Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Ash Wednesday and Stoicism


Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.

I've a vague intention at some stage to assemble a collection of excerpts from classical philosophy which are analogous to Christian approaches. Whether I'll ever get round to this I don't know, but in the meantime, we can start Lent with the Stoicism of Seneca:

5. I am so firmly determined, however, to test the constancy of your mind that, drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: "Is this the condition that I feared?"

6. It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

7. [...] Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man's peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.

8. There is no reason, however, why you should think that you are doing anything great; for you will merely be doing what many thousands of slaves and many thousands of poor men are doing every day. But you may credit yourself with this item, – that you will not be doing it under compulsion, and that it will be as easy for you to endure it permanently as to make the experiment from time to time. Let us practise our strokes on the "dummy"; let us become intimate with poverty, so that Fortune may not catch us off our guard. We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.


[Moral Letters to Lucilius XVIII. 'On Festivals and Fasting' . Full text here.]

Friday, 5 February 2016

Linda Woodhead on 'no religion'



I've mentioned before that I find a lack of engagement with secularization theory one of the most problematic aspects of much reflection about the state of the Catholic Church. It's all very well suggesting that this or that change in (eg) liturgy has brought about a decline in Mass attendance etc, but that seems simply to ignore the wider changes in (particularly) Western Europe and the declining public place of religion in general there.

Lind Woodhead has been a central figure in that academic debate over the phenonomenon of secularization, and has, in broad terms, been a proponent of the view that religion is not so  much disappearing as changing into spirituality. Her recent British Academy lecture on the growth of the 'nones' (ie those who declare they have no religion) is well worth watching (an earlier parallel transcript of an interview is here):


I take the main messages of Woodhead's thesis to be thus:

a) The largest (and growing) religious identity in the UK is 'no religion'.
b) This identity is not the same as atheist or even agnostic. It is, in particular, not hostile to religion.
c) It rejects, in particular, religious authority figures and institutions, and is liberal in areas such as sexuality and family life.
d) 'Leadership' of this group is up for grabs. Unless churches adapt to this viewpoint, 'no religion' is likely to be captured by groups such as the British Humanist Association and steered into a more stridently anti-religious stance.
e) Churches such as those in Scandinavia and non-Western religions such as Buddhism have been more successful in influencing this group by turning themselves into spiritual paths which fit in with the 'nones' liberal ethos.

As a description, I think much of this is simply true. I do have severe doubts about e): Buddhism isn't terribly influential in Britain and I suspect that the lingering influences of churches in Scandinavia are more about lip service to a tradition than anything else. If that's the best that churches can do, I think I'd rather go down fighting than humoured as a marginal cultural tradition.

Where I do agree is that Catholicism (and frankly I don't much care what other ecclesial communities do) needs to offer itself as a spiritual and cultural path: in other words, we need to offer people a Catholic culture without insisting that they become fully signed up members of the Church. I say that, not because I don't think becoming a fully practising Catholic doesn't matter -it does- but because I think (normally, not always) full conversion is preceded by seeing the point of Catholicism as a belief system and as a practice. In a fight (or a culture war) I'd put my money on a culture armed with Alasdair MacIntyre. Walker Percy, James MacMillan and even Andy Warhol (and that's only a start) against one armed with Judith Butler and TOWIE. You can add to that personal colourful spiritual practices such as lighting candles and saying the rosary.

In other words, even if one accepts Woodhead's view that institutional Christianity needs to become a spirituality, it is possible to argue that Catholicism can offer this as an ancilla to rather than a replacement for the full religion. The Church teaches what it has always taught, undiluted and unchanged. But it encourages (hold the vomit) 'people where they are'. So you don't want an authority figure? Fine. Say a rosary and read Dionysius the Areopagite whilst listening to Byrd. Nobody's going to drag you to Mass if you don't want to go. Some will remain stuck there in a sort of aesthetic limbo. Well, no worse than many now and better than Dawkinsian know nothings.

The City of God will remain surrounded by the City of Man. A City of Man in which some of the spirituality of Catholicism is recognized and valued will be better than one which is overtly and consistently hostile. In other words, we need to practise a culture war (or at least a culture ooze) which is not directly aimed at getting people to be Catholics but at getting people to be catholicized. (By all means do the direct evangelism as well. This is not an either/or but both/and.) It might not work, but really it might. At the very least, people will get closer to their natural end and earthly flourishing, even if they do not attain their supernatural end.

The whole of Catholic art, philosophy and mysticism against... Well, after all, what?



Thursday, 28 January 2016

Marriage as a new reality



So apparently the pope's teaching document on marriage, which is believed to tackle the issue of the readmission to communion of those who have 'remarried' after divorce, is likely to come out on 19 March.

Putting aside any theological detail, let's just imagine I'm a well meaning lay person who wants to live in accordance with what I understand of Catholic teaching on marriage and the natural law. I have no particular axe to grind: I just want to be faithful to my bishops and the pope, and to understand. I wait with an open mind patiently.

(That sounds snarky. It is. But it is also genuinely how I feel about this. I want to understand this issue. I do understand the desire for a new start, a merciful escape from the traps many fall into when they are young and foolish. I do not want to dissent from papal or episcopal teaching, whatever that turns out to be.)

Now, from my point of view, marriage is a new reality. When two people come together in a marriage, there is a new reality which cannot be undone except by death. That seems to me to be at the heart of both what the Church teaches and what I've come to understand from having been married for a long time and having seen other marriages. It's what I tell my children. (If I'm feeling particularly waspish, I might quote John 21:18: Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. In other words, you will find the marriage making you as much as you make the marriage.)

The present practice of the Church reflects that. The Church does not divorce (ie end a marriage) but declares the absence of one (ie what was thought to be a marriage was not one because of some defect). It does that by way of an investigation: a legal procedure to establish the reality or otherwise of that marriage. But (so I hear) it is rumoured that this will be replaced by a penitential path. Now this is what I don't understand. Penitence is primarily a question of exploring with one person that person's own mind: in crude terms, is that person truly sorry? But the existing legal procedure is about the investigation of a reality which inevitably requires the exploration of many minds and material evidence.

I'm familiar with several broken marriages. In many cases, ask each of the parties, and you'll get a different understanding of what went on. (And in many cases, neither of them will be the same as that of an outsider.) The present legal process, involving several people, acknowledges, however imperfectly, that we are engaged in an investigation of what is the case. A penitential procedure, of whatever form, only investigates one person's viewpoint.

If I were that good willed (but confused) layperson, I would want to know how a penitential path acknowledges about the only thing I'm pretty sure about in this area: that marriage is a reality which exceeds the understanding of each (and indeed both) participants. The reality of a marriage is a very different issue from that of whether or not I regret my behaviour or anything else about that marriage. To confuse the two issues is a category mistake.

So explain. I wait.