Tag Archives: vanity

Of Good and Evil: A Personal View

Sean O’Conaill  Reality  2010

This series sets out to explain how I came to understand the problem of human fallibility in terms of our chronic uncertainty about our own value.

  1. Dealing with the Darkness – How and why, as a teacher of history and current affairs, I came to a conclusion about the central human problem in 1994 – our tendency to climb.
  2. The Human Problem – Why we tend to come unstuck – our chronic inability to value ourselves as we are.
  3. Vanity and Humility – Wanting to be ‘the greatest’ – a major source of conflict. And the one who taught us to try to be the least.
  4. Contagious Desire – How and why we ‘catch’ desires from others, and why we need to be aware of this problem.
  5. Abba – How Jesus reveals God’s compassion for our deepest failing.

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The Church isn’t the only institution in the dock

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Jan 2012

At this time in the history of the island, word spread of a new power in the land. Its representatives had fascinating information to impart. These personalities had new ways of looking at the world, a capacity to set people talking and to widen everyone’s horizons. They channeled information from far overseas, greatly expanding the data that people had access to. People found them reliable, and came to trust this new power. Those who had previously most influenced the thinking of the people gradually lost that influence. The new institution came to change how everyone behaved, and to determine what they talked about.

As time passed the prestige of this new power grew enormously on the island, until its name was known by everyone, and millions listened. It came to determine who was to be honoured and who to be shamed, and even to influence the government of the island.

Then, unexpectedly, people learned that this new institution had abused its extraordinary power, and had acted with complete injustice. Suddenly the spotlight that the institution had focused on others was now focused on itself. The people sensed an important turning point, and were angry that the trust they had placed in this institution had been betrayed.

~*~

If you have guessed by now that the institution described above is RTE, and the modern Irish media generally, you are quite correct. But notice something else. This plotline accurately fits the history of another very different institution – the Irish Catholic Church.

Of course the history of the latter is to be measured in centuries rather than decades, but otherwise there are striking similarities in the history of the Irish media, and the history of the Catholic church in Ireland.

The most striking similarity is the power that both acquired to utterly change the way of life of an entire people. Both brought new information from the outside world, and new personalities, and both addressed fundamental questions that we all ask: just how valuable and important am I in the scheme of things, and how should I live to be worthy of respect? They therefore both sidelined the previous mentors of the Irish people and acquired an unparalleled power to influence Irish behaviour.

This gave them both in the end the same power to honour some people and to shame others – to make saints or celebrities or winners of some and villains or sinners or losers of others. There is no greater power than the power to broker honour and shame – and this power is supremely dangerous. We now know for certain that sooner or later those who exercise too much of this power will overreach and act unjustly. We have now seen that happen both to Irish Catholic clergy and to Irish media executives – in the same short time span. This gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn, and to draw conclusions.

Those who draw the conclusion ‘the Catholic Church is evil and should be destroyed’ are as mistaken as those who shout ‘the media are all evil and bigoted’. A more correct conclusion is that power is deeply problematic for us humans, and must never be absolute. An even more important conclusion is that every one of us has a part to play in limiting the power that is given to any institution.

The saving grace of the media is that it embraces a wide range of different outlets, and includes journalists of real integrity and courage. Had it not been for good journalists in the Irish secular media we would know little of serious abuses of power by, for example, negligent bishops and too many of those who ran Catholic institutions for the poorest children in Ireland in the last century.

The main saving grace of the Catholic Church is that it provides us with a founding figure who saw it as his primary mission to assure the sinners and losers of this world that they were, in reality, lovable and loved. When the power brokers of honour and shame of his own time turned on him he identified precisely the core problem of human society:

“You look to one another for approval!”

Looking to one another for approval, rather than to something far more reliable, we humans are extremely vulnerable to being influenced by others, and to vanity, the tendency to seek public admiration. We do this because we are supremely unsure of our own value – unless we do what all the great mystics have done. This is to seek and then to rely upon, an unfailing source of self-esteem that has nothing to do with what other humans think of us. Following Jesus of Nazareth, many of the greatest Christian mystics were also members of the Catholic Church.

The abuse of power on the other hand has almost always something to do with seeking, or trying to hold on to, the approval of others. Catholic bishops would not have concealed clerical abuse if they had not been concerned about the clerical church losing the approval of those who finance the institution. Media executives would not allow false accusations to be made by their reporters if they were not concerned about winning the approval of their paying customers, especially those with an appetite for scandal.

What feeds the worst of the media is this human appetite for scandal – bad news about other people, and especially about those who have enjoyed more esteem. To reduce the power of the gutter media, those who patronise it really need to think hard about why they do so. If they really need to hear bad news about others, what does that say about their own self-esteem?

We also need to notice the full significance of the mistake made by RTE in relation to Fr Kevin Reynolds – falsely accused by Prime Time Investigates of fathering a child through rape of a young African girl. For the first time in two decades the full glare of the Irish media spotlight turned now on the media itself, and this time the scandal has to do with the media’s abuse of power. No one should miss the significance of that. This horrible error marks a critical turning point in the history of Irish scandal.

For the most powerful brokers of honour and shame in Irish society are no longer now the leaders of the Catholic Church, but the most powerful executives in the Irish media. They have an almost absolute power to make, and destroy, the reputation of anyone they focus on. If there is a better media concerned above all about justice, shouldn’t it now turn its attention to this imbalance of power, and deal with abusive reporting as fiercely as it has dealt with clerics and religious who have abused power? Shouldn’t our best newspapers now have media correspondents as well as religious affairs correspondents?

Knowing as I do some of the best Irish journalists I know that they would fully agree with this point, and were as disturbed by the RTE mistake as any Catholic. We may yet see an Irish media that is as self-critical as it is critical of other institutions.

As for those journalists who can’t take this point, and who want to go on seeing the Irish Catholic Church as the root of all evil in Ireland, their bias will now stand out in stark relief. No sensible person can now argue that the media too don’t illustrate the truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Catholics can take pride that it was a Catholic historian, Lord Acton, who first formulated that conclusion in 1887, and that their church has produced outstanding servants of justice. Assured by our founder that God’s love for all of us is unfailing, we don’t need the uniform approval of the media, and we don’t need to get angry when the media are unfair. That unfairness will not go unnoticed by all concerned about the truth – and sooner or later a balance will be restored.

Nor should Catholics resent their church’s loss of power in Ireland. We are now far less vulnerable to scandal – and the light of those many Catholics who have always served the Irish people well will now shine far more brightly.

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Of Good and Evil: V – Abba

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality  Jul/Aug 2010

We are chronically unsure of our own value!

We may be so unsure of it that we may waste years in search of the admiration of others.

Until one day we realise that we have wasted our time.

Only then are we ready to live.

Never in human history have we humans had access to so much knowledge. Never has the possession of knowledge had such prestige. Especially the kind of knowledge that allows financial information to be controlled and communicated through the world’s computer systems.

And never has there been less interest in making some kind of meaningful pattern of the knowledge at our disposal. What people call western civilisation was founded on a passionate search for an overarching truth that would make sense of everything. Today you are likely to get the blankest of looks if you ask one of today’s university graduates any truly important question.

Such as: “Why have reason and science alone been unable to build a perfect world?”

Or: “What important conclusions are you able to draw from everything you know?”

Or: “Why do you think the world is in crisis?”

Or: “What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?”

Focused on increasingly narrow areas of expertise, aimed usually at making a living, our educated people have mostly lost confidence in their own ability to discern a deeper truth. They may even have bought into an arrogant “we know it all” attitude that disparages all the wisdom of the past.

Wisdom such as is compressed in the following story.

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”

All Christians will be familiar with this story, but we have still to exhaust the wisdom it contains, or to apply it properly to our own time. No one may ever have pointed out to us to a key element of the story, the key that unlocks a meaning that would have been plain to every Jewish listener in Jesus’ time.

The fact that the son who left home and ‘squandered his wealth’ was the younger son.

Younger sons were especially doubtful of their own value in ancient times. Noticing and envying the dominant role of their fathers, they also noticed that their fathers tended to favour their eldest sons. And those eldest sons would inherit all of the prestige of their fathers some day. Younger sons could all too easily conclude: “Here I will always be second to someone – never first. I must go elsewhere to make a name for myself!”

Story after story in the Bible tells us of the rivalry that develops between brothers – and usually the rivalry has to do with the very same problem that we all have today:

We are chronically unsure of our own value, and have an extraordinary need for the reassurance of others.

And, repeating in our own lives the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’, we can cause ourselves extreme suffering in the years we spend looking for that reassurance. It is always a vain search, because most of those we look to for reassurance are looking for exactly the same thing themselves.

Does God punish us?

But this short story had an even greater meaning for Jesus’ Jewish listeners. To summarise their history, they were a people who went wandering in search of glory, who lost faith in the God who had delivered them from slavery, who suffered a second exile in Babylon, and who then found themselves in Jesus’ time under the captivity of Rome. For some of the Jews these humiliations were God’s punishment for their own waywardness.

But Jesus had an entirely different ‘take’ on these events. The parable just related explains it fully. Our worst humiliations are a self-punishment. They follow naturally from our vanity. But the God of Israel, and of all of us, is ‘Abba‘ – the father who never forgets his wayward sons. He sees us while we are ‘still a long way off’ and runs to us as we approach.

And today in Ireland?

We in Ireland desperately need to apply the parable to our own recent history. In times of despair in the past we sought meaning and solace in such stories – in the reassurance they bring that we are never forgotten, never ‘out of sight’, and always of value.

There were never more prodigal sons, and daughters, in need of such reassurance, than there are in Ireland today.

One of the main obstacles in the way of us seeking that reassurance is the fact that so many today are stuck fast in the Sargasso Sea of post-modern doubt. This is the intellectual outlook that pours scorn on any possibility that the Christian story told in the Creeds could be true after all. This outlook has been greatly strengthened by the revelations of ‘scandals in high places’ that Catholicism is still suffering.

Nevertheless, some of us still go to Mass today – because we have found ‘Abba’ in our own crises – and are confident that He sees everyone ‘far off’ . We need to equip ourselves to show the same compassion for those who will come seeking encouragement in the same story.

We need above all to have the confidence to ask: “What meaning can we derive from the facts of our own history?” and the confidence to pray for an answer.

It was in prayer that Jesus communed with ‘Abba’ – and found the strength to proclaim his truth until his last breath. It will be in prayer, and in reflection on the Gospels, that we will find a way of speaking the same truth to all those who are currently lost.

The worse things get, the closer everyone will be to understanding that mere facts are not enough, and that we must look for the meaning behind the facts to be truly knowledgeable.

It will always be through Jesus’ love of Abba that we human prodigals will most readily rediscover the kingdom of God – the realisation that Abba has always known us, and understands better than we do why we harm ourselves.

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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

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Secularism and Hesitant Preaching

Sean O’Conaill  © The Furrow Jul/Aug 2008

“So why don’t we focus on this huge issue for a while, devise policies to deal with it and leave aside tangential issues for the moment?”

This was Vincent Brown in the Irish Times in April 20081Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08.  To his great credit his ‘huge issue’ was the awful problem of all forms of sexual violence, as quantified by the SAVI report of 20022The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.  If its figures are correct, about 1.2 million Irish people are victims – and, as Brown keeps reminding us,  we can’t really suppose that the scale of the problem has diminished significantly since 2002.

But it was the word ‘policies’ that caught my attention, because it seemed totally inadequate to describe what’s needed to get a grip of not just this but a whole series of related problems in Irish life.  A policy is something debated (often endlessly) by pundits and politicians, then promoted to win support,  and then (if adopted) resourced out of taxation.  Given the many claims on the latter in a ‘flat’ economy, given the low-tax climate that a healthy economy supposedly demands, and given the cost of, for example, intensive counselling and psychotherapy, no foreseeable state-sponsored policy on sexual abuse seems remotely capable of addressing the scale of what confronts us in Ireland, even if we isolate just this one problem.

And given the common connection between sexual abuse and the abuse of alcohol and other substances, it’s equally clear that any effective policy on the former would need to address the latter.  And given the connection between substance abuse and the low personal morale often caused by economic insecurity and relationship issues, can we really propose to solve any one such ‘huge issue’ in isolation?

Moreover, what about the moral momentum required to completely change an abusive lifestyle?  How can a policy devised at the state level reach the deepest core of an individual who is experiencing so radical and subterranean a challenge?  Effective state policies can indeed change our external environment for the better, but what about inner, deep-seated dysfunction that so often occurs within the privacy of the home?

In an earlier era in Ireland there would have been a very different kind of response to a crisis of the scale described in the SAVI report – and it would have originated with the church (understanding that term in the widest sense).  The nineteenth century temperance movement is a good example.  It is another reflection of the depth of our current social crisis that we have now apparently no alternative to secular policy to change our society radically for the better  – and that the churches seem incapable of providing that alternative.  (Especially if we focus these days on sexual abuse.)

But in fact political secularism – the atomisation,  rationalisation and politicisation of every problem – is very much part of the fix we are in – because it tends to disempower the ordinary individual in his own space.  Teaching us to delegate everything upwards to politicians and professional experts, it has virtually no power to engage individual citizens in a deep, voluntary commitment to behave honourably, and to join with others spontaneously in doing good, in their own space.  The recent debate on what to do about alcohol abuse and other forms of addiction in Irish life proves this conclusively, because we have not moved one step forward on that issue either.

What is required, then, to mobilise the moral idealism of a society, and especially of its youth?

The problem with the moral programme of the church as we have commonly understood it is twofold.  First, we have not fully grasped the compelling human and community reasons for the most important behavioural boundaries prescribed by our Christian tradition (e.g. the taboo against serious intoxication).  As a result we tend to resent God for making rules that don’t make sense.  We tend to suppose these rules exist for God’s sake rather than for ours – mainly because we mistakenly suppose that God shares our own basic tendency to be self-absorbed.

Secondly, because of this, we have not understood the connection between these boundaries and the church’s basic positive law – the law of love.

To resolve these problems we need to do two things.  The first is to wake up to what our daily news bulletins are telling us:  that all dysfunctional behaviour is abusive of others and of ourselves, and to recognise (i.e. to know anew) all of the most important moral boundaries in those terms.  St Thomas Aquinas’ profoundest observation – that God is not offended until we hurt ourselves – applies to all sin, including sexual sin.  Our society is radically self-harming, and  we urgently need to reconfigure our understanding of sin in those terms .

The second vital connection is to understand why people self-harm.  Congenitally unsure of our own value, we become seriously dysfunctional if our society tells us we don’t have any.  And that is the message we receive daily when the media remind us that we are not important enough to be the source of the images we see.  The teenage girl who cuts herself or starves herself in anger at her inability to fit the ideal media-prescribed body shape unwittingly explains all self-harm.  Secular society (‘the world’) rewards the seeking of attention over the giving of it – and that is precisely why social respect, and self-respect – are so scarce.

And that in turn is why the Christian ‘prime directive’ is to love God first of all – the only reliable source of self-respect – allowing us then to love both ourselves and our neighbours, unconditionally, and to build a mutually respectful community.

It takes only a moment’s reflection to realise that Jesus’ love for the poor was in fact a deep respect for them, as they are.  In teaching us the reverse of that – that respect can only be acquired by upward mobility, by changing ourselves in some way to win the approval of others – secularism both deceives and condemns us to endless frustration and self-harm.

It also disempowers us in our own space by telling us to wait for experts, delegated politicians and their civil servants to come up with a policy that will change everything that ails us.  This is the shell game of secular democracy:  ‘give us power so that we can solve all your problems, and meanwhile wait inertly for us to do so’.  We could wait forever.

To tell someone the reverse of that: that they already have the power, and the obligation, to love themselves and others, now and always, in their own space – and by so doing to change that space radically for themselves and others – is true empowerment of the individual.  And that is essentially what the Gospel is telling us.

Our inability to value ourselves as we are – to love ourselves – lies at the root of every one of the huge problems that secular politics patently cannot solve:

  • Addiction: (This is usually rooted in fear of failure, or in self-hatred or shame, and is best addressed by e.g. the twelve-step programme which restores a realistic and robust sense of self-worth.)
  • Environmental collapse: (The global pursuit of an unsustainable lifestyle is also driven by media-induced shame at not having what the wealthiest have.)
  • Depression: (The challenges of life in an individualistic culture can lead to a critical loss of hope and self-belief– because individualism also leads to a loss of supportive and affirming family and community relationships);
  • Inequality and injustice: (All desire to be superior arises out of a fear of being considered inferior.)
  • Violence: (This is also mostly rooted in competition for dominance out of a fear of inferiority.  Even the violence that arises out of addiction usually has its origins in shame and fear of failure, because that is where most addiction begins.)
  • Abuse: (Self-absorption and lack of empathy also originate in lack of self-love – often due to a serious deficit in early nurturing.  The person who deeply respects himself is most unlikely to disrespect others.  The person who has been deeply loved as a child is most unlikely ever to abuse children.)

There is therefore absolutely no reason for the hesitancy that has overtaken the preaching of the Gospel in Ireland in recent decades, for the common feeling that faith is socially irrelevant, or for the assumption that the future lies with secularism.  There is instead a dire need to seize the initiative by arguing that religious faith, accompanied by reason, can supply the only binding and compelling power available to us to deal directly with the problems of our own local environment as our crisis grows.

We are hindered in doing this presently only by our own inability to connect the Gospels with the problems of our own time and to realise the danger of a force every bit as dangerous as undisciplined sexuality.  This is vanity – the seeking of admiration.  It arises out of our natural inability to value ourselves as we are, and it lies at the root of the widest variety of evils, from rampant careerism (even in the church) to workplace bullying, and consumerism.   It also destroys community and family by leading us into individualism, social climbing and dysfunction.

It is the inability to make these connections that leads to the present chasm between church and society in Ireland.  Clericalism, including lay clericalism, deepens this chasm by fixating on the behaviour that the priest regulates in church, and by disregarding what is equally important – the individual lay person’s role in, and understanding of, the secular world.   We have almost lost the connection between a healthy spirituality and a healthy community, and Catholic education and parish life too often fail to restore that connection when we most need it – when we are adults.

Sadly, although love is not lacking in the church, and many Sunday homilists do indeed convey the importance of love, few ever explore the pervasive pursuit of celebrity in modern culture, or the reasons for it.  I have yet to hear a good homily on the problem of vanity, as revealed in, for example, the debates among the apostles on which of them was the greatest, and in the parable of the Prodigal Son.  No one ever notices the particular problem of the second son (he supposes he will never have the status his father enjoys while he stays at home).  And invariably the reluctance of the rich young man to follow Jesus is supposed to be all about loss of money and security, never about loss of the social status that wealth always provides.

Almost certainly this strange inability to ‘get’ such a constant theme in the Gospels  has to do with the fact that the church is still emerging from a long period of clerical social pre-eminence.  But, now that this period is at an end in the West, why is institutional Catholicism still very much a status pyramid, despite the insistence of Lumen Gentium and Canon Law that we are all equal in dignity?  Do our seminaries fail to ask this question (and to point out that the Gospel answers it) because they too are status pyramids of a kind?

It is time we all understood what was going on in the Gospel when the apostles competed for status – and almost came to blows.  And noticed also that spiritual health always involves a deep consciousness of one’s own dignity and a loss of fear of what others may think. Only when we have understood the vital community role of spiritual health, and of spiritual insight into what is wrong with us – and then commissioned our laity to rebuild their own local communities by loving one another – can we revive our church, and our society.

Notes

  1. ‘Appalling incidence of sexual abuse virtually ignored’, Vincent Browne, Irish Times 23-04-08
  2. The SAVI Report – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, Sponsored by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Published by Liffey Press, 2002.

Views: 11

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.

Views: 36

The Story of the West : V – Earth Crisis

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Feb 2007

As we have seen, world history has been dominated for almost a thousand years by the rise of the West (the societies rimming the north Atlantic). And, contrary to the propaganda of secularism, the most positive aspects of western culture have owed more to Christianity than to anything else.

The modern belief in science, in the freedom and potential of the individual, in the equal rights of all, in democracy and in economic freedom, arose naturally out of Christian belief in the rationality of the universe, in the dignity and responsibility of the individual, and in the obligations that we all have to one another.

However, the whole world now faces an intense crisis, and this also has to do with the rise of the West.

First, the very intensity of our economic activity, coupled with the rise of science and technology, threatens the planet itself. The lifestyle of the richest 5% of the human population is coveted by the other 95% – but the effort to achieve this will inevitably make the planet uninhabitable.

Second, western arrogance and the frustrations that arise out of economic inequality are the root sources of a growing global violence. The ‘War on Terror’ is just one aspect of this problem.

Third, the West seems morally and spiritually bankrupt – offering only addiction as a means of escape from the meaninglessness of life for millions.

Finally, the loss of a sense of moral purpose and direction is hampering the rise of a more just world order that does not exploit the poorest to maintain the luxurious lifestyle of the richest. Millions starve on southern continents while obesity and addiction threaten northern continents with a public health catastrophe.

So the earth crisis that now faces rising generations is multi-dimensional. It is material, spiritual, moral, economic and environmental – all at the same time.  Ireland is now fully part of this global crisis, having experienced in the past decade the full economic benefits of a globalised economy. We now display all the fruits of economic success – as well as the squalor of mass addiction and the vicious criminal culture that accompanies it

We do not need to look far for the roots of this crisis. It arose directly out of the uncoupling of economic and scientific progress from another Western tradition – the tradition of reflection on our tragic human tendency towards vanity and selfishness.

Western imperialism is the clearest manifestation of the betrayal of all that is best in Christianity by the West itself. The technological and economic lead that western Europe had acquired by the 1400s allowed Spain and Portugal – soon followed by England, Holland and France – to build overseas empires by naked military force.

Although slavery had by this time been abolished within Europe itself, these western nations now disgraced themselves by enslaving black Africans to work plantations in the Americas, and by subjugating the native populations there. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the principle of personal and political liberty began to undermine these colonial empires, as well as slavery, and it wasn’t until the last century that these European empires were finally abandoned.

By that time a new power had risen in the west – the USA. By 1945 it was clearly the dominant western power, and by 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it had no obvious rival. Proclaiming itself the champion of democracy and freedom it also championed a global economic system that favoured itself and its closest allies. Economic imperialism had replaced political imperialism, and this was no secure basis for global security, or freedom. The very success of the USA had created an arrogance that reached its culmination in our own time – in the disastrous presidency of the younger Bush.

By then a huge chasm had opened up between the political and economic leaders of the West and some of the key values of Christianity – especially humility, simplicity and compassion.

To some extent, Christian clergies were responsible for this chasm. They had seen western imperialism as an opportunity to spread Christianity throughout the globe, and mostly could not see the cultural arrogance that lay behind it. Catholic churchmen in the 1700s were also highly suspicious of the ‘levelling’ tendencies of western libertarianism, and were often far too supportive of unjust colonial regimes abroad. Overall, Christian leaders were slow to apply a truly Christian ethic to all political activity. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a Pope could bring himself to condemn a European imperialism that had often sought to impose the Gospel by naked force in the period after 1450.

But another reason for the growing chasm between Western culture and the deepest Christian ideals was the European Enlightenment. This was an intellectual movement of the 1700s whose leaders were convinced that a perfect society could easily be built on what they called ‘reason’ – the abandonment of religious faith and the total reliance on secular science. Resentful of the power of clergies to control thought they sought to secularise the world.

Too often allied with the aristocracies that had ruled Europe since the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church in particular was outmanoeuvred by the Enlightenment. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the world’s Catholic bishops could fully approve the principle of religious freedom, and it wasn’t until 1989 that a pope could declare that the ideals of 1789 in France – liberty, equality and fraternity – were rooted in Christianity. This delay goes a long way toward explaining the secularisation of France, and of most of the west.

Now, in 2006, secularism seems triumphant. But none of the leaders of the original ‘Enlightenment’ foresaw the world we have now. They thought that ‘reason’ would abolish all the evils that had dogged humanity since the beginning – poverty, violence, injustice, crime, disease.

None predicted that science could produce weapons capable of destroying the planet – and that a rational, democratic government would actually use such a weapon on an inhabited city.

None predicted that an advanced secular idealism – the extreme socialist tradition – would create the most inhuman tyrannies that have ever existed – in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

None predicted that mass addiction could ever accompany economic success, or that suicide would be seriously discussed as a solution to the pain of life on a global communication medium – itself a product of the rise of science.

None predicted that economic inequalities and western success could ever produce such a thing as a ‘war on terror’.

And no one in the 1700s predicted that economic growth could actually endanger the global human environment.

So the Earth crisis we find ourselves in is a secular as well as a religious and spiritual crisis.

So apparently complex is this earth crisis that statesmen often seem totally baffled by it. So do intellectuals – who cannot agree either on its nature or its solution. The fragmentation of knowledge that followed the Enlightenment means that there isn’t – apparently – even a common language in which to discuss this crisis.

And this means we also have a crisis of global insight and leadership.

Meanwhile extreme secularists such as Richard Dawkins blame everything on religion, and religious extremists seem to prove them right by advocating violence and by denying the truths revealed by science.

Invisible to many, however, one science that emerged out of the Enlightenment – anthropology – has rediscovered a biblical concept that helps us to understand most of what is wrong with the world. Seeing this key problem of human behaviour clearly in the myriad of examples that surround us daily, this redefinition of a very ancient word is set to transform the way we look at the problems of the world – and to harmonise and reintegrate everything that is best in the western tradition.

Views: 32

The Story of the West: II – Christian Theology and the Scientific Revolution

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Nov 2006

How did Europe come to dominate the world by 1900?

The reason is simple: the ocean-going ships that first explored and mapped the whole world began their voyages in Europe in the 1400s AD. They were followed by European soldiers who built global empires for countries such as Spain, Portugal, England, Holland and France.

And these imperialistic adventurers were usually accompanied by Christian missionaries who spread the Christian faith globally also.

And this is why, throughout the world, people speak of this as ‘the twenty-first century’. The first truly global calendar was European and Christian also, and so were the first accurate world maps.

This is what people mean when they speak about ‘the dominance of the West’. Western European countries began this period of western dominance, and the USA has continued it, right up until our own time. But how had this happened? Why did ‘the West’ become the first globally dominant civilisation.

The simplest answer is that it was western Europe that first fully exploited technical advances such as the compass, the fore-and-aft sail and gunpowder. These allowed European ships of the 1400s to navigate when out of site of land, to sail at an angle into the prevailing wind, and to overcome most opposition they met with. And it was the wealth of European trade that developed these ships and financed these voyages.

But why was Europe the most technologically and economically developed part of the world by the 1400s AD?

Most historians still tend to credit the culture of ancient Greece. The Greeks believed in the power of reason and began the systematic collection of knowledge that laid the foundations of modern science.

However, as we saw last month, the ancient Greeks did not believe in progress. Nor did they invent true science.

Science is not simply the haphazard collection of knowledge. It involves the systematic testing of every theory – either by experiment or observation. Only if repeated experiments or observations do not disprove a theory can it be accepted as scientifically proven.

The most scientific of the ancient Greeks, Aristotle, was an avid collector of information and ideas – but he never set out to test these ideas systematically. For example, he believed that heavier objects will fall faster than lighter. He could easily have devised an experiment to test this – for example by dropping stones of different weights from a high cliff at the same time, and having someone down below observe if the heavier did indeed reach the sand below before the lighter. He never did. Nor did any other ancient Greek.

The reason was simple. The ancient Greeks tended to believe that the spirit world was constantly interacting with the material world, changing the appearance of things – and making it impossible for humans to trust their own senses. Unseen spirits could easily interfere with two falling stones, to deceive any observer – so what could be the point of devising such an experiment?

For true science to happen, people had to believe that the natural world was ordered by a rational being according to unchanging natural principles lying waiting to be discovered. This attitude could never have developed in ancient Greece – or in any other ancient civilisation.

The reason that true science did not develop in the ancient world had therefore everything to do with the pagan belief systems of that world. Pagan Gods were believed to share the weaknesses of gifted humans, especially vanity, and the natural world was believed to be populated by a variety of invisible spirits with human failings also. Furthermore, pagan Gods were believed to be incapable of truly loving their worshippers – they were far too great to have any real interest in us humans.

If Gods could behave unreasonably, then the natural world could not be subject to reason either. And if Gods were uninterested in the fate of humans they could have no interest in our questions either.

The modern belief that all of nature is subject to unchanging laws – laws that lie waiting to be discovered by the human mind – required fist of all the belief that God is a rational, and consistent being. It required, in other words, the coming of Christianity and the rise of Christian theology.

No other religious tradition ever developed anything like Christian theology – a systematic attempt to explain reality in terms of a rational, creator God. And that is why true science developed first in Christian Europe

Nowadays it is often alleged that Christianity is all about ‘blind faith’, and that the coming of Christianity delayed the emergence of science and reason. Nothing could be further from the truth. Christian theology was founded on the premise that everything had been created by a loving and reasonable God. The greatest Christian theologians had far more faith in reason than many of today’s greatest intellectuals.

“Heaven forbid,” declared St Augustine (354-430 AD), “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’.

This confidence in the power of reason to produce new knowledge was the cause of the development of Christian theology in the Middle Ages, after the fall of Rome. It was also the reason for the foundation of the Christian universities after about 800 AD.

By the beginning of the modern period c 1450 AD, the Church was the most important source of support for Europe’s universities. Centuries of planetary observation in these provided the knowledge needed by the Polish Catholic priest, Copernicus, to frame his revolutionary theory that Earth and all of the other planets rotated around the sun. He hit upon this theory in the early 1500s AD.

Later, in the 1600s, Galileo’s support for Copernicus led to a papal ban – for which Pope John Paul II eventually apologised. This famous and unforgivable episode is often used by anti-Catholic intellectuals to prove that Christian faith and reason are incompatible – but these same intellectuals have never even tried to explain why the Scientific Revolution begun by Copernicus and Galileo began in Christian Europe and nowhere else.

This paradox puzzled none other than the famous atheist English philosopher Bertrand Russell. If religion was the source of all ignorance, why then had ancient China not been the cradle of the scientific revolution – as the intellectuals of ancient China had been sceptical of all religion?

Russell’s collaborator, Alfred North Whitehead, provided the answer. The intellectuals of ancient China had no confidence that progress in knowledge was possible, because they believed that everything that could be known was already known.

Christian intellectuals of the Middle Ages, on the other hand, were convinced that, in Whitehead’s words “there is a secret … which can be unveiled”. He went on to explain that this conviction originated in “the medieval insistence on the rationality of God”. Faith in a rational God led to the conviction that nature too must be rationally ordered – and it was this conviction that led to the scientifically-based world we know.

Unfortunately, the historical education of most of the West’s secular intellectuals has not kept pace with their scientific and technical expertise. This is why Pope John Paul II could not persuade the leaders of the European Union to include mention of Europe’s Christian heritage in their now-delayed constitution for the enlarged EU. They are mostly simply unaware that there would not be a European Union had it not been for centuries of rational Christian theology.

Recent events in our church have also had the effect of giving many of us Catholics an inferiority complex about the history of our church. It is time we knew better – and began the task of making our church once more a beacon of enlightenment in the darkness of our own time.

Far from delaying the emergence of our modern science-based society, Christian and Catholic faith was in fact the original cradle of the modern world. We will see later how it will also provide solutions to the most critical problems of our own time – such as the threat to the environment.

Views: 27

Does Religion Cause Violence?

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Oct 2005

Since the horror of 9/11 in 2001, our news has been dominated by acts of terrorism. Now in Iraq we find young American males pitted against young Arab males. The former are often ‘born again’ Christians who believe their God wants them to support the state of Israel and fight a ‘crusade’ against Islamic aggression. Their opponents are usually Islamic fundamentalists who believe that their God wants them to replace western secular culture with a global Islamic state.

In July 2005 this war of terror came uncomfortably close. At least two young Irish people were murdered by bombs in London and Turkey. Those of a secularist mindset in Ireland felt confirmed in their faith. One letter writer to the Irish Times wrote:

“Can there be any doubt the greatest curse afflicting humanity is religion of all denominations?”

Is religion – either Christian or Islamic – the root cause of the horrors of the present moment – and should we all therefore become atheists preaching a total secularism and an end to all religious belief?

Certainly the UK’s National Secular Society thinks so. Throughout its website it refers to Northern Ireland as conclusive proof of the violence caused by religious belief, and advocates the end of state support for church schools. It is committed to pushing religious belief out of the public square. If this programme succeeds, Christian faith will be hidden away in our homes, almost stigmatised.

Catholics in Ireland will need to think hard if they are to meet these arguments, and prevent a further weakening of religious belief here.

They could begin by reflecting on the truth of Northern Ireland violence. It never did have a primarily religious origin. It was, in fact, primarily driven by political ideologies based upon secular values – specifically the ideologies of British imperialism and Irish nationalism.

To prove this it is necessary only to point out that throughout the period 1969-1994 there never was a theological debate between those who took up the gun and the bomb in Northern Ireland. Those who led Unionist and Loyalist reaction against the civil rights movement did so on the grounds that it was a front for an Irish nationalist movement to create a United Ireland. The movement that caused most nationalist violence, the PIRA, never had a religious programme or objective either: its ideology was based upon the supposed inevitability of a thirty-two county Irish Republic.

The fact that Unionism used the Protestant identity of the NI majority as a binding force originated simply in the fact that English political regimes from Henry VIII onward had combined church and state, making the former serve the latter. This was, from the beginning, the exploitation of religious belief for purely secular ends. Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries, for example, purely for dynastic reasons. Their lands would become state property, to be used to buy the support of the British upper classes for the Tudor regime. If you were a ‘good Protestant’ the argument went, you had to be a British political loyalist also – and self-interest delivered the same message.

This meant in Ireland that to be on the contrary an Irish nationalist you should reject not merely the monarch as head of state, but as a religious head also. Irish separatism became politically Catholic – but this never meant that Irish separatists were motivated primarily by any form of Christianity. Their goal was a state defined simply in negative terms: it would be non-British.

Far from being enthusiastically Catholic in any religious sense, PIRA and Sinn Fein were often hostile to a church leadership that from the beginning opposed their campaign of violence. Not even John Paul II in 1979 could make any impression on their commitment to violence in pursuit of an entirely secular goal.

It is ironic, and deeply dishonest, that the prostitution of religion for secular ends in these islands should now be exploited by secularists as a reason for getting rid of religion altogether.

However, to find the best argument against the scapegoating of religion for violence we merely need to remember the record of the most completely secularised political movements of the 20th century – especially Communism. Because they were the most thorough attempt to suppress religious belief altogether, secularists should be able to point to Communist regimes as the pinnacle of human civilisation – oases of peace.

In fact we now know that they were murderous on a scale that defies comprehension. Lenin, the great secularising hero of the Soviet Union, was murderous from the beginning – arguing that richer peasants who opposed the state seizure of their crops should be strung up as an example. His fiendish successor Stalin, decided to murder them all – and was equally brutal with all his political rivals. By the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 it was known that at least twenty million people had been murdered under Stalin alone.

And earlier this year the first thorough and independent biography of Mao Zedong – the Chinese Communist hero – reported that he had been at least equally violent. In China too as many as 20 million peasants may have perished as a result of an absurd secular ideology and personality cult of the great leader. To arguments that peasants were dying of famine in unprecedented numbers, Mao once responded that their bones would fertilise the soil.

In North Korea still today, a secular ‘God’ – Kim Jung Il – uses the same appalling terror to maintain his regime. Western secularists turn a completely blind eye. They ignore all the evidence that secularist superheroes have consistently gotten rid of God in order to become Gods themselves.

That was true of Adolf Hitler also. The fact that he had been baptised a Catholic – like most Austrians – is often used to pillory Catholicism. Those who do so always ignore the fact that he rejected the faith he had inherited, and espoused the beliefs of the fanatically anti-Christian German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. This thinker insisted that the Christian ethic of service and humility was unworthy of man’s potential for decisive and domineering action. It was this secular ‘superman’ ideology, not any variety of Christianity, that grounded the faith of the worst of all twentieth century mass-murderers.

All violence flows from a simple human flaw – the tendency of our species to be self-regarding and to compete for superiority. From the beginning the core of western religious belief has been a perception of this flaw, and a discernment of a higher value system that could take us beyond violence. That is why vanity and covetousness top the list of sins perceived by western Christianity – just as the Chinese Tao asks ‘why do we desire what others desire’, in a lament over the causes of war.

It is not enough for Christians to make this argument verbally however. It is high time for Christians of all traditions to go beyond verbal Christianity and to combine in reaching out to the more pacific strands and tendencies of moderate Islam.

Already we can discern the background of some of those who killed over fifty people in London in July. Sharing the predicament of young NI Catholics in the 1960s, many young Islamic males are well educated but alienated from British culture by a concealed but pervasive racial bias there. This makes them all-too-easy recruits for Islamist fanatics who want to overthrow western secular culture altogether.

As the former Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out also, people of deep Islamic faith are far less offended by western Christianity than they are by the vulgar sexualisation of much of western secular culture – the ethic of pleasure at all costs, of substance-abuse and seduction.

Like us Christians, they wonder why, if secularism brings peace, there is a horrific escalation in violence among young people in the UK – even in the classroom. Those who have studied this discover a clear pattern – these young people are invariably afflicted with very low self-esteem due to fractured parental relationships, or even abuse within the home. Deprived of proper parenting, and the self-esteem that flows from that, they seek a violent reputation in gang culture instead.

Prioritising the importance of marital fidelity and parental responsibility, the churches have always been a bulwark against family breakdown. The ‘whatever’ sexual ethic of modern secularism is, on the contrary, a very definite source of major youth violence in western society today.

Westernised Muslims can often see this more clearly, but they can also come to appreciate the more positive aspects of western culture. They have in many cases come to appreciate the principle of a separation of church and state, and many Muslim young women in particular are far from convinced of the need for the spreading of Muslim Sharia law across the globe.

It is vitally necessary that all of those committed to peace, and with a deep religious faith, should be talking to one another and combining their efforts to meet the current challenge.

Catholic leaders in Ireland should not be complacent either. Their failure to empower and encourage their lay members in this regard could well reap a tragic fruit in the future, as Ireland’s culture and population becomes more varied. Our national talent for making friendly contact with people of a different culture needs to be harnessed to the cause of making our faith a vibrant force for community harmony.

And secularists who seek to scapegoat religion for violence should re-read Animal Farm, expand their focus, and recognise the pacific core and purpose of all the great faiths. This is no time for the opportunist politics of the latest atrocity.

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