Tag Archives: Julius Caesar

Of Good and Evil: III – Vanity and Humility

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  May 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may need constant reassurance from others. We may need to be ‘first’ wherever we go.

One day early in the century before the Christian era two young Roman army officers were passing a small village in conquered Spain.

“What a dump!” said one, in educated Latin, pointing to the village.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome!” said the other.

This second speaker was Gaius Julius Caesar. He eventually became the first man in Rome by becoming one of the most effective mass murderers in history – in the cause of expanding the Roman empire into France, England and Germany. However, to become first in Rome in that era was to invite the deadly envy of other ambitious men. Caesar’s life ended when he became also probably the most famous assassination victim in history, in 44 BC. He was then declared a God by those who set out to avenge him. The name ‘Caesar’ was subsequently given as a title to all Roman emperors.

“Better to be the first man in such a place than the second man in Rome.”

“Better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (John Milton’s Satan in ‘Paradise Lost’)

“Lord, which of us is the greatest?” (the apostles to Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem)

The most dangerous ambitions in history have been driven by a profound mistake, a mistake that now threatens not only the lives of many individuals but the survival of all humanity: the belief that our value depends upon what others think of us. This belief lay at the root of the greatest war in history, because it was the deepest conviction of another conqueror, Adolf Hitler. It lies at the root of much, perhaps most, psychological disturbance. It also drives all those who centre their lives on winning the admiration of others.

It leads to the problem of vanity – pursuit of the admiration of others.

We are so unsure of our own opinion of ourselves that we tend to overvalue the good opinions of others. This is why those who are told they are especially gifted tend to become vain, while those who are never praised, or who suffer too much criticism or bullying, tend to become depressed, or even self-destructive.

And bullying itself arises out of competition for the good opinion of the group, or the classroom, or the workplace. And so does all social hierarchy and injustice. The question ‘which of us is the greatest’ not only started a row among the apostles – it continues to plague the church and all society.

Jesus said: “you must be as little children”. The child has not yet been caught in the net of others’ opinions. Well aware of his own smallness the little child is content simply to explore the wonder of the world. He is unselfconscious – that is, usually unaware that others are conscious of him. His emotions and words are spontaneous, uncalculated. He is content to be loved. He knows nothing, yet, of ambition or admiration.

The human problem really begins at adolescence when we become acutely aware of our own bodies, and therefore of what others think of us. Electronic media have made this problem critical, by making it possible for any individual to become globally admired – or reviled. Conquering the world in Caesar’s time could only be attempted militarily. Nowadays it is the global media that decide who is ‘first’.

Many parents now spend serious money to send their children to ‘X Factor’ talent schools. How many have reflected on what they may be teaching their children? How many such children receive the message: “Your value depends only upon what others think of you!”

If a fifteen year-old girl deeply believes this, and is then rubbished by some shallow talent show judging panel, what conclusion will she come to? It could be: “I am rubbish.”? Such a self-dismissal, following a public humiliation, could be a death sentence.

Nothing is more dangerous than to believe that our value depends upon what others think of us. And nothing is more dangerous nowadays than the technology that increasingly transmits this message into the home – especially if there is no critical counter-message coming from attentive parents.

Such as: “You are made in God’s image!”

As God is the spirit of love, it follows that to be made in God’s image is to be created with the potential for love – that is for respecting everything God has made, including ourselves and all other humans. There is no greater gift or attribute. The beautiful woman who does not have it is uglier than she knows – and this is true of all celebrities.

And this is why the gift of honest love is greater than all flattery or adulation. These latter things are deeply dangerous, because they can lead to arrogance and narcissism.

Jesus and the coming of the Kingdom of God

Beginning as it did in the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, the life of Jesus of Nazareth had a deep historical significance. Contradicting the conqueror’s conviction that the value of his life depended upon what the Roman world thought of his military prowess, Jesus taught an entirely contrary truth. “Your value depends only on what God thinks of you.”

Recognising especially the oppressed and afflicted of his own time Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God. We enter this kingdom when we understand what Zacchaeus understood as soon as Jesus called him down from his tree: that we too are deeply loved by the one who made us, and can never lose that love. This experience in itself heals the deepest sorrow we can suffer: the sorrow of believing ourselves to be of no value.

The spirit of love is also the spirit of humility, which is not at all the same thing as self-abasement. Humility derives from the deep conviction that we are already loved, and so do not need the admiration of others.

Some scripture scholars are baffled by the fact that repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark Jesus tells his followers not to speak of the wonders they have seen him perform. These scholars miss the fact that people can be fascinated by someone for entirely the wrong reason – and that such fascination is deeply dangerous for all concerned. Especially because it can fixate upon something other than the power of love, and entirely miss the most important truth about the kingdom of God: that God’s love is equal for all of us. The search for living ‘icons’ – people of special fascination – is a mistake – just like the flattery offered by Peter to Jesus when he insisted that he must not be crucified.

“This must not happen to you, Lord!”

That was equivalent to saying: “You must be another Caesar – the one who crucifies, not the one who is crucified”.

The world in Jesus’ time was poised between those two tendencies – vanity (or ‘worldliness’) and humility – an equal respect for all. Noticing this in Jesus his enemies said:

“We notice you do not regard the rank of any man. Tell us then, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.”

But Jesus asked:

“Of what benefit is it to you to gain the whole world, if in the process you lose your own soul.”

Our soul is our deepest self, which needs to love and to be loved, not to be admired. Gaining the world is what Caesar gained, the world’s fascination with his military invincibility.

The world is always poised between these two tendencies, because we are all faced always with the choice between vanity and humility, worldliness and love. The peace of the world has always depended upon our choice.

And so, now, does the survival of the human ecosystem.

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The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

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

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

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Moral Universe of the Creeds

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times January 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is God Dead?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life  Oct 2001

A Review of I See Satan Fall like Lightning by René Girard (Orbis Books, New York, 2001)

Neo-paganism more than anything else is the target of this book, but its greatest value is as a succinct introduction to the various other profound works of the author, René Girard. It is also, in the end, a highly optimistic summary of the lasting effects of the Gospel, and a redoubtable assault upon the cosy post-modernist consensus that God is dead (the only significant thing agreed upon). Not so, says Girard – the fact that victims everywhere have become the focus of compassion and policy, and their salvation and protection an essential test of political virtue, is the de facto victory of the cross, and thus of God also – but not the God of power that Nietzsche might have respected.

Girard is a vastly erudite literary academic and cultural anthropologist, rather than a theologian or philosopher, but both theology and philosophy have much to learn from him. As have those biblical scholars whose a priori deconstructions (actually destruction) of the texts they study is another of Girard’s targets. For him the Bible is the book of all books, because, without an elaborate exegesis, it allows us to discover the organising principle behind all ancient culture, without exception.

That principle is scapegoating violence – the murder or expulsion of a usually marginalized victim, selected by a process of mimetic accusation which holds the victim accountable for the ‘plague’ afflicting a given society, e.g. ancient Thebes in the time of Oedipus. The accuser is Satan, the one also bent upon concealing the injustice of this original crime from the clear gaze of its perpetrators. ‘Plague’ is a metaphor for any crisis threatening the survival of a society, especially internal conflict brought about by mimetic desire. The single victim mechanism unites all in the expulsion of this evil, releasing the tension which might otherwise have destroyed all.

Mimetic desire is a key Girardian concept. It registers the key fact that Madison Avenue confirms daily – that our desires are mostly imitative, an unconscious absorption of the desires of others, interpreted through whatever they already possess. ‘Covetousness’ is the biblical term, a key word in the Mosaic commandments that the ineffable Bishop Spong routinely rubbishes as a party piece. Desiring what others possess – especially if it is, like supreme power, or ‘glory’, unique – is the essential source of internal (as well as external) conflict, and this is precisely why in the Jewish and Christian traditions, desire needs to be understood and controlled.

For those who read both Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ and the New Testament first at school, it is fascinating to see both texts fall together under Girard’s lens. Caesar is a military conqueror whose ‘glory’ excites the envy (blocked desire – disguised as patriotism) – of those who murder him. Yet in the avenging of his death he is divinised, creating the title by which holders of imperial power would thenceforth be known, and the principle by which the empire is unified. It was in the reign of the first of these Caesars that Jesus entered the world, the one who renounced worldly power, both secular and religious – conquering mimetic desire – and then clearly revealed the process of mimetic violence in the Passion, recorded in the Gospel narratives. The fact that these narratives were recorded at all was the result of something itself unique in such events – the detachment from the scapegoating crowd of those convinced of the resurrection, and of the innocence of the accused.

Thus for Girard what distinguishes the Biblical texts from all similar founding texts is their revelation of, and intolerance for, the scapegoating process. He insists that all other founding myths, treated so often merely as quaint fictions by modernist conflaters, conceal real foundation murders. The Enlightenment’s tendency to find e.g. ancient Greek civilisation entirely healthy by comparison with Judaism is fundamentally naïve – as evidenced by the known practice on certain festivals of ritually assassinating the pharmakoi – marginalized victims pre-selected for this purpose. Myths for Girard, although correctly decipherable, are essentially lies in the sense that they seek to justify the unjustifiable – but only our possession of the biblical texts allows this decoding.

The most striking defence of this conviction comes in his comparative analysis of the stories of Oedipus and the biblical Joseph. Both are subject to mimetic accusation – Joseph twice, by his brothers and by the Egyptians – but in the Greek legend the guilt of Oedipus is alleged to have been proven, whereas the biblical account insists on Joseph’s innocence on both occasions. His test of his brothers’ willingness to repeat their betrayal of himself in the handing over of Benjamin results in one moving exception, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ substitution of himself for all victims.

Girard’s assault on Nietzsche – for explicitly justifying sacrificial murder – is drastic. He argues that the archetypal modern scapegoating murder, the Holocaust, was essentially a pursuit of this programme, and that had Hitler won the war the Nietzschean programme of undoing the compassion for victims established by the gospels would have been attempted on a vast scale. The genocide of Europe’s Jews would have been not only acknowledged but boasted about – just as such events were justified by spurious accusation in the ancient and medieval world.

That the global historical record might thus have become so easily permanently tainted suggests that Girardian analysis has much to reveal about historiography generally. Northern Ireland is replete with scapegoating violence on both sides of the equation – and it is interesting that the original villain of Irish nationalist historiography, Dermot MacMurrough, was also the victim of an expulsion. Now he is banished historiographically (a kind of perennial classroom ritual) as archetypal traitor – the promised fate of all who collaborate with the enemies of those who claim the sole right to define the nation. MacMurrough’s essential problem was that he lost out in a fratricidal (i.e. mimetic) conflict among Ireland’s own ruling elite – although to listen to the anti-revisionists one would often suppose that never a blow was struck on this island before the Anglo-Normans came. (Lundy, of course, fills the same role on the loyalist side providing the name by which all Unionist compromisers will be known.)

And in the reciprocal accusation that is the daily, dolorous stock-in-trade of Northern Ireland’s extremes one finds Girard’s ‘doubles’ – the rivals for vindication and power that are identical in essentials and in viciousness, but totally fixated on the trivial differences of flags and emblems. Mimetic desire for sole possession of a territory that all could freely share is an exact description of the causes of this conflict, as it is of the Palestinian tragedy. Each extreme attempts to build a worldview, and a historiography, around the right to accuse, and then expel, the other. That they cannot recognise in this Cain against Cain is Ireland’s, and Christianity’s, (and, in the case of Palestine, Islam’s and Judaism’s) greatest tragedy.

Satan as orchestrator of the scapegoating process is first, seducer – the one who tempts all to the fulfilment of all desire. Then he is accuser, the one who points to a (usually lowly) scapegoat who must bear the blame for the social conflict that must follow blocked desire. The advantage of choosing a stranger, (or other marginalized person) is that the accusation can more easily become unanimous. Unanimity over the fallen victim equals a new social cohesiveness – and even eventually in some cases a cult of the victim, who has been paradoxically the restorer of unity and peace. This process, is, for Girard, the invariable origin of pagan cults and Gods. Pagan sacrifice, originally human sacrifice, was the ritualised remembrance of the founding murder, a gradually deteriorating means of maintaining unity.

That neo-paganism should scorn the existence of Satan (i.e. a principle of evil separate from ourselves) is thus a predictable recovery of the blindness that we need in order to resume the heedless fulfilment of desire (facilitated now to some degree by mass production) – and also to resume the hunt for scapegoats. If there is no Satan, then someone else must be to blame for everything. The remnants of the Marxist left will again find their scapegoat in capitalism and its devotees. The right will thus be provided with its scapegoat in the ideological left. The mimetic desire of both for power and control will be invisible to both – and we will soon, it seems, watch the next round of this irrational and bloody two-step in Colombia – (now with Irish participation of some kind!). Girard reminds us that ideologies too became the objects of cults in the aftermath of the enlightenment, and that both must also have their sacrificial victims (e.g. the Soviet show trials). We can easily add the McCarthyite witch hunts in the US, and the Cultural Revolution in China.

That Jesus never accused a human individual, and in the end forgave all, for all time, is in itself the means by which Satan is revealed. He offers us a global unanimity without another victim, and is thus the author of the only kind of globalisation that is tolerable. That he offers us also self-esteem without the amassing of possessions is also the best hope we have of avoiding environmental catastrophe.

This perception of redemption – as the means by which we as a species become aware of the origins of our own violence in mimetic desire, and can thus repent – supersedes the temporary expedients of the middle ages – which explained the crucifixion in terms of the appeasement of God’s anger, or the satisfaction of his honour or justice. These expedients were necessary because medieval order was also founded on scapegoating – of, for example, criminals, heretics, witches, Jews and Islam. Now that the state is revealed as the ultimate ‘legitimate’ user of violence (i.e. victimiser), church/state pacts must always be held at arms length by churchmen. That the Enlightenment itself, in the form of secularism, is forcing this conclusion willy nilly upon even the most reluctant ecclesiastics must be regarded as another proof of the divine constancy.

And the current rows over Catholic anti-semitism and Pius XII can also benefit from a reading of this book. It clearly shows that the reading of John’s Gospel as an accusation against Judaism per se is totally misconceived. The scapegoating mechanism revealed there is identical with processes which are the prevailing theme of the Old Testament also – so Judaism – the transcendant victim culture of the ancient, medieval and modern world – is in fact the cultural vehicle of all divine revelation, and must therefore be eternally revered. And our church’s complicity with anti-semitism is not a specifically Catholic or Christian sin – merely evidence of our own susceptibility to a general human catastrophe – the betrayal of our brothers out of fear. The recent Rwandan horror sucked in many Catholics also – all the more reason for becoming aware of the power of high-level scapegoating accusation to deceive us all – but not a reason for condemning Catholicism per se. Accusation itself is the problem. When we indulge in it – for example in pillorying Pius XII – we participate in the process that eternally seeks to destroy our peace.

There is not a single major problem or controversy of the present or foreseeable future that Girardian analysis does not illuminate, in theistic Christian terms, which makes this extraordinary and virtually unknown academic probably the greatest Catholic mind of our time. Faced now with horrors such as the actuality of racial and ethnic scapegoating in Ireland itself, we need this book on our shelves, and its fundamental insights rapidly incorporated into Catholic education. It is wise, erudite, optimistic and accessible, giving us the means of meeting neo-paganism and relativism head on, but without the awkward divisiveness and self-exaltation of Dominus Iesus. It meets secularism on its own ground, clear-eyed and compassionate – banishing forever the fear that Christianity is historically defunct, or that adherence to Christ is a threat to anyone. It threatens only evil itself, giving it a name we also need not now fear or deny. Girard’s meticulous account of how that evil operates, throughout history, and in the world’s literature, allows us too to see Satan fall like lightning from heaven.

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Protecting the Absolute Truth

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine & Life, March 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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