Tag: language

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.


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.


O Adonai

Jewish traditions have generally been a lot more sensitive to the problems that attach to naming the divine than is modern Christianity. The Lord, the Creator of all that is, lies beyond our speech – it falls to us to name creatures, not the Creator. God is encountered in glory and majesty, as cloud and fire. Here is something outside our ordinary world Our talk of God, then, should recognise its own difference from ordinary speech, and thereby its inadequacy of its object. ‘Adonai’ is a plural of respect, meaning literally ‘Lords’, the plural expresses the majesty of the Lord. Used to replace the divine name ‘YHWH’ when read aloud, it has itself acquired a sense of holiness sufficient for some to replace it with simply ‘the Name’ (HaShem).

The one we long for in Advent is mysterious, beyond our comprehension. The Incarnation (which as the Athanasian Creed reminds us was ‘not by conversion of the godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the manhood into God’) does not change that. Rather, through the humanity of Christ, the mystery of God becomes our mystery, in which we participate by grace.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel,

who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm.

Healing, miracles, and magic


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.


Credo in unum Deum



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


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.

“Love bade me welcome”

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


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.

Learning to love the new translation


It’s four years now since the new translation of the missal was introduced. I was initially sceptical. This was not because of any folksy, hand-clapping aversion to liturgical solemnity on my part, the kind of thing that often erroneously covers itself with the phrase ‘the spirit of Vatican II’. I had being going to Mass at a church which celebrated the Paul VI rite in Latin with plainsong and incense. My concern was, rather, pragmatic and related to concerns about language and translation. Weren’t we supposed to have a vernacular missal for celebrating the Mass in English? The new words didn’t look very vernacular to me! And wasn’t the idea that we should seek to translate texts, any texts, word for word, simply erroneous? It is, after all, the sentence that is the basic unit of meaning, and in any case languages have their own ways of conveying tone and subtext, making translation more of an art than a science. I wasn’t bothered enough to sign one of the many petitions that were circulating at the time, but I was troubled.

Some years on, and a falling away from the practice of my faith (which had nothing to do with the missal) later, I go to Mass according to the new translation pretty much daily. I’ve learned to love it. I feel as though we are praying when we use it (Herbert McCabe once wrote an excellent piece about the challenge to Catholics of understanding the Mass as a prayer). There is a real sense that something special is happening here, something that doesn’t quite belong to this present world.

Not everyone has shared this journey with me. You still hear grumbles about the new book. A few weeks back, going to Mass back home whilst visiting my parents, someone reflected to me as we were leaving church that the new words were ‘nonsense’. There is a lot to be said for this view. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the view that all our talk about God teeters on the brink of nonsense. McCabe, again, wrote of our words, when used of God, ‘wearing second hand clothes’. The point is that we learn the kind of words scripture and liturgy apply to God through applying them to material beings, limited, and potential objects of our experience: we talk about people as strong, good, or loving, we learn to call things fortresses and rocks. And then, and only then, we apply those words to God. Inevitably they fall short of the reality of God, the creator and sustainer of the worldly realities for which our words are equipped. Even in revelation, even in the sacraments, the nature of God remains beyond our ability to comprehend.

I feel that the new translation acknowledges this. The register of our language is shifted. We can still tell, perhaps with a little effort, what the words mean (or at least, what they would mean we were using them to talk to, or about, worldly realities), but we are unsettled. A certain unfamiliarity remains, even when we know the liturgy off by heart. And this, I claim, is good. We are, if you like, shocked out of complacency, out of the tendency to be too familiar with the divine, to adopt a perpetually matey tone that suggests, idolatrously, that the divine reality is some kind of celestial big buddy.

This doesn’t mean, for one second, that there isn’t room for – or more than that, the need for – the kind of prayer that involves, in St Ignatius’ phrase, speaking “as one friend speaks to another”. Yet we equally need to realise that we are only in a position to do this by grace, participating in the life of the Trinity whilst not understanding it. Surely there is no better time to be reminded of this than when we gather to be immersed intimately in the life of that Trinity, as the Spirit makes present under the sacramental signs Christ’s sacrificial prayer to his Father.

It isn’t only God, as such, that is signified in the liturgy. The Eucharist is, as St Thomas has it, “a promise of future glory”. We anticipate the Kingdom of God. Where one day there will be the heavenly banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb, laid out for all to see in a new heaven and a new earth – whatever we mean by that – right now there is a group of people coming up to eat what, for all the world, looks like bread and drink what, for all the world, looks like wine. In doing this, we believe, we share the life of a Kingdom that does not belong to this present age. At Mass, the future comes to high streets, estates, and shanty towns all over the world. The Kingdom isn’t realised in these places; a cursory glance at a newspaper should convince even the most incurable optimist of this. And yet, here is the future, as already present reality.

This brings me to what I think is an important distinction. Opponents of the new translation often point to the Council’s insistence, of which we were reminded at the Office of Readings this morning, of Christ’s presence in his people, assembled to celebrate the liturgy. The thought then seems to be that this presence should be acknowledged by making the liturgy as user-friendly for the congregation as possible, so that they can feel at home. The problem with this is that it doesn’t recognise what kind of people we are. The Church is not a social club, a special interest group, or even simply a meeting of friends (nor is it an alternative for these kind of things: there’s a certain kind of earnest modern churchiness which looks to me like an attempt to verify the charge that religion is a life substitute). We are instead a people who do not belong to this age, whose fundamental identity is not given by a world that is far from perfect. This being so we should be restless, and unsettled, conscious that we are still a pilgrim people, and precisely as such not entirely at home. The new translation makes this realisation easier.

Related to this is my sense that a certain commonly-made association between the ‘reform of the reform’ and political reaction is mistaken. I write as a throughgoing leftist of the old-school. Drably utilitarian liturgy and words lacking a sense of the otherness of their topic might sit comfortably with a certain kind of lightly baptised social democracy. They hardly speak of a world remade from the very foundations because, having shared the Cross, it now shares the Resurrection. It is the gap between the Kingdom and the injustice and violence of our world, rather than the continuities, that has proved the most effective motivation for Christian radicalism. A liturgy that places this gap in the foreground is no bad thing.

But my question remains, is this a vernacular? Well, what does that mean? It’s certainly English. Like any other language, English has numerous registers and tones, some appropriate for some purposes, some for others. Anyone who writes to a lover as they would to a bank manager will soon find themselves single. We don’t expect scientific reports to read like novels, nor the latter like poems or political tracts. Nor should we expect the liturgy, a unique action, to be conducted in words that would be at home elsewhere. Wittgenstein once chastised his earlier self for not recognising that there were a ‘multiplicity of.. tools in language and.. ways they are used’. Perhaps our earlier liturgical selves needed similar correction.