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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Attack Upon Christendom

One of the good things about where I live is how utterly indifferent to religion people are. There was (rare sight) a street evangelist in town this morning, ranting and droning on, without anyone paying her the slightest attention apart from a passing drunk who chipped in with ‘God is gay’.

As someone who believes in nothing, or less than nothing, I often wonder whether my attraction to extremist religious thinkers like Kierkegaard or Simone Weil is to see them bear out the truth of Nietzsche’s observation that there was one Christian, and he died on the cross. Because when I read Weil, as I’ve been doing again recently, I find myself wondering how, if she’d tried, she could possibly have made being a Christian any more impossible than she makes it sound.

One of the great things about Catholicism (and I’m not being sarcastic here) is how easy it is to be Catholic without having the slightest idea what it is you’re meant to have signed up for. Take the real presence, for instance. As we all know, atheists in Catholic families are those annoying trouble-makers who always want to talk about God and religion, but when I quizzed a Catholic on this subject recently she told me ‘of course’ the communion wafer is only symbolic and not the actual body of Christ. That makes you a Protestant then, I said. ‘Why do you have to over-analyse everything?’, she replied, and that was as far as that particular theological discussion got.

Kierkegaard is very good on religion as superstitious cultural practice, in the paroxysms of splendid isolation he explores in later books like Attack Upon Christendom, and here is Weil outlining the authentic alternative in ‘Concerning the “Our Father”’:

‘We have to cast aside all other desires for the sake of our desire for eternal life, but we should desire eternal life itself with renunciation. We must not even become attached to detachment. Attachment to salvation is even more dangerous than the others. We have to think of eternal life as one thinks of water when dying of thirst, and yet at the same time we have to desire that we and our loved ones should be eternally deprived of this water rather than receive it in abundance in spite of God’s will, if such a thing were conceivable.’

What is this, all questions of negative theology aside, but spiritual anorexia? Weil is fatally drawn to, and secretly empowered by, a vacuum, by whatever cannot feed the self and leaves it ecstatically abandoned, as it deserves, wretched thing that it is. I don’t think it undermines or trivializes Weil to bring the anorexia comparison into a discussion of her writing like this, since even in its stony impersonality her theology proudly wears the stigmata of a personality at the point of total collapse. It sits contemplating a plateful of salvation and refuses to pick up its knife and fork. And that to me is what makes it such a good advertisement for Christianity. Become a Christian and go slowly, or even rapidly mad. Who’s up for that? Then face it, you’re all just a bunch of heathens anyway.


Nicholas Murray said...

I was a cradle Catholic (though now both baby and bathwater have been thrown out) and I still don't understand that odd mindset: Catholics want to cling passionately to certain moral positions (eg no contraception) but they haven't the slightest intention of abiding by them. What might strike some people as a resultant hypocrisy is a sort of defiant, in-your-face, so what then? Most peculiar.

Ms Baroque said...

But what's that amazing scary picture?

puthwuth said...

It's a photo of Simone Weil, after what looks like a Warhol silkscreen treatment.

Ms Baroque said...

Ohhhh. I thought it looked like a ghost, crossed with Ezra Pound.

Anonymous said...

To say that Catholices have not the slightest intention of abiding by these rules is true, but a bit harsh - given that nobody, Catholic or otherwise, has any intention of abiding by any religious rules.

At least "Catholics" have a reasonable grasp of the notions of their religion. Who has ever met a Protestant who knew anything about being a protestant? Of course it's debatable as to whether or not Protestantism is even a religion at all.