Catholicity, Sacrifice, and Shame: Subverting Polarization in Our Contemporary Ecclesial and Political Cultures

Candlemas Lecture for Boston College, 7 February 2024

Thank you very much indeed for inviting me to speak to you on the auspicious occasion that is your annual Candlemas lecture. I would like to offer my talk as a tribute to your late and much-loved colleague Rick Gaillardetz in whose living presence I would long to have delivered it. Tonight’s lecture bears the pre-reformation title for what we now call the Feast of the Presentation. As it happens, the themes that I have been asked to address, Catholicity, Sacrifice, Shame and the subversion of polarization, flow organically from the Gospel for the Feast, which we find in St Luke, making of that Gospel a wonderful place from which to start.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel the Temple and the Holy Spirit interpenetrate each other. They teach us by their interaction what is really going on. The Gospel begins with an appearance to a priest called Zechariah in the sanctuary, and it ends with Jesus ascending to heaven giving the blessing appropriate to the Great High Priest. The fact that the opening priest is called Zechariah is doubtless important, for the voice of God had not been heard in the Temple since Zechariah the son of Berakiah had been killed on coming out of the Holy Place, hundreds of years previously. So the Gospel begins with a big nudge that the “Real Temple” is coming back. Shortly thereafter Mary is greeted by Elizabeth as the Ark of the Covenant, and John the Baptist dances in the womb before the Ark, like King David. At the end, Jesus’ Ascension enacts in verbal detail the Temple vision of the Lord “high and lifted up” from Isaiah 6. Then of course at the very beginning of the Acts of the Apostles the definitive Temple, comes down upon the apostolic group in a secular building, and reveals itself to be constituted by human fiery portions. Thereafter it moves horizontally, taking in eunuchs and eventually gentiles, leaving the physical Temple ever more moot.

The story which is working itself out in the midst of all this is how the promised Holy One of God, the Great High Priest himself, came into the world and was announced as “One who will baptise you in Holy Spirit”. In fact the whole of Jesus’ living out of his life into, and up to, death had that very specific purpose: to baptise us in Holy Spirit. And that could not happen until Jesus had detoxified death. The Temple was a huge elaborate construct to keep anything to do with death away from God and God’s holiness. Moses and Aaron had had to learn the hard way about the terrifying nature of God’s holiness when a couple of Aaron’s sons were killed by it, for having put the wrong sort of fire in their censors. It was only after this that God taught Aaron to teach the people to distinguish between the Sacred and the Profane, the clean and the unclean so that they would be safe from the power of the living God. 

Towards the end of Luke’s Gospel, we run backward through the beginning of Genesis. First the real Adam resists the temptation of the garden and fulfils the prophesy of Genesis 3,19 by the clay-ish sweat which rolls down his face like clots of blood. Then on the cross, the two thieves are found to be the two failed seraphs at the gate of Paradise, but one at least will be transformed into a seraph of the Presence at the moment of Jesus’ death, when the Temple veil is ripped, and paradise is open again. Next, the sun goes out, and we are back to Genesis 1 before “let there be light”, and creation is running in reverse. Now finally Jesus breathes out the Spirit which had come upon him visibly at his baptism. His breathing out the Spirit is the sign that finally the Creator, vested as a human, has conquered death, having lived into it without being run by it, and thereafter the full power of the Spirit of God which had been hovering over creation’s void since the beginning has been brought across the breach of death which separated us from God and enables us to begin to live as sons and daughters, heirs, participants in the fulness of Creation.

So much for the “bigger story” if you will. Let’s come back to Candlemas. Remembering that Luke gives us the infancy narratives because he understands how important it is, especially for those who know little or nothing of the Temple and the Holy Land, to give deep background, so that they can understand what is going on. So much of what is done by parsimonious verbal allusion in St Mark’s Gospel has to become more enfleshed as a narrative for Luke’s preachers and Luke’s public.

So, Mary and Joseph bring the child into the Temple. The purpose was twofold. Every first-born son needed to be redeemed by a lamb, the basis of the Mosaic sacrificial structure since the Passover in Egypt. And the mother needed purifying from her blood. But here of course, the one being brought into the Temple was in fact the true first-born son, whom Abraham had seen in his vision as the one who “God will provide”, such that he needn’t kill Isaac. This one needed no redeeming, since he would in fact redeem. Thus the sacrifice of a couple of birds for the purification of the mother, which was also acceptable for those who couldn’t afford a sheep, was the only sacrifice offered.

At this point we meet Simeon, a devout and holy man upon whom the Spirit rested, and who longed for the comforting of Israel that had been prophesied by Isaiah. He had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the anointed king-priest of the Lord. He was told by the Spirit to come into the Temple – so presumably he was not a priest on duty, and the usual liturgies of the Temple were going on in the background. Maybe Simeon’s prophetic insight extended to Fiducia Supplicans, since he doesn’t inquire whether the infant was conceived within wedlock, or whether the presenting father had in fact sired the child, but immediately takes the babe into his arms and blesses God.

Simeon has perceived what Malachi had prophesied: that God has come suddenly into his Temple, and that he, Simeon, is holding his Holy One in his arms. And he understands what this is about – a salvation prepared in the face of all peoples, a light to lighten all nations, and to be the glory of Israel. So something entirely Jewish which would yet enlighten the nations and reach all peoples. Now he blesses God for this, and for having been kept alive to see it.

Then he turns to bless Mary and Joseph, who are somewhere amidst amazed and perplexed by all this (as who would not be if a weird old man suddenly picked up your child in the Temple courtyard and started prophesying). Simeon then speaks to Mary, she who has been “pondering these things in her heart” for the forty days since the shepherds had visited the place where she had given birth. He gives her a firm assurance: “Behold, this one is appointed for the overthrow and the uprising of many in Israel”. The use of the word I’ve given as “overthrow” in the prophets is quite strong. And the word I’ve translated as “uprising” runs the gamut from resurrection to insurrection.

Simeon goes on: “this one” is to be “a sign of contradiction”. So much more than “a sign that will be spoken against”, the phrase does in fact describe exactly what Jesus’ going to his death will do. He will occupy, out of a creative project of divine generosity, our space of shame, curse and death. By doing so, in baptising us with the Spirit he will open up a world of signed meaning that could scarcely have been imagined before.  The repetitive sign of curse and expulsion which closes down life and culture within a guaranteed but futile meaning would be transfigured into the never-to-be-closed-down sign of gift opening up a new creation. Two entirely incommensurate realities would become available from exactly the same sign. And according to whether or not we are scandalised by what this babe will do, so our world will be.

There then follows something weird, so weird that translators seem to run away from it. What Simeon, addressing Mary, says literally is “and a sword shall pierce your soul also so that the inner thoughts of many will be uncovered.”  Many translators seem afraid of giving Mary a role in the uncovering of the inner thoughts. The King James Version, for example, puts the phrase “and a sword shall pierce your soul also” in brackets, so that the thrust of the prophecy is: the child will be “a sign of contradiction…so that the inner thoughts of many will be uncovered”. This makes of “the sword piercing Mary’s heart” an emotive aside. Others like the NRSV, simply excise “and a sword shall pierce your soul also” and then paste it on at the end, as an afterthought. Both seem determined to downplay what the Greek says: which is that the sword piercing Mary’s soul is causally linked to the uncovering of the inner thoughts of many. 

I’d like to suggest that we have a text both more Marian and more Catholic than many translators would like. She who bore the Word would also bear the pain of witnessing and thus undergoing, she before anybody else, the change of meaning which her child would bring about. And thus that in its interpretation, her reactions of bearing, of pondering and treasuring will be part of the witness, first lived, and then spoken which will lead to all this uncovering. I’ll go with that Marian reading as especially helpful in our post-reformation world since our tendency since then has been to go for the Word, the sword, and the drasticity of changed meaning without attending to the fleshliness, the continuity, the process of undergoing which alone provide a non-arbitrary and ultimately salvific living context to the Creator’s self-speaking as flesh in our midst.

Now, I hope you can see that what we have in the Gospel for the feast are indicators of Catholicity – in Simeon’s prophesy concerning the gentiles and all peoples. The whole scene has as its backdrop a certain understanding of sacrifice being fulfilled as the centre of that reality morphs from the Temple to what the babe is going to bring in in terms of the deepest shift of meaning imaginable. It describes what this will produce in terms which will certainly cause shame to some, and it leaves us imagining the sort of violent polarisations which this will produce. At the same time, it indicates a role of grief for those living through this sort of upheaval from which no one, starting with Mary, will be exempt. Indeed we will become living witnesses to it by undergoing it as she did.

1. Shame

I hope it will not surprise you too much that I want to major on shame. I consider it to be one of the most omnipresent and least treated realities in our current ecclesial and political lives, and I think that beginning to get a handle on it, face it, and not run away from it is going to be absolutely vital for the Christianity of the future.

Shame is, of all the human feelings, the least easy to get a handle on, for it is the most in-between of things. It works between individuals and between groups. It goes far deeper than guilt, since with guilt there is already some recognition of having done something wrong and of having some responsibility. But shame reaches us at levels far deeper than that, it is felt as something to do with what we are, before anything we have done.

When shame is recognised, then we can feel ashamed, and being able to let our feeling of shame become public is the first step towards being welcomed back into the human condition. But more often than not shame drives us unseen, unrecognised. It drives us to fight, to flight, or to freeze. To close down and play dead while our apparently reasonable persona rationalizes in public what is really going on.

When we say that a person has no shame, I don’t actually think we mean that. I think we mean that the apparently shameless person has been so overtaken by their shame that they have constructed an armoured persona whose survival is entirely predicated on never allowing the shame which runs them to pierce their reality. 

Shame is the most mimetic of things – being always in fact relational, but always appearing to be individual. Who we are given to be is always other-driven. And while shame comes to us from another, or others, it triggers us into shutting down the access from another so that it seems an entirely individual, closed off thing. From which we can then never get out of.

None of this is new to you. What I would like to suggest this evening is that the reality of, and our inability to deal with, shame is centrally related to our understanding of sacrifice. And that this inability has a certain contemporary visibility in helping us understand what might make for a more genuine catholicity.

2. Sacrifice and Shame

We are so unused to the ritual practice of sacrifice in the sense of ancient bloody rituals that we forget how tied up it is with shame and with cover-up. And how often its practitioners are merely going through the motions, with a sort of elegant despair, hoping that something, anything will turn up to give meaning to what they are doing. Group omertà is produced by sharing in this pointless killing, and a temporary group pride becomes the only real product, while underneath the shame at the pointlessness, and in the case of human sacrifice, the occasional hint, quickly to be tamped down, that the one sacrificed was the same as us, breaks through. 

We tend not to take too seriously the claim that Solomon sacrificed 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep when inaugurating his Temple, simply because of the difficulty of imagining the logistics. Yet Josephus describes a Passover sacrifice of 256,000 sheep in Jerusalem during the reign of Nero, so, shortly before the destruction of the Temple. In Josephus’ own estimation this rendered pure and holy over ten times that number of people. The industrial logistics of the slaughter within the prescribed festival time limits must have been breath-taking in their efficiency. What the effect was on all present in terms of a sense of shared meaning, what sort of belonging was created, and how this was assumed to be related to God in the context of the looming disaster from the Romans, is almost impossible for us to imagine.

In a modern gang, where an inductee is obliged to “blood” someone as his entry into the group, the exercise is presented as a way of gaining honour and respect from the other members. And indeed the newbie will be honoured and respected within a group all of whom have done something similar, so long as he never lets the shame of the murder that got him into the gang be known to outsiders. The sharing with each other of honour and respect is entirely dependent on the unmentionable shared shame of reciprocal blackmail. And of course the consequences of breaking omertà are fatal.

A Girardian, such as I am, will of course go back to our hypothetical scene of the path of hominization through the lucky self-domesticating discovery of the “all against one” as a protection against the “all against all” which threatens rivalrous groups who have no outside power or instinctual brake to stop them. For in this model human self-transcendence is born as a miscognition of what has happened during the movement from “all against all” to “all against one”: it seems to the group that something has been done to us by the wicked one who had stirred up our frenzy and has now given us peace in having been expelled or killed. The collective is formed by our joint shared attention to a cadaver: one based on the sense that this other has done something to us. Whereas the sad, and shameful truth, which might always be on the point of becoming visible, is that we have done something to one who was just like us.

The sense of something good having happened for the group in the new creation of peaceful unity, and the need to repeat it so as to maintain peace is never far removed from the sense that the ultimate shame is to be the person over against whom the group forms its unity. The place which I must avoid like the plague. And yet that also insidiously suggests that putting someone in that place is shameful, for they are like me. But that must be covered up with tales of honour and the battle cry of the good, the denigration of the other as less than human, a cockroach or whatever.

Even with relation to the Hebrew Temple, the prophets are very ambivalent when not downright hostile, aware that a good deal of what goes on there is futile, while they wait for the coming day of the Lord when all that will be brought to an end. Jeremiah straightforwardly says that God did not give commands in the desert concerning sacrifice (Jer 7:22).  Malachi lambasts the priesthood of his day as hopelessly corrupt while he awaits with impatience the one who will bring in a covenant that will purify the priesthood like a refiner’s fire so that offerings can be presented in righteousness (Mal 2-3). 3rd Isaiah treats the sacrifices as equivalents to murder and abominations. He says that those encouraging people to exalting sacrificial glory are those who are close to being put to shame (Is 66:3-5) showing that he clearly understood the link between the two. Even officially, the Temple regarded the sacrifices it went through as an earthly shadow of the heavenly reality, which only made sense in as far as they prefigured that heavenly reality which was actually one day to break through into our earthly realm.

So let us, if we may, make an anatomy of belonging to a sacrificial group. Which is, if we think of it properly, almost any that we might belong to, aware or unaware.

The first element just is strong belonging. Strong belonging is produced by finding yourself alongside other people like yourself, united against a common enemy, and it seems like a great blessing for as long as it lasts. For as long as you don’t actually destroy your common enemy, they have the wonderful role of being vital to your identity. What you most hope for is to rile up the common enemy so that they will become your enemy twin, and then you can use each other as perpetual sources of your group stability. By perpetrating occasional outrages against each other, you can keep your glory. Whenever something goes wrong for the group, you double down on your victim status so as to keep strong belonging alive. Anything but the anomie of being without another over against whom to define yourself.

Here is a second element of strong sacrificial belonging. The common enemy must be unlike you but not too unlike you. A purely distant enemy cannot get your group really riled up unless they produce some threat within your group. The reds need to be under the bed, there need to be hidden rinos, or heretics or traitors within. Why is this so vital? Because the difference with those treated sacrificially needs to have been something created by our group self-transcendence, not something that is simply there. If it were simply there, it would be more likely a source of curiosity than a source of group meaning. An Afro-Cuban friend of mine in Santiago de Chile in the early 1990’s shared with me how people would come up to him, courteously, and ask to touch his skin or his hair, because they had never seen a black person before. The black “other” was not yet similar enough to have been enfolded into a white psychodrama. Subsequent migration patterns have, I’ve been told, alas, altered that.

However, underlying the sense of someone being half-insider, half-outsider is the real threat that their similarity might be perceived, which would threaten the boundaries of group belonging. So their “othering” is constantly and genuinely necessary as part of the “reality” which the group creates as it shores up belonging. And yet the threat is there that the similarity of the other might break through, which suggests that the othering is a constant reinforcement of a protection against the shame of recognising similarity, and with it, the futility of the whole exercise.

Here is another element of belonging to a sacrificial group with strong belonging: the need to keep alive the false self-transcendence of the group will mean that knowledge of reality will never be achieved. When reality intrudes, in the form of weather, volcanoes, earthquakes, diseases, or new learning of any sort, it will always be much easier to stay within the sacrificial group belonging and treat that reality as an enemy from within the same victimary structure, than to adjust to a reality which might alter group belonging. Anyone suggesting otherwise will be regarded as a traitor, not because they are wrong, but because being right or wrong about an element of reality which will eventually affect everybody is absolutely secondary to the intense hunger for belonging which gives meaning. And meaning is the ultimate prize. And false self-transcendence, whose shorter name is idolatry, is just cheap meaning, cheap but addictive.

3. Sacrifice and Catholicity

Much of modern Christianity whether in its protestant or its catholic variants is severely tempted by a false placement of sacrifice within the basic understanding of the faith. For instance, here is a very widely shared account of why Jesus died. “God was extremely and justifiably angry at humans having sinned. Adam had, in some degree or other, seriously trashed the goodness of everything that God had created. And humans had no way out of this themselves, since what could we possibly offer to God to offset the infinite offence of our actions. So, after a long period of time God chose a people, Israel and his sons, and eventually gave them the Law so that they would learn what God’s holiness is like. Then God’s Son offered to come down on earth to pay the full price of being sacrificed to God by humans. Because he was God the value of this sacrifice was infinite. And because it was human, it was an acceptable payment in the right human currency.

The result of this was God agreeing to let off punishment all those who agreed to be covered by the blood of his Son. They are now insiders within the peaceful eye of a hurricane that is still seriously violent to all those outside it. Those on the inside are those who have received the benefit of a bloody sacrifice. And being good now means staying on the inside of this group of the good, belonging to which depends on signing up to the terms of payment. And the terms of payment are that Jesus died to pay for such and such sins which are described in a book treated as a source of Law. This now becomes the “sacred terms of reference” which describes reality. Anyone suggesting that this or that thing isn’t really sinful is allowing a different source of truthfulness than the one described by the literal words of the book, to enter the group. This both disses the value of the sacrifice by suggesting that the wrong price was paid, and threatens the joint belonging within the eye of the hurricane by suggesting that not all those outside the eye are necessarily evil.

I want to suggest, educated by many years of following the insight of René Girard, that if that is a true account, then Christianity is no more than just another human religion, a sacrificial cult based on being the biggest and best and truest of human sacrificial cults. Catholicity would be trying to get everybody on the inside of the eye of the hurricane, persuading people to “become good like us” while constantly denigrating those outsiders by comparison with whom “we are good”. Christianity would be a constant fooling itself about sacrifice while clinging to the fake goodness that a sacrificial system brings about, and demanding the imposition of sacrificial laws both to keep alive a sense of what is good, and also to feel holy while fighting those who oppose us.

It seems to me that what the Catholic and Christian faith offers is something which looks on the outside very much the same but could not in fact be more different. In this version, God, in whom there is no wrath or anger or violence at all, chooses to break through all our human violence, rivalry and need for vengeance, which we have of course tended to project onto God. God does this by coming into the midst of our humanity and its sacralised violence to make it possible for us to become children of God, rather than children of wrath. We who have been caught up in what turns out to have been an addiction to a violent short-cut to becoming human by means of the omnipresent scapegoat mechanism which all societies know to their shame.

Now please notice, this self-offering of God as an apparent “sacrifice” to us, and to our violence is conducted with something far fuller in mind than merely paying a price, “fulfilling” sacrifice, or resolving a pre-defined problem. Jesus’ longing, the joy set before him, was the creative act of bringing the creator spirit into our midst as the life of God we could start to share now. This means that the creative act looks like undoing from within not only this or that sacrifice, but the whole sacrificial structure by which we as humans make ourselves good at the expense of each other. And this not as an end in itself, but so that we may be one with God.

For me this is the difference between any extrinsecist account of what Jesus was about and the account I’m trying to put before you. In the extrincesist account you can have Jesus, not really liking humans, but heroically “loving” them by paying the awful price for their sins, and thereafter barking at them to repent, to behave, giving them Holy Spirit to strengthen their moral wills, and constantly emotionally blackmailing them whenever they sin again “I suffered so much to pay for your sins, and still you treat me like this!”

In the account I am suggesting something real happened that has affected the whole of the human race, whether we realise it or not. Because God actually likes us and wants us to enjoy life with God, God actually occupied the space of death and shame so as to detoxify those realities for ever. If you like someone, you don’t only want to declare their sins forgiven, by an act of payment, you want to undo whatever place of shame they were stuck in such that they sinned in the first place. In fact, merely saying you’ve forgiven someone’s sins without coming close to them and helping them deal with their shame is a very cruel and superior, top-down, sort of thing to do. And the whole point of the incarnation was to manifest God with us at our level, working out our salvation from within a human framework, and allowing us to become inside participants in God’s creative act.

But please notice the huge difference made to the notion of catholicity by the understanding of sacrifice which I have set out. The “undoing from within so as to open us out to life” model. It means that once the Holy Spirit has been given, as it has been, the access to catholicity is a rolling process of finding ourselves forgiven for all our attempts to build up new fake-sacred belongings as short-cuts to being and security. It means that rather than “reality” being what our sacrificial group of the good determines, our access to reality is precisely opened up by our letting go of our group’s contrastive goodness and being able to recognise the working of the Spirit in making available to us the similarity of others. This is why, in the Catholic faith, the love of the poor, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned is not something incidental that superior people do to show their compassion. It is, as St Matthew’s parable of the Sheep and Goats teaches, intrinsic to our being stretched into an ever-greater reality by confronting the precariousness of our goodness, being forgiven for our contempt of misperceived others, and our discovering our sameness with those at risk of shame.

So, the catholicity which begins to emerge from the self-giving up to shameful death and sacrifice of God as a human is that of people who are beginning to be able to sit loose to their own sense of shame and futility at having been caught up in sacrificial structures of goodness over against others, and to start to relax into their sameness with apparently different, and even repugnant others. People who find their shame held tenderly by grace. However, please notice: this, is not a gentle and easy process. Someone who is no longer run by the hidden shame at the root of their previous system of goodness is also someone who is utterly unmoved by the rewards of honour which their system gives to those who go along with the sacred game. For honour within a sacred system is the cover up of shame. This makes such people tremendously dangerous to the ever-threatened goodness of a sacrificial system. So it is no wonder that catholicity is spread martyrially – by witnesses who, because they have discovered their shame held tenderly by God, and so no longer run by it, are prepared to stand in the place of shame of their own, or of another group. By this they show what is really going on, and make visible the real power of the Spirit in giving their life away. This, our living out of being God’s whistle-blowers, is the practical way that group frontiers are undone, and groups dependent on sacred opposition for their identity are able to begin to recognize their similarity and eventually, their one-ness.

4. Sacrifice, and the anthropology of the Spirit

Now I’d like to make a rather subtle point that is very important for my argument. To do so, I’d like to take one of those key New Testament passages where exactly the same phenomenon of sacrifice is described in two incommensurable ways. It is where Caiaphas tells a worried group of local leaders:

“You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about (intentionally) to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God (John 11:50-52).

Here both the ordinary secular and political meanings of sacrifice – casting someone out to create unity – and even its proper priestly function, are left as ironic counterexamples besides the real thing which is coming in, and which is to accomplish so much more than the officeholder could have imagined as he prophesied truly despite himself. Please notice this: the reality that Jesus is bringing in is prior to, and vastly greater in meaning than, the thereafter shrivelled ruin of meaning with which it has rubbed shoulders, as that reality becomes instantiated in Jesus going to his death.

If I may be a little insistent here: this is why it is so important that when talking about Jesus’ death and using the word “sacrifice” we hold together two apparently contradictory claims about it. On the one hand that Jesus’ death was the one true sacrifice, since all previous sacrifices were either futile as regards what they prefigured, or evil because based on a short-cut lie concerning the salvation they proposed to achieve, or both. And on the other hand that Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice at all, in any of the cultural senses of the word, as your own great Emeritus Professor Robert Daly has so elegantly taught, but rather a unique and unrepeatable creative act of God, not over against anything at all. 

If we do not hold those two claims together, both with relation to Jesus’ going to his death, and in our obedient remembering of what he was about in the Eucharist, then we make of Christianity either something intolerably cultic and imperialist, on the one hand, or something intolerably vague and arbitrary on the other. In the first instance, “the one true sacrifice” we have too much, and too cheap a meaning; and in the second, “not a sacrifice at all” we have too little, and too undecidable a meaning.  It is the space between the two where the transformation of closed down meaning into something that opens up but has real anthropological incidence in our lives is possible. Yet this is lived in hope as a scarcely unimagined richness of meaning comes alive as something which is already at work in our midst, but is yet coming upon us in its fulness, to be worked out by our participation in it.

In other words, Jesus’ giving of the Spirit comes from a longing that is entirely beyond any notion of sacrifice that we may come up with, and that yet, as it passes through human culture to take us to the longed-for place where we can be one with God, it works through resignifying all the words and markers left by a futile and self-defeating sacrificial culture. And in so doing, it takes us to somewhere which can scarcely be referred to sacrifice at all. You may remember that in the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven, there is no Temple. And yet all present are illuminated by the Lamb.

No, if that is the case, as I claim, then it means that ever since Holy Spirit was given to humans the real protagonism of God on earth is always and everywhere to be found in the production of a form of catholicity that will always look like the undoing of the sacred, the form of togetherness that is produced by sacrifice. So it will always produce weak belonging, which is only possible when people realize they don’t need to rile each other up in order to “be” someone. It will always tend to the martyrial as those who are of no value are turned into beacons of new togetherness at the frontier of every form of apparently sacred belonging and fake goodness.

5. Living among the parodies

If I’ve taken this long to get to the “polarization” bit of the talk, it’s because I’m going to underwhelm you. My assumption is that what we call “polarization” is a crisis of similarity, not of difference. It is ersatz difference more and more manically thrown up between us as we get closer to being more like each other, and so more easily threatened by the loss of our comforting myths and delusions. This happens between groups, between families, between generations. Instead of talking about polarization, I’ve taken the long slow path to trying to set out something of what I dare, in an academic lecture, to call a pneumatological anthropology, an anthropology of the Holy Spirit, trusting that this is the real power which, beneath all the distracting noises and endless culture war memes and anger, is longing to love us out of shame-triggering each other, and into catholicity. 

The shards of sacrifice left over from the scapegoat mechanism are now visible everywhere, and used by everyone as part of the dangerous path of making ourselves “good”, holding on desperately to some “innocence” over against others. It is more and more frequent that people say of this or that form of togetherness “it’s like a cult” or “it’s almost religious” – for instance, about MAGA’s relation to their tutelary deity, or about neo-liberal blind adherence to tax cuts for the rich and sacrifice of the poor as productive of grace in the form of prosperity. In one sense all I’m suggesting is that the words “like” and “almost” are superfluous. What we are talking about just are different inflections of the old sacred, each one a grasping of some element of the Christian revelation while not taking the whole of it, and so each one heading off down the road to strong belonging, cover-up of shame, lack of real human empathy, and to the constant riling up into shared self-righteousness that eventually detaches the group from reality and leads to self-destruction.

Of course significant parodies of the Holy Spirit producing catholicity in our midst are performed by leadership in our majority religions – in the case of the anglosphere, that’s Protestantism first, and Catholicism second. What I say here about English-speaking Protestantism at the individual level is of course true about Catholicism at the collective level.  As Joseph Ratzinger pointed out, Protestant doctrines, such as the assurance of salvation, are the application to the individual of the mediaeval doctrines that applied to the Church. This means that parody Protestantism is individual self-righteousness by faith – the unalterable conviction that I am one of the good guys. And so I join up with others who like me have this assurance, and because we romantically think of ourselves as individually saved, we don’t notice how totally dependent we are on our strong group belonging and our need to be constantly together in sacrificial mode against wicked others. At the same time we are in victim mode, with a constant need to detect ourselves as oppressed as its guarantee of the holiness of our belonging. And the whole thing is dependent on shared cover-up of shame, never dealing with it.

I don’t know whether any of any of have been following the Pressler saga at the Southern Baptist Convention. It is a tale of how a long-known serial abuser of young men, now still alive at 93, rose to legendary status as the background instigator of the hard-line transformation of the SBC, against women and of course against anything LGBT. And all along he was knowingly covered for by those at the centre of the organization. If he were a Catholic he would have become a Bishop or a Cardinal, and I don’t say that as a joke – we have living memory of such people. The parody is often reality, and the similarity is stronger than any imagined theological difference between Baptists and Catholics.

The Catholic equivalent of the self-righteousness by faith of the parody Protestant is parody indefectibility of the Church in its clerical and magisterial form, which means that all Catholics can belong beneath a carapace of righteousness so long as we agree to feel suitably guilty. The indispensable orthodoxy for evangelical Protestantism of the Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement has as its modern Catholic equivalent the recent adherence to a particular understanding of the Mass as elaborated by Pope Pius V and a fortress church reimagined in that mould. The sixty-year-old change towards facing the people did indeed mark a shift from the objective and extrinsic to the interpersonal and intrinsic, however slow and resisted this has been in terms of actually allowing us to find ourselves reached by Jesus’ word and configured to his body in the Mass and between each other, enabling us to know ourselves loved and to have our shame held tenderly by grace.

But notice how, precisely as we become more and more similar to each other, there are more and more allergic reactions to that process, with people becoming triggered into looking for and holding on to new forms of sacred. And yet, just as evangelicalism is being emptied out by those, very many former evangelicals who are refusing the sacred belonging offered by the Penal Substitution Theory, and are heading for something new, so the Catholic Church, which can so easily by treated by its members as a form of sacred belonging, is being led, amazingly, by the Pope into something new. And at the same time, we find so many who are doubling down on sacred belonging, and a largely paralyzed episcopacy who don’t know which way to turn since the Holy Father invited them into a Catholicity which shatters their cultural and political idolatry. For many, the challenge of Fiducia Supplicans has sparked off the sacred allergy – a triggered retreat from relational reason into sacredly-assured fake righteousness.

And yet, just at the same time as it appears that formal Christianity is dying, we have the remarkable phenomenon of what is central to it: the visibility of the scapegoat mechanism becoming ever more obvious. Something positive emerges quietly just because the sacrificial is becoming ever more parodic in its visibility. The scapegoat mechanism is always a parody, always an over-the-top imitation of an earlier failed sacrifice, and indeed the more people double down on it, trying to keep alive sacrificial belonging, the more visibly they become a parody. When people say Trump is doing what Hitler did, with the quotes to prove it, I want to say, yes, but he is also doing a parody of what Hitler is doing, desperately trying to rile up an ever failing and exhausted sacrificial melody. And of course, Hitler in his time was also a parody, so I don’t underestimate the dangerousness of parody. I do, however, think it important not to be caught up in the awful paralysis with which the parody tars those whom it causes to become reactive to it. Only the Spirit can free us from that.

Simultaneously with this, we see huge numbers of young people moving away from formal Christianity precisely because they have already learned, through ever younger interaction with social media and each other, how to live through the scapegoating mechanism and begin to emerge the other side. In other words the group described as the “nones” often has a far more instinctive sense of what Christianity is about, while very firmly rejecting the formal sorts of belonging that go with the Church. Which is why such a very high proportion of them list, as the principal reason for leaving organized Christianity, the treatment of LGBT people. They have seen the sacrificial mechanism, which they know from their own experience as evil. They often have the nobility to move beyond it, and they see how those defending it are doubling down into being ever more parodic brandishers of sacrifice, and they quite rightly want nothing to do with it.

So, the final question I leave you with. How do we, who know that God’s glory showed itself among us by being lifted up in shame, find the grace to live with our shame uncovered such that we are not inclined to shame others, or to trigger those who are so sadly caught up in the doubling-down that covers their own shame? And how not to be a reactive to them?  But more than this, how will our living of the Catholic faith allow us to become tender enough to dare to create the forms of weak-belonging, weak-solidarity which the Spirit is opening up to us as invisibly strong, undistracted amidst all the shouting?