Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Happening

James Alison gave the annual Tablet Lecture last week in London.

Fulltext link here, and some snips:
Our Faith requires that over our lifetimes we leave many different homes and families, many an Ur of the Chaldees, many a household of the Pharaoh. And I have had the privilege of experiencing this "leaving home" in order to become a Catholic in the first place; then in embracing the thought of René Girard as something inspiring life-changing attention; then as I try to fulfil the charge given me at my priestly ordination; then, and much more precariously, in daring to think it might be part of my vocation to have a shot at becoming a truthful gay man within a mendacious environment. Where your invitation frightened me is because it beckoned to me as a certain sort of homecoming, a "welcome back" into an English Catholic world in which I had not expected to be asked to belong. And with that, there comes the need to learn how to speak not with the freedom and insouciance of the foreigner (for I mostly work abroad, and speak to those in cultures not my own) but with the delicacy of one who is learning how to greet long-lost relatives, one who is a little nervous of what they will show him of his roots, of who he really is, but who is deeply warmed that they should be curious to have him among them at all. For all the rest, as they say; there is Mastercard but an invitation like this, priceless....the concept of the "secular" as it comes to us from St Augustine was born as a new form of historical time and culture, brought into being by Christian faith in which there is no longer anything or any people who are properly "sacred" or anything or any people who are properly "profane"[1]. Instead there is a time when the patterns of desire leading to holiness and patterns of desire leading to destruction are to be found side by side, intertwined, and not to be uprooted by human agencies. They are present both in apparently "ecclesiastical" and in apparently "civil" spheres. The Church, which, with regard to its varying organisational structures, is as much part of the secular as is the civil, political, imperial, or democratic realm in which it lives, would, at its best, be the regime and discipline of signs, made alive by God: signs pointing towards and actually being, God's bringing about of his Kingdom by reconciling all humans together; signs which are aimed at summoning forth certain shapes of human desire, interpretation, and living together, rather than coercing people into sacred structures. The driving force behind this is the Spirit breathed forth by Jesus in his dying. This alone, this breath of a crucified criminal, injustly put to death by the breathing together, the con-spiratio, of the sacred and the profane authorities of the time, this breath which cannot be tied down, is the holy power which turns apparent dregs of failed humanity into astounding witnesses of the holiness of God....

I'm very glad to say that at last these issues have been raised publicly, forcefully, and to varying degrees of incomprehension, by none other than, in short order, both the successor of Peter and the head of the Church of England. For those who like alliteration, that's Ratzi in Regensburg, and Rowan in Rome. In the case of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I'm referring to his lecture to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Both leaders are reminding people, in Rowan's words, that "A certain kind of secularism has direct Christian and theological roots", or in Pope Benedict's, that "The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. " They say this as though it were obvious that our scientific rationality has long been recognised as originating in and not against our Faith. And for those of us privileged to have had graduate-level Catholic theological education, so it should be....

[N]o form of earthly belonging is sacred: your family, your tribe, your clan is not sacred, and you may have to stand up against it in order to live the truth; your homeland is not sacred, and you may have to be considered a criminal or a traitor by it in order to live the truth. Your only form of belonging is invisible except by sign. It is for this reason that there is no Christian Holy Land, only lands where the usual mixture of holiness and destruction is lived out, but where political frontiers can only be pragmatic matters, able to be negotiated over time, never sacred ones. There is no Christian Holy City, Rome's status being a purely historical and pragmatic one, and there being absolutely no sacred imperative that the Bishop of the Church in that city should also be a secular head of state. There are purely contingent and pragmatic considerations, always up for negotiation. It is genuinely indispensable to being a Catholic that we have a direct relationship to the successor of Peter. Yet that relationship is in principle entirely independent of whatever secular power structure adorns, or blackens, the Petrine office. And it is quite right that it should be secular affairs which give the context within which our relationship to Peter is lived out in each generation. The same reasoning lies behind the fact that there is no Christian Ummah - not because the West is somehow enlightened, decadent, and has lost its religious roots, meaning the remnants of Christendom, but because the whole point of Christianity is to bring down the sort of wall of protective sacredness which makes universality impossible by having a necessary "other" over against whom we make ourselves "good".

The premise of the Catholic Faith is that there is no real other in any meaningful religious sense, that is "another" who can be seen as so unlike us that they could not learn as we have learned, that we are victimisers and must learn not to be, and so belong to the same sign as we. There are only humans who, starting from where they are, can have desire reformed in such a way as to learn not to create identity over against anyone else at all. Whenever we come across an apparent "other" and start to get frightened and retrench into identity politics, we are not becoming more Catholic, but much less Catholic. My sorrow at Archbishop Nichols' recent sermon seeking to maintain a sacred right to discriminate against gay people was not because I am a gay man, but because I'm a Catholic. It is because I am a Catholic that I recognise that anyone playing identity politics with a victimary [sic] slant is functionally atheistic.

Is not identity politics a refusal to allow ourselves to undergo the Happening which might teach us who our neighbour is, and empower us to grow into being not-over-against anyone at all? Doesn't such politics tend to produce cheap togetherness and junk goodness? When I see this identity politics with a victimary slant from other groups in our society - and Lord alone knows there are enough of them from throughout the spheres which we call "religious" and "secular", both Left and Right - I'm sorry for them, but how can I judge whether they know better? They are genuinely sheep without a shepherd. But when I see a Catholic authority doing this, I am really, really sorry, because we are without excuse. Catholics cannot complain about being treated victimarily, since at the centre of our Faith we have agreed to be treated victimarily in advance, without ever seeking it, so as to be able slowly and patiently to work towards the truth and well-being of all our sisters and brothers with all that victim stuff already behind us. We've agreed to lose our identity in advance so as to receive the much, much bigger, stronger identity of being contributed to by others who, whatever they may think, are not really over-against me at all. That's what "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" means!