Saturday 31 January 2015

What is Man? Part 1

                                                     Crucifixion- Alonso Cano

Lord, what is man that you take notice of him;
    the son of man, that you think of him?
Psalms 144:3

Look into this mirror every day, O queen, spouse of Jesus Christ, And continually examine your face in it.... that mirror suspended upon the wood of the cross
St Clare of Assisi- Fourth Letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague

We tend to think that the enquiry What is Man? (meaning female and male) is a philosophical question. The psalmist reminds us that it is also a theological one. In order to understand the relationship between humans and God it is necessary to understand the nature of each participant in that relationship. One significant difference between the two disciplines is that theology unlike philosophy regards the contents of divine revelation, such as scripture, to be part of the data it needs to consider. It appears to me, nonetheless, that since the time of the 'Enlightenment' Western philosophers have implicitly accepted that the propositions which theologians have advanced in answer to the question should form part of their philosophical first assumptions regarding Man. As Western societies become post-Christian, however, this is decreasingly the case. It is my contention that the more philosophers confine their considerations to merely human sources and propositions then the more inhuman their philosophies become so that a Culture of Death increasingly emerges.

This sounds counter-intuitive to everyone who isn't hard-core religious. Surely, the argument would go, nowadays we are more accepting of things like divorce and homosexuality? This must prove that philosophies have become more human by being less judgemental. Against this I would contend that these changes proceed not so much from compassion towards our fellow humans as from indifference about them. People can do what they like whether it makes them happy or not because freedom, conceived of as autonomy, not happiness is the major concern of human philosophy. We are permissive about others only because we wish others to be permissive about ourselves. Doing what we wish has priority over doing what is right because (a) that way we need acknowledge no external constraints upon our freedom and (b) there is no consensus about what is right. Against this I hope to demonstrate that the Christian answer to What is Man? provides the basic assumptions which we require to form a philosophy which is truly human in the sense of guiding humans to fulfil their essential natures as creatures whose purpose is not to be autonomous pleasure-seekers but to give of themselves in loving service to others.

For Christians, I think, the best place to start is not the beginning if by beginning we mean- 'Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness' (Genesis 1:26) This is because the icon of God implied here is not Adam as archetypal Man but-  'in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them'. That is humanity as a whole is a reflection of God and each individual is only imperfectly such. In the figure of Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, however we see what it means to be Man and what it means to be God distilled into a single person. Thus we can avoid abstractions and come quickly to concrete definitions and propositions by fixing our gaze upon Him. More than that, St Clare (like many of the women who have taught the universal Church) showed great wisdom when she suggested that it is Christ Crucified who reveals ourselves to ourselves most fully. He does so, I would suggest, in two ways: as He is in Himself we get a positive vision of what Man is or should be and through Him as He is situationally we can make inferences about Man.


                            The Death of St Clare- Master of Heiligenkreuz

One aspect of our Lord's Passion is that it was voluntarily undertaken for the sake of liberating humans from bondage to corruption and death. We can infer from this that, since this liberation is offered to each human ever conceived, Man is loved with an extreme, self-sacrificial love. That is, every human person is the object of an infinite love. Further to that we may add that since it can be said of God that not only is He Love but He is also Reason (as mentioned in my post Why Be Moral?) this love is a rational love. Which means that it can be posited of Man that he is lovable. If we pair these things then one part of the answer to What is Man? becomes Man, individually and collectively, is loved and lovable from the moment of conception through to the moment of natural death and at every single point in between. If we accept this proposition then we must conclude that human life is a sacred thing just because it is human and for no other reason.

We can see here a contrast with post-Christian philosophies which could be summed up in relation to the social issues I mentioned earlier. A Christian philosophy would propose that we love divorced persons and homosexual persons. A post-Christian one proposes that we love divorce and homosexuality. The difference outcome flows from the different reasoning process. If the priority is to ensure the maximum independence of each person from every other person then almost anything which dissolves bonds, particularly the strong bonds which family creates, is welcomed. If, however, the aim is to simply love what is sacred, because it is loved and lovable, then a desire to strengthen not weaken bonds emerges. It might no doubt be argued that divorce and same sex partnerships are different ways for love to express itself and that in any event Catholicism has not in practice shown much love for divorced persons or homosexual persons. The latter point is only valid insofar as one reads it to mean that Catholics have not always displayed this love, philosophies are not always well served by their followers. The former point is covered by the next thing which is revealed about Man in the mirror of Christ Crucified.

The proximate cause of the Passion was human sin. It seems anachronistic to talk about sin in this era since the non-Christian population is largely divided into those who know what the word means but don't accept the concept and those who have no real idea what the concept actually is. So to say that another part of the answer to What is Man? would be 'Man is a sinner' requires some explanation. The Catechism defines sin thus- "Sin is an offence against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity" Another way of putting it is that it is an exercise in radical autonomy, a putting of the desire of the self for some gratification ahead of all other considerations. Essentially sin is the practical application of a post-Christian philosophy stripped of its moral compass. The concept of solidarity is not one that is often adverted to in contemporary discourse because accepting it places one under the obligation of considering other persons before oneself. It has been used in the language of some political movements like socialism or nationalism but the Catholic understanding of it is a much deeper thing and it encompasses a network of relationships. Sin is that which intrinsically disturbs such relationships. Insofar as divorce and homosexual acts have those tendencies then they do not tend to human happiness and cannot be approved. These are issues which I hope to explore more fully in Part 2.

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Thursday 29 January 2015

Why Be Moral?

Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
    the upright shall live in your presence.
Psalms 140:13

 If you consider that he is righteous, you also know that everyone who acts in righteousness is begotten by him
1 John 2:29

Before answering the Why question a philosopher would ask the What questions- what is morality? what is a moral life? After answering the What and Why they would likely then proceed to the How questions- how can I live ethically? how can human societies be collectively moral? This helps explain why philosophy books tend to be quite big and not very popular. They seem to spend a lot of time proving what the reader already knows to be true or attempting to disprove what the reader thinks of as 'common sense.' Religion appears to offer a way of short-cutting all this tedious playing with words. All religions have associated moralities and within the Abrahamic religions these have the sanction of divine revelation. Morality is what revelation says it is, obedience to God is the only acceptable response to revelation and within the content of that revelation, either in the form of scripture or divinely mandated authority, is all the guidance required for individuals and societies to live out the moral life in practice.

There is no real doubt that if this is an accurate summary of religious belief then many of the criticisms levelled at religion by New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens (God grant him rest) and the current Richard Dawkins (God keep him on Twitter) are well merited. Such a rigid structure which requires no moral judgement on the part of believers but merely an acceptance of the first principles of faith would lend them and their belief system to being manipulated in the service of anyone who could pervert the interpretation of revelation to suit their own purposes, as Islamic State and Boko Haram appear to have done with Islam. There are, however, a number of things which could be said about this critique. Firstly, any moral code which has been reduced to a written set of rules is liable to be misadministered by the kind of unimaginative epigones that rise to the top of an established bureaucracy. This will typically result in injustices and absurdities regardless of the original source of the code because the letter and not the spirit is the deciding principle in decision making. Stalinism is the classic secular example of this but even the much vaunted Western Liberalism is vulnerable to the same defect. Secondly, Catholic thought proposes two crucial considerations which must always be borne in mind by those seeking to apply the moral rules derived from revelation. These are the principle of reason and a living relationship with the divine source of revelation.

In an Address to scientists at Regensburg early in his papacy Pope Benedict XVI looked closely at the role of reason in religion. One of his key points was that part of the definition of God provided by the scriptures is that God is Reason in the same sort of way that we say God is Love. He focussed on the prologue to the Gospel account of St John 'in the beginning was the word' where what we translate as 'word' is Logos in the original Greek. He said 'God acts...with logos. Logos means both reason and word - a reason which is creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason' One of the implications of this is that God cannot act irrationally, this is, as it were, a check on His omnipotence. And what He cannot do He cannot command. Therefore all moral codes which are derived or claim to be derived from divine revelation must past the test of reason. Moreover humans, being endowed by God with reasoning powers, are obliged to apply that test to everything which they encounter including revelation itself. A mechanical obedience to authority of whatever kind is of no merit, however meritorious the authority may be and however outwardly virtuous the physical act may appear to be. Right action always requires to be accompanied by right intention and the latter cannot be formed without the conscious and deliberate use of reason.

The Regensburg Address gave rise to a storm of controversy because a quotation used by the Holy Father from Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus was maliciously or ignorantly attributed to Benedict himself. The emperor had said "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Although Muslims were wrong to suppose that this was intended as a modern commentary by the Pope it might be argued that some of the other words used by His Holiness should have given them pause for thought- 'for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality.' Speaking about theological speculations by both Christians and Muslims he added that they might lead to  'the image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness. God's transcendence and otherness are so exalted that our reason, our sense of the true and good, are no longer an authentic mirror of God, whose deepest possibilities remain eternally unattainable and hidden behind his actual decisions.' The Catholic Church has decisively rejected such speculations and the image of a God always in harmony with reason forms part of her infallible Magisterium. This cannot, however, be said for Islam or, indeed, for Judaism or the Christianity of the Reformation if only because there is no body with the authority to say it. Thus these religions remain vulnerable to dissident groups who will use the image of a capricious God as the basis for a moral code which demands obedience unmediated by reason from its followers.

                                            St Thomas Before the Cross- Sassetta

God should have more than a walk-on part in the life of His faithful people. That is, each person should have a living relationship with Him and this exchange of love should lie at the heart of their decision-making processes. The Apostle John suggests that those who live righteously are begotten by the Righteous One. I think that means more than asking What Would Jesus Do when we are faced with morally significant choices. It means that we should allow ourselves to be possessed by our Lord in such a fashion that He lives in us (and we in Him.) Thus it should be the case that He acts through us and that in a sense our moral choices are literally His. This is a difficult programme to fulfil of course but at the least when we are charged with making especially significant ethical decisions we should have recourse to prayer, meditation, study of Scripture and the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. We give Him an opportunity to speak clearly within our very hearts and then we pause to listen to what He might say. In that sense I would interpret the psalmist words 'the upright shall live in your presence' as meaning that we only come to life as upright persons when we are in His presence. Apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5) Therefore it must be our aim to be as fully clothed with Christ as is possible in our daily journey because only so can we be fully alive to Him and, through us, He can be alive to those whom we encounter who will be affected by our moral actions. His choices are always morally good and where there is no difference between His choices and ours then we can be sure that we are living a moral life.

It is important to stress that any one of the three strands, revelation, reason, relationship, used independently of the other two is potentially dangerous. Revelation can be radically misunderstood, reason can be based on faulty assumptions, relationship can be illusory (atheists would argue that it always is.) Therefore the three must be woven together and all of them must lie behind any moral act we take individually or corporately. A further danger flows from the situation where revelation is understood to consist of nothing more than a written text. Here everything rests on private judgement so a person can believe that they have accurately and reasonably interpreted the text and that God has personally OK'd their interpretation. They can then go on to persuade others to agree with them and set in chain a movement grounded perhaps upon irrational and immoral premises. Against this there requires to be an authoritative source for interpreting revelation in the light of reason. It might be argued that this source itself can fall prey to irrationality or delusion and teach unreason as reason. Here the Catholic idea of infallibility presents itself not, as is generally thought, as an expansion of Papal power but a limitation upon it. An infallible teaching cannot be abrogated or negated therefore Popes are bound by precedent and cannot issue instructions which contradict previous ones. The moral codes present in the Church today are present in them for all time.

If we answer the question 'why be moral?' by saying 'because Jesus is moral' then we are correct but insufficiently so. Behind this answer is the question 'why is Jesus moral?' To which the answer might be that morality is always reasonable and God is reason and Jesus is God. Christianity proposes a morality which is, I think, of a much higher standard than can be proposed by unaided reason alone. That is, it is reason taken to a superlative level, revelation and relationship are the two wings upon which we can rise up to the level of a divine morality which is divine reason. It is not a rejection of reason or an alternative to it, it is the perfection of reason. So the question 'why be moral?' becomes the question 'why be perfect?' to which the answer this time really is 'So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48)

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Sunday 25 January 2015

Sister Donkey, Brother Pangolin

Next morning when Balaam arose, he saddled his donkey, and went off with the princes of Moab.....When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord there, she lay down under Balaam. Balaam’s anger flared up and he beat the donkey with his stick. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she asked Balaam, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?"....the angel of the Lord said to him: “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come as an adversary because this rash journey of yours is against my will. When the donkey saw me, she turned away from me these three times. If she had not turned away from me, you are the one I would have killed, though I would have spared her....”
from Numbers 22:21-34

All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister
Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us
Canticle of the Creatures- St Francis of Assisi

To the best of my knowledge there is only one postlapsarian example of a talking animal in the Bible. For atheists and sceptics of course that is one too many. Balaam's ass is conclusive prove, they argue, that the Scriptures are simply a collection of fables and fantasies. If, however, you were to turn to the Bible after reading actual collections of fables and fantasies of a similar length and similar antiquity to the Old Testament it is the comparative lack of talking animals which would strike you. It is an obvious motif to use and the Jewish scriptures use it remarkably sparingly which should alert you to the fact that there is at the least something unusual in the way that their holy books were compiled or in the beliefs which they held. Be that as it may my primary purpose in this post is with defending modern animals not ancient texts. Whether you accept the account of Balaam, the Angel and the suffering donkey as an historical account or as an extended parable then either way I would contend that there are important lessons which we can learn from it.

The donkey was savagely beaten because Balaam did not understand the benefit that she was conferring upon him by her behaviour. And often, indeed, it is the case that humankind mistreats or destroys this or that part of the environment in ways which they would not do if they fully realised the long term damage which they were doing to themselves and their species by their actions. A pangolin, for example, can eat up to seven million insects a year. We do not know what the impact upon us would be if these insects were allowed to multiply unchecked. It is unlikely to be good however and there is an excellent chance that we will find out because currently pangolins are being hunted to extinction across two continents, Asia and Africa. In this we resemble Balaam, we are attacking something which simply by being itself may well be defending us. (For more about Pangolins see my blog Anteaters & the Aphrodisiac of Doom)

A further lesson might be this: Balaam was a prophet and setting out to prophesy against Israel because he had been paid to do so, that is, out of greed he was misusing his gifts from God. The poachers who have made pangolins the most trafficked mammal on planet earth for the most part do not themselves consume them. They are sold on to traders who transport them to their final destination, usually Vietnam or China, where they are eaten as a delicacy by the elites (pangolin foetus soup is a particular favourite) or their scales are used for traditional Chinese medicine, although they actually confer no benefit at all being made of the same stuff as human fingernails. [You can hear more about this in a podcast Poached Pangolin from the BBC World Service series From Our Own Correspondent starting about 11 minutes in] We can all sympathise with people in poverty being forced by their circumstances to do unpleasant things but trafficking pangolins is not a traditional way of life nor is it a question of survival. Pangolins command premium prices so poachers are lured into the trade as Balaam was by the temptation of more money than they would otherwise get but which they don't, strictly speaking, require.

The assault upon the poor donkey was added to the list of Balaam's sins. Cruelty to animals is an abomination in the sight of God and of his angels. Especially is this so when it is a foolish cruelty whereby the man harms both himself and the animal in his rage or spite. It is a Catholic moral axiom that both the action and the motivation for the action need to be taken into account when considering the moral culpability attached to it. Our sister donkey asked Balaam this question:  “Am I not your donkey, on which you have always ridden until now? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way before?”  When a thing, person or animal starts to behave in unexpected ways the first response of a reasoning creature should be to ask why this is happening. All too often humans respond with ungovernable rage when not only should they know better but they do know better. Experience has taught us that reason not rage is the only really effective way to resolve such problems yet we allow the latter to run its course before allowing the former its proper sovereignty. In the case of those who consume pangolins it is gluttony or pride (eating pangolins is a form of conspicuous consumption for the capitalist entrepreneurs and communist bureaucrats in Vietnam and China) rather than anger which has dethroned reason. In some ways this is worse because anger is usually of short duration, pride lasts a lifetime. The history of humankind and the environment shows us that all too often rationality only appears when it is too late to repair the damage caused by sin. When pangolins become extinct, which is a real possibility, then they will be gone beyond recall and the harm will be irreversible.

February 21 2015 is World Pangolin Day. Here is what we can do to help these wonderful creatures
  • TWEET using the hashtag #WorldPangolinDay
  • LIKE the World Pangolin Day Facebook page
  • BLOG about pangolins on World Pangolin Day
  • SHARE pangolin information on your social media networks
  • CREATE pangolin art — paint, draw, sculpt, tattoo
  • EDUCATE by giving a presentation about pangolins at school
  • SUPPORT organizations which are working to protect pangolins
  • HOST a World Pangolin Day party or event (post your photos on the World Pangolin Day page!)
  • BAKE cookies or a cake in the shape of a pangolin (post your photos on the World Pangolin Day page!)
  • REQUEST full enforcement of laws and penalties for smuggling pangolins (and other wildlife)
  • INFORM traditional medicine prescribers that the use of pangolin scales is illegal (and there are no proven health benefits to consuming scales — they are made of keratin, just like fingernails!)
  • NOTIFY the authorities if you see pangolins for sale at markets or on restaurant menus, or if you know of anyone capturing or possessing pangolins.

 Less usefully you could follow the Catholic Scot Pangolin Pics Page on Pinterest to see stuff like this-

It is significant that in his Canticle St Francis says of Mother Earth that she sustains us and governs us. We may often remember the first but seldom the second part of this proposition. There are biological limits on humans. We are not and never shall be Masters of the Universe or even Masters of Planet Earth. Imposing ourselves on the environment will always have incalculable consequences because God's creation is infinitely more complex than our attempts to control it will ever allow for. This is not to abandon science, the attempt to understand creation, or technology, the attempt to use our understanding in cooperation with the world around us. But it is a caution to us that we must remember that the first reasonable principle which we should apply to all potentially world changing actions in relation to the planet that we undertake is humility. Thinking before acting does not prevent wise actions but it may stop foolish ones.

Support Save Pangolins, Project Pangolin United for Wildlife and other Pangolin friendly organisations

Thursday 22 January 2015

Silver & Gold I Have None

                                                Healing of the Lame Man-Raphael

 Peter with John fastening his eyes upon him, said: Look upon us. But he looked earnestly upon them, hoping that he should receive something of them. But Peter said: Silver and gold I have none; but what I have, I give thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise, and walk.
Acts 3:4-6

Turn my heart to Your decrees and not to material gain. Turn my eyes from looking at what is worthless; give me life in Your ways.
Psalm 118/9:36-36

There is a lot of looking going on in these texts. Sight is one of the mechanisms which we use to give our attention to something. Attention is the primary thing and vision is a mere auxiliary to it. What I mean by that is that although no doubt none of us wishes to go blind if it so happened that we did then our integrity as a person would remain intact. Our ability to focus our mind to a point and concentrate upon it would remain unimpaired although it would be discommoded. If however while still possessing sight we lost the ability to pay attention to anything then we would cease to be the person we are now. When considering texts like this then it can be a worthwhile exercise to leave aside consideration of the external events unfolding before the eyes and think about the essential objects upon which the attention of the participants, and by extension we the readers, is centred.

The disabled man whom the Apostles encountered desired to live. He was begging because only thus could he obtain the means necessary to that end. His attention was focussed on Saints Peter and John because he hoped that they could help him to keep body and soul together. His desire was a purely material one. There is a temptation to suppose that the intention of St Peter was equally material, to effect a bodily healing, and that what he gave to the man was good health. We should though bear in mind the words of Jesus 'Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? (Luke 5:23) The gift which St Peter gave was the name of Jesus, one of the effects of that gift was to heal the man's disability.

The post-modern mind is often impatient with miracle stories and seeks to discount them. So much the worse for the post-modern mind of course but if, as I suggest, we concentrate on the essence rather than the accidents of this episode is there anything in it which even the post-moderns can profit from? The beggar was in the position of most people in the secular West. He knew little about Christianity, cared less and expected next-to-nothing from it. To him the two Apostles were simply people who could assist him in achieving his immediate aims. There is a sense in which religion must have been important to him since he was begging at the gate of the Jerusalem Temple. Beggars are pragmatists, they beg where they will get results not where they will be ignored. Even today you will find much more begging outside of the doors of a cathedral than you will at a science museum, art gallery or supermarket. So then, our disabled man recognised the charitable impulses of many religious his object was to receive charity theirs was to give it.

St Peter here represents both the Christian Church and, in a sense, Jesus or at least the intentions of Jesus. He is concerned first and above all with the spiritual well being of the beggar but also with his physical well being. He gives him then the only thing which he has, the name of Jesus, and that effects a creation of wholeness in the man. A physical, easily observed wholeness to be sure but more than that St Luke (the author of Acts) also records 'he entered the temple complex with them—walking, leaping, and praising God' (Acts 3:8) The praising God thing is important because there was no inevitability about it. Jesus knew this only too well 'one of them, seeing that he was healed, returned and, with a loud voice, gave glory to God. He fell face down at His feet, thanking Him. And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Didn’t any return to give glory to God except this foreigner?' (Luke 17:15-17) Physical healings, miracles, do not inevitably produce faith or even gratitude for that matter. What is important to a person, the things which she gives most attention to, are what produces the most profound of her reactions and that does not always include an appreciation of what others have done for her.

                                    Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame Man- Poussin

If the disabled man is a representative figure for those outside the Church who sometimes turn to it with requests what can we say of their intentions and expectations? There is nothing supernatural in them. Nor are they necessarily strictly material. Many in the West will seek a brief comfort in the liturgies or even just the buildings and candles of the Church at times of great sorrow, tragedy or distress. The beggar in our text, like many beggars today, would not doubt have wanted money first and foremost but would also appreciate a moment of human contact, a smile, a nod, a friendly conversation. I think it fair to say also that, at least subconsciously, people expect to receive more from Christians (again not just in a material way) than they do from others. An expectation that seems to stubbornly remain no matter how often it might in practice be disappointed. This is grounded in a feeling that the standards of Christianity and the person of Jesus are of such a sublime nature that some of it must rub off on Christians (although sadly all too often it just doesn't.) The intuition is a sound one so far as the standards go and if it doesn't flow from personal experience then I would think it fair to attribute it to the work of the Holy Spirit, it is a gift of grace.

And what of  the same encounter viewed from the other side that of St Peter/the Church? Firstly we should note that he was not alone, St John accompanied him, which reminds us that the Church, that Christianity, is a collective enterprise not a solitary one. Conservative Catholics blanch at the use of the word 'collective' because it stirs up thoughts of communism. At the risk of sounding Chestertonian I would say that everything truly evil is always but an imitation of Christianity perverted to wicked ends. It is only mediocrity that does not imitate Christianity although all too often Christians and the Church imitate mediocrity (for more about Chesterton see my post G. K. Chesterton & the Square Circle).  What was the focus of St Peter's attention? Apparently two things, his faith in the name of Jesus and his compassion for the plight of the indigent man with a disability. But, of course, the two were one. For a Christian it is true that faith and compassion are a single thing, they cannot be separated. Faith and compassion without deeds is a pointless thing so St Peter was moved to action. The beggar wanted money, the Apostles had no money, so Peter did the only thing he could do. He prayed, he involved Jesus in the business of changing the world, and he did so without hesitation and without doubt. And, behold, the world was changed.

Unlike the Apostles the Church does have access to money and like them it has an obligation to make faith real in the world through deeds. In this episode we have a guide to what that means. Faced with an appeal the response must be instant, it must be collective, it must involve human contact (giving money to a third party to do compassion for you doesn't cut it) it must be practical, it must involve prayer and it must be rooted and grounded in the name and person of Jesus Christ. More than that we should recall that although conversion was an effect of the healing it was not a condition for it. The Church is bound to help for the sake of being helpful not for the sake of gaining members.' If you know these things, you shall be blessed if you do them' (John 13:17)

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On a lighter note I also have a Nativity fable on Wattpad Adoration of the Pangolins

Sunday 18 January 2015

Mary: Refuge of Sinners

                                        The Story of Ruth- Thomas Matthews Rooke

 Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.
John 4:35

And Ruth the Moabitess said unto Naomi, Let me now go to the field, and glean ears of corn after him in whose sight I shall find grace.
Ruth 2:2

The gulf of incomprehension between Catholics and Christians from the ecclesial communities of the 'Reformation' (Protestants for short) on the subject of devotion to Mary is fuelled in part by the radically different ways the two traditions read the Old Testament scriptures. The man who inspired the 'Reformation' Martin Luther said "The Christian reader should make it his first task to seek out the literal sense, as they call it. For it alone is the whole substance of faith and Christian theology" This means that what appears on the surface of the written words is sufficient in itself to convey all that we need to know about God. Catholicism, by contrast sees four levels or senses of Scripture. The literal is the foundation of all the others but it does not exhaust the content of Divine revelation, so if we rest in it alone then we miss out on all that the Lord intends to convey to us via the medium of the sacred texts.

For example, we can believe that the crossing of the Red Sea was both an historical event and a pre-figuring of baptism. Protestants will accept this because St Paul said so (1 Corinthians 10:1-2) They are reluctant however to apply the same kind of approach to those scriptures where there is no explicit scriptural mandate to do so. Catholics are not so timid. An allegorical reading of a passage which does not deny or contradict the literal sense, which is consonant with the faith received from the Apostles and which helps us to better understand and more deeply love God is a perfectly acceptable approach to studying scripture. By using it Catholicism arrives at the idea that the New Testament is hidden within the Old, that is, concealed under persons and events, and so the New reveals the meaning of the Old. Christians and Jews therefore will read these Scriptures in radically different ways unless the Christians adopt the Lutheran approach which bring them close to the Jewish methodology.

And so we come to Mary. Catholics understand many OT passages to refer to the Mother of Jesus, her life, her personality and her role in the history of salvation. Since Protestants see nothing more in these passages than the events, persons or places described in them they simply don't 'get' what Catholics are on about when discussing our Lady and so accuse them of importing extra-biblical ideas and practices. In this blog, as my contribution to ecumenism, I propose to look at the eponymous heroine of the Book of Ruth and see in what way she prefigures Mary as refuge of sinners.

                                                      Our Lady of Ransom

In my earlier blog Mary & Eternal Life I looked at a number of the ways in which Ruth acted as a type or figure of our Lady here I will look at some others. By 'type' is meant that what is done in part and imperfectly in the OT is brought to fulfilment and perfection in the Gospel and forms part of the economy of salvation. So, Ruth sets out to glean the ears of corn which the reapers leave behind in order to be able to feed Naomi her mother-in-law and herself. When, in the Gospels, Jesus speaks of harvesting He usually means gathering in souls to the kingdom of heaven. Since He speaks through the Old Testament as well as the New it is worth considering the possibility that references to the same subject in the one will have the same purpose as in the other. When to this harvest is added the figure of Ruth following 'after him in whose sight I shall find grace' we are irresistibly reminded of the words of St Gabriel 'Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.' (Luke 1:30) It seems then legitimate to read this passage as an allusion to the role played by the Mother of God in bringing into the kingdom those who escape from the hands of the reapers.

What Mary gleans are those who have heard the Good News about Jesus but have not benefited by it. They lie on the earth having missed salvation but not yet consigned to destruction. It seems likely to me that these are not necessarily greater sinners than the saved but they are guilty of the sin of despair. They feel themselves to be so wicked or to have committed such terrible acts that there is no possibility of them being forgiven and so they fear greatly to come into the presence of our Lord never doubting that condemnation will be the only outcome of that encounter. The Protestant approach is basically to say 'pull yourself together, Jesus will forgive you if you repent.' This is perfectly true of course but nonetheless it is a psychological fact that many people find themselves unable to overcome that fear of the Just Judge. So either we consign them (by them I mean of course me) to the flames or we offer them another route by which they can come without fear into the presence of the Saviour. The Church asks 'if you fear the Son do you also fear the mother?' And who can fear Mary? The despairing can turn to her and she will raise them from the earth, gather them in her arms and present them to her Divine Son who can refuse nothing from the hands of His most beloved mother. To the accusation that Catholics, through the cult of Mary, add an unnecessary barrier between Christians and Jesus we can reply that on the contrary Marian devotion give us a bridge that bring those who would otherwise be furthest from Him straight into His Sacred Heart.

The labours of Ruth are described thus: 'This is the Moabitess who came with Noemi, from the land of Moab, And she desired leave to glean the ears of corn that remain, following the steps of the reapers: and she hath been in the field from morning till now, and hath not gone home for one moment.' (Ruth 2:6-7) This sounds like Mary who went 'with haste' to support St Elizabeth (Luke 1:39) who stood unflinching at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25) and who constantly prayed at the heart of the Church (Acts 1:14) Her personality has not undergone a change for the worse since she was raised to heaven. If she worked tirelessly for the kingdom of her Son then how much more she does so now. The sinner, fallen from a state of grace and despairing of entering into it again will not call to her in vain. The field in which she works is filled precisely with the lost, the furthest from God, the ones guilty of the most gross sins. Those whose desire to be reconciled is finely balanced with their expectation of damnation will through Mary receive the grace and strength which they need to make that decisive choice, to be transformed through repentance leaving a life wholly given over to darkness behind them, entering the kingdom of light and themselves performing acts of light.

Space does not permit me to say all I could on this subject. So as homework I will leave you to ponder on how much this prayer offered for Ruth was fulfilled in Mary 'The Lord make this woman who cometh into thy house, like Rachel, and Lia, who built up the house of Israel: that she may be an example of virtue in Ephrata, and may have a famous name in Bethlehem' (Ruth 4:11) To the separated brethren of the Protestant traditions I say do not close your eyes to the treasures hidden in Scripture, the whole substance of faith and theology consists in more than a description of events, persons and places. And to those who fear to be excluded from the company of Jesus because they know themselves to be so hardened in wickedness I say put you hand into Mary's hand, she will lead you into His presence and He will have only smiles and love to offer to anyone who accompanies His mother. Mary, refuge of sinners, pray for us.

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                                         Madonna under the Fir Tree- Lucas Cranach the Elder

Friday 16 January 2015

(Ancient) Israel & Ethnic Cleansing

  The Water of Life Discourses Between Jesus & the Samaritan Woman- Angelika Kauffman 

....So the five men went on and came to Laish. They saw the people there living securely after the manner of the Sidonians, quiet and trusting, with no lack of any natural resource...
...they marched against Laish, a quiet and trusting people; they put them to the sword and destroyed the city by fire. No one came to their aid, since the city was far from Sidon and they had no dealings with the Arameans..
Judges 18

 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus
Galatians 3:28

The Old Testament authors describe many events without commenting upon them. One consequence of this is that modern readers may fall into the error of supposing that where an action is not condemned therefore the writer must approve of it. This results in some critics, superficially familiar with the Bible, attacking the God of Israel for things for which He is blameless and some over-literalist Christians rushing to defend something indefensible. What constantly needs to be borne in mind is that Scripture is the product of a living tradition and requires to be understood in the context of that tradition. The first readers of the Book of Judges would know things about the history of the Tribe of Dan (the aggressors in this incident) and the history of Israel which readers today would not learn from the Scripture texts alone.

In Chapter 18 of Judges we see an unprovoked assault,motivated by greed and land hunger, on a peaceable, trusting civilian population . What the original audience for this story, probably not written until many centuries after the event, would be aware of is that the Tribe of Dan is not only one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel but quite possibly the most lost of the ten. In the seventh chapter of the Book of  Apocalypse (vv1-8) Dan is omitted from the list of the Tribes of Israel which would have members sealed with the sign of God and this no doubt reflects a long standing Jewish tradition. Given their geographical position at the northernmost post of Israel it is likely enough that they were among the first if not the first of the Tribes to go into exile, never to return, due to the depredations of the Assyrian armies.

Chapter 18 then becomes a morality tale, it explains why the Danites became so comprehensively lost. In my previous blog, God, Genocide & Good Neighbourliness, I suggested that the Israelites could only justify their assault on Canaan and the utter destruction of the Canaanites on the basis that they had a divine mandate to create a monotheist society firmly differentiated from their idolatrous neighbours. The account in Judges records the Danites kidnapping an idol and bringing it with them to establish as their object of worship in the newly conquered territory. 'The Danites set up the idol for themselves, and Jonathan, son of Gershom, son of Moses, and his descendants were priests for the tribe of the Danites until the time the land went into captivity. They maintained the idol Micah had made as long as the house of God was in Shiloh'. (Judges 18:30-31) So, from the get-go the Tribe of Dan were without a solid claim to their land. No doubt the author(s) of Judges was more concerned with the idolatry than with the ethnic cleansing but both taken together were recorded for the purposes of explaining the disappearance of Dan not in order to justify their, to our minds, criminal assault on the poor Sidonians.

                                                                Brick Testament

This still stands as a morality tale in the 21st Century. To envy what your neighbour possesses, to drive them away or destroy them and to do so under the spurious guise of installing a new god which is a thing of human fabrication is not only a wicked thing in itself but is something that will have serious consequences in this world as well as in the next. You put yourself at a distance from the only true God there is and you transform the survivors of the people you dispossess into enemies for generations to come. Some of you may think that I am making a (not very) veiled reference here to the situation as regards modern Israel and the Palestinians. What I am actually seeking to do is to establish a universal principle which applies as much in Honolulu as the Holy Land, in Gujarat as in Gaza.

For Christians the New Covenant has redefined the People of God which no longer consists of blood related tribes policed by a written law living in a single country. The Church is united by faith, strengthened and guided by the Spirit and in but not of the world. Conquest has similarly been redefined, no longer is it just a matter of fire and sword, gun and bomb. To envy those who live in a neighbouring housing estate largely composed of Pakistani Muslims, to look greedily on the factory mostly employing Polish workers, to be angry at a shop run by Koreans is to put yourself on an evil path. Seeking to drive them out through inciting people on the grounds of difference emphasising questions of race, culture, language and religion and to justify this in the name of a spurious idol, Judeo-Christian values, Hindu civilisation, whatever, is to commit the sin of the Danites. What you sow with an evil seed will yield an evil crop.

This Orthodox Christian blog from has some interesting thoughts on the conquest of Canaan- Departing Horeb

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Monday 12 January 2015

God, Genocide & Good Neighbourliness

                                          The Conquest of Jericho- Jean Fouquet

 You shall consume all the peoples which the Lord, your God, is giving over to you. You are not to look on them with pity, nor serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.
Deuteronomy 7:16 

And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the stranger that dwelleth with you, shall be as one of yourselves, and thou shalt love him as thyself: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
Leviticus 19:33-34

Those who attack the God of the Abrahamic faiths as a genocidal maniac often quote the text from Deuteronomy but never the one from Leviticus. The reverse is true for those who conceive of Abraham's God as some kind of ethereal fluffy bunny. Yet both texts belong to the same religious tradition and are considered to form part of the divine revelation of God to man. It is especially difficult for the followers of Jesus to reconcile the smiting hip and thigh which forms such a great part of the Old Testament histories to the peaceful teachings and witness of the Son of Mary. So much so that from the earliest times various heresies have been proposed by figures like Marcion and Mani suggesting that there is an evil God who does bad things (most of the Old Testament) and a good God who does good things (most of the New Testament.) Whilst such heresies are seldom actively advocated nowadays they are, as it were, taught by default by those, mostly liberal, theologians who simply omit to defend the 'difficult' passages of the Old Testament.

Is there a single common thread which unites the command to destroy the Canaanites with the Law demanding that strangers be treated with love? The Lord has an abiding concern for His people  'You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine' (Leviticus 20:26) His concern is that the Israelites should be a people apart, different from the surrounding nations because devoted to the One True God. The purpose behind the occupation of Canaan is not primarily the destruction of its previous inhabitants or even the mere acquiring of territory. It is that the Israelites be not contaminated by the sin of idolatry. A sin which, as I discussed in my post Disappearing Into Darkness, is rather more serious than simply expressing a preference for a Pepsi god over a Coca Cola god. Of course one might quibble over the means used to attain this end, genocide, ethnic cleansing, a point to which I shall return later.

The concept of holiness is not exhausted by an adherence to monotheism it also includes imitation of the object of worship 'The Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity' (Exodus 34:6) So, in their dealings with their neighbours the Chosen People must also behave in a like manner. The apparent contradiction between the command 'destroy' and the Law 'love' is resolved into a question of power. If the Israelites settled into a land with a substantial existing population with established religious and cultural practices then the temptation to adapt to their surroundings, or 'integrate' as we might say today, would be irresistible and their character as a separate monotheistic people would be lost. On the other hand if they became the dominant group with their culture solidly established, their faith secure, then they would have nothing to fear from ethnic and cultural minorities in their midst and certainly no imperative to expel or extirpate them.

What implications does this have for 21st Century Christians? Well, the idea of a People of God remains but not one which lives behind a physical boundary and is policed by a written Law. I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the evil one (John 17:15) The Church takes its mission to the heart of the world and rests in the Spirit for protection against the world's temptations to idolatry and other sins. Which means that the weapons of conquest and dispossession are, under the New Covenant, wholly inadmissible and any Christian who claims to be doing God's will while carrying out such atrocities adds blasphemy to their other wickedness's. The call to imitation of Divinity remains and in Jesus, Divinity Incarnate, we have a clear role model always before us. The strangers in our midst, minority ethnic, religious and cultural communities, must be loved. How must they be loved?  As we love ourselves.

                                    Testament and Death of Moses- Luca Signorelli

It is certainly possible to love someone without actually liking them. Sometimes we don't like ourselves very much but even then we are seldom less than kind to our mind, body and spirit. So too with our neighbours. We can be self critical but seldom do we mock, stereotype or caricature ourselves. So too with our neighbours. When we are hungry we feed ourselves, when naked we clothe ourselves, when threatened we keep ourselves safe. So too with our neighbours. A person who is harsh with herself, who doesn't listen to herself, who blames herself without considering her own account of events first would be unbalanced and possibly ill. So too in our relationships with our neighbours. All of this, of course, applies to any neighbour but those who come from minority communities are most at risk of being dismissed by us as 'not really neighbours.' We see what we imagine to be the problems they cause or what we imagine to be the threat which they pose before we see the person. Or indeed we fail to see the person at all, only the problem. This is not a mistake we make with ourselves, we never forget our personhood, our identity as an individual beloved by God and for whom Jesus died. If we are to follow the Law of the Spirit then the 'illegal immigrant' disappears into the 'man like me,' the refugee into the 'woman like me,' the Muslim, the Jew, the Hindu into the 'child who loves their mother.' Certainly we should not pretend that there are no problems but in dealing with them we must start from the principle that all humans, each human, must receive from us no less than we give to ourselves.

So, genocide, ethnic cleansing are these signs that the Old Testament God was evil?  There are a number of points seldom considered which I shall briefly flag up. Whether, taken together, they constitute a reasonable refutation of the charge is a matter of judgement.

  • The Canaanites lived morally reprehensible lives 'it is not because of your justice or the integrity of your heart that you are going in to take possession of their land; but it is because of their wickedness that the Lord, your God, is dispossessing these nations before you.' (Deuteronomy 9:5) This included child sacrifice to their deity Moloch.
  • While no doubt some Canaanites were innocent, including those children who hadn't been sacrificed, in ancient warfare separating the innocent from the guilty was not possible so either the guilty would never be punished or the few must suffer because of the acts of the many.
  • Such actions require an unequivocal mandate. When the God who has gone before you as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, who has parted the Red Sea, who has rained down food from heaven upon you, who has brought water out of a rock and so on tells you to do something you should be sure to do it. Unless you have such a mandate these actions would be monstrous crimes. Something I hope to touch on in my next blog (Ancient) Israel & Ethnic Cleansing.
  • The existence of divinity is proof of eternity. The life of the Canaanites was not limited from the period between conception in the womb to death in massacre or battle. They always are in the hands of God. If they suffered injustice in time it shall be compensated in eternity. This is not a general licence to kill people and let God sort them out afterwards but it can be considered as an operative factor in association with the previous point about a Divine mandate. Where such a mandate is known on irrefutable evidence to exist then the agent of that mandate arguably is not morally culpable so long as his motive is obedience not anger, greed or lust. 
The main point to grasp is that the Canaanite genocide is a problem of history and theology the need to love the stranger that dwelleth with you is an urgent necessity and a basic Christian duty. Go to it!

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ps Here is the picture I very nearly used to illustrate this post-
                                            The Brick Testament

Saturday 10 January 2015

Mary & Eternal Life

                                     Christ's Farewell to His Apostles- Maesta Duccio

 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent
John 17:3

Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you.”
Ruth 1:16-17

There are degrees of knowledge, particularly knowledge of persons. The longer we know them and the more intimately then the better we know them. In a life beyond the veil of death when we shall encounter Divinity face to face then, certainly we shall know Him far better than we can today. Nonetheless eternity starts now, that is, eternity enters into us and we into it to precisely the extent that we know God. Every moment where we meet Jesus, in the Gospels, in the sacraments, in prayer, in our neighbours is an occasion where time expands into timelessness. There can be no doubt that the human who entered most fully into this intense relationship with the Father, through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit was Mary His mother. In the Old Testament Book of Ruth we can see a type or figure of this relationship.

Ruth is one of these Very Small Books of the Bible that I referred to in my blog Sense & Sensuality. It is a curious work to be incorporated into the Jewish scriptures and there is no obvious reason to account for its presence. It is a lovely story certainly but the Jews had many lovely stories that didn't make the canonical cut. In the context of Jewish historical narrative it does tell us who King David's great-grandmother was but since, as it turns out, she was not only not a Hebrew but, worse than that, she came from their hated neighbours the Moabites, against marrying whom there were strict regulations in much of Old Testament times, you might think that the Jews would be inclined to downplay this fact rather than canonise it. The author of Ruth and the compilers of the canon probably saw in the story not simply an historical account but one which was also profoundly symbolic.

The pivot around which the action revolves is the steadfast love of Ruth, a widow, for Naomi her Israelite mother-in-law who is also a widow and, worse still, has been bereaved of her sons. Ruth follows the advice of the psalmist
Listen, my daughter, and understand;
    pay me careful heed.
Forget your people and your father’s house
Psalm 45:11
She accompanies Naomi who returns to Bethlehem in Israel, in doing so Ruth has to leave behind her own nation and national religion to go to a strange land made up of her hereditary enemies. Her sole reason for doing this is the love she bears for Naomi who, old, widowed and bereaved will need the support of her daughter in law to be able to live. In these two figures we can see Naomi/Israel acting as a light of attraction to Ruth/Gentiles, that is, that the foundation for drawing Ruth into a knowledge and love of God was the power of the way Naomi lived her life as wife, mother, mother-in-law and worshipper of the Lord God of Israel and by extension if all Israel became a nation of Naomi's then the Gentiles could become a world of Ruth's. In Bethlehem the two live humbly and in poverty. The love that Ruth has shown to her mother-in-law wins her the sympathy of Boaz, a local landowner, who allows the Moabite woman to glean from his fields what the harvesters leave behind. And, to make a short story shorter, Boaz marries Ruth who has a son, Obed, whom Naomi raises.

                                              The Visitation- Lucca Della Robbia

So what has this got to do with our Lady and experiencing eternity in the present moment? In the Angelic Salutation St Gabriel said to Mary The Lord is with you but he might equally have said you are with the Lord since he was talking about the close relationship which existed between the Virgin and God. Mary conceived Jesus in her heart before she did so in her womb and one could go further and suggest that before she conceived Him she knew Him. During His mission our Lord stated 'The Father and I are one' (John 10:30) and since Mary from childhood intimately knew the Father it follows that she must have known also the Son. In the relationship between Ruth and Naomi we can see a figure of that between our Lady and the religion of Israel. Ruth clung closely to her out of a selfless love, a love which both eliminated her concern for merely material things, she left behind all that she knew or could have hoped to have in order to follow her mother-in-law, and expressed itself in purely practical ways, she gleaned barley to help feed Naomi. That is, a union was effected between eternal imperishable love and the temporal need of the present moment.

We see in figure too our Lady committing herself to virginity. In seeking to persuade her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab Naomi says 'Go back, my daughters. Why come with me? Have I other sons in my womb who could become your husbands?' (Ruth 1:11) Orpah, Ruth's sister-in-law does go back but Ruth persists thus, so far as she knew, abandoning her chance to become a mother in order to serve Naomi as Mary would later, so far as she knew, abandon her chance of becoming a mother in order to serve the God of Israel with all her mind, strength, spirit and body. By wholly committing everything about herself to the Lord our Lady lived and moved and had her being in the Eternal One while she yet fulfilled her temporal duties.

For Ruth as for Mary events took a surprising turn. When she learns that Boaz has the right to marry her she says to him 'Spread the wing of your cloak over your servant, for you are a redeemer (Ruth 3:9) To which he replies 'May the Lord bless you, my daughter! You have been even more loyal now than before.' (Ruth 3:10) The relationship with Naomi opens up the possibility of a further and deeper relationship with Boaz who has the power to redeem Ruth from poverty and childlessness. Even so Mary's devotion to the religion and God of Israel draws her into a relationship with the Son of the Father.

When Naomi receives her grandson the women of Bethlehem say to her 'his mother is the daughter-in-law who loves you. She is worth more to you than seven sons!' (Ruth 4:15) Here we see a figure of the relationship between Mary and Israel. Through her child (which is also a descendant of Ruth) she brings redemption but also, and crucially, she is valued for herself, for the love and self-sacrifice she brings to all her relationships. All that she does is fruitful and is made tenfold more fruitful through the fruit of her womb Jesus.

In all of Mary's life we see an interweaving of the things of time, her practical works of virtue and love, and the things of eternity. These are not parallel experiences but through her Son and her knowledge of Him, beginning before she conceived Him, they are an invasion of eternity into time and an uplifting of time into eternity. The story of Ruth lays before us a clear example of how this kind of life is to be lived. It is for us, through the grace of God, to follow in the path blazed by these holy women.

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Wednesday 7 January 2015

The Devil is Dead?

                                            St Wolfgang and the devil - Michael Pacher

Be sober, and watch: for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren which are in the world.
1 Peter 5:8-9

Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains
Jean-Jacques Rousseau 

The philosopher Nietzsche was somewhat premature in his announcement  "Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!" (Thus Spake Zarathurstra- Prologue) Despite several centuries of continuous assault belief in God is still buoyant even in Western Europe where the atheist campaign began and where it has been most successful. The associated attack on organised religion, specifically Christianity, has had more effect but still the Christian Church and the ecclesial communities of the Reformation remain stubbornly alive and kicking in Europe whilst expanding elsewhere in much of the world. By contrast there has been no real parallel assault on belief in the devil yet such belief has withered on the vine and even among Christians there are many who do not take the idea seriously.

Various factors no doubt contribute to this decline in satanic credibility but I will focus on one. The answer to the question 'what is Man?' (meaning female and male) has changed over the past six centuries or so and with this altered understanding of ourselves has come an altered conception of the forces that influence us. The rediscovery of classical sources during the Renaissance led the humanists of that epoch to recast human nature as being essentially good, that is, not fatally tainted by Original Sin in the way that had been understood since the time of St Augustine. The Enlightenment added to this the notion that Man was essentially rational, that is, governed by Reason. Man being good by nature and rational in motivation could, therefore, be relied upon to make sound moral choices unless external environmental factors caused them to act contrary to their nature and to reason.

To the obvious objection that Man everywhere behaved in cruel, selfish and immoral ways Enlightenment thinkers echoed Rousseau that the cause for this was to be found in the chains which bound Man, ignorance, poverty, tyranny and so on. If those chains were once removed through a restructuring of society and the banishment of ignorant superstitions (by which they meant primarily the Catholic faith) then Man born free would everywhere actually be free since there would be no impediment to them acting upon their naturally good and rational impulses. In this schema room could be found for God, conceived as an idealised form or collective expression of perfected Man, but not for the devil since Man's wicked actions could be explained as the product of environmental factors.

Every world changing idea is true to some extent, otherwise it would have no persuasive power. Here Renaissance humanism supercharged with Enlightenment deification of human rationality has several good things going for it. It is certainly true that humans are good-natured by design, that they are capable of governing themselves by Reason and that environmental factors play a major role in the moral and intellectual decisions which they make. The flaw in the argument consists of the fact that St Augustine was right, Man is tainted by Original Sin. The essential nature of Man is wounded and vulnerable to concupiscence independently of whatever their external environment may be. Once could recast this philosophically and say that because of his intense internal life of thought and emotion Man, alone in visible Creation, is capable of putting himself out of harmony with the cosmos and all around him through paying heed to his random thoughts and feelings ahead of anything else. Or, to say the same thing the other way round, Man requires to make a conscious and deliberate effort to put himself into harmony with the cosmos.It follows from this that we cannot bank on Man's essential goodness flourishing because it is subject to temptations from within that no restructured society can fully eliminate nor can we rely on Reason always conquering desire, lust or fear because the mere presence of the rational principle in Man is not the same as its sovereignty.

                                           The Good and Evil Angels- William Blake

It might, perhaps, be argued that modern thought has simply replaced one external agent, the devil, with another, the social environment and that while we have evidence for the latter we have none for the former. However, the Church has never accepted the validity of the argument 'the devil made me do it' The devil only has the power over us which we permit him to have. He is also called 'the tempter' and that because his power is a persuasive one, if we did not provide him with the materials to work with, our selfishness, greed, fear, ambition, desire and so on then he would have nothing with which to tempt us. Our fallen nature is the source of our propensity to sin and the more we deny that fallen-ness, the more we insist on our own perfectibility, then the less able we become to see the temptations that assail us without and within.

When we accept the universal and humanly unalterable nature of Man's vulnerability to temptation then reason will lead us on to recognise the need for a universal redemption from that bondage to sin. And universal redemption requires a universal Redeemer made to known to all through a universal revelation. And who better as Redeemer than one like us, tempted in all points by Satan yet triumphant over him, subject to the ultimate victory of sin and corruption which is death yet yet conquering over it? The same revelation which assures us that Jesus is our Saviour and Lord tells us too of our enemy the devil and if we accept the one then we must accept the other.

Of course there are many who accept neither. For those I have this thought. If the slogan of a century ago was Nietzsche's 'God is Dead' today it is Christopher Hitchens 'God is not Great.' The obvious answer to the first was 'God lives', the slightly less obvious answer to the second is 'Man is not Good' The problem of human wickedness is not solvable by human means alone. The chains which bind Man are not external to him, he generates them himself and will always generate them because he is always tempted to disharmony with the cosmos. If you defeat Christianity, if you destroy organised religion in the world there will still be one thing preventing you from creating the perfect society. The devil will be sitting on your back.

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Sunday 4 January 2015

G. K. Chesterton & the Square Circle

 For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”
Luke 7:33-35

Not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other. It was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons. No sooner had one rationalist demonstrated that it was too far to the east than another demonstrated with equal clearness that it was much too far to the west. No sooner had my indignation died down at its angular and aggressive squareness than I was called up again to notice and condemn its enervating and sensual roundness.
Orthodoxy Chapter VI by G. K. Chesterton

Writing about Chesterton is quite a tricky business. For most of the world's population if they have heard of him at all it is only as the author of the Father Brown detective stories. However for many Catholics, especially in the English speaking world, he is a towering figure, a great writer, controversialist and apologist. If I were to write uncritically about him many of the readers of this blog would think 'what's Catholic Scot on about?' If critically many devoted Catholics would think 'burn the witch.' So I am going, paradoxically, to do both although you will have to stick with me to the end to see how I do it.

Paradox is a big thing with GK, it is his favourite literally device. He routinely confounds expectations by taking an idea in directions you do not expect it to go. Although once you become familiar with his style your expectations change so the effect of the paradox loses some of its power to surprise. Indeed so relentless is his use of the device that you begin to long for him to do something else just for the sake of variety. I find the thing so wearing that I think I can honestly say that I have only thoroughly enjoyed two of his books The Innocence of Father Brown and Orthodoxy. There is arguably a third The Paradoxes of Mr Pond that I started to enjoy once I realised that intentionally or otherwise GK was parodying himself. All his other books contain lots of good stuff but are so continuously paradoxical that it tires me out to read them. It would be unfair to say that Chesterton was a one trick pony but if he had in actual fact been a pony there is no doubt that he would only have had one trick.

Orthodoxy is a defence of the Christian faith and the Christian Church, although many of its references are dated most of its underlying arguments are robust and still have a contemporary feel to them. From the first time that I read it Chapter VI most impressed itself upon me and stuck in my memory. You will scarcely be surprised to learn that it is called The Paradoxes of Christianity. The strength of the chapter lies in two things, it exposes the inconsistency of the critics and it shows the consistency of the Church. As far as criticism goes Chesterton draws our attention to something which we might lose sight of in the heat of day to day controversy, namely that the Church can never reform itself in such a way as to satisfy those who attack it. This is not least because those attacking it do so from all angles at once so if it trims her sails to the North then it will be accused of bias against the South and vice versa.

To take a couple of examples. The refrain that the Church should not meddle in politics is constantly heard. Especially the Church should never use it position to influence politicians or public servants. Many of those left-wing and liberal figures who are most vociferous on this point also furiously condemned the Church at the time of the US led invasion of Iraq for not excommunicating politicians and military personnel involved in the operation. That is, the Church both uses her power too much and not enough. Similarly liberal critics assert that the Church is too cosy with the powerful elites and always takes sides against the poor and dispossessed, even the outspokenness of an Oscar Romero or a Pope Francis does not still the criticism since their lone voices are set against an institutional bias in favour of the bourgeoisie. Those same critics also often go on to assert that atheists are smarter, better educated and more successful than believers. Which is to say that the critics form part of the elite which they affect to despise and the bulk of the Catholic faithful form part of the wretched of the earth whom they affect to care about.

                              St Francis strips himself of all his fathers wealth- Benozzo Gozzoli

The second part of the chapter goes on to the more complex business of explaining why the rationalists, or secularists as we might call them nowadays, although comprehensively wrong do have a glimmering of an insight. That is to say that the Church does hold flagrantly contradictory things in a creative tension. G.K. explains himself in this typically Chestertonian passage-
It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is—Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? That is the problem the Church attempted; that is the miracle she achieved.
In a sense the Catholic Church is a continuation of Jesus Christ by other means. As our Lord was both fully human and fully Divine at the same time without intermingling or confusion so the Church at all times seeks to keep in balance the fullness of human nature physical as well as spiritual, militant as well as meek, extroverted and introverted at the same time. The balance is not achieved by blending two things to make them one non-thing but by allowing each of them full expression  under the banner of Christ. The expression of St Augustine love and do what you will is a true summary of the Catholic creed. Governed by love you can will to be a hermit or run a railway station either will can be, if properly used, a full living out of the Christian faith.

The tendency of mediocrity, or common sense if you prefer, is either to seek a compromise by eliminating the extravagances of a St Francis or a St Joan or to effect the total victory of one tendency, humility say or pride, over another. Catholicism in finding room for both extremes and for moderation is a flagrant violator of common sense. You might think it something of a miracle if such an institution as the Church were to survive for as many as two centuries let alone two millennia carrying as it does such a weight of contradictions. And of course it is a miracle properly speaking. But because mediocrity has this almost innate tendency of thought and feeling and because, lets face it, almost all of us are mediocre then however much we may notionally accept the perspective of the Church we invariably fall into the complacent trap of not reflecting upon it and tut-tutting at the extravagances of some of our co-religionists.

And it is in this that Chesterton comes into his own. By his incessant use of paradox he continually unbalances us. Since it is only when we are off balance that we realise the importance of remaining upright G.K. serves to remind us that Christian balance, a holding of opposites in tension, is a thing to be striven for as a living reality within our own lives not a dead object to be admired at from a distance. Chesterton's continuous use of a single literary device irritates because it is meant to irritate, to make us wake up, to think a little, to react. By unbalancing his work, making it seem one trick only, he creates balance in his readers and thus G. K. Chesterton squares the circle.

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