March 8, 2009

Thought for 03.08.09

Inspired by seeing the film Goya's Ghosts with Javier Bardem, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgård. A well-made but rather unpleasant film — not unlike some of Goya's grostesqueries — telling a tragic story of futility and abuse of power. It is a story of extremes and tyranny, and what people do to those with whom they disagree when unlimited power is placed in their hands. Anyway, here's the thought:

The Holy Office of the Inquisition through the years did more harm to the church and to the world than any of the heresies it sought to suppress.

One thing I learned in the film, of which I had been unaware, is that as late as the late 18th century the Church (which still hadn't officially come to terms with Galileo) was also combating atomic theory as heretical, as it contradicted Aristotle and his Christian agent Aquinas, and made transubstantiation difficult to explain. The motto, "Whatever the cost, hold to your illusions," could have been written for the Inquisition. Their failure to test ideology against reality was costly to the world and to themselves.

But this also set me on a train of further Lenten reflection, for it came to mind in conjunction with thinking about how it is that things in themselves good can be misused or misapplied to bad ends. Sometimes this is the fault of the true believer pressing a point beyond its legitimate logical limits — one of the definitions of heresy, and ironically one of the sins of the Inquisition.

Even worse is the cynical manipulator who knows what he or she is doing is a distortion of some true good, but has twisted it to personal advantage. Such distortion need not be so extreme as the Inquisitor who tortures and rapes to feed his own need for reassurance or power; or the Revolutionary whose persecution of the church is guided primarily by the need for vengeance. In the film, Bardem plays both — a tour de force, a dark portrait of power run amok.

So be watchful of those who trumpet democracy and equality, but set up their private fiefdoms all the while. Democracy and equality are, I think, good things -- but in certain hands they can become paradoxical tools for domination, as when some become "more equal than others." Ideals make excellent building material for labor camps -- and the charmer who can lord it over people to his own advantage while making them think they are acting freely in a great cause has achieved a sublimely wicked work of smoke and mirrors.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Anonymous said...

I agree with you entirely on the perversion of words, but especially:

So be watchful of those who trumpet democracy and equality, but set up their private fiefdoms all the while.

That'll be the US under GWB's rule, then. "Democracy! Freedom! And you'll have them and like them even if we have to bomb the pants off you too."

It devalues the terms, rendering them mere squiggles on banners held over opposing sectarian sides, not reflection of real practice on either. And it can be other words used for the purpose too.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is involved in politics and who frequents political blogs, my thoughts upon reading your opening went immediately to a phenomenon I've noticed more and more of late - that much of the time a reference to one's own faith in a comment will lead to an exchange with someone who denounces belief in general and Christianity in particular.

There are a number of reasons for this, including the increasing secularization of society, a ruthlessly impolitic online culture, and the influence of folks like of Richard Dawkins. But on left-leaning blogs it's clear that much of this animus is the result of three decades in which some of the most vocal and visible American Christians have sought to identify their religion with their conservative political agendas.

I write this having read your post all the way to the end and passed briefly under the shade of humility you were trying to cast. But I do think it's clear that both within the church and outside of it Christian conservatives - as a movement - have severely limited the opportunities for dialogue between believers and unbelievers, and thus diminished the church's ability to work in the world.

June Butler said...

Tobias, I wondered if in formulating your thought for the day, you factored in the actions up to the present day under the new name of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which the present pope headed for so many years.

I recently posted an amazingly long list of RC theologians, clergy, and religious, many of them well-known, who were silenced or otherwise disciplined during Cardinal Ratzinger's lengthy term as Prefect.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks for the comments. This is a "ponderable" matter indeed -- and I observe that the three comments thus far raise issues for me that were really very far from my mind -- but quite relevant.

For instance, I didn't have GWB in mind at all, but as Tim suggests the twisting of language ("Iraqui Freedom" "Mission Accomplished" etc.) might well fall under this duplicitous rubric -- or, as I was suggesting, represent the worst kind of self-deception to which ideologues can sometimes fall victim of their own devices.

Doug, I think you make a very important point. It is difficult to be a person of faith in a secular world, a secular world that has probably rightly had enough of the excesses of religion to last several lifetimes -- or at least as many lifetimes as lie slaughtered in the streets as a result of differences of opinion concerning the invisible and unknowable God!

This is, in fact, one of the sub-points of the Goya film -- when the Inquisitor is made to see "the light of day" he becomes a revolutionary par excellence, eager to destroy all that had to do with his former self -- but is just as capricious and easily swayed by his own desires, quite apart from "the cause."

Mimi, yes, I saw that list. I wasn't thinking of these more recent silencings -- thank goodness the secular power has been removed from the ecclesiastical arsenal. God only knows what the Church would do if it still had that power. He really does, you know, and He isn't happy.

Peace to all.

Anonymous said...

Another very thoughtful (and thought provoking) post. I particularly enjoyed Doug Gibson's comment as well. I share his concern, and feel pretty strongly that evangelisation of the word of god has been, in some ways, almost deliberately sabatoged by the "right wing."

I noticed a couple of things on other blogs today that I thought interacted very interestingly with Mr. Gibson's point.

This in Andrew Sullivan's blog (he is citing the reaction of an atheist)

""The abundance of rebarbative passages in the Bible is another reason for atheists to familiarize themselves with it. Although my commentary seldom gives voice to the atheistic repugnance that I feel toward God, my systematic study of the Bible has made me thoroughly familiar with the numerous discreditable aspects of the Biblical texts. Thus, I can retort knowledgeably to believers who suggest that moral principles are in need of God and the Bible as their foundations. Even if the correct basic principles of morality were somehow in need of foundations, the Bible would be too nefarious for the purpose. Those principles would not be strengthened by being associated with the genocidal directives of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, or with the scurrilous fulminations of Christ against his opponents, or with the Stalin-like gloating of the God of the New Testament at the thought that everyone who has not been sufficiently deferential toward Him will suffer torture for all eternity."

(My italics.) The point he is making (as Hitchens always does but perhaps with too fervent explication) is that since human moral structure has existed before, after, and without the Bible and the Koran, the only contribution to human behavior by the 'holy word' is an elevated endorsement (even a goading) of our retributive inclinations. Thus, the Bible and the Koran may actually function as obstacles to the better angels of our nature."

And this was in "The Lead" in an interview of Bishop Lee of VA that was in the Washington Post over the weekend.

POST: The current upheaval, which has centered on human sexuality and how to read Scripture, has drawn your diocese into what some experts believe is the priciest litigation in the history of the Episcopal Church, over who controls church properties: the diocese or the congregations that have broken away.

LEE: "I want to raise the strengths and uniqueness of what it means to be an Anglican Christian -- of holding Orthodox views, but doing so in a way that remains open to all sorts of conditions of people. The separatists seem to have an emphasis on disciplining people who have different lifestyles than they do. That's alien to the Anglican Communion."

Bishop Lee is right on target; such views seem to be alien to Anglicans, but also to the actual message of Jesus. This muddying of the waters of our evanglistic task by our supposed "fellow Christians" is sometimes a little demoralizing, eh?


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Bookguy. Of course, I have little sympathy with the Hitchens types as their argument is to some extent a large-scale version of the argumentum ad hominem: "what you say cannot be true because you are a bad person" or a kind of a reversal of the "fallacy of authority" -- "this assertion can't be true because other assertion you've made was shown to be wrong."

The problem for religious conservatives lies in their conservatism: their unwillingness or inability to admit bad behavior recorded in Scripture as actually bad, or to admit to errors of the past (or present) either in Scripture or on the part of the religious bodies themselves. This leaves them open to the assaults described above.

Claiming infallibility or inerrancy leaves one open to obvious criticisms when past (or present) errors are pointed out.

This is where the Anglican acknowledgement that "the church has erred, even in matters of morals" is so very, very important. To my mind this alone makes Anglicanism the safest ground of belief, since it includes the admission of possible error. Not to say that this self-correcting mechanism always works, mind -- that would be another form of hubris: "I'm so aware of my past mistakes that I take special care never to make mistakes"!

This is also why self-styled "classical Anglicans" who preach biblical inerrancy or certitude are actually swimming upstream against both the vibrant tradition, and reality. A truly classical Anglican will opt for Scriptural "sufficiency" (not inerrancy) and a minimal set of demands for belief.

Jesus observed this phenomenon in the separatists of his day: the Pharisees (whose name means something like, "those who hold themselves apart") -- they block the way to salvation while not entering themselves. Religious people so often give a bad name to religion...

Brother David said...

Jesus observed this phenomenon in the separatists of his day: the Pharisees (whose name means something like, "those who hold themselves apart") -- they block the way to salvation while not entering themselves.

WOW! What implication might this thought hold for the oft quoted, " the world, but not of the world..."?

Anonymous said...

I question how well any film could present the work of the late Spanish Inquisition. While its part in suppressing the Jesuits and its entry into the intellectual combat of 17th-18th century scholasticism interests a few weirdos like me, it is not a particularly scintillating subject for most. The angle of "combating atomic theory as heretical" is new to me as a feature of the Spanish Inquisition. Bruno's execution at the instigation of the Roman Inquisition is well-known, although poorly documented. But Bruno's heresy, as far as we can tell, lay in asserting that God's essence was part of the material universe. One need not agree with the execution but yet understand that he was, in fact, a heretic.

A little more on this to follow.


Anonymous said...

As for the horrors of the Spanish Inqusition, I think it would be fair to assert here that in its centuries of operation it killed in the neighborhood of a thousand to several thousand people. Not a pretty picture by any means. But by a proportionalist morality (which BTW I do not hold as a Catholic) it did far less harm to Spain and the Spanish Empire than the alternative-- the religious wars such as the Thirty Years War and the Wars of Religion in France. By freezing out Protestantism, Iberia and the New World remained free from the denominational bloodbath that ravaged Germany in particular.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Fr Michael, I suppose if you limit the evils of the Inquisition only to the number of bodies piled up, you have a point. I was not thinking in quite so utilitarian a mode. I was thinking more of how the church's reputation suffered (and suffers) when it gives in to such excesses in its prosecution of what it believes. Even the relatively benign activism surrounding Proposition 8 will, in the long run, I think, diminish the church and its possible influence for good in the world.

I am not familiar with the details of Bruno's thought or writing. I do know that he was burned alive, wearing an iron mask with an extending tube thrust down his throat, held in place by two spikes, one of which pierced his tongue and lower jaw and the other his palate. It was designed so as to prevent his screams being heard, as he was burned alive, functioning in much the same way as a modern automobile muffler.

The evil done to this man can not be expunged, or defended, on the basis of errors in his teaching. I do not think God cares one whit if people think his essence is distributed in, with or under the physical universe. I do think God cares how people treat one another.