In Memoriam René Girard

Yesterday died René Girard, a giant among men, whose thought defies narrow classification. He rarely called himself a philosopher although many philosophical implications can be derived from his work in literary criticism, psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, biblical hermeneutics and theology. If one had to try to sum up in a single phrase the range of his interests, the focus of his intellectual enquiry, I think I’d say it was nothing less than what it means to be human. I have myself been profoundly influenced by his work on mimetic desire, the nature of violence and the role of the scapegoat, all of which have illuminated my understanding of the gospels and, I hope, affected my conduct, too. Here are a few of my favourite quotations which you may like to ponder:

The goal of religious thinking is exactly the same as that of technological research — namely, practical action. Whenever man is truly concerned with obtaining concrete results, whenever he is hard pressed by reality, he abandons abstract speculation and reverts to a mode of response that becomes increasingly cautious and conservative as the forces he hopes to subdue, or at least to outrun, draw ever nearer. (Violence and the Sacred)

Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. Each of us is acquainted with the spirit of competition. This spirit is not a bad thing in and of itself. Its influence has long been felt in personal relations within the dominant classes. Subsequently it spread throughout the whole of society, to the point that today it has more or less openly triumphed in every part of the world. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable. Not the least of these is the impressive wealth it has brought a large part of the population. No one, or almost no one, any longer thinks of forgoing rivalry, since it allows us to go on dreaming of a still more glittering and prosperous future than the recent past. Our world seems to us the most desirable one there ever was, especially when we compare it to life in nations that have not enjoyed the same prosperity. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

In a truly global world, the renunciation of violent reprisal is bound to become, in a more and more obvious way, the indispensable condition of our survival. (The One by Whom Scandal Comes)

The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming euthanasia will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable, for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.

and this, from Bro Duncan PBGV’s collection:

We don’t know if there’s a heaven for animals, but we know for sure there’s a hell.
Tuesday, 6 January, 2015

May he rest in peace. Amen.

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Assisted Dying and Lord Carey’s Mistake

The Catholic Church is very clear about life-death matters. We do not have to take extraordinary means to preserve life, but we don’t have the right to end it because we judge it more compassionate to do so*. To put that in the most personal terms, when I reach the final stage of my illness, which will be painful and nasty, I suspect, there will be no need for the doctors to propose aggressive treatments to ensure poor Brother Ass, my body, goes on for a few days more. I hope there will be some pain relief medication to blunt the edge of the pain I feel; but, from the Catholic perspective, the important point is that God will decide when my life should end, just as he decided when it should begin. All very well for me, you may say, but what about those who don’t share my belief in God or the Catholic Church’s understanding of life-death questions? Isn’t Lord Carey proposing something infinitely kinder, more in keeping with the Christian message of love and hope? He has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in assisted suicide or euthanasia, so in backing Lord Falconer’s bill he is merely making it possible for people to take control of their lives in peculiarly difficult and painful circumstances.

My argument would be that Lord Falconer’s bill is deeply flawed. When one is ill oneself, one is very conscious of the burden one places on others. Any decent person would want to ease that burden, but opting for assisted dying is, I think, very questionable. One can be mentally capable of making decisions yet emotionally too vulnerable to make a rational decision. Again, it is striking that Lord Carey talks about the pain of watching someone one loves suffering — the onlooker’s pain, not the pain of the one actually sick or dying. In the West we don’t like seeing pain. We try to shut it out, eliminate it; but that is not what compassion is. Compassion is sharing the pain, accompanying the other through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death. That takes guts and faith in equal measure. We can protest that we don’t have such faith; that such courage is beyond us; but we won’t know until we try.

I would agree that not all suffering is necessarily redemptive. It certainly isn’t always noble or dignified. I have watched people die in terrible circumstances, but I still hold to the belief that as human beings we are more than the sum of our parts. Dying a good death means more than dying ‘easily’ or ‘comfortably’. For a Christian, or at any rate for this particular Christian, it means dying in union with Jesus Christ our Saviour, as and when he wills. Just as his death on the Cross was his last great act of surrender to the Father, so our own death will be the most important act of our life. I don’t want to fudge mine, do you?

•See, for example, the Declaration on Euthanasia here: http://www.euthanasia.com/vatican.html

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Questions No One Wants to Ask

The breaking-up of a paedophile ring that live-streamed child abuse from the Philippines has been greeted with a mixture of horror and relief — horror that such wickedness can exist, relief that at least one ring has been smashed. We read of the systematic abuse of adolescents in Peterborough, including a girl with learning difficulties, and react with revulsion at the brutality and exploitation involved. Elsewhere we note the historic abuse cases being tried in our courts, the suggestion that nearly 1,000 teachers have been involved in sexual relationships with pupils during the past five years, and wonder how we could have gone so wrong. But then we turn to the popular press and read the endless speculation about François Hollande and his mistress or look at the figures for internet porn and realise it is all part of the same confused approach to life. The sexual wrongdoing of others is something we can condemn, make jokes about or vicariously ‘enjoy’. What we do is another matter entirely. Or is it?

There is often a kind of double-think involved in our attitudes. By separating love and sex, by pretending it doesn’t matter what we do provided no one gets hurt (the hurt being determined by us, not the other), by believing we can pretty much do what we like without its having any consequences, by avoiding commitment and fighting shy of words like ‘fidelity’ and ‘sacrifice’, we have made monsters of ourselves. Most people live good and decent lives, but even the best may acknowledge a few grey areas where their ideals become a little frayed. That is where we need to ask ourselves the questions no one wants to ask. What is the point of parents worrying about their children’s exposure to porn if they themselves watch porn when the children are in bed? What is the point of condemning exploitative relationships in others if we ourselves exploit people? What is the point of expecting others to be virtuous if we ourselves choose to be vicious?

You may think I have been harsh in the way I have framed these questions, but I think it must be becoming clear to everyone that we face a serious weakening of the mutuality of society.*  I myself think that our contempt for the human person, for the human body, is part and parcel of it. We have a double-standard about sex no less dangerous than the one it is fashionable to accuse our Victorian forebears of having. We seem to be keener on the right to die than the right to live, on personal ‘freedom’ than on communal solidarity. In short, we are confused, and it is taking a terrible toll on all of us.

*For me, as a Catholic, that mutuality is linked to morality. However, not everyone subscribes to the same understanding of right and wrong, although all of us, Christian or not, have an interest in society and the way in which it functions for the benefit of its members.

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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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