Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Category: Christianity

Terry Eagleton on Alain de Botton’s Conservative Atheism

Terry Eagleton has written a ‘review’ of Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists. In typical Eagleton style, it is less a review than a polemical destruction – reminiscent at times of arguably his greatest ever LRB essay: his ‘review’ of The God Delusion. Here is a brief extract:

‎”The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one’s life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.”

O Happy Fall?

“And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.” (Genesis 3:6)

The Fall consists of three modes. The first might be described as practical. Eve ‘saw that the tree was good for food’: in other words, the tree that had previously been the site of absolute, unquestioned interdiction, now looms up as a source of diet. In a sense, the Fall has already taken place: until then, the garden was a place of bounty and superabundance. They were homogeneous with nature. But now both the tree and Eve have snapped out of this symbiotic self-sustenance. To say that she feels ‘hunger’ for the first time is apt, since the other two modes of the Fall are also forms of hunger, if less literal ones.

The second mode is aesthetic: ‘it was pleasant to the eyes’. The words of the serpent have induced in Eve the phenomenological distance necessary for beauty to arise, the inner distance between subject and object. It is only when this distance is born that the aesthetic can exist. The experience of beauty is in some sense the pleasing traversal of a distance (cf. the ethical in Levinas, as read by Badiou in his Ethics). Again, the Fall has already taken place.

The third mode is epistemological: ‘a tree to be desired to make one wise’. If the first hunger was of the belly and the second was of sensation, then the third is of the mind. Prior to the serpent’s words Adam and Eve must have endured a spiritual homeostasis: mind, body and surroundings fused in unconscious unity. But the serpent instils her with an intellectual lack which it becomes possible to fill. Once more, the Fall has already taken place.

The eating of the apple comes after the fact. It is a powerful symbol of the three hungers the devil has insinuated into Eve. Death already lurked in Eden: the insidious negative tickled and coiled into the ubiquitous preconscious and gave birth to self-conscious nakedness. When Eve shares the fruit with Adam, it is like a toddler experimenting with her newfound uniqueness; the first thing she does is offer the thing that used to be part of her a little of what she has. It is the first true act of generosity.

It is difficult not to be grateful to the serpent. Compared to the bovine contentment of paradise, history and love seem pretty exciting – even at the cost of death. (That said, given the record of human history so far, bovine contentment might have been the best bet). Though let us not forget Genesis 3:21: ‘Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.’ The God of Eden might be the punisher, but he is also the coverer of nakedness and shame. O happy fall?

Rowan Williams on Tolstoy

Despite what you may think, this is not a broadcast on the art of pogonotrophy (yes, I did steal that word from David Bentley Hart). It is a fifteen-minute long radio ‘essay’ on Tolstoy’s literary art and its relations to his religious conversion. Rowan also has interesting things to say about the relative differences between the Tolstoyan and the Dostoevskian God.

Eagleton on Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

If you never found time to read Eagleton’s Holy Terror then this article in Lapham’s Quarterly is a pretty good summary of all his main arguments.

The Grand Inquisitor ranks among those who regard God as their adversary. He believes that like a brutal despot, God loads on men and women more than they can bear; the burden he loads on them is known not as tithe or tax but freedom. However, this overlooks God’s own solidarity with human weakness, which is known as Jesus. On Calvary, God proves feeble and fleshly even unto death. His only signifier is the tortured body of one who spoke out for love and justice and was done to death by the state. Only if one can look on this terrible failure and still live can one lay a foundation for anything more edifying. Only by being entombed in the earth can one reach for the sky. It is in the place of excrement, as Yeats reminds us, that love has pitched his mansion. Any moral idealism that refuses this truth is just so much ideology.

In relation to this, you might want to check out a pretty much unread review that Eagleton wrote in 2008 of Rowan Williams’s book on Dostoevsky.

Terry Eagleton on Cardinal Newman

Terry Eagleton writing in this week’s LRB on Cardinal Newman:

Militant atheists today regard religious faith as a question of subscribing to certain propositions about the world. Newman countered this theological ignorance, pervasive in his own time too, with the Romantic claim (and this from one of the towering intellects of the Victorian age) that ‘man is not a reasoning animal; he is a seeing, feeling, contemplating, acting animal … It is the concrete being that reasons.’ It is the imagination, he holds, which is primary in matters of faith. Yet this passionate subjectivity was never whimsical subjectivism. How could it be, in a Catholic thinker for whom faith and truth were communal and institutional rather than a matter of private intuition? Newman, like Kierkegaard, recognised that religious faith is a kind of love, and like love engages intellect, emotion, experience and imagination together. There is a ‘notional’ kind of knowledge, Newman argues in An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, by which he means a knowledge of abstract ideas, and there is ‘real’ assent, which involves one’s whole personality.

Full article here.

John Lennon, Rowan Williams and Grace

Having recently been pondering Badiou’s concept of ‘event’, I was surprised to come across the following passage in Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction:

Christ is apprehended when something not planned or foreseen in the contents of the world [which he defines as ‘the ensemble of true propositions’] breaks through, in an act or event that represents the gratuity of love or joy. And such an event alters what is possible by offering the will what might be called a “truthful” or appropriate direction for desire.

In this light, the surprisingly theological tenor of Badiou’s atheism couldn’t be more apparent. But it is not Badiou that I want to discuss here; it is John Lennon.

I’ve just watched Nowhere Boy, Sam Taylor Wood’s biopic of John Lennon’s difficult early years. It portrays his painful adolescence, torn between an aunt who has always acted as his mother, a biological mother who effectively abandoned him, and a general fatherlessness (his biological father abandoned him and his uncle dies when he’s a teenager). Aside from its immediate interest as an insight into the sources of Lennon’s artistic genius, I was surprised at just how powerfully it demonstrated the potential damage that suburbia can do to people.

The problem with suburbia is not just its soullessness, its general conservativism and existential ennui; if this film is anything to go by, the real problem is twofold. Firstly, suburbia is a geography of stymied desire. The architectural economy of the suburbs, with its identical rows of individual monadic homes and its front gardens which act as shields against spontaneous fellowship, is such that humans’ desire becomes penned in and pent up. The Oedipal drama unfolds within a severely restricted space, across a numerically limited cast, and there is simply no outlet for excess libidinal charge. Some of the most touching moments of this film are when characters confront themselves in mirrors over mantelpieces, as if searching for a spiritual enlargement of their world. Lennon, of course, in an age where large-scale communal politics or the Church are no longer liveable options, will find his outlet in the ultimate cathectic substitute: rock and roll.

The second part of the problem is the dreariness of suburban architecture. There is a scene in the film which takes place during a post-funeral get-together following the death of Lennon’s mother. John is confused, enraged, and grieving and takes out his wrath by punching Paul McCartney to the ground. As soon as he does so, it is as if he awakens from a drugged stupor; he apologises, lifts up McCartney, and then the two friends, both now motherless (McCartney’s lost to cancer), hold each other in the middle of the street, weeping. At this point the camera switches to an aerial shot, and we see the pair stood stock-still in the suburban street, lined with identical squat brown semis. And when I saw this, it occurred to me: this street is not designed for this. These buildings cannot bear the emotional burden of what is being asked of them. The two lost boys, in a road in which they should not be stood, have opened up to something beyond the empirical stranglehold of their surroundings. The brown bricks have tried to imprison this unseemly drama, to generate the conditions in which such excess is not even contemplated; but the boys have ruptured suburbia. They have dared to lose and they have dared to love in a situation structured by the will-never-to-love.

And this, perhaps, is what is meant by Rowan Williams when he speaks of that moment of gratuity which occurs in a situation governed by a logic alien to any such gratuitousness.

New Works by Terry Eagleton and Herbert McCabe

Yes, that’s right: another post on Terry Eagleton!

At the end of his recent Gifford Lecture at the University of Edinburgh, he mentions that he’s just written a new book in which he takes the ten most common arguments against Marxism and contradicts them one by one. I have high hopes for this book, though I doubt whether Eagleton is sufficiently qualified to respond to the detailed economic critiques of socialism.

The second book is actually already out, though I’ve come across no coverage of it. It’s not one of Eagleton’s own, but one to which he’s written a foreword: God and Evil: In the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas by Herbert McCabe. The late McCabe has been a lasting influence on Eagleton (an influence ‘impossible to localize’, he tells us in a foreword to After Theory), and it’s no surprise that this book has been published more or less in tandem with Eagleton’s On Evil. (He’s in Toronto this week at the Historical Materialism conference and will be speaking on the topic of ‘Is Marxism a theodicy?’ One not to miss if you’re around).

On the Annunciation

Botticelli's 'The Annunciation'

When I was five years old I played the Archangel Gabriel in a school nativity. At the time, I didn’t realise I was playing a monster. Because that’s what Gabriel is. He’s a beast from another world, unexpected, dizzying, whorling earths around him in confusion: a fiery question-mark of Elsewhere. (Of all the artists over the centuries to capture this scene, it is only Botticelli who suggests the danger of this angel: is he bowing respectfully to the Virgin, or coiling like a celestial snake, readying for the pounce?)

He greets Mary and tells her the Lord is with her. ‘But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be’. Gabriel’s presence is unsettling, his words unnerving; this is not the rosy-cheeked stuff of Christmas cards. He tells her she will be the mother of God. Her response in the New Revised Standard Version is very civilized: ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ But, given the context, one might legitimately understand here a barely disguised ‘What the fuck?!’

Gabriel continues his onslaught of mysteries, like a loving gunslinger from an alien world. He informs her that her friend, Elizabeth, who was said to be barren, is also pregnant: ‘For nothing will be impossible with God.’

Mary could say no. She could turn and shun this speaking meteor. He is not of her world, he has no claims upon her – she owes him nothing. But she doesn’t say no. She says ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ ‘Here am I’. Those three little words that made creation sing. She stared holy terror in the face and assumed its prophecies willingly. She opened up her very body to the totality of that which she was not, because in the words of an angel she heard echoes of an unattended nearness.

‘Then the angel departed from her’. The burning question descended back into the deepness of things, leaving Mary alone in the dark to ponder her reflection in the infinite.

And then to Elizabeth’s, her friend, to share and celebrate the strangeness of strangers and the birth of something new.

Against the Liberals

Another day, another reflection on my existential quandaries. This time it was inspired by the final phase of the British Humanist Association’s atheist bus campaign. The BHA has just released a batch of billboard posters which are the perfect encapsulation of liberal thinking in the West today. The slogan says it all: ‘Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself’. What could possibly sound more reasonable? Is this not the most enlightened civic virtue burning away those wishy-washy clouds of Christian and Muslim mystification? Does it not bring a metallic, positivist tear to one’s radiantly rational eye?

Before enumerating just why I loathe this poster, it might be worth making a caveat. Let’s not be fools: in extreme cases, where religion is clearly being used to suppress reasoned and critical reflection, to subject a human being to oppressive conditions – be that physically or mentally – then I’m all with the BHA. Another way of saying the same thing is that I’m all for adopting an anaemic liberal ideology over an uncritical and oppressively dogmatic religious ideology. (Though let’s not forget that dogmatism is not always and everywhere oppressive: one can hold dogmatically to one’s beliefs without going round thumping tables and brandishing one’s fists over them).

The main problem I have with this poster is that its principal ideological presupposition is almost theological: choice is sacred. It’s worth unpicking this a little bit. For the British Humanist Association (as for liberalism in general) a human being is an individual – a lonely monad -existing in the void: self-made, self-fashioned. Athena was born fully-grown from the head of Zeus; but the liberal individual is both Athena and Zeus in one, constantly giving birth to itself (‘it’ because it is disembodied and sexless) in the highest stratospheres of solitude. To its north, its south, its east and west there is nothing but nothingness: no history, no society, no God, no illness, no ideas, no needs – just pure nothingness. And within this void the individual chooses. It has no preconceptions, no presuppositions; it is a blank slate choosing in and from an infinity of blankness.

The freedom to choose is the capitalist freedom par excellence. Real freedom might entail making oneself the ground of other people’s freedom – even if that included self-sacrifice -, but capitalist freedom is the liberty to choose: choose a toothpaste, choose a car, choose a house – choose a religion. Religion for people like Dawkins is a set of theoretical propositions on a piece of paper which we can tick if they suit us and cross if they don’t. It is an abstract, unlived, immaterial phenomenon. It is, in other words, precisely not what most practitioners of a religion think they are doing. Religion is a way of life, of being-together, a communal giving and receiving, a shared taking-on of the burdens of finitude and mortality. Moreover, for Christians, this community even stretches to the dead. Because history exists: it is lived through and died in; it hurts and it lives on. Atheist humanism is almost always reason in the void, and it is almost always the perfect ideological accompaniment to a rampant capitalism which renders the lives of most people in the world a misery.

They can put someone else’s religion on the line, but can they put themselves on the line? Dawkins and Grayling and their ilk are obsessed with choice. They did not choose the burden of their historical guilt – the guilt of the bourgeois – but they are guilty nonetheless. So am I. There are many productive ways of dealing with this historical sin – socialism being a prime contender – but celebrating choice is not one of them. It is simply an irresponsible reproduction of the dominant ideology. ‘Let me grow up and choose for myself’: let them grow up, indeed, but into reasonable people.

Learning from Sartre

In a recent post, I wrote of the difference between propositional and performative understandings of religion (more specifically, of Christianity). I explained that part of the problem facing most people today is that they are not born into a tradition of any kind. In the Western world, there used to be two great traditions of which the majority of people were an active member: Christianity and socialism. These were the days when ‘being’ a Christian and ‘being’ a socialist meant performing certain acts in tandem with holding certain beliefs. Creed was a material, practical affair. Today, on the contrary, these traditions no longer exist in the West in the same way in which they used to, and so the majority of people are condemned to confronting them in their abstract propositional form only. Whereas at one time being a socialist meant attending trade union meetings and organising worker education evenings, it now (more or less) means a student sat in halls of residence reading Marx. Put crudely, people used to do things and think things, but now they only think things.

Having never read much Sartre until recently, I was struck by his description of existentialism and its relation to the problem outlined above. By insisting that existence precedes essence – in other words, that we exist before we ourselves decide on what our essence as humans will be (Christian, atheist, agnostic, existentialist, Muslim etc.) – he’s effectively taking to its historical conclusion the fact of the severing of the performative from the propositional. Existential angst is what an honest suburban petit bourgeois who is trying to ‘become’ a Christian experiences almost every day, predominantly because for him Christianity is a choice. He has chosen to become a Christian. He existed, and then he himself founded his own essence, rather than his essence preceding him. Unless one is raised in a Christian family or a socialist family, it seems to me that to ignore this fact and the day-to-day consequences of it is to ignore the historical moment in which we find ourselves.

The repercussions of this for both Christianity and socialism are profound. When critics of Sartre point out that his worldview is merely a reflection of the grim social consequences of monopoly capitalism – a world of bourgeois monads confronting each other as potential competitors and strangers – they are correct. But just because Sartrean existentialism cannot be thought of as ahistorical is precisely not to say that it does not apply to our own epoch. If socialism and Christianity do not begin from this alienated present, then they are simply the nefarious ideologies which their enemies take them for.

Performative and Propositional

Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton

Something increasingly clear to me is the importance of the relation between the propositional content of an ideology and its performative content. It initially became apparent to me when I read an interview with Terry Eagleton in which he accuses Richard Dawkins of having a far too ‘propositional’ notion of Christianity. What he means by this is that Dawkins takes propositional statements (e.g. ‘Love your enemy’, ‘God exists’) and judges them out of all context of their ritual performance. In other words, a propositional critique of religion deals only with abstract statements and ignores the lived texture of reality in which they are performed. When pushed on this point with a useful question by the interviewer (‘how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?’) Eagleton replies with the following:

“All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.  But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance.  Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted.  These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.”

Although Eagleton doesn’t use these terms, one of the problems with positivistic analyses of social phenomena (unlike, say, scientific phenomena) is that the analyst thinks of herself as inhabiting a dominant, neutral territory, a position of truth. There is a certain Olympian, condescending gaze inherent to this kind of thinking, and it is this which means that the analyst is not prepared to put herself on the line: in short – and at the extreme – she is not capable of sacrificing herself to something, be this her surroundings or an idea.

Of course, the obvious response to this is ‘Well, why should she sacrifice herself to something which isn’t true?’ And here, like Eagleton, we can only respond by emphasising the dialectical interplay of proposition and performance. Moreover, we can point out that the ‘neutral’ observer is already unwittingly performing in ways which are deeply inscribed with certain ideologies (in this case, positivism – one of the many upshots of the quantitative mindsets generated by an economic system numb to qualities) and whose propositional tenets, if laid out like those of the ideology (say, Christianity) she is critiquing, might bring down upon them a similar ridicule.

Raymond Williams

Raymond Williams

One of the consequences of an approach towards Christianity which focuses on the performative aspects of the creed would be to consider what it means for a believer to live out his beliefs on a day-to-day basis, or how it feels to do so. These are obviously no guarantees to discerning a classically positivist truth or falsity, in which veracity is cold and unlived. But it would surely make the debate between Christians and non-Christians far less polarised. They could at least begin to speak the same language.

But what really interests me about this debate is not its effects on understanding ‘religion’. Rather, it is the far more important issue of politics. I’ll cut to the chase: I, as a suburban petit bourgeois, have never encountered socialism as a lived reality. My first experience of it was as a set of propositions which appealed to my intellectual outlook and to my practical reason. This is a far cry from someone like Raymond Williams, born in 1921 and raised in a family of socialists, with a father who was a signalman and who took part in the General Strike of 1926. For Raymond Williams, socialism was a way of life; for me, it is a sensible set of propositions which, when judged on the basis of my unsocialist lived reality and my overall moral temperament, rings true.

My personal experience is far from universal, but it is also far from rare. The aim of this blog post is to invite discussion on the following questions:

  • What are the consequences of the fact (if it is true) that many young people in the West encounter socialism as a set of propositions – or at least as reported past events – rather than as a way of life?
  • What can we do to rekindle the lived reality of socialism – of communal networks, of fraternity, of popular education, of communal demands for justice, of class-struggle – in a historical time which is amnesia and a historical place which is a(n) (sub)urban desert?

Beyond Truth

Aristotle chilling with Plato

Plato chilling with Aristotle

In yesterday’s post I touched briefly upon how the Kantian ethics of duty has distorted our thinking on morality. Today, I shall focus on the ways in which it might even be said to have infiltrated our thinking about truth.

In a valuable recent exchange with a few ardent atheists, I came across a classic argument that runs something like this: people turn to religion because it makes them feel better about themselves and their lives, and, even though sometimes this mindset can actually lead people to do better in real life, what atheists are concerned with is not ‘feeling good’ but the ‘truth’. Now, in yesterday’s post I outlined both why Christianity in particular cannot be said to be a ‘feel-good’ religion (it has a crucified Jew at its core!), and I also observed that the fact that Christianity may well succeed in making people feel better about their lives is not necessarily a bad thing (bizarre that that even needs to be said). But here the argument is slightly different.

The underlying logic of the atheist thesis is thus: people who turn to religion feel good about themselves therefore it cannot be true. Now, even ignoring the fact that the first half of this proposition is patently false, and that ‘religion’ in the abstract is senseless, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the logical connector (‘therefore’) is illogical. It is a confusion of categories. Since when has it been a pre-requisite of truth that it make you feel miserable? Traditionally, and in everyday practice, truth can be defined via the Aristotelian concept of adequatio: ‘saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’ It is a supposedly perfect equivalence between mind and world. Of course, philosophically, this is highly problematic, but even if we accept this workaday definition it is obvious that whether or not one feels good regarding a particular truth has nothing to do with its veracity. I may feel sadistically delighted that I’ve just dropped a meat cleaver on my bare foot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true and that I need immediate surgery.

The most boring genius in history?

The most boring genius in history?

But even this doesn’t get us very far, for it still relies on Kant’s archetypally bourgeois separation of pure reason, practical reason (ethics), and aesthetic judgement. In fact, the ‘moment of truth’ in the atheist’s logical short-circuit is that it attempts – in spite of itself – to reunite rationality and the sentient body. In medieval scholastic thinking, the tripartite Kantian scheme would have been almost literally unthinkable. ‘Reason’ was a way of life – a way of moving, loving, thinking, feeling and praying in harmony with the world – not something you confined to a white-washed lab and a textbook. So, even if at the level of content the atheist argument that feeling good equates to falsehood is totally wrong, at the level of form their unintentional attempt to unify body and mind is spot on.

When it comes to faith, the ‘adequation’ concept of truth is, ironically, inadequate. It remains trapped within the realm of bourgeois alienation. This form of ‘truth’, removed from the lived context of human community with its squabbles and fracas, its murders and lovers, its sweethearts and heart-attacks, is like a small squib of a phantom at one’s command. Facts and figures I can dominate; I am their lord. But to critically and willingly submit myself, through making sacrifices and putting myself at the service of those in need, that is something over which I have no mastery. In the messy, difficult and tangled web of human relations, truths of the Kantian kind remain important, but they can only get you so far. At best, you will remain unchanged – just like the world around you – but, as compensation, you will have an army of dates and theses at your command. (This, of course, is perfect for the capitalist status quo, which spreads injustice like disease.) But the real truth is a holistic totality of lived, empirical and imaginative worlds, and the forms of loving human interaction that can arise within it. If that doesn’t sound like what we traditionally mean by ‘truth’, then all the better: truth is, ultimately, beyond truth.

Contra the Atheists: In Defence of Joy and Losers

Painting by Blake

'Sconfitta' by Blake

Common perceptions of Christians may well include the following: they are gullible, scarily amicable,  sexually unadventurous, irrational, zealous, happy-clappy, generally very boring, teetotal, cheesy, disconnected from reality, hypocritical, and in need of a heart-warming fable that they can believe in in order to feel better about their pathetic selves and less afraid of death. Now, if we’re honest, much of that is often true. After all, the Church is not meant to be a gathering-place of perfect human beings, but rather a communion of losers and failures – or, to put it as Eagleton once did, the shit of the earth. Jesus was, of course, contrary to what right-wing American zealots might argue, history’s all-time greatest loser.

What I want to focus on in this post is the last of these stereotypes: that Christians seek refuge from the real world in a cosy, cockle-warming tale. Those who think like this (and I was once a most vociferous proponent) generally tend to view themselves as enlightened, rational beings who have the fortitude to see reality for what it really is, not through any rose-tinted spectacles. Their world is one guided by ‘science’, by which I mean their faith in the capacity of practising scientists to solve the mysteries of human existence and to explain presently inexplicable phenomena. History, in general, is perceived to be an endless march of linear progress which is roughly in line with scientific and technological advancements, and the transcendent never much exceeds a hazy agnosticism. As for death, that’s the end: the great abyss.

With such a gloomy and unimaginative horizon, is it any wonder that certain people turn to Christianity? Atheists get Darwin. Not bad, all things considered, but Christians get Darwin and flame-engulfed angels! Atheists get an abyss, but Christians get – more terrifyingly – a bodily resurrection of all humans who must then give an account of themselves before the source of all being…who died for them! You couldn’t even write this shit! So, whilst it is, of course, true that many people take shelter in the Church so as to feel better about their lives, we might well want to stop to ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s rather like the whole ‘altruism versus egoism’ debate: did I help this little old lady with her shopping because I really wanted to help her, or did I do so because really I wanted to feel good about myself? Why couldn’t it be both?! Helping an old lady is good and doing good makes one feel good. Our popular conceptions of morality have been corrupted by the sadistic Kantian concept of duty: doing good must make us feel bad. Absurd!

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

No, Christianity is not for fools (well, it is but it isn’t, if you catch my drift). It is all very well for atheists to spout on about ‘proof’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but when it comes to the crunch it is secularists who are often (not always) the most gullible and least critical thinkers. It is totally acceptable for an atheist to invoke the dominant ideology of scientific rationalism – the great ‘opium of the people’ of our age – without having any specialist scientific knowledge whatsoever, whereas a Christian is forced to fight her intellectual corner in terms of science, history, theology, philosophy, etc. An atheist is under no obligation (other than worldly law) to accept responsibility for the state of the world or for the wrong of a particular situation; all they have to do is bemoan it, and go on reproducing the status quo which gave rise to it. A Christian, on the other hand, must accept that for all wrong that exists in the world, she is personally responsible; moreover, as if that weren’t enough already, she must do all in her power to ‘make God possible’ in no matter how dire a context. That Christians often don’t (à la moi) is not always a sign of their hypocrisy (although with me it sometimes is), but rather of their humanity.

Of course, many atheists are wonderful people who do wonderful things (the socialists the greatest amongst them), and they’re often a damn sight better than most Christians: give me Dawkins the Banal over Bush the Destroyer any day. But at the heart of Christianity is a political prisoner who was mutilated and then crucified by an imperial regime. It doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. Now, many atheists appreciate the horror and evil of the world – they are absolute realists – and for that I applaud them, but Christians know the darkness too. The difference for them is that they know a second, more potent, darkness – darker than the most infernal obscurity. So dark, in fact, that it is known to them as light. For them, death and evil have been conquered: to remind them that, despite this fact, we must still do all we can here on earth to stay true to that message is absolutely legitimate and necessary; but to deny them joy by claiming that it is only happy-clappy claptrap is nothing but the purest bourgeois ideology.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.

[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

Rowan Williams’s Radical Christian Mission

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture on Christian mission. What, you might be thinking, could Rowan Williams and Christian mission ever, even after having smoked the world’s beefiest bifter, have to do with me? Well, here goes a shot in the dark…

To begin with it might help if we turn to that bastion of lexical resourcefulness,, for a simple definition of ‘mission’ in the Christian context: ‘a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc.’ In general, even such a neutral description of Christian missionary work as this one can conjure grim spectres of rapacious colonial expeditions in the minds of most enlightened liberals. Having no expertise in the history of such expeditions myself, I’m far from qualified to comment on the justification of these conceptual ghouls. Nonetheless, the stereotype of Christian mission which exists in the minds of secular westerners might look something like this: the white, male, Christian from North-Western Europe arrives in Africa with a fleet of war-ships, over-brimming with brainless, God-fearing mercenaries; he approaches the terrified locals (whom he refers to as ‘savages’) who had been leading lives of perfect contentment up until this point, and stands on the beach proclaiming that he has come to release them from the bondage of ignorance and wishes to shine the light of the irrepressible one true God into their lives; when the locals fail to demonstrate immediate enthusiasm at this mysterious interruption into their hallowed ways, the Christian missionary calls in the mercenaries who butcher, rape and torture at will until the terrified inhabitants of the African wilderness acquiesce and give themselves up to Christ; the said missionary then tears out the heart of one of the corpses, hoists it aloft, and as the blood drips down upon his celestial features he bellows: “The truth of the Lord is written on the hearts of all men!”

In what sense, then, can Christian mission still have any relevance whatsoever to anything at all? I’ll try to keep it brief. Rowan Williams concentrates primarily on the biblical passage of Matthew 10 (the Bible, incidentally, for those of you who never read it – like me 50% of the time – is a disturbing, if invigorating, read):

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food’.

Here’s what Rowan Williams gets from this:

  1. Jesus’ instruction to go to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ implies that missionaries should only go there where they feel God has, in some sense, already ‘tilled the field’, somewhere where God has already prepared the way, i.e. don’t just jump on a plane with your Gideons and invade any old Amazonian patch, but rather think about where you might be needed or – dare I say it? – welcomed. (‘Start where God has started’.)
  2. ‘As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ Rowan Williams reads this as an extension of the first point; when a missionary goes somewhere where they believe God is opening doors, one of the first things they should say is precisely that – God is already here amongst you at work. It seems to me as if one might draw a comparison with Plato’s ‘anamnesis’ or ‘unforgetting’: you help those to whom you go to unforget that God is always already at work amongst them. (Hang in there, all ye atheists – the main point hasn’t been broached yet.)
  3. But then what should missionaries do? Essentially, Rowan seems to think, it’s a question of changing and release: ‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity.’ Ultimately, it is what he calls ‘Christ-shaped change’. And here we approach the main event.

It is worth quoting a whole passage from the Archbishop’s lecture:

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it’s a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that’s going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

Now, as a pseudo-intellectual with Marxist proclivities, this strikes me as deeply radical. Mission is not ‘primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs.’ This goes against all bourgeois thinking on faith. For bourgeois society, faith is something you do in your spare time: it’s a private, internal affair. (This presupposition is, of course, the upshot of the public-private divide which capitalist society exacerbates to borderline schizophrenic proportions.) But what Rowan Williams is saying is something else: mission is not about going to a farflung country and commanding a local people to tick off a checklist of the Nicene Creed, all the time leaving the external environment exactly the same as it was before. It’s about new creation, building a new worldscape, which means material newness as well as psychological novelty. Because faith, despite what many seem to think, is not just a private affair: it is lived out in reality and it recognises no public-private divide. In this sense, it has definite resonances with socialism. (It is no co-incidence that Rowan Williams is often associated with traditional leftist thinking; he was once arrested for scaling a fence during a protest organised by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament).

Indeed, the next part of Matthew 10 simply compounds this idea of creation: ‘You have received without payment; give without payment.’ Contrary to diabolical theories of creation, orthodox theology teaches that God had absolutely no reason to create the world, but did so, rather, out of a sheer superabundance of love. (Fortunately, shareholders play no part in the Trinity, and so the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit were blessedly free of the utilitarianism of the Alan Sugars of this world.) Likewise, Christian missionaries have freely received and so they must freely give: there is no exchange value which haunts this transaction; businesswise the figures just don’t add up. If God created the world for no reason but love, then mission is all about gratitude for that free gift.

Now, gratitude is difficult to demonstrate to whichever brothers and sisters you anticipate serving if you arrive with a fleet of stealth bombers. That might be how oil merchants like to spread their gospel – by inscribing its falsehood onto the blown-up limbs of children – but it is not recommended for followers of Christ. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it rather succinctly: ‘Mission travels light.’ Further on, he expands:

‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – ‘For the labourers deserve their food’.’

It seems to me that this, too, is an extension of the radical nature of mission I’ve accentuated so far. It’s not about planning a military operation, where to strike, and what we want to get out of it. Rather, it’s a case of heeding local communities, listening to what they need and helping them to bring that about. By serving a community, by putting yourself and your resources at their disposal, your deeds speak the words of the Gospel.

So, whether or not one is Christian, or socialist, or a Christian socialist, it is not unthinkable that the most unfashionable of men with the most outrageously unkempt of eyebrows, can, in a lecture on something as obscure and superficially irrelevant as Christian mission, give us a few pointers on where we’re going wrong, and how we might better live together.

Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

It’s not long since Terry Eagleton informed us that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like encountering someone who has read only the Book of British Birds and who then feels qualified to hold forth for over five hundred pages on biology. Indeed, fans of Eagleton’s ‘acerbic wit’, a quality which has become to ‘Eagleton’ what ‘yellow’ is to ‘submarine’ or ‘finger lickin’ good’ to ‘KFC’, are in for a treat with David Bentley Hart’s latest publication: Atheist Delusions. In delectable prose, the likes of which is exceedingly rare within the confines of the rhetorically deaf academic community (besides Comrade Eagleton’s, of course), Hart flays and scourges Dawkins and his ilk, whom he refers to under the endearingly archaic collective putdown: ‘gadflies’. Contrasting them with their far superior forbears – Celsus, for example, or, more recently, Nietzsche – Hart often appears decidedly disappointed that history has deigned to offer him such philosophically infantile and imaginatively vapid opponents. If at times he appears to teeter dangerously too far on the wrong side of ‘condescending’, then at others the sheer force of his erudition, so rhythmically and articulately performed, do more than enough to convince us that he has every right to be!

The majority of the book is taken up with methodically demolishing, one by one, the popular myths that are peddled about the role of Christianity in human history. Such myths include the following: that ‘religion’ (Hart rightly observes that ‘religion’ means nothing in itself, since no one advocates ‘religion’ per se, but rather a particular manifestation of it), or, more precisely, Christianity, has been responsible for the most despicable atrocities ever to have stained the annals of time; that Christianity is always and everywhere opposed to ‘scientific truth’; that it was the Enlightenment that rescued mankind from the yoke of Christian darkness, rekindling humanity’s moral and intellectual flames after centuries of obscurity under irrational faith; and so on. Several chapters begin with quotations from popular literature on Christian history which are then shown to be based on false assumptions, dubious historical sources, or downright ignorance.

All of this is not to say, however, that Hart naively celebrates a Church that has only and could only ever bring good into the world. He is far too astute and honest for such intellectual child’s play. No, rather, what it comes down to most often is this: whether or not, throughout history, someone was a Christian or a pagan, by the sheer fact that he or she was also ‘human’ (yet another category that Christianity pretty much invented), they were necessarily potential monsters. Supposed lovers of Christ were often just as susceptible to brutality as were their heathen counterparts, but not more so, and quite likely less so.

That said, however, Hart is not backward in coming forwards: where Christianity deserves credit, he is sure to give it in abundance. Take the overarching celebration of the book, for example: the Christian Revolution. Unlike what he deems to be false revolutions, those violent and explosive outbursts that fundamentally change nothing, the Christian Revolution changed everything. Our consciences, as he rightly observes, are historically conditioned. That little voice in the mind demanding us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, no matter if they are one of ‘our kind’ or not, is not something that has existed eternally. It has come to be through the slow, gradual, but ultimately tectonic, shift in Western human morality that began with a Jewish political prisoner who was executed by an imperial regime, and who, three days later, was resurrected. Hart demonstrates time and again that, where a Christian community was present, there was to be found the sick tended to, orphans cared for, the hungry fed, and the downtrodden uplifted.

But perhaps the most powerful chapters of the book are those concerning modern conceptions of freedom and the fate of Christianity in the modern world. For Hart, to be entirely modern (which, he points out, very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. Not just figuratively, but literally: to believe in nothingness itself. We are the great nihilists:

[we] place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology.

Moreover, the logical (and metaphysical) consequence of modernity’s consumerist nihilism is the following one: ‘if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.’ Suddenly, the ruling elite’s current obsession with choice (‘Choose your school!’ ‘Choose your hospital!’ ‘Choose your dildo!’) comes to sound a little more ominous than its civilized façade might admit.

Yet, despite the implicit nihilistic metaphysics of modernity, and despite his initial triumphalist rampages through the ranks of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, David Bentley Hart ends on a note of lament. Far from foreseeing an inevitable resurgence of Christian faith in the West, one which would carry on the work of the Christian Revolution before it was co-opted by the temporal state of Constantine, Hart envisages its steady decline, as Fortune’s Wheel revolves once more. If in one sense Christianity permeates everything we are – right down to our knee-jerk ethical reactions in our everyday lives – then in another sense it is disappearing, and something new is gradually taking its place. ‘If the principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can absorb it, perish.’ And if that happens, he warns, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, even in their darkest hours, could not imagine what a West purged of all Christian presuppositions would look like. It is time, he notes, mournfully, that Christians prepare themselves once more for the desert.

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