Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Backwards in Credulity

Today in the Bodleian I was looking for something online and happened across a live broadcast of the cardinals' Mass before they are locked away. I didn't have the sound on, but it seemed a very subdued occasion indeed; the faces were grim. Outside the Mass was broadcast on giant screens, but very few people seemed interested; the great space in front of St Peter's held only dribs and drabs of people scurrying here and there, no-one paying attention to the images flashing pointlessly into the emptiness. The lack of interest may in part have been due to the black clouds sitting over the Vatican spitting rain on all and sundry, one drop like a tear on the lens of the broadcasting camera. Or it could be due to other causes.

When Ratzinger was elected to be Benedict XVI, I heaved a jaded sigh, my body adding a large French-style shrug, knowing that the Roman Catholic church had condemned itself to further irrelevance—in fact, it felt as though with Ratzinger's election, the church had passed the point of no return. Ratzinger had some good ideas theologically—which he invariably put to very destructive, even at times, diabolical, applications. Over the years, rumours have leaked out of the Vatican of his fondness for dressing up in old (e.g., 17th century) pieces of ecclesiastical tat, while his wanderings through the vast corridors were accompanied by a herd of cats. His resignation brought another shrug, a much smaller one this time, since I have more or less lost interest at the level of involvement—good riddance, but much, much too late. The lukewarm accolades he received after the fact seemed to smack of relief more than anything else, and his role as pope—though not his previous role as rottweiler—will doubtless quickly be forgotten.

Now we seem to be about to witness the same process all over again, a quickening march further along the road to oblivion. There are several threads that run through press accounts of preparations for the conclave.

One of these threads is simple astonishment at the grandiose and archaic rituals that are being enacted in Rome. These rituals are all the more bizarre in the face of scholarship that has exposed fault lines in the official mythology of church origins and prerogatives, not to mention the vast gulf between them and the poor Christ, whom the cardinals claim to represent. And that word claim is a key to the hypocrisy: '. . . he did not claim equality with God but emptied himself . . .'(Phil 2.6)—the core text of the season of Lent leading to Easter that we are currently celebrating.

Another thread running through press accounts  is a sometimes barely concealed revulsion at the whole charade. Plump cardinals sweetly smiling waddle across the piazza while stabbing opponents in the back—figuratively speaking, of course, though it doesn't take much imagination to see in the mind's eye the quick thrust of a stiletto—or misericordia as it ironically came to be known—that one cardinal might push unseen into the rolls fat above the red bellyband, under which beats a supposedly human heart. The Guardian has published a rogues gallery of the cardinals going into consistory, and a very depressing set of faces it is.

A third thread, and one I most identify with, is the subtext, ‘This is quite amazing, but in this day and age, who cares?’ Tired old men electing one of their number to be yet another ho-hum, tired old pope, issuing dicta that destroy people’s lives—if anyone pays attention; old men living in a mad fantasy world whose ethos is perhaps best signified by the Borgias. It’s the ‘destroy people’s lives’ that I do care about, and one of my primary motivations for working in theology has been to discover why, and expose the means, and false beliefs, by which the church causes so much pain; its dehumanizing, degrading manipulative tactics in the process of pursuing its stated goals of ‘salvation’. This last, I hasten to say, refers to all institutional religion, not just Rome. Christians have been cheated of their spiritual inheritance for far too long.

Some of my Catholic friends try to hold out hope. The problems in the church are so dire, they say, that the electors will be forced make a radical shift. The consistory that elected John XXIII was conservative, too, and look what happened. To which I can only reply, yes, look what happened: all the hopes raised by Vatican II have been dashed, as his successors try to turn the clock back to the Council of Trent, and pretend as if Vatican II never happened. I’m afraid that for me hope does not figure into the equation. Is it the Buddhists who say that until hope dies there is no possibility of growth?

In any event, whatever happens will be interesting—in the sense of the Chinese curse. From where I sit, it is much too late to save institutional Christianity, and perhaps it is a mistake to try. The present institutional forms are burdened almost to a standstill by their mad, bad mistakes of the past, which hang around their figurative necks like Marley’s chains studded with a filigree of Ancient Mariner's albatrosses—and for many of the same reasons in fact that beset those two old reprobates in fiction.

Christianities—as in the early churches—will survive here and there, but institutional forms have always been antithetical to the message of salvation: salvation that originally meant freedom from a debased culture  and the persecution of one’s self-conscious mind, so that one might enter into the Christian community, a paradise of mutual support and service overflowing from the wellspring of life made available by the work of silence—or at least that was the ideal for the first nine centuries or so. 

What today passes for Christianity—the idolatry of experience and the grandiosity of institutions that are for, by, and of the clergy—may continue to thrive for a while as fashions do, but in the end people will become bored of them and drift away. Much of Christian heritage has already been lost; unless there is a miracle of some sort, this election may cut the moorings that still attach us to the rest.


Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Personal to Isabel:

Sorry, it was a bit OTT (Over The Top)


5:10 pm, March 12, 2013  
Blogger Beth-Isolde said...

Thank you for voicing your reactions to the "election". I am too embarrassed and ashamed to listen or watch any media reporting about the carnival of the cardinals. I am not a Roman Catholic but I agree with your blog that many other churches, including the Anglicans have somehow missed the point. It somehow feels like God must yearn for us to repent and re-focus on a simple beholding in silence so we might recover the true message buried beneath centuries of pack-of- cards institutions.

6:23 pm, March 12, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

"...carnival of the cardiinals"—absolutely brilliant! Thank you.

6:29 pm, March 12, 2013  
Anonymous AM said...

Recent musing on Christology from James Dunn in his book Did the First Christians Worship Jesus: New Testament Evidence?

"So our central question can indeed be answered negatively, and perhaps it should be. But not if the result is a far less adequate worship of God. For the worship that really constitutes Christianity and forms its distinctive contribution to the dialogue of the religions, is the worship of God as enabled by Jesus, the worship of God as revealed in and through Jesus. Christianity remains a monotheistic faith. The only one to be worshipped is the one God. But how can Christians fail to honor the one through whom it believes the only God has most fully revealed himself, the one through whom the only God has come closest to the condition of humankind? Jesus cannot fail to feature in their worship, their hymns of praise, their petitions to God. But such worship is always, should always be offered to the glory of God the Father. Such worship is always, should always be offered in the recognition that God is all in all, and that the majesty of the Lord Jesus in the end of the day expresses and affirms the majesty of the one God more clearly than anything else in the world."

8:53 pm, March 12, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

We have to remember that 'majesty' is kenotic....

One of the big problems in the history of Christianity is that it has never taken Incarnation seriously enough, or understood that kenosis cannot be mixed with a Zeus-style power-broker

9:37 pm, March 12, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is the definition of Kenosis, again?

#TryingToFollowTheConversation =)

1:15 pm, March 13, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Kenosis means self-emptying, self-forgetfulness, self-outpouring. When one is beholding, one is self-forgetful, for example. Kenosis is summed up by Philippians 2:5-11.

1:27 pm, March 13, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

When one has 'perfect attention' (another way of talking about beholding) one is self-forgetful. When one meditates, letting all of one's ideas seemingly fall by the wayside, waiting in unknowing, that is kenosis. There is everyday kenosis in standing up for the truth, or defending someone innocent who is being mistreated. Of course there are rare forms of kenosis, such as laying down one's life for one's friend.

1:43 pm, March 13, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

When time is empty, when a poet is given to the poem, when there is no person holding, nor God ... perhaps only then?

3:48 pm, March 13, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ideally we can exist in a state where we’re always in some level of kenosis? (Even while driving, for example?)

Thanks, Maggie. =)

1:48 pm, March 14, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Yes. It's a way of being in the world. Certainly there is conscious effort in the beginning, and exercises such as meditation, or being vigilant about one's own selfishness and neutralizing instances at which one catches oneself—but more, it's being open to the occasions where we are taken out of ourselves. Julian says we can 'seek to the beholding' but beholding itself is a gift. With persistence in intention and openness, we gradually re-centre from the self-conscious mind to the deep mind (which is kenotic) and the kenotic wellspring then informs all of our lives

2:52 pm, March 14, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the early Christians lived like this, but for whatever reason the church stopped teaching that it was possible?

3:49 pm, March 14, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

That's right. It's been the subject of my research and is the subject of my next book as to why this happened. Of course it was never perfect: but at least that was the ideal and some of the churches were trying to both teach and live it: Ephrem's church, for example, or the church at Rome in the second century. If you're interested, read Brock and Parker's 'Saving Paradise' in tandem with Peter Brown's 'The Rise of Western Christendom'. They tell part of the story, but I believe I have found the deeper reasons this happened, currents that began even before the gospels were written, but certainly include them. Remember, in spite of what institutions try to tell you, there has never been and will never be a monolithic Christianity; we have always to speak of 'all the Christianities'.

4:15 pm, March 14, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is the connection between people who exist in a state of kenosis characterized?

4:40 pm, March 14, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

You really do know how to ask the questions!!!

First, perhaps it needs to be said that people who live kenotically are not people you would probably pay attention to. They live simply, obscurely, and have no desire to be anything than what they are or do anything but what they have been given to do. Ursula le Guin (I think) calls this the freedom to be *only* [sorry, no itals in comment boxes] who you are, which is to say that the person isn't interested in their 'self-image' or really much of anything that pertains to themselves; they are too focused in beholding.

The connection between these people as with all people might be characterized as 'resonance'. [I have just heard about some new work that's been done on this but haven't located it yet]. It's not quite the same as what Philip Sheldrake calls 'morphic resonance' which can be very subtle and oblique. Let me use the analogy between an earthquake and a building that is being shaken by the earthquake. If you don't put the building on a floating foundation, it will vibrate at the same frequency as the earthquake, which is a *geometric* increase of intensity—which is why such buildings are ripped apart.

In my view, the resonances between people are similar. Good people together create resonances that have a geometric intensity/effect on the surrounding environment. However, the same is also true of evil people. There's an old saying that it takes only one person to start a riot—and I assume that is because the person is plugging into and magnifying the ambient resonances of the mob.

So even one person can make a difference, which is why it's worth going on even if you feel very alone. Each of us has an effect by resonance on the environment in which we exist. It's not something we can control; it is a 'fruit' or effect of our way of being in the world, our intention, our hope, our desire. Like resonances attract and work together, even across unimaginable distances. So that even how you think is going to make a difference. That's one of the reason the desert fathers and mothers were so insistent on vigilance in terms of thoughts.

Of course you can scare yourself silly if you think about this too much; this is where confidence in God (parrhesia) is essential. We need to do the best we can, but that's all we can do, and we need to trust that God will weave into the fabric of salvation all of our lives, including what we might regard as our mistakes, failures and sins.

4:53 pm, March 14, 2013  
Blogger Kathy Johnson said...

Anonymous Questioner, thank you, and thank you Maggie, for all these things I needed to hear or to be reminded of.

10:17 am, March 15, 2013  
Anonymous AM said...

It seems like the ultimate purpose of resonance is to be healed and transfigured into His likeness. Depth psychology also talks about healing through resonant images. Neuroscience talks about mirror neurons enabling us for healing empathy.

2:07 am, March 21, 2013  

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