CAT | Religion
One of the things that I have always appreciated about Christianity is its seemingly infinite capacity for syncretism.
In its own nutty, hopelessly kitsch way, this is rather splendid:
And it beats Pope Francis’s rehashed Peronism any day.
H/t: The American Jesus (who doesn’t seem to approve)
Include me in the ranks of those who are skeptical about what the US is trying to do in Syria. This particular analysis, however, forms no part of my thinking:
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) over the weekend accused President Obama of arming al Qaeda militants in Syria and said it was evidence “we’re in God’s end times.”
“This happened and as of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists,” Bachmann said in a radio interview with Understanding the Times that was first reported by Right Wing Watch. “Now what this says to me, I’m a believer in Jesus Christ, as I look at the End Times scripture, this says to me that the leaf is on the fig tree and we are to understand the signs of the times, which is your ministry, we are to understand where we are in God’s end times history.”
“Rather than seeing this as a negative, we need to rejoice,” she continued. “Maranatha, come Lord Jesus, his day is at hand. When we see up is down and right is called wrong, when this is happening, we were told this; these days would be as the days of Noah.”
In the Daily Telegraph, Tim Stanley writes:
A chance click on a blog by Alejandro Bermúdez, head of the Catholic News Agency, leant me a fascinating insight into [the Pope’s] intellectual character. During his first homily, Pope Francis quoted the 19th century French convert Léon Bloy. And it’s a striking quote:
“When one does not confess Jesus Christ, I am reminded of the expression of Léon Bloy: ‘He who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil.’ When one does not confess Jesus Christ, one confesses the worldliness of the devil.”
Oh my! To anyone who doubts Pope Francis’ orthodoxy, there it is in black and white. God is a reality and to reject him is to embrace the only real alternative – the devil. Note that it’s “the devil” with a small “d”, because he’s much smaller than God and cannot possibly win the Final Battle between the two. Satan is a pipsqueak and a born loser, and you’d have to be pretty dumb to pick him for an ally.
Bloy was a radical Catholic. He was obsessed with capturing and embodying the essence of Christian doctrine, to the degree that it made him the sworn enemy of compromise. Born in 1846, he was raised in Paris in the French republican tradition – rationalist, secularist. In his twenties he underwent a dramatic conversion to Catholicism that left him craving constant encounter with the divine. Like anyone who thinks they have discovered The Truth, he was impatient with the fake consensus that others tried to force him to live by. Christ on the Cross was the only fact worth knowing, martyrdom was the only death worth experiencing. Bloy embraced poverty and gained the nickname “the ungrateful beggar” for his habit of refusing to get a job, begging for money, and then using the fresh ink he acquired to attack the lifestyles of the rich who kept him. We might today call him a hippie bum, but no bum ever wrote with this kind of passion:
“Every man who begets a free act projects his personality into the infinite. If he gives a poor man a penny grudgingly, that penny pierces the poor man’s hand, falls, pierces the earth, bores holes in suns, crosses the firmament and compromises the universe. If he begets an impure act, he perhaps darkens thousands of hearts whom he does not know, who are mysteriously linked to him, and who need this man to be pure as a traveler dying of thirst needs the Gospel’s draught of water. A charitable act, an impulse of real pity sings for him the divine praises, from the time of Adam to the end of the ages; it cures the sick, consoles those in despair, calms storms, ransoms prisoners, converts the infidel and protects mankind.”
Purity not just in deed but in purpose. Bloy wanted us to live heroically as living saints; always giving, never taking – motivated in everything by pure love. A barrier to love was wealth (if you have it and you love others, why wouldn’t you give it away?), so Bloy hated the wealthy….
Ah yes, always the hate. It’s curious how often advocates of “pure love” of this type seem to have so much room for hate.
To be sure, it’s important to note (as Stanley does) that this was just one citation by Francis, and it’s even more important to admit that I’d never heard of Bloy until yesterday. That said, even very cursory research throws up some fairly disturbing information about him. Long-distance medical diagnosis is always a dangerous temptation, and it rarely yields much more than a glorified guess. Nevertheless, on this occasion I shall give in to it: It certainly looks as if Bloy had some sort of breakdown, and, sadly, the personality that emerged from this “dramatic conversion” (if you prefer that gentler term) was both unpleasant and more than a little sinister.
Stanley attempts to draw a distinction between Bloy’s rhetoric and the language of Marxism by focusing on the fact that Marxism is a materialist creed. Superficially, perhaps, but Marxism is better seen as a manifestation of the old millennialist tradition of which Bloy-style Catholic radicalism is yet another expression. To read Bloy’s turn-of-the century ravings is to glimpse a shadow of the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution and the “Democratic Kampuchea” to come.
To get a very quick flavor of Bloy, read the rest of Stanley’s fascinating article and then go over to the French wikiquote. See Bloy sounding off against Protestantism, democracy and modernity, (vaccination was “un ordure”, apparently, a favorite word of this somewhat excrementally-obsessed writer, and cars and trains were not much better). Check out the repeated demonization of the rich and the bourgeois as “pigs”, dehumanization of a sort that was the prelude to so much twentieth century massacre.
Bloy’s morbid and violent prose appears to be the product of a genuinely totalitarian spirit (”Je suis pour l’intolérance parfaite”), and of a mind that recognized only one truth. God, so to speak, help anyone who disagreed.
For Francis to quote this man was, well, interesting…
A Jeddah criminal court judge has sentenced Saudi Arabian journalist Raif Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for the crime of “insulting Islam.” It could have gone worse for Badawi: Had the judge not thrown out the charge of apostasy, he would have received a death sentence. He’ll probably survive the whipping only because it comes in four sessions with planned hospitalizations in between. He has until Sept. 6 to file an appeal.
Badawi, 30, is the co-founder and editor of the website saudiliberalnetwork.com, which encouraged people to post their thoughts about the role of religion and politics, among other things, in their lives. (No longer, however: The site has been shut down.)
…Can any human being survive 600 lashes? I asked Waleed Abu al-Khair, a Saudi Arabian human-rights lawyer who is handling Badawi’s case, to tell me about this particular form of punishment.
“The lash is like a horse whip,” he said during a telephone interview from Jeddah. “You stand with your face to the wall. They lash his back from top to legs. 150 lashes are given at a time. Then he will need to go to the hospital.”
Badawi was given five years for “insulting Islam.” Two more are for insulting both Islam and Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
According to the global watchdog group Human Rights Watch, a popular cleric, Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak, called for Badawi to be charged with apostasy for allegedly saying that “Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists are all equal.”
The judge, Faris al-Harbi, tacked an additional three months onto the sentence, al-Khair told me, for “parental disobedience.” Badawi’s father, he says, went on TV to condemn his son’s statements and the website.Badawi has repeatedly claimed that he never attacked Islam and that he only sought to provide a forum for open debate. He even convinced al-Harbi of his own faith, which led to the dismissal of the apostasy charge….
Over at the Guardian, Nick Cohen highlights an intriguing detail in Pope Francis’s “who am I to judge” remark about homosexuals:
Journalists wanted to know whether a “gay lobby” in the Vatican had covered up Ricca’s alleged sins. “If a gay person is in eager search of God, who am I to judge them?” the pope replied. “The Catholic church teaches that gay people should not be discriminated against.”
This sounds a start: a small start, a long overdue start, but a start nevertheless. But consider the sequel. “Being gay is not the problem,” the pope continued, “lobbying is the problem and this goes for any type of lobby… political lobbies, masonic lobbies, all lobbies.” (“Lobby dei politici, lobby dei massoni, tante lobby.”)
And with that casual phrase, the pope signalled his fealty to the deep strain of reaction in European history and hardly anyone noticed. Few Anglo-Saxon readers understand that prejudice against freemasons is the founding conspiracy theory of the far right. It saw the machinations of a society that began among harmless Scottish craftsmen in the 15th century as responsible for liberalism, the enlightenment, the rights of man… everything it hated.
In the 1790s, an abbé named Augustin Barruel, an alarming combination of Dan Brown and David Icke, looked at the American and French revolutions and concluded that the masses could have overthrown divinely ordained monarchs and the holy mother church only if they were the dupes of an international conspiracy of freemasons.
The masons were not middle-aged men in fancy dress, but the descendants of the Knights Templar, who went underground in the Middle Ages and swore to avenge themselves on the church and monarchy that had persecuted them.
It sounded mad. Indeed it was mad. But a conspiracy theory that says that human rights are a sham behind which a sinister secret society manipulates the world was too useful to waste. Successive popes issued bulls against it. Pius IX included freemasonry along with socialism, liberalism and freedom of conscience as evils the faithful must fight in his Syllabus of Errors of 1864.
The antisemites and fascists of the early 20th century added that the masons were in league with the Jews. Franco and Mussolini persecuted them. The Nazis made freemasons wear red triangles and murdered them by the thousand.
Do not think these foul ideas are dead. Radical Islam echoes the European far-right’s ravings. (The Hamas charter says the freemasons are in an alliance with the Jews and – brace yourselves – the Rotary Club and the Lions as well.) Like Hamas, Luigi Negri, a Catholic bishop, believes that freemasons were responsible for the French revolution and the Russian revolution, too. Last week, the Catholic Herald took its cue from the pope’s condemnation of the “masonic lobby” to raise the “truly frightening thought” that masons had infiltrated the Vatican and were subverting the Holy See from within. These devils in aprons are everywhere.
Bergoglio, in short, was digging in over-manured soil….
Reading too much into a handful of words? Maybe, maybe…
Theodore Dalrymple is too kind in his assessment of the previous pope, a clever man, certainly, but one capable of thoroughly disingenuous argument, but that aside, this critique of some comments made by Francis, his successor, during the course of a visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa is a must-read.
Lampedusa is an Italian island of 8 square miles with a permanent population of 6000, which so far this year has received 7800 migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan and North Africa, that is to say more than 1000 a month. When the Pope officiated at mass on the island’s sports field, there were 10,000 in the congregation, two thirds more than the permanent population, suggesting that the migrants stay a few months at least on Lampedusa….
In effect the island has been transformed into a refugee camp, not necessarily with the approval or agreement of the original inhabitants. This was a fait accompli imposed upon them by political, historical and geographical circumstances.
Estimates suggest that about 100 migrants a month for the past twenty years have drowned during their clandestine passage across the Mediterranean towards Europe. This being the case, no one could possibly say that the migrants decided on the journey in a whimsical or light-hearted fashion. The attraction of Europe or the repulsion of their homelands, or both, must be very powerful for so many people to risk so high a chance of so pathetic a death. The Pope said that all his compassion went to the immigrants who had died at sea ‘in these boats that, instead of bringing hope of a better life, brought them to death,’ and this was right and proper. Surely someone must be lacking in both imagination and feeling not to sorrow for these poor people.
Compassionate fellow-feeling, however, can soon become self-indulgent and lead to spiritual pride. It imparts an inner glow, like a shot of whiskey on a cold day, but like whiskey it can prevent the clear-headedness which we need at least as much as we need warmth of heart. Pascal said that the beginning of morality was to think well; generosity of spirit is not enough.
In his homily, the Pope decried what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ to the suffering of which the tragedy of the drowned was a manifestation and a consequence. Our culture of comfort, he said, has made us indifferent to the sufferings of others; we have forgotten how to cry on their behalf. He made reference to the play of Lope de Vega in which a tyrant is killed by the inhabitants of a town called Fuente Ovejuna, no one owning up to the killing and everyone saying that it was Fuente Ovejuna that killed him. The West, said the Pope, was like Fuente Ovejuna, for when asked who was to blame for the deaths of these migrants, it answered, ‘Everyone and no one!’ He continued, ‘Today also this question emerges: who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters? No one! We each reply: it was not I, I wasn’t here, it was someone else.’
The Pope also called for ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity that open the way to tragedies such as these to come out of hiding.’
With all due respect, I think this is very loose thinking indeed of a kind that the last Pope would not have permitted himself. The analogy between the two situations, the murder of the tyrant in Fuente Ovejuna and the death by drowning of thousands of migrants, is weak to the point of non-existence. After all, someone in Fuente Ovejuna did kill the tyrant; no one in the west drowned the migrants. Is the Pope then saying that Europe’s refusal to allow in all who want to come is the moral equivalent of actually wielding the knife?
By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy…..
But less about these comments from three years back (via Breitbart):
New Pope Francis I is an ardent opponent of same-sex marriage, in coincidence with traditional Catholic belief. In 2010, he wrote, “Let’s not be naïve, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
The “Father of Lies”!
This is about a piece that comes from the Daily Beast, so a few caveats are in order, even if we ignore a headline (“Why American Social Conservatives Love Anti-Gay Putin”) that may not be the work of James Kirchick, the article’s author.
I doubt, for example, whether this “many” is accurate:
Many of those self-same religious conservatives who cheered wildly when Ronald Reagan denounced the “Evil Empire,” are citing Russia as the world’s foremost defender of traditional values.
And this is ludicrous:
Russia today under the heel of President Vladimir Putin is arguably less free than it was in the late stages of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev.
The direction of change in the late-Gorbachev era (unless, say, you were a Lithuanian border guard), might have been more favorable than it is in Russia today, but, for all the reversion to authoritarianism seen in recent years, Russia is still infinitely more free than it was in 1989-91.
On June 30, Putin signed into law a now infamous measure banning “non-traditional relationships propaganda,” a catch-all term which legal experts say prohibits everything from gay pride parades to gay couples holding hands in public.
The law had earlier passed in the Duma by a vote of 436-0.
Back to the Daily Beast:
“Russians do not want to follow America’s reckless and decadent promotion of gender confusion, sexual perversion, and anti-biblical ideologies to youth,” Peter LaBarbera, of the outfit Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, proclaimed on his website.
“You admire some of the things they’re doing in Russia against propaganda,” Austin Ruse, president of the U.S.-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, told the Associated Press last month, before lamenting, “on the other hand, you know it would be impossible to do that here.” Ruse recently traveled to Russia, and wrote a piece for the Daily Caller entitled, “Putin is not the gay bogeyman,” in which he defended the draconian legislation.
“Openly gay ambassadors are now placed in largely religious countries,” Ruse complained. “Gay celebrations are now held in U.S. embassies, even in countries like Pakistan where such parties are calculated to deeply offend legitimate religious sensibilities and beliefs.” Of course, Christians are also discriminated against in Pakistan. Presumably Ruse also opposes the U.S. Embassy’s Christmas Party, which is similarly “calculated to deeply offend legitimate religious sensibilities and beliefs”?
…Scott Lively, an American conservative activist largely credited for inspiring legislation in Uganda that would impose the death penalty on homosexuals, praised the Russian legislation on his website, writing, “I can’t point to any country of the world today that is a model for the rest of the world, except perhaps for Russia, which has just taken the very important and frankly necessary step of criminalizing homosexual propaganda to protect the society from being ‘homosexualzed [sic].’” In 2007, Lively traveled across Russia on a 50-city tour, during which he recommended the very measures included in the Russian bill. Lively is the author of a book entitled “The Pink Swastika,” which argues that German Nazism was a gay conspiracy.
So supportive of Russia are social conservatives that many of them plan to travel to Moscow next year for the 8th international conference of the World Congress of Families, which proclaims on its website that, “Ideologies of statism, individualism and sexual revolution, today challenge the family’s very legitimacy as an institution.” Russia, the organization proclaims, is known for “its historic commitment to deep spirituality and morality.”
Well yes and no at an individual and cultural level. But the use that the czarist state made of religion was not so much about “spirituality and morality” as it was about creating an ideology that both cemented an idea of Russianness across very disparate peoples, and provided a justification for absolutism, a notion that was reduced to the formula “authority, orthodoxy and nationality” under Nicholas I.
Social conservative love for Vladimir Putin’s Russia should not come as much of a surprise. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia eventually reverted to an authoritarian system that more resembles the governance of the Tsarist period than a modern liberal democracy. Russia is now heavily influenced once again by the Orthodox Church, which has essentially become a state religion and has openly declared its support for Putin’s gangster regime. Writing in Newsweek last year, Peter Pomerantsev reported that the Church has “been critical in helping Putin recast the liberal opposition’s fight against state corruption and alleged electoral fraud into a script of ‘foreign devils’ versus ‘Holy Russia.’” Shorn of its communist atheism, Russia is now a reactionary’s paradise. Those who sensed authoritarian tendencies lurking within the American religious right have had their suspicions confirmed by such vocal support for the Russian dictator.
The idea of a monolithic “religious right” is absurd, but nevertheless…
This preference for the strong, righteous hand was visible in the saga of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk rock collective whose show trial last year after a “blasphemous” performance in an Orthodox Church became an international cause célèbre. While everyone from Madonna to Amnesty International protested, the Russian Foreign Ministry boasted that the harsh sentencing of the group to two years in prison demonstrated that it was Moscow which today stands for “Christian values” forgotten in the “postmodern West,” a point echoed by American social conservatives. “In an ironic reversal in time, as America has declared war on the church and Christians, Russians have come back to the church,” the Reverend Austin Miles wrote on the website of the Christian Coalition. “While America has allowed itself to be kicked into the gutter, Russia, the former Communist Soviet Union, has picked up the baton, rapped some knuckles and proclaimed sternly: ‘Do not foul religion or the church.’” What he and other defenders of Putin forgot to mention, however, was that the Pussy Riot protest was specifically aimed at the Church’s open and unapologetic collaboration with an undemocratic and oppressive regime.
Indeed it was (something that, as I noted here, appeared to have been forgotten/ignored by at least two Republican congressmen, Reps Rohrabacher and King).
At this point it might be worth linking again to a post I put up here in January.
Here’s an extract:
Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blend social conservatism and Russian Orthodoxy into the mix that is (nominally: the reality is rather grubbier) the ideology of his regime continues. The Guardian has the details.
First, we have an unpleasant piece of anti-homosexual legislation (in wording, context and intent far broader—and far nastier than the “Section 28” that was, to say the least, one of the Thatcher era’s less glorious achievements):
“The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.”
And then we have this:
“Minutes after passing the anti-gay legislation, the Duma also approved a new law allowing jail sentences of up to three years for “offending religious feelings”, an initiative launched in the wake of the trial against the anti-Kremlin punk band Pussy Riot.”
There ought, of course, to be no ‘right’ not to be offended. What’s particularly interesting about the latter law, however, is the way that it borrows from western neo-blasphemy legislation…
For a glance at where Putin’s efforts could lead, this post by Andrew Sullivan on an incident of bullying recently video-recorded in St. Petersburg is well worth reading. As he notes, it is “a scene reminiscent of fascist states in the early 1930s”, down, I might add, to the undertone that Sullivan also detects…
This is not something to be cheering on.
Barbara Ward (1914-81), a former foreign editor of the Economist and much more besides, plays an important part in Rupert Darwall’s The Age of Global Warming, a new book that is, among other things, a fascinating intellectual and political history of the evolution of the climate change movement.
Ward believed in a form of mid-century command-and-control that was reinforced by her take on the Christian ethic (she was a fairly devout Roman Catholic). This passage in Darwall’s book caught my attention:
She lobbied the Second Vatican Council on Third World Development. In 1967, Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, with Ward as one of its members. The encyclical, Populorum Progressio, ‘The Development of the Peoples’, with its criticism of ‘unbridled liberalism’, its call for ‘concerted planning’ and the creation of a ‘World Fund’ are all evidence of Ward’s imprint.
Interesting to see that the Vatican was moaning on about ‘unbridled liberalism’ at a time when it existed, well, nowhere. It’s a handy reminder that Benedict XVI’s disingenuous attacks on ‘financial capitalism’ and similar-sounding comments from the likable sort-of-Peronist who has succeeded him, represent just the latest manifestations of a long strand in Roman Catholic thinking.
There’s quite a bit of vitriol splashed around in this new post by Sam Harris, and, as so often with his work, there’s also much that’s worth discussing at length, but for now let’s just note that the point that he makes in the following two sentences is hugely important, well worth saying and largely true:
I have long struggled to understand how smart, well-educated liberals can fail to perceive the unique dangers of Islam. In The End of Faith, I argued that such people don’t know what it’s like to really believe in God or Paradise—and hence imagine that no one else actually does.
I use the word “largely”, because there is at least one major exception to what Mr. Harris is arguing. Like it or not, the religious impulse is a very common human characteristic and it is one that many of those “smart, well-educated liberals” themselves share except that it has—for them—to manifest itself in a nominally secular guise. This might once have taken the form, say, of a fierce commitment to ‘political religions’ such as the communism of nearly a century ago (a millennial cult if ever there was one) and today, might more commonly find expression in, perhaps, various types of environmentalist faith.
I should add that I am assuming, perhaps wrongly (I note that he carefully refers to “really” believing in God, a qualification that may mean that his criticism may also be directed at certain only mildly religious people) that the clever folk to whom Mr. Harris is referring are atheists or agnostics. The question of why genuinely religious liberal intellectuals refuse to confront the spiritual reality of what drives some jihadists to atrocity is yet another topic for another time.
But back to Sam Harris:
I also have no problem with spiritual devotion, ecstasy, and awe—in fact, I think they are among the most important experiences a human being can have. I just object to the incredible ideas that surround such experiences in every church, synagogue, and mosque. I also worry that certain religious beliefs make devotion, ecstasy, and awe both divisive and dangerous. Again, my tolerance for difference is much higher than my critics understand. I’m not a scared white guy who is put off by the howls of the natives. In fact, I’ve done a fair amount of howling with the natives myself. I know what these people are experiencing, and I value many of the same experiences.
The post is illustrated with well-chosen videos of ecstatic spiritual devotion. They are fascinating, at times (briefly) beautiful, at times disturbing, at times dull, and, more often than not, depressing, glimpses of intellectual and psychological places where I would rather not go for too long, not out of fear, Mr. Harris, but because, at best, they do nothing for me, and at worst, well…
Devotion, ecstasy and awe: on the whole, no thanks.
Mr. Harris may well have different tastes. He writes:
Unlike many of my critics, I recognize that these practices profoundly affect people. In fact, I’ve spent thousands of hours doing practices of this kind.
And that’s fine (chacun à son goût, and all that), but to say this is not:
Unless you have tasted religious ecstasy, you cannot understand the danger of its being pointed in the wrong direction.
Not so: All it takes is some knowledge of history and a willingness to recognize—as Mr. Harris clearly does— some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of our species.