Month: July 2016

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.

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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.