Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The "Entirely Self-Referential" Church-of-the-Whatever



A friend of mine sends along this G. K. Chesterton quote, which is about Christmas ...

God is not bound down and limited by being merely everything; He is also at liberty to be something.

To picture God as being "bound down and limited by being merely everything" is to picture Him the way most of humanity has always tended to picture Him, and the way even most Catholics continue to picture Him.  This is Chesterton's ironic and humorous way of saying that when "God is everything" (a notion which is everywhere), we are, always and everywhere, in the presence of a vague and empty spiritism, a kind of cheesy pantheism that keeps God safe and distant and allows us to be condescending toward Him and toward our faith.   It keeps God Unreal.


By contrast, God is really "something" - which means He has become something quite specific.

And yet we are scandalized, even today, by the shock of the incarnation, by the surprising reality of God becoming "something".  We prefer the "whatever", which is far less disturbing; we prefer a Manichean or Gnostic consolation in which grace does not penetrate nature; we prefer a blurry pantheism that effectively separates God from His creation.  That's what most Christianity has become, including the Catholic kind.

It is this blurry pantheism that makes the Church contrived, unreal, self-serving.  Here, Jennifer Haselberger (the whistle blower who revealed the continued enabling of child abuse in the archdiocese of St. Paul) describes a bit of the inner workings of the archdiocese and describes the way things work and the leaders who work them as "entirely self-referential".  She herself struggles to explain what she means by that phrase, but I know what she means, though I too have difficulty expressing it, for I've seen it not only at the parish level, but also in the day to day lives of my Devout Catholic friends.  It's a kind of narcissism that doesn't usually come with the self-importance and pride of narcissism (unless you're talking about certain bishops), and it's also "self-referential" in the sense that it can't reach out and do anything or genuinely touch anybody; it's sterile and it exists for its own sake, cut off from real life.  It's "everything" rather than "something".  Elsewhere, Haselberger describes how her bishop was utterly unwilling and unable to deal with two some-ones, two specific teens who had reservations regarding their confirmation.  That two young people took the sacrament seriously enough to take the time to write to the archbishop and express their frustrations is surprising in itself; that their concerns were ignored and their reception of the sacrament moved into the automatic "always and everywhere" or "whatever" track is not at all surprising; it is symptomatic of a lack of specificity in our modern Church.  Yes, that's bad administration, bad teaching, bad pastoral practice - but it's part and parcel of a Church that more and more slides into the lazy belief that God is "everything" and not "something".  Do you have doubts about confirmation?  Just approach it with a vague good will, go to the parties and get the gifts and everything will be all right.  Nobody takes this stuff seriously, anyway.  Our goal as Catholics (we are told, by implication at least) is to feel good - to feel good about ourselves first and about our neighbors second.  Don't judge and don't ask questions and just keep putting money in the basket and be nice.  It's the great Whatever.

But of course it's so much easier to feel good if you don't have to get up and go to Mass in the first place.  If "whatever" means that sleeping in and playing video games on Sunday is no different than getting up and going to Mass and dealing with all that bad music and all those annoying people, then the choice is pretty obvious.  Whatever is the theology of indifferentism, which implies a morality of license - which may explain sexually abusive priests better than anything else.  I mean, after all, whatever.  

Get rid of the "something" that God has become, and you are well on your way to the apparent paradise of the "entirely self-referential", to life as subjectivism, to the great Gnostic program as described by Eric Voegelin.  Eliminate the specific, eliminate external reality, keep life "entirely self-referential" and you eliminate the cross, which is that shameful and disturbing reminder of and remedy for sin; that shocking climax to the shock of the incarnation.  And getting that dang cross out of our parishes and out of our lives - now that's heaven, isn't it?  God is everywhere, but He's certainly not there on that piece of wood!  It's better to put God everywhere and keep Him from being somewhere!  It's better that He's everything and not something!  After all, whatever!  The whole problem of life, the whole structure of reality, dissolves itself if we can return to benign pantheism and become "self-referential".  Much virtue in whatever - or so it seems.

Of course, the Church itself dissolves in this same "solution".  Thus this "self-referential" Catholicism is doomed to self-destruct, and will do so before our very eyes, as it already is.

And, as Chesterton points out, benign pantheism is as far from Bethlehem as you can get.  It's not an actual baby in an actual manger, whose life is actually in danger from a king who can't stand a rival to his power.  Rather, it is positive intentions, diffuse good will, glad handing, fund raising, vagueness.  And it never ever penetrates into the mess that is our daily life - and even we Devout Catholics see to that.

Give us a God that is everything and everywhere!  But don't give us a God who is something and somewhere.  We can't handle that.  Give us whatever!  

What do we want?  Whatever!  When do we want is?  Whenever!  Why do we care?  We don't!

And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world. (1 John 4:3)


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kevin, please please know the difference between it's and its. Your grammar errors undermine the credibility of your otherwise excellent posts.

"It's a kind of narcissism that doesn't usually come with the self-importance and pride of narcissism (unless you're talking about certain bishops), and it's also "self-referential" in the sense that it can't reach out and do anything or genuinely touch anybody; it's sterile and it exists for it's own sake, cut off from real life."

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks for pointing out the typo. I fixed it.

And thanks for pointing out how a single typo tarnishes the entire argument I'm making because it makes a person like you assume that I don't know basic rules of grammar or punctuation.

You're really smart. Or is it, "Your really smart"? I wish I knew!

It's a shame you're such an ass.
Its ashame your such an ass.
It's a shame you're such a ass.

Damn! If I could only write!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. A priest I knew used to say of the Eucharist that we now have a "God who is this." In addition to a God who is omnipresent.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry I added my name at the end.

Excellent article. A priest I knew used to say of the Eucharist that we now have a "God who is this." In addition to a God who is omnipresent.

Brian Kelly

Anonymous said...

Everything I've thought for many years and could never quite articulate properly. Thanks Kevin. I'll be regurgitating much of what you've posted here. Thanks again.
Daniel