Living in the future

The first part of Advent, ending on 16th December, looks forward to the Last Things, to Christ’s return in glory in fulfilment of the promise of the Kingdom. It is not a time of preparation for Christmas. Nor is it, on the other hand, a time of glum-faced refusal to participate in premature secular festivities, a mini-Lent of dismal world-denial amidst Mammon’s fairy-lights and mince pies. It is something much more interesting than either of these things, an opportunity to re-orientate our understanding of time towards the future.

The perennial call to put Christ back into Christmas, as though the incarnate Word were every absent from human fellowship or celebration, is a modestly irritating part of a much more general trend in Christian culture. There is a sense that things are on the back-foot, that in the West at least we’re on the decline. Wasn’t the past better? Isn’t there a temptation to want to Make Christianity Great Again? For Christians who go along with this line of thought (and if we’re honest, we have all done this at some point) the focus of our faith is the past – the past of a more flourishing Church and, of course, the past to which scripture bears witness, the life of Jesus and the history of Israel.

But the past ought not to be our focus. The Church, in whichever age, does not exist for its own sake, but for that of the Kingdom. And revelation, the past and completed nature of which I happily affirm as a Catholic, is not simply some kind of divine transmission of facts to make us better informed. It took place for our salvation. It too looks to an end subsequent to itself.

So if not the past, perhaps the Church ought to live in the present. After all, any number of spiritual tomes of varying quality can be found exhorting us to live in the present moment. Once we move beyond lightly baptised mindfulness however, the desire for contemporaneity can dominate church life very quickly. Are we up to date, relevant, modern? Is there anything about us that doesn’t sit comfortably with the prevailing climate? If so perhaps we ought to jettison it for the sake of our continuing place in a society which would otherwise find us irrelevant (notice how this liberal approach to time is every bit as based in fear as the conservative alternative; and again, we’ve all taken this position from time to time).

The problem with this gratuitously modern Christianity is that it quickly loses any capacity to be prophetic. It is too immersed in modern society to be able to subject it to any criticism (that this is a problem is less obvious than it should be because people have tended to assume that Christian criticisms of modernity will be about sex, rather than about, say, starvation or the threat of nuclear holocausts). It therefore fails to undertake one of the central tasks for which we were baptised.

It is only, I think, if our basic orientation is to the future, rather than either the past or the present, that Christians can have a relationship to society which serves the cause of the Kingdom. Not for nothing was the idea of an eschatological provisio, always holding existing structures to account, a key theme in Latin American liberation theology. Living in the world, yet alert to the coming Kingdom, we celebrate what is good without making ourselves too comfortable with the present. Our job is to be urging humankind forward towards the Kingdom we make present in our sacraments, and in the light of which we judge the present.

And, in spite of it not being a preparation for Christmas, if we see the first part of Advent like this Christmas will take on a new meaning. It will be no longer a nostalgic reminiscence of a long-ago baby, but the celebration of the intrusion into an unjust world of a still-active upsetter of all that stands between us and full humanity.

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Saying that Christ, the Lord, is King

Over this weekend a number of my non-Christian friends have been sharing links to a story about the (Lutheran) Church of Sweden on their social media accounts. These friends, secular leftists to a person, are generally under the impression that the Swedish state church’s appeal to its clergy to stop using the word ‘Lord’ or male pronouns of God is bizarre. And they are certainly right.

Whatever else makes a body of people part of the Christian tradition, a commitment to use, recall, and grapple with the scriptures is surely an essential condition. The Swedish strictures, if taken seriously, would make this impossible. If, as I suspect to be the case with the Swedish church, you think characteristic scriptural language about God is damaging to justice and equality amongst human beings then the honest thing to do would be to declare yourself  post-Christian. That is perhaps what the Church of Sweden ought to do.

 

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It would have been better though if it had never got into the kind of muddle over religious language that leads to this sort of censoriousness in the first place. Consider what the Swedish archbishop says,

Theologically, for instance, we know that God is beyond our gender determinations, God is not human

This is indeed true, but it only follows that one shouldn’t (for instance) use the word ‘he’ of God if one supposes that in doing so one is making an assertion that God is male. But that’s not what is going on with religious language. It does not, in the main, seek to describe the contours of divine reality (a very few uses of language, called by Aquinas analogical, do speak truly directly of God, but they are exceptions). Rather it points towards it playfully, pointing out the inadequacies of our words before God by placing contradictory and unsettling images before us. God is not only Lord for the books of the Hebrew Bible, but a woman in labour, a fortress, a rock, and a case of dry rot. If she is Lord, he is also a servant, a shepherd, a steadfast hope, and a vengeful judge. We do not, other than by covenanted grace, know where we stand with God. His thoughts are not are thoughts, we are creatures, she the creator.

The kind of liberal who thinks that in using the word ‘Lord’ (generally, in the Old Testament, a rendering of the tetragrammaton) one is saying that God is a celestial version of Donald Trump or Prince Philip, and that this is a bad thing, is simply the photographic negative of the fundamentalist who thinks that God is indeed the Top Bloke and holds this to be a very good thing. Neither party thinks about rejecting the fundamentally idolatrous understanding of religious language which they hold in common.

And that is where I would leave things were it not that I’m writing on the feast of Christ the King. For whilst the archbishop is right that God is not human as God, God is of course human as the man Jesus. And as a man we call him King and Lord. Now these uses of language can’t be so swiftly dismissed as metaphorical, can they? After all, don’t we believe that Christ does, and one day will more fully and completely, possess the foremost place in a human community, known as the Kingdom? What does someone like me, who thinks that human hierarchy and kingship has brought in its wake nothing but bloodshed and oppression, say about the fact that my Church invites me today to celebrate the fact (as it takes it to be) that Christ is the King?

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Just this, that the Kingship of Christ is an ironic, subversive, affair which undermines human institutions of domination through superficially assuming them. His crown is made of thorns, and his kingly life one of service. His reign is not over his subjects, but rather one which, through grace, his sisters and brothers come to share. If we affirm this man as our king, if we affirm that kingship looks like this, and that we too hope to share in it, then we can no longer have any time for anything less, for any structure that subjugates or dominates. If Christ is the King then Caesar is not. And what a strange kind of King Christ is.

Creation and the country

Today is the feast of St Francis. He gets special treatment in the calendar and offices of the Dominican Order; he is referred to as ‘Our Seraphic Father’ and one generally gets the impression that he is regarded as a Good Thing. This reflects the shared origins of our orders in medieval mendicancy and similarities in their emphases (on creation and the Incarnation, and so on).

In the world more generally, St Francis seems to get regarded as a cross-between Doctor Doolittle and Alan Titchmarsh. He is all about ‘nature’, in the modern sense of that word, where the contrast is with ‘culture’ rather than ‘grace’. He is the saint for people who like green stuff, of the countryside, of animals.

I don’t for one second want to join in the mean-spiritedness that has greeted Christian concern for the environment or the, disgracefully late in so many cases, consideration of non-human animals in the light of the history of salvation. But precisely because these things are important we ought not to tie them up with an inadequate theology of creation. And this is what I think some presentations of Francis, along with some of the celebrations of harvest which happen at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, are in danger of doing.

Francis did care for non-human animals and his surroundings, and he did so on the basis of an understanding of the world as created. Yet for exactly the same reason he contemplated themes such as poverty, concerned himself with the well-being of his fellow-human beings, and condemned what he saw as wrongdoing.

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Creation, for Francis, as for Thomas is implicated in everything, because everything other than the Creator is created. Dogs and dandelions are created, but so is the beggar, and so is your act of giving money to the beggar. Trees are created, and so are trade unions. Creation is not a matter of God winding up the world at the beginning and leaving it to run (Thomas thinks that it is perfectly possible that the world have no beginning). Nor does it consist in God’s creating a ‘natural’ environment as the playground for human freedom. It certainly isn’t a matter of God making things happen in a way that explains them better than do scientific theories. Rather, creation is God’s eternally continual action of making there be something rather than nothing, God’s loving beings into existence at every moment of their existence. God as Creator is not one more item on the stage of the world; God is why there is a stage. In particular God does not compete with us for freedom – us doing things cannot threaten God’s status as Creator. God’s creating our free actions, as God does, is not a barrier to our freedom, but the condition of it.

This much is an entirely standard Catholic understanding of creation. But for all that, a very different view is commonplace, which I think is damaging. It is neatly summed up by the harvest hymn:

We plough the fields and scatter,

the good seed on the land,

but it is fed and watered,

by God’s almighty hand.

There’s a neat division of labour here. God acts through ‘nature’, and we get on with the merely human task of agriculture. Creation, we might say, is stuff God does, but that we don’t do. And stuff that we do is not creation.

Perhaps the least serious problem with this is that it is impossible to square with a sensible understanding of the world as susceptible to scientific enquiry. We have perfectly good theories of the weather and God’s almighty hand does not feature in them. On this point, at least, the kind of criticism made of some religion by people like Richard Dawkins is absolutely correct. But surely God does send the rain, doesn’t he? Well, it’s a perfectly good metaphor; but the truth of the matter is that God creates the rain, just as she creates the ploughing and watering. Any thought that the rain (or the growth of trees, or the sunshine, or that meteor – pick your favourite ‘natural’ event) is a special action of God’s, akin to my sending the cat out at night is the beginning of idolatry, or re-enchanting the world and re-establishing a nature god of the kind the doctrine of Creation was supposed to dethrone.

More serious is the view of human freedom implicit in (what we might call) the bucolic theory of creation. If God’s action competes with ours, such that what God creates we do not make, and vice versa, then very serious consequences follow. The way we view politics and history will be corrupted (Herbert McCabe wrote in several places about how idolatry and oppression go together). We cannot both appeal to God to rid the world of war and injustice, and see victories in these respects as divine work, whilst also fighting to transform the world ourselves, and identifying our own agency as effective in some respects. The result, almost inevitably, of thinking this position through properly is political quietism – trust in the Lord, and keep your head down.

Then there are the questions: where is God? What is of God? It is easy for those who live in beautiful countryside surrounded by wildlife to imagine themselves part of creation. The divine associations of this kind of setting are reinforced, for example, by the fact that most retreat centres are in the countryside (although this is also a product of the divinisation of ‘peace and quiet’, which needs another blogpost). When doing the garden outside the cottage, it’s not hard to see yourself as a co-worker with the Creator. The picture of God as the maker of ‘nature’ will do you no harm in this respect.

It is, however, a false picture. And whilst there is not for one moment anything wrong in approaching God through the beauty of the natural world, there is a real danger in supposing that God is only creatively present in the natural world. Apart from the danger of heresy, with which God (if not ourselves) can cope, there is the danger of writing off most of the human race. What about factories, call-centres, schools – is God not creatively present here as much as in the field or the garden? Yes absolutely (although, we should add, God’s creative action might, providentially, move to transform these places to make them more just – what is is not what will be). What about people who live in flats, bungalows, doorways – what about those who don’t have views of landscapes? Are their lives not lived out in the space God has generously created for them? Isn’t the city, just as much as the countryside, becoming the Kingdom?

We cannot have a theology of creation which renders those who don’t fit into the ‘We Plough the Fields’ view of reality second-class citizens. “For the Kingdom belongs to such as these”.

“Do not be afraid”: faith and anxiety

I haven’t written much about the relationship between my faith and my mental health. It’s not that I think there are two unrelated facts about me, that I’m a Catholic and that I have bipolar disorder. There cannot be anything that is in principle incapable of being thought about with reference to God. Yet I am nervous of broaching the topic.

So much stuff on religion and mental health is frankly terrible. When we’re not being called upon simply to have more faith, those of us with mental illnesses have to endure them being glibly regarded as occasions for mystical encounter (the lazy identification of St John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul with depression is a particularly damaging example of this), or talked about piously in terms of spiritual struggle. Worse still, there is a cottage industry producing gruesome books of prayers for people with depression, anxiety, and no doubt other illnesses, the contents of which vary from the corny to the moralising. None of this is for me.

 

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In fact, I don’t think that my faith has a lot to say about my illness in its specifics. For sure, bipolar is an instance of God’s creation not being everything it is ultimately called to be, in the language of Romans 8, of it crying out like a woman in labour. But that is true of all illness, physical as well as mental, and much else besides. There is a temptation to think that mental illness is more deserving of theological attention because it is somehow more ‘inner’, to do with the mind, perhaps with the soul. My Dominican instinct sees this line of thought as far too dualistic to deserve credence. I am an animal; I am not a mind trapped in a body (nor, it has to be said, is ‘mental’ illness a purely ‘inner’ affair, as anybody who has seen me pacing about sleepless in the small hours will attest).

So that’s my default, not theologising about my illness. Then I had a terrible month.

Whilst hypomanic, I had an episode of acute anxiety, something I’d not had in this form before. I was on edge: my stomach was in knots, my heart pounding, my fingers and toes tingling. My mind, already racing, was like a dog chasing a ball, trying to find anything to be frightened of. It succeeded, constantly: intimate things, things to do with my friends and my relationship, things to do with the world around me were causes of fear. I was afraid of losing people, my relationship, friendships; everyone and everything mutated into a threat; and everybody – so I thought – hated me, so wouldn’t care (and if they didn’t hate me already, well I was bound to do the wrong thing soon enough). I reacted by being intensely volatile, storming away here, screaming there. I retreated into self-harm. It was terrifying for my girlfriend, who was closest to me during this time. It was no doubt unpleasant for a much wider circle of people. I myself, although used to living with mental illness, had no idea what was happening to me, which fed back into the fear.

Eventually, through ending up in A&E, I got appropriate treatment and things, whilst far from perfect, are much better now. It is the treatment that has caused me to think about anxiety in the light of my faith. Apart from drugs, an important part of the response to an episode like this is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – essentially challenging fearful and other negative thoughts as they arise. It is here I’ve found that a Christian input is helpful. After all, the point of CBT is to challenge damaging thoughts with other thoughts you take to be true. And when it comes to issues of fear and trust, the things I hold to be both true and most useful are in Christian revelation.

“Do not be afraid” – the theme echoes through the gospels. These are the angel’s words to Mary, those of Christ to the disciples fearful of the stormy sea, and of Jesus risen from the dead. At this point we need to be careful: people with mental illnesses are all too used to being told to snap out of it, and “do not be afraid” if heard as an imperative will just be a case in point. I can easily imagine being told not to be afraid whilst anxious, failing, criticising myself for the failure, and then being frightened that I will never be able to be unfraid. The seemingly impossible command would just feed into the cycle.

“Do not be afraid” is not a command in the relevant sense, however. It would be silly to tell somebody not to be afraid. The words can only make non-pathological sense if they are accompanied by the gift of the means not to be afraid. “Don’t be scared”, a parent says to a child whilst clasping their hand. We take on board the surgeon’s “don’t be worried” because of her expertise and actions, not simply because she is saying those words. Similarly Jesus doesn’t just tell people not to be afraid. Through reaching out to them with that self-giving generosity which establishes the Kingdom of God, he places people in a situation where they need no longer be frightened. “Do not be afraid” is an invitation to participate in something that is being provided.

Fear is corrosive. It eats away at our capacity to be everything we could be, and damages our relations to others; we cling to them desperately, as though they were in danger of slipping away. This is not, of course, to say that those of us with anxiety are to blame for our condition: but it is to explain something of why the condition is so damaging. To say that fear is conquered in the Kingdom is just to say that we are offered, as a gift, a way of life whose foundation is an unconditional love for each one of us. That love has been tested to the point of death, and remains unconquered. Our worth is not so fragile as to be under threat. And the things we value – our relationships, our projects – in as much as they are good (and they generally are) will persist into the fullness of the Kingdom, albeit perhaps in ways we can’t anticipate.

I find attending to that view of the world helpful because it is a gentle reminder that there is no ultimate reason for the kind of fear I was feeling. I can answer individual fears “do not be afraid”, not as though I were trying to reprogram some malfunctioning thinking machine but rather as part of the ongoing journey of reorientating myself towards the Love from which I came and which, in spite of it all, calls me back.

Our long exile

It’s somewhat late in the day to break my Marxism and Christianity series for a post on the Assumption but it feels like one is merited. There are so many depths to this feast: the glorification of humanity in the body of a peasant woman, the assurance of Christ’s victory over sin and death, the vision of the Church in glory. I’m reflecting on it this year from a bad place. My bipolar disorder has been causing me problems, a relationship has ended, and I’m increasingly concerned about the political situation globally. I’m not telling you this in order to solicit a ‘poor you’, nor to find a way into the world of online emotional exhibitionism, but rather to provide some context for talking about an aspect of the feast.

The Assumption invites us to look forward, to another time and place, when things are different. The collect asks that “always attentive to the things that are above, we may merit to be sharers of [Mary’s] glory”. The eucharistic preface reminds us that the Church believes that where Mary now is, there we too will be.

Isn’t there a problem with this? Isn’t it a promise of ‘pie in the sky when you die’, inviting us to focus on things heavenly at the expense of things earthly? Isn’t the problem with those who are attentive to things above that they forget things below? Well, that can certainly be the case. Yet there are times when things are just so bad that one can’t see a way out. Nothing around makes sense and nobody seems to be able to improve things. At moments like this the sheer promise of something else can be transforming – this is not all there is, there is more to come. It can undo the mental paralysis in which life holds us and sooth anxiety. The Assumption tells us, among other things, that all shall be well, and not only that but our frail human history will be redeemed (it is the body of the woman from Palestine which is assumed) rather than undone, even we cannot see how that could happen.

We all need that message sometimes. And I am grateful to this feast for reminding me of it at a time when it was needed.image004

Marxism and Christianity: Chapter Two

Wittgenstein became fond of a line from Goethe, “In the beginning was the deed”. The reason for his attachment to this saying was that it reverses a certain picture of language as something discarnate and inert, somehow floating apart from embodied human life and action. Against this, the later Wittgenstein insisted that language arose out of and lent meaning to particular forms of human life: “to imagine a language game is to imagine a form of life” he writes in the Philosophical Investigations. Action is meaningful, not least because some actions are linguistic (speaking, writing…), but also because the wider array of actions we can perform are incorporated into our lives as linguistic, meaning-bestowing animals – thus kisses, handshakes, salutes, sex, and shared meals, amongst much else. On the other hand meaning is a bodily, practical, matter, incarnate in our somatic lives, which limit its possibilities just as it extends theirs.

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Undoubtedly influenced by Wittgenstein (whose thought reached the English Catholic left of the later 20th century through McCabe), Turner adopts this view of the interconnectedness of meaning and corporeality (a corporeality which, because governed by conventions is of necessity social). He uses it to supply an exegesis on Merleau-Ponty’s take on a key Marxist notion, praxis: “…the meaning which works itself out spontaneously in the intercrossing of the activities by which man organises his relations with nature and with other men”. He poses an agenda setting question: if thought is so intimately related to social practice as the applicability of the concept of praxis and the operative picture of meaning might suggest, how can it be that thought misrepresents social reality, as many understandings of ideology seem to suggest that it does?

I am unapologetically signed up to the Wittgenstein/ Turner approach to understanding meaning, but it has a dated feel in the context of contemporary discussions of relationships between Christianity and the political left. Between Turner’s writing and now the reception of postmodernism took place, followed by its disintegration into a myriad of identity politics. Common to these is a stress on the arbitrariness of meaning: why need a kiss mean “I love you”; why need this piece of paper be a banknote? In one sense, of course, this is uncontroversial – things could have meant otherwise. But on the other hand, the line of questioning can become obsessional and perverse. (Wittgenstein remarked that the language-game is “just there, like life”.) Meaning comes to be thought of as too plastic an affair, its rootedness in social practice is either forgotten or written off as inherently oppressive (that some social practices are oppressive does not, of course, entail that all are). Similarly the extent to which we are limited by our bodies is understressed. Whereas Christianity and Marxism alike see hope in the constrained possibilities contained within (or in the case of Christianity, given to) frail fragile bodies, our corporeal natures are now viewed as potential sites of limitless transformation.

The unfortunate thing is that, as far as I can see, the impetus to recover a view in which meaningful bodiliness is a source of some stability is, within contemporary politically-aware Christianity the preserve of reactionaries. Think, for example, about a particular kind of anti-feminist reception of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Yet surely the left needs just as much a better picture of language (and, dare I say, a less ideological one) than that bestowed by the intellectual fads of recent decades. Solidarity is a matter of socially instanced meaning, bodies move with purpose in demonstrations, and words of revolt arise out of lives of toil. It is no small irony that Turner’s favoured picture has the resources to explain its own demise: as the violent upheavals of neoliberal capitalism uprooted the more stable forms of life of the past, people became less able to speak and think of themselves as the linguistic animals they in fact are. The challenge is to recover that ability.

 

Marxism and Christianity : Introduction and Chapter One

My plan is not generally to precis the chapters of Turner’s book. Those who want to read it can do so for themselves. I want instead to reflect on themes it raises about Marxism and Christianity and their relevance to our current situation. However, there’s a lot of scene setting in the introduction and the first chapter, ‘Ideology’, so it might be good to summarise some of that, if only to orientate future posts.

Turner is going to argue for two claims in the book:

The identity thesis: (True) morality is (in capitalist society) Marxism.

The strong compatibility thesis: Marxism and Christianity are in asymmetrical relations of dependence on one another.

The identity thesis, in particular, is likely to strike many readers as implausible. It is worth, then, emphasising that for an entire classical tradition it would appear less so. The possibility of human flourishing, of living well, is – for Aristotle, for example – tied up with the condition of the polis in which somebody is situated. There is, for this tradition, no particular reason that living in accordance with morality in a given situation must be particularly easy, or even possible (so much for Kant’s view that “ought implies can”). If this is right, of course, much of what passes for morality is entirely misplaced. Turner concurs, writing in the 1980s,

Anyone who, like me, feels crushed between the moral cynicism of a Brezhnev and the moral hypocrisy of a Reagan and who finds in both something rooted in the very structure of our moral world will have identified the controlling concerns of this book. Perhaps also they will be able to identify its governing symbol, that it is, as Terry Eagleton once put it, in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in his refusal to talk morality with the moraliser, that the true significance of morality may be articulated. (p. xi)

Morality, Turner concurs with the mainstream of Marxist tradition, is ideological in capitalist society. Morality appears as moralising. So too, alas, is Christianity manifest as ideological. I’ll say a bit about what the claim that a phenomenon is ideological amounts to in a moment. First, an aspect of Turner’s treatment of Marx that comes through in the first chapter deserves comment.

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Turner thinks Marxism is a science. That it is a systematic endeavour that aspires to, and often succeeds in, uncovering truths about society, a process that involves getting behind appearances to an underlying reality. This will feel quite alien to many on the contemporary left, and in particular the Christian left, who decry this kind of  or claims to objectivity in favour of more feeling-driven, vision led, and intellectually amorphous movements, often of the sort that Marx would have denounced as utopian. Marx himself rejects the dichotomy between the heart and the head, between facts and values; the talk of science might suggest bland amoral technocracy. But, for Marx, one of realities uncovered by the science of capitalist society is that the accumulation of capital is rooted in alienation, grounded in the failure of millions to flourish as they could. Description and value judgement coinhere. It is in this tradition that I take Turner to be writing. It is also evident in, for example, Herbert McCabe’s ‘The Class Struggle and Christian Love’, a classic of the Catholic left of the time.

The word ‘ideology’ as used in the Marxist tradition suggests a number of things. Ideology is (in some sense) false, untrue, or misleading. Ideology is lived out in our day to day lives. Ideology is a society’s consciousness of itself. It is by no means obvious that these all amount to the same thing, or are even consistently said of the same phenomenon. Turner’s task in the first part of the book will be to explore this, so that we might better understand the ways morality and Christianity are caught up in ideology.

Christianity and Marxism

I’ve written on a couple of occasions about politics and religion. In both cases I’ve talked about the apparent difficulty of reconciling aspects of political life, conflict and division, with Christian life and belief. Many of my friends and allies, both religious and political, would ask more fundamental questions of me. Isn’t the kind of politics I espouse, a basically Marxist socialism, basically incompatible with orthodox Christianity? (And an orthodox Christian is the only sort of Christian I have an interest in being, the alternatives striking me as wishful thinking).

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Well no, say I. Up until now I haven’t devoted a great deal of energy to trying to convince anybody of this. After all, Britain in 2017 is a very different place from its former self between the 60s and 80s, when the ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’ was a going concern in theology faculties and on the fringes of churches. Christianity has receded from view in public life, meanwhile Marxism has declined in profile, ironically seeming to be a victim of the fall of those regimes in Eastern Europe that distorted and blighted its vision for so long. In these circumstances trying to reconcile the two intellectual might appear like trying to integrate steam trains with cassette players.

Things are changing a little. The left, albeit the non-Marxist left, is somewhat ascendant, to the extent that alarmist comments are being made to the (alas absurd) effect that the Leader of the Opposition is to be numbered amongst Marx’s disciples. At the same time, however, there seem to be various trends dragging explicitly Christian politics to the right, sometimes focused around sexual ethics in the style of the US Religious Right, sometimes around nebulous and dangerous notions of Christian Values.

In this context, I think it is worth giving some thought to the theory behind being both a Christian and the kind of socialist I am, both personally and in terms of pointing towards an alternative way of faithful engagement in politics.

And this is what I’m going to do over the summer on this blog. But rather than bore your with my unmediated reflections, I’m instead going to read Denys Turner’s Marxism and Christianity, offering thoughts here on each chapter.

Those of you who have no stomach for this kind of thing can at least be reassured that it will be over by the autumn.

The outcast dead, loved by God

There are two things I am clear about amidst all the angst and mud-slinging that passes for discussion of sexual ethics in the contemporary Catholic Church. First, that we cannot begin to say anything useful theologically concerning sex and sexuality until we have a decent philosophical understanding of human sexuality, which must of necessity be informed by our best scientific and psychological accounts of human beings and by the diverse experiences of our fellow human beings. Sexual fideism is no more attractive than any other kind. We, as a Church, palpably lack such a philosophical understanding at the present moment. Second, and perhaps more controversially, it is singularly unfortunate that the most heated debate around these issues in the English-speaking world is taking place in America, a country whose background puritan culture has a tendency to feed into the Catholic Church, issuing in a trenchantly defended and overly propositional form of Christianity. More settled expressions of the catholica are better able to shrug their shoulders and move on.

One thing about Christian truth, including whatever that truth might turn out to be with respect to sexuality, is that it doesn’t depend on us. It does require us to anxiously defend it against all comers, as though it were some fragile thing in constant need of our protection. Against this, the gospel of last week’s solemnity reminds us of the good news that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This reassurance should both prick our pomposity and give us permission to relax.

In any case, the idea that truth requires our constant interventions on its behalf against pervasive falsehood really only makes sense if we are understanding Christian truth as solely a matter of words: of saying and thinking the right things. Now, this is deeply important, but it is not the whole truth about truth. Christian truth is also communicated by actions and ways of living; these show, in ways that mere words never could, who Christ is and what it is that he has done for us.

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It is for this reason that the quite disgraceful decree of Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, denying funeral rites to people in same-sex unions, is a crime against Christian truth. It communicates a lack of mercy, a lack of compassion, and a coldness in the face of human tragedy. It also, to my mind, betrays a bizarre theology of death and funereal liturgy, but that is a secondary matter: the issue here is what is being shown, not what is said. The Church, the fundamental sacrament of Jesus’ presence until he comes again, is being compelled by one of its pastors to retreat from those in need of its prayers and ministry. There is, according to the gospels, precedent: the disciples sending the children away, the Pharisee’s criticism of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet. In these cases those who would keep people away from Jesus were met with his rebuke. In the case of Bishop Paprocki, I can’t but hope that a similar rebuke is forthcoming from Rome.

As it is, a rebuke will certainly be forthcoming from the parents, lovers, brothers, sisters, friends, and children who will be denied the comfort, at an already distressing time, of commending their loved ones to God in the context of a Catholic funeral. They are mourning children of God, created in his image and redeemed by his Son: these, along with those mourning them, deserve respect and prayer. And they deserve not to be treated as pawns in a tawdry ecclesiastical version of the US’s culture wars.

Corpus Christi

Today’s feast is focused in the first place on a person, not on a doctrine. We celebrate Jesus, present to us as our food and the source of our communion in the Eucharist. This however is likely to prompt doctrinal reflection. How, we might naturally ask, can what seems to be bread be the Body of Christ? Indeed, in what sense of the word ‘body’ could this even conceivably be so? Nor are these questions merely possible: non-Catholic Christians ask them frequently, as do various non-Christian critics of Catholicism, often in less than polite tones. For many people, transubstantiation sits at the top of a list of ridiculous things believed by Catholics. This, it should be urged, is not unreasonable. (And I speak as a defender of the doctrine).

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As is so often the case, what critics reject with regard to the Eucharist is not what the Church believes. Roughly, their target is the thought that at the moment of consecration God makes some bread vanish, and replaces it with human flesh, disguised as bread. Thus all those pious stories about bleeding hosts and gushing prose about the ‘prisoner of the tabernacle’.

The Church rejects this view, in spite of the aggressively professed orthodoxy of some of its champions. Christ is not present on the altar as I am present at this computer keyboard. The ‘species’ of bread is not a disguise, but a sign. Christ is not vulnerable, or constrained by, his eucharistic presence. In fact, most of our talk of the Eucharist has to take the form of denials: ‘he is not present like this’, ‘this is not bread’. The purpose of these denials is to preserve the coherence of our trust in the Lord’s promise to be present with us in the Eucharist. We cannot understand the nature of that presence itself, because that would be to understand the Lord’s Risen Body and the nature of the creative act by which he is made present. As the hymn puts it, “thou art here we ask not how”.

And that he is here is central to the Catholic faith. We express it, not primarily in words but in a way of life – genuflecting, kneeling, burning incense, going from the Mass to be the Body of Christ in the world. However, we do need to believe the claim behind these actions (“This is my Body”). On that subject I can do no better than recommend Elizabeth Anscombe’s excellent essay On Transubstantiation.