Neither God nor man
Mark Ryan on how the churches are being brought down to Earth
'Let there be respect for the Earth
peace for its people
love in our lives
delight in the good
forgiveness of past wrongs
and from now on a new start.'
This wretched piece of doggerel is what the Christian churches want us to recite as the clock strikes midnight on 31 December. When Christ was asked by what two commandments we should live, he replied that we should love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. While lines 2-6 of the churches' dirge give us a watery rehash of the second commandment, line one drops the love of God altogether, and calls on us instead to respect the Earth. It would now seem that when the churches want to find a common ground, they reach not to heaven and His divine presence, but stoop to Mother Earth, mumbling the pieties of environmentalism.
In substance, Christianity has capitulated to the New Age, while outwardly it preserves the appearance of institutional continuity. Go into any church of any denomination and listen to the Sunday sermon and you will almost certainly hear not an explication of Christian doctrine and its application to life, but a hotchpotch of New Age wisdom which the priest or minister evidently feels will ingratiate him to the congregation. The churches seem to view their own doctrine not as the unshakeable core of their belief, but as a set of coupons which can be traded in for the promise (usually unfulfilled) of a hike in popularity.
Senior Church of England theologians (if that is the right word nowadays) discuss the implications of attributing souls to animals, a concept which flagrantly violates the Judaeo-Christian belief in the uniquely spiritual character of man. When I popped into Canterbury Cathedral some time ago I thought they had already come to a decision on this, as a service for animal rights was in progress. The general disregard for doctrine is evident in Pope John Paul II's appointment of a commission to investigate whether Mary (the Blessed Virgin) should be made co-redemptrix of the human race. If approved, this would mean either that there would be not three but four persons in one God, or that Christ and His mother would jointly hold third place, while all the prayers which refer to 'Our Saviour' would have to be amended to specify which saviour they were referring to, Christ or His mother. This mess is the outcome of the broader strategy by which the Catholic Church has tried to strengthen its position among women and in the third world by playing up its superstitious mariolatry.
'Thank God for sex', church leaders must often reflect. These days there is nothing like a hard line on sex to sustain the illusion of an unyielding attachment to dogma. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Catholic Church came into existence some time around 1966, since its happy-go-lucky religious principles contrast so starkly with its tough stance on abortion and contraception, two tedious subjects on which neither the Bible nor the church fathers had anything much to say. The Church of England is engaged in a long-running battle with a small eccentric group of activists over the church's attitude towards homosexuality. This dispute is likely to run for a long time, since it is such great fun for both sides, puffing up their conceit with the illusion that they are engaged in some great battle of principle. In the meantime, the Catholic hierarchy sends its clergy for counselling with a view to helping them redirect their misspent sexual energies, and the C of E plans to have squads of counsellors available on new year's eve to help people cope with the spiritual trauma of no longer living in the twentieth century. The churches could save themselves a lot of bother if they got rid of their troublesome priests and ministers altogether, and hired professional counsellors to hear confessions, heal the sick, administer the last rites and generally give pastoral care.
In their readiness to ditch any religious principle for a bit of New Age wisdom, we are witnessing not just a shift in emphasis but the abandonment of the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition. This shift reflects not so much the downgrading of God as a degrading of humanity. If Christianity and atheism shared a properly violent hostility towards each other, they did at least occupy the same moral universe. At the centre of that universe was the question of man and his nature. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition only the deity could give moral meaning to man's presence in the world. For atheists, the meaning of man was to be found in man himself.
Christian morality was flawed because while it gave the individual free will and an inner life, it simultaneously took them away by making God the final arbiter of our destiny. With only a qualified free will, the sense of moral responsibility is also qualified. The moral development of the Catholic cannot be very profound if every time he does something wrong he can go to the priest, say he's sorry and start again with a clean slate. In Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, moral force is experienced as external coercion, rather than the outcome of an inner development through freedom. For the atheist, only freedom can develop the moral sense, while for the Christian, moral authority comes ultimately from without. By denying man his full freedom, Christianity is imperfectly moral in the first place. Only atheism allows for the fully moral man who faces unflinchingly the consequences of his own actions and the inner turmoil and resolution that brings with it. For the atheist, life is terrible, in the good sense that he alone is answerable for all his actions. This moral solitude deepens the inner spiritual life. Hamlet is the archetype of the moral man who must face life without God; indeed, the whole power of tragedy comes from the absence of any external redeemer who might rescue the subject from the anguish of his decisions.
If Christianity put a limit on man's moral nature, however, New Age religion dispenses with it altogether. To the extent that there is a question of man, it is a purely practical one of waste disposal, of how to minimise the polluting impact of man on his environment - how to respect the Earth. This is symbolised by the Church of England's suggestion to bury the dead in biodegradable cardboard boxes in the forest floor. The New Age is a slave religion in which the only obligation placed on man is to adapt to his environment. Man cannot have a moral dimension because he does not exist as a moral subject independently of his environment.
A moral slave lives a carefree life because all the difficult decisions as to his own existence and destiny are taken out of his hands. His concern is not with affirming his own freedom but with fitting in with what is going on around him. However, because he has no experience of the terribilità of freedom he is also a kind of moral monster who can make decisions with the lightest of intentions.
When we look at how the churches have moved towards the New Age, the most immediate symptom is how demoralised Christianity has become over the past 30 years. Christian morality can only express itself through externally imposed concepts of good and evil. But evil seems to be quietly dropping off the Christian agenda altogether. Peace, harmony and happiness is what the churches now offer, known more pithily as Nirvana to New Agers. The Church of England has officially rebranded hell as 'a place of non-being', which can be taken to mean it does not exist. If the Catholic Church still officially believes in hell, the devil, and so on, most of its clergy have quietly dropped the subject for fear that it will be off-putting for people. But without good and evil, heaven and hell, Christianity is a morality-free religion. In religious terms, if man is not faced in his life with these choices, then he is no longer a moral being.
As for the moral lightness with which church leaders now tread, there is no better example than the pope's decision to apologise to almost everybody with whom the church has ever had dealings. The apology has become a sign of one's initiation into the rites of the New Age. Any politician, businessman, police chief or religious leader who wants to signal that he is part of the New Order must find something to apologise for, and do it with the maximum of pumped-up emotion. But this sort of apology is wholly immoral. What the apologist is doing is exonerating himself from any responsibility for his own actions.
The pope is in no position to apologise to anybody for the past actions of the Catholic Church. The Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, these were all important moments in the history of Catholicism. Just as the moral individual must live with the consequences of his actions, so a moral institution must accept the consequences of its past actions and not brush them all off with a lighthearted apology. The immorality of the pope's apology is revealed by the fact that at the very time that he is preparing to say sorry for anti-Semitism he is determined to push through the canonisation of Eugenio Pacelli, who as Pope Pius XII held the See of Peter during the Second World War. Pacelli was always suspected of harbouring sympathies at least for Hitler's anti-Semitism. Recent revelations suggest, however, that his attitude to the Holocaust itself might have been ambiguous. He made no effort, for example, to obstruct the SS as they rounded up the Jews of Rome for deportation. To canonise such a man while offering apologies for centuries of anti-Semitism would under normal circumstances be unthinkable. New Age morality, however, allows for this sort of thing. Just as New Age man can change his identity from one day to the next, so the New Age institution can erase whatever parts of its history it no longer finds convenient.
Generations of atheists and free thinkers assumed that Christianity would eventually collapse under the pressures of reason and freedom. It is a shocking reflection on our times that instead it is metamorphosing into a form so primitive as to make its earlier contributions to man's spiritual life look rich and profound. A new start indeed.
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000