Theology as entertainment

One of my current favourite books is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700. I’m on a second read through, having got about half way last year before losing the plot. It is complicated and full of characters, but brilliantly written, and the history is often stranger than fiction.

I see he has a new book out now, a history of Christianity published to coincide with his BBC4 series. Tempted to get it despite its thousand pages. Two reviews I’ve read are tantalising enough: the Irish Times reviewer (a Maynooth professor) loved it but regretted MacCulloch’s description of Christianity as ‘a personality cult’, while the Telegraph TV reviewer found the whole enterprise much too PC. MacCulloch’s response to him was “I think the term ‘political correctness’ was invented to describe what’s essentially showing politeness towards other people’s feelings” to which I say hear hear.

I can’t really explain my interest in theology, the pursuit of certain error. Of all my family I was the one most likely to find myself drawn to a church career. A hundred years earlier, or even fifty, I could have gone that way. My nearest relation in the clergy was Uncle Tom, but I didn’t want to be like him. I preferred the shambolic but credible Billy Wynne who was our rector in Monkstown; as an old man he told me he was ‘a Christian agnostic’. My Dad would have been sympathetic to that. I feel he would also be sympathetic to the person famously quoted by Disraeli:

“Sensible men are all of the same religion.”
“Pray, what is that?”
“Sensible men never tell.”

There is a very good reason for not telling. It would be most flattering to be asked for one’s theological views, except of course by an Inquisition. But apart from the entertainment of conversation, the only reason for consulting another’s beliefs is either to flatter or to exploit them. Unless the interviewee is in a position of command, one can gain little from sitting through an exposition of their articles of faith. It is like their health, equally fascinating to the speaker and boring to the listener.

Studying philosophy in TCD in the sixties, I was very taken by Berkeley. He seems to have been the first to note that

The grand mistake is that we think we have Ideas of the Operations of our Minds.
certainly this Metaphorical dress is an argument we have not

In a nutshell! That would knock all theology on the head, it seems to me. Not only can we not know the universal mind, we can’t even expect to perceive (the workings of) our own minds, since everything that is perceived is in a category (Berkeley called it Ideas) that does not include the perceiver. Of course later in life Berkeley became a bishop and started saying the things bishops say; the quote from his notebook above was written about the age of twenty-two. I was sad to see the egregious theology he committed towards the end of his last book Siris, but there you go. He was only human, and that was then. I still regard Berkeley highly; I wrote a short appreciative article on him for the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Earth edition).

8 Responses to “Theology as entertainment”

  1. willy Says:

    Berkeley’s thesis as you outline it in H2G2, namely that matter doesn’t exist, would play well nowadays in the world of theoretical physics. They tell us that matter does exist, but, rather oddly, that it has no mass. At least, that none of the sub-atomic particles that make up the atoms that make our world ought to have any mass whatsoever…Er, until mass is bestowed upon them by the mysterious and unexplainable Higgs-Boson particles they’re trying so hard to find at CERN. Berkeley’s effort is far more elegant and indeed more credible.

  2. recumbentman Says:

    Well that’s quite an endorsement. I thought that modern science would leave Berkeley behind, but maybe his relevance persists. I didn’t know that that was the role of the Higgs boson. Truly the ways of matter are ineffable.

  3. samwell Says:

    nice one

  4. recumbentman Says:

    I forgot when writing that entry that the Murphy Report was due to be published. It has since dropped its bomb.

    Last night I lay awake composing the following, which I sent to The Irish Times letters ed. I’m not holding my breath that they will publish it, but here it is: its suggested heading is ‘Refuge of sinners’:

    Dear Madam

    Why feign surprise that a church should harbour criminals? It follows
    inescapably from the mission statement. Introducing the concept of
    eternity into moral questions leads to this conclusion:

    A few years of lost childhood, followed by a consequent few decades of
    lost morale, could weigh little or nothing against an eternity of
    glorious vindication in the eyes of an omniscient judge. It is
    inevitable that the concern and sympathy of any institution that
    allows eternity into its moral calculations will apply to the
    perpetrator alone, whose immortal soul is imperilled.

    It is time we stop trying to focus at infinity; we now need to change
    our behaviour to try and stop destroying our habitat on this uniquely
    hospitable planet. A view of fifty to a hundred years, our children’s
    lifetime, is enough foresight for the most urgent purposes; concern
    with eternity can only skew moral arguments.

    Yours etc.

    ~Andrew etc.

  5. Colm Says:

    Should we not leave open the possibllity that the problem within Catholicism is an organisational problem where the reality within the organisation conflicts with the external utterances and the need to maintain, at all costs, the legacy structures and privileges?

    I don’t see too much evidence of the “divine” from the events of the past week. What I do see is a lot of organisational evil, where otherwise relatively good people – and I’m talking about the bishops and senior clergy here – got caught up in a machine that, by virtues of its structures, ended up doing monstrous things. There but for the grace of bob, and all that..

    • recumbentman Says:

      Hello Colm! Thanks for that.

      I’m afraid the problem goes deeper than organisation; it arises from the idea that we can meaningfully contemplate eternity. It doesn’t seem hard to me to admit ‘this is something I can’t do’ but I can see it may be problematic for a lot of people.

      But as Wittgenstein said, ‘The temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say, its eternal survival after death, is not only in no way guaranteed, but this assumption in the first place will not do for us what we always tried to make it do. Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive for ever? Is this eternal life not as enigmatic as our present one?’

  6. malo Says:

    good letter. I had the thought myself as a child, that the way to get ahead in the eyes of the Lord would be to be a victim as frequently as possible. I’m inclined to agree with Colm, though, that the harbouring is more to do with protecting the firm and less to do with ultimate eternal justice.

  7. recumbentman Says:

    To pursue eternity logic one step further, the best thing a church could do for a sinner’s soul would be to assault the offender’s body with extreme prejudice. This was the rationale for the Inquisition, but for some reason they stopped burning heretics after the festive bonfire of 1680.

    Wiki however says that the executions were not part of the public auto de fe:

    ‘The last public auto de fe took place in 1691.
    ‘The auto de fe involved: a Catholic Mass; prayer; a public procession of those found guilty; and a reading of their sentences (Peters 1988: 93-94). They took place in public squares or esplanades and lasted several hours: ecclesiastical and civil authorities attended. Artistic representations of the auto de fe usually depict torture and the burning at the stake. However, this type of activity never took place during an auto de fe, which was in essence a religious act. Torture was not administered after a trial concluded, and executions were always held after and separate from the auto de fe (Kamen 1997: 192-213), though in the minds and experiences of observers and those undergoing the confession and execution, the separation of the two might be experienced as merely a technicality.’

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