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Throw out the baby, keep the bathwater

Scott Stephens  |  11 December 2006

Throw out the baby, keep the bathwaterI’ve often wondered: what chord, exactly, did The Da Vinci Code strike with so many people for it to sell more than 40 million copies? After all, it’s not a very good book. The prose is tedious. The plot is ridiculous. The characters are stereotyped stick-figures. It contains page after page of strained dialogue about esoteric and nigh-on indecipherable symbolic analyses.

But—and this, no doubt, is the key to the book’s appeal—it does offer a version of Christianity that confirms our deepest suspicions and conspiratorial fantasies.

As we all now know, the punch-line of the book is that Mary Magdalene is the lost Grail, the "absent cause" of Christianity, a kind of primordial sacrifice who must be forgotten for the Christian faith to exist. The fate of Mary Magdalene, for Brown, is thus a parable of the erasure of the sacred feminine from Western life, and his book stands as a testament to her quiet nobility against the habitual violence of monotheistic religions.

As the story goes, the sacred feminine has taken flight from the West and Middle East after centuries of persecution—from Mary’s defamation at the hands of male-dominated Church Councils, to the imprisonment of Muslim women behind the hijab, to the maltreatment of Gaia, the Earth-Mother, by testosterone-fuelled multinational corporations—and must now be sought in the holistic, non-cerebral practices of Eastern spirituality.

The moral injunctions embedded in the narrative are clear: abandon the self-destructive scientific and military drive of the West (a drive it has inherited from its monotheistic past) and embrace the unfathomable mysteries of life; renounce the can of science in favour of the ineffable should of spirituality; reject the male compulsion to dominate and adopt the female willingness to nurture.

This dichotomy led me to consider the polarity of feminine/good versus masculine/bad in the context of the debate over embryonic stem-cell research. Is it too much to posit that fertilised embryos may be implanted in a woman’s uterus, even though the process inevitably entails the disposal of excess embryos, but that those cold "male" scientists cannot be trusted with so precious a commodity, for fear that they will create all variety of chimeras, perverse human-beasts, that will erode human dignity and desecrate human life?

The basic division here is between what is innate (a kind of universally accessible spirituality, the inherent dignity of human nature, etc.) and what is imposed (organised or dogmatic religion, biogenetic experimentation, etc.)—and the former is a kind of endangered species due to the ravaging advances of the latter.

The point is that The Da Vinci Code presents an energetic rendition of this prevailing religious and moral sentiment, whose underlying logic is essentially conspiratorial. Our innate, immediate contact with the divine has been stolen away from us by the "back-room boys" and ecclesiastical power-brokers, in whose interest it is to keep such a universal spirituality secret.

But, there’s a twist. Anyone familiar with conspiracies knows that it takes tremendous faith to sustain one’s belief in such a plot. Indeed, it is the very suspicion that something has been stolen or hidden from us that generates the idea that there was something to steal in the first place.

Isn’t it clear, then, how ill-advised it was for many church leaders to accuse Dan Brown of undermining faith. The Da Vinci Code, in fact, is a book of considerable belief. Its spontaneous popularity should have convinced church leaders once and for all to abandon their hackneyed diagnosis of the "real problem" today as being people’s lack of faith, and our fixation on what we can see, touch and buy.

The determining factor of our cultural moment isn’t rampant materialism—it’s that sloppy, sentimental spirituality that we all tacitly acknowledge, but that fails to pose any real challenge to the way we live. The time of year is fast approaching when we throw out the bathwater of theological clarity and ethical stringency, and simply gather around to adore the "babe in the manger". What is then offered erstwhile church-goers is the opportunity to leave obscure ecclesiastical rituals behind and get back in touch with the heart of Christianity: the bare immediacy of "God-with-us". But this well ensconced practice distorts the Christian message almost beyond recognition.

At the beginning of Christianity, there’s no moment of pure encounter with the divine, no wordless beatific vision. Instead, there is the skandalon, the stone that causes offence, the final rejection of all those obscene, idolatrous spiritualities that we amass for our own sense of security. In other words, the central problem of Christianity is Christ himself. And the history of the church is the story of so many failed, though sometimes heroic, attempts to come to grips with the scandal of its own beginnings.

Throw out the baby, keep the bathwaterI would even suggest that, instead of all those Baroque paintings of baby Jesus in arms, surrounded by the menagerie of on-lookers, perhaps the work of art that best captures the spirit of Christianity is one by Andres Serrano: Piss Christ. When one first looks at the image, the effect is uncanny. It seems to radiate, almost glow with a divine aura. And yet one can’t help but feel affronted by its content, by one’s knowledge of what the image in fact is.

Piss Christ grasps, simultaneously, the radical Christian identification of God with that which most repulses us. The paradoxical message of the photograph is, thus, Ecce Deo! Here is your god! And this sense of estrangement is perhaps closest to the affective core of the Christian message. There is no immediate recognition and confirmation of our innermost beliefs, but just the demand to renounce those idolatrous beliefs themselves.

(To return momentarily to my earlier aside on biotechnology, most readers will, no doubt, have observed the implications of what I am suggesting for a Christian perspective of the moral status of the genome and the threat of genetic intervention. It is, indeed, absurd to regard the mysterious depths of individual and corporate humanity as inviolable on the grounds that no one can fathom the soul.

Nor can we simply oppose the advances of biotechnology on the basis that such advances will alter human nature, as Francis Fukuyama and Senator Ursula Stephens, in her recent opinion piece for Eureka Street, have warned. The very fact that we can intervene at the level of the basic genetic line already changes our view of human nature. After all, this is the soul, demystified, reduced to its essential mechanics. What is shattered here is not human dignity as such, but the sacred illusion that sustains so much moral sentimentality.

We should regard this as an opportunity to move forward in a theologically and ethically considered way, rather than blindly adhering to those myths and palliatives that have underpinned Western morality for too long. The sense of estrangement that I mentioned above is reduplicated when one encounters the formulaic bundle that constitutes the "I"—have we the ethical courage, when gazing at the eerie coldness of the genome, to say: Ecce Homo! Here is "the human"!)

If anything, this is the time of year to throw out the baby of unquestioning moral sentimentality, and own the bathwater of tough ethical and theological reflection. Seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ requires nothing less.



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Submitted comments

I'm puzzled by Scott's article; he is almost aggressive in saying what the problem is not but very vague in proposing what the problem of the Church today is and a way forward.

Terry Casey 28 November 2006

Are you implying and restating Karl Rahner's prediction that future Christianity will have to be contemplative? If so, I agree.

John O'Donnell 15 February 2008

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