More from the 2006 lecture by James Alison; see also Parts I, II, III, and V.
Again, it is difficult to imagine that it should be faith that is the gateway to a relatively benign secularity. Faith, surely, is the ultimate Sacred Ideology to be held to by those creating religious forms of togetherness and those who are in or out. But again, this is not so! The word “faith” has come to stand in for “religion” which is a blinding muddle. For most religions faith is not particularly important. It is some or other form of practise, or act of acceptance which is important. That the centrepiece of the Catholic Faith should be exactly that, faith, a habitual confidence given us by Another in whose hands we can relax, is something far too little commented on. It means that what causes us to belong is a pattern of desire produced in us by someone we cannot see who is giving us the strength to live in the midst of this world as though death were not. And the access to this faith is desire: that we should want the gift of eternal life. It is the giving to us of this desire which we normally celebrate with that inverted religious rite called Baptism. In this rite we agree to undergo death in advance so as to live thereafter with death behind us. It is an inverted religious rite since it is not the crowd which gathers to drown the victim, but the candidate, not frightened of becoming a victim, who walks through the waters of being drowned so as to emerge on the other side into the welcome of those who are already living with death behind them.
It is for this reason, being dead in advance, that with Baptism there comes a complete loss of identity given by any human forms of belonging: your parents are now your brother and sister in Christ; the only form of hierarchy which need matter to you is the hierarchy of service made available through signed members of the community you are joining (made available by us signed-ones more or less incompetently to be sure, and with greater or lesser admixtures of an ability to relativise the way the world does “power”). You have no King but Jesus, no Prophet but Jesus and no Priest but Jesus. And Jesus was a crucified criminal. Now you share that kingship, that gift of prophecy and that priesthood. Indeed you are charged to make it present in the world by yourself incarnating and recreating the “happening” which we looked at earlier.
But this means that no form of earthly belonging is sacred: your family, your tribe, your clan is not sacred, and you may have to stand up against it in order to live the truth; your homeland is not sacred, and you may have to be considered a criminal or a traitor by it in order to live the truth. Your only form of belonging is invisible except by sign. It is for this reason that there is no Christian Holy Land, only lands where the usual mixture of holiness and destruction is lived out, but where political frontiers can only be pragmatic matters, able to be negotiated over time, never sacred ones. There is no Christian Holy City, Rome’s status being a purely historical and pragmatic one, and there being absolutely no sacred imperative that the Bishop of the Church in that city should also be a secular head of state. There are purely contingent and pragmatic considerations, always up for negotiation. It is genuinely indispensable to being a Catholic that we have a direct relationship to the successor of Peter. Yet that relationship is in principle entirely independent of whatever secular power structure adorns, or blackens, the Petrine office. And it is quite right that it should be secular affairs which give the context within which our relationship to Peter is lived out in each generation. The same reasoning lies behind the fact that there is no Christian Ummah – not because the West is somehow enlightened, decadent, and has lost its religious roots, meaning the remnants of Christendom, but because the whole point of Christianity is to bring down the sort of wall of protective sacredness which makes universality impossible by having a necessary “other” over against whom we make ourselves “good”.
The premise of the Catholic faith is that there is no real other in any meaningful religious sense, that is “another” who can be seen as so unlike us that they could not learn as we have learned, that we are victimizers and must learn not to be, and so belong to the same sign as we. There are only humans, who, starting from where they are can have desire reformed in such a way as to learn not to create identity over against anyone else at all.
Whenever we come across an apparent “other” and start to get frightened and retrench into identity politics, we are not becoming more Catholic, but much less Catholic. My sorrow at Archbishop Nichols’ recent sermon seeking to maintain a sacred right to discriminate against gay people was not because I am a gay man, but because I’m a Catholic. It is because I am a Catholic that I recognise that anyone playing identity politics with a victimary slant is functionally atheistic.
Is not identity politics a refusal to allow ourselves to undergo the Happening which might teach us who our neighbour is, and empower us to grow into being not-over-against-anyone at all? Doesn’t such politics tend to produce cheap togetherness and junk goodness? When I see this identity politics with a victimary slant from other groups in our society, – and Lord alone knows there are enough of them from throughout the spheres which we call “religious” and “secular”, both left and right -, I’m sorry for them, but how can I judge whether they know better? They are genuinely sheep without a shepherd. But when I see a Catholic authority doing this, I am really, really sorry, because we are without excuse. Catholics cannot complain about being treated victimarily, since at the centre of our Faith we have agreed to be treated victimarily in advance, without ever seeking it, so as to be able slowly and patiently to work towards the truth and wellbeing of all our sisters and brothers with all that victim stuff already behind us. We’ve agreed to lose our identity in advance so as to receive the much, much bigger, stronger identity of being contributed to by others who, whatever they may think, are not really over-against me at all. That’s what “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” means!