – but carry this cross ourselves.

Down through the centuries many Christians have somehow absorbed this message. Although all my life I have shuddered at the idea of blood sacrifice, I have absorbed from the Mass the conviction that Jesus wants me to take some pain for others. I believe that Jesus has subtly but profoundly changed the meaning of the word sacrifice itself.

When parents at Christmas time deny themselves luxuries so that they can buy expensive gifts for their children they will call that a sacrifice . The priests of Jesus time would not have understood them, but that usage of the word is now accepted and understood by everyone – because of the cross.

That simple act of putting ourselves out for others, if we can make it the centre of our lives, will fulfil our lay role as priests in the world. And since without it the world cannot be changed, that priesthood of generosity is the most important priesthood in the church. The ritual sacrifice of the Mass is an invitation to take the same holy spirit of self-sacrifice into the world – but only lay people can do that to the extent that it needs to be done.

Once, as a teacher, I reprimanded a young pupil for yawning in class. Somewhat hurt, she told me she had been up all night tending to her sick grandmother. That somehow stuck in my mind – as an example of the priesthood of the laity. But did she ever realise that?

It reminds me now to say something else. Although words are a beautiful way of expressing love, they are often useless and out of place. The world is awash with words today – but in desperate need of loving action.

I am now convinced that the leadership of the church is in serious danger of overvaluing words, and undervaluing action. I have found it extremely difficult to get priests to listen when I say that they undervalue the eloquence of Christian action, and make too little of the loving actions of their people – for example their potential to reach out to people in desperate need of self-esteem. The church will not be truly healthy, I believe, until it reverses this order of priority – and makes Christian action the centre of the church’s life.

Jesus was king and prophet as well as priest – and the first two of these are roles that can best be filled today by laity, as we too are baptised into the kingship and prophetic role of Jesus.

As Jesus was a king who insisted the last shall be first , it follows that lay Catholics are implementing that kingship when they work for an equal and just society. Prophecy was always far more a matter of speaking the truth to powerful institutions than of foretelling the future. Both of these roles are required today in a society that is becoming increasingly unjust and unequal, and in a church that has still to rise to the challenges laid down by the second Vatican Council.

Lay people were challenged by the council to consecrate the world to God – but have not yet been given ownership of this great task. The reason for this is the continuing – but now declining – power of clericalism, the mindset that accords to clergy a superior status and a controlling power in the church.

Consecrating the world to God should not, however, be seen as a matter of imposing our faith on others. Although we lay people too must participate in the New Evangelisation we need to avoid the fundamental mistake of coming across as holier than thou . Ireland has had enough of evangelists who do not fundamentally understand what the good news is: that all are loved unconditionally for themselves, even if they do not share our faith.

Despite our best intentions we Christians usually convey the message: “God will love you if you let us tell you how to run your life”. This is evangelisation as manipulation. It is counter-evangelical, because it presents our God as self-absorbed and manipulative.

Do we love our fellow-citizens unconditionally – even if they refuse to believe what we believe? Is our love superior to our need to have our faith confirmed by the conversion of others? If not, we are spiritually unready for evangelisation. We are also intellectually unready, because we have not fully understood what unconditional love means.

It means service that does not require payback of any kind: the kind of service that Jesus gave.

And that, above all, is what we Catholic laity need to pray for above all – for the spirit of love and service – both unconditional.

This is especially true because all Irish people believe they already know the Gospel – and are rejecting our church because they see it as essentially dedicated to its own power and survival. That is the lesson they have taken from the scandals of the past twelve years.

We will only rise to this challenge if we have no hidden agenda to empower our church once more – no agenda other than the service of the needs of the neediest Irish people – especially of those who are today outside the magic circle of secular power and influence.

We will rise to this challenge, I am convinced, if we pray to Jesus the layperson, and ask him to give us the gifts we need to fulfil our own lay role.

Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Views: 167

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life April 2004

“We are afflicted by a congenital uncertainty as to our own value,” observes Alain deBotton, author of an unfashionably lucid recent work of philosophy entitled Status Anxiety  1Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004. This affliction compels us to seek the attention and admiration of others – a quest virtually guaranteed failure since so many are now seeking the same from us.

Having reached much the same conclusion about the deepest human problem in a reflection on the history of Christianity published in 19992Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999, I was intrigued especially by deBotton’s account of the role of Christianity in ameliorating Status Anxiety down the centuries. This account is not as detailed or complete as one would wish, but his conclusions are provocative and potentially fertile for others who might wish to take up the theme.

To begin with, he brackets Jesus with Socrates as an outstanding example of indifference to the opinion of others, and understands the Gospel concept of ‘worldliness’ as virtually identical to Status Anxiety – quite correctly in my view. He also correctly credits the Churches with insisting upon the equality of all in the sight of God. However, he goes on to insist that Christianity for most of its history did not seriously challenge, even philosophically, the worldly status pyramids outside the sacred spaces of cloister, chapel and cathedral.

He points out that St Augustine’s ‘two cities’ model of history did not allow for the defeat of the worldly, and therefore status-ridden, earthly city by the Church (the City of God) before the day of judgement. Though Christendom could affirm the dignity of the peasant ploughman – for example through the corporatist social model of John of Salisbury – (for whom rulers supplied the mind and peasantry the feet of society) – it has been less effective in ameliorating the impact of meritocratic ideas upon those of low status in a modern society. So much for the penetration of Catholic social teaching, and of Vatican II, into deBotton’s consciousness – but this is significant in its own way.

Meritocracy has, deBotton insists, increased rather than reduced Status Anxiety. In medieval society ‘the poor’ tended to think of their work as useful, of their lot as inevitable, and of their status as both acceptable and none of their own fault. However, the eighteenth century changed all of that. In came the ‘new story’ of Adam Smith – that it was the entrepreneurial spirit that not only produced most wealth, but made wealth potentially limitless. Social Darwinism – the theory that ‘success’ was proof of a genetic and even moral superiority – followed in the nineteenth century. This was countered for a time by ideological socialism, but the recent victory of laissez faire economics and liberal democracy has consolidated the status of a new aristocracy rooted in ceaseless energy, shrewd investment and entrepreneurial cleverness. The seemingly absolute and final ascendancy of a so-called meritocracy implies that the unsuccessful are without any merit – a supremely dispiriting conclusion for them at least.

The most entertaining part of the book is a robust treatment of snobbery, a term that may have originated in the 1820s with the use of ‘s. nob.’ to abbreviate ‘sine nobilitate’, inscribed opposite the names of non-aristocrats in Oxford and Cambridge examination lists. The snob is forever fearful of being considered insignificant through association with the common herd. A Punch cartoon of 1892 (reproduced in deBotton’s book) captures the problem precisely by observing a trio of stately London ladies parading through a park. One of these is looking after another similar trio that has just passed by. She says:

“There go the Spicer Wilcoxes, Mamma. I’m told they’re dying to know us. Hadn’t we better call?”
“Certainly not, Dear!” Mamma replies. “If they’re dying to know us they’re not worth knowing.  The only people worth Our knowing are the people who don’t want to know Us!”

When we recall that the person at the summit of that Victorian status pyramid was a monarch distinguished only by her longevity (and at one stage ironically hailed as ‘Mrs Brown’ by the London mob for her attachment to a Scottish manservant) we have even more reason to laugh at the follies of snobbery.

Snobbery and Status Anxiety are, of course, one and the same. Television situation comedy has exploited a rich vein here in recent years in the UK – in series such as Only Fools and Horses, Yes, Minister and Keeping up Appearances. The belief that advantages such as wealth and education – and country houses and exclusive china – make people somehow ‘better’, more worthy of respect, is, seemingly, a universal and timeless illusion.

That Christian thought and instruction should ceaselessly puncture snobbish pretensions is clear, but the fact is that the mainstream churches have never made a serious direct assault upon snobbery since Constantine. I cannot remember ever hearing a sermon on the subject – although I have been bored to tears all my life by the theme of ‘materialism’. As people acquire expensive property and luxury goods for reasons of status, never for their material composition, that complaint has always missed the mark.

Here in Ireland this failure to indict snobbery from the pulpit and the schoolroom has been especially destructive of the moral persuasiveness of Catholicism in a society aspiring to equality. It has allowed middle class prigs to dominate, and even to characterise, the public face of the church, while the inhabitants of our inner cities now tend to see Catholic bishops as snobbery in purple – simply because they almost always behave as remote grandees rather than accessible and socially relaxed pastors. Bishops generally have been delegating to others the virtue of humility since the fourth century – and this has now become the outstanding scandal in the Church, the root source of its alienation of egalitarian societies.

The part played by Irish Catholic snobbery in the maltreatment of those at the base of the secular period – too often by those at the base of the clerical pyramid – in mid twentieth century Ireland is something that surely needs to be explored in the context of the scandal of child abuse in Ireland. Status pyramids always deprive those at their base of a sense of their own dignity, and brutality is an almost inevitable consequence.

We need to re-evaluate also the devotion by the Irish church of so much educational capital to the children of the middle classes. The assumption that this investment would guarantee the fidelity of the Irish meritocracy to the values and truths of Catholicism was clearly sadly mistaken. There is now not a single national news medium in Ireland that can be said to be sympathetic to and supportive of the church – proof that its efforts on behalf of the middle classes are now interpreted as part of a right wing political agenda rather than as an example of social concern.

And in the context of the growing problem of bullying in our schools, and the self-hatred and self-harming that can follow, the failure of Irish Catholic education to make any explicit connection between social derision and the Gospel account of the crucifixion must be regarded as another disastrous failing.

All of this casts an interesting light upon deBotton’s analysis of the historical failure of the mainstream churches to tackle the spiritual challenge of snobbery in society at large. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that snobbery has become deeply embedded in the church itself.

Just as the secular world is now full of wine, food and all kinds of consumer snobbery, so do we find in the church the liturgy and sacred music snobs who just cannot abide the typical novus ordo mass or folk music hymns. There are even fashions for styles of meditation, for theologians and philosophers – and even ‘spiritualities’ – but little intellectual attention to fashion itself. The awarding of ‘papal knighthoods’ – even to globally notorious pornographers – speaks for itself – as does the English Catholic Herald’s obsession with eulogising supposedly high status converts to Catholicism such as Alec Guinness and Ann Widdecombe. Opus Dei’s recruitment priorities and social attitudes are snobbery incarnate. (It never fails to remind us of its founder’s alleged noblesse.)

Meanwhile we are urged by hierarchs to ‘engage with culture’ – without reflecting upon the very essence of culture itself – its mimetic character. That is what fashion and culture essentially are – the mimesis or imitation of the behaviour of those who have somehow acquired status. No Catholic bishop to my knowledge has yet connected the careerism of bishops – the subject of Cardinal Gantin’s astonishingly frank post-retirement outburst in 1999 – with status seeking in the secular world. This does not bode well for an effective ‘engagement’ by Irish bishops generally with the culture of meritocratic Ireland.

And this means that there is also scant hope at this stage for an effective national response to the challenge of ‘new evangelisation’. True evangelisation elicits an awakening from the mimetic compulsion to seek status and celebrity, an awakening to the good news that one is lovable for oneself and so can be both autonomous and spontaneous. Those who would propose to lead a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland would need to be sure they have experienced this themselves.

DeBotton reminds us poignantly of one of Tolstoy’s greatest characters – Ivan Ilyich – who discovers on the brink of his own death that the status he has achieved in late 1800s St Petersburg does not mean that he is truly loved by either friends or family. He has sought all his life the regard of others, and so has taught his children to do the same. His supposedly cherished beliefs are the fashionable opinions of others, and nowhere near his heart. His work colleagues’ tepid sympathy cannot disguise their greater interest in who will benefit most from his demise.

Late nineteenth century St Petersburg was no less, and no more, Christian than 1950s Ireland – because (as Cardinal Cahal Daly has acknowledged in the case of Ireland) conformity in pursuit of status had become in both the norm – and conformity is just another word for fashion.

How could Christianity and conformity ever have become confused? It happened, surely, as soon as Constantine’s opportunistic vision was blessed by the Catholic bishops as the real thing, and this Caesarean mass murderer was eulogised in the most excruciating terms by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, the proto-typical Catholic snob. This set a new priority for evangelism itself: to convert the socially elevated, because this would guarantee the setting of a spectacular conformist fashion among their ‘inferiors’. This fashion was already established in continental Europe before Patrick came to Ireland, and even Patrick could see the advantage of converting political and social elites first of all.

Thus the support of social elites became essential to the power of the Church all over Europe. And it was the social elitism of the Irish Catholic church that placed it in opposition to the equalising, and therefore, in that limited sense, more truly Christian, tide of modern secularism. Clerical elitism is also the root cause of the tide of clerical scandals that we have seen over the past twelve years – scandals that egalitarian secularism could almost gleefully exploit.

Work such as deBotton’s suggest, therefore, an essential preliminary to any attempt at a ‘new evangelism’ in Ireland – a revision of the history of the Church that correctly identifies Christendom as a failed attempt at evangelisation-through-elites – and military elites at that. It failed because it compromised the Gospels which are centrally an assault upon elitism itself, and especially elitist violence. It failed also, probably, because the Christian God could not let it succeed while remaining true to the radical egalitarianism of his Son.

I do not believe that neo-scholastic philosophy has yet produced a book as relevant, fascinating and revealing as this on the problem of status-seeking – one of the key components of the global environmental and social crisis. This too underlines the fact that the best of secular thought has much to teach the church – especially when secular thinkers reflect honestly upon the mysterious failure of secularism to achieve its original 18th century programme. When the apostles asked ‘which of us is the greatest?’ they were revealing what Christianity, and secularism, need to recognize as the basic human flaw – our boundless desire for priority, measured in the deference of others.

  1. Alain deBotton, Status Anxiety, Hamish Hamilton, 2004
  2. Sean O’Conaill, Scattering the Proud, Columba Press, 1999

Continue reading Is There an Haute Cuisine Catholicism?

Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: I – Crisis

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Sean O’Conaill © Copyright Reality 2004

“Let’s face it – the Catholic Church is on its way out wherever economic progress and universal education take hold. It is a relic of the distant past when uneducated people needed to believe in a superior being up in the sky and priests to do their thinking for them. It has no place in the twenty-first century. In Ireland, where the power of clergy has finally been broken, it will soon be a distant memory.”

This seems to be the shared opinion of most of Ireland’s media pundits these days. Resentful of the power of clergy to dominate the educational system, and even to control politicians as late as the 1980s, Ireland’s mostly anticlerical intellectuals were delighted to see Irish Catholic bishops score a series of devastating own goals in the 1990s. This process continued into the third millennium. In September 2003 Fintan O’Toole declared in the Irish Times that the struggle he and other liberal and leftist intellectuals had waged since the 1960s against the influence of the Irish Catholic hierarchy was virtually over, with victory going to his side of the argument.

Now lay Catholics themselves can list a hatful of critical problems that together seem destined to sideline their church, making it even less influential here than the Church of England next door. Here are ten that seem to me to be of special importance.

First, a series of media scandals has undermined the moral authority of Catholic bishops, the supreme teachers in the Church. The policy of concealment of the sexual abuse of Irish Catholic children by some priests, coupled with the frequent absence of Christian love in the treatment of victims and their families – has shocked the Catholic laity far more deeply than the abuse itself. In the absence of any other explanation by the bishops, laity are forced to conclude that the first priority of Catholic leadership was, in too many cases, to preserve the public image and prestige of clergy generally, rather than to protect the innocence of children and to obey the great command of the Gospels – the law of love. This has shattered the bond of trust that led laity to respect Catholic teaching on, for example, the importance of the family, the dignity of every human being, and sexual matters generally. It’s not clear what the bishop’s crosier symbolises anymore, if it doesn’t mean that children will always come first.

Second, the ability of the Catholic clergy to attract young men into their ranks, already weakening in the early 1990s, has collapsed altogether in the wake of these scandals. This now affects all the religious orders, as well as the diocesan clergy. Moreover, the rapid economic growth of the 1990s has made the career of a celibate priest increasingly less attractive especially when priests themselves complain about poor leadership and too little room for initiative. As clergy have – at least in the experience of everyone now alive – always run the church, how can it survive if there aren’t any?

Third, older clergy often seem ill equipped to explain how Catholic belief is relevant to the needs and questions of lay people today. The Creeds were written over fifteen hundred years ago. What do they mean in a world of mobile phones and universal education? What do they have to do with the problems of raising teenagers whose minds are tuned in to Hollywood, science fiction and the music industry? How do they help in grappling with problems such as addiction, depression and suicide? A generally aging clergy seem more and more out of touch with the minds of rising generations. Too often they don’t either like or understand youth culture, and can’t seem to get through. Too often they complain about the modern world and seem to want to live in the past. That’s often why so many teenagers can’t stick weekly Mass anymore: they find it boring and meaningless.

Fourth, despite the hierarchy’s verbal emphasis on human dignity, lay people are not equally respected in their own church. They are talked at, not listened to. The wisdom and concerns of women especially get no hearing. Parents have not been invited to discuss with clergy the growing problem of influencing young people who are now targeted by culture-changing and alien commercial influences. Most bishops avoid occasions where they will be questioned by lay people, or obliged to listen to them. This makes it impossible for parents to defend Catholic teaching effectively. It seems to prove also that secular culture – where the intelligence of lay people is equally respected – is superior, even in Christian terms.

Fifth, clergy generally are either unhealthily hung up on sex, or unwilling or unable to talk about it. The sexual scandals, and the problems that many priests obviously have with celibacy, have seriously undermined the credibility of the official policy on, for example, birth control – which very few lay people can understand. When teenagers are taught that cohabitation offends God as much as genocide they fall about laughing. This makes many of them wonder about abortion too, and whether their Church is really committed to fighting Aids. The Church has lost its persuasiveness on sexual issues at the very time when clear, balanced sensible teaching is really needed.

Sixth, this clerical hang-up on sex has tended to create a false popular impression that Catholicism has more to do with sexual repression than liberation of the spirit and enlightenment of the mind. This is partly why the growing secular interest in spirituality has led many to suppose that the Bible is a less useful source than oriental mysticism. Furthermore, lay people often get the impression that they are considered spiritually second rate by clerics because they are not celibate. A recent beatification reinforced this impression by emphasizing that the beatified couple had slept separately for decades before death. Such events make Catholicism more the butt of crude TV humour than an object of curiosity and respect. More seriously, they erode the dignity and morale of Catholic parents who have every reason to believe that spirituality and a full sexual relationship are as complementary and compatible now as they were in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

Seventh, the secular world allows lay people to look together freely for solutions to the great problems of today – depression and addiction, for example. It has even empowered young people whom the church has harmed and then tried to forget about. It gives them the freedom to organise and to support one another. The clerical church, on the other hand, seems afraid of freedom, of letting lay people organize freely. Laity anxious to be active in their church far too often find that, if they try to take some initiative, someone will soon tell them the priest or the bishop won’t like it. (To be fair, it is too often another lay person who tells them that.)

Eighth, even where effective priests get lay people working together in parishes discussing the Bible, say, that priest can be changed by the bishop without asking anyone, and his replacement may well decide he doesn’t want that group to continue. It folds up straight away. This makes lay people despair. Parishes need some kind of permanent structure that will give lay people an enduring role and provide continuity in parish life – but there’s no sign of this yet.

Ninth, despite generations of Catholic control of education, Catholic thought has now virtually no prestige in secular Ireland. Worse still, most of those in whom the Church invested its greatest educational efforts – the children of the middle classes – have shown virtually no commitment as adults to social justice. They now support a political culture that privileges themselves at the expense of the poorest underclass in western Europe. Although often nominally Catholic still, most take little part in church life, and are content to complain from the sidelines. Irish Catholic education requires a complete reappraisal on these grounds alone.

Another argument for this is that a Catholic formation that ended for most adults in their teens is inadequate to carry them through life, especially in a rapidly changing culture. Now, as adults, with much more experience of life, they have new questions, and a need to update their ideas. However, Catholic adult education is in very short supply and even where it exists it too often works on the old one-way pattern, with people being handed the Catechism, for example, and told to learn that. Parents can’t be expected simply to parrot answers when young people will ask: “What do [you] really believe?” We need far better adult education, focused upon real problems and involving completely free discussion. There’s no sign of that happening either.

Reconsideration of the Irish church’s entire educational effort is especially important in light of the specific mission given to the laity by Vatican II: to consecrate the world to God . If laity are to understand this mission and begin to carry it out together, they need to be called together to discern and discuss its many implications, and their own role. Many educated and once-committed lay people have lost hope that this will ever happen. Many have also abandoned the church as a consequence.

Tenth, the church generally seems deeply divided between ‘liberals’ who want more change, and ‘conservatives’ who think that change has already gone too far. These differences are so wide it’s sometimes difficult to see how the church can hold together.

****

No doubt, some of you will disagree with this list of problems, or the way they are described – and others may see other problems I have missed. If so, why not pitch in with your point of view?

I will be approaching these problems not as an expert theologian but as a layman with a lay perspective. What I have to say will be both challenging and in need of challenge, because none of us has a monopoly of wisdom. We inherit a great tradition, but have difficulty in discerning what it is asking of us in a rapidly changing world. The mind and insight and enthusiasm of the whole people of God need somehow to be engaged if we are to rise to the enormous problems that now face us all.

‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

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Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life March 2004

Church-of-Ireland Canon Hilary Wakeman – recently retired from parish ministry in Co Cork – is chiefly concerned in this work1Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003 to stem the decline of what she calls ‘moderate Christianity’ – especially here in Ireland. By ‘moderate’ she means non-fundamentalist – and she ascribes this decline largely to “the unwillingness of all the churches, in all countries but perhaps especially now in Ireland, to look honestly and openly into what we say we believe”.

Opening with the familiar tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, she soon makes it clear that she shares the embarrassment of Episcopal bishop J.S. Spong at having to utter the Nicene creed as part of a religious service, as though it was in all respects literally true.

“Sunday by Sunday, countless Christians, reciting the Creeds in church, have the experience of metaphorically crossing their fingers behind their backs when they say some particular set of words. This brings a sense of dishonesty, of integrity apparently having to be set aside for the greater good.”

Canon Wakeman soon makes clear which creedal doctrines she sees as causing this finger-crossing: the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. She points out that surveys of belief increasingly find that many Church of England clergymen don’t actually believe these doctrines – less than half in the case of the virgin birth. (Unfortunately she provides no supporting data on the finger-crossing, so ‘countless’ it remains.)

At this point Canon Wakeman reaches for the now-familiar theory that the left and right halves of the human brain have different functions: the left is ‘analytical’, the right ‘intuitive’, and so on. She offers the possibility that religion belongs properly to the intuitive side, while doctrine tends to be a left-brain analytical and organisational matter. In the Creeds, she fears, “Christians are being asked to state that poetic-paradox statements about God are literally true”.

At this point, I must confess, alarm bells were insistently ringing for me. Are the categories ‘poetic’ and ‘literal’ (or ‘factual’) necessarily mutually exclusive? What would happen to the poetry of the Creeds, or of the Gospels for that matter, if we were to insist that they were merely poetic (i.e. fictive), and not, or not necessarily, substantially true in a historical sense. And if Christianity belongs wholly in the realm of the intuitive and fictive, who will then find it compelling as a source of meaning? Certainly the Gospels and the creeds have poetic resonance, but their endurance to this late date has surely had to do essentially with their claim to a substantive historical and factual foundation – an actual intervention by a transcendant reality into human history.

Would Canon Wakeman attempt to discern the actual as distinct from the poetic truth about such an intervention? Disappointingly for me, she ends this chapter on doctrine by proposing that Richard Dawkins’s objections to the Catholic doctrine of the Assumption are valid on the grounds that this elevation of a material body into a heaven is comprehensible only within the ‘flat-earth’ vertically ordered universe of the early first millennium.

This, for me, is an unfortunate descent into Spongian rhetoric. It is also strangely dated scientifically, stuck somewhere before 1900 C.E. – as though ‘hard’ matter had not been discovered in the last century to be mostly empty space, to consist otherwise largely of vast quantities of energy, and to be gravitationally compressible to the point of its own disappearance. Given also the theoretical possibility of multiple invisible further dimensions within what we perceive as empty four-dimensional space, just how much ‘commonsense’ certitude can there be these days on the actual nature of ‘space’ and ‘bodies’?

The fact is, surely, that the most advanced physics today has destroyed the ‘commonsense’ Newtonian universe that underpins atheistic certitude, and is as inscrutable on the precise nature of physical reality as theology ever was on the subject of heaven. I strongly wish the progressive school would progress to the point of acknowledging this. If we are to update the Creeds (an exercise not attempted in this book), we must do it properly and not leave ourselves with something that would have been spanking new and acceptable to, say, Charles Darwin.

Furthermore, for theologians, heaven has almost always had more to do with a relationship of unity with God than with questions of ‘where?’ or ‘how?’ Is there for Canon Wakeman, I wondered at this point, truly a God to relate to?

Again unfortunately, her chapter on ‘How we experience God’ is centred once more on the assertion that we experience God with the ‘right’ brain, whereas doctrine is a ‘left’ brain activity. This is ultimately inadequate, as it seems again to fudge the issue of truth. Can we really deal with people who ask “Is there truly a God?” by saying something like:

“Well, the right side of my brain – the poetic side – says ‘yes’, while the left side, the analytical side, is far less sure of it.”?

If we do we should be well prepared for the next obvious question: “But isn’t the right side of your brain the bit that makes things up?” Where, I wonder, would the Canon go from there?

On the grounds of their poetic resonance she is willing to accept doctrines such as the divinity of Christ, the Fall and the Resurrection as ‘basically life affirming’ but, she insists, the concept of atonement “(that Jesus died to placate an angry God) seems to have no salvageable aspect”.

If that particular theory of atonement is the only acceptable one within the Anglican communion I shudder at such authoritarian rigidity. Especially because the earliest understanding of atonement centred upon the idea of release (or redemption) not from a debt owed to God, but from the power of evil, personified as Satan. Canon Wakeman is here identifying a travesty of Anselm’s feudal satisfaction theory of atonement with the Creeds – a clear anachronism.

The point is important, because Canon Wakeman has begun by arguing that a twenty-first mind cannot truly accept a first- or even fourth-century worldview. Given Rene Girard’s anthropological analysis of the Gospel text as an exposure of the process of scapegoating violence in the ancient world – a process still ongoing in phenomena as diverse as the war on terrorism and schoolyard bullying – the first century understanding of atonement may well in fact be bang up-to-date.

Catholic demythologisers might note at this point that this must score as a plus for the Catholic catechism, which is non-definitive on theories of atonement. It does not insist that God demanded satisfaction (or substitution for that matter) – merely that Christ’s suffering and death has forever reconciled us with God2But see Article 615 of the 1994 Catechism: 615 “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.. Atonement is simply at-one-ment – final reconciliation. The doctrine in itself is not definitive on how Jesus reconciles. For me – poetically and factually – God moves towards us – and reveals himself through -Jesus – in the way that the father of the prodigal son ran to meet him on his return. (And of course I can say so while acknowledging that to speak of God as merely male is inadequate.)

In a chapter on ‘Some Basic Christian Doctrines – and New Ways to Express Them’ Canon Wakeman comes closest to defining her positions on revelation, the nature of God, and the sonship, resurrection and divinity of Jesus. She dwells sensibly upon the ineffability of God, but her account of the concept of revelation seems woefully inadequate, leaving out as it does the centrality of Jesus to the concept – the belief that it is through the revelatory Jesus above all that we come to know the ineffable God.

This is important, because the statement ‘Jesus is God’ needs to be understood as a statement that speaks as much about God as about Jesus – an assertion that we come to understand the goodness, intentions and wisdom of God uniquely and indispensably through him.

And this in turn means that the statement ‘Jesus is the Son of God’ could never have been fully understood in a simplistic biological sense – as though anyone ever thought he already knew who and what God is and how exactly he could become a biological parent. The doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus are best understood as expressing a belief in the unique filiation of Jesus – the belief that his filial relationship to, understanding of, and fidelity to the being he himself called ‘Abba’, was of an order way beyond the sonship of, for example, David – so far beyond it that Jesus became for Christians the definitive, sufficient and indispensable authority on who God is and what he expects of us. Literal biological sons (e.g. Absalom) were not uniformly faithful to their parents, so that to say of Jesus that he was the ‘literal’ son of God would not pay him a unique compliment. ‘Light from Light, True God from True God’ on the other hand suggests true fidelity to and identity with the spiritual essence and benevolent purpose of God. This is a far higher claim that does not insist upon a ‘literal’ interpretation of ‘sonship’ (whatever ‘literal’ might mean in this context).

Canon Wakeman would probably object that the doctrine of the virgin birth is surely insisting upon some kind of biological sonship. As biology was an unknown science in the fourth century it could be argued equally that it is no more than an attempt to explain and justify the exaltation of Jesus to the pinnacle of the revelatory process – to explain how he could have become what he was, so entirely unaffected by, yet opposed to, the evil he confronted.

Canon Wakeman rejects even the use of the word ‘unique’ in reference to Jesus, and prefers this formula: ‘In Jesus there was so much of God that those who came in contact with him could not see where Jesus stopped and God began.’

I must confess that I find this embarrassingly twee – a sentimental reduction that is not only condescending but completely incapable of explaining the commitment-unto-death of so many of those who followed Jesus – precisely because they believed in his revelatory uniqueness.

It’s clear soon enough what consequences flow from such negativity. To begin with, although Jesus’s crucifixion was the result of an ‘archetypal’ confrontation between good and evil, the concept of Jesus ‘dying for our sins’ can only be understood through the unacceptable Anselmian lens, and must go. With it goes, of course, any notion of an historical centrality for the Gospel story.

Was ‘Abba’ a right-brain mytho-poetic (i.e. fictive) construct of Jesus? If so, did Jesus confront bogus religion and endure crucifixion essentially because he had a dangerous habit of talking to himself? Canon Wakeman does not address such questions – but they go to the heart of the larger question of whether Christianity is worth saving

And inevitably, Jesus’s bodily resurrection must go the way of ‘literal’ sonship. The intense sense of loss that was felt by the closest followers of Jesus, and their recollections of his life and teachings, led to a conviction that he was in some sense still present, and must therefore have survived death. It was the surviving Christian community that created the right-brain myth of the bodily resurrection. The possibility, strongly argued by the NT texts themselves, that it was on the contrary the unexpected eventuality of some kind of actual tangible resurrection that restored the already dispirited and fragmenting Christian community, is not one that Canon Wakeman can entertain.

A few historian’s questions surfaced in my mind at this point. If this was all there ever was to Jesus, why did his followers soon go to the suicidal lengths of making of this rejected one the cornerstone of more than one separated and excoriated community within, and then outside, Judaism? Was Stephen’s self-sacrificing testament merely another (right-) brainstorm? And why did Paul take the equally dangerous and inexplicable course of substituting belief in a liberating Jesus for rigid adherence to the minutiae of the Jewish law as expounded by the religious elites of his time – the belief system for which he had earlier been willing to kill Christians on the grounds of the threat they posed to it? Why were they such a threat?

These questions are important, I believe, because they relate to the origins of the historical phenomenon of global Christianity that lasted the two millennia needed to justify any discussion today on the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If you reduce Jesus to the status of another prophet – even a supreme prophet (and Canon Wakeman shies away even the use of the word ‘unique’ to describe him) – you are faced with the problem of explaining the emergence of Christianity from Judaism as a quite separate belief system that was willing to endure the most frightful persecution that followed. No amount of right-brain poetry can fully explain the often horrendously risky dynamism of the early church.

What other consequences flow from progressive reductionism, in Canon Wakeman’s view? Can we still celebrate Christmas and Easter, for example? Yes, we are assured – the celebration of light piercing the darkness and the victory of life over death is beneficial – and the soul does indeed need the periodic renewal that Lent can provide. The Bible can be read for its nourishment of the right brain – but the idea of divine inspiration is liable to nourish fundamentalism and so should be discarded. Lectio divina, however, is encouraged.

As for the future, Canon Wakeman sees little hope for ‘moderate’ orthodoxy, which is slowly ‘dying out’. The future lies either with reaction (going backward and tightening up) – the road taken by fundamentalism – or progressivism (going forward and loosening up) in the style of her book. The preservation of an ‘exclusive’ core of doctrine is a futile exercise. The future of ministered sacraments is tied to the problematic future of ministry itself, and we should encourage one another to see the beauty of the natural world as ‘sacramental’.

Was Jesus even archetypally sacramental? As Canon Wakeman quotes Schillebeeckz and admits that Jesus was at least an archetype of some kind, one might expect that she would explore this possibility at least. Unfortunately she doesn’t – leaving me with essentially the same disappointment that I had with J.S. Spong’s ‘Why Christianity Must Change or Die’. If Christianity is worth saving shouldn’t its reductionist saviours at least attempt to be inspirationally reconstructive of the primacy of the person at its centre – if only to mitigate the pain of those exposed to so much reduction? A Chapter on ‘Jesus for Our Time’ or ‘What Jesus teaches us about God’ suggests itself – but perhaps that might be the theme of a sequel to this book.

I certainly hope so. I have learned much about progressivism from this book. Unlike Spong’s, the canon’s style is never insufferably self-congratulatory. The very last thing a minister of the Gospel should be is hypocritical or dishonest – and Canon Wakeman has certainly acquitted herself on that score. She has read widely and produced a highly stimulating and provocative text that can be easily absorbed. How would her views of Jesus and God be affected by reading Girard, I wonder, supportive as his work is of orthodoxy, and of the Bible as a supremely revelatory text – and from an unexpected rationalist direction? (So far, I believe, Girard remains undiscovered territory for progressives – suggesting that it is essentially an Anglican phenomenon).

Although Canon Wakeman’s argument rests largely upon the conviction that the decline of moderate orthodoxy has to do centrally with the prevalence of finger-crossing during the creed, she provides no data that would confirm this. A survey or even a poll would surely be possible. I can only say that I see the creeds not as an insistence upon an ancient physical cosmology but as an affirmation that, in all eras, there is, factually, a transcendant moral cosmos to which we also belong, and from which we can draw inspiration and strength – especially through the one whose belief in it was both absolute and fatal to himself. I neither cross my fingers nor switch off my left brain when I say them.

Central to the phenomenon of progressivism so far, it seems to me, is an unnecessary intellectual embarrassment – an overwhelming desire to dissociate oneself from the fundamentalists and ‘creationists’ who have rejected so much of modern science. It originates, I suspect, at academic dinners when, reaching for the salt, the Christian theologian is assailed with a smirking “Not another Saviour, I hope?” from the eminent evolutionary biologist in the next seat. The need to make one’s own faith unembarrassing in such company is necessarily acute – and an unremitting reductionism is obviously one way to go.

But what of the intellectual hubris such a sally implies – that our own era has not only answered every important question but saved everyone in need of saving – as the archetypal anti-Christian programme, the Enlightenment of the 1700s, expressly promised? It often implies also that what is positive in modern secularism owes nothing to orthodox Christianity – as though values such as liberty, equality and fraternity originated fully formed in the mind of the late 1700s, had no earlier provenance, and have by now anywhere been fully achieved. There is so much ignorance and insouciance in such a worldview that it surely requires challenge rather than encouragement.

Era-chauvinism is as close as I can get to a name for the phenomenon – the Panglossian view that of all past and possible eras this one is by far the wisest – and especially because we are so knowledgeable, and first century folk were so superstitious.

Of course it is essential to detach Christianity from bigotry and obscurantism, but the surgery required to do this must not pierce the heart that keeps Christianity alive: the belief that, independent of both sides of our brain, there truly exists a spiritual entity that intends our good, knows and understands us intimately, and wishes to release us from cyclical self-harm.

This book has not convinced me that ‘progressive Christian’ surgery has left Christianity with a heart that can still beat. One simply cannot save Christianity by implying (without quite saying) that Jesus’s faith in Abba was no more than a right-brain poetic fancy. The death of what this kind of progressivism proposes to save would surely be too high a price to pay for the approval of an intellectual elite that is often every bit as arrogant and insouciant as the one Paul found in the Athens of his day. And, let’s face it, nothing less than the final death of the Christian tradition will fully satisfy that self-satisfied coterie anyway.

Notes

  1. Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs, Canon Hilary Wakeman, Liffey Press, Dublin, 2003

The Moral Universe of the Creeds

Views: 11

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.

‘Ubi caritas …’

Views: 18

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2003

In 1975, at the age of five, my only daughter, Cliona, told me to stop smoking:  she had just heard on TV that every cigarette shortened my life by a few minutes.

I stopped straight away, touched by the directness of the child’s heart and mind. Certainly that decision gave me good physical health for most of the ensuing period.

Cliona was named after an Irish goddess of the waves. Drawn to the Gospel story early on, she found herself as an adolescent repelled from a church that seemed to her sin-obsessed and authoritarian. Leaving for London in her early twenties she fitted perfectly into the New Age mould of that time – environmentally aware and drawn to oriental mysticism. The Catholic worldview of her childhood simply slipped away and she became a free spirit, travelling widely and becoming a writer.

Now in June 2003 when Cliona heard of my cancer she had the same child’s directness: she travelled to Coleraine with her partner, Ajay, a disciple of the mystic Osho. She also proposed that she and Ajay give me a Buddhist therapy called Tibetan pulsing – directed at the seat of the cancer in my bladder.

I had initial misgivings – to do with the fact that I had handed my condition over to the Great Physician, the Lord Jesus Christ. But then I remembered again the Taizé hymn I had heard in hospital: “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.” (Wherever there is caring and love, God is also.) Had I not accepted the ministry of everyone in the hospital, irrespective of their faith, so why not that of my own daughter?

So I received three sessions of Tibetan pulsing – involving relaxation to rhythmic music, gentle massage, and meditation upon the role of the body part being affected. I learnt that the bladder was a delicate reservoir for the waters that I needed to preserve life – not a mere receptacle for waste. This eastern spiritual perception of the human body is so different from the western one, in which we have too readily learned to think of the body as a machine, with the doctor in the role of mechanic. It blended easily with my Christian perception of the body as sacrament of love.

At the beginning Ajay invited me to call into the therapy whatever spiritual presence I wished – so, of course, I called upon Jesus to heal whatever was awry. Ajay said that he detected that this was a particularly powerful prayer.

At the end of the last session Ajay asked if anything unusual had happened. I said, truthfully, yes – as I had seen an image of the cross, and superimposed upon it, an image of a fern leaf uncoiling as it does in spring. I had taken this to mean that the cross was the tree of life, and that my healing process had begun.

Now that my chemotherapy regime has just ended, with another CT scan scheduled for next week, I feel certain that there has been a great healing over those three months.

But, far more precious to me has been the healing of my relationship with my daughter. I believe I had resented her throwing away apparently everything she had received from her home and school, in which both of her parents had taught. Now I found her very sharp and intuitive about the pressures in my own life that had led to my illness. Especially the habit of being glued to the electronic media to collect data on the deteriorating world around me. She was also an invaluable guide to the organic diet I now moved on to, with great benefit.

She was also a mature and wise person, capable of communicating the necessity of spirituality to her own generation.

Best of all, I can see so much of myself in her – intellectual independence, a desire to communicate insights, a preference for wisdom before knowledge.

From this latest experience I have learned also not to be afraid to let my God mix freely with those of other faiths, confident of his ability to make his presence known in imagery that will communicate across all barriers.

Now Ajay will never again associate the cross merely with suffering, and will be open to contact with other Christian influences in his own country. The gentle pacifism of Buddhism, and the robust pacifism of Jesus, cannot be antithetical to one another. The truth is that Christian violence – too often sanctioned by Popes – has always been a betrayal of the Gospels, and it is time to recall the Church to the full pacific intent of the Gospels. The Dalai Lama and Ghandi call us in the same direction – and it is time we followed.

So, using the formula Ubi Caritas, no Catholic need be afraid of being unable to discern how to behave in the context of the many different faiths we encounter today. And we should not be afraid to let our children experience these faiths and cultures, and to ask their own questions. The truth need fear nothing from the truth. All of us are pilgrims whose paths cross for a purpose – to enrich everyone with the gifts of wisdom that are then exchanged.

Already the departure lounge had given me insight into the wondrous transaction that takes place between carers and patients. Now it had healed a relationship of great importance to me. In both cases, I had been learning something new – something I could write about – giving myself an added impetus to survive.

Next Monday I receive another CT scan, and a fortnight later the consultant will report the findings to me. Already I am confident that the cancer has receded generally, as I have practically no bladder discomfort, and the bladder has recovered its full capacity. Will I still need an operation to remove the bladder then?

I must wait and see – praying as I do so – for prayer has already proven to me its power to heal.

“You have possibly incurable cancer.”

Views: 56

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality, 2003

“You have an aggressive cancer of the bladder – best cured by removal of the bladder. But the cancer appears to have spread to the lymph system, making this probably inadvisable. You first need chemotherapy, which has a fifty percent chance of enabling the operation.”

This was the essence of the news I heard from a consultant in one of Belfast’s major hospitals in mid June of 2003. Knowing that bladder cancer can kill if unchecked, I realised my near future was all I had left for certain.

Now, in early August 2003 I am two-thirds of the way through the chemotherapy course. Until this point, with my earth-survival horizon still uncertain and my family still fretting, I haven’t been sure that I could ever find the strength and the inclination to write about this – or anything else for that matter.

I have written before, from a safer distance, about the prospect of dying. For about nine years now I have been a committed Christian and Catholic, familiar with St Paul’s assurance that if we go into the tomb with Christ we rise again.

But there are many degrees of distance from the tomb, and for most of those nine years my distance from it has been very comfortable. I had, especially, until February 2003, good physical health – and therefore no experience of the shattering impact of physical collapse and dependency.

It’s all very well to write and speak heroically about death from that distance, but now I found that when an essential natural function collapses, begins to cause intense pain, and threatens basic survival, all of this romantic long-distance heroism about death collapses also.

I simply wasn’t in any way prepared for the bitter prospect of imminent departure. Aged sixty, I am the eldest of three brothers, with both parents still living, aged ninety-one. They lost my older brother to cancer in 1962, so shouldn’t I be allowed to survive them – to look after them? Wouldn’t any reasonable God agree?

And what about that better book I had planned, and that course of study, and those articles on this and that – and that first trip to the US I had looked forward to, taking advantage of a friend’s invitation?

Most of all though, I was assailed by an intense sense of loss – of losing everything I loved. My wife, my children, my parents, my home, the daily routine, the Ireland I love. I might soon, now, lose everything – to go into total uncertainty, dispossession and powerlessness.

I had previously in my writings drawn a distinction between death and humiliation – but now all separation between the two was lost. Death, I discovered, is in itself the final humiliation – the extinction of everything we humans are surrounded by in life, everything that gives us a sense of our own identity and significance.

I felt also an intense sense of isolation – of having been shut into a cell on my own, which no-one else could really enter – because it was an ante-room to death itself, a departure lounge from which there might well be no return, from which every instinct tells us to fly.

My worst night ever was that night in the hospital – as I faced a painful biopsy and no certainty of living far beyond the end of 2003. My wife was 60 miles away in Coleraine – as I had blithely travelled to Belfast on my own. Doctors and nurses were kind and encouraging, but they could not be with me in my isolation either. When the lights in the ward dimmed about ten and my neighbours turned to sleep I felt a degree of abandonment and loneliness that totally overwhelmed me emotionally – in a way I had never before experienced.

Desperately I sought some solace. As fate, or providence, would have it, I had brought a portable CD player with me – and my wife Patricia had packed a two-disc compilation of Taizé music. Not expecting it to be much help I had no other recourse.

“Lord, hear my prayer!” was soon echoing in my head – and my prayer was for a sense of His presence with me, there in that strange place, with people I did not know. Soon enough came something even more appropriate:

“Within our darkest night you kindle the fire that never dies away!”

Somehow the faith of choir singing this became at that moment my faith too, and I began to echo the music and the words.

Suddenly I felt a sense of warmth, and a certainty that I was among friends – even, in some sense, at home. I also felt a sense of time slowing down – and an awareness of slight movements around me that indicated living souls – dependent like myself upon the nursing staff nearby.

Dependent! That was part of my problem – the fear of dependence, of being incapacitated and increasingly useless. But, watching those nurses, I had realised already that their role and sense of duty and fulfilment rested wholly upon the dependence of others. For them it was the expected duty – not something burdensome and tiresome.

There, then, I began to come out of the shell of isolation into which the shocking news had pushed me, and to take a new interest in everything going on around me. By the time the discs had finished, time itself seemed to have slowed down. I even fell asleep for an hour or so.

A few days later I was reminded even more strongly of this sacred relationship between patient and carer, when my chemotherapy regime began. Tethered to an electric pump infusing various obscurely named liquids over a forty-hour period, I was confined to the oncology ward. The pump was clipped to a wheeled stand, allowing me, in theory, to push it ahead of me.

At 2 a.m. I received an urgent bladder signal in the darkened ward. For the sake of my morale I needed to make it to the bathroom eighty yards away. But when I had swung my feet to the floor I found the pump wouldn’t move more than a few inches.

“Are you all right there, darlin’?” came a Belfast accent. A nurse was at my shoulder.

“It’ll work off the battery,” she continued – unplugging the pump from the wall. She looped the cable round the pump, and I set off successfully, dignity maintained.

She had answered my question, the question everyone seems to be asking these times: – “Where is this God of yours when you really need Him?”

The answer was in another one of those Taizé hymns:

“Ubi Caritas et Amor, Deus Ibi Est! – Where there is caring and love, God is also!”

And it was there in the ward – among patients I could observe, many of them more ill than I was. I could observe them second-to-second, and I suddenly realised that my perception of time itself had changed.

Our attitude towards time seems to be strongly influenced by our perception of how much of it we have left. For children it seldom passes quickly enough, because it stretches away limitlessly. Although many of us now plan our lives a few years ahead, we somehow assume that the final frontier to this life is beyond every horizon for which we plan.

I could no longer do this. In fact I couldn’t plan anything now but my immediate response to the possibility of death within a year. “Depend upon it, Sir,” said the great Dr Johnson, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

I had a lot more than a fortnight, but my mind was indeed concentrating hard. By now I was aware of different schools of thought on the subject of cancer itself, its causes and treatments and how to fight it. My daughter had presented me with three different books on the subject and many of her own ideas coincided with those of a friend who is also fighting cancer from an alternative medical standpoint involving a completely organic diet. Hadn’t he told me he had sailed through chemo as a consequence?

First, however, I made what has turned out to be my most crucial decision: to place myself completely under the protection of the one I now call the Great Physician – the healing Lord of the Gospels. The Taize music had given me a sense of the Lord as always present – and especially in the darkest valley of Psalm 23. Above all I did not want to lose my awareness of that presence, whatever happened. I determined that from now on I would simply check out if I felt myself losing this awareness.

By ‘check out’ I mean simply disengage from the moment, close my eyes, and place myself again in the presence of the Lord. By now I had a prayer that allowed me to do this – one familiar to every Catholic:

“Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Bring all souls to heaven, especially those in need of thy mercy.”

It’s the first three words, not the mention of hell, that are crucial for me. They immediately state and invite a relationship. The rest of the prayer states a lack of presumption that anyone else is less loved or precious than I am. We don’t know what Hell is – unless it is endless futility and loneliness – but we surely wish to get wherever heaven is. And if we are truly into the spirit of the Gospels we know also that Jesus wishes to save every last one of us.

Something else had helped me immeasurably through that crisis – the messages of support that came from all who knew me – old teaching colleagues, Cursillo friends, Internet contacts abroad. I might now be in the departure lounge, but I was not forgotten – and the most powerful force for healing was active in my regard: prayer.

By day twelve of my hospital stay I was buoyantly looking forward to going home – and I had with me a journal detailing the state of my mind, soul and body from the start of the crisis. I continued to keep it at home – for I had much more to learn from that seat in the departure lounge called cancer. Editor permitting I will cover that in a second article under this heading.