Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead
Since Ireland felt only faintly the impact of the scientific and philosophical Enlightenment, the defining event of modernity, and since her extraordinary contribution to the modernist revolution in literature – Yeats, Joyce, Beckett – was better understood abroad than at home, the notion of a postmodern Ireland can seem doubly misleading. The undermining and/or transformation of Irish Catholicism has mainly been the effect of the emergence of modern (Enlightenment) awareness in Irish society and in the Catholic Church worldwide since the sixties. If the modernization of Ireland was accompanied by an economic boom, the present suggestions of a postmodern mutation verify Fredric Jameson’s diagnosis of postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism”.
The labyrinthine specularity of a culture of the image can be studied in what has happened to the streets of Dublin in its millenium year, 1988. The city has lost its identity and is vainly trying to recapture it by a cult of images, images which serve as pawns in a consumerist economy. Dear dirty Dublin is being replaced by its own image. It is selling itself as a tourist attraction even to its own inhabitants. Brass plates of Mr Bloom gild the pavements; a sign of modernist consciousness? No, a sellable emblem of the city’s pretentions to style and sophistication, devoid of religious, political or ideological significance. Anna Livia bathes outside the GPO: a modernist mythic expression of the city’s soul? No, it is an effort to associate mythic vitality with the banks and business of the city. Do yuppie pubs, new bookshops and pedestrianized zones betoken a general rise in cultural sophistication? No doubt, but they instill a new kind of civic pride: the citizen as consumer, a pride dangerously allied to an emergent class consciousness, and exclusive of the have-nots.
Postmodern: the name is a good one, like Enlightenment or Romanticism, suggestive, polyvalent, resistant to analysis yet bringing into clearer focus the obscure forces of the Zeitgeist. What was a malaise, prompting tragic apocalyptic talk in a bid for lucidity, has now become a comedy, as we realize that our trading in apocalypses was but another symptom of the postmodern lightness of being. But can the ascendancy of this notion be taken at face value? In its claim to provide a speculative definition of the age is it not as specious as the structuralist wave of twenty years ago? Has postmodernist thought, as represented by Jean-François Lyotard for example, really surpassed the Enlightenment and all the other critical movements of modernity? Is Marxism really finished, or has it found a new field of exercise in the analysis of postmodernist alienation? Has reason been atomized into the free play of local language games, or is it biding its time until we rediscover it?
For religious awareness, modernism rather than postmodernism still seems to me the most powerful innovatory instance. The textural change which all religious traditions are undergoing in the pluralistic milieu now defining their conditions of existence seems to be a modernist effect of transformation (analogous to cubism, atonality, relativity, the Mallarmean and Joycean revolutions of the word) rather than a postmodernist reduction of religious discourses to ironic citations and parodies of their tradition. The postmodernist aspects of contemporary religiosity – notably the replacement of religious substance by mediatic images, as in the multiplication of exotic Marian apparitions – seem to be a retreat from the task facing the Catholic Church after Vatican II, namely the advance from modernity to modernism. Postmodernist religion oils the wheels of Thatcherite capitalism, increasing the consumerist dynamics of religious behaviour and discouraging the growth of the masses to religious adulthood.
It took centuries to persuade the Catholic Church that it should embrace the modern world: unambiguous papal praise of democracy first came in 1943 and a limited recognition of religious freedom only with Vatican II. Why is it necessary that the Church now go on to espouse the modernist project and to bring its message in accord with the thought of people like Freud, Kafka, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Beckett? The reason is that these shaping spirits of modernism represent the highest spiritual insights of the century and provide a lingua franca of spirituality which all, Catholic or Protestant, atheist or Buddhist, can fully understand. In fact we understand Kafka better than we understand the Gospels, since his world is ours, and carries with it none of the ancient cultural presuppositions which so often throw us in reading the Bible. The struggle of readers everywhere to become the spiritual contemporaries of the modernist masters is a vast ecumenical movement in which the classical religious traditions ought also to participate, in order to ensure their own adulthood, their liberation from a stifling archaism, and the credibility of their message. That Christians still feel threatened by modernist thought and art is an ecumenical scandal, dividing the spirit against itself.
Postmodernism as a recognizable style of art or thought is so heavily dependent on modernism that it is best classed as a epigonal footnote to it. The postmodernist epigone, condemned to citation and the déjà vu, thrives by making a virtue of this imposed weakness, revelling in the helplessness of a cultural latecomer. Theologians are very belatedly and clumsily acquiring a modernist sensibility, and as part of this the ‘postmodern’ note is sounded when they register the crisis of the legitimating narratives which have kept them in business since Augsburg and Trent and the pullulation of local theologies which retrospectively shows up the whole tradition as a constellation of localities, pluralistic in its very texture, despite the illusions of monolithic dogma.
Those explicitly known as postmodern theologians are a rather brash group of Americans who attempt to reread Christian tradition in light of the radical philosophies of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault. They can be faulted for a lack of engagement with the rich texture of that tradition, and for a hasty and superficial espousal of extreme Nietzschean postures. Yet these writers are far from exhausting the possibilities of such reflection and the truth they are aiming at in their sweeping negations may be brought into focus by a subtler approach dwelling more intimately in the great texts of Christian and Buddhist thought. In that ampler context, the drastic negations that lead to nihilism can be tempered into a Buddhist middle path, disengaged from fixated views, a wise realization of the conventionality and provisionality of all language, especially of religious language. That is only one of the possible paths: it represents a step back from the frivolity of the postmodern to the seriousness of the modernist enterprise.
Postmodern convictions are little more than ideological caricatures of lines of thinking already explored in the modernist masters. Thus the modernist suspicion of the identity of the self is hardened into a dogma in postmodernist discourse – to the effect that fixed identities, whether of the self or of God, of truth or of meaning, are shattered on the realization of how much we are creatures of the Heraclitean play of language which never allows our thought a secure foothold, as well as of the hidden violence of the systems of power shown up by Foucault and the fractured psychoanalytical structures postulated by Lacan. While some hail the postmodern flux as itself salvation and grace, it seems that the correct theological response is to attempt to do full justice to the modernist and postmodernist masters of suspicion while finally subordinating them to a hermeneutics which can retrieve the original power of the Christian revelation and continue its tradition with the required changes of key. Such a hermeneutics need not be limited by any apologetic or denominational foreclosure, but neither need it lose itself in the insouciant free play, the celebration of rootlessness, which so often seems to characterize the postmodern.
The religious culture of Ireland is one that has suffered greatly from fixities of identity, fixities which because they are false, and in conflict with the texture of reality, have produced a constant practice of self-deception and obscurantism. Rigid doctrinal and ethical views, denominational and national chauvinisms, constricting definitions of social role and individual identity, reductive characterizations of alien groups and minorities: at last these pathogenic traits of Irish Catholicism are being subjected to sophisticated analysis by contemporary Irish thinkers. They can draw inspiration not only from the poets and novelists who have chronicled the cauterizing effect of such a culture and provided an antidote in their own unaided spiritual quest, but also from the Buddhist critique which sees all religious language as no more than a finger pointing at the moon; if the moon changes position what was an “expedient means” becomes inexpedient, the icon becomes an idol. This general testing of the Irish Christian heritage is not merely destructive. It is a spiritual exercise in its own right.
What are delightfully known as à la carte Catholics” usually practise a modern freedom of critical thought in their reception of church teachings, and many theologians would argue, though few bishops seem to agree, that they are perfectly within their rights in doing so, as long as their adult rationality does not become an irresponsible abandonment of the basic obedience of faith. But such Catholics could also be seen as a postmodern phenomenon, with the danger that all they retain of their religion are some reassuring images. In that case, postmodernism would once again show itself as a thwarting of modernism, the advancement to a creative appropriation and transformation of the tradition. One floats passively into the postmodern lightening of one’s religious identity, whereas a struggle of dissent, discernment and new vision is required for the modernist transformation. Just as a modernist artist sifts what is living from what is dead in the tradition and puts the former to new uses, so the modernist Christian plays off parts of the heritage against others and assumes no part of it without putting through the crucible of contemporary adult spiritual awareness. The postmodern Christian, on the contrary, resembles a traditionalist in the passive way in which he or she retains elements from tradition, albeit often in a citation, ironic or eclectic mode.
Where the modernist struggles for truth and vision, the postmodernist adopts a style and is “just gaming”. Those who think of the postmodern condition as a happy one rejoice in invigorating dispersal, constant improvisation, decentralized vitality. But there’s a tiredness about it too, a sense of the faded glow of the sixties – a libertarian sixties turned sour and decadent, not the liberationist sixties which remain as a prophetic challenge inaudible to postmodern ears. As postmodern inspiration plays itself out it takes on a pallid hue, and its weary sophistication recalls the sensibility of a Roderick Usher impotently registering from his armchair the slow crumbling of his house, the shrieks of madness from its crypts.
Alacartism at its best signifies the emergence within Catholicism of the Protestant principle, not only in its modern form (liberal Protestantism), but in a continuation of the modernist retrieval of Luther and of St. Paul partly achieved by Kierkegaard and the early Barth. It is from this marginal position rather than from one of angry alienation that the deconstruction of Irish Catholicism, its retrieval for the play of the Spirit, can best be carried out, but only if the marginalized groups are sufficiently free in their minds not to fall into a stereotyped and embittered anticlericalism.
The best guarantee against this is theological education, a commodity still unavailable in most of Ireland’s universities. Such education can give à la carte Catholics confidence that the stubborn dogmatism they are up against draws its vitality above all from a profound ignorance, and that their own search for essential Christianity is far more in accord with the message of Scripture and with the best contemporary theological reflection.
Great is the power of the negative if it unfolds as a dialectic of reason, and of critical faith. But if criticism in turn becomes an emotive fixation it only adds to the prevailing paralysis. The Irish world of faith offers rich matter for interpretation, for a hermeneutics which will bring to bear on it all the most sophisticated techniques of critical inquiry, a hermeneutics which should be sympathetic enough to release those who conduct it from the sterility of mere carping. Of course the critique cannot be purely emotionless, but has to be guided by what Heidegger would call a fundamental mood (Grundstimmung). Hurt, anger, anguish, confusion, a general malaise, are to be found in plenty among Irish Catholics. The hermeneut must fuse these emotions and raise them to a higher pitch, perhaps to the prophetic anger of a Luther, laced with pity and concern. (Nor does the Stimmung of celebration of life carry less critical and liberative power.)
Modernist sophistication has to be put at the service of an ethical and political imagination, in a spirit of constructive optimism. It is not modernity or modernism as such that can move Ireland forward, but a modern or modernist faith. The core of faith is a capacity to act from conviction. In that sense, it could be argued that the Japanese have much more faith than the Irish, although there is no word in their language for God, and their religions are a charming medley of aesthetic mood and custom. At least they don’t wallow in lip-service to things they only partly or halfheartedly believe, and when a faith dies on them they let it die, and move on, making the changes necessary to their new situation. Since the values to which they subscribe are always close to the ground, tried and tested against their daily effect in improving the quality of life, these values have an energizing and regulating effect, building up an ordered and industrious society. Irish values are usually too abstract to inspire such steady, practical faith, and lend themselves to fanaticism, devotionalism, lip-service, and rhetoric. Many Japanese homes contain a Buddhist altar before which an incense stick quietly burns. Irish Catholics no longer have such a domestic religious presence, since the family rosary died out and since Sunday morning lost so much of its special atmosphere.
Perhaps we could learn something from the functional Japanese approach to religion, and find a way to give our religions heritage a life-enhancing place in our culture. This would mean admitting the provisionality of our dogmas, identifications, institutions, liturgies, and moral codes, all of which can function as “skilful means” for guiding our lives and opening an awareness of the absolute only if we refuse to idolize them and immunize them against questioning. Certainly, it would be a big come-down for Irish religiosity to accept this fragile status. But not so big a come-down as its recent bloody adventures have brought about. (Having said this, I should add the Japan is also the capital of postmodern empty-headedness, very evident in its current religious fads, and that the quiet Irish sense of concern for the neighbour and awareness of the presence of God gives a substance and reality to Irish life which is older and deeper than anything modern or postmodern.)
All religious traditions are relative. They indicate the absolute effectively, and can be bearers of a word from the Lord, only when they are conscious of how much their historical finitude and the very texture of their language testifies to their own relativity. The greatest error of religious thinkers has been authoritarianism, understandable in cultures governed by sacral figures such as kings and priests and subscribing to the absolute authority of sacred texts. The continuation of the religious quest demands now a demythologization of these traditions, a demythologization whose only limits are those prescribed by full exposure to truth. Irish Catholics, who have wasted so much energy on the fine print of ecclesiastical claims, should offer up their religion on the altar of truth and pray: “Lord, take from us these hallowed constructs, and give back to us only what is true; take these identities, and give us back only some viable paths for continuing to seek you.”
Even the monotheistic narration shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam is perhaps only an expedient means, historically constituted, for narrating the absolute. The absolute is equally manifest in the quite different narratives of Eastern religion, and is most fully revealed in the mutual solicitation of East and West. Christianity thus finds itself anew as one voice in the global polyphony of divine revelation, and is as impoverished when left to itself as an Isolde singing the “Liebestod” without the orchestra.
So far, I have been urging a Protestant-modernist transformation of Irish Catholicism. But there is also much to be said for homelier methods of reform. And there is much to be said against the unhomely methods of the Catholic Restoration. The younger Irish bishops include representatives of both policies. The reforming bishop is likely to work on the renewal of the parish structure and of the clergy, naturally, since he is the kingpin in both. This renewal comes late in the day and many opportunities have been lost. Nor can it fully meet the needs of Irish Catholicism today, since the greatest promise of renewal seems to lie with small groups working outside the parish structures. Such groups – born again Christians, charismatics, political action groups, co-counselling groups, bible discussion groups – are often looked on with suspicion by the clergy. The more disorderly and uncontrollable Christianity they herald is however a necessary supplement to the traditional structures, for though the parish and the clergy still have sufficient vitality to blossom anew, and though these structures remain necessary for the stable functioning of the Christian community, not all Catholics can find a meaningful religious identity in relation to these structures. Inter-denominational communities, or simple “human communities” with a religious tinge, are also beginning to emerge here and there, and they promise to bring a clearer perspective and fresher air to the spiritual quest of the Irish people.
The restorationist movement is probably the most vital in Ireland in recent years, and is in line with the “retrenchment” reflected in recent Vatican policies in the appointment of bishops, the disciplining of theologians, and the promotion of such movements as Opus Dei. What is most disturbing about this trend in the Irish context is its narrowly sectarian understanding of Catholicism and its imperviousness to the challenge to outgrow such sectarian identity which both the Gospel and the world present. If one can grant that anything savouring of denominationalism puts one directly in league with the hatred and terrorism of Northern Ireland, then it is disturbing to reflect that almost everything in Irish Catholicism seems to carry this denominationalist taint: the imposition of Catholic ethics in legislation and through Catholic control of hospitals and schools, the gut-level reaction against inter-denominational schooling, the confinement of belief and devotion to a pre- or anti-ecumenical horizon, the uncritical identification of Catholic with Christian identity, the inability to expose the Church to the critique of the Gospel or the world, or to take seriously the voices of those who claim that they have been crushed by the Church.
The Catholic restoration, in which Ireland is offered a place of pride, is a temptation that must be turned down. It is itself a quite postmodern phenomenon, in its excess of medium over message. Spectacular papal travels are emblematic of a multiplication of religious signifiers while the signifieds become increasingly elusive and exiguous. The narcissistic specularity of restorationist consciousness differs immensely from the unbroken faith that sustained the ancien régime in the days before Vatican II. It elicits not faith but the suspension of disbelief that allows one to enjoy a play. Its figureheads seem to be enacting a historical drama. Vatican II gave a small glimpse of what a non-sectarian Church, fully open to free discussion and the search for truth, might look like, but Vatican II seems to have failed, not only because of the weak, compromising character of its documents, but because the Zeitgeist recently has been so opposed to the kind of freedom that the Council fathers timidly prophesied, freedom to reform social and institutional structures, to set the Church humbly at the service of humanity, to change the world. Such grandiose political ambitions are seen as typically unrealistic dreams of the sixties.
So the Church succumbs to postmodernism is both the positive sense, clutching at the residue of the sixties freedom, now privatized, and in the negative sense, wallowing in a cult of images. It may be objected that Catholic values were never so serious and so militant as in recent years. The Church is battening down its hatches, cutting off lukewarm members, and rigging itself up as a mighty ship of state capable of making its majestic moral presence felt in all the troubled waters of the world. Old and young are fired by new zeal, and even the children of the sixties find themselves bending to the prevailing wind. Everywhere in the world bishops are being appointed who are willing to be the architects of this Church of the third millennium, men whose chief virtue is their imperviousness to the kinds of delicate scruple that make liberals and postmodernists so weak. Under their leadership the Church, so the theory goes, is growing smaller, but stronger. Catholic funds and institutions are coming back to the exclusive control of those who alone have a right to them, namely, those Catholics who are 100% loyal to Rome.
Certainly, the restorationist movement is not entirely comic, not entirely a matter of histrionics, opportunist role-playing, rhetorical inflation. Many of its adherents are “full of passionate intensity”. History may be repeating itself as farce, but farce can thicken into deepest tragedy. The grand opera of late nineteenth century diplomacy produced the hecatombs of the Somme. The Catholic Church too has its evil heritage, waiting to be reactivated. This ancient history is of a piece with totalitarian tendencies in the Church today, which affect not only the faithful but all States in which the Church has influence.
Of course, every historical institution has its shadow side, and loyalty to an institution, as to a friend, implies the duty of being aware of this shadow-side and keeping a critical eye on it. What is peculiarly dangerous in the case of Catholicism is the creed that the Church, since it is not a human institution at all but a divine one, can do no wrong. The Catholic Church has long regarded certain figures and texts as above suspicion, much as doctrinaire Marxists used to hallow Marx or Lenin. The lesson we are having to learn now is that even the pages of the New Testament, and much more so those of Saints Athanasius, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas have to be read with suspicion. Dark currents of history flow to, through, and from these great spiritual monuments. A recognition of this fact does not preclude, but rather enables, a contact of faith with the sublime truths also contained therein.
Deconstruction as moral discernment is a duty of adult Christians today. Of course in suspecting the classics it is our own deepest persuasions that we are putting in question. “Nostra res agitur”. “Simple faith” can no longer be used as an excuse for avoiding this awful examination of conscience, for such simple faith turns out on examination to be a quite contorted posture of adherence to the letter of some recondite text, the letter that kills.
The major pastoral problem of the Irish Catholic Church is that very many people, including clergy, no longer know why they continue to be Catholics. The meaning of the Gospel has become veiled, or even when that is not the case, the link between the Gospel and the activities of the Church remains disquietingly obscure. The focal point of this religious unease is perhaps the celebration of the Eucharist. When a papal voice in the Phoenix Park thundered “It is the Mass that matters” one could almost hear the echoes answer: “It is the Mass that is the matter.” An endless song and dance is made about Mass attendance, the crude barometer of the nation’s faith, and daily attendance is held up as the ideal for the truly religious. Why this obsession with quantity and this lack of concern about the meaning or meaningless of what goes on at the ceremony? As long as the priest goes on saying Mass and the people keep on coming, no questions need be posed about Christian identity or the meaning of Christian faith. The Mass is fundamentally reassuring. It also has the advantage of being automatic. There is no occasion for disruption, spurts or failures of creativity, or even real communication apart from the stylized sermon-slot. Renewal of the Mass demands a total renewal of Catholic life: better art and architecture, better theology, a greater capacity for emotional and spiritual expression. But above all what it demands is a learning attitude towards religion, including a willingness to expose and share one’s doubt, anxiety and questioning. As long as we feel we have it all wrapped up, the Mass will continue to be a routine, stifling the emergence of any word from the Lord.
But the Mass is only the main instance of the Irish ability to wallow in token religious gestures and in lip-service to what is no longer a matter of real conviction. The very depth of the crisis of faith, or of the oblivion of what faith means, forbids the kind of discussion which could get to the roots of the malaise and reveal us to ourselves in all our poverty. We fear such a revelation, for we imagine it would leave us with nothing. But if the word of the Gospel can be heard again, that return to nakedness might also be the discovery of fresh possibilities. Let psychoanalysis serve as an encouraging analogy: only by tracing the deep hurts underlying its present sclerosis can the Church hope to recover a viable raison d’être. It fears the pain of this probing, and prefers to hold on to its surface equilibrium rather than embark on a process so upsetting.
It is very difficult to undertake a serious quest for religious truth – which must also be a quest for human truth – in a culture where every religious possibility has been mapped out in advance in a conventional frame of reference. Those who find the parish churches deadening often have nowhere to turn. Hence the need of alternative movements running across denominational lines and remaining free of church control. Such movements should breathe the spirit of play and celebration, a mood which more than any other can solicit (cause to tremble) the heavy, dull routine of the institution. Alternative movements would not replace the main bodies of the Churches, but would play deconstructively around their margins, parasites or gadflies, making more imaginative use of the resources of tradition than can the archaic giants whose slumbers they disincommode. The continuation of the tradition as a living thing demands this multiplication of voices, this decentralization. Such a freer approach to the religious debate is supposed to lead to “religious indifferentism”. But there is a very salutary form of indifferentism which takes lightly the historic differences between the Christian denominations.
If the Irish Catholic Church could become a place of free exchange and communication, untold spiritual energies would be released. Free speech is the foremost clue to the solution of the malaise. The obstacles to it include the sense of inferiority induced in most Irish Catholics by the teaching of their Church, and by the powerlessness and passivity to which its structures condemn the laity and the lower clergy; the cowardice and prudent trimming which are part and parcel of clerical culture; the lack of a secure perspective and an articulate theological language in which to identify the problems – because of this lack people fear to open their mouths lest they reveal their own confusion, making fools of themselves, and disturbing the faithful. The attack on the media conducted by conservative Irish Catholics often springs from a fear of free discussion. A phobic attitude to the media often stems from a fear of being honest, and of having to answer awkward questions.
Irish clerical conservativism conceives itself as a bulwark of reason and common sense against the emotivism of the Church’s critics. In reality this is a deceptive self-image. Very often the rationality on which people pride themselves consists in a refusal of thinking and questioning outside certain tight limits. The underlying emotions, when they burst out, are rather unattractive ones: a swaggering brutality when in the ascendant, a venomous sectarian hatred when under attack. The Irish clergy often appeal to the people’s will as the justification of their acts. Thus the arguments for mixed schooling in Northern Ireland are rejected on the grounds that it is not what the people want. The people have also to some extent sanctified the cause of the Provisional IRA. The people’s devotions, which the clergy handle with kid gloves, when they do not go overboard in support of them, have taken a primitive hue. As the Church turns its back on rational debate, hyper-emotional religiosity gushes in to fill the vacuum. It is clear that the people need to be educated on how to outgrow sectarianism, how to respect the rights of minorities, and how to find the meaning of the Gospel in a realistic and effective form.
The hope of Ireland is the honesty of its disaffected Catholics (or those clever enough to be able to stay on as à la carte Catholics). The straight talk and penetrating analysis that has been pouring from their lips in recent years has greatly helped to clarify our religious situation. What needs to be urged, however, is that this critical movement need not consider itself to be cut off from the heritage of Gospel faith. It should confidently claim the Gospel for itself, even against the Church. If it does so, it may bring about a wider religious and human vision which could once more make our country’s one of the respected voices in the concert of civilization.
Joseph S. O'Leary, from Richard Kearney, ed. Across the Frontiers, Dublin, Wolfhound, 1988.