Monday, 14 February 2011

A follow up, or "How I learned to stop worrying and read Brian Moore"

Following on from my last post, I thought I might very briefly elucidate on a couple of the points I made.

The feedback I have received has been very positive, and used words like 'challenging' to describe it. Whilst I think they were referring to the fact that the piece is hard to read (I got lost the second time I read it!), they may also have been approaching it thinking that it asks a very well worn question - why does God allow suffering in the world? That was the question I think my friend was asking me, and that was definitely the question I was trying to avoid as I answered it.

I say that as one of those who also asks the question sometimes. It comes up now and again, on Alpha courses, in sermons, during late night, semi-inebriated discussions with close friends, but there never was an answer. Some Christians just shrug their shoulders and wait until the conversation reaches safer ground, whilst others point out that Christ is light and bad things are the shadows that are created by the light, i.e God did not create evil but allows us to see it for what it is. Human evil is an easy one to answer in these situations; we have free will and some people go down the wrong path.

So far, so Radio 4. But that wasn't really the question I was answering in my previous post. I wanted to know if Christianity, and namely the Church, had any relevance to my work in Dachau. Does it help or, as I suspect, hinder what I do here?

I referenced Brian Moore in passing last time; this time he deserves deeper consideration. Moore was by far the best Catholic novelist of the late 20th Century, often touted as the successor to men like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. However, there was a key difference: Moore was openly atheist. His writing explored the Church from the perspective of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and his work would often consider priests and their inner crises of faith, using them to show the tension between the Church and the Modern World. In Catholics, a hundred-page novella, he sets the pre- and post-conciliar Churches together and finds them both lacking God. By the late 1980s and The Colour of Blood he took the Primate of an East European (and thus Communist) Catholic Church and made him ask whether popular Catholicism had more to do with identity and politics than genuine belief in God. Brian Moore was not looking at the Church as a religious entity, but as a cultural one. In his world, and perhaps in ours, God is an afterthought.

But Moore is cleverer than to simply suggest that everything be de-constructed so that all we are left with is a plain room in which people sit on comfy chairs in silence. Moore, as I already said, is an atheist. Moore's problem with the Church is that it cannot and will not admit that their God is dead. Please, I beg you, go away and watch the teleplay of Catholics from 1973, starring very young versions of Michael Gambon and Martin Sheen. You will finish with more questions than answers.

Ultimately Moore is right. I hate that he's right. Thirty, maybe even twenty years ago, young people were queuing up to join religious orders because they saw the Church as an agent of change. She survived on this energy even as the sacraments were deconstructed and, in the words of some commentators, 'feminised'. Then Germany went and hosted the second tumultuous event of the 20th Century to affect Catholic Christianity: the Berlin Wall fell.

Even Moore didn't have an answer to that. The Church is still reeling from it today. I put it to you, dear reader (and I say this with very limited theological knowledge, merely as food for thought) that the Church reinvented itself after Vatican II as an Ideology. In a society where Isms defined how people viewed the world, Catholicism began to find itself a niche whereby it could represent the middle ground away from the ruthless side of Capitalism and the overbearing side of Communism. In the end, the Wall fell and moved the proverbial goalposts. This 'end of history' nihilism still resides in modern politics. This time the Church hasn't even bothered to reinvent itself. A safer place to reside is in nostalgia and tradition, which is why the next significant battle in the Church will be 'in house', so to speak, and less about revolution and freedom as was the case up until 1990.

So where, once again, does this leave Dachau? The religious memorials serve the site well by offering free tours of the site (as opposed to the €65 charged by the memorial site itself) and providing a space for lectures on topics ranging from Jesuits in the Wehrmacht to Women Concentration Camp Guards. Up until recently they also provided a focal point for visiting survivors, and the Carmelite Community of Nuns on site was founded primarily to foster this relationship. However, the future seems far less rosy. Events attract (just as with religious services or Masses) the same twenty or thirty people each time. The Religious Memorials have become history themselves, not a position a living Church wants to be in.

As I have already said, the question of suffering in Dachau is not one that bothers me, or at least it doesn't bother me from a faith perspective. What does bother me is that the Church is losing (lost?) its ability to relate to the vast majority of God's people, and that has been made painfully clear to me through my work at Dachau. Religion, believe it or not, is a democracy, a dialogue between theologians and men of the road, Church and People. If the people do not like or relate to what they see or hear, they vote with their feet. They are voting, and the results suggest something must change...

OK, I lied when I said it would be brief. I promise the next post will be more light hearted!

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