Tag Archives: Myth

Can Morality be taught without ‘Myth’?

Sean O’Conaill  © The Irish Times  Tuesday November 22 2011

RITE AND REASON: The attempt to identify Christianity with basic biblical literalism and violence is dishonest, writes SEÁN O’CONAILL

HOW DO we humans develop moral values? It is fascinating to see this question being raised by the “new atheism” (Rite and Reason, Michael Nugent, October 18th, 25th, Nov 1st).

Rejecting all religious storytelling (‘myth-making’), Nugent backs the scientific method and assures us that “we can best live together with other sentient beings by empathising with them and seeking to maximise their well-being and minimise their suffering”.

Nugent did not tell us, however, how he would go about teaching empathy. Would this be a matter of compiling empirical data about the impact of, say, abuse upon children, and then presenting these facts – as Powerpoint presentations maybe – to other children and adults? Does he think this kind of exposition would hook them and turn them into moral paragons, or bore them to tears?

Does Mr Nugent empathise at all with the children in Dickens’s Hard Times to whom that other devotee of empirical science, Mr Gradgrind, wished to teach nothing but hard facts? Does he see any virtue in Dickens’s manner of teaching morality – by creating vivid fictional characters and tracing their lives through boldly dramatic plots? Can he think of a better way of persuading an errant capitalist to empathise and ‘think again’ (ie repent) than by sitting him down to read or watch A Christmas Carol ?

These questions are important because, for all of recorded time, human culture has found storytelling to be the most effective method of holding the attention of the widest range of people, and of evoking the strongest empathy and deepest reflection. Has the new atheism come up with something not only radically different but empirically proven to be more effective?

If so, is it not time we heard about it? If not, just how empirically justifiable is the new atheism’s contempt for religious myth as a transgenerational conveyor of moral values?

The meaning of the word “myth” is contested. At the simplest level, a myth is a story to which we attribute overarching importance as a conveyor of “life meaning”. We now live, we are told, in the postmodern era, when no such “grand narrative” is respectable, so the word “myth” has come to mean something close to a “lie”.

Can the new atheism prove that this is an entirely safe place to be, morally? Is there evidence that, deprived of all myth, human beings become more moral, and more empathetic? If no superior myth has emerged purely out of the scientific method after four centuries, is there no reason to fear that science, for all of its power to change our environment, may be morally sterile and indifferent?

Although you cannot depend upon the new atheists to tell you this, the Christian myth has been told in different ways. Augustine’s sex-centred interpretation of the Bible is hugely different from Teilhard de Chardin’s evolutionary account.

Emerging Christianity is busy discussing how to connect Christian salvation with planetary salvation, and finding that task well within its compass. The call to generosity and simplicity of life is meeting a Christian response as varied and relevant today as the medieval monastic movement and the Franciscan renewal of the 13th century.

The new atheism’s attempt to identify Christianity simply with fundamentalist biblical literalism and violence is transparently dishonest.

On the other hand, Nugent’s interest in morality is greatly to be welcomed. It signifies a realisation that the problem of evil is as far from resolution today as it was when some of the 18th century rationalists proposed that universal education would bring a moral Utopia. Why are we so prone to self-harm as a species? Mr Nugent needs to ask himself if his optimism about the moral benefit of demolishing all religious myth might not be just another example of empirically unsubstantiated faith.

Views: 4

Goodbye and Good Riddance to Irish Catholic Serfdom

Sean O’Conaill Doctrine and Life  October 2009

“And the darkness could not overwhelm the light.”

I now bless the hours I once spent memorising the prologue to the Gospel of John.  To sleep soundly these days, and to rise willingly, I need to remind myself constantly that many past generations of Christians have felt deeply oppressed by the crowding evils of their own times,  and faced the day armed only with scriptural grounds for hope.

All other grounds have surely has been taken from us now.  The tranquillity of Catholic Ireland, which Archbishop McQuaid insisted must not be disturbed on his return from the second Vatican Council in 1965, has been shattered forever by the Ryan report.  I was exactly one third of my present age in that year, 1965, and already convinced that the archbishop’s response to Vatican II was deeply mistaken.  But I had truly no idea of the scale of the living nightmare that so many children were living through in Ireland at that moment, under the care of the church.  It was a nightmare that our church had also surely the social doctrine, the moral obligation and the power to end at least as early as the 1960s, but did not.

Why not?  That must surely be one of the questions we must face.

Another question, equally challenging, is why it took a process external to the church’s own processes, to bring the scale of this disaster to light.  “Who will guard the guards themselves?” asked the poet Juvenal long ago.   ‘Catholic Ireland’ most surely ran on the premise that Ireland’s Catholic guardians needed no prompting from anyone to know their Christian duty of moral leadership, and to perform it fearlessly.  That confidence is now starkly revealed as hubris, the pride that comes before a fall.  And what a fall there has been.

What are we to do now, beyond praying?  That’s another question.   How many of us are left that still want to call ourselves Catholic anyway?  There’s another.

Convinced only that those who are left need to begin a quiet conversation about all of these questions, I offer for the purposes of self-orientation the following brief account of the historical sequence that led to the cataclysm we have all just experienced.  Like all such accounts it must be subject to challenge and revision, if others are so minded.

First, the role of the United States was surely crucial in this denouement.  It was there in the 1980s that the phenomenon of clerical child sex abuse was first made subject to discussion by the popular media.  That public revelation shattered the taboo that had always cast this phenomenon into the shadows.  It also gave a name to experiences that had been unnamed and hidden in Ireland.  Unprecedented criminal  prosecutions began (significantly first in Northern Ireland) which led to the first great scandal of 1994, involving the sexual predator Brendan Smyth of the Norbertine order.  It was but a few small steps then to the chain of events that led to the Ryan Report of May 2009.

And by the time news of the Ryan Report hit, for example, Australia, the fact that Catholic clergy and religious could sexually abuse children was already old news there as well – because the revelations of the 1980s in the US had led to mirroring revelations of the same phenomenon in many (probably most) other nations to which Catholicism had spread.

We now know that this phenomenon was recognised as a problem by the clerical church at least as early as 309 (the Council of Elvira).  So why did the chain of events that led to its public recognition begin only in the 1980s, in the United States?  Why had the taboo on even recognising the problem in public discourse been first broken there?

The answer lies surely in the unique society that had developed in the US as a consequence of the Reformation of the 1500s and the Enlightenment of the 1700s.  The Reformation had created in the North American colonies a religiously plural society at ease with its own plurality, and had therefore necessitated also a separation of church and state in the minds of those who gave the US a constitution in the 1780s.  Those circumstances had combined with the Enlightenment to produce in turn a separation of state powers, a free press, a deep belief in the value of freedom, and a conviction that every phenomenon, even the darkest, must be subject to scientific study and open discussion.  Only in such a climate of freedom, curiosity and confidence, could something as ugly as sexual abuse be forced into the light of day.

We Irish Catholics might now do no more than reluctantly acknowledge the world that the Enlightenment and the Reformation have created – a world that forces us to face matters we might prefer had remained hidden.  We might merely lament the passing of tranquil Catholic Ireland – that distant land of dreams, hidden pain and monstrous illusions – and ask no more of God than to comfort us in our twilight years, and to protect us from all other possible future shocks.

Or we might realise that it was never really healthy, or truly Christian, to live in an illusionary world –  and rejoice at our liberation.

Liberation above all from the falsehood that someone ‘above us’ always knows better than we do, and that if we are ever troubled in conscience about something in our society, we should sit still and be quiet and let someone else deal with it – someone who must surely know better than we do.

Cardinal Conway once suggested that Catholic clerical paternalism might be a problem in Ireland.  Tragically he did not pursue that thought and explain fully what he meant.  We have now surely been delivered from that comfortable scourge – for who will not question now the culture of mute mass acceptance of the always superior wisdom of Ireland’s Catholic guardians?  Having adjured us never to worry, and left us fearful to do anything church-related on our own initiative, they have left us now with no possible grounds for believing we should continue in that mode of being.

Was it actually sinful to believe that Catholic loyalty required above all our passivity and silence, our conviction that only in this way could the foundations of our church and our society be secured?  Something like that attitude surely paralysed the agencies of a free Irish state when children’s safety and happiness were at stake in the residential institutions.  “So Catholic they forgot to be Christian!” that’s one commentator’s summation.  We must now surely identify what it was in our Irish Catholic culture that prevented us from being truly Christian – and repudiate it as not truly Catholic either.

That despicable thing was, I believe, the obsequious residue of medieval serfdom – the habit of obligatory self-subjection to another human being, by virtue of his supposed rank.    For centuries under conquest and colonisation, survival was so dependent upon this habit of deference to those who wielded power in Ireland that it became almost instinctual – communicated to children by body-language alone.  Searching for influence and status under the late 18th century ascendancy it was logical, if not truly Christian, for an unrecognised Catholic hierarchy to expect the same deference from their laity.  And to rejoice in the foundation of Maynooth in 1795 as a bastion of resistance to egalitarian modernity.  The social leverage thus gained was tenaciously guarded throughout the following two centuries, and even buttressed by theological paranoia.  “Never question or criticise a priest!”  That was the essence of my teacher grandmother’s admonitions to my mother’s generation in Donegal in the first decade of freedom  – so how many would question Dr McQuaid’s advice to us all to remain tranquil in 1965?  Tranquil and docile we mostly remained, and disastrously in the dark.

Catholic clerical paternalism, and the moral serfdom it demanded, subtly deprived us Irish Catholics of ownership of our own consciences.  Conscience, we were constantly reminded, must always be fully informed before it acts.  That was the role of the bishop – to fully inform our consciences.  In this way Catholic loyalty, even Catholic conscience, became identified with self-subjection to clerical authority and the clerical point-of-view .  Matters of doctrine and matters of practical social obligation became fused together in our minds, insisting that any dissent, or even any questioning,  was necessarily disobedient and disloyal.   The almost total absence of regular opportunities for adult discussion and discernment within the church sent the same message.  With our consciences held in trust by men determined to maintain a cloak of secrecy over everything that might discredit clergy, we became morally paralysed and deliberately not-knowing as a people – and complicit in the degradation of disadvantaged children.  Moral serfdom became the highest duty of the Irish Catholic laity – and mute deference to clergy as solemn a duty as Easter confession.

And the ecclesiastical hierarchical system that was defended as God-given must as surely have powerless and degraded humans at its base as it had unduly exalted humans at its summit.

To his credit, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor has publicly acknowledged that all the causes of the catastrophe revealed by the Ryan report need to be exhaustively and openly studied.    Although the Irish Bishops’ Conference has not yet explicitly supported that position, we can take comfort that such an investigation and discussion will take place anyway.  Irish Catholic paternalism, and Irish Catholic serfdom, have so thoroughly disgraced themselves that they can surely no longer prevail.

Now we must all surely  set ourselves to the task of discovering if there can be an Irish Catholicism that is purged of both, and truly worthy of the Lord of light, compassion, equal dignity, truth and freedom.   Thankfully there are many exemplars of true Christian service in our Irish Catholic tradition also,  for voluntary loving service and childish servitude are two entirely different things.  If we can all now pray sincerely for the wisdom to discern the difference, and cast off the historical fear of speaking our minds, Irish Catholicism can regenerate.

Views: 4

Why the Show mustn’t go on

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life Sep 2008

I still vividly remember my first experience of live Shakespeare.  Sometime in the late 1950s Anew McMaster took note of the reappearance of Macbeth on the Irish Leaving Cert English Syllabus – and produced the Scottish play in the old Olympia theatre in Dublin, with himself in the title role.

Never can that renowned actor have been more challenged by a defiant refusal to suspend disbelief than on the day I attended.  Hungry for every histrionic slip, hundreds of us teenage Shakespeare detesters had been crammed by school decree into an already dingy theatre.  McMaster gave us early encouragement by pausing to remove wads of very heavy red beard that were impeding his vocal freedom.  Our joy became complete when, at a later stage, a youthful bearer of bad tidings rushed on a little too enthusiastically, slipped in coming to a necessary halt, and crashed to the floor in a perfect pratfall at the feet of the king.

Our sincere applause resounded far longer than the same baleful king thought warranted.  We wanted an encore, and were deeply disappointed when we didn’t get it.  Macbeth’s final ordeal at Birnam Wood was almost matched in its horror by our indifference to this honest actor’s unstinted efforts to re-create it. We thought, with all the savagery of adolescence, that he thoroughly deserved both his quietus and our cheers of relief when the whole performance was finally over.

I recall this theatrical debacle just now because I have a strong sense that I am observing another :  the collapse of the theatre of Catholic clericalism in Ireland.  Here we have another show that becomes far more embarrassing the longer it goes on.

I hope I am not being cruel here also.  I know humble men aplenty struggling to maintain the integrity of the church, and giving splendid Christian service in so doing.  But they too have a need for the truth to be spoken.  A way of being Church that has always had far too much too much to do with maintaining an illusion has been exposed as unsustainable, and needs to be given a decent and explicit burial.   So long as we were never fully conscious of its illusionary nature we could not strictly be accused of hypocrisy.  Made conscious of it recently, we are all now open to that charge.

I finally reached this conclusion when watching the recent documentary film ‘The Holy Show’.  This detailed the private life of the late Fr Michael Cleary.  While maintaining a public persona of exemplary rectitude, this nationally celebrated priest seduced a very vulnerable young woman who had come to him for spiritual support.  He then ‘married’ her in an entirely secret ceremony, and conceived a son by her whom he could never publicly acknowledge.

Meanwhile, with monumental irony, he had become a troubleshooter in great demand by the hierarchy to defend on national media the church’s sexual code – exemplified by the encyclical Humanae Vitae.  He climaxed this career by welcoming Pope John Paul II to a televised  outdoor spectacle in Galway in 1979.  (The fact that another of that day’s personalities, Bishop Eamon Casey, was exposed in 1992 for also having secretly fathered a son will always be remembered in connection with that day.)

The Holy Show  clearly identified Cleary’s central weakness:  his very celebrity was the greatest obstacle to his owning up to his own fallibility – and his wife and child suffered the worst of the consequences of that failure.  The more celebrated he became the more reputation he had to lose.  His greatest sin was therefore his vanity – his inability to lose public admiration by admitting his sexual indiscretion.

Inevitably I will be accused of generalising from these particular instances to indict clergy generally – but that is not in fact my drift.  Knowing clerics who live lives of exemplary humility I point only to the danger of the illusion of clericalism, which rests upon a myth.  This is the myth that ordination somehow magically confers virtue upon those who receive it.  That many, many Irish Catholics had bought heavily into that myth was proven by the shock of the truth, a shock that still reverberates and has still not been fully absorbed.

The very architecture of Catholicism, focused upon a liturgical space designed for priestly ritual, facilitates myth and illusion in relation to clergy.  Andrew Madden recounts in his autobiography ‘Altar Boy’ the impression made on his young mind by the appearance of the priest in the sanctuary of a Dublin church:  “The people stood up because the priest was so holy and important…”. This explained Andrew’s own early desire to be a priest – the very desire that made him vulnerable to his priest abuser in a Dublin parish.  “Neighbours, friends and others got to see me with the priest up close.  I felt good.”

Historians interested in explaining extraordinary Mass attendance in Ireland as late as the 1970s, and our full seminaries then, should reflect upon the fact that most of Ireland was relatively starved of public spectacle before the coming of national TV in 1961.  The parish church filled this gap for many people, providing the stage for the man who was usually the most important local celebrity – the priest.

And what most differentiated the lifestyle of the priest was the fact that he was celibate.  And that he had an officially recognized role in identifying, decrying (and relieving the eternal consequences of) sexual sin.  Every adolescent learned that this was the sin most offensive to God, and the sin that the priest had somehow, apparently, overcome.  No one told us that the public role of the priest could be a temptation to another sin entirely:  the actor’s sin, the sin of vanity, the coveting of public admiration.  Needless to say, we were therefore unaware of its dangers for us also.

TV provided a far vaster national stage, and the story of Ireland since about 1961 is largely the story of how that electronic stage has replaced liturgical space as the dominant Irish theatre. It has also become the dominant temptation to our vanity.  That in turn explains how Eamon Casey and Michael Cleary became national celebrities.  From 1961 – entirely innocent of the dangers of the first of the deadly sins – the Irish church was sleepwalking towards the PR disasters that have traumatized it since 1992.

What happened to Andrew Madden well illustrates another of those PR disasters – the revelation not just of clerical child abuse but of the typical cover up of that abuse by bishops and other clergy.  (The most serious charge levelled against Michael Cleary is the allegation by Mary Raftery that he turned a blind eye to the brutal abuse by a fellow curate in Ballyfermot, Tony Walsh, of young boys.)

The papal visit to the US in April 2008 has made important progress in recognizing the seriousness of the evil of clerical sex abuse but has failed completely to grapple with the reason for the cover up:  the perceived need of bishops and other clergy to maintain the clerical myth – the myth of clerical immunity to sexual sin.  With this clericalist myth, vanity has become virtually institutionalized in our church – the reason it still cannot be named as the root cause of every scandal that has befallen us since 1992.

For scandal is not just the revelation of human sinfulness.  Sin itself is mundane. The archetypal religious scandal is the story of David, the divinely anointed Jewish national hero who covertly murdered Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, the woman he had seduced – to prevent it becoming known that he, David, had impregnated her.  Scandal has always to do with a fall from grace by those in high places, and clericalism is essentially an unwarranted claim of entitlement to grace and social prestige.  Until that has been fully recognized and acknowledged by those who lead the church, we will not be able to learn from what has happened to us.   We will also remain troubled by periodic clerical scandal, especially if the mandatory celibacy rule for all priests is retained.

These days the Irish church is deeply divided between those who have lost the illusions of clericalism and those who believe that Catholic loyalty requires them to restore those illusions as rapidly as possible.  The latter make that mistake because our leadership has not yet clearly differentiated Catholicism and clericalism.  We will remain stuck in the ditch, spinning our wheels, until that changes.

In an earlier article here I pointed out that the ritual of the first Eucharist derived its solemnity and liturgical meaning only from the fact that it was followed by an actual self-sacrifice1.  We must never forget that all ritual is, to use a contemporary idiom, virtual reality – just like theatre.  The integrity of the ceremony rests upon the integrity of those who celebrate it – priests and people.  Clearly, ordination in itself cannot guarantee that integrity.  This too needs now to be fully acknowledged – as does the fact that the public role of the cleric can entangle him deeply in the sin of vanity, the greatest threat to all integrity.   On the credit side, the self-effacing and dutiful priest, and those married couples who fulfil all the obligations of a sexual partnership, restore the credibility of the church.

So, instead of lamenting the loss of an illusion we need to rejoice at it, and to notice that the vanity that led to it lies also at the root of the greatest evils that threaten everyone’s future.  Vanity arises out of an inability to value ourselves without validation from others.  That is why we seek attributed value through public admiration, and pursue the latter through exhibitionism, the cult of celebrity and ostentatious consumerism.  This latter source of the environmental crisis is also the root of competition and conflict – and lack of a secure self-esteem lies also at the root of addiction.

‘Hard’ secularism – the kind that thinks that suppressing all religion will create a perfect society – doesn’t understand any of this.  This is why it can’t explain the failure of untrammeled secularism (e.g, in the Soviet Union) to put an end to personality cults and to produce a perfect society.  Meeting the challenge of secularism requires us to recognize fully the deadliest of the sins as it tempts ourselves in our own time.  If we don’t do that now we will be guilty of something else – of choosing to learn nothing from the hardest and most helpful lessons we ourselves have recently received.

Notes:

  1. The Role of the Priest: Sacrifice or Self-Sacrifice?Doctrine and Life, Sep 2007

Views: 29

Western dominance: a product of Catholic theology?

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Apr 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views: 6

Unaccountability, Patronage and Corruption

Sean O’Conaill  © Doctrine and Life Feb 2006

As a teacher of history I had often to explain to pre-university students how different the world was when it was governed by an unquestionable hereditary nobility who monopolised wealth, power and privilege. If I was still teaching I would probably now point to our own Catholic Church as the last remaining vestige of that system.

However, Catholic teachers in Catholic schools are unhappily still only too fearful of the consequences of doing any such thing.

Those students found it very difficult to get a real grip of a world in which the fortunes of individuals were far less dependent upon their abilities than upon the vagaries of patronage. Accountable to no one, in a world where public examinations didn’t exist, people of power had absolute discretion in employing and promoting their own favourites – and the obsequiousness required of an applicant was often corrupting and bitterly resented. Not even the towering genius of a Mozart gave immunity. His loss of the favour of one patron – the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg – led to him being kicked down a flight of stairs by this worthy’s servant.

Sometimes good movies help explain the situation – and none is more helpful than A Man for All Seasons. The opening sequences show Lord Chancellor Thomas More, disillusioned by the corruption at the court of Henry VIII, dealing with the overtures of a young graduate, Richard Rich, who wants to find his way to that court, as a member of More’s retinue. Suspecting that Rich will be all too easily corruptible, More suggests that he become a teacher instead. But Rich’s eyes are fixed too firmly upon a court appointment. When More turns him down, Rich turns to another rising star at court, Thomas Cromwell.

Cromwell prevails upon Rich to give false testimony against More on the matter of the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. More goes to the block while Rich becomes Attorney General of Wales.

While the actual history of this matter is probably not so clear cut, the real connection between unaccountability, patronage and corruption is made crystal clear in that film. How many Catholic churchmen are aware that their own unaccountability, allied to their own power of patronage, is a deeply corrupting circumstance in their own Church?

Take the simple fact that a bishop has virtually absolute discretion in the matter of clerical appointments, and very considerable leverage in the matter of appointments in most Catholic schools. Can this encourage independence of mind and intellectual and moral integrity in present circumstances in the Catholic educational system? My own experience and recent observation strongly indicate the contrary.

The Ledwith Case

Take, for example, what is now known as the Ledwith affair. The Ferns Report concluded that the bishop trustees of Maynooth had been seriously mistaken in their reaction to the reporting by Maynooth Dean Gerard McGinnity in 1984 of inappropriate behaviour by Monsignor Ledwith in relation to young seminarians. While Fr McGinnity had been sacked for his effrontery, Ledwith had been promoted to the presidency of the college – but had later been compelled to resign.

The McCullough Report into that affair had also discovered that Ledwith was believed to have ‘too much interest in a few’ of the Maynooth seminarians. It also declared that the investigation undertaken by some of the bishop trustees of Maynooth into McGinnity’s report had been inadequate. Ledwith’s rapid rise, and the trustees’ brusque treatment of McGinnity, suggest also that whereas Ledwith was a firm favourite of those bishops in 1984, McGinnity most definitely was not.

Favouritism and patronage are close cousins. The power of an academic in a university to help or hinder a student is notoriously prone to corruptive exploitation. So, visibly, is the power of a bishop trustee of Maynooth to help or hinder a member of the Maynooth staff by promotion or the contrary. That bishop trustees are not accountable to the Church community they serve is now a circumstance deeply troubling to that Church community. The People of God should not need to be beholden to secular institutions to regulate the leaders they themselves finance. Many are already asking why their Church contributions should be less effective in making their bishops accountable than their state taxes and their television licence fees.

Is a trustee who has bankrupted the trust required by his office still, de facto, a trustee?

The unaccountability of bishops means, of course, that they can safely dodge that question. But the tendency of so many of those charged with educating the Church, to dodge the Church’s questions – now well established after more than a decade – is in itself an abdication of leadership, a challenge to faith, and a corrupting circumstance for those below them in the chain of command. If a bishop cannot face direct questions from his people, how can he persuasively ask a subordinate to do so? And how, in the wake of the Ledwith affair, and in the absence, so far, of any significant reparation to Fr McGinnity, can he argue that integrity is a virtue favoured by the Catholic educational system overall – especially at its pinnacle?

Students

Since retiring from teaching in Catholic schools in 1996 I have maintained contact with colleagues. Without exception they confirm my own strong suspicion: for a teacher to express serious criticism of Irish Catholic Church leadership is still considered, by most teachers, to be probably fatal to any prospect of promotion. Rightly or wrongly, Catholic teachers believe that it is fatal to get ‘on the wrong side of the bishops’ – and ambitious career teachers will edit their verbal utterances accordingly.

That fear is in itself an obvious source of corruption. But the corrupting influence does not stop there. Faced with the reality that school authorities in Northern Ireland write references for them as part of the university entrance system, many Catholic students in my time tended to be utterly conformist in every respect until the end of final school term; and then to express their indifference to (and some times resentment of) their Church by abandoning all contact with it at that point – forever. This can be confirmed simply by interrogating Catholic university chaplains on the numbers of Catholic students who make any kind of contact with them, and by scanning Church congregations for young people in the age-range eighteen to thirty-five.

As the power of patronage, especially when accompanied by lack of accountability, is so clearly a corrupting influence on our Church, the case for making accountable those who dispense patronage is now overwhelming. The problem is, of course, that, being unaccountable, these dispensers of patronage do not need to agree.

Indeed, if we study Boston, the signs are that Church leaders are still determined to prove that those who speak out with integrity will not prosper. Priests who did so against Cardinal Archbishop Bernard Law of Boston in 2002, forcing his resignation, have found themselves penalised in the transfer process by his successor. And supporters of Fr Gerard McGinnity who protested on his behalf at Armagh cathedral in late 2005 have been approached by senior clergy with the intention of doing further damage to his reputation. No sign of reparation, or remorse, there. But then the promotion of Cardinal Law to a prominent role in Rome by the late pope – even more prominent since the death of John Paul II – sends the very same message.

Seeking Integrity

The struggle for integrity is probably an endless one, especially for the Christian. How sad that most of the appointed leaders of our Church, in Ireland and elsewhere, have still not visibly committed themselves to it, or been able to read the signs of the times.

For example, how many Irish bishops have recognised generously the public service provided by the media in opening our eyes to the series of scandals that have overwhelmed the Irish Catholic Church since 1994? How many are moved to contrast the freedom of the secular press and other media with the Byzantine secrecy with which the clerical Catholic Church conducts its business? From the UTV documentary on Brendan Smyth in November 1994, to the BBC documentary Suing the Pope in 2002, all forward progress in the Church’s handling of the issue of clerical child sex abuse has been driven by secular media revelation. Nevertheless, there are still senior Irish bishops who blame the secular media for all of the bad news they publish – as though most of that bad news had not in fact been created by the clerical Church’s own deceitful denial of justice to those it has wronged, and denial of transparency to the wider Church.

Why does information travel faster in secular culture than in the culture of the Church? Why are secular journalists free to inform us lay Catholics of our Church’s internal shortcomings, while clergy feel obliged to tell us nothing and to toe the party line? Here again the reason is the corrupting effects of an unaccountable patronage system. To put the situation in the bluntest terms, the best journalists are paid to educate their readers, while Catholic clergy are rewarded only for being loyal to bishops whose notion of education is mostly closer to that of mushroom farmers: we lay people are to be kept totally in the dark because the unaccountable patronage system (which they mistakenly call ‘the Church’) has to be protected at all costs.

The tendency for this system to surround a bishop with servant sycophants who simply cannot give their superior a ‘reality check’ is now notorious in Ireland. It favours the deep-seated culture of denial that prevents the hierarchy from getting a real grip of the situation. It also causes deep fissures in the fraternal relations of clergy.

Learning basic Christianity

Secular culture is therefore now teaching basic Christianity to a ‘slow learner’ hierarchy – and that is the most profound reason for the rapid secularisation of this island. Twenty years ago most people in Ireland supposed religion to be the source of all morality. Our hierarchy have now persuaded many of us that religion is just as likely to be the enemy of morality – when it denies us the truth, and often justice as well.

It is not as though the Ferns Report is completely unchallengeable either. The Report comes badly unstuck when it says (p. 256) ‘bishops put the interests of the church ahead of children’. Those children were also – all – equal members of the Church, and the Church as a spiritual community has been deeply injured by the action of those bishops, so this is strictly nonsense. However, we cannot expect an Irish bishop to say so. The reason is that what was actually put before children was the closed clerical system that is so clearly misgoverning the Church – which every bishop is nevertheless oath-bound to protect as though it was the Church.

It needs to be said clearly: a secular culture in which power is dispersed has been shown to be more likely to permit the reign of truth and the growth to adulthood of the Catholic laity – and to prevent abuses of power that the current Church system did nothing to prevent. It is therefore superior, in terms of Christian morality and education, to a medieval system in which the power and status of an unaccountable oligarchy has been prioritised as though it was the will of God – even after that system has been clearly shown, to the whole world, to be dangerous to the bodies and souls of children.

To put an end to a corrupt and corrupting system, unaccountable control of Church patronage must therefore be ended as rapidly as possible by those who actually fund it – the Catholic laity. Until full accountability has been institutionalised in our Church, we fund the present system at peril to the very survival of the truths and values that are our foundation. At present we are actually participants in corruption, because we give free rein to those who control the patronage system of the Church, who remain unaccountable, who wield that patronage still to maintain their ‘authority’, and who have (mostly) learned too few of the most important lessons of the past eleven years.

Views: 6

‘Saving Christianity: New Thinking for Old Beliefs’

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

Views: 7