Thursday, 28 June 2012

Bishop of Paisley on religious freedom

From a recent essay by Bishop Tartaglia:

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution that can be uncompromising and brutal. Christians have the more promising vision and more convincing arguments than secularists about the nature of human beings in their need of God, about the nature of the family, about the place of faith in public life, and about the relationship of faith to science and progress. However, the cultural mood is to dismiss these arguments and insights in summary fashion. Christians today are riding the tiger, and, if the present cultural trajectory goes unchecked, I fully expect to be prosecuted in the courts in the coming years. But Christians need to be patient and steadfast and always ready to engage. Evil may well have its time but eventually it consumes itself, and it will not have the last word. We may need to pick up the pieces of a shattered civilization, broken and exhausted by its extreme adventure with radical godlessness.

Whatever happens in the next few years, the Catholic Church has only one choice: to be herself by being true to Jesus Christ, whatever the cost. What kind of nation and what kind of democracy will we be? That is another question.

Hard to imagine that, when he wrote this, the current independence (and same sex 'marriage') debate in Scotland was far from his mind. Certainly, he seems less than happy with the reception his concerns received from the First Minister:

In October 2011, I wrote to Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, about government policies that impinged on religious freedom. One of the issues I raised was the question of same-sex marriage. In a subsequent conversation, Salmond assured me that a law introducing same-sex marriage would not restrict the freedom of Catholics to practice their faith. I am not sure if he understood the difference between freedom of worship and freedom of religion, or if he understood it only too well, and was hedging his bets, knowing full well that once legislation permitting same-sex marriage was on the statute books, zealots would call for sanctions against people who publicly expressed dissent from the new orthodoxy.

I was worried especially for Catholic teachers who had to deliver a religious education program in Catholic primary and secondary schools in which marriage is defined explicitly as a union between a man and a woman. If same-sex relationships are recognized as marriages, we will need to campaign for legislation to guarantee the religious freedom to dissent from the new orthodoxy in public and in private, in religious worship and preaching, in teaching, and in the upbringing of children. Given the way things are in the UK presently, I have no confidence that any such guarantees will be forthcoming.

(H/T: Catholic Herald)

Monday, 25 June 2012

Why I am an atheist

                                                 Don't believe in any of these...

I waste far too much time engaging in futile internet tit for tat exchanges (Catholic Herald comboxes being particularly the target just now of the 'right thinking people' as they kindly share their wit and wisdom with us benighted paedo-priest-worshipping-know-nothings).

One of the arguments that comes up again and again and again is that belief in the Catholic God is arbitrary: that even if I have reason to believe in him, I have no more reason to believe in him than in Thor or Zeus or Richard Dawkins or whatever deity you might want to mention. Colin McGinn puts the argument thus:

For every theist is also an atheist. That is, every believer in one god is a disbeliever in another. Believers in the Christian God disbelieve in the vengeful, jealous and capricious God of the Old Testament, as well as in the Hindu gods or the Greek gods or the nature gods of "primitive" tribes or any number of other "false gods." People believe in the reality of their own God, but they are not similarly credulous when it comes to other people's gods; here their disbelief is patent and powerful. They do not preach agnosticism about those other gods; they reject them outright. I am with them on this point, but I extend it to their God too. My point is that they are as "dogmatic" as I am in their atheism; we are just atheists about different gods. I am an atheist about all gods; typical theists are atheists about the majority of gods believed in over the centuries by human beings of one tribe or another. I find their disbelief thoroughly sensible; I would merely urge them to push it one stage further. I favor total atheism; they favor selective atheism, none of that pusillanimous agnosticism for either of us (Why I am an atheist. pp8-7).

As Ed Feser replies:

It rests on a basic mistake, the assumption that since the God of classical theism along with Zeus, Thor, ghosts, werewolves, Santa Claus are all said to have unusual powers (with some of them even referred to as “gods”) they must all be instances of the same kind. That is like saying that since individual good things and the Form of the Good are all called “good,” they must be just different particular instances of the same kind; or that since the triangles one sees on chalkboards and in books and Euclidean triangularity as such are all triangular, they must just be different particular instances of the same kind (Why McGinn is a pre-theist, p14).

To put this more simply, when I disbelieve in gods such as Thor, Zeus and Richard Dawkins, I am disbelieving in one kind of entity. When I believe in the God of Catholicism, I believe in another kind of entity. My disbelief in gods has no more implications for my belief in God, than my disbelief in all sorts of other things (unicorns, the Easter bunny, the Loch Ness monster). Just as it would be absurd to argue that, just because I disbelieved in unicorns, I shouldn't believe in the existence of triangles, so it is absurd to argue that, just because I don't believe in Thor, I shouldn't believe in God: God is a different kind of thing from gods.

Now the atheist at this point will no doubt start suggesting that there is a rather closer analogy between the God of Catholicism and Thor than there is between a triangle and a unicorn. The charge would no doubt go something like this:

Whatever process got you to believe in 'God' is analogous to the process of belief that gets others to believe in Thor. Anything you say that disproves the reliability of the Thor belief process also disproves the reliability of the God belief process. So you are left with a dilemma: either you deny the reliability of the Thor belief process -and are thus committed to denying the reliability of the God belief process (and thus you should be an atheist). Or you are committed to believing in both Thor and God (and Vishnu and Baal and Richard Dawkins) which is clearly absurd. (And thus you should be an atheist.)

It's here that proofs in Natural theology play an absolutely key role: whether or not they prove the existence of God, they define the existence of God. Thus, from Aquinas's Five Ways, I learn that God is a necessary being, an absolutely good being and an intelligent being. (And so on.) So if Thor is not perfectly good, not capable of always doing what he wants etc, then he is not God but something else. Metaphorically, God is a triangle, Thor is a unicorn: what is relevant to disproving Thor is not relevant to disproving God.

At this point, many atheists will say something like this:

Look, we know that Catholicism is based on the Bible. In the Old Testament, Jehovah is pretty much the same sort of angry sky god that Thor is. So really, putting aside all this convenient theological twaddle, Catholics are just basing their beliefs on the same sort of stuff the Vikings did. You might dress it up in philosophy, but really it's just storybook sky god stuff all over again.

Well, no. It really can't be said too many times: Catholics do not base on their understanding of God and religion just on the Bible. The First Vatican Council decrees:

In the first place, as against Agnosticism and Traditionalism, the council teaches (cap. ii, De revelat.)
that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (
Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)
and in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) it anathematizes anyone who would say
that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, beknown with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

The importance of Natural Theology -the proof of the existence of God by the 'natural light of human reason'- is thus enshrined within the religion. So we believe in a God who possesses the qualities suggested in arguments such as Aquinas's, not in a god who carries a hammer and smites ice giants.

But, says the atheist, how then do you move from the God of reason to the God (or perhaps we might even say 'god') of the Bible, in particular, that of the Old Testament? (After all, you do believe they are one and the same, don't you, and he does look like the sort of chap who would smite ice giants given half the chance.)

Well, again, another thing that needs to be said again and again is that the Catholic Church does not think the Bible is self interpreting: it needs to be interpreted by the authority of the Church. And the authority of the Church is that the God of natural theology who is all good and all powerful and all seeing etc is indeed the Jehovah of the Old Testament. So one principle of interpretation is that the Bible has to be read with that in mind. Secondly, the Old Testament has to be read in the light of the New Testament: Jesus has unique insight into the nature of God (since he is God) and therefore the Old Testament has to be read through his eyes.

And then you get into all the old issues about why did God do this particular action in the Old Testament, or get someone to do that etc etc etc... But the general answer to all of this is that God is all good and all powerful and all seeing, so interpreting what you read as if it's telling you that he's a grumpy old Jewish Thor shows you've gone wrong somewhere. 

Now I know that, at this point, atheists tend to hoot with laughter and say something like: 'Well, that just shows you can read anything into the Bible.' No. It shows that 1) the Bible cannot be read without interpretation; and 2) that key elements in that interpretation are our knowledge that God is good and (from Christ) that he is caring as a father cares. And those aren't post hoc justifications to enable us to wriggle out of inconvenient truths, but are key elements of Catholicism hammered out (eg) in the disputes with Marcion about the relationship between the God of the New Testament and the Jehovah of the Old (2nd century AD) and (eg) in the disputes with Luther about the place of scripture in the Church (16th century). 

In summary:

1) Disbelieving in a god like Thor and disbelieving in God are not the same sort of activity: you need different arguments for each activity. (And Catholics will disbelieve in Thor and believe in God, just as atheists will disbelieve in the existence of God but believe in the existence of horses.)

2) The (apparently) Thor like god of the Old Testament has to be read in our knowledge of God gained through reason and Christ. The Bible for Catholics really really really isn't either the sole basis for our beliefs nor is it self-interpreting.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

King James Version and the Ordinariate

The Ordinariate (the body existing within the Catholic Church which retains elements of Anglican liturgical uses and generally serves as an attempt to bring Anglican traditions into full Communion with the Church) is introducing its Customary (a sort of truncated Book of Common Prayer) shortly (see news item 1 June here).

Excellent -and mine's already on order! But I do worry about the apparent use of the Revised Standard Version translation of the Bible in the Customary rather than the King James Version. At least, I take it from the following (link as above) that the daily readings of scripture will be from the RSV rather than the KJV:

Thus, whenever the Customary quotes extensively from the Bible, it is the RSV that it uses.

Certainly, it is the RSV rather than the KJV that is authorized for use by the Vatican:

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has published a Decree permitting the use of the Revised Standard Version(Second Catholic Edition) for liturgical use in the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

This edition of the Holy Bible allows those Catholics originally from the Anglican tradition, to worship using a version of scripture which is familiar to them. It also promotes the English Bible tradition and recent efforts to renew Catholic liturgy with more accurate translations.

Now, in many ways, I can quite understand this decision. Anyone attending Anglican services such as Evensong will recognize that whilst the liturgy may be in the Tudor English of the Book of Common Prayer, the Bible readings are usually from the RSV. So inasmuch as the Ordinariate exists to Catholicize present day Anglicanism, it makes sense to reproduce this pattern. Moreover, there is no doubt that the RSV is a more accurate translation than the KJV. So, on grounds of accuracy and current use, going for the RSV seems to make sense. But...

One of the things that fascinates me about the Ordinariate is its historical and cultural importance. There is something quite striking about the fact that there now exists within the Roman Catholic Church a body that has emerged from the Reformation and now returned. And given the way that the English Reformation created that cultural juggernaut that is the English language and English literature, the embracing of the sources of that juggernaut in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible would be of huge symbolic importance.

Quite apart from the symbolism involved, there is something utterly seductive in the language of the KJV. I feel it which is why, normally, I use the Daily Office from the Book of Hours website which uses the Office from the Book of Divine Worship (an existing Catholic version of the Book of Common Prayer) with readings from the KJV. Others feel it including Richard Dawkins. This sense of the beauty of language and of the importance of that beauty in liturgy is surely very much in line with Benedict's understanding of the Church. I certainly wouldn't argue that the KJV should be the only version available for use in the Ordinariate, but to miss the chance to bring it into the Catholic fold and, in essence, to rebaptize it as fully part of our Catholic heritage strikes me as a lost opportunity.

I'm not involved in any way with the thinking behind the scenes in the Ordinariate, so I don't know to what extent any thought has been given to the place of the KJV in its life. Reading the article by Monsignor Burnham in June's Portal (the magazine of the Ordinariate), I suspect that there has been some discussion which explains the (to my mind, rather defensive) following:

Why the RSV and not the King James Bible? The answer lies in the subtle development of the English Bible tradition. For accuracy’s sake, twentieth century students began to rely on the Revised Version of 1881-1894. Meanwhile the Revised Standard Version of 1946-1957 was becoming established and, in 1966, was accepted by Catholics and Protestants as a ‘Common Bible’. It was the first truly ecumenical Bible and brought together the two traditions – the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible and the Protestant Authorised Version. Thus, whenever the Customary quotes extensively from the Bible, it is the RSV that it uses. The Catholic Church in the 1970s in Britain opted (mistakenly as it now seems) for the ‘dynamic equivalent’ Jerusalem Bible translation. That version greatly helped public understanding of the Scriptures, but, like the Mass translation of the same period, was based on a theory of translation that is of great value in paraphrasing and communicating the meaning of, for example, modern literature written in other languages, but no longer thought appropriate for representing sacred texts written in ancient languages.

Although this does explain why not the Jerusalem Bible (and I quite agree with this decision), it doesn't really explain why not the KJV. Reading the Anglo-Catholic website on this issue of language, there's clearly a desire among other former Anglicans for a Catholic reception of the KJV.

So, come on! Let's grab back the King James Bible and get King Jamie burling in his grave...

As a point of comparison, 1 Corinthians:

King James:

1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. 11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Revised Standard Version:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.   2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.   3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.   4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful;   5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;   6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.   7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.   8 Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.   9 For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect;   10 but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.   11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.   12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.   13 So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Happy Bloomsday!

There are quite a few things that I'm embarrassed about in my youth, but very few that induce quite the same stomach clenching regret as the memory of walking around Dublin conspicuously reading Ulysses. It is a sign of the fundamentally good nature of the Irish that I survived physically intact and unmocked.

Anyway, I spent a great deal of my teenage years reading Joyce (OK, never quite managing to get through Finnegans Wake but I had a good go). For someone who never really had much contact with Catholicism as a child or youth, he was an insight into a world where religion mattered and where it was a very different sort of religion from the Jesus and rainbows watery Protestantism that you'd get at  school.

He was also an introduction to an intellectual world where the learning of the classical world and Aquinas interpenetrated everyday life. Reading Stephen Daedalus' version of Aquinas' aesthetics piqued my interest in both aesthetics and Aquinas; reading a novel which models everyday city life on the Odyssey gave me a sense of the possibilities of classical learning for the modern world. And I'm not at all sure that my understanding of Mariology doesn't owe more to Molly Bloom and her soliloquy ('yes I said yes I will Yes') than it does to any subsequent reading in Balthasar and so on.

And apart from all that, an introduction to Ireland which became an important part of my history, personal and religious. How many Catholic Scots worship in a Church built by Irish immigrants? How many of us have been ministered to by Irish priests? How many of us have Irish family? The sadness over the passing of Catholic Ireland and its scandals is for most of us more than just a grieving over a neighbour: it is a grieving over something far closer and a grieving that should come from gratitude. Let's hope that the current International Eucharistic Congress marks some sort of rebirth of orthodoxy for Irish Catholicism.

To be honest, I'd forgotten it was Bloomsday on Saturday until the trickle of mentioned celebrations in the media penetrated. It brought back memories of being a teenager and reflections on the buried roots in Joyce of my conversion to Catholicism. He didn't leave me with any immediate desire to be a Catholic, but he undoubtedly did give me a sense of intellectual and religious possibilities. As Samuel Beckett (yes, I had a teenage obsession with him too) said:

My brother and mother got no value from their religion when they died [ie the Anglican Protestantism of the Church of Ireland]. At the moment of crisis it had no more depth than an old school-tie. Irish Catholicism is not attractive, but it is deeper. (Cronin: Samuel Beckett The Last Modernist, p21).

Joyce (and Ireland) began to give me that sense of depth in Catholicism. That's not enough, but it was a start.

So Happy Bloomsday!

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Scotland as a one party state

                                Calm down cybernats! I don't mean the SNP...

My view is that left and right are like yin and yang. There's a quote I have in chapter 12 from John Stuart Mill, but this is really my credo: "A party of order or stability and a party of progress or reform are both necessary elements for a healthy state of political life." 


Another weekend of double plus good thinking from the Scottish Press on same sex 'marriage':

This, however, is a matter of principle. Polls show most Scots are comfortable with the idea of gay marriage. That view is supported by MSPs and has the full backing of this newspaper. There can be no excuses or backtracking. Over to you, First Minister.

I think it's rather hard for anyone living in England to appreciate quite the state of the same sex 'marriage' debate in Scotland. The only clear opposition to it is coming from the Catholic Church and other smaller Protestant and Muslim groups. As a recent survey shows, the majority of MSPs appear to be in favour of it. Those MSPs who are against it have mostly kept a low profile since a couple of them were on the receiving end of a concerted mobbing at the beginning of the consultation. Despite the stalwart opposition of the Scotland for Marriage campaign, the petition opposing the introduction of same sex 'marriage' has only attracted 24 000 or so signatures. The media here relentlessly pumps out pro-same sex 'marriage' articles.

Compare that to England where the opposition among Conservative MPs is such that the measure seems almost certain to be dropped. Where the corresponding petition has attracted 550 000 signatures. Where there are regular, weighty contributions against SSM in the press. Where, indeed, there is a socially conservative press at all... (And where the Church of England has come out with a blistering attack on SSM: 'To change the nature of marriage for everyone will be divisive and deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships. We also believe that imposing for essentially ideological reasons a new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as marriage would be deeply unwise.' The excellent full response can be found here as a PDF.)

Now, I assume that many Scots who oppose traditional marriage will view this as an occasion for rejoicing: that Scotland is simply demonstrating its superiority over its southern neighbour, a superiority which will be fully realized in independence. Gerry Hassan  writes of the problem of Britain living in the past and the need to modernize:

The Britain of the last few days represents the failure of any real meaningful modernisation, and its repackaging around a glossy package to hide the profound retreat and limitation this means for the future. The British nationalism of the union is one which increasingly harks back to the past. 

As I've noted in the past, the drive to modernity in Scotland is often phrased precisely as a drive to overcome religion. Now Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Religion and Politics, provides a way of phrasing a common observation (frankly, made at far greater length and with far more subtlety by philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Isaiah Berlin) that there is no Final Solution: no perfect way of realizing all competing human goods at once. Haidt simplifies this to the two tendencies of conservatism and liberalism, in essence arguing that both sides have part of the truth and both are needed in political debate.

Bring that thought back to modern Scotland. At the moment in Scotland, there is little or no representation for that conservative strand of values in public, let alone political life. That doesn't mean that those values don't exist in the Scottish population: it does mean that, in so far as public institutions exist to articulate and reflect those values back to a population who will then recognize themselves in them, liberalism has the field. 

When commentators like Hassan talk of forming a vision of a new Scotland, independence or no, I can only applaud him: statesmanlike vision is needed for Scotland and indeed for Europe and the rest of the UK. But for Scotland, there is a crucial need for distinguishing between politics as campaigning and politics as statesmanship. Scotland will soon either be independent or have more devolution within an evolving UK. Whichever is the case, Scots need to start thinking, as Hassan rightly says, about what sort of Scotland we want that to be. But to do this requires the recognition that a modern state needs opposition: that the pursuit of a homogeneous communitarian vision where we all agree is both chimerical and dangerous. Any community above the village needs to build into itself the capacity for conflict and tension in politics. Campaigning politics is about making sure your side wins. Statesmanlike politics is about making sure both sides remain in play.

And here Scottish politics, as evidenced by Hassan's article and the same sex 'marriage' debate, is dangerously locked into campaigning rather than statesmanlike mode. The aim is the triumph of modernism (read, 'liberalism') over that other conservative strand of values. Instead, the aim should be to ensure that any future Scotland is an arena where these perennial tensions can be lived in a creative struggle. At the moment, articulated conservative thinking is almost non-existent in the Scottish political and cultural sphere. Whilst that will undoubtedly please modernizers and even flatter their own view of themselves as an intellectual elite, the reality is that the continuance of such a one sided position will either reduce a future, independent Scotland to a one ideology state, or, more realistically, will drive social conservatives to the view that we are much better off sticking with Great Britain and its more diverse political and cultural life.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

A wafer does turn into flesh and blood: Corpus Christi and Dawkins

                              Richard Dawkins is also capable of undergoing startling transformations...

Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated, and need to be challenged – and if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt,” he told the cheering crowd on the National Mall.

“For example, if they say they're Catholic: Do you really believe, that when a priest blesses a wafer, it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?”

If the answer is yes, Dawkins suggested atheists should show contempt for believers instead of ignoring the issue or feigning respect.

“Mock them,” he told the crowd. “Ridicule them! In public!”
(Report on Reason Rally here.)

Sunday is the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Feast when Catholics celebrate the real presence of Christ in the transubstantiated elements of bread and wine. To put that in Dawkins speak, it's when us sky-fairy loons worship a meat biscuit.

So let's get the preliminaries out of the way. Yes, putting aside some nuances (it's not any old 'blessing' but 'consecration'), I believe that when the priest blesses a wafer and wine, they turn into the body and blood of Christ. Again, still on the preliminaries, the Church does not believe that, if you subject the (consecrated) host to chemical analysis etc, it will appear as flesh and blood: it's precisely to rule out such a view that the doctrine of transubstantiation exists. The accidents of the host are bread/wine; the substance of the host is flesh/blood. (It looks like bread, it smells like bread, but it's really flesh and blood.)

Now, it's one sort of irrationality if sky fairy worshippers went around claiming that (if you analyzed the host) it would turn out to be meat. It's another form of (alleged) irrationality if you claim that, despite all appearances, it really is meat. We hold the latter. We don't hold the former. Please get our irrationality right before mocking.

Given all that, what can I say to defend the rationality of transubstantiation? Firstly, let's get back to general principles. Catholicism contains faith and reason working hand in hand. Each will have a preponderance in different areas. Thus, in ethics, most Catholic doctrines are (I would argue) capable of being defended on the basis of unaided human reason. But every now and then, you will hit a doctrine which depends on faith: the trust that God (as wisdom) can see further and understand more than we can. Once that particular doctrine is accepted, you will find that it aids our understanding of the world. But to get into that position, you have to take it on trust.

Here's an analogy. No child is capable of rationally establishing the basis of arithmetic. But by taking arithmetic on trust, she will find herself introduced into and capable of operating in a more rationally comprehensible world. Similarly, no Catholic is able to prove the truth of transubstantiation beyond pointing to our (reasonable trust) in the specific words of God and in the Church's interpretation of those words. But if the doctrine is accepted, it enriches our understanding of the world.

OK. But how does this enrichment show itself? Here's a few suggestions:

a) It avoids a Christianity which suggests that God came to earth because we needed him to guide us, but then went away again. Christ never went away again: he remains constantly, really present in his Church.

b) Christianity, finally, is not about words or noise. It is about the silent, physical presence of God.

c) It emphasizes the Mass as sacrifice and links us into that Biblical and Classical tradition of sacrifice. Just as in the Jewish Temple, just as on pagan altars, we offer (real) flesh and blood.

d) It reminds us that earthly things can be transformed into heavenly things. Bread can be transformed into God. A human being could be God. I can become divinized and recover myself as the image of God. Matter is not evil.

e) 'There lives the dearest freshness deep down things' as Hopkins put it. There is a characteristic nightmare of transformation (typical in horror films) that, beneath the mask, lies a terrifying reality. Sartre puts it like this:

“What if something were to happen? What if something suddenly started throbbing? Then they would notice it was there and they'd think their hearts were going to burst. Then what good would their dykes, bulwarks, power houses, furnaces and pile drivers be to them? It can happen any time, perhaps right now: the omens are present. For example, the father of a family might go out for a walk, and, across the street, he'll see something like a red rag, blown towards him by the wind. And when the rag has gotten close to him he'll see that it is a side of rotten meat, grimy with dust, dragging itself along by crawling, skipping, a piece of writhing flesh rolling in the gutter, spasmodically shooting out spurts of blood. Or a mother might look at her child's cheek and ask him: "What's that, a pimple?" and see the flesh puff out a little, split, open, and at the bottom of the split an eye, a laughing eye might appear. Or they might feel things gently brushing against their bodies, like the caresses of reeds to swimmers in a river. And they will realize that their clothing has become living things. And someone else might feel something scratching in his mouth. He goes to the mirror, opens his mouth: and his tongue is an enormous, live centipede, rubbing its legs together and scraping his palate. He'd like to spit it out, but the centipede is a part of him and he will have to tear it out with his own hands. And a crowd of things will appear for which people will have to find new names, stone eye, great three cornered arm, toe crutch, spider jaw. And someone might be sleeping in his comfortable bed, in his quiet, warm room, and wake up naked on a bluish earth, in a forest of rustling birch trees, rising red and white towards the sky like the smokestacks of Jouxtebouville, with big bumps half way out of the ground, hairy and bulbous like onions. And birds will fly around these birch trees and pick at them with their beaks and make them bleed. Sperm will flow slowly, gently, from these wounds, sperm mixed with blood, warm and glassy with little bubbles.”

Transubstantiation resists the modern nightmare with the ancient truth: beneath appearances, there is depth and there is God.

Anyway, enough to give evidence of two points:

a) Catholics believe in transubstantiation not because they reason it is true, but because God (through the Bible and the Church) tell us it is true and we trust them. This is one of those moments when the trust earned on other occasions through rational proof asks us to go beyond -but not in contradiction to- reason. (Bit like with a child or spouse: every so often, you just have to trust them. But that trust has been earned.) But having believed it, it receives rational confirmation through the work it does.

b) Transubstantiation is not an idle doctrine: it does matter whether or not you believe it. I certainly wouldn't say that you can't be a Catholic without believing in transubstantiation: every Catholic is in some way a bad Catholic. But i) it's one thing to have personal problems with this or that doctrine: it's quite another to assert (or even teach) that it is wrong ('I don't understand' does not entail 'It is wrong'); ii) if you don't believe it, you are missing out on a fuller, richer understanding of the world.

And perhaps that's the final message. Catholic teachings fundamentally are not about a test of strength of will:  there's no particular virtue in training yourself to believe 1001 different things before breakfast. They are, on the other hand, meant to be helpful: if you don't believe in them, or even entertain them as a possibility, you are missing out.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Natural law in Chinese thought

Interesting piece on natural law in Chinese thought here.

Man has received from heaven a nature innately good, to guide him in all his movements. By devotion to this divine spirit within himself, he attains an unsullied innocence that leads him to do right with instinctive sureness and without any ulterior thought of reward and personal advantage. This instinctive certainty brings about supreme success and “furthers through perseverance.” However, not everything instinctive is nature in this higher sense of the word, but only that which is right and in accord with the will of heaven. Without this quality of rightness, an unreflecting, instinctive way of acting brings only misfortune. Confucius says about this: “He who departs from innocence, what does he come to? Heaven’s will and blessing do not go with his deeds

The connection between (Greek based) virtue ethics and in particular Confucianism represents something of a minor boom industry in modern philosophy (for a fuller academic presentation, see PDF article here.) I'm not going to pretend to be on top of this area, although I have kept an interested amateur eye on it for a while.

In general terms, both Classical Greek and Chinese thought, like Catholicism, try to negotiate a path between the pre-modern sense that nature is more than raw material to be chewed up and reassembled willy nilly; and the clear intuition that not everything that in fact happens in the world of nature is good. Aristotelian thought focuses its solution on formal and final causes: the idea that there is some good towards which substances tend, but from which they can be diverted. (This approach is taken up directly in Thomism where it coupled with the Biblical idea that God has a plan which can be resisted or embraced by human beings, a thought obviously analogous to that expressed in the passage above.)

It's rather odd that, in an era where Green ideas about nature being good and even possessing some sort of personality ('Gaia') sit uneasily side by side with modernity's tendency to see nature as simply a bucket of chemicals to be used, the philosophical approach behind Catholic natural law which acknowledges the truths in both tendencies is immediately dismissed by 'right thinking' people as obviously wrong. It's particularly odd given the popularity of evolutionary psychology which likewise suggests that we cannot simply make up our lives and nature in any way we wish.

But perhaps what the West won't take from Catholicism it will take from Confucius...

Friday, 1 June 2012

Richard Holloway and Leaving Alexandria

I've been putting off posting about Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria because I didn't really trust myself to be fair about it. On the personal level, Holloway is charming. Which is, of course, part of the reason he provokes strong views: charm is a very easy gift for those who don't possess it to resent. On the other hand, theologically and philosophically, I can scarcely express how deeply I disagree with him. So all in all a potent affective brew I was content to leave alone for a while.

But it'd been sitting on my Kindle for a while, and I finally succumbed. Given that every review I've read has been favourable (Telegraph linked above; (Glasgow) Herald here) I'm relieved that I can recommend it. And I'm even more relieved that I came away liking Holloway rather more than I did before. The book begins with a heart wrenching return to Kelham Hall, former home of the Society of the Sacred Mission, where Holloway trained as a priest, now transformed into a Local Authority 'events centre', but still with the almost forgotten graveyard of former members of the Society which he visits. Despite a certain amount of posturing that goes on in the book, the sense of loss and regret here I've no doubt is both genuine and genuinely touching. Moreover, the one aspect of his career that really made me fume -how he could have accepted positions of power and authority in the Episcopal Church and then used them to undermine it- takes on a more human aspect: he wasn't fully aware of his developing doubts until after he became Primus. And given the detailed narrative in the book, that claim becomes more plausible than it might seem in the abstract.

OK. So as a human document, read it. But most of the reviews I've seen go further and praise its understanding of religion and God. For example, the Guardian:

Even more valuably, it meditates on the ways in which a doubt-filled life can still be filled with grace. "The mistake," he says, "was to think religion was more than human. I was less sure whether God was also just a human invention, but I was sure religion was." This is simply put, but with the whole weight of a very thoughtful and courageous book behind it, it summarises an argument that a lot of people will find sympathetic, as well as compelling.

On this level, it's hopeless. There's a very clear line of argument running through the book which goes like this. Religion -in its institutional, particularly (Anglo or Roman) Catholic state- is oppressive. Rather than developing the freedom and poetry that is within it, it allows itself to crush and pervert our natural human impulses:

The conservative mind believes that the only way to contain the unruly wills and affections of sinful men is through strong, stable and ruthless institutions that are prepared to sacrifice the individual for the greater good of the community. And the Church was one of the most important of these restraining structures. (Leaving Alexandria, p183).

Here, I think he does identify a problem, but a problem with only some versions of traditional Christianity, and in particular, with the version of Anglo-Catholicism he encountered at Kelham. Anglicanism, even in many of its Anglo-Catholic forms, is profoundly Erastian: it sees itself as a department of the state or world with its own peculiar, and heavily circumscribed sphere. And that sphere is indeed often social control: reconciling us peasants to the existing political power. In essence, Holloway sees 'good' religion as being a conscience: a critical and prophetic voice which challenges the world and calls it to a greater depth and love. But when it comes to work -moral thinking beyond the immediate and pastoral; creation of institutions and the rule of law- that's not religion's job: that's the job of the world. And by the end of his career, he's not even sure that religion is that good as a critical voice: if you want poetry, why not turn to a poet? If you want philosophy, why not turn to a philosopher?

When I was an Episcopalian, a lot of priestly activity seemed to be directed within the church: 'Look, we all know you've been brought up in this dreadfully oppressive understanding of God -but now we're going to free you from it!' Having been brought up as an atheist with very little guilt about anything, this always struck me as rather beside the point: I'd been attracted to Christianity, not by its bad bits (it contains human beings, of course it's got bad bits), but by its good bits -and in particular, an understanding of the world (and indeed of sex and personal relationships) that had been developed over two thousand years of constant reflection and engagement with the wisdom of the ancient classical world and Judaism. But the good bits weren't really mentioned or seriously considered. It was all: 'We used to oppress you with the thought that sex was bad, and now we're going to save you from that oppression. We used to think that reason was bad, but now we're going to get you to read and think for yourselves (but just so long as it's only stuff about how bad the Church used to be).' In my gloomiest moments, it all seemed (and still does seem) like a job creation scheme for redundant clergy: 'The only job left for the Church is to free those people still too stupid to leave the Church.'

At its worst, Anglicanism is dumb spirituality and ritualism. It lacks the philosophical background that Catholicism has in scholasticism. Moreover, unlike Holloway's Anglicanism, Catholicism is not just (although it is in part) a critical voice: it is also a constructive voice offering a full vision of a society and human life rather than outsourcing these activities to the state. Catholicism, unlike Holloway's Anglicanism, is not just the drama of priests working out how to spend their life in a world that increasingly ignores them: it is an institution and a tradition which shines forth in the life of every Catholic, from the migrant worker struggling with the injustice of immigration systems to the politician struggling with establishing a cohesive society; from the campaigner struggling to preserve the institution of marriage against sexual licence, to the families abandoned by a partner who has succumbed to that licence.

Institutions such as schools (or seminaries) always have their crassnesses. So do individuals. Pointing to their inevitable failings, whilst part of the struggle to make lives better, should not entail the abolition of either. Religion is in part the institutionalization of that struggle for meaning and love that ought to be part of the highest human activity. To abolish it is not to achieve salvation, but only to deliver us defenceless either into the crassness of secular institutions or into the emptiness of the individual who is sufficient unto himself.