Monday, 29 March 2010

Myths and science

Philip Pullman has written his own take on the gospels in a new work entitled. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In it he reworks the gospel accounts of the life of Jesus Christ who becomes twins: Jesus, the charismatic talker, and Christ, the dark brother who infiltrates his own teaching into Jesus's teaching. Why such a story? Well, Pullman told The Times last year:

“For every man or woman who has been led to goodness by a church, and I know there have been many, there has been another who has been inspired by the same church to a rancid and fanatical bigotry for which the only fitting word is evil.”

In other words Jesus must have had some monstrous double, which explains why some Christians are nice and some nasty. The story makes sense of the confused picture. To Pullman at least.

There are several things which are really fascinating about this, but perhaps the central one is that Pullman is doing exactly what he accuses religion of doing: generating a myth to explain something that he does not understand. Something else myths do is to explain away hostility. Which is of course exactly what this Pullmanian myth does too. After all, he doesn't want to be angry with Jesus the Good Man; but Christ the Scoundrel can take a good hiding. It's okay to hate Christianity when it is separated from Jesusism (of whatever Jesus's religion without Christ could be callled).

This function of a myth also allows you not only to veil violence, it also has the benefit of making you appear virtuous. Those who drive out the scapegoat have an aura of benevolent power. It doesn't matter that Pullman's animus feeds on some mythical division of Christians into fifty-fifty bigots and saints. I've met a lot of mediocre Christians; they're the biggest proportion. What is all this fifty-fifty stuff doing? Well, mythically justifying Pullman's hostility, I suppose ...

I just read Pullman's response to Stephen Hawkings's 2006 Oxford lecture on the origins of the universe. Therein, he reduces all creation thinking to the same level as the myths of the Boshongo story whose god, Bumba, is said to have vomited the sun, moon, stars, world and humans from his own belly. What is interesting here is that Pullman gives himself away not as an enlightened man but as a scientific fundamentalist. Having assigned to all talk of creation the rank of metaphor or allegory, he says this odd thing:

The delight for me in the account Professor Hawking gave us tonight, and has given us in his marvellous book A Brief History of Time, is that we can both listen to it with wonder and take it literally.

Take it literally? Well, yes and no. This is the problem. Pullman looks benignly on englightened thought but places on it a heavier burden than it can bear. Scientific theories are not literal truths; they are working models or best-fit descriptions. Oddly enough, to confuse them with literal truth is arguably to fall into the same trap as thinking that the physical account of the universe found in the Bible must be true in the same way that Revelation about God is true. Pullman isn't free of fundamentalism; he has simply swapped one fundamentalism for another because it has better material credentials.

Pullman has said that if people don't like his new book, then they don't have to read it, or they can write their own book about it. Somewhere I hope there is a Christian with a sense of humour who writes a book entitled Isaac the Good Man and Newton the Scoundrel. Isaac will be known for his brilliant scientific mind and wise understanding of science's limits; he will always be aware of science's contingency, and will allow other disciplines to explain things in their own order. Newton, his evil twin, on the other hand will represent everything that is hubristic about scientism; he will lampoon any doubts about science as fundamentalism and will embrace the latest theories, even those that lead unwittingly towards genocide and mass destruction.

But then again, maybe not. Myth making is the stuff of human culture when it is sub-Christian. It took the cross to unveil the self-veiling violence of the human being; Pullman ought only to be met with that truth, and with a fully committed Christian rationality.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Thoughts on abuse

I wrote this last year but in view of this week's news, and of the new allegations regarding the pope (the full history of which is yet to unfold), it seems right to publish it again.

Child abuse is one of those traumas so extraordinarily singular that it leaves one grasping not only for words but to find any entitlement to talk about it. Thank God, I never suffered it, though I know those who have. Sometimes they suffer the consequences all their lives, and in a handful of cases, they bring their lives to an end because of it. Compassion itself seems inadequate here, not by lack of empathy but because it is impossible to know the suffering - to passus cum - caused by such transgression of a human being, whose very world is wrecked often by those who have defined it for them. This is as near as anyone can get, if it were possible, to casting another freewill into mortal sin. No wonder Christ said it would be better that a millstone be tied around the necks of those who scandalize the little ones of God. Of course it is also true that abusers sometimes begin as the abused, in a colossal chain of unstinting misery known to God alone. How our own sufferings seem small in the lights of these scandals.

What leaves me, however, in a similar state of incomprehension are the strategies of those who have been, with the best of intentions, covering up child abuse by priests in the Dublin diocese for several decades. Complaints only started coming to light of course in the 1980s and 1990s, but whether we look at more recent incidents or those that were happening as long ago as the 1930s (cf the Ryan Report on child abuse published in May) - and Lord knows how long before that - it is not modernism which has brought this about (though it might have compounded it) but clericalism. By clericalism, I mean not only what the Irish State is now acccused of, in having deferred to the Catholic Church in Ireland in this matter. By clericalism, I mean also the type of churchmanship that serves lower moral considerations at the cost of higher ones. I mean especially the kind of churchmanship that can conceal the sins of the clergy but not, at the same time, punish them with severity. Of course, there is the issue of the private forum. We do not know what penances have been imposed under the seal of confession.

But how can that be enough? Did these people never realise that eventually cesspits have to be cleaned out? That you cannot keep shoving transgressions against immortal souls into the limited space of a nation's mortal psyche? Some spiritual plumber was needed, some moral sanitary engineer, who could have predicted the lamentable outcome. For eventually some blockage always forces the shit back up the pipe, and here we are today, knee deep in decades of foul-smelling, mind-numbing fecal matter, studded with the souls of children loved by God and wrecked by men.

Neither do I buy the line that we didn't really know what pederasty was truly like four or five decades ago. Scandal of the young is specifically and graphically described by Christ as a sin deserving of the worst punishment. What edition of the Bibile were they reading not to have understood that?

Perhaps one of these complacent clerics muttered the kinds of bourgeois reassurances which made Léon Bloy fulminate against the bourgeoisie so much: least said, soonest mended; let's draw a veil over that; it will all be forgotten in a little while. Or perhaps they said something like, 'Well, they were only Christ's words' ...

Like the priest who was preaching on the day John Berryman, the alcoholic American poet and life-long depressive, turned up at church, trembling with the DTs, anxious to put his life right after decades of chaos; he'd been going for a little while apparently. That day though, the priest was preaching about the constraints of celibacy. Citing the words of Christ that there are some who make themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of God he railed against the faithful who put the clergy on such a pedestal. 'They were only Christ's words,' he said. Berryman, rising to his feet, clutching a rosary, sweating, and shaking in anger, shouted out, 'Only Christ words?' And stomped out the door ... later to throw himself off Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

Berryman's life was marked early on by the suicide of his father. I wonder if parental suicide doesn't have a similar effect to child abuse. For what is parental suicide, or indeed child abuse, if not the wrecking of a child's certainties about the goodness of the world? What is parental suicide or child abuse if not the destroying of what is, for the child, the most powerful symbol of God's providence, if not an initiation into an absurd world? Confession makes priests and bishops more insightful about human motives and tendencies than anyone can imagine. The Catholic Church invented psychology long before Freud or anyone else. But how did these Irish churchmen (not to mention those elsewhere) get child abuse so badly wrong? How did they fail so categorically when the stakes were so much higher than the reputation of the clergy? When the stakes were immortal souls made in the image and likeness of God? God save us all from the unintended consequences of our own complacency.

You cannot serve God until you've lost your reputation, said Saint Teresa of Avila. That is a lesson the Irish Church - and the rest of us by association - have to learn.

Friday, 19 March 2010

But the one thing that makes spring complete for me

Alright, I know I'm a little bit ahead of the game but there is no doubt spring is here. Have you seen the weather this week? I ask almost in order to get some information out of you (all three of you). I have spent most of this week either in a chair or in bed suffering the effects of a late winter bug that took up residence last Thursday and seemed to be on some kind of busman's holiday until last night. Finally, finally, expectoration has begun ... okay too much info there. Moving right along.

But listen, I'm not the only blogger to be talking about spring. The puppy-kicking author of Orwell's Picnic has a delightful little piece anticipating spring which she published on Wednesday. If you live in the UK, you look at those pictures - the garden, the fruit, the flowers, the fishmarket (yes!) - and wonder again why on earth you are still living in this nasty little pimple of a country, encrusted with more nanny legislation than ever before, losing its Gulf Stream, practically bankrupt, and ruled by the mad, the bad, and the excessively well-funded.

But then - [Innocent tries to make the most of being penniless and prospect free] - what if being receptive to spring is the only way of revolting against this revolting mess? Look, I'm not out to chant 'every-day-in-every-way, etc'. I'm continuing my thought from Monday really. Sadness is of the devil. Joy is of God. Or at least we are most ourselves when we are joyful. The trick of course is to be joyful under current conditions; which I suppose means being joyful as a way of being subversive, as a way of revolting. Or perhaps there is also a place here for the nostalgic lament which comforts and consoles as it exorcises. How did we ever think we could call ourselves Christian and not expect to get our portion of trouble? But we did, didn't we?

I know. Believe me, I know. But then, who was it reminded us that in the Gospel the only recorded instance of Christ actually singing is after the Last Supper and before his agony on the garden? I don't know where I'm going with this thought, other than to welcome spring, to celebrate St Joseph (with whom I have a fraught and difficult relationship), and to try to get my own vision clear.

I tell you nought for your comfort,

Yea, nought for your desire.

Except of course I wish you a happy spring and a joyous ending to Lent.

Right, nausia over Back to the grind, you three!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Catholic Care and Catholic Courage

In a recent post I highlighted a section of the pre-election guide published by the CBCEW Choosing the Common Good. The words of this section read something like this:

The virtue of courage ensures firmness, and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. It is the opposite of opportunism and of evasiveness (p. 12).

The opposite of opportunism and evasiveness. I like that formulation very much. 'Opportunism', the vice of short-termism and 'evasiveness' the vice of moderation.

So we can only applaud the news today that the High Court has approved the appeal made by Catholic Care, the Catholic adoption agency connected to the dioceses of Leeds, Middlesborough and Hexham and Newcastle. The Charity Commission has been ordered to reconsider Catholic Care's request to be made exempt from the 2006 anti-discrimination legislation which in the concrete meant Catholic agencies could no longer refuse to place children with homosexuals.

So what can we draw from this incident? Well, let's not be hasty. The Charity Commission has yet to reconsider the case of Catholic Care. But, it seems that insofar as these dioceses have shown 'firmness and the readiness to stand by what [they] believe in times of difficulty', they have not only been true to the principles of Choosing the Common Good; they have also shown that the nannying, secularist, anti-discrimination legislation passed by the current pond-dwellers in Parliament was not some inexorable and supreme edict which had to be be swallowed whole, but was rather emminently, pre-emminently contestable. Hang on folks, I feel a Shakespeare moment coming on. Yes, here we go:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day (Henry V).

So bravo, Catholic Care, for reaching parts other Catholic adoption agencies have failed to reach ... as far as I am aware. Well, okay, many were under the control of trustees anyway, and of these a couple signed away their Catholic identity in order to preserve their work with children. Salford's Rescue Society - founded by the venerable and intrepid Cardinal Vaughan when he was bishop of that see - was dissolved. I'm not sure if any other dioceses have actually gone to court. Could these people have fought alongside Catholic Care? Could they have? I simply ask the question.

I note that elsewhere Catholic adoption agencies have even closed their doors, rather than comply with the imposition of legislation requiring them to place children with gays. Boston archdiocese took that option in 2006. Only last month the Archdiocese of Washington DC went the same way. Hang on, another Shakespeare moment dawns ...

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named.

Such actions are not always possible. Such actions are sometimes compromised by calculations the details of which we are hardly privy to. But doesn't Catholic Care prove something really important in the context of the UK?

Shouldn't there be now an examination of conscience here among those who have the responsibility for such matters, among those who apparently feel that there is nothing to be gained by conflict with the government? I read these lines of Bishop McMahon to another Catholic blogger concerning the position of the CES regarding the Children, Schools and Families Bill:

There is no question of the CES colluding with the Government.. I also believe that confrontation with the Government over this Bill would not achieve anything.

Maybe it wouldn't. Maybe it wouldn't achieve anything practical. I dare say confronting institutions more powerful than you rarely achieves anything tangible. But wouldn't it just be a sign, if nothing else, a sign in this case that this government is robbing parents of their rights, children of their innocence, and imposing relativism by diktat? And isn't it true that God asks us not to be victorious but only to be worthy of victory?

BUT, what if, WHAT IF confrontation did actually achieve something, my Lord? What if - as in Catholic Care's victory in the High Court - confronting the government made the agents of power crumble?

Monday, 15 March 2010

In sickness and in mirth

A slow week last week on the blog, due in part to living a fast life, no doubt. The result: I'm struck down with a man cold. Death could be only hours away. I'm not sure I'm ready to go quite yet. Aching limbs, sore head and blocked air passages, not to mention a general lack of wellbeing. And the plastering man is coming soon so I cannot stay in bed. I think I want to trade this week in for next.

We had a pretty imposing mid-Lent sermon yesterday for Laetare Sunday. 'How is the Army?' the padre asked ... And, like an army, I think we all shuffled our feet and mentally answered the same thing: we're dodging and ducking as best we can! Time to examine our Lenten irresolutions, me thinks. I don't suppose it would have done any good to plead the Fifth, especially since we're in the UK and (pace, dear American readers) the Fifth has no standing whatsoever in canonical or divine law. It actually looks like we might be forced to take the rest of Lent with a degree of seriousness. And we, but a band of Shakespearean Dogberries.

I tell you nought for your comfort,
Yea, nought for your desire.

It couldn't be worse actually, given that today is the Ides of March to boot. And we learn this morning that David Beckham has ruptured his achilles tendon and is off the catwalk for four months. Whose idea WAS the 15th March?


Well, this won't do. I'm not going to inflict any enforced mirth on the proceedings. But as GKC says, it is easy to be serious; the really difficult thing, the thing that is worthwhile attempting, is to be frivolous. I wonder if this thought for GKC began with the philosophy of Mark Tapley, who befriends young Mr Martin Chuzzlewit when the latter is down on his uppers. Mark could have been happy in the idyll of the Green Dragon whose widowed landlady, Mrs Lupin, he wanted to marry. But instead, he decided to test his resolution to be jolly by setting out on his adventures. Jollines isn't jolliness, he argued, except when it is sustained under circumstances of great difficulty. Which he naturally achieves.

Well, the philosophy of jolliness is one thing; the practice of jolliness quite another. But I suppose if one is looking for jolliness in sanctity, you need look no further than St Philip Neri or St John Bosco. Where are their like today? I wonder if the logic holds here: it is easy to be a serious saint, but for a real trier, give me a jolly one instead. Who was it said, 'Lord save us from solemn saints?' St Teresa of Avila? Could it be that seriousness is a diguised form of self reliance? Or am I just finding a stick to beat my conscience prickers? The human heart! It should be called the myth generator.

Well, let's not take that too seriously. In fact let's not take it seriously at all. Another Chesterton thought: human life is unexpected just at the point where we think we've worked out the logic. So, if an alien visited earth, he might speculate: a man has two legs, two arms and two eyes, therefore, he will also have two noses and two mouths. Except that he doesn't.

Thus religion. Religion involves solemn mysteries, solemn liturgies and solemn responsibilities: therefore it should involve solemn moods ...? Arguably not. As I say, Neri and Bosco thought not. Avila didn't agree. And neither do I (though that's of no consequence to anyone but me).

One last step in this argument: why the mirth? All kinds of reasons, but how about this: because mirth is one of the conditions of self forgetfulness. GKC one more time:

There remains always this great boast, perhaps the greatest boast that is possible to human nature. I mean the great boast that the most unhappy part of our population is also the most hilarious part. The poor can forget that social problem which we (the moderately rich) ought never to forget. Blessed are the poor; for they alone have not the poor always with them. The honest poor can sometimes forget poverty. The honest rich can never forget it.

And there you have it. Grace means self forgetting, and so, arguably, does religion. I'm reminded of the words of an old Abbot to a young monk who had just taken his vows:

Now, Joe, there are two things you need to remember. First, you have just taken vows in monastic life and you must take it very, very seriously. Second, don't take it too seriously.

That would make a Puritan scream hypocrisy, and might make a few serious Catholics wince. But it has the sense of the saints.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Choosing the Common Good

I have been skimming the latest pamphlet by the Bishops of England and Wales Choosing the Common Good which came out last week, I think. I haven't had time to read and digest everything yet but I was heartened to read one section about virtue, p. 11ff. It has long been a trope of mine that a society which thinks it can organize itself on the basis of legislation is already a corrupt body. Order must come not only from outside but also from inside. Multiplicatio legorum corrutio republicae, as some Latin geezer once put it. The multiplication of laws is the corruption of the Republic, or at least a sign of it, a sign that only enforced conformity can guarantee order. When I last looked that was also part of the definition of slavery.

So, bravo the bishops. I was particularly struck by this part:

The virtue of courage ensures firmness, and the readiness to stand by what we believe in times of difficulty. It is the opposite of opportunism and of evasiveness. It is the practice
of fortitude in the face of difficulty and produces heroism in every field.
(p. 12).

Funny they should say that. Now, my Lords, about the SRE bill ...

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Complete nutters

Do stop by this report in the Torygraph about squirrels who feed off coconuts and end up wearing the things on their heads.

Edible hats ... now there's a thought, Edison.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Fresh starts

I have been so busy this weekend, I hardly even know what the news is. World War III could have broken out (can we please, please, please fight against the French this time?) and I just wouldn't know.

But if I didn't blog, it was only because I've been walking about a million miles in my head for various reasons. Not a million miles ON my head, you understand. I think even I, gymnast that I am (ahem *blink*), would struggle with that. And not with my feet either. Am I being cryptic? I hope you're annoyed.

One thing that did emerge from my long-distance travels was the urgency of getting back to playing my guitar. I have hardly touched the beast over the last few years, mostly through boredom. There was a time, however, when I played around four hours a day. Well, I'm not going back there, but I do feel the need for a little creativity. Rubbing numb limbs is the ight way to bring back a bit of circulation, and it is amazing what inactivity can bring upon a soul.

Don't worry, I won't be breaking the instrument out in church, unless it is to charge at some charismatic and burst his balloons with my plectrum. But in the privacy of my own house of course.

There is only one thing more beautiful than the sound of one guitar, and that is the sound of two - so said Chopin. And he knew a thing or too about music, even if he was overly fond of the waltz.

Onwards and upwards, dear readers. Laetare Sunday is in sight. And if you strain your eyes a little, Passiontide is just on the horizon.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Abortion in Poland

A Polish anti-abortion group has caused a rumpus in Poland by its advertising campaign which points out that Nazi Germany introduced abortion into Poland on 9 March 1943. You can see the story and the poster here.

What amazed me about the story was the journalistic gloss on this event. Here is the relevant passage:

But the use of Hitler, along with the torn foetus pictures, has already incurred the wrath of critics. Nazi Germany inflicted horrific levels of death and destruction on Poland, so any perceived attempt to hijack that suffering for the sake of a political or ethical agenda can be viewed with distaste.

I'm interested to know what ethical agenda the Polish anti-abortionists have which cannot be associated with the original Nazi abortion law. All abortion involves the suppression of the personhood of the conceived child in utero, a personhood which is emotionally and unconsciously affirmed by those who WANT their conceived child, and often by those who do not. Now, what was the original abortion law if not an attack on the personhood of the Poles? At least that law was based on spuriously objective grounds. The pro-abortion lobby want abortion dependent on the free choice of the woman - a condition which conceals its aggressive potency under the veil of liberty.

This poster doesn't hijack wartime suffering; it merely underlines the point that any political caste can be guilty of suppressing personhood just by shifting the goalposts. Well done, Fundacja Pro, for unveiling the myth that bourgeois accommodation with the destruction of human life is so morally superior to Nazi destruction of human life.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Food and love

Crikey, it's Tuesday night already, and I barely noticed the start of the week. Ever have days like that? You turn around and you've lost about half a week.

And what a week, I cannot be the only one struggling with Lent. 'Lent' is presumably something 'on loan' from the devil, which is why he spends his time trying to drag it from our fingers. I'm not saying what my faults are; that would just be exhibitionism, but I cannot be the only one to realise just how disfunctional a human being I am when the chips are down (or not on the plate, as the case may be). Hey ho. On we struggle eh? Only another five weeks or exposure to our real selves. Then we will pull the warm blanket of myth up over our heads again and go back to a condition of self congratulation. Oops, did I say that out loud? The older I get, the more that seems to be happening.

Fortunately, food is also about love, isn't it? Or at least that is what I feel about the stuff. What an odd thing that our relationship to food is now dictated by forces other than the human, whereas if we still thought of it in terms of love, there are lots of things we would avoid. There's more chance of becoming a glutton in front of a TV dinner than at a feast where you have plenty of other distractions. And if you pour love into your cooking, nourishment becomes nurture, in one of those subtle transformations which show the proximity of spirit and flesh.

If you think I'm babbling tonight, you'd be right. It was the busiest day of the week so far, and I had a pile of correspondence to field this evening. Fortunately, I ate well, albeit alone. But I tried to do it with love. Love and appetite are as different as chewing slowly and gulping like a gannet. How odd we have to wait for Lent to come around to be reminded of the fact.