Friday, 26 September 2008

Against Superstition

There is an interesting piece on the irrelevance of the Church, carried at Episcopal Café's Daily Episcopalian. It is a sentiment I agree with.

The Archbishops of York and Canterbury referred to the current financial crisis recently. One of them knowingly used a phrase to be picked up in the media, calling them "bank robbers and asset strippers" whereas the other made a claim that Marx said something that he didn't, but allowed the media to splash about his support for Marx on this, thus sensationalising another Sharia moment. For both the Archbishops of York and Canterbury here was an exercise in irrelevance: speaking like amateurs they add another notch to growing ridicule.

If my blog is becoming increasingly humorous, it is because the ridicule is getting more obvious.

On Thinking Anglicans I have been criticised for reacting (seriously) against the sermon given by Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury at Lourdes. Here I only lapsed into humour. The intention inside the humour was to seriously examine the relationship between religion and magic, the supernatural and magic, rationality and postmodernism. So I have a caricature Archbishop with a cold in a place of healing, who has one of these satellite evangelical preacher's 'green prosperity prayer handkerchief' (Don Stewart gives them away for your contact details, no doubt to be pestered ever after for money - all of this based on the pedalling of these satellite stations that giving money to them benefits your own pocket). My fictional Archbishop has such a handkerchief: after all, what is the difference between saying that can heal you (it does this as well as make you rich) and that Lourdes can heal you? Only that the latter has a longer superstition attached to it, and one is more wrapped up in myth than its instant Protestant miracle-making equivalent. Then my caricature gets wrapped up in his intellectualism, and, as he gets lost within it, and is told to shut up by the surrounding company.

There is a clash now between science (and its method of regularity of returns), coupled with technology (that it performs and works), in that this this-worldly practicality creates a way of thinking, and that this way of thinking is at loggerheads with living inside a mythical dreamworld. As far as I can see, Lourdes and all it represents is a mythical dreamworld.

There is a place for dreamworlds; there is always a place for enchantment. The arts are important in adding roundness and colour. Max Weber saw the danger of a disenchanted world, although he saw this as unavoidable. Marx saw the disenchanted world as evidence of the last stage of liberation: real and concrete relationships coming to the fore and not what Rowan Williams thinks Marx thought about myth. Marx had no interest in myth (ideology was a product of real relationships - called false consciousness) and Marx came to reject the idealisation of the human being (which Weber did retain as a viewpoint, despite its loss in bureaucratic modernist society).

So we have science, and technology, and we also have history. History is also a critical approach to the past: in fact it is largely about the use of documents held in the present but made in the past that indicate what happened and what motivated people in the past. Every document is a primary document of something (what it tells us directly about purpose and authorship) and is often a secondary document about something else.

The gospels are primary documents of the early Churches: their views, expectations and directions, and are secondary documents about Jesus and the mission - being biography-like and history-like in form. The rest of the New Testament has various forms but are obviously also of the early Churches, and mainly of one central strand.

In the gospels, where they appear, the birth narratives are constructions and clearly highly mythic, though it is all mythic in framework - they were people inside their own Jewish and eschatological mythology and then the impact of Greek culture. A highly localised Jewish end-days movement gets broadened out after Jesus's death and undergoes rapid charismatic and cultural shifts.

So the initial birth myths, drawing together early Christian identifications of Jewish scriptures on expectation, with the addition of Jesus's mother's appearance at key moments of the story, become built up via ecclesiastical tradition into a mariology, and a mariology that satisfies both a patriarchy via an impossible virgin-mother and localised village and rural superstition below the sophisticates of patriarchy.

(This is not to say which is the most vital part of religion. Arguably all religion is rooted in magic, and the sophisticates come later and impose traditionalist bureaucratic form.)

When Jesus was actually, historically, born, in Capernaum or Nazareth or wherever in Galilee, there was no fanfare, visitation, fore-knowledge or anything. It was just another unremarkable birth among one brood. For one reason or another, Jesus turned into an itinerant healer and preacher of the last days, as did many, leaving at his death a group of puzzled followers, a family involved and some newcomers (like Paul was) all of whom were still dealing with the last days and expectations business and what would happen next, and handling the mythic beliefs and language of the time.

We do not know how faithful his mother was; there is even a hint of strain in the family. How unusual! Jesus says abandon the family to join his movement. Mother though also turns up at some events, and at the end (so the biography-like suggests). We hear nothing about his dad.

A statement by Rowan Williams that "Elizabeth recognises Mary as bearing within her the hope and desire of all nations" is part of the accretion of myth. He might live in that myth, and it might feed his sense of faithfulness. It does nothing for me.

He says it is a story:

"This story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth is in many ways a very strange one."

Usually he tries to pump it up as hard as it will go towards realism. He's done this on the birth narratives and resurrection, because historical method is so critical and unkind to lovers of myth as history. The question is whether it is a good story.

First of all, I have a bias against superstition. It does nothing other than further ignorance. It is against my value of promoting education.

Secondly it is a harmful story. Virgin-mothers are like square circles, and do nothing for women's identity, equality or sexuality. I find it odd when dyed in the wool Catholics argue for equality when the mythic framework they inhabit does the opposite: do not be surprised if a Catholic like Rowan Williams so often seems compromised about the equality of people. Is equality even a 'gospel value'? I actually doubt this.

"When Mary came to Bernardette" is just superstition wrapped up in a geographical location, and Rowan Williams might make much of it but I cannot and will not.

Magic is for people like Derren Brown. They do make things happen. These honest practioners can do what all the cold readers can do and claim is ghostly, they can conjure up visions and make people believe what they did not believe. They cut through the twaddle of superstition of tale-telling and the convincing one person from a charlatan that the world is constructed one way rather than another.

If it is then not like that, but a story, the issue is then the harm or good of a story, or a bit of entertainment.

I'm not interested in female semi-deities by some sort of myth of patriarchy. If I want the female principle, I'll find one that is open, networked, aspirational, plural - not this that reflects female impossibility and male hierarchy in dresses.

(By the way, this is how I am 'Pluralist', not because I am some sort of open channel for all sorts of opinions that lacks a critical approach.)

Can Christianity be reformable, be consistent with contemporary thought and can it advance our humanity? My view is that we forever have to critically extract from the tradition. I may be wrong here; sometimes I think the tradition only works as a whole and is doomed.

I am more 'liturgical' than Catholic: if I am Catholic in any sense then it is lightly so. I do have a lot of time for those Free Catholics; I have become more distant from Liberal Catholics (because of the magic and fantasy, despite the heterodox extracting). I am not particularly Protestant either, in that whilst I do not go in for gestures during liturgies, nor do I face the Book at the Gospel reading. I have a lot of time for Charles Darwin's wife Emma, who at the moment of the Creed got her family to turn around and face the congregation.

The liberal is selective, and in the end although the liturgy is a song to a whole myth, and is useful as a pathway maker; the liberal is also clear about the difference between liturgy and theology. Saying no in theology is important, and I say no to this Mary emphasis. I draw no stories from it at all.


Anonymous said...

Bravo. Let's go.

greg said...

As ever, your writings are cogent and thought-provoking. There are lots of questions I have, but perhaps you can field two for starters, for the hard of thinking! Would you mind expanding on your paragraph 'I am more 'liturgical' than 'catholic'; What do you mean precisely and why are Free Catholics more appealing to you in this sense? Secondly, when you talk of religion and magic, are you effectively speaking of religion in terms similar to Malinowski (1948)?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Tell you what, I'll take some time out here to write a new entry and answer your question Greg. Briefly, yes, regarding Malinowski but it goes on to Weber and the controversial Redfield.