A theist writes… August 27, 2010Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
No, not me, though I am one of that tribe. Yeah, it’s not something I make a big deal of, but there you have it. My God, though, it’s hard work. Not least dealing with some other theists. You see on occasion reading them I have the strangest urge to tip back to my pre-teen atheism (on the other hand reading Dawkins or Hitchens, particularly Hitchens, on these issues hasn’t exactly undermined my thoughts on these matters – quite the opposite to be honest). And there’s one man who has that effect in particular, who always calls to mind PJ O’Rourke’s line in Holidays in Hell:
.”My friend Dorothy and I spent a weekend at Heritage USA, the born-again Christian resort and amusement park created by tele-evangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, who have been so much in the news. Dorothy and I came to scoff – but we went away converted.
Unfortunately we were converted to Satanism.”
Step forward… John Waters.
Waters is discussing yet again why his life and perspective is perfect, and all others are flawed. Of course he doesn’t quite put it that way. Except he sort of does.
He’s been at a meeting organised by the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation in Italy. He puts up a disclaimer…
You may have also read that CL is generally perceived as “right-wing” and “conservative”. This is pure comedy.
Anyone who can come to the meeting, walk around the Rimini Fiera for an hour or two and go away thinking they have been subjected to a right-wing and conservative experience is in need of a crash course in the meanings of meaningless and redundant 1960s political terminologies.
Actually I dissent. I think anyone who pretends the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘conservative’ are rooted in 1960s terminology is presenting us with something not entirely detached from ‘pure comedy’. But… anyhow… a quick visit to C&L’s wiki page demonstrates why some might think that – at the very least – it had a right wing tilt to it, and one a little more recent than the 1960s. This can be seen best manifested in it actually having a political wing within the Christian Democrats during the 1970s and after that ultimately was subsumed into the United Christian Democrats, where we meet an old pal, Rocco Buttiglione. Eventually the UCDs became the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats. Now in absolute fairness some elements have gone on to coalesce with the Democratic Party and it has worked at local level with the DP, but in outlook the UDC is a party of the social right.
So this isn’t an issue of terms being bandied about without any thought. A reasonable conclusion is that C&L has had political linkages on the social and conservative right and that at an informal level it would seem that it continues to do so.
No harm there, but let’s not pretend otherwise.
The other day, for example, I went for a second time to experience an exhibition on the life and work of the Irish-American writer Flannery O’Connor. Now there’s “conservatism” for you: a Catholic novelist whose characters seem to have been conceived at the very precipice of human possibility: strange, dark misfits torn between grace and meaninglessness, awaiting that moment of exceptionality when a choice will throw itself before them. Flannery O’Connor once said that if she had not been a Catholic, she would have had “no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason ever to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything”.
Now consider for a moment just what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s saying that that was fine for Flannery O’Connor, which indeed it was. Oh no, there’s a bigger message, a much bigger one. And it’s not a particularly complimentary one as regards most of us. For despite decrying ‘the undoing of Christianity had been its decline into moralism and rules, precisely “the Pharisean tendency” from which Christ had come to save mankind.’ (something incidentally that I agree with particularly in relation to the Roman Catholic Church), he continues:
Is it possible for those of us who live in the nominally Catholic land from which her ancestors once hastened to gain any insight into such a judgment?
Well. Perhaps, is the answer. But just in case we’re missing the point he continues:
At the back of this statement is a hint for us: that we are missing almost everything in our fabricated society, with its pointless distractions and empty conversations.
And suddenly I begin to feel the old atheism reassert itself. Because truth is, at least from my perspective, life isn’t empty, this isn’t a ‘fabricated society’ (at least no more than all the rest – as the Three Johns once quipped in a different context) and the distractions aren’t pointless or the conversations empty. Indeed, the elitism, whether an intellectual – or is it conceptual – snobbery or whatever, at the heart of such a view is depressing in the extreme.
It gets worse, if possible. For Waters it’s all or nothing. Dismissing the faith and lack of same of billions on this planet he declares:
O’Connor’s view of human reality was stark and lucid: at some point in a life the facts must be faced – either the Christian story is true or it is not. If it is, then there is nothing else worth bothering about; if it is not, then nothing is worth bothering about.
Now granted I’m not wandering the streets of Rimini ‘on the Adriatic coast of Italy’. Nor am I ‘walk [ing] around the Rimini Fiera for an hour or two’… and I’ll bet most of us theist, atheist or agnostic would love to be there. Sun-dappled streets, blue green ocean, fine food, exhausting company. Well, perhaps not.
And perhaps in such a pleasant context I too might find that near Manichaean view of matters appealing, but then in such a context I could afford to, whereas for people struggling to get by here there and everywhere tend to have a more pressing issues on their mind. But even by his own lights he should have at least some sense that God and relationships with same don’t have to necessarily revolve around the authenticity of otherwise of Christianity. That even were it a ‘fabrication’ to use his own term, it would be possible to be theistic. Indeed, it has been for many of those billions. And that in life it is actually, and I hate to break this to him, quite easy to find stuff ‘worth bothering about’.
It is easy to be deceived by the content of the meeting, which on the whole appears to be a bumper accumulation of the things we deal with in our everyday culture. There are politics and science and art and music and literature and sport.
But the approach is different to conventional cultural approaches in that it opens everything out in the direction of what is unknowable. Everything that is touched upon is immediately seen to lead somewhere else, to become detached from the schemas our culture creates to accommodate knowledge that is reluctantly conceded as contingent or provisional or partial, but nonetheless claimed as a down-payment on omniscience.
What is unleashed within the human heart is the boundless curiosity that elsewhere is afraid to declare itself for fear of revealing what will seem like something shameful or baneful – ignorance or naivety or stupidity – but is really something tremendous, being connected to the values of humility and wonder which define the capacity for true knowledge. When these channels are reopened, the advent of new understandings is always exceptional, always an awakening, always a, yes, event that opens up questions about the meaning of all things.
Oh dear, oh dear. Literature tackles the human condition day in day out, SF is now mainstream (and the two aren’t exclusive of each other) and tackles wonder on television, film and in books. Science offers us a telescope in orbit which daily presents us with a window on the universe. Our technologies mean that more humans are connected and contactable than at any time in history. Politics isn’t just a facade, but has profound impacts. Music offers… do I need to go on?
This is an age of wonders.
And he’s in Rimini on a short stay, and that too is, in its own banal way a wonder. Though I think I’d prefer if it were me. That might be more wonderful.
But no wonder there for him. All that is as nothing. And no wonder either. He and we can question the meaning of all things all we like, but he already knows what that meaning is.
This is a succinct judgment on our own culture of the present time. Our daily collective conversation seeks to insinuate the idea of purpose or destination without specifying what either of these phenomena might amount to. And so we have fallen into pessimism as insulation against the risk of false hopes. Everything is deemed to be “obvious” except the most obvious fact of all: that almost everything about the world is mysterious and awe-inspiring, and that this exceptionality must have a source in something that precedes what we think we know.
Erm… the one does not necessarily follow the other (and in any case, exceptional in what regard? Any universe is in and of itself exceptional, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate anything – although I’m intrigued that he shifts from a Christian-centric view so rapidly to a much more broadly theistic one with not much intervening space. In any case none of this is particularly new, and the issues raised for those who believe in God are such that one has to face and transcend them as best one can – while others can ignore them as they see fit. And the truth is not everything about the world is mysterious. Enormous chunks of stuff are nowhere near mysterious. And that’s just fine.
It’s not they’re not wonderful, or wonders in their own. There are many that are well worth the price of admission. But they’re smaller though no less important wonders. Being alive at this point in history, looking at the sky, cycling through a city. Having dinner. Watching Season three of the Wire. Simple stuff.
What’s most telling is that Waters in his quest for the numinous seems utterly unaware of its presence in the everyday (for those of us as want to look). It’s precisely in his supposedly empty conversations and the nooks and crannies of our ‘fabricated’ society we’ll find it. His ignorance as regards that is almost touching. He’s like the guy you knew way back when who was absolutely certain that numerology, or Depeche Mode or whatever held the keys to the kingdom. That behind everything there was one simple truth and after that you didn’t have to think too much about much else – indeed all else wasn’t very interesting at all, and more fool you for wasting your time on it (a sort of lived equivalent of the use of the truly abysmal term ‘sheeple’). That’s not absolutely incorrect, any Marxist worth their salt will affirm, but it’s not the whole truth though, not by a long shot.
And to ignore the former in favour of the latter, particularly when the latter is often so unamenable to any serious analysis is to miss almost everything and most importantly to dismiss the lived experience of most humans.
But curiously, curiously, Waters must have been irritated by the supposed political terminology of the 1960s, for he concludes with a breathtaking formula.
It is at this level of awareness that Giussani has pitched his tent and invited the world to come and look at everything again. If this is “right-wing and conservative” then so is the sun rising in the east.
Well I don’t know about other people, but I’m convinced. The sun… eh?
In a way his approach is worse than the Pharisaic approach of certain elements of Christianity (and indeed almost all other religions I can think of) where the outward observance is more important than the inward thought, the form becomes the function – so to speak. Because Waters, in a very very contemporary twist, has shifted the terrain so that inwardly all bar himself and those in the know are effectively deluded, living half-lives, or no lives at all. It’s arrogant, yes, but also faintly creepy, because what could convince him otherwise?
Thing is many of us don’t have the time to ‘look at everything again’ and appeals to do so are worse than futile in the lived experience of people trying to get by. That’s why fundamentally our pleasures are so – from Waters perspective – trite, conversations with family and friends, the various entertainments that he sneers at. Mere pastimes from his perspective which block our way to God.
And where there are bigger issues, yes, those locked into a discourse he is willfully ignorant about, such as the process of politics, he chooses to present us with a parodic version of them.
All of which, by the way, would be entirely fine – it’s an opinion after all – if he were to restrain himself from being so hugely proscriptive, so eager to tell the world where it’s going wrong… and perhaps look at the world as it actually is.
But I guess that’s a lot less exciting, a lot less mysterious, and also poses some tricky issues as to the nature of that society and how we might y’know, go about making it a little better for people down here, whatever about our personal beliefs as to what happens up there.