FAITH Magazine September – October 2012
Religion for Atheists - a Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion
by Alain de Botton, Hamish Hamilton 2012. 320pp, hardback, £18.99.
"New Evangelisation" is one of those ideas that are in constant danger of being hijacked by bishops and diocesan bureaucrats as a way of carrying on with the same old things but disguising the fact with a shiny new gloss. For its originator, Blessed John Paul II, it was precisely the opposite: a call to do absolutely everything differently.
For Pope John Paul, the evangelising task of the Church today must not only use new methods and means of expression, but be suffused with a new ardour. He saw two main ways of kindling this ardour: one, as expressed eloquently in his Novo Millennio Ineunte, was through that contemplation of the face of Christ which the whole Church engaged in during the Millennium Jubilee. The other could be called contemplating the face of the (post)modern world.
That world, as he and numerous commentators have attempted to describe, presents a completely new challenge to the Church: hence the need for a new evangelisation. Hitherto, the Church has faced the task either of converting pagans (ie worshippers of other gods), or of constantly renewing the vigour of Christendom. Today our world is instead a post-Christendom world, in which many vestiges of Christianity remain but have taken on an alien identity, to the extent that they can be - and sometimes are - actually used against the Church which was their matrix.
The process by which this happened - by which concepts such as personal freedom, human rights and equality have been slowly distorted to mean something quite other than they did when Christian Europe gave birth to them - has been laboriously traced by historians of ideas such as Charles Taylor and Alastair Maclntyre. The interest of such writers is usually to illuminate the contemporary world for Christians, and so to begin the process by which the Church might creatively respond to this unprecedented and complex challenge.
Alain de Botton, however, attempts something quite different, which might be seen as turning this enterprise on its head. His desire is to extend this process of appropriation of religious ideas by a secular world more or less indefinitely. If William Booth could ask why the devil should have all the best tunes, de Botton asks, in effect, why should religion have all the best ideas and practices?
In some ways this is not a new idea, of course. Machiavelli, Voltaire, Matthew Arnold and some of our own politicians are among those who have argued that a religion they would scorn to believe in themselves has many social uses and that its benefits should not be discarded lightly. That is not exactly de Botton's position, however, even though it is hard to say exactly what his position is. The one thinker he explicitly comes closest to is Auguste Comte, with his religion of humanity, even though he mocks Comte's grasp of reality and admits the word religion must be thrown out altogether.
Indeed it is hard not to mock de Botton's own thesis, or indeed the numerous photographs which illustrate it, such as one of an imaginary "Department for Relationships" or of a "Psychotherapeutic Travel Agency [which] would align mental disorders with the parts of the planet best able
to alleviate them." Sensitive readers are advised not to look too closely at what the couple in the foreground of one photograph are doing to celebrate the "yearly moment of release at the Agape Restaurant", which is apparently a secular version of Easter High Mass at Westminster Cathedral.
De Botton's argument is easily summarised, and, sadly, just as easily dismissed. Of course religion is not true and there is no God, he opines, yet many of the ideas religions have spawned are "sporadically useful, interesting and consoling" and should be deliberately adapted by atheists. Each chapter of the book takes a different aspect of these ideas and suggests how that could be done, for example within the categories of communion, forgiveness, education and art.
There is really no need to indulge in a lengthy refutation of this thesis, because it has been done in advance with his usual brilliance by Chesterton in The Thing:
Before we call either Culture or Humanism a substitute for religion, there is a very plain question that can be asked in the form of a very homely metaphor. Humanism may try to pick up the pieces; but can it stick them together? Where is the cement which made religion corporate and popular, which can prevent it falling to pieces in a debris of individualistic tastes and degrees? The problem of an enduring ethic and culture consists in finding an arrangement of the pieces by which they remain related, as do the stones arranged in an arch. And I know only one scheme that has thus proved its solidity, bestriding lands and ages with its gigantic arches, and carrying everywhere the high river of baptism upon an aqueduct of Rome.
Mgr Keith Barltrop
This book is wise, practical, useful and, alas, necessary. Whenever I go to Catholic events these days, I seem to see so many bright, attractive, delightful girls who would love to be married and aren't. They have good jobs and often own property: they are fun and good company and virtuous and hard-working. Why aren't they married?
Back to that in a moment. Meanwhile, here's a survival guide. It is centred on a recognition of the great goodness of God, and it is cheering and uplifting. It's not written by a smug married lady, but by a woman who knows about the single life. It has an upbeat message and sees life as a gift. It takes seriously the many challenges to chastity that surround us all today. It tackles the real issues faced by women in the modern West, and looks at things realistically. It offers inspiration, and is centred on deep faith in a loving and all-wise God.
Some bits are rather too American: in the clothes section I at first wondered what "jeggings" were (latest fashion: a mix of jeans and leggings - rather ugly, actually, and the author of the book thinks so too) and talk of "dates" made me think at first of dried fruit rather than of young men. But don't worry about that: the content of the book soars above any transatlantic differences.
Advice includes: managing finances, coping with heartbreak (massive redecoration of your house / loud singalongs with the radio / shopping for a well-deserved new outfit / baking a delicious cake and sharing it with friends - and those are just a few of the ideas listed), and solving domestic challenges when alone (water pipes, windows that stick, machines that won't work). There is a very good section on beauty – appreciating beauty (in nature, in music, in people's kindnesses) and encouraging it in oneself. The book emphasises that God loves us - He loves his daughters, He wants them to be happy, He has given them gifts and He values their appearance and their laughter and their desire to do good things.
Now, back to marriage. Here are some of my own thoughts on the subject. First, there's not enough of it, especially among Catholics. And it's men who have to do the proposing -yes, even in the 21st century, that's the reality. It begins with the first date: the chap has to ask. "They are afraid of being hurt, if a girl turns them down," I was told. Well, be a man. It's not exactly like storming the Normandy beaches, is it? Of course it's true that in the maelstrom that is today's general social scene, a virtuous young Catholic feels alone and confused and isolated - it may seem impossible to find a mate. But that is not true at a Catholic event, a FAITH Movement gathering, a pro-life conference, a get-together at a major Catholic venue known for its orthodoxy and devotion. The girlsare there. So are the chaps. But the latter won't get on and do anything! They hover, they ponder from a distance, they may even fantasise. "I often think about a particular girl, when I get home, and wish I had got talking to her," one said bleakly. Oh, for goodness' sake. Get on with it! Go over to the girl during coffee-after-Mass, and say "Hallo! I'm James." And get talking.
And girls: if a decent man, in a Catholic environment, gets chatting, and it's clear that he's not a sex-hound, and is open and pleasant, and things move forward to an honourable date, say YES. If he isn't love's young dream, if he has crooked teeth, if he seems a bit of a bore - still, say YES. You owe it to him in decency and in courtesy, in common sense and in charity. Many a happy marriage has begun with a girl thinking: "Oh, he isn't my type at all." And if things don't move in that direction - well, you might find he has nice friends, or he might turn out to be right for one of your friends, or you might just have a pleasant evening, or he might introduce you to some new ideas, books, music or interests. Be gracious. Be charming. Be wise.
And buy this book. It is a good read, it's uplifting and funny and full of common sense. It is an overdue book: we need it, and its message.
John Paul II-The Road to Sainthood
by Jim Gallagher, CTS booklet, £2.99.
Year of Faith with John Paul II
by Jim Gallagher, CTS booklet, £2.99.
John Paul II
by Jim Gallagher, CTS Children's Books, paperback, 24 pages, £2.99.
As we begin to grasp the fullness of the legacy of Blessed John Paul, so the books and pamphlets are arriving. It feels strange to realise that it is more than seven years since his death -soon it will be a decade. Already much of what he achieved has become part of our Catholic culture, and somehow now just seems normal - World Youth Days, vast open-air Masses, informal Papal question-and-answer sessions with the media, and an understanding of the Petrine task as something vigorously missionary that involves preaching to vast crowds on every continent.
The CTS has done a competent job with Jim Gallagher's simple booklet telling the story of John Paul's life - the childhood marked by his mother's early death along with that of his brother; the deep, strong bond with his father; the grim years of the German occupation and his tough job in a stone quarry; the mysticism and prayer-life; the youth drama groups; the ordination in a Poland coming to grips with what was to be a decades-long imposition of Communism. The booklet is readable, informative and well-produced. Jim Gallagher has grasped something fundamental - that Pope John Paul sought to give people back their own identity, so often robbed from them by materialism, by political oppression or by poverty. This is a profound insight, and is well explored in this booklet, along withan understanding of John Paul's own courage and inner strength, his deep immersion in prayer and his confidence in God and in the motherly protection of Mary. The booklet has some good photographs, and could perhaps usefully have had more. The style sometimes lapses into an over-use of exclamation marks - but then John Paul's life really was one marked by extraordinary drama, signs of Providence, astonishing achievements and even miracles. So perhaps the exclamation marks are justified after all.
A Year of Faith begins in October, and the CTS has produced an attractive pocket-sized set of meditations by John Paul II to link with this. The sections cover topics ranging from Christ and Mary to the priesthood, the consecrated life, peace, the saints, mission and vocation. It's a good read, and well illustrated with pictures of Blessed John Paul greeting young people, celebrating Mass, talking to Mother Teresa, praying the Rosary, and more. A useful carry-around booklet for everyday use.
A new generation is emerging for whom John Paul is something of a legendary figure. The CTS children's book, delightfully illustrated, was originally produced in Italian and has a charming and vivid feel to it. It is easy to read and a delight to handle, and tells the story of a remarkable life with a sense of pace and adventure that also manages to introduce a spiritual message. In describing John Paul's achievements it is odd that it does not mention the collapse of Communism or indeed his visits to his native Poland - surely central events of his Papacy and of recent world history. There is a definite, if gentle, Italian bias to the book: the Assisi gathering, the huge youth event at Tor Vergata in 2000, John Paul's denouncing of the Mafia. This book would be a good introduction tothe story of John Paul II - but an intelligent child will ask for more. Which, on reflection, is rather a good thing and is perhaps the purpose of the book. Meanwhile it would be a useful addition to the library of any Catholic primary school, and indeed of any young Catholic family.
The End of the Present World and the Mysteries of the Future Life
by Fr Charles Arminjon (1881), trans, by Susan Conroy and Peter McEnerny, Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2008), 311 pages, from Amazon UK at £11. 99.
"Reading this book was one of the greatest graces of my life." So said St Therese of Lisieux in what must rank as one of the most powerful books recommendations of all time. Readers of St Therese's autobiography may recall that she read this book before entering the Carmel and before even recognising her vocation to enter. The book is filled with the spirituality that she followed in her years in the Carmel. More than one reader of her autobiography must have read her reference to this collection of conferences and wondered if this book is available - now it is. As the introduction explains, it seems that this book has lain forgotten for many years and never previously been translated into English.
One of the aspects of St Therese's spirituality that strikes even the casual reader is her awareness of the reality of heaven. She lived in this world aware that our true homeland lies beyond. For example, when she first realised that she was dying of TB she responded to this illness not with despair but with joy; joy because she recognised it as the "call of the Beloved" to come and be with her in heaven. Such a perspective is only possible if one is firmly and easily rooted in the awareness of eternity. When reading the book it is not difficult to see how the topics it covers managed to fill her with this awareness. The book treats of the signs that will accompany the end of the world, the Anti-Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the judgment, the state of our glorified bodies,eternal beatitude, as well as more stern topics such as the pains of purgatory and the fate of the damned.
Of the topics that will be familiar to devotees of The Little Flower, perhaps particular note should be made of its treatment of sacrifice and "the mystery of suffering in its relationship with the future life". Two of the nine conferences are devoted to this topic. The Christian must suffer, on his road to heaven, because Christ suffered on His royal road: "It cannot be granted that Jesus Christ wanted to open up two differing paths leading to Heaven" (p.289). In this context the book elaborates that suffering is not to be feared but rather embraced as "a sure pledge of His tenderness... This guarantee, this real testimony of the Beatific Vision, which made the souls of the saints sigh with joy, is not the brilliant successes of this world, or temporal glory or happiness, but trialsand suffering" (p.294). It was because St Therese was confident in this truth that she was able to see in her father's sufferings a sign that God loved her father. It is surely only strong faith that is able to see such a thing.
While the book has much to commend it, there are two particular issues that a modern reader may find distracting. The first relates to the fact that the book assumes the scientific opinions of its day, namely the 19th century. This comes across, for example, in the book's attempt to locate the physical place where hell must be and its conclusion that it must be at the centre of the earth. A reader immersed in our contemporary scientific viewpoint is likely to think that any location that we can conceivably dig down to can surely not be the location of hell, otherwise we could get the damned out! This may seem like a pedantic criticism but it surfaces as an issue a number of times.
The second issue concerns a number of then-contemporary issues that do not have the same relevance for us today. For example, the focus on the French Revolution and the form of secular ideologies that followed lacks the immediate relevance that it would have had for St Therese. Finally, it might be noted that the French-ness of the book's author is also occasionally apparent: could any other nation produce a book in which Napoleon gets referred to as a hero? Nonetheless, despite these criticisms, this is an exceptional book and one that deserves to be read by every follower of St Therese and by many others too.
One final comment: This is a book for adults even though St Therese read it as a young teenager. My only serious regret in reading this book is that I did not read it when my mind was as fresh and formable as St Therese's was when she read it in her youth.
Fr Dylan James
Readers of Volume 2 of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth will know that he supports the view that the fourth chalice was at the Cross. Brant Pitre explains this and four other characteristics of the Eucharistic sacrifice we have today, tracing its origins back to the time of Christ.
Jesus is the Messiah, the new Moses, who changes water into wine at Cana, as Moses changed water into blood for Pharaoh. He ushers in a new Exodus, foretold in the Transfiguration when he was discussing this with Moses and Elijah (in St Luke's gospel).
In the manna, we have a miraculous bread, not some secretion of the tamarisk tree (as I was taught for years). This was the 'bread of angels,' which was placed in the tabernacle with the tablets of the Ten Commandments and Aaron's staff. It was thought by some rabbis that the Messiah would bring the new manna to strengthen his people. This is really what we mean when we say "Give us this day our daily bread": Give us this day our bread from heaven - Jesus, our Bread of Life.
At the time of the Exodus the tabernacle contained, along with the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah and the golden table of the Bread of the Presence. In some translations it is called the "Shewbread". I have always thought that this was part of Jewish rubrics, but Pitre highlights its much greater significance.
The Bread of the Presence consisted of twelve cakes (rods) set on a table of pure gold. It was offered every Sabbath as an everlasting covenant. As long as the Bread was inside the tabernacle, the Menorah had to be kept burning (note the parallel with the sanctuary lamp). It was also a thanksgiving sacrifice as well as a meal for the priests who offered it. On the great feasts in Jesus' time, the priests in Jerusalem would remove the bread and raise the golden table of the Bread of the Presence saying, "Behold, God's love for you!" This was because it was a sign of the covenant between God and His holy people, which also expressed the desire of the people to see God and live, and to know that He loved them.
The Last Supper was not merely the new Passover, but the new bread and wine of the Presence, showing God's love for us. Instead of the twelve cakes, there are twelve disciples, there is the bread and wine, and the new and everlasting covenant offered by Jesus our Priest, and eaten not at the golden table, but at Jesus' Table in the Kingdom of His Father (Luke 22:30).
Many will have read Rabbi Edersheim on the Passover, but he was of course unable to draw out its development as our Eucharist. Here, the author deepens our awareness of how Jesus takes the worship which He inspired, and was meant to fulfil and perfect.
Fr James Tolhurst