Saturday, 12 February 2011

The Death of the Mysterious God

I am just back from a pleasant few days at home in the UK and a nice opportunity to see family and friends again. It was very strange arriving at Gatwick Airport and seeing M&S, W.H.Smith, First Capital Connect trains among other things I associate with London and the UK; it was almost like a culture shock!

I was having a conversation with a friend who lives in South London when he posed a question I have been asked a few times now. We were discussing my work in KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau, what went on there, when he asked "Has your work affected your faith at all?". I paused for a second. I can remember my previous answers had been the usual affirming stuff, about martyrs and people who survived on their devotion to God and little else. They are remarkable stories that at the very least display man's inate ability to survive inhumane tortures and treatment. However, the last few weeks have made me think. A lot. My mind has begun to wander and the existence of God is not so much challenged by the suffering of people in Dachau, but in the post-War use of God in remembrance.

KZ Dachau has always had a special place in the memory of Christianity during WWII. 2,700 Religious of various denominations were intered in KZ Dachau during the twelve years, the majority of these in the last three years of the camp's life (1942-45) and of Polish origin. KZ Dachau was the only camp that allowed the daily celebration of Mass for the religious prisoners. After the war, two men came to define the struggle to turn the former camp land into a memorial site: Fr. Leonard Roth and Bp. Johannes Neuhäusler. We have much to thank them for, as the establishment of a memorial site was by no means a popular or obvious action in the 1950s, but their remembrance focused on their Catholic faith. The first major memorial was the Agony of Christ Chapel, built in 1960 and facing the Appellplatz and Wirtschaftsgebäude. It stands triumphant, a symbol of the popular image of the Church at this time: the suffering of the prisoners in Dachau was a reenactment of Christ's suffering on the Cross. Dachau was a modern Calvary.

Someone later suggested to Neuhäusler that perhaps there should be Protestant and Jewish memorials on the site as well. Neuhäusler tentatively agreed, but ensured they were far smaller than the Catholic memorial chapel. Today I write this from the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, which aesthetically cannot look more 1960s. Concrete, abstract and half submerged, the work was supported and abetted by Martin Niemöller, the German Pastor intered in KZs Sachsenhausen and Dachau as a 'special prisoner'. There is stark contrast between the Catholic and Protestant Memorials in this regard. One celebrates triumph over adversity through standing proud over the camp (indeed at the time it had to compete with the baracks, now demolished and replaced with concrete rectangles); the other almost shies away from such celebration.

This is where the site affects my faith. We must not forget that the 1960s was in many ways the decade when, for many, God began to wither away. In the Catholic Church the Second Vatican Council began to deconstruct all aspects of Church life and make it relevant to the modern world, a painful but necessary process that carries on to this day. The Protestant Church also began a process of liberalisation that, whilst making the Church more tolerant, managed to alienate others. The 1960s did not mark the Death of Christianity, as some commentators would later claim, but the death of the Mysterious God, the one that required, in the words of Brian Moore, "a big dose of Faith.” In 1963 Bishop John Robinson wrote “Honest to God”, which argued that our conception of a God “up there” had to go and be replaced by an abstract definition of God as ‘Love’. It is perhaps apt to remember that he was heavily influenced by the theological works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prisoner of Dachau.

Today, the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site stands on the front line of that battle between a God of Reason, and thus one with few miracles but a grounding in our experience, and a God of Mystery. On Sunday mornings there is a regular congregation of about 15-20 people who worship here, all of them wonderful people deeply committed to one another and to God. During the services, visitors will come and stare through the glass, cupping their hands like visors to observe. The door is open but they never enter. They hold up the audio watch us with a running commentary, the tinny sound of headphone leakage barely audible. For them we are a relic, as much an established part of the site’s history as the watchtowers. We commemorate the victims in a way that, in 1960, was the only human way to do so, but which today leaves visitors cold.

It has begun to leave me cold too.

KZ Dachau hasn’t really affected my faith. There are other things going on in my life that do that for me. However, it has begun to raise serious questions for me about the role of the Church in the modern world. Is it a relic of a bygone age, a form of palliative care for the elderly and those who feel the need to be told ‘someone loves you’ regularly? In the case of the religious memorials at Dachau, it is clear that their future will be as places of remembrance, spaces for reflection on the unanswerable questions that people inevitably come here with. To sum up, my faith in the power of God remains, but my belief in Him wavers.

I bet that won’t appear on the Carmelite website…

ADDENDUM 13/2/2011: It appears the British Province have called my bluff; you can read the slightly edited version of the above on their illustrious website here. They've renamed it "Death of a Mysterious God", which makes it look like my hypothetical God of Reason is separate from the God of Mystery (I was actually talking about perceptions of the One God) but anyhoo, kudos for posting such a nihilistic article on a site more used to stories about medieval manuscript translations and Carmelite Spirituality Groups.

I love them really, I'm just at the 'spoiled brat' stage of spiritual development...

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