From S. MacGrianna and P. UaConchubhair, ed. Essays on Class and Culture in Ireland, University of Ulster, 1992 (proceedings of a symposium at Magee College, 1987)
The following meditation on the postmodern crisis of religious identities is meant as a contribution to the task of discerning what is living from what is dead, the truth from the lies, in Irish religious culture. "Postmodern" has three senses: 1) a sociological sense: the breakdown of the legitimating meta-narratives of the modern scientific world and their replacement by a mediatic cult of images or, more creatively, by a new intellectual culture marked by pluralism, decentralisation, improvisatory inventiveness (Lyotard); 2) a literary and artistic sense: the rejection of the ideals of order, unity, meaning still harboured by artists of the Modernist period, and their replacement by an eclectic and open-ended aesthetic; 3) a philosophical sense: the demonstration by the new masters of suspicion, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan, that the West has cultivated fixed identities which break down when examined closely, running aground on the irremediable polysemy and dissemination of language (Derrida), on the intrinsically delusive nature of consciousness, on which all our self-definitions rest (Lacan), and on the realisation that they are the effect of the hidden constraints of the 'powers that be' which confine all discourse within imposed ideological frames (Foucault).
Among Irish Catholics, in recent years, such postmodern questions have moved from esoteric margin to centre stage. Critical Catholics realise that a deep unexamined malaise can have far more nihilistic effects than even the most scorching rational criticism. The suspicion that such a malaise was lodged deep in Irish Catholic hearts was the premiss that justified dragging into the light of day the poverty, sterility and oppressiveness of Irish Catholic self-identifications. This critique is not an external violence, for Irish Catholicism deconstructs itself. In the very act of repeating passionately ancient creeds, we find that they turn to parody on our lips. James Joyce exploited the self-parodying possibilities of Irish Catholic culture in a way that still promises immense instruction and therapy to those who wish to become at last his contemporaries. But above all the emerging self-critique of Irish Catholic identity is prompted by the Gospel's relentless assaults on idolatrous and alienating forms of religious self-consciousness (to which I would like to join the probing Buddhist critiques of “attachment to views"). This self-critique is inspired by a desire to let the Gospel be heard anew, freed of archaism, as a good news of empowerment and liberation, and to apply our historical situation the saying attributed to Jesus: "Let the dead bury their dead” (Mt 8.22; Lk 9.60).
‘Catholic’, Protestant’, ‘priest’ - these labels continue to loom large in the Irish social imagination, as fundamental definitions of who people are. But these terms and the roles they prescribe have lost their former uncontested theological validity and have become signifiers whose reference is no longer securely anchored. The difference between Catholic and Protestant has lost its theological bite, and the purpose of the clerical caste has ceased to be obvious. Without theological anchorage, these identities - much like that of the British monarchy for example - become merely a function of residual historical habits of socio-religious feeling and behaviour, class sensibilities, and cultural symbolisation.
The fate of the priest's identity can be taken as symptomatic of this uncanny turn, of the fact that Irish religious culture, like Irish nationalist rhetoric and symbolism, has crossed a specular or speculative threshold, with the effect that every word and gesture is experienced as a reflection and repetition of some past word or gesture, as a quotation. The old immediacy has gone, and those who attempt to revive it produce, despite themselves, an eerie parody. Intelligent traditionalists speculate with the tradition, conscious that the symbols at their disposal are all reflections, repetitions, quotations. The art of appropriate allusion, with a sophisticated revisionist twist, replaces fidelity to the whole canon of tradition. Such fidelity would in any case be a mockery of itself, and genuine revival is possible, paradoxically, only in a deconstructive key. The new discourse about the Irish language which was aired at the Magee College forum bows to these necessities; _an teanga_ [the language] is no longer the object of self-satisfied pieties, but a semantic resource to be deployed strategically within the contemporary project of shaping Irish culture. A similar sophistication and freedom in our handling of the heritage of religious language is no less desirable. Direct enactment of old-style popular devotion has become an impossibility, as the secure order of pre-Vatican II theology is no longer there to support and contain it; hence the revamping of the past spills over quickly into the grotesquerie of moving statues and Medjugorje; the effort to revive a dead language ends in play-acting. The positive aspect of this is a renewal of the spirituality of pilgrimage, a readiness for mobility and displacement as means of encountering God and neighbour. The arsenal of traditionalist postures is becoming in spite of itself the means for a new style of religiosity, detached from secure dogmatic stances, and which may develop either in the direction of sectarian rigidity and fission or of ecclesiastical rejuvenation.
Turning to the symptomatic case of the priest, we note that livelier elements among the clergy have outgrown their solemn debates on crises of identity. These still moved in a 'modernist' orbit. Now the priest, like Bloom or Kafka's K, realises that the quest for secure priestly identity is doomed to frustration, and his modernist quest passes over into post-modernist freeplay. Symbols of priestly identity become counters to manipulate. Some heroic souls are able to live up to the highest traditional standards of priestly spirituality, and orthodoxy, while labouring to create experimental models of ministry which bring priest and laity together in community and cooperation, Others resort to suave role-playing, in which the forms of conventional utterance are increasingly accommodated to liberal and permissive attitudes; while a franker discourse on personal opinions, doubts, feelings, and sexuality bubbles away beneath the surface, their public self-presentation becomes a play with clerical poses. Notions of what the public is ready for, and fears of troublesome reaction, encourage recourse to ‘economy’ in one's handling of truth.
In fact, truth is handled with increasing awareness of its commodity-value, of how it figures within the all-embracing cultural and mediatic economy; even the up-front prophetic types are aware immediately of themselves as media entities, and act in conscious responsiveness to the laws of contemporary communication, in which opportunistic intervention counts for more than the patient propagation of a message. The controversy about the true upshot of the Gospel, which is always afoot in the Church, is now engaged most crucially not between defensive conservatives and open-minded liberals, nor even between liberal ‘economists’ and radical truth-tellers, but between a mediacratic simulacrum of Christian attitudes and the more searching and praxis-based discourse emerging in grass-roots exchanges.
It is against this cultural background that the current institutional crises of Catholicism should be assessed. The tragic suppression of Modernism in 1907 created a theological wilderness in the Catholic Church for half a century; the present Roman reenactment of the gestures of certitude and reactivation of the machinery of control used against Modernism may, however, fail to be a matter of truly tragic consequence. The virus disseminated by Vatican II is not so easily extirpated, and the tactics of the restorationists have been sufficiently unmasked and ridiculed by theologians, disgruntled laity, and the media. John Paul II, often seen as a postmodern Pope, exemplifies the ironic failure of certitude and control. His travels are conducted in the name of ‘bearing witness’, but something makes it impossible for him !o make clear what it is that he is witnessing to. His messages dissolve into mediatic images. Where he comes from and where he is going, the past traditions of the Church and the future to which they open up, disappear from view in a regime of the immediate present. Even genuinely prophetic gestures - the visit to a synagogue, the meeting of religious leaders at Assisi, the interview with his would-be assassin - are undermined by the law of the genre in which the Pope is caught up: their essential reality is to be media events, and their intended theological thrust is deflected. In his voyages the Pope figures as a floating signifier in search of a secure signified. The people are to give the mighty ‘Yes’, that confirms that there is solid ground under his feet. (Upsettingly, the Chileans failed even to provide this ritual reassurance: Pope: "Do you renounce the false gods of sex, of pleasure?"; Chileans: "No!").
Populism is the most Heraclitean of political policies; to build on the fluctuations of popular opinion demands a great capacity for change, which the official Vatican stance forbids on principle. The one theme that has become a recognised hallmark of the papal discourse - namely, the refusal of contraception, abortion, and divorce - negotiates this problem by projecting an image of rocklike immutability, but in a way that does not genuinely impinge on the hearers. These utterances are acclaimed not for their substantive content, but as recognised quotations, similar to President Reagan's "get government off our backs" or "America is standing tall."
These contradictions recur on a small scale in the lives of the clergy as they attempt to live up to their conventional role as emblems of certitude. The priest has symbolised the Irish people's desire for an imposition of the mechanical on the living. Now he is caught in a double bind: half his flock expect him to be uniformed, doctrinaire, institutionalised, and remote from love and reality, others wanting him to be open-minded, free of institutional strings, warm and compassionate; and some alternately or simultaneously expect that he should be both. Like Wallace Stevens’ "supreme fiction", he "must be abstract" and he also "must change". This is a heightening of the double bind noted by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, whereby the Irish male is expected to be one of the lads and join in their socialising, but never to become intimate with anyone (“Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics”, University of California Press, 1983). Scheper-Hughes may have weaknesses as a sociologist, but her anthropological remarks suggest lines of analysis of the Irish psyche and Irish Catholicism which we can never pursue diligently enough. This insight into a culture comes when the culture is already passing away; the owl of Minerva comes out in the evening; yet if we undertake the interminable analysis of our Irish abstractionism, supremely incarnated in the conventional image of the priest, the lessons learned will serve us well in the future in addition to bringing the past into perspective.
A rigid social role limits discourse and limits openness to truth. The constraints of their conventionally defined relation falsify communication between clergy and laity. The priest may imagine himself, like a great artist, as transcending his surface social persona, but in fact such abstractionism is part and parcel clericalism. Scheper-Hughes writes of the conspiracy of silence which divides Irish parents and their children; a similar conspiracy separates priest and laity; the Irish priest can express himself as a human being only by struggling vigilantly against the constraints of conventional expectation, and at the price of some loss of social respectability. The Irish soul, struggling towards consciousness, comes up against two formidable walls: the conventionalism of the family and the conventionalism of the church; these limit its discourse to what is "respectable" at a cost we have hardly begun to count - a diminution of vitality, a retardation of maturity, a circumscription of thought. If the ongoing search for religious truth is brought to a halt by an all-encompassing monopoly of permitted discourse, the result is that this discourse itself boils down to a set of slogans and fetishes, gestures of certitude lacking any substantial content. For the dialogal process of learning is substituted a black hole of empty certitude.
Today, theological certitude no longer has an assured function within the fabric of society; what was latently fetishistic and mystifying in such ancient bones of contention as the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, the heterodoxy of the Filioque, or the infallibility of the Pope, is manifestly so in contemporary controversies. When less abstract topics such as bioethics and sexuality become theological footballs, the result is not an increased relevance, but a reduction of church debates to spectacles providing entertainment in the media. Thus clerical certitude undermines itself from within, its fetishised signifiers going adrift in Derrida's postal service wherein messages become independent of their senders and miss their destinees.
A group of lay people declared recently that "The division of the Church into clergy and laity is not only inappropriate, but is also unacceptable, and we are not willing to put up with it any longer. We know that maintaining the division leads both to great hurt among lay people and to great loneliness among the clergy"(The Furrow, May 1987). The rigidity of the priest-people distinction is indeed not a harmless feature of Irish Catholicism, but symptomatises a fear of change on both sides, an entente between control and passivity, which is reflected and sustained in a benign paternalistic discourse. The cession of power to lay leaders, and the replacement of an overly sacralised notion of priesthood by a more functional one, would imply a series of semantic or hermeneutical displacements which should institute a transformation of the texture of Irish religion and so of Irish culture. What stands most directly in the way of such a renewal of language is the tokenist character of all exchanges in the Irish Church.
What is tokenism? It is the multiplication of words and gestures at the expense of what they were originally intended to indicate. Meaningful communication is eroded from within by a language which has become treacherous in that all its terms function as mere tokens. Scheper-Hughes noted among the pathogenic features of Irish rural life the fear of men and women to go beyond the exchange of conventional remarks, their perpetual evasion of intimate revelation or expression of original feeling. The reason may be that the exposure of their inner confusion or inarticulateness would be too painful; or else that the pressure of society against such behaviour - fear of neighbours’ ears and mouths - is an effective and all-pervasive inhibition: or else it is that the people have no feelings at all to express, that constant repression has already established a deadening of affect. The exchange of badges of identity rather than revelations of otherness facilitates a surface bonhomie and masks a profound insularity and intolerance. In the religious sphere the exchange of tokens has similar significance: it is a reassuring surface masking profound religious confusion, a substitute for the tabooed expression of doubt and questioning, an indication, finally, of a lack of any real religious feeling or faith.
Irish Catholics’ immersion in tokenism is most clearly exemplified in what was the most prized token of our religious identity, the priest. Clad in black, he is made to feel the pressure of the expectations his emblematic status arouses in every word he speaks or gesture he performs. His relation to the people is largely one of humouring them, presenting the expected reassuring tokens that cement the priest-lay relationship. This humouring is continuous with the insincerity of so much interpersonal exchange in Ireland. It smothers the Gospel and it reduces the priest himself to a hollow man, patronising in his bonhomie.
The celebration of the sacraments is a major occasion for conventionality. Routinisation of the Eucharist impedes the communication of the Gospel and the perspicuity of the sacramental actions. Thus the laity are not educated by their attendance at Church; communication has been deadened by the "taken for granted" character of everything the priest does or says; this is compounded by the one-way direction of discourse. The preacher presumes that ability to move acceptably within the constraints of the stylised priest-people relationship is the same thing as "being on the people's wavelength". The priest thus defends himself against the people as they do against him in a mutual conspiracy of silence. This troubled relationship is quintessentially Irish.
To overcome tokenism, clerical and lay Catholics could practise the three social ploys described by Peter Berger (Invitation to Sociology, Penguin, 1966):
One begins to practise detachment when one realises how much of what is going on about one is simply nonsensical. At that point one begins to step back, to limit one's investment of effort and affect in the tokens one deals in. Detachment can compound the unreality of church life when it is a state into which people simply relax, producing priests who invest their energies in golf and recluse theologians who fear to intervene effectively in church or national life. It is better that detachment go all the way to the radical gesture of certain Japanese Buddhists who throw the Buddhist scriptures in the fire, declaring, "I burn the Scriptures" and then proceed to do the same with a statue of the Buddha, saying: "I burn the Buddha". This is in line with the Buddhist conception of all religious representations as no more than expedient means (upaya) for opening the mind to absolute reality. It is not the jettisoning of religious language, but the establishment of a freer relation to it as a means to be used skilfully.
If Irish Christians could only allow themselves the freedom to say, “I burn the Bible. I burn the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin" - that is, to detach themselves from sectarian self-identification and idolatry of religious representations at the expense of what they point to. They point merely as the finger points to the moon: "the fool looks to the finger, not to the moon", and if the moon changes its position then the fixity of the finger is not a laudable constancy but an unskilful stubbornness. A full realisation of our quandary might force us to a Buddhist sensitivity to the provisionality of religious language as the dead historical identities of Catholic and Protestant fall away.
The increase of free speech is undoubtedly having a subversive effect on Irish Catholicism. Virulent crusades against the media express a pathological fear of such dialogal openness. The media only faintly reproduce what people are actually saying. Gay Byrne has been credited with revolutionising sexual discourse in Ireland, but one might play with the notion that he is the postmodern voice of Irish conventionalism, stewarding every discussion back to the superficial, and never allowing it to reach a disturbing level of depth. For the dissolution of lay/clerical role-playing, a more radical truth-telling will be required. A "Late Late Show" church can only confirm the reduction of our Christianity to a trading in tokens. To break the spell of a dead, idolatrous conception of "religion", the priest today should use his role subversively. He should not be seen as concealing his personal life - whether that be exemplary or flawed - but should live ‘the personal as political’, in order to break open new channels for the communication of Gospel vision.
But more subversive than the practice of free speech is the ability to allow others the opportunity to speak. The subversive point of dialogue with dissenting Catholics or with Buddhists, Marxists, feminists, or gay/lesbian groups is not to enlarge the Catholic umbrella so that they all fit comfortably under it, but to uncover new potentials of the Gospel in response to the solicitation of other paths of liberation. A pre-condition for dialogue is the critique of one's own tradition, refusing to use its ideals as a mask of the darker symptoms thrown up in the record of its historical performance. To brood on the Inquisition, the Crusades, anti-Semitism (not to mention Church suppression of free inquiry, opposition to democracy, the poisoning of eros, the subjugation of women) is not ‘Catholic masochism’, but the fraternal recognition of wrongs still vividlv remembered by Jews and Muslims.
This third ploy demands. the greatest patience and dexterity. The manipulator “plays the system", reorienting it to a different end; in theory the Church's end is the Kingdom; in practice the subordination of church praxis to this end calls for prophetic reinterpretations and adroit modifications at every turn. Manipulation is a game which can degenerate into Machiavellianism or into clerical politicking and careerism. At its highest it is a theological lucidity which can use all the language and all the institutions of Christian tradition as skilful means, putting everything in its due place so that everything subserves the Gospel. Role distance is central to the manipulative ploy: what others assume to be essential identity is handled as a convenient disguise' The disguise of conventionality is consciously assumed with the intent of opening it up to the unconventional emergence of the absolute.
Catholics or clerics, in treacherous Derridean marginality, may act their role in such a way that it is undecidable, even by themselves, whether it is straight-faced or parody' This is not a surrender to but an engagement with the stresses of post-modernity, in the spirit of Hoelderlin's dictum: "Whence comes the danger, thence too comes the rescue" ' It offers one recipe for the future of Catholic Ireland, namely, that we learn to handle our traditions sophisticatedly, as instruments of human liberation and as skilful means for the expression of spiritual awareness. Our religious language is a mass of historical quotations, and we must learn an art of dexterous allusion in handling them. A little bit of Harold Bloom's "anxiety of influence" might prevent us from a farcical parody of our past and free us for a critical and liberative rehandling of it. Our Christian tradition is there to be reinterpreted, reinvented, redeployed, and, under pain of slipping down an endless spiral of postmodernist trivialisation, we should cease from all ‘Christian’ activities which do not have a perspicuous function within such a project of renewal.
The above remarks reflect a particular moment in the development of Irish Catholic consciousness, one which I hope is now past or passing. We are, I hope, leaving behind a vocabulary of "malaise" and "crisis" and a concern with the problems of clericalism, and turning instead to "revision" and "reappropriation" of a religious heritage whose strengths lie beyond the social divisions of laity and clergy, Catholic and Protestant. If the 1979 Papal visit and the two referendums made the Catholic restoration a troubling presence on the Irish cultural landscape, and if both restoration and reaction against it were marked by a morose postmodern mood, perhaps a more recent event, the election of Mary Robinson as President, may signal the emergence of a joyful alliance of tradition and modernity, a new and secure sense of direction. Modernisation, it appears, does not have to be flatly pragmatic or a corrosive relativisation. It has spiritual strengths of its own which align it with the Gospel: a passion for human liberty, a delight in human diversity, a more sensitive awareness of the mystery of human life.
What does the relinquishing of our tenaciously defended but oppressive identities liberate us for? Well, clearly, for a cherishing of other identities, a pluralistic treasuring of all the sources of religious and humane awareness to which our nation is attuned. The local sources are already rich ones. Apart from our various strands of mainstream Christianity, all of which need to be regrounded in the prophetic message of the Kingdom, there is the ancient pre-Christian spirit of the country imprinted on the very landscape and indicating a happier mutual belonging of bodily and spiritual, male and female, than in the patriarchal religion and nationalism of recent centuries. (See Cheryl Herr, “The Erotics of Irishness”, Critical Inquiry, Fall 1990). Then there is that chorus of geniuses who have recently been recognised as forming "the Irish mind" and whose perpetual quests, even if sometimes godless, are a perpetual summons to us to enlarge and humanise still more our religious horizons.
And what role has Irish religion in the wider world context? Unfortunately the concept that immediately springs to mind when Japanese hear the name of Ireland is "religious war". Yet there is also an immense Japanese interest in Irish literature. Perhaps it is on the wings of its literary culture rather than of the old-style passionate fidelity to Rome that a religious influence is now most likely to emanate from this island? The chief creative shapers of spiritual vision in Ireland in this century have been Yeats, Joyce and Beckett. The first of these was a homo religiosus (religious man) though far from an anima naturaliter christiana (soul naturally Christian); the other two were distinctly unreligious. Yet all three have posed afresh the question of human identity, a question which reaches into the very core of Christian belief. All three developed strange and challenging identities, which we can neither categorise within our national religious frameworks nor dismiss as un-Irish. Their work explores the frontiers of modernity while reaching back to the most ancient and elemental, showing that it is fearless openness to an unknown future that best equips one to reappropriate a vital past. As German Christianity has been marked by a long struggle to match itself against Goethe, Hegel and Nietzsche, so Irish Christianity cannot evade the destiny these three writers impose insofar as they are a revelation of the potential scope of Irish spiritual life and of the cramping limits conventional religion would impose on it.
"Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Romans 14.23) - it is time for us to decide what we really believe and to follow only that real belief in our praxis. Such a radical simplification of belief will not, I am confident, fundamentally undermine commitment to the Gospel, but should rather free us to hear for the first time those elements in the Gospel which carry conviction. We have not realised our freedom to rethink and refashion the Christian heritage. This freedom is accorded by the central message of Jesus, the vision of the Kingdom, drawing on our own experience of struggling for a larger and freer human community. The Kingdom is an open-ended idea, not bound in by the framework of dogmatic definitions - for such definitions are but relatively minor auxiliaries to the task of keeping the space of the Kingdom message open. It can be called on whenever the Gospel is applied to the task of human liberation; indeed it reveals its cutting edge only in the context of such an application. The words, representations, images, concepts, dogmas, rituals of Christianity, may all be affected now with a certain "unbearable lightness", yet the urgency of the task of liberation (social, spiritual, ecological) is more apparent than ever. Applying the Gospel to that task one finds where its real lines of force lie. Christianity is then no longer a dim medley of citational reminiscences, but a sword of the spirit to be deftly used as skilful means, a sword of reality cutting through the proliferating weeds of illusion. This spiritual swordsmanship disdains lip-service to a jaded ethos. Intent on the most absorbing of adventures, it has nothing to fear from letting hallowed postures fall away. If such a Christianity is coming to birth in Ireland or in the Catholic Church, then the religious future is a bright one.
SECOND POSTSCRIPT (17 March, 2006)
The above ruminations reveal a sense of malaise within Irish Catholicism that precedes the steep decline of the recent years. The Irish priesthood has suffered demoralization especially from scandals concerned with sexual abuse of minors, which have complicated relations between laity and clergy and between priests and their bishops in ways documented in a string of articles in _The Furrow_. The divorce and abortion referendums referred to above now look like the last gasp of clerical control in Irish law and politics (divorce is now legal, and abortion legislation is contemplated), though Catholic control of education and hospitals still provides a breeding-ground for future controversies. Meanwhile, the emptiness of Irish sermons, due to the neglect of Scripture and theology by the diocesan clergy, and the barrenness of much Irish liturgical experience, are perhaps a deeper cause of the present disarray than scandals or abuses of power. The crassness and greed associated with the present economic boom must also count as contributing to a crisis of spiritual identity. The rise of violent crime may be associated by conservatives with sexual permissiveness; though the connection is not a necessary one, since Japan, for example, is one of the most sexually permissive countries and at the same time one of the most law-abiding; it might more truly be associated with the ambivalence of many Irish people to the bestial terrorist campaigns waged in Northern Ireland. Another factor is that many people depended too much on church authority for their sense of ethics and social responsibility, so that a decline in the prestige of the church has left them rudderless in terms of ethical and social values.
Yet every St. Patrick’s day, the powerful myth of Irish Catholic identity, created by Patrick and memorialised in his own words, will be recalled throughout the Irish diaspora, and its staying-power cannot be underestimated. Alongside this still vibrant tradition, Ireland today is a laboratory of postmodern spiritual experimentation. The arts, drama, literature are central in this, as responsive religious thinkers such as Enda McDonagh, Pat O'Brien and Mark Patrick Hederman are keenly aware. Concern for peace and justice, reinforced in the Irish people by the impact of Vatican II, is a backbone of the Irish spiritual quest. It is no accident that Irish politicians such as Mary Robinson and Irish artists such as Bono and Bob Geldof have been to the fore in efforts to make the world a better place. Celtic spirituality, oriental religion and other phenomena that it would be presumptuous to dismiss as New Age ephemera continue to simmer. The next chapter of this spiritual odyssey will probably not be written by clerical leaders.