Saturday 20 July 2019

God is not dead, except maybe in Montrose

Illustration by Jim Cogan
Illustration by Jim Cogan
Eoghan Harris

Eoghan Harris

Stephen Fry, George Hook and Wolf Hall. All attracting mass audiences. All three talking about God.

All of which should cause supporters of same-sex marriage to take stock. Especially media liberals who live in south county Dublin.

Contrary to their confident belief that being born in Cork or Tipp keeps them in touch, I believe that even a few years in Dublin metropolitan circles causes most media liberals to lose touch.

RTE chiefs have shown themselves to be fairly dim about the DNA of Middle Ireland - which includes the rest of Dublin. In particular, they don't understand the difference between two groups of presenters.

Miriam O'Callagan, Brendan O'Connor and Marty Whelan are adored by Middle Ireland. But Ryan Tubridy, Ray Darcy and Claire Byrne evoke more ambiguous responses.

Brendan O'Connor's extraordinary conversation with George Hook hammers home the point. Miriam and Marty might have matched it. But the others? Not so much.

Apart from leaving you a clue in the shape of a heart, let me postpone further analysis of that for another day. But not without a reminder that the Fr Reynolds affair showed Montrose has a vapid view of the role of religion in Irish life.

Listening to cafe conversations in south county Dublin you learn that most liberals think that Ireland has left religion behind, and that Enda Kenny's speech was the official kiss-off.

Big mistake. True, the public massively supported Enda Kenny when he thumped the Vatican in his famous speech. But the Irish people have always been happy to beat up on bishops.

Beating up on God is another matter. Stephen Fry can do it because he's basically humble. But there might not be such a benign reaction to a denunciation of the deity by Richard Dawkins.

Like most Irish people, religion is deep in my DNA. Like a large minority of Irish people, back in the 1960s I proclaimed myself an atheist as a way of rejecting the repression of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines an atheist as "a person who believes that God does not exist". But having to believe in not believing has been setting off alarms in my mind for some years.

Militant atheists like Richard Dawkins get so worked up against God they make me suspect they doth protest too much.

But the collapse of the Catholic Church means I no longer feel it necessary to stand sentry so militantly. Today, I call myself an agnostic.

Merriam Webster defines that as a "person who holds the view that God is unknown and probably unknowable".

But whether I called myself atheist or agnostic, my view of Christianity is tinged with regret and respect. Regret, because I cannot benefit from its consolations.

That's because I lack faith. Like Karl Popper, I believe that theology is due to a lack of faith.

The respect arises from its revolutionary role. The whole edifice of Western civilisation rests on the Christian conception that man is made in the image of God.

The writer Marilynne Robinson, in a recent interview with Charles Petersen, reminded us that publication of the Bible in the language of the common people, presented a powerful challenge to aristocratic authority.

"The Wycliffe Bibles and Tyndale Bibles, which you could be killed for owning, were circulated widely. It was a very subversive thing, the Bible."

Tyndale, whose Bible into English features in Wolf Hall, had an aim. "To cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more scripture" than the clergy of his time."

Naturally this frightened the clerisy. They were no longer needed as interpreters of God's communications with man.

Fear of the Bible in the Irish language also lay behind the corrosive campaigns conducted by the Roman Catholic Church against "soupers", the degrading description applied to converts made by Protestant missionaries who preached in Irish.

Bad enough that enthusiastic Protestant evangelicals were teaching the Bible. What made it worse was teaching it in the Irish language which the Roman Catholic priests were trying to leave behind.

This revolutionary aspect of the Bible brings me to Wolf Hall. In the past two weeks this stunning series has lost over a million viewers. BBC chiefs and critics alike cannot figure out why.

An equally baffled public has taken refuge in complaints about complex time-lines and low lighting. But the problem is with the plot. And plot is always about necessity and shame.

The screenwriter of Wolf Hall should have been less reverential towards Hilary Mantel's book, clarified the struggle between Roman Catholics and proto-Protestants, and made necessity and shame the core of his plot. The necessity of standing up for your beliefs, the shame suffered when you submit.

Back in the RTE ranch, Stephen Fry was fulminating about what he correctly called "theodicy". Why does God allow cruelty. The standard Christian response is to say we have free will.

This answer never struck me as satisfactory. What kind of cruel and capricious God would let the lottery of free will loose on humanity?

In the Bible the problem of theodicy is set out most starkly in the Book of Job. By submitting to all the suffering God sends him he gets a happy ending. But as Wesley Burrowes's Presbyterian farmer acidly asks in a classic comedy sketch: "Did God send him piles?"

Being flippant about such a fundamental matter as belief in God is, of course, a coping mechanism. Hence our pleasure in Evelyn Waugh's clergyman who has Doubts.

"You see, it wasn't the ordinary sort of Doubt about Cain's wife or the Old Testament miracles or the consecration of Archbishop Parker... No, it was something deeper than all that. I couldn't understand why God had made the world at all."

In the aftermath of calmly auditing Stephen Fry's attack on God, Gay Byrne is liable for the same theological interrogation as the late Bertrand Russell.

As the world-famous philosopher settled back in the seat of his London taxi, the cabbie glanced in his rearview mirror and asked him cheerfully: " So wot's it all abaht, Lord Russell ?

Gay Byrne runs the same risk. No wonder he walks everywhere.


Finally, I am releasing from custody a small poem in tribute to President Higgins poem, the Prophets are Weeping.

The Profits are Weeping

In Ailesbury road it is

reported that

The Profits are weeping,

At the abuse

By begrudging hacks

Scattering their evil seed.

Across the business sections.

Rumour has it that,

The Profits are weeping,

At their texts distorted

(Emails too)

Texts that once offered,

To reveal in ancient times,

Shares in spaces

Now worth nothing.

Sunday Independent

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