Author: alphabetbeing

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.

There’s something about Mary

“May is Mary’s month” – thus Gerald Manley Hopkins. Or, as a rather less proficient poet would have us sing, “The happy birds Te Deum sing, ’tis Mary’s month of May”. The latter lines do capture what is undoubtedly the case: there is something more than a little naff about a lot of what happens under the umbrella of May devotion to our Lady. It is variously theologically dodgy, saccharine, and shot through with dubious ideas of Christian femininity. No sensible person should doubt these things. (It’s an unfortunate feature of religion in a fallen world that the Church contains people who are not sensible). The problem is, I think that in the years since Vatican II people have understood a correct criticism of pre-conciliar Marian devotion, but used it a diminish the role of marian devotion in the praying life of the Church, rather than to reform it.

 

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So it’s no bad thing to have a month during which we focus on Mary. Doing this is simply part of the Catholic ‘thing’. At one level we don’t need reasons for doing it at all. There’s a temptation towards didacticism in contemporary Catholicism that supposes we need to have a reason for everything we do. This is particularly apparent in discussions of liturgy. However, reasons are often superfluous. We just are this people, living out this relationship to God in this way. To ask, of many things, why we do this is to misunderstand the nature of our characteristic activities. It is akin to asking for a deep philosophical justification for a family’s Christmas routine.

With respect to many marian devotions I think this attitude of “this is just what we do” is all we need – the rosary, litanies, votive masses and so on. But as I hinted above, there are aspects of what gets seen as ‘traditional’ devotion to our Lady (although is generally of fairly recent vintage) which needs to be assessed in the light of God’s self-communication as this is witnessed to in scripture and the Church’s teaching. It is often when we have made a mess of the tradition we have been given that we need to step back and ask what is genuinely of value and what needs to be recovered. Here is a modest suggestion as to how we might go about doing that.

The Second Vatican Council chose to include its teaching about Mary in the document on the Church. This makes profound sense, since Mary’s role in the ongoing story with our salvation can only be grasped if we see that in her we see particularly clearly the Father’s relationship to his People. She stands at the culmination of the covenant with Israel, at the birth of the Church, and is the sign of the Church both in its pilgrimage (saying ‘yes’ at the annunciation, standing by the cross) and in its glory (conceived free from sin, assumed into heaven). There is a lot here. How then might we go about better relating to Mary in a way that better reflects this ecclesial focus of her significance? That, it seems to me, is the challenge the Council set us (all of us, in our praying lives and self-understanding, not just the bishops). I’m not sure we’ve faced up to it yet.

One body

During the prayer for peace at today’s Mass, which I was attending whilst on holiday in a very Tory-voting part of the country, I found myself pondering the fact that I’d probably be actively campaigning against much that my fellow congregants hold dear in the run-up to June’s election. Isn’t there some kind of tension here? We pray for, express (at the sign of peace), and are given as sacramental gift (in the eucharist) the unity amongst us and yet struggle against each other when Mass is over. I’ve written about this before: I think there is a tension, but I think it is a tension that goes with living in the in between times – between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ and its fulfilment at the end of all things.

There is a type of politics, sadly current in Britain and affirmed frighteningly by today’s French presidential election result, which does seem to me as incompatible with Christian peace and unity in the here and now, however. This is opposition to migrants. When I receive the eucharist alongside people of different political allegiances, I take myself to be part of an ongoing human project with them, to be living alongside them, and to be part of a local church with them, in communion with our bishop, and with him with Rome and the church internationally. When an adherent of anti-migrant politics receives the eucharist alongside a migrant they simply cannot take this attitude consistently with their beliefs, which set them in opposition to what that sacrament both signifies and effects.

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Catholic churches in Britain are amongst the most diverse communities in the country. This is as it should be: we are a sign of the coming Kingdom, where people of all races and language worship before the Lamb. Sadly, I suspect, the very clear symbolism of our congregations doesn’t always have the impact it should on the ideas of some of their members. The question is: how do we change that?

People of the Empty Tomb

The connection between Easter and baptism isn’t as established in our minds as it should be. It was brought home to me when I attended an Easter Vigil at a university chaplaincy some years ago, during which numerous adults were baptised by total immersion. There, in the still dim light of the chapel, amplified by the newly lit paschal candle, there was a real sense that these people were entering the tomb with Christ in order to rise again with him.

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It is baptism which, in the usual course of things, makes Easter real for us. Through it we become members of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, by which the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world, and through which his saving work is present. We are, as St Paul put it, dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

For through the sacramental life, lived out in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the celebrations of the past three days are not simply commemorations. We, as Catholic Christians, are not in the business of merely recalling past events (although we are at least recalling them: the messy drama of Holy Week being a unique feature of the liturgical year). In our participation in the sacraments we enter into those events, they become our events.

It is our job then as Christians, as people who have died to the old order of hatred and injustice through the waters of baptism, to make Christ present in a world that sorely needs to see that death is not the last word on human existence (I write as Donald Trump is sabre-rattling over the Middle East and North Korea). This is not a moralistic imperative, a call to staunch godly effort, but rather an invitation – only made possible by God’s loving action towards us – to be consistently what we are, people who have entered the tomb sacramentally with Christ in order to rise with him. We are living proof that the idea that the combination of fear and force is the only way to live alongside our fellow human beings. Fear and force brought Jesus to the Cross, and his Father answered with the Resurrection.

 

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To be what we are, an Easter people, is indeed – as the hymns have it – a joyful experience. But joy is not the same thing as fun. A world still in love with the old Adam will not welcome the good news that its work of destruction is frustrated, “he is not here he is risen”. The Jesus of John’s gospel tells us that if the world hated him, it will hate us too (the ‘world’, of couse, means here not the physical creation, nor the human race, but rather those structures that resist God’s offer of love through his Word). The celebrations of the past hours hint that even this hatred might be the occasion for joy. The priest places incense grains into the Paschal Candle, signifying the wounds of Christ; and the whole of which they are a part becomes the sign of Christ’s presence in our midst. We respond to our wounded, risen , saviour, the light of the world Deo Gratias – thanks be to God.