Friday, January 23, 2015

Religion and violence

Father Joseph was born into the minor aristocracy in France in the sixteenth century and chose the path of a Capuchin friar. He was both schooled and versed in the art of mystical prayer and founded an order of contemplative nuns. He was known for his contained and gentle manner as well as his continuing aura of an erudite and accomplished gentlemen, behind his simple, ragged robed exterior.

He was, however, also the right hand man of Cardinal Richelieu, effectively France's foreign minister and spy chief, and, had he not died would have been Richelieu's successor. One of his key policies as foreign minister was to deliberately set out (successfully) to prolong the Thirty Years War, weakening France's encircling enemies (ironically) Catholic Austria and Spain. This was a notoriously brutal war, especially painful to the ordinary citizens of Germany, many of whom were reportedly reduced, in desperation, to cannibalism!

He did so, believing that France was the providential actor of God's designs. A Europe, united under Bourbon France, could launch a crusade against the Turk and restore the Holy Land to its rightful proprietors. Apparently this justified any amount of diplomatic perfidy and brutal conflict!

Trying to reconcile these two 'Father Josephs' is the task that Aldous Huxley sets out to do in his 'Grey Eminence'. This is both a biographical study of Father Joseph and a study on how religion if not singularly directed at its essential task of replacing the selfishly directed ego with the reality of a unifying presence of God, can, and often does, go horribly wrong!

Huxley is at pains to lay out the very real nature of Father Joseph's mystical credentials. He is no mere hypocrite, feigning holiness.  The path by which he goes awry is intrinsically bound up with his interpretation of his religious mission. First by supplanting the true object of contemplation - the God who passes beyond all thought, feeling or imagination - with an imaginative fixation on the crucifixion. Second by translating this into an overvaluation of vicarious suffering. Third by succumbing to a nationalistic interpretation of the providence of God (born out of a very real aversion to the conflicts of religion that attended his childhood and youth that could only be amended, in his thinking, by a robust and unitary state).

The overvaluation of vicarious suffering was, quite literally, deadly because what suffering could not be borne (and excused) to achieve the noble aims of peace. The fact that Jesus has already suffered for us so that our suffering (and need for it) has been radically transformed does not appear to gain much traction here. Presented with the image of the suffering Christ, this imagination assumes we must suffer with him. This in itself would be innocent except that it projects itself outwards imagining that others should suffer along to (and sometimes instead of me). (You might immediately see its contemporary relevance - jihad as my moral struggle, internalised, might be a permissible approach to transformation but to impose it on others is not)!

Huxley's exploration of Father Joseph is subtle, complex and challenging but the core message is do not believe those who tell you that this or that violence is an aberration of religion. It is simply politics or ethnicity or economics that is using religion for its own ends distorting an essentially 'peaceful' religion. Bad theology is as a good a driver of violence as any other man hallowed system of seeking to organise the world for its own good. Theology (like anything else) badly handled becomes fuel for our decentring egotism.

Thus, beware of any peddler of an assumption of control and note there is nobody who does not wish for this (however well tempered) except the saint, who being at the still turning point of the world, knows how to navigate the world without controls.

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