it’s not a bad post to put beside my previous one, Twilight of the gods? Now also posted on MercatorNet as Can societies abandon religion and continue to prosper?
Junod begins his story like this.
Once upon a time, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit’s safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.
For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Melanie Phillips is at it again, taking on these elites and exposing their shallow folly. This woman is indefatigable.
In a superb article in the Jerusalem Post she tells the world that it is eating itself up with contradictions. It does so every time it rubbishes faith and religion because it is cutting the ground from underneath its own feet. By doing so it is putting reason in the same skip.
Among unbelievers, she writes, it is an article of faith that reason, science and modernity are in one box and religion, superstition and obscurantism in another.
Ah yes; the rational, factual, grounded secular world. The one that is currently disinviting speakers and violently attacking universities on the grounds of upholding freedom and equality. The one that is spewing unhinged lies and paranoid distortions at Israel and the Jewish people. The one that appears to be spinning off its axis into utter madness.
Phillips reminds us that this week the Jewish cycle of readings from the five books of Moses begins again in their synagogues. Christians can get into the same boat and identify with everything she reflects on at this turn of the Jewish liturgical year. Christians will begin their cycle with the beginning of Advent in a little more than a month’s time.
The secular world, she reflects, looks on with indifference, bemusement or contempt. The reason for this is something the secular world cannot bring itself to grasp.
The same secular world consigns Christians, the younger brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to the same quaint – but not harmless – category of deluded human beings.
Because the peoples adhering to these traditions are determined to abide by their faith – and in the case of Christians are determined to evangelize, to spread their faith – they are not just harmless delusionals. They are an obstacle to real human progress and must be at least marginalized – if not destroyed.
But the tragic irony of this situation is that the “rationalists” mocking the faithful are leading western civilization on a path of self-destruction. “For”, as Phillips points out, “in setting out to destroy the biblical basis of western civilization, the secular world is in the process of destroying reason itself.”
Phillips’ reading of how this self-destructive process has been operating is this:
For the past half-century, the received wisdom among our cultural elites has been that the West is fundamentally bigoted and illegitimate and must be transformed. Accordingly, biblical codes embodying objective truth and goodness have been replaced by ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism, materialism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, utilitarianism, feminism, multiculturalism, universalism and environmentalism.
Indeed what she says echoes words of warning of Pope John Paul II at the end of the last century:
(With) the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world — Marxism being the foremost of these — there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics.
This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”. (Veritatis Splendor,101)
These movements are all utopian, Phillips asserts. Each in its own way wants to create a new kind of human being and a perfect world. The greens believe they will save the planet. The multiculturalists believe they will excise bigotry from the human heart. The universalists believe they will create the brotherhood of man.
The problem with all these ideologies, she says, is that they are anti-reason.
She is right. The fatal flaw of all these ideologies is that they aim at a utopian perfection and reject the evidence which our reason patently places before our eyes: our fallen nature is of itself incapable of the perfection they dream about. For both the Jew and the Christian that of course is not to say that perfection cannot be attained. “Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” For both these faiths God is real, He is perfect and has promised us redemption.
Phillips traces the hostility of these ideologies to their inherent irrationality:
Moral relativists attack the Mosaic code. Environmentalists attack the (misunderstood) assertion in Genesis that mankind has dominion over the Earth. Materialists attack the belief that there can be anything beyond the universe at all. And so on.
It is no coincidence that these ideologies are both anti-reason and anti-Jew, for Judaism and reason are not in separate boxes at all. The one in fact created the other.
She deconstructs the popular misconception that science and faith are in these “separate boxes”. For the development of science, she argues, monotheism was essential. As the Oxford mathematics professor, John Lennox, puts it: “At the heart of all science lies the conviction that the universe is orderly.”
Science grew from the idea that the universe is rational; and that belief was given to us by Genesis, which set out the revolutionary proposition that the universe had a rational creator. Without such a purposeful intelligence behind it, the universe could not have been rational; there would have been no place for reason in the world, because there would have been no truths or natural laws for reason to uncover.
She then catalogues the great scientists and philosophers, right up to our own time, for whom the idea of science without God was nonsense. They were Jews and Christians.
As we know, not all of them grasped all the implications of the truth which they stumbled on. Many indeed misinterpreted it. But they had one essential clear; God existed and was the author of the universe. Francis Bacon said God had provided us with two books – the book of nature and the Bible – and that to be properly educated one must study both.
Isaac Newton, Descartes, Kepler and Galileo – who said “the laws of nature are written by the hand of God in the language of mathematics,” are all on her list.
As CS Lewis wrote: “Men became scientific because they expected law in nature, and they expected law in nature because they believed in a lawgiver.”
But for her the significant point is that it was not religion in general but the Bible in particular that gave rise to science. She tells us how the Hungarian Benedictine priest Stanley Jaki has shown that in seven great cultures – the Chinese, Hindu, Mayan, Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Arabic – the development of science was truncated. All made discoveries that carried human understanding forward, yet none was able to keep its scientific discoveries going.
Jaki attributes this to two critical features that these cultures had in common: a belief in pantheism and in the cyclical concept of time. Science could proceed only on the basis that the universe is rational and coherent and thus nature behaves in accordance with unchanging laws. It was therefore impossible under pantheism, which ascribed natural events to the whims and caprices of the spirit world.
The other vital factor in the creation of science and modernity was the Bible’s linear concept of time. This means that history is progressive; every event is significant; experience is built upon. Progress was thus made possible by learning more about the laws of the universe and how it works.
Given all this, it comes therefore as no surprise to her that the Jewish people find themselves in the very eye of the civilizational storm. The same can be said for the Christians. For her this new hatred is deeper than the perennial scourge of anti-Semitism, something for which confused Christians in their falleness bear a terrible responsibility over many centuries. This new scourge is, she says, all part of the unfolding story of the modern world turning savagely against the very creed on which it itself is based.
I dare to suggest that in her own way she is admonishing us to beware of the darkness of which that great Jewish Christian, St. Paul, warned the people of Ephesus and Thessalonica, surrounded as they were by the secular pagan culture of his time:
“Once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of the light (for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful words of darkness, but instead expose them… Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph 5:8-11, 15-16; cf. 1 Th 5:4-8).
Thank you, Melanie Phillips, for your wisdom and your courage in swimming against this relentless current which threatens to sweep us away in its madness.
Indeed “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends”. Could it be that there is something providential behind the movement out of the literary shadows of Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, which is now being effected by its translation into the medium of film by Martin Scorsese? The film was released in the US last week and is being released in Europe today (Friday 30 December).
This novel is extraordinarily relevant to our time and to the story of faith and religion in the modern world. It is a novel about persecution, about compromise of principles, about apostasy and mercy, about heroism and cowardice. All of these are central to the harrowing tale at the centre of Endo’s Silence, considered to be his masterpiece by many.
Endo was a Catholic. In his life he mirrored the eternal conflict of the believer with the world, the world which does not know God. This is the conflict which Romano Guardini refers to when he writes of the “true light” of Christ “showering radiance on everyone who comes near him.” But, the great German theologian says, “if that person is ‘seeing’ in the worldly sense, something in him is willed to seek the world and himself rather than the Messiah. His eye is fixed on world and self and remains so.”
In Endo’s life this conflict was very much set in the context of his native Japan – a country and a culture which had for centuries determinedly set its face against Christ and God, opting instead for the world as seen through the vision of the Buddha. But the context of his Japan is now the context of every Christian in the Western world – a world which has set out either to reject God and persecute believers, or which seeks to redefine God in its own image. The “Silence” of the title of Endo’s novel is the apparent failure of God to speak and act in the face of human suffering, injustice and persecution. But this silence is really the test of faith, a test which ultimately separates those who see the “true light”, or “hear” the true voice of God, from those who do not – with glorious consequences for some and tragic consequences for others.
In his introduction to the novel Endo wrote of its genesis:
For a long time I was attracted to a meaningless nihilism and when I finally came to realize the fearfulness of such a void I was struck once again with the grandeur of the Catholic Faith. (Silence xx) But this brought him to another problem, that of “the reconciliation of my Catholicism with my Japanese blood”.
The great question for him, one that is at the heart of the brutal persecutions depicted in the novel, is how to resolve the conflict which the Western trappings of the universal truth of Christ’s teaching presented to the guardians of Japanese culture and tradition.
The novel reveals the murderous bewilderment of the Japanese cultural elite when confronted with the success of the Christian missionaries in the sixteenth century. There was, on their part, a terrible and utterly flawed identification of the universal message of Christ with the cultural values of the agents who brought that message.
What makes the novel so relevant to the world today is that the universal truth of the message is again in conflict with the cultural elites – this time with the modernist and post-modernist and post-truth values increasingly dominating our consciousness and our culture.
On the one hand there is rejection and, where power makes it possible, persecution of Christians. On the other hand there is the tendency to modify the teaching to suit the new self-image of mankind which is now being absorbed and disseminated by contemporary cultural elites. This is the equivalent of the “swamp” which Endo saw in Japan, absorbing and distorting the essential truth brought by the missionaries. He described it as a swamp that “sucks up all sorts of ideologies, transforming them into itself and distorting them in the process” (Silence, xix). This, of course, is the perennial tightrope which truth always has to walk in any and every process of inculturation.
This is the issue at the heart of the novel on one level.
On another parallel level Endo tells the sad story of the personal faith of individuals. Two of the three priests central to the story apostasize. The one who keeps protesting about God’s silence eventually hears a voice which he takes to be the voice of Christ. The voice tells him to trample on the image, the public sign his persecutors demand. “You may trample. You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
But the denouement of the novel, from the hell on earth in which his soul, if not his body, has to go on living for thirty more years, shows us that it is his own, or another voice which he hears, not the voice of God. The suffering Japanese Christians, whom he fooled himself into thinking that he was acting out of mercy towards, went on suffering – and he even acquiesced in that suffering. His efforts at self-justification have all the hall-marks of torturous self-delusion.
The Silence of the novel is not the silence of men, it is the silence of God; it persists. Like the history of Christian martyrdom teaches – no matter how hard this is to understand – the ways of God are not the ways of man. The mercy of God is not the mercy of man. The heroes of this novel, Fr. Garrpe, Monica and the other Japanese martyrs depicted knew this; the anti-heroes of this novel, Ferreira and Rodrigues, did not know this. Martyrs down through history know this; the world does not know this.
On this level I doubt very much if the film is going to achieve much clarity. Martin Scorsese talks of it in terms of his personal journey – a journey which took him form a Catholic Italian upbringing in New York, through The Last Temptation of Christ, to this and beyond. For Liam Neeson it may be similar, this time from an Ulster Catholic upbringing to, who knows what? We shall have to leave that to another judgement.
In a recent interview Neeson is quoted as saying that the movie’s exploration into faith and its theme of standing up for what you believe in made him examine where doubt fits into religion.
“The other component of faith that [director] Martin Scorsese explores in the film is doubt. They’re both [together],” he says. “And I think it is a God-given component. If we have this free will to question and if one believes in God, I think you celebrate that.” Really? The freedom we have to doubt is God-give. The doubt is our contribution.
Neeson added that one doesn’t have to be religious to appreciate the film’s message. “We all (have) faith in something whether it’s faith in a marriage or relationship or faith in your work,” he explains. “It can be applied to anything.” That all sounds a little too much like an echo from the “swamp” which pained Endo so much.
But Neeson is not reading the novel. He may be reading Scorsese’s script. On a personal level it is about faith and fear, rather than faith and doubt. The nemesis of the apostates is not that they doubted, or apostatized because of doubt. The key to their tragedy was the weakness of their faith in the face of a demand to deny divinity. In the end the heroism of their activity in spreading the faith was insufficient when that faith was put to the ultimate test, that of accepting God in his silence. The focus of the novel – in the case of three of the characters, Rodrigues, Ferreira and the Japanese peasant, Kichijiro, – is on the destructive power of this weakness which brought them to their doom, their living hell.
Endo has been rightly compared to Graham Greene and Flannery O’Connor in his preoccupations and the paradoxes he uses to explore them. He is also that very unique thing, a Catholic writer from an Asian culture. As such his work must stand, in spite of its complexity, its paradoxical character and its consequent risk of misinterpretation, as an essential link in the long and troubled history of the evangelization of the Far East, and Japan in particular.
Bob Dylan’s in the news. I couldn’t help thinking of him the other day when I read this:
Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, “Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphra’tes.” So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of mankind.
Dylan believes that. In his famous 1984 Rolling Stone interview he said, provocatively as he often is, and enigmatically as he also often is:
I believe in the Book of Revelation. The leaders of this world are eventually going to play God, if they’re not already playing God, and eventually a man will come that everybody will think is God. He’ll do things and they’ll say, “Well, only God can do those things. It must be him.”
That might remind you of something someone else said not so long ago – someone at a considerable remove from where you might expect to find Bob Dylan on the spectrum. This was what Republican Senator Rand Paul, (Kentucky) said in support of the pro life movement:
For 43 years, a few unelected men and women on the Supreme Court have played God with innocent human life.
They have invented laws that condemned to painful deaths without trial more than 61 million babies for the crime of being “inconvenient.”
In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling forced abortion-on-demand down our nation’s throat.
So, one wonders about those four demon angels at the Euphrates. Have they arrived? The valley of the Euphrates, or thereabouts, is one part of the world where there are men and women playing God just now. If we add a few more from around the world – well, maybe we will not get as far as a third of mankind killed, but we are certainly on a bad road trip.
Dylan is a truly special kind of human being. He deserves the Nobel Prize. If you don’t think so listen to him again. Forget the cant about him not writing poetry and start thinking outside the box. There is no Nobel Prize for music. There should be and perhaps this is the best place to start. In terms of lyrics Dylan’s worst efforts – and there are not too many in that category – can be pretty bad. But at his best he can really fill you with awe and wonder.
If the Nobel Commitee was going to look into the world of popular culture for creative souls who have opened windows, given people things to think about which will help them better understand the human condition, they could do much worse than this – they might have chosen the Rolling Stones.
In that long interview with Rolling Stone – I hope this is not getting confusing – he showed some of the depths of his spirit. He also showed how essentially humble the man is. He was asked about all the labels he’s been burdened with over the years.
People have put various labels on you over the past several years: “He’s a born-again Christian”; “he’s an ultra-Orthodox Jew.” Are any of those labels accurate?
Not really. People call you this or they call you that…. I would never call it that, I’ve never said I’m born again. That’s just a media term. I don’t think I’ve ever been an agnostic. I’ve always thought there’s a superior power, that this is not the real world and that there’s a world to come. That no soul has died, every soul is alive, either in holiness or in flames. And there’s probably a lot of middle ground.
What is your spiritual stance, then?
Well, I don’t think that this is it, you know — this life ain’t nothin’. There’s no way you’re gonna convince me this is all there is to it. I never, ever believed that. I believe in the Book of Revelation.”
You’re a literal believer of the Bible?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. I am.
Are the Old and New Testaments equally valid?
Do you actually believe the end is at hand?
I don’t think it’s at hand. I think we’ll have at least 200 years. And the new kingdom that comes in, I mean, people can’t even imagine what it’s gonna be like. There’s a lot of people walkin’ around who think the new kingdom’s comin’ next year and that they’re gonna be right in there among the top guard. And they’re wrong. I think when it comes in, there are people who’ll be prepared for it, but if the new kingdom happened tomorrow and you were sitting there and I was sitting here, you wouldn’t even remember me.
When you meet up with Orthodox (Jewish) people, can you sit down with them and say, “Well, you should really check out Christianity”?
Well, yeah, if somebody asks me, I’ll tell ’em. But, you know, I’m not gonna just offer my opinion. I’m more about playing music, you know?
There is something very attractive about that simplicity, that mixture with faith and unpretentiousness – harking back to another famous interview with a journalist away out of his depth. Dylan ended by saying something like, “I’m just a song and dance man”, God’s juggler, as it were.
It is not that Dylan doesn’t express his views. He does, and sometimes quite strongly. It’s that he does so with a readiness to pull back from any suggestion of arrogance. His lyrics have been prophetic but he will not accept the mantle of the prophet. He detaches himself from them, he will even say that in instances he did not really know what some lines meant when he wrote them. He leaves us to read them for ourselves and work out their meaning. In that there is something of the quality which a true artist, a true genius, often touches, the quality of mystery which is essential in all great art. The Academy has done well this time round.
If only, if only, the kind of heroic honesty shown by the 26-year-old martyr, Kayla Jane Mueller, who lost her life in Syria in recent days, was more commonplace among us, what a better world we would be living in. Indeed, if it were so there might be less need for martyrs like Kayala to sacrifice their innocent lives.
Kayla, imprisoned and blindfolded in an underground cell at the hands of ISIS in Syria, lost her life in an air strike on the ISIS position in which she was being held.
It seems that Kayla might have been freed had she told the militant group she was married to Omar Alkhani. Mueller’s boyfriend was posing as her husband in a detention cell in Syria, The Associated Press reported. Kayla refused to do so because it would have been a lie.
Alkhani reportedly said that ISIS militants told Mueller that her boyfriend would be unharmed if she was honest with them. The 26-year-old reportedly chose to be honest and denied being Alkhani’s wife, instead of saving herself. Alkhani last saw Mueller for few seconds when the guards uncovered her face to show it was her.
Kayla’s parents released a letter she was able to send her family last spring from her captivity by ISIS, after she had been a prisoner for about 9 months. In it she tells her family that she’s safe and well-treated; she doesn’t want them to worry. In it she reveals the depth of her faith and her extraordinary fortitude.
“I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it. I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another …
“The gift that is each one of you + the person I could + could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support. I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option take it, even if it takes more time …
“None of us could have known it would be this long but know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes.”
“I wrote a song some months ago,” Kayla Mueller told her family, “that says, ‘The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, w/out your hope there would be nothing left…’ — The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s will we will be together soon.”
Confessions of faith – or confessions of reasons for having faith – seem to be more and more common in recent times. A few weeks ago we had Daily Telegraph columnist and blogger, Tim Stanley, telling us “If you have to choose between being liberal and being Christian, choose Christian”, and going on to explain why.
More recently we had Ross Douthat, columnist with the New York Times, in the wake of hostile Catholic and pseudo Catholic reaction to his expressed concerns about the Synod of Bishops, feeling the need to explain to us “Why I am a Catholic”.
This is good. Catholics need clarity. These upfront declarations are giving us some of this clarity.
Stanley’s reflections were on the back of the revelations about ex-bishop Conry’s pitiable affair and subsequent fall, coupled with the then-approaching aforementioned synod on the family.
He observed the prevalent temptation to focus on the human, sometimes frail aspects of the Church and drew on the wisdom of a priest-blogger whom he admires greatly, Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, who urges us to do the opposite.
Fr. Lucie-Smith’s sentiments on the issue, Stanley observes, apply to all Christians (and Jews, and Muslims etc): while the secular world obsesses about political division within the Church, what really matters is the “theological reality” of its mission.
In this mission, the priest says, One needs to distinguish… between a group of people who are united sociologically (for want of a better word) and a group of people who are united in Christ, which is a theological reality. Unity in Christ is something we are always on the way to achieving, if we were not constantly impeded by our sins. Thus we should be in a constant state of repentance for our sins, in that they frustrate the unity that Christ prayed for and which He bequeathed us on Calvary.
Stanley adds: The Catholic Church will always have its troubles. The solution is prayer and putting one’s faith in the Holy Spirit.
The Reformation is, of course, he continued, a reminder of the fragility of the Church. The resilience of Catholicism in Britain today shows its ability to withstand anything – and grow from strength to strength. Its greatest threat is a general decline in belief (aided by the mistakes of clerics) and the emergence of a new anti-religious consensus that discourages commitment to the divine. But perhaps it’s best not to think of this as a crisis but as a challenge to believers.
This was written in the same week that Louise Mensch made her confession of a conflicted faith in a moving piece in The Spectator about her own struggle to reconcile her private and spiritual life – and her deference to Catholic Church teachings on the sacraments of marriage and the Eucharist.
Stanley remarks on how difficult this is to do, and to talk openly about, in this liberal world in which we now cohabit with people embracing all sorts of heterodoxy. But do it we must – and if we are to be true to our beliefs about what really matters, we really only have one choice. He quotes Fr Lucie-Smith again:
If you have to choose between being liberal and being Catholic, choose Catholic… This is the true fault line: those who believe in the Body of Christ and our vocation to belong to it through baptism, and those who believe the Church needs to catch up with the world, and other such dreary clichés. St Paul had to put up with a lot of them, because he writes: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
Stanley concludes: Pray to have the strength not to conform but to be who you truly are. Which is a sinner saved by Grace.
Ross Douthat, for his part put his confession in this nutshell:
I am a Catholic for various contingent reasons (this is as true of converts as of anyone else), but on a conscious level it’s because I am a mostly-faithful Christian who is mostly convinced that Roman Catholicism is the expression of Christianity that has kept faith most fully with the early church and the words of Jesus of Nazareth himself.
That’s a pretty useful nutshell, although it doesn’t make any reference to the vital role of grace in that “because”.
He elaborated a little on the basis of a point made in a talk by Cardinal George Pell, – recently of Sydney and now of the Roman curia, — that the search for authority in Christianity began not with pre-emptive submission to an established hierarchy, but with early Christians who “wanted to know whether the teachings of their bishops and priests were in conformity with what Christ taught”.
This, Douthat said, is crucial to my own understanding of the reasons to be Catholic: I believe in papal authority, the value of the papal office, because I think that office has played a demonstrable role in maintaining the faith’s continuity, coherence and fidelity across two thousand years of human history. It’s that role and that record, complicated and checkered as it is, that makes the doctrine of papal infallibility plausible to me.
There is a wealth of ignorance about the Faith of the Catholic Church out there. The more conversations like this that we have the better chance there is that we will escape from this pit and will become Catholics who will be who they “truly are”. A source of that liberating truth is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a source with the stamp of approval of that Magisterium in which the early Christians, and later Christians like Douthat, Stanley, Mensch et al, found and continue to find reassurance that what we believe is “what Christ taught”. Why would you choose anything else?
What has gone wrong? There can be no doubt but that something has gone very badly wrong when the very basis of mankind’s self-understanding has come to a pass where the vision of life and good living itself has been perverted beyond recognition. How did we get to the point where the termination of life, both by oneself and by another is considered a moral option? How did we reach a point where in the chaos and confusion emanating from the meltdown of our financial system, everyone talks about regulation and regulation agencies but no one talks about a moral sense of right or wrong or of the springs from which such a sense emanates. How did we come to lose our sense of the meaning of human love to the extent that it is now the pretext for the wholesale abuse of human sexuality?
Some years ago – not too many – in the aftermath of the emergence of Islamic rage against the West, the historian Bernard Lewis asked the same question about the collapse of Islamic civilization. He did so in a book which was simply titled, What Went Wrong?
I attended Mass one morning recently in a Dublin parish church. The parish priest concelebrated while a priest whom I had not seen before was the main celebrant and he preached a short homily. That homily gave me at least part of an answer to the question, what has gone wrong for us?
Bernard Lewis, 85 years of age, is professor emeritus at Princeton University and for many is thedoyen of Middle East studies in the West. How, his question asks, did the preeminence that the Islamic world once enjoyed and the civilization it had created collapse?
Lewis’s argument is that the success of Muhammad in establishing not merely the Muslim religion, but also an empire dominated by that faith, served to create a society that is totalitarian by its very nature, bound by rules and strictures that make it too static to adapt and compete with a West where Christianity, in contrast, does not demand control over the political and economic spheres. The very foundations of these respective faiths for him hold the key to the histories of both civilizations – to date.
Could it be that the true crisis of the West today is that it may now be about to abandon the very reason for its triumph – its Judaeo-Christian heart, in favour of an amalgam of so-called “politically correct” principles founded on…nothing.
Lewis argues as follows: The absence of a native secularism in Islam, and the widespread Muslim rejection of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to certain profound differences of belief and experience in the two cultures. The first, and in many ways the most profound difference, from which all others follow, can be seen in the contrasting foundation myths–and I use this expression without intending any disrespect–of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
The children of Israel fled from bondage, and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land. Their leader Moses had only a glimpse, and was not himself permitted to enter. Jesus was humiliated and crucified, and his followers suffered persecution and martyrdom for centuries, before they were finally able to win over the ruler, and to adapt the state, its language, and its institutions to their purpose.
Muhammad achieved victory and triumph in his own lifetime. He conquered his promised land, and created his own state, of which he himself was supreme sovereign. As such, he promulgated laws, dispensed justice, levied taxes, raised armies, made war, and made peace. In a word, he ruled, and the story of his decisions and actions as ruler is sanctified in Muslim scripture and amplified in Muslim tradition.
On the contrary, Lewis goes on to explain, Judaism and Christianity had the concept of the secular state forced upon them by circumstance from their very beginnings. Where Christian theologians like St. Augustine developed complex theories to explain and justify the secular state, Muslim thinkers never even had to face the dilemma.
Judaism and Christianity, in that view developed spiritually and lived spiritually in alien worlds before they came to terms with those worlds. They knew what true freedom was. They knew the place of law and regulation but also knew what their foundation was. On the other hand, lacking any sense of the secular and the eternal play between the City of God and the City of the World within which lives our sense and enjoyment of human freedom on a day-to-day basis, the Islamic world became crippled and dangerously resentful of its triumphant rival.
But if that rival now abandons the principles of the faith – and in particular if the ministers of that faith begin to abandon the authentic teachings which, in its Scriptures and traditions, have sustained it for millennia – and which have given it its very essence, then the future is very uncertain indeed.
And this is where my epiphany in a Dublin parish church comes in again. After that Mass I went to talk of my concerns to the homilist – but the bird had flown. What had he said that was so worrying? It was more what he did not say that was the problem.
His homily referred to a film in the context of the gospel of the day (Matthew 9. 1-8). The film recounted the story of a young man who announced to his family and friends that he was gay. His mother was distraught and left the event at which this announcement took place, apparently rejecting her son in the process. The preacher made no further comment on this other than simply to pose the question to himself and his congregation: “How do I react when people tell me things I don’t particularly want to hear”.
It was no earth-shattering heterodoxy. But that phenomenon of late 20th century heterodoxy of which it is a symptom might ultimately put in the shadows the breach in Christendom effected by the 95 theses nailed on the door of a church in Wittenberg in 1517. The moral implication was clear to all. There was no moral issue whatsoever about the choice and actions of the gay son. The moral deviance was on the mother’s side, in failing to deal adequately with nothing more serious than something that she did not want to hear – like a choice of political party she might have disapproved of, a choice of a wife deemed unsuitable, or ever a rejection of her very good dinner. There was no recognition that what the mother might have been dealing with was the realisation that her son had made a choice which she knew to be immoral according to the norms of natural law, the teaching of the authentic Judaeo-Christian faiths and the law of God.
If our secular world continues on its rudderless way, guided only by groundless and flawed politically correct principles, and if the ministers of the Judaeo-Christian religions abandon their duty to hold up before their faithful followers the authentic shared principles of those religions, then the freedom we have enjoyed coming from the very heart of those religions will perish and we will end up with totalitarian systems fighting it out among themselves – to the death or deadlock.
Germaine Greer, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot, maybe a misguided one, once did a television programme on the Psalms. It was a slaughterhouse of a programme. I can’t remember her liking them for anything – neither their poetry, their power, their antiquity nor their mystery. They were evidence for her of man’s creation of a terrible God.
Her reading of the Psalms saw nothing in them other than weapons used by men to wield a terrible power over their fellowmen. What a pity. But then if you reject God and substitute him with your own fantasy, what have you left? You lose all sense of the unfathomable mystery of his goodness, mercy and fearsome power. You fail utterly to see that the fearsomeness of God is a radically different thing from the fearsomeness of man. Inevitably you end up concentrating on power as a terrible and terrifying thing, conjuring up all the images and memories of the deeds of any or all of the monstrous regiment of human beings who have been corrupted by too much power down through history.
But read God as he is, as the divinity that we can only comprehend as “through a glass darkly”, and our whole reading of the psalms becomes a totally different experience.
Take just the second song of the Psalter as an example, one singled out for special opprobrium by Ms. Greer. Read it as a mythological text and it will certainly confound you. At best it will be a text depicting an epic tribal struggle between ancient peoples. At its worst it will be a call to arms dangerously akin to a contemporary jihad. But read it as the Word of God, as the Word revealed to us in the total context of Sacred Scripture and Tradition and you have a text which speaks to all ages and speaks overwhelmingly of God as the loving Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name. It certainly reveals an all-powerful God to us. But with power to what end? It reveals a God who has the power to conquer the world – as in “the world, the flesh and the devil” – and power above all to make us sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of heaven. It is a song which every age needs to sing, for in every age – and in our own par excellence – there is the temptation that we are losing that battle.
The Church’s chosen antiphon opening the recitation of this psalm sets the tone of confidence which pervades it: His kingdom is a kingdom of all ages, and all kings shall serve and obey him. The opening line then asks a question which never ceases to be relevant. Why this tumult among nations, among peoples this useless murmuring? This is followed by the familiar spectacle of folly we see around us every day: They arise, the kings of the earth, princes plot against the Lord and his Anointed.
Then comes the harder bit, the bit that gave Germaine so much trouble, the call to action. “Come, let us break their fetters, come let us cast off their yoke”. He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord is laughing them to scorn. Then he will speak in his anger, his rage will strike them with terror. “It is I who have set up my king on Zion, my holy mountain”. But what Germaine misses is that this is more than a text of its time, written in history and in the spirit of its time. It is that but it is more than that. It is a text for all time, about all time, and with a meaning that utterly transcends the spirit of its time, the spirit of monarchic conflict between ancient tribes in the Middle East. It is a text about the Messiah, the Saviour of the human race, coming to effect the adoption of all members of that race as children of his Father, God. I will announce the decree of the Lord: the Lord said to me: “You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day. Ask and I shall bequeath you the nations, put the ends of the earth in your possession. With a rod of iron you will break them, shatter them like a potter’s jar”. In truth we break ourselves when we indulge ourselves in all this useless murmuring and plot against the Lord and his Anointed. What, indeed, is all this talk about a “broken society” in modern Ireland, Britain and America, but a fulfillment of these ancient prophesies?
St. Josemaría Escrivá reads this Psalm as a profound expression of God’s paternity, God’s intervention in human history to save us from ourselves. “The kindness of God our Father has given us his Son for a king. When he threatens he becomes tender, when he says he is angry he gives us his love. You are my son: this is addressed to Christ — and to you and me if we decide to become another Christ, Christ himself. Words cannot go so far as the heart, which is moved by God’s goodness. He says to us: You are my son. Not a stranger, not a well‑treated servant, not a friend — that would be a lot already. A son! He gives us free access to treat him as sons, with a son’s piety and I would even say with the boldness and daring of a son whose Father cannot deny him anything.” (Christ Is Passing By, 185)
The psalm ends with a warning. If it is a warning which seems to contain a threat, it is one which we must again read in the context of all of Revelation and the history of our Redemption. Now, O kings, understand, take warning, rulers of the earth; Serve the Lord with awe and trembling, pay him with your homage. Lest he be angry and you perish; for suddenly his anger will blaze. Christ did make a whip of cords and did throw the traders out of the temple. But when those traders then turned on him later he went like a lamb to his death. Here is a mystery which we can only be in awe of but which the last line of the psalm gives us the key to: Blessed are they who put their trust in God. Without that trust we will remain in the muddle in which we found Germaine Greer when she attempted to interpret this great Messianic psalm without the help of its Author.