Healing, miracles, and magic

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Yesterday, whilst browsing the internet semi-conscious, one hand firmly gripping a cup of strong coffee, my usual way of spending Saturday morning, I was stuck by an article at the Independent. It was the headline that caught my attention: “People who are impressed by inspirational quotes have lower IQs, study says”. I sighed inwardly; yet another piece in a liberal broadsheet about the stupidity of people who are, we assume, not amongst the newspaper’s target audience. Much though the mushrooming use of supposedly inspirational quotes is annoying, I mused, doesn’t it tell us rather more about the society that produces it than about its consumers? What kind of world packages hope in oblong digital dollops? And what is lacking in circumstances where people feel the need for that kind of hope?

This wasn’t what commanded my attention, however. The article included an explanation of the research by its lead author:

Those more receptive to bullshit [the coy Indy asteriskes part of this word] are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability – numeracy, verbal and fluid intelligence), are more prone to ontological confusions and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

Fewer than two hours into the weekend, I sighed again. I certainly recognise the phenomena of widespread credulity, superstition, and conspiracy theory, although again I think they force fundamental questions about our society rather than being an imprimatur for sneering. But the pairing of “religious” with “paranormal” beliefs in a context where both are clearly intended to be negatively evaluated was yet another example of the routine dismissing of people with religious beliefs as in some way lacking. (It won’t do, by the way, to appeal to “science” here – this is just the neutral presentation of research finding – scientists devise their research questions and report their own research, and neither are value-neutral processes).

So I read the original research article, and came across this passage, which purports to explain the concept of an ontological confusion:

Consider the belief that prayers have the capacity to heal (i.e., spiritual healing). Such beliefs are taken to result from conflation of mental phenomenon,which are subjective and immaterial, and physical phenomenon, which are objective and material.

This is not the clearest piece of academic writing ever consigned to print, but here is what I take to be the basic idea. Ontological confusions are the kind of mistakes expressed in language by category errors, attempting to say of some entity something that cannot be said of an entity of that kind. So if I say “The number two is brave”, “Teresa May is equal to the sum of the squares on adjacent sides”, or “God is big” I commit an ontological confusion. Now the thought is supposed to be that to say that prayer (“a subjective and immaterial phenomenon”) can bring about a physical effect (the healing of illness) is to render oneself guilty of ontological confusion.

Ought we to believe that prayers can heal? A straw poll of adherents of the monotheistic faiths worldwide would almost certainly get the answer ‘yes’. But there’s a fatal ambiguity in the question.

Prayer is something human beings do (Christians of course also believe that it is something God does, bringing us to pray by grace, and making present his eternal life as Trinity in our prayers – but we do not think that God can compete with our agency). It is not, as the authors suggest something “subjective and immaterial”; here they themselves have fallen foul of one of the foremost superstitions of the age, dualism – on the contrary, prayer is conducted by animals of a certain kind (us), in a public language (either aloud or ‘internally’), and often accompanied by bodily gestures. It is no more immaterial or subjective than the coffee I was drinking. Nevertheless, it is perfectly true that we, through our actions, cannot bring about the healing of illness other than through the natural order of things governed by the processes described in the natural sciences and pscyhology. We cannot do magic. To the extent that there’s an implicit criticism here of ‘faith healing’ (elsewhere the authors don’t distinguish this clearly from prayer for healing) and the kind of glitzy idolatrous Christianity which advertises itself by appealing to the miracles its ministers can bring about, that is all for the good.

But when we pray for someone to be healed we pray that God will heal the suffering person. If the action of our praying can’t, in an unmediated manner, bring about healing (other than to the extent that the normal causal order permits, by a placebo effect, for instance), can God? Well, yes: God is not a thing in the world, bound by its laws, but is rather the reason that world and those laws exist. To speak of God healing is not to make the mistake of thinking that one thing in the world could act upon another in a magical way, because God is not a thing in the world. The classification of divine healing with magic, and of belief in it as superstition, involves a misunderstanding of the word “God” – it doesn’t name a thing, a bit of the world. Communicating this is one of the most urgent tasks facing Christians today. And it isn’t helped by the fact that many Christians do talk of God as though he were one more wordly cause amongst others, in this case some kind of super form of celestial antibiotic. The language of “divine intervention” doesn’t help here; something to which I’ll return in a moment.

It’s worth distinguishing two ways in which God can bring about healing. God acts in every agent and every event in the world, since he is their cause, in a unique sense of that word, as creator. So, in particular, when a surgeon removes a tumour or a drug increases serotonin levels in the brain, God brings about that healing. This is not a metaphor, nor an expression of the deistic thought that God ‘got the universe going’ at the Big Bang so is, in a sense, responsible for everything that happens subsequently. God is not responsible for neurosurgery in the same way that the Queen is responsible for Prince Charles talking to tomato plants. God is directly the creative cause of the operation, holding it in being over and against nothing. We can agree, then with Sirach‘s call to “Treat the doctor with the honour that is his due, in consideration of his services; for he too has been created by the Lord.” Recovery through medical intervention is one form of divine healing, and in viewing it as an answer to a prayer for healing we incorporate it into the story of the world’s redemption.

 

However, God can also heal without a created entity also bringing about the healing. This is what is meant by a healing miracle. I think that Catholics are not bound to believe that any given case of a reported healing miracle took place, or was indeed a miracle (it would be wrong to think of the resurrection, in which we certainly are bound to believe, to be a kind of super-healing miracle) – although I also think that once one believes in God (and so that healing miracles are possible), a sober historical critical approach to scripture would deliver the result that they have taken place. But we are bound to believe that healing miracles are possible. For God to exist is for there to be a creator, and so for there to be that which can bring things about ex nihilo. God does this in every healing. It is not that in the case of the miracle he is more present than he is when the doctor stitches a wound: no, God is not more present (what could that mean?); the difference is that a created cause is absent. For this reason talk of “divine intervention” here seems muddled – I don’t particularly like the expression in general, much though it is wrongly thought to be a touchstone of orthodoxy in some quarters, but I can live with it as a pictorial way of talking about God’s action in salvation history. As a description of miracles, though, it is a disaster. I can only intervene in a situation to which I am not already present. The gods in Greek mythology can be described as intervening. God, meanwhile, is continually present to his creation as creator.

The relationship between intercessory prayer and divine healing is interesting, but not of the moment. God can, we believe, heal. Whether or not prayer can heal depends on precisely what is meant. In no way does any of this involve ontological confusion. Nor is believing it credulous or superstitious, unless belief in God is those things. And to make that claim the atheist needs an argument.

Yet, none of these are the most important issues around prayer for healing. Far more important are the heart-rending complaints: “why didn’t God heal my daughter?”, “why doesn’t he listen?”. I think there are things that can be said here, but it would often be heartless to say them. The only answer we have is practical, the expression of divine love in our lives: in context this might look like a listening hand or an arm around the shoulder. Ultimately it looks like the Cross. Still, in a more general sense, the confusion around such prayer is indicative of a deeper and deadening confusion, of God with an item in the world. This is a barrier to the reception of the faith. And for that reason it should be tackled.

 

The bodily assumption

I needed Mass for the Assumption this morning. Things have not been good, and the message of triumph which runs through today’s liturgy struck exactly the right chord. We are given images of the angels rejoicing, of a woman clothed with the sun, of the heavenly chorus ‘Victory and Empire have been won by our God’, and are told – in the eucharistic preface – that this is a foretaste of what will one be shared by the whole Church, that is by us.

This is not a message of trite joy, the liturgical equivalent of a chipper ‘cheer up, it might never happen’. The point of today’s feast is precisely that it did happen: the Cross happened, the sufferings of the Church symbolised by that dragon in the first reading happened, and our individual upsets and tragedies happen. Yet somehow love is triumphant, triumphant throughout creation as it was once in the body of a Jewish Palestinian peasant woman.

For such a victory to be of more than theoretical worth for us, it has to encompass us. And that is why the bodily nature of the Mary’s assumption is essential. Indeed it would not be Mary‘s assumption were it not bodily. For Mary is a human being, as we are, and therefore a particular kind of animal, a particular kind of living body.

There’s a tendency to fudge this corporeal side of things. Partly this is, I think, a misplaced attempt at ecumenical sensitivity. Partly it is in deference to a culture that is happier talking about reincarnation and spirit regression than it is resurrection. However much our contemporaries might process that everything we are boils down to neurology, Descartes still rules in their less guarded moments. So we content ourselves with innocuous talk about ‘new life’, ‘heaven’ and so on. If the word ‘resurrection’ is used, we are often less than clear what it means.

I’m reading at the moment Surprised by Hope by the Anglican bishop and biblical scholar Tom Wright in which he makes exactly this point about Christian belief in the afterlife. Both accessible and scholarly at the same time, the book constructs a persuasive case for the primarily bodily (and social) nature of human redemption as this is understood in the books of scripture. There are aspects of what he says I take issue with – as you might expect, I do not agree with this evangelical Anglican’s assessment of the doctrine of purgatory – but I commend it to you.

Catholics in particular are prone to be misled by the language of the soul, much as we are by the trinitarian language of persons. Terms used in our historic formularies change their meaning over the centuries and our default position is then to approach those formularies whilst trapped in a picture utterly alien to the worlds of those who wrote them. For Aristotle, and for Aquinas after him, and for the Church at key moments in its doctrinal evolution, the soul is the form of the body. To be a creature with a soul is not to have an extra bit (as having an extra kidney or a spare finger would), it is rather for one’s body to be a certain kind of body, namely a rational body, caught up in a world of meanings, within which one can interact with others. The soul is not some sort of thing. I would be making a mistake if I counted myself and my soul as two (which is not to say that I am my soul – Aquinas insists ‘my soul is not me’ – better, my soul is something about me, akin to, although more important than the colour of my hair. It is my humanity).  I am not a spirit trapped in a body. Aquinas finds it quite difficult to reconcile this view with the Church’s teaching that the soul survives death before the general resurrection. Catholics do indeed believe this, but we believe much more fundamentally that our ultimate destiny is bodily – that we will join together in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and flourish as the kind of things we are – rational animals – taken up by grace to share in the nature of God.

Mary assumed into heaven is the sign of this. What has already taken place for her, we hope will happen to ourselves. This is the message of hope that I needed, a hope not simply for the future, but breaking in to the presence. Human bodies: healthy, homeless, battered, exhilarated, sweaty, broken, dancing, eating, drinking – these are the building blocks of the Kingdom. And this ought to be visible in how those bodies are treated now – by which I mean not, after the fashion of upwardly mobile Christianity that the baptised are bound to spend hours in the gym, but that belief in the resurrection should have political outworkings. He has, after all, put down the mighty from their seats.

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Credo in unum Deum

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It is not a novel observation that an increasing number of people cannot accept belief in God. There is a danger in responding to this simplistically, with a siege mentality or a distortion of belief, entered into with the best of intentions with the aim of communicating that belief effectively, but having the effect of rendering its object further from understanding. So, for instance, the way in which people are invited to consider belief in God is often as an object in the universe, albeit a uniquely important one, specifically a person – in the same sense that you and I are persons – or perhaps three people , for whose existence evidence can be accumulated in the same fashion that one would for a scientific hypothesis and with whom one can have a friendly, personal relationship much as one might with any other person.

This, it should be said, is not what I mean when I use the word ‘God’, nor is it what the classical Catholic tradition means, nor for that matter what the great Jewish tradition which gave us most of our scriptures meant. God is, for those traditions, the creator; and whatever else that might mean (for we cannot in this life know what it means) it rules out the account in the previous paragraph. To say that God is not a hypothesis for which one might assess evidence in much the same way as physicists did for the Higgs boson does not mean that we cannot reason about God, or even that we cannot come to know that God exists by purely rational means. It is, however, the case that the process by which we come to this position leaves us in no doubt that we what God is lies beyond our power to grasp. God is not, like the Higgs boson, hard to understand. It belongs, rather, to the nature of God and to the nature of understanding that we cannot understand God. (Or, more precisely, we cannot as created beings understand God: the Christian hope is that we will come to share in God’s self-understanding in the life of the Trinity).

Belief in God, when that phrase is used in a context of Christian faith is not simply a matter of believing that God exists. It is an attitude of trust and response to God’s loving approach to us in Christ. This doesn’t mean, however, that believing in God is separable from belief that God exists. We might, of course, in fact believe that God exists because of our experience of God’s approach to us in love (Aquinas reminds us that we can believe by faith claims that we would have believed on the basis of reason alone). Still, it is non-negotiable that the existence of God is a necessary basis for the edifice of Christian faith: it may sound odd to state this explicitly, but some strands in liberal Protestant theology have in fact denied this (we can believe in God, these people say, in the same sense that I believe in socialism – not accepting it as a presently existing reality, but as a project for life. I think this confuses belief in God with belief in Christianity.) More subtly, and I think more relevantly in our current situation, it is belief in God that Christian faith requires not belief in some postulate which we choose to call ‘God’, but which if it existed (which it can’t, because there are no gods) couldn’t be the creator.

Misunderstanding belief in God is, I am convinced, a major barrier to Christian faith. Having a little evolutionary biology or cosmology people quite rightly reject the notion of a celestial manufacturer. With a helping of life experience, or Freud or Nietzsche (perhaps even both), under their belts, people correctly refuse to accept that there is a divine headmaster dispensing codes of conduct and so upholding the moral order. Alternatively, they might think that God is supposed to be a moral person himself, and so see the amount of suffering in the world as ample reason not to believe that he exists. Sadly, they might notice the number of religious people who think that they can chat to God as I could talk to you, and on a perfectly correct understanding of how people communicate with one another (involving things like language, sound waves, and light hitting the retina) denounce the view as superstition. In all of these things, the contemporary mindset is not only correct, but in line with the biblical critique of idolatry. It’s just that all of this leaves the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob untouched.

And we need to get better at communicating that.

The poison of Islamophobia

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It is not a good time to be a Muslim in the Western world. Since 2001, the ‘war on terror’ has provided a narrative in terms of which anti-Muslim hatred can be justified. The racism and scapegoating that was one response to the 2008 financial crisis has made things worse, and the tragic situation of Syrian refugees has provided another opportunity for the intensification of hatred. Across Europe fascist movements have tapped in to this current. Within Britain these have taken the form of groups like the English Defence League and Britain First, along with – more recently – the German import Pegida.

Disturbingly, some Catholics are not innocent here. Talk of ‘Christian Europe’ and vague noise about ‘European culture’ is quite commonly thrown around in Catholic circles on the European continent. Apart from being a stunningly ignorant description of a religious tradition that, even in its Latin form, draws heavily on the African Augustine and the Islamic transmission of Aristotle to Aquinas, this is singularly unhelpful in a context where Europe is increasingly defined against an Islamic ‘other’, which its ruling authorities would seemingly prefer to see dead on its beaches than living in its cities. Altogether more pernicious, however, is Catholic flirtation with explicit Islamophobia. A number of examples spring to mind: I’ve seen inacurrate and offensive ‘translations’ of historic texts in Catholic bookshops which talk of ‘Moslems’ or ‘Mohammedans’. Following a trend from the more decerebate end of evangelical Protestantism, some have wondered whether Allah is the same as God – a question that is silly in the sense of being nonsense, rather than that of being a daft question*. Worse still one Catholic blogger – to whom I refuse to link, but who has a significant following – has more than once expressed support for Pegida.

I suppose I’m writing about this to draw it to peoples’ attention to the phenomenon. It’s imperative that we check it, for human, let alone Catholic, reasons.

It’s worth thinking about what’s going on here theologically. One very obvious point to make is that the Church is very clear what it thinks about Islam. Thus Lumen Gentium:

But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Muslims, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.

Given that the Catholic Islamophobes are generally drawn from the ranks of the ill-described ‘traditionalists’ who will take as virtually new revelation anything a Pope once said about sex, their ability to sit lightly to an ecumenical council on this matter is striking.

More fundamentally, though, I see the issue as this: the whole unfolding story of the books of the Old Testament is the realisation by the people of Israel that there are no gods. The one who called them from slavery to freedom, and with whom they exist in covenant relationship, is not one god amongst many – one more local deity in whose name the pillage of rival cults and the suppression of internal dissent can be justified – but God the creator, a reality more universal, whose face we cannot behold and of whom there is no image, other than ourselves, created in God’s image. The mission of Israel is, then, universal – to be a sign of God to God’s creation. Now, the people forget this frequently: hence all those prophets. But this is the thrust of the story. And it is one the Church has inherited. Hence, properly understood, the Church also has a universal mission – to be a sign and instrument, a sacrament, of something more general and inclusive than its visible remit.

Catholic participation in the US ‘culture wars’, which I see as being at the root of the Islamophobic rot, at least in the English-speaking world was a kind of backwards step in respect of this narrative. The idea of ‘Catholic culture’, as something to be jealously guarded against a frightening modern world grew (there was more than a hint of albigensianism here as well). We had our god, who must be defended at all costs, and whose cult furthered in hostile territory. This is nothing whatsoever to do with the opposition John’s gospel describes between the Word and (what John calls) ‘the world’, nor with the kind of Catholic culture that exists in Britain, born out of a history of oppression (although, in the light of these trends, could be in danger of being appropriated for ‘culture’ of the damaging kind). The reactionary kind of ‘Catholic’ culture is born out of fear, and the message of the gospel is that fear is destroyed by love: “do not be afraid”. We do not need to defend our god, because there are no gods: there is just God who is love, and whose love is all-encompassing, more enveloping than our schemes, our loyalties, and our prejudices.

There are no gods, as our Muslim sisters and brothers would of course agree. They need our support at the moment. We should give it to them.

*Because, we could reasonably ask: the same what? Superman is the same person as Clark Kent. Tiddles is the same cat as the cat that is sitting on the mat. God is the same what as Allah? The error here is to suppose that we use the word ‘God’, or Muslims or Arabic-speaking Christians, use the word ‘Allah’ to pick out a thing of some particular kind (a god perhaps?) But whatever the word picks out (which we cannot know), it cannot be that. The question is, uncharitably, read as idolatrous in supposition, charitably read as a case of what Wittgenstein called ‘language going on holiday’. Of course, Christians, having already engaged in our God-talk, through the doctrine of creation, say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. But by this we do not mean that they are three of a kind. There are not three Gods. And there are no gods.

The turmoil before the Kingdom

I’ve not written anything for this blog for ages. This is because of the political situation in the UK. As a Labour Party activist, firmly on the socialist left on that party, things are very hectic – the current internal strife is well known, and the surge in racism after horrendous immigration-focused referendum campaigns demandds a response.

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The kind of politics I’m engaged in at the moment involves conflict (in fact, I think this is definitive of politics as such, but that’s an argument for another occasion). I find myself organising against, protesting against, attacking, and proposing motions of no confidence in Party figures. That opposing organised racism similarly requires a certain political aggression is, I suspect, less controversial. Yet notes of disquiet might be sounded about the role of a Christian in all of this. Aren’t we supposed to be beyond all of that? To turn the other cheek, to love our enemy?

I do feel a tension here. And I think it’s a tension that ought to be felt by any Christian who is seriously engaged in trying to transform the world (as every Christian, and for that matter every human being, should be). What follows is a brief apologia for how I see political action. It is not original. My take draws heavily on Herbert McCabe’s ‘The class struggle and Christian Love’ (published in God Matters), and I’ve also learned a lot from things Terry Eagleton has written.

There is some ground clearing that can be done fairly swiftly here. Love is not the same thing as being nice: an elision common in English Christianity – Catholics are mercifully a bit less prone to it than some others, but by no means immune. And a commitment to peace, which for Christians is the eschatological gift of God, is not the same thing as having a perpetually wet, pacific, disposition. Untold damage has been done, holding back oppressed peoples’ capacity to demand better lives, by the preaching of the opposite views – in the scriptural words ‘crying peace where there is no peace’ – often by people whose eagerness to call up militaries and governments to live peaceably is less obvious.

Resolute opposition to wrong is something that is characteristic of those lives that scripture and tradition hold up as exemplars for Christians. The same gospel that contains the Sermon on the Mount also has Jesus call the scribes and Pharisees a ‘brood of vipers’. It is just as well that conflict seems to be part of lives lived well, since it is unavoidable. There has never been a human society which has not contained it, and there will not be until that divinely human society known as the Kingdom is fully established as a reality (which establishment, I should be clear, I believe to be indispensably a matter of divine grace; I do not think socialism is the Kingdom, under socialism we would still fall out, misunderstand one another, grow distant, and die). Our present form of society, capitalism, is premised systematic conflicts of interest: between firms, between bosses and workers, and between workers themselves, competing for work. It also gives rise to conflicts between nation-states in the grotesque form of war.

This is a very good reason to oppose capitalism. Conflict may, to some extent, be unavoidable. But systematic conflict as the very basis for a society is something else. It is a serious barrier to those skills for human flourishing that tradition has called virtues. Conversely, it tends to make us self-interested and competitive, which the same tradition – against the fashionable talk of entrepreneurship – has regarded as indicative of vice. I don’t believe any of this, I should say, because I am a Catholic – to paraphrase something McCabe wrote elsewhere, I don’t think people should be socialists because I am a Catholic, but because I am a socialist. I have a certain understanding of how society works, based on observation, study, and thought. This understanding true just in case society does in fact work in that way. I could be wrong. But if I am not wrong, then I think anyone committed, as Catholics are, to human flourishing ought to seek to do away with our present form of society. And that will involve conflict, albeit conflict aimed at ending a particular, widespread, form of systematic conflict.

And yet, I go to Mass as part of a Church which contains oppressor and oppressed, bourgeois and worker. I receive Holy Communion, the gift of the life of the coming peaceable Kingdom, as part of this Church and therefore both express and cement my fellowship with its members. This is important. Conflict is not the final reality, the unity of the human race in Christ is – ‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’. The communion of the Church is a sign of this, and it provisionalises all our struggles and all our plans at the present time. In so doing, it doesn’t devalue them, or give us reason to abandon them in favour of ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Yet it makes them part of a bigger, more universal narrative. And that, somehow, should affect how we view those with whom we, rightly, fight. It’s difficult to say how, exactly, or at least, I find it difficult. It certainly doesn’t motivate a retreat back into the Home Counties gospel of niceness. But at the very least it should give us a sense that bitterness or inflexibility should not be part of our politics, and that – somehow – every human being’s interests need to be ours. Having such a sense will make us better, not worse, agents of change.

The feeling of tension in all of this is, though, unavoidable. Not least because it is a tension that signifies the ‘now and not yet’ reality of the Kingdom. It is, in other words, the tension of the gospel.

Rahner on the Sacred Heart

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June is traditionally dedicated to the Sacred Heart (presumably because the feast usually falls this month).

Here’s Karl Rahner on the topic (source, here):

The center of our hearts has to be God; the heart of the world has to be the heart of our hearts.   He must send us his heart so that our hearts may be at rest.   It has to be his heart.   But it must not be the heart that embraces each and every thing in unfathomable unity.   He must make us the center of our being a heart that is really the heart of the infinite God, and that nonetheless is a heart that is not everything, a heart that does not signify only one, a heart that is not only the ground of one.   For the mortal fear over his ambiguous infinity and for the need of our hearts to depart from us, he has to let his heart become finite.   He must let it become the unequivocality that is our life.   He must let it enter into our narrow confines, so that it can be the center of our life without destroying the narrow house of our finitude, in which alone we can live and breathe.

And he has done it.   And the name of his heart is:   Jesus Christ!   It is a finite heart, and yet it is the heart of God.   When it loves us and thus becomes the center of our hearts, every need, every distress, every misery of our hearts is taken from us.   For his heart is God’s heart, and yet it does not have the terrifying ambiguity of his infinity.   Up from this heart and out of this heart human words have arisen, intimate words, words of the heart, words of God that have only one meaning, a meaning that gladdens and blesses.

This captures wonderfully the key theme of the devotion: in Jesus, divine love takes human form, and is expressed in a human way.

The devotion’s modern flourishing began in 17th century France, in a context where Janseinism, with its pessimistic and stern picture of God’s relationship to humanity, was rife. Against the Janseinist picture of a totally corrupt humanity trembling before a capricious deity, the Sacred Heart speaks of tenderness and compassion. However naff some of the imagery and popular piety that has developed in subsequent years (I had a friend who described it as ‘the cult of the glowing strawberry’), that message is very necessary in a context in which a frightened response to secularism leads far too many Catholics into stringency, rigorism, and reaction.

“Love bade me welcome”

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”

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It’s been a funny day. A good day, but a painful one, involving working through some stuff and facing up to something that I don’t want to talk about in a public forum. My reason for mentioning this at all is that I went to communion this evening with a keen sense of need, of brokenness and failure, and of the sheer ambiguity of life; and receiving holy communion made sense. By this I mean the sacrament made sense to me; part of what we mean by calling the eucharist a sacrament is that it always makes sense, it always communicates the reality it signifies, quite regardless of our thoughts or feelings about it.

This in itself is something I find very helpful. At a time when there’s a widespread tendency to think about religion in experiential terms, the Church’s calm insistence that the eucharist is not a means to get the warm fuzzies, and that these in turn are not a prerequisite for reception, is something I – as someone not prone to bouts of religious enthusiasm – find a relief. But it is interesting to me that today, of all days, Corpus Christi (in England and Wales at least*), the act of reception spoke to me.

It was, I think, that this meal, given by a frightened man at a time of fracture, betrayal, and uncertainty, with tension and provisionality at its heart, not only reflected back at me my own situation, but it also communicated God’s solidarity with our situation, both messed up and wonderful as it is. Yet that solidarity is transformative, Christ doesn’t meet us where we are at solely to be with us amidst the mess, but to point forward beyond it all, and to strengthen us to journey through it.

This might seem a peculiar way for a Catholic to talk about encountering the eucharist. Isn’t the point of our eucharistic faith that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, and once we’ve acknowledged that, doesn’t the rest of it fade away into insignificance? Well, it depends what you mean. The presence of Christ in the eucharist is absolutely central to our faith and practice, yes. But our faith is that Christ is present under the signs of bread and wine. We need both aspects of the eucharistic faith – sign and reality – they stand or fall together. Signification is not in competition with the real presence, as though each were aspects of the eucharist making opposite demands on our fragile attention, it is the vehicle of Christ’s presence with us. It is through the signs that Christ is truly present. In one of his hymns for today’s feast, St Thomas writes,

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign,
All entire, confessed to be.

The eucharist is not bread and wine, it is the Body and Blood of Christ (I take this, by the way, to be a matter of faith – anyone who didn’t antecedently believe the Catholic faith – ought to think that it is bread and wine, since everything observable – chemical structure, function, and so on – suggests that it is). However, it is important that it is bread and wine that it is not. These signs are part of its meaning, they show us who Christ is, and what he does.

This signification works on so many levels. Again, I find one of St Thomas’ texts helpful:

O sacred banquet!

in which Christ is received,

the memory of his Passion is renewed,

the mind is filled with grace,

and a pledge of future glory is given to us!

 

It is not accidental that this is a meal given at a moment of betrayal, in which the Host is broken, as one of the central actions, suggesting both sharing and the broken body of an executed criminal. “The memory of his Passion is renewed”: the central means by which the Risen Christ is given to his people is not one unambiguously short through with glory, something that really would be the opium of those people, given that they continue to suffer, die, and wrestle with complicated and confused lives. Just as his body continues to bear his wounds, so his presence with us is tinged with his full identification with us in the reality of our lives, as they are. That is a genuine comfort in a way that a triumphalist rite could never be.

It’s good, and as far as I’m aware, a unique claim of Christianity, to have the comfort of a divine person who has been through it all and worse. Still, when all is said and done, knowing that one is not alone in the murk is good, but doesn’t get one out of the murk. Hence, the eucharist is also a “pledge of future glory”. It speaks of that future Kingdom in which God, who is love, will be all in all, not in spite of our lives and agency, but through their co-operation with God’s grace. In several places in scripture this Kingdom is imagined as a banquet, and so the eucharist anticipates it by presenting us with a meal. In so doing it is a sign of hope; and all of us need hope.

 

It is as a meal that the eucharist both recalls the past and prefigures the future. There’s been quite a lot of disquiet about emphasising what people insist on calling the meal aspect of the eucharist (there is no such thing, the mass is a meal: it would be nonsense to talk about the human aspect of me, I am a human being, there is no remainder). In part this is because the societies in which the loudest voices in the Church live are ones that have lost any sense of the importance of shared meals, these being indulgences that take up time which could be spent making money. But it is also because people can’t hear the mass described as a meal without hearing the word ‘just’ in front of it. And this is where I complain.

The eucharist is a meal (a banquet, a convivium, from ‘living together’). Yet to say this is not to deny for one moment that it is a sacrifice, a sacrament, or any number of other things. To say that it is a meal, in which food – Christ himself -is shared is immediately to relate it to community. Again, the word ‘community’ is one that we’ve become increasingly unable to hear without the word ‘just’, a confusion that is tied up with the wholly inadequate language of ‘horizontal’ versus ‘vertical’ understandings of liturgy (as though God were ‘up there’, or somehow competed for space with the community and its actions: a very odd idea indeed). To say the mass is concerned with community is not to say for one moment is that it is something we do by our own efforts, because it feels good, and which is thoroughly under our control and our property. The community that celebrates the mass, through its ordained priests, is a community that is given to us, born out of love. It is central to the meaning of the eucharist that we receive it as part of a communio, a worldwide fellowship. I am given grace as one of us, my life, my journey is tied up with that of the rest of the Church.

So, part of what is communicated in communion is that I am not alone. I, as one of us, am on a journey, a journey which leads from the Cross to the future banquet. On that journey, like the people in the dessert, we are fed with manna so that we can journey on. The eucharist is not given as a final goal, like all sacraments it will cease. It is provisional, given to us in our broken, confusing lives. It puts those lives into the context of a greater narrative of Love, and gives us strength to live on, for the future.”For here we have no abiding city”.

Behold the Bread of Angels,

For us pilgrims food, and token

Of the promise by Christ spoken

*I don’t like the fact that Corpus Christi is kept today, rather than the preceding Thursday, in England and Wales. But it is.

The Gift of Oddness

Pentecost is an odd one. It is a major feast, third in priority in the Church’s year, that gets overlooked. The culmination of Easter, it seems to sit uncomfortably with the rest of the season.

he-qi-pentecost1

Our discomfort with Pentecost isn’t entirely due to the touching thought Luke attributes to Peter that nobody could be drunk at nine o’clock in the morning. (As someone who spends much of my time around students there are things I could say about this). Instead, it all smacks a bit of magic for contemporary minds. There are strange happenings, tongues of flame and utterings in unknown languages. It’s all a little too X-Files for comfort, and matters are not helped here by the enthusiasm with which the pentecostal event is claimed by a certain type of Christian. For these perpetually excited souls, the Lord is ever performing new miracles. Life is just one upset in the laws of nature after another.

There’s something contradictory at the heart of the pentecostal movement, and I don’t think the fringes of the Catholic charismatic movement escape here unscathed. The concept of a routine miracle is oxymoronic: God’s, say, dispensing the gift on tongues on demand would be just another regularity, like water’s always boiling at 100 degrees at standard pressure. And nothing that is part of the regular workings of the universe is God. In any case, for all that it appears to be an affirmation of the ‘otherness’ of God, the anxious grasping at the  miraculous is nothing more than an attempt to domesticate the divine, to make of the reason why there is something rather than nothing at all, the ungraspable mystery that lies behind all things and in all things, an on-tap dispenser of the otherworldly. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob becomes, for this school of thought, the supernatural equivalent of a petrol pump. The God whose story is told in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is altogether more anarchic. “The wind blows where it chooses“.

More anarchic and more sensitive to the nuances of symbolism: the God whose story is told in these texts works through signs to a narrative purpose. So it is with Pentecost; this is an eschatological event, belonging to the end times, one of those moments when that which is beyond the world breaks through into it, remaining all the time mysterious. And yet, as Luke has Peter say, it is also the realisation of a pledge, “ I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Just in case we don’t get the symbolic register, Joel, whom Peter is quoting, goes on to speak about the sun being turned to darkness and the moon to blood.) 

The point of Pentecost is this: in fulfilment of the promise of the Risen Christ, the Holy Spirit is given to us as a free gift. The Holy Spirit is nothing other than God, existing eternally as the bond of love between the Son and the one Jesus calls ‘Father’. And, as God, the Holy Spirit lies completely beyond our ability to comprehend in this life. The Spirit cannot fit into our conceptual schemes, or else the Spirit would not be God. And yet we are given the gift of the Spirit, making us by grace what Christ is by right, sharers in the divine life. And what that means, we cannot understand at the moment.

That does not mean we can’t say anything about this gift. Historically there has been a tradition of talking about its effects in terms of the seven gifts of the Spirit. In general we can come to a certain kind of truthful talk about God by denying of God anything incompatible with being the creator. And since this is true of God, this is true of God the Holy Spirit. In particular, the Spirit cannot bring about anything that is a case of that falling short of creaturely perfection which we call ‘sin’. The Spirit will make for flourishing.

Human beings flourish in community. It is unsurprising, then, that Pentecost is presented as a communal happening. And so it remains. The gift of the Spirit is not given first and foremost to individuals, as their personal dollop of divinity; it is given to a community, the Church. (And it is characteristically given to individuals as they enter that community, at baptism). In a world that separates, forcing us into competition with one another, the Spirit unites. In a world that  is increasingly fearful of the ‘other’, of the foreigner, the migrant, the Spirit makes union with them a condition of sharing in the divine life: I cannot receive the Spirit without joining a global ‘us’. Pentecost undoes Babel.

In this respect, I was struck by this from the Office of Readings yesterday, by an anonymous sixth century author:

And so if anyone says to one of us: ‘You have received the Holy Spirit: why do you not speak in tongues?’, he should reply: ‘I do not speak in every tongue because I am in the Body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue.

 

 

 

The Annunciation

albert-servaes-pietà

Today’s solemnity is transferred from 25th March, which this year was Good Friday. I’m reminded of this poem by John Donne, which was brought to my attention by a Lay Dominican friend:

On Annunciation and Passion Falling on the Same Day. 1608.

TAMELY, frail body, abstain to-day ; to-day
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur ; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came, and went away ;
She sees Him nothing, twice at once, who’s all ;
She sees a cedar plant itself, and fall ;
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive, yet dead ;
She sees at once the Virgin Mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha ;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty, and at scarce fifteen ;
At once a son is promised her, and gone ;
Gabriell gives Christ to her, He her to John ;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity ;
At once receiver and the legacy.
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
Th’ abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one—
As in plain maps, the furthest west is east—
Of th’ angels Ave, and Consummatum est.

 

Mercy and its pitfalls

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday in the Year of Mercy. It seems as good an occasion as any on which to write about mercy.

mercy

I must say that I’ve always been wary of the Divine Mercy ‘thing’. I’m uncomfortable with any kind of emphasis on special ‘revelations’ to individuals, which strike me as being in danger of detracting from God’s final Word, spoken in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and present in the Church, its celebration of the sacraments, and its proclamation of scripture. Then my inner liturgy geek – which, if we’re honest, is quite often also an outer liturgy geek – dislikes the Divine Mercy Novena cutting in to the Easter Octave. And I worry about the, bad, retributional, theology of atonement that seems to be present in a lot of presentations of the Divine Mercy Novena: God has a kind of split personality, his Mercy is at war with his Justice, but if we plead with him enough, Mercy will win out and he’ll not throw us into Hell. (This isn’t just a matter of abstract theology: if we believe that God is best thought of as a temperamental but bribable judge, it will affect our prayer and our action).

I may be wrong about some, or all of this, and I don’t doubt that part of of what’s going on is the devotion not being to my personal taste. In any case, the Church does not (and cannot) require that any of us accept the revelation to Faustina, or to anyone else who has lived since the last apostle died. What I do think, however, is that we certainly need to hear a lot more about mercy,  and that the Year of Mercy is timely.

The reason for this is that we live in a very unmerciful age (the spirit of this age inevitably infects the Church, whose members live in the world, and so the cynicism with which the year has been greeted in some supposedly ‘traditional’ quarters is entirely unsurprising).  This isn’t simply a way of articulating the complaint that people don’t care very much about each other, although that is far too often true, and one aspect of what I’m talking about. What is more insidious is the moralism of the modern world. Far from being the amoral free-for-all at once feared and fantasised about by a certain kind of politician and a certain kind of revivalist preacher alike, it is in fact thoroughly awash with a morality of a particularly damaging sort (and one documented by some of the more perceptive modern ethicists). This morality is founded on prohibition, functions by guilt and exclusion, and reassures a majority of their worth only at the cost of scapegoating a minority, who (we can smugly tell ourselves) deserve it. What does not enter into the picture at any point is human fulfilment, an omission that would have startled genuinely traditional thinkers about the ethical, such as Aristotle and St Thomas.

We see this moralism, of course, in the tabloid press, in moral panics, and political appeals for ‘values’, ‘standards’, and whatever else. It is not the preserve of cultural or political conservatives, though. The contemporary left, a current for which I have the loving disdain only possible for family members, is shot through with it. It is one of the most important gains of recent decades, for example, that we have taken proper account of issues around race, gender, and sexuality. It is both unfortunate and counter-productive that the way in which this is increasingly manifest is a culture of ‘calling out’ individuals: a phenomenon whose actual function is to make those on the right side of the ‘calling out’ feel good about themselves, rather to undo injustice, a cause it actively damages by allowing people who ought to be reassessing their attitudes avoid reflection by wallowing in a sense of victimhood. Here as elsewhere, a lack of mercy is injurious to justice.

What is mercy anyway? Following Luke’s gospel, the Pope has taken ‘merciful like the Father’ as the motto for the Year of Mercy. Whatever we are supposed to be being this year, then, it is ‘like’ what we say of God when we say that he is merciful. Caution is needed here, because whenever we say that any virtue of our own is ‘like’ God we need to add an account of the ways in which our creaturely virtues are unlike the perfect being of God, who is his own fulfilment (the sole exception here being the supernatural virtue of love, which just is the divine life communicated to us).

More of that in a moment. God’s mercy, says St Thomas, consists in his endeavouring ‘to dispel the misery of [an] other as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy’. This neatly brings together two aspects of what we call ‘God’s mercy’ which might, from a human point of view, not seem to obviously belong together. God forgives sin: appropriately, today’s gospel is the passage from John where the Risen Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles for the forgiveness of sins. God also cares for us in a more general way: wanting us to be fulfilled, to heal our ills, and to co-operate with his loving plan for us. There is a danger of tying these two together under the theme of ‘mercy’ in a way that makes individual suffering a kind of punishment for individual sin (a view that John has earlier rejected). Once we realise, with the Catholic tradition, that sin is an absence of human flourishing, and therefore a form of misery, the thomist understanding nicely captures the dual aspects of mercy without giving in to this temptation.

Thomas considers the objection that God cannot be merciful since mercy is a relaxation of justice, and God cannot go against his own justice. Against this, he says that God in acting mercifully does not go against his justice, but beyond it. He not only gives us what we deserve (as justice demands) but gives us gifts we do not (and could not) deserve, out of sheer love. Indeed, for God, who is perfectly simple, justice and mercy are one. It is of God’s very nature to go beyond himself in love. Not because God is compelled to do so, either by anything outside, or by anything internal – like an emotion. God does not have emotions; indeed St Thomas stresses that God’s mercy, unlike ours, is not a matter of being ‘sorrowful at heart’. Against the kind of soppy theology that insists on attributing feelings to God – a faddish movement which, ironically, undermines God’s identification with genuinely human feelings in the Incarnation – God doesn’t show mercy because it just feels too bad to live with our hardship, but out of the sheer gratuitous love that is his very being.

Now, we are not God (we need reminding of this from time to time). Empathy is our characteristic route to mercy. That is no bad thing, but it comes with dangers, in particular that of mercy collapsing into sentimentality. More treacherous, however, is the fact that justice and mercy are not one in us. We are, by virtue our human nature, unable to live in a fully human way without living justly, and we can come to realise this by purely rational reflection upon our life together. We are, moreover, by the divine nature in which we participate by baptism, unable to live in a way that reflects our new creation without living mercifully. Yet no more than nature and grace are the same thing are justice and mercy, for us, the same thing. There is a temptation, from a Christian perspective, of running justice and mercy together, of speaking of what is properly a matter of justice as a matter of mercy

A bit of this has happened in the response to the Pope’s call for a Year of Mercy. I’ve noticed this particularly in church responses to the sufferings of refugees. In rightly demanding that governments provide asylum and housing for refugees, Catholics have (perhaps naturally, given that mercy is ‘in the air’) used the language of mercy. Understandable though this is, it is a mistake. Providing for peoples’ basic needs is not an imperative of mercy, but of justice: it is providing what is owing to them in virtue of the basic fact of their humanity. The danger of talking about the refugees in terms of mercy, other than it somehow sounding patronising and condescending, is that once we do that as Christians, we inevitably talk in theological terms – mercy is what God shows us in the history narrated in the Bible. We thereby rule out the possibility of a natural, purely human, conversation about the refugees with all people of good will. This is urgently needed.

We are called to be both merciful and just. In so doing we will show ourselves to be children of the Father, sharing by adoption in the life of the one who is the first child of the Father. He is the model for living out mercy and justice, and if nothing else it is appropriate that we celebrate his mercy on the day when we recall his Risen Body bearing the wounds inflicted when, out of mercy, he allowed himself to fall victim to our twisted ideas of justice.