Da Vinci, Christmas, Piss Christ and Gene therapy: a response


Click here to read Scott Stephens' articleWhen first invited to respond to Scott Stephens’ stimulating exploration of connections between faith and culture, I groaned. I had resolved to never again even think of The Da Vinci Code. But Scott’s reflections on the cultural implications of the novel and of art are fresh and engaging. His reflections on the consequences for Christian attitudes to Christmas, and to the use of embryonic stem cells, also provoke thought, even though I was not finally persuaded by them.

For Scott, The Da Vinci Code appeals to a "sloppy, sentimental spirituality". He opposes sentimentality to faith and ethical rigour, detecting sentimentality in conventional Christian attitudes to Christmas and to the embryo. Sentimentality, of course, is a pejorative word: it is sentiment misused. I would describe sentimentality as feeling without deep connection. When our judgments are governed by sentimentality, our feelings are connected neither to ethical reflection, nor to concrete relationships, nor to commitment. Sentimentality can lead us, for example, to oppose capital punishment when it threatens an attractive Australian and to demand it for someone who kills Australians.

Not all sentiment, however, is sentimentality. We might empathise deeply with asylum seekers, for example, be deeply moved and angered by their plight, argue that it is immoral and inconsistent with a reasonable or Christian view of humanity, and resolve to have them treated more humanely. Our sentiment here complements ethical rigour and faith.

Scott is right to see the risk of sentimentality in Christmas piety. It can be a time for feeling good about babies, family and God, without attending to the meaning of Jesus Christ and to his claim on us. But for most Christians, the "babe in the manger" feeds the conviction that in Jesus, God is with us.

God’s presence is mediated by the vulnerable reality of an ordinary human life, with all its messiness. The fact that God has taken human beings so seriously as to join them has ethical consequences. It marks each human being and all human relationships as precious and irreplaceable in God’s sight. This closeness of God to ordinary human life and to each human life is the scandal of Christianity.

As Scott claims, it does entail the rejection of spiritualities amassed for security, but more fundamentally it entails the rejection of the security we find in keeping God at a safe distance. That is why "the babe in the manger" can be challenging. In one inner city church, they made a stable with the figures shaped out of cloths. Each morning they discovered a baby Jesus who had been beaten out of shape during the night. The intimacy of God was itself rejected, as it was also in the Cross.

When they accompany this kind of faith, feelings of affection and warmth at Christmas are proper—they can encourage us to believe that God is with us, and that all human beings are precious in God’s eyes. I liked Scott’s consideration of Piss Christ, which was so abusively treated when it came to Australia. The work is challenging because its beauty cannot be dissociated from aspects of raw humanity that we find naturally repulsive. It confronts us with the messy bodiliness of the humanity of the Son of God.

Da Vinci, Christmas, Piss Christ and Gene therapy: a response But I would not oppose Piss Christ to Baroque paintings of the nativity. These represent other, more ceremonial and elaborate aspects of human life. They are complementary to the elemental qualities represented by Serrano, and form part of the humanity that God took on in Christ.

Perhaps this slight difference between Scott and myself discloses the roots of our divergence. He emphasises the naked, material core of humanity as the place where God is revealed to us. He wants to strip away the myths and taboos that encourage a sentimental view of human nature. These include the idea that there is a soul or an "I" independent of the physical reality with which the scientist deals. He believes that these illusions underlie arguments opposed to experimentation on embryos.

I see God revealed in humanity clothed in reflectiveness, love, community, creativity and culture. These qualities are mediated through our genetic structure, but need a language of selfhood to do justice to them. The thick description of humanity grounds the conviction that every human being is precious and that human dignity is to be protected. That leads to the ethical principle that we may not use one human life to benefit others, and, after considerable reflection, to the conclusion that the destruction of embryonic stem cells in research violates this principle.

My difficulty with what I take to be Scott’s position is that if we treat concepts like the self or the "I" as illusions, and limit our account of humanity to what is empirically verifiable, it is difficult to see why we should not use human beings to achieve larger goals. Would anything but sentimentality hold us back from torture when expedient, killing the useless, and culling the superfluous? Would faith itself be more than another source of sentimentality? But I hope that these questions might be the starting point for another discussion.



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Bravo, Andrew! It is a great honour to be read so carefully, and evaluated with such a measured and considered tone. Let me clarify a couple points (no doubt, the first instalment in that ‘other discussion’ you refer to). I am not against ‘sentiment’, and I am most certainly not arguing against the role of emotion in religion and ethical decision making. Indeed, especially in our time, a proper ethical response often takes its first, may I say, embryonic form as the deep feeling that something is just not right. In circumstances when we are groping for words to frame a sense of the wrongness of the situation, this kind of sentiment is ethically rigorous and a beacon in dark times.

But then there is that spontaneous (and I really do think this is the important term) gushing of attachments evoked by laden images and pseudo-ethical concepts, that cloud the real issue and short circuit any serious discussion. The two examples that come immediately to mind are many people’s differing moral perspectives on IVF and embryonic stem-cell research (which I allude to in the paper), and the visceral response by Toowoomba residents to the negative ad-campaign that some of their recycled water would originate in morgues. To my mind, ‘human dignity’ is in fact an empty term that doesn’t really say anything. It is a kind of a priori that must be assumed, that must be stated as such, but never questioned. And the argument that the erosion of this ‘dignity’ would lead to beastly experiments and even to eugenics effectively stifles any nay-sayers who might want to claim that opposition to such utilitarian practices must be framed in other terms.

I here come to our central theological disagreement.

Why is it, do you think, that the ‘incarnation’, the ‘God with us’ aspect of the Christian message played so minor a role in the earliest theology of the church? In fact, the implications of the resurrection are what transformed the concept of ‘god’ and the meaning of ethnicity, even of humanness – the image of God crucified was far more scandalous and poignant an expression of divine frailty than the babe in swaddling clothes. In just the same way that the Christian idea of ‘god’ stems neither from creation, nor from the incarnation, but rather from the resurrection of the crucified-one (and therefore, its effects being retroactive), so too the Christian perspective on ‘humanness’ shouldn’t stem from the bare assertion of some primordial dignity, but rather it emerges through one’s being-in-Christ.

In other words, the theological assertion that ‘Jesus is the image of the invisible god’ has the immediate implication that one becomes ‘in the image of god’ only insofar as one is transformed into Christ’s image. Humanness thus emerges from within the undifferentiated realm of nature - it isn't posited in advance. Maybe the Christian message is far closer to Darwinism that we ever realised ... but that should definitely be reserved for another discussion.

Scott Stephens | 28 November 2006  

Dear Andy:

Having read both Scott Stephens' original piece and your response, I will use this space to provide some thoughts on both.

I actually think Scott is onto something when he talks about the appeal of "The Da Vinci Code" to what he refers to as "sloppy sentimentality" among a good many people. It seems apparent that the Dan Brown novel feeds into the sense of spiritual barrenness that many experience - an often incoherent yearning for a "real" faith - by allowing them to regard the Church (or Christian faith) as essentially corrupt. That is, as having been theologically hijacked away from its "true" roots, or used as a vehicle for the domination of others by a ruthless clique. This in turn enables people to indulge in theological laziness: the Church (or Christian faith) is corrupt, and therefore we are right to spurn it - but at the same time, we are excused from either doing something about the corruption we perceive, or from generating a more muscular, challenging faith.

And this, I think, explains both the success of the novel and the phenomenon of the "megachurch": because both pander to theological laziness and sentimentality. They appeal to the desire for "something more" or "something real", and yet also abrogate their readers/adherents' responsibility of doing something about it - of, as Paul wrote, working out our own salvation in fear and trembling. Dan Brown allows us to indulge in the mentality of victimhood by peddling a conspiracy theory; the "megachurch" phenomenon allows us to escape responsibility by smothering us with the "it's not your fault" mantra of self-helpism.

And I think that this is where Scott's piece rather neatly segues from a discussion about the sentimentality of "The Da Vinci Code" to the sentimentality of Christmas. Because Christmas is overwhelmingly sentimental, whether in the studied rituals of carols by candlelight, or putting up Christmas trees, or the typical Christmas service. There is little, if anything, of the scandal of Christianity in Christmas; that is, little actual consideration of, or confrontation by, the actual meaning of the humanity of Christ represented by the child in the manger. It is all rather sanitised and neatly packaged - and, we tell ourselves, we do this because Christmas is a time of year "for the children", or for "good will" - not a time when we want to be considering what is implicit in God's incarnation in the person of Christ.

In other words, I think these discussions about sentimentality also go to the argument about the purpose and nature of faith. Is faith a difficult, challenging indwelling of God, by which we are confronted and with which we must wrestle; or is it an empty, comfortable, ritualised affirmation of our own rightness and righteousness.

On this point, I must confess to being somewhat less interested in the discussion about "Piss Christ". In part because I believe the piece itself is a mediocre work, and the claims made for and about it frankly strain the bounds of credibility. Moreover, it seems to me to be a long leap indeed from "Piss Christ" on one hand and the implications of biotechnology on the other. "Piss Christ" may say something about the messiness of humanity evident in God incarnated in Christ - and from this, have something further to say about what it means to be human in light of the possibilities of biotechnology - but I doubt it. Rather, I think "Piss Christ" points to a failure of the imagination: a sensationalisation of the humanity of God in Christ, rather than its emphasis; a treatment of the scandal of Christianity as a schlock tabloid piece instead of a confronting, challenging and transformative faith experience. In other words, a prime example of the sloppy sentimentality that formed the basis of the discussion between Scott and Andy's pieces.

Thanks to both for informative and thoughtful pieces.

Brendan Byrne | 28 November 2006  

Dear all,

I must admit I have found the discussions following the article quite intriguing. I must admit I find it amazing (and somewhat tedious) that the Da Vinci Code is still such a hot topic for discussion amongst Christians (last count their were 15 books, some by quite credible bible scholars, refuting the book). I think Brendan's point about the theological laziness in the book is quite poignant, though I think it deserves to be pointed out that much popular scholarship on Gnosticism (as I am very sure Brendan is aware) pushes a very similar line and I think that Dan Brown's theological line (if it can be called that) is probably much more indebted to the work of Elaine Pagel's or Bart Ehrmann than his own "theological imagination".

Some thoughts on the phenomena of "Mega churches" I must admit I agree with the statement concerning their affinity with self-help culture, it is quite amazing to here biblical verses thrown and strewn together like aphorisms on a Tony Robbin's paid presentation.

I think that to get away from sentimentality at Christmas perhaps the various churches should be more emphatic about some of the less pleasant aspects of the Christmas story (such as Herod's slaughter of the newborns). Perhaps a more serious reflection on some of these elements might provide a means to move away from the sentimentality, and dare I say it, vacuous frivolity which Christmas has come to represent in modern culture. Instead of painting a cartoonishly villainous Herod being duped by the wise men perhaps instead we should draw some tentative paralells with modern situations, of political or racial persecution, of the flight of refugees and asylum seekers (among other things), and that it was amid such things that the seed for changing and liberating mankind lay swaddled in cloth in a manger.

Anyway I must admit I enjoyed reading the article and the subsequent discussions and this is but a humble contribution.

Bernard Doherty | 28 November 2006  

Hi Scott,
I appreciate your point that the idea of 'human dignity' requires much more rigorous attention than it usually receives. So let me go straight to the theological question you raise, which I find intriguing - of what does 'humanness' consist? To quote your response:
the theological assertion that ‘Jesus is the image of the invisible god’ has the immediate implication that one becomes ‘in the image of god’ only insofar as one is transformed into Christ’s image.
For me, this begs a number of questions, most particularly, of what does Christ's image consist? And, is the consequence of this 'immediate implication' that it is possible to be 'biologically' human but not 'theologically' human? Keeping in mind that I'm no theologian (and may therefore be missing your point entirely) I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Jo Cruickshank | 28 November 2006  

Thanks for your question, Jo. (I'm a little uncertain about using Andrew's space, but since we seem to be cohabiting theologically, I'll continue on.) I'll try to keep this short and suggestive. My position is that what formerly had been viewed as the wealth of human essence and dignity ought, in the end, to be identified as 'sin'. In other words, our deepest mammalian instincts and tendencies. (Maybe we could even go so far as to call this, as the apostle Paul did, following Aristotle, 'flesh', the domain of passions.) The image of God, then, would be the taking of distance from the body itself, the subjection of its drives and innate responses, and instead embracing the non-self-preserving decision to love.

This, I feel, is ultimately the problem with 'natural law' and similar ethical arguments from 'design'. Love is not only unnatural and counter-instinctual; it is, strictly speaking, perverse. In the same way as the Darwinian 'man' emerges from the undifferentiated mammalian domain of drives and self-preserving instincts (who tendencies humanity still bears), so the 'image of God' emerges from the imminent domain of the 'human-as-such', the human caught within its lust to survive and prolong itself through procreation and violence.

The implication, of course, is that there is something rather inhuman about the 'image of God' in Christ!

Scott Stephens | 28 November 2006  

Yes, apologies if I've hijacked the discussion away from Andrew's very sensitive reading of the original article - and also if this discussion is less than interesting to most people! To go back to Andrew's article, though - Andrew, you read Scott as emphasising 'the naked, material core of humanity as the place where God is revealed to us'. And yet Scott in his answer to my question describes the image of God as 'the taking of distance from the body itself'. An overcoming, if I read this rightly, of the innate desires to overcome others for one's own purposes. Does this mean that neither of you think that the image of God is found in the body? Or, for Andrew, is the image of God inherent to the body as an expression or enactment of selfhood? And for Scott, is the image of God developed in the body as it is subjugated to love? (And therefore Christ's body on the cross is the ultimate image of God?) I realise I'm probably trampling my merry way through milennia of theological dispute, here!

Jo Cruickshank | 29 November 2006  

Jo, the incisive sophistication of your reading and Andrew's and my respective positions is remarkable. Thank you. But, enough flattery ... straight to the point. I don't think that the 'image of God' is something that is innate or essential to the body. A crucial notion from one of those historical christological controversies is extremely helpful here: according to that amazing passage, Philippians 2.5-11, Christ refused to regard equality with God as something to be exploited, or taken advantage of, but rather 'emptied himself'. This is the passage usually referred to in support of the notion of 'kenosis' or divine emptying.

But the point that is often missed is the similar language of self-emptying (which, according to the Philippians text, is what it means for God to be God, the way that God is constituted) is used of the Apostle Paul himself - so, at the end of Galatians 2, Paul says that the life that he lives after having died with Christ, he lives precisely through the faithfulness of Christ.

Theologically, even philosophically, the body must be regarded as little more than a shell, an obstacle, a bundle of drives and instincts that must be overcome in order to be the image of God, which Christ has exhibited by his emptying, by his crucifixion, etc.

But, speaking of millenia of theological controversies, the real issue that separates Andrew's and my positions is that we are on opposite sides of the Marcion/Tertullian divide. (I'd be very interested in Andrew's thoughts on this point.) I think there is a great deal that must be recovered from Marcion's rather harsh Pauline Gnosticism (I've always loved the remark made by Franz Overbeck: 'No one has ever understood Paul, and the only one who did understand him, Marcion, misunderstood him') ... and perhaps now is the time to revitalise a certain pessimism toward the body qua nature.

Scott Stephens | 30 November 2006  

Thank you for the rich response to the conversation initiated by Scott. I'll confine myself here to Scott's clarifications and questions, to try to carry forward one line of this conversation.

Of course, in such a broad discussion neither of us can do more than speak in paragraph headings. I wrote this before reading Scott's invitation to me to align myself with Marcion or Tertullian. A great question, but a bit like asking on which side I stand on in the Collingwood Carlton divide. I prefer to go around both.

Scott, I am very happy that we share common ground on sentimentality and sentiment - we may differ on what in practice counts as sentimentality, but not on the importance of sentiment.

You ask me whether the strength in Christian faith does not lie in the original proclamation of Christ's resurrection, and whether my language about God becoming human (entailed in Christmas devotions) does not represent a weakening and sentimentalising of that proclamation.

I agree that the way in which people have spoken about Jesus Christ, and that my language of the Son of God taking on humanity comes from the fifth century in which I am comfortably at home. But I would add that there is continuity in this development, and that the lines of later development can already be traced in the New Testament.

The early Christians' faith that Jesus was raised from the dead, their belief was significant to them because it included the assertion that God's decisive word had been spoken in this event. God was fully and definitively invested in the raising of Jesus. In the books of the New Testament, God's investment is brought forward to the death of Jesus, to his ministry, to his birth, and to the journey of the Word of God.

Underlying these varying images of God's involvement is an insistence on the exacting nature of God's involvement. The early Christians had to ask themselves whether God's stake in the dying and rising of Jesus the life of a messenger, angelic or human, or has God put God's own self at risk in the life of Jesus?

Their consistent reply in response to challenge was that God has invested God's own self. The focus of faith, as you remind us well, remains on Jesus' death and resurrection, but as an event in which God is totally invested.
Thanks, too, for your clarification of what you see as the essence of humanity, namely sin. At one level, definitions are unimportant - the more interesting question is whether and how, after starting with definitions, we then incorporate into our reflection all that we need to incorporate.

For me, the concept of human dignity is very important, because it grounds my argument against torture, detaining asylum seekers, governance based on chosen ignorance, and waging war recklessly. The concept of human dignity allows me to find a language that is consistent both with my faith and with the experience and reflection of those who do not share faith.

Human dignity sums up an exploration - a thick description - of what I find in human beings independent of their beliefs. That certainly includes what I have called naked humanity, and you call sin. But it also includes goodness, generosity, love, creativity and the desire for transcendence - the qualities that make all human beings ultimately subjects who may not be treated as objects.

In theological terms, this is the grace of creation, in which God rehearses God's later investment in Jesus Christ. This is what I described in the image of 'clothed humanity'.

My question, Scott, is whether I am right to think that you locate what I understand by human dignity and value as a gift that comes through Christ's death and resurrection. And if I am right in this, how you would account for the goodness etc of people who have never heard of Jesus Christ, and whether it would be possible to speak to our non-Christian contemporaries about the value of each human person and life without making explicit reference to our faith.

Andrew Hamilton | 30 November 2006  

Thank you, Andrew, for a characteristically generous reply. (Although I won't let you off on the Tertullian/Marcion hook that easily ... I think the divide is more important than you may be acknowledging, and certainly not one easily gotten around.)

Let me make two remarks - one following on from your potted history of Chalcedonian Christology, and the other in direct response to your remarks about 'human dignity'.

First, I am glad that we, in some sense, agree that the notion of incarnation or a kind of divine-saturation of Jesus' life/activity is strictly retroactive (which, of course, is not to say false). But what must be emphasised is that, when you say that Jesus' death and resurrection is an 'event in which God is totally invested', what 'God' means here has undergone a radical redefinition by the event itself. In other words, I think we have made a tremendous error (not one I'm accusing you of) in limiting Jesus to a purely epistemological supplement, an explanation of God ... while missing the idea that Jesus marks an ontological change or rupture in/of God's own self. Which is simply to say that Jesus' death/resurrection was fully as much a god-ward activity as it was 'for us and for our salvation'.

Now, on the matter of human dignity, I feel that I must say right off the bat that the way that altruism and 'goodness' works in our time is extremely complicated, and deserving of careful analysis. (As I've suggested previously, the reduction of acts of charity to penance meant to asuage our guilt - so that we can debauch ourselves as before - mustn't be overlooked as a kind of spontaneous, but ultimately false, morality.) But let me say that ethics must have a particular content, a being that is appropriate to it. I don't think we should confuse genuine ethics with the more general virtues to which you refer. But 'Christian' ethics - of which clear examples can be found among those who hold no Christian belief - involves a kind of destitution, a self-emptying, a giving of oneself entirely for a cause. And it seems to me that, even semantically, 'faith' in the NT has virtually nothing to do with belief, and everything to do with the deepest fidelity.

But I am curious, why must one's rejection of 'torture, detention, reckless war', etc. be made on the basis of the trampled dignity of the victims (I can't help but recall that horrible last scene of The Da Vinci Code, where Langdon kneels over the grave of Magdalene/Gaia), and not on the grounds of the obscene, idolatrous violence exercised by power, which presents itself as being plenipotent and grounded in its own activities?

Scott Stephens | 30 November 2006  

It all gets pack to the Incarnation Many christians still have a gnostic view of our physical make-up that leads to a prudery that denies that our physical being can be redeemed in Christ john ozanne

john Ozanne | 08 December 2006  

October 6 marks the (speediest) canonization of Josemaria Escriba and the Da Vinci Code is again in the news as Opus Dei defend themselves from it. Here is a comment that attests The John Paul II Millstone point that Opus Dei controls the papacy and many secular countries because the Opus Dei's main goal is WORLD DOMINATION as seen in the map of their website. Most of all, this crime investigator attests our original point that Opus Dei was the foremost responsible group in the cover-up of priest-pedophilia, the worst crime in modern church history. See http://jp2m.blogspot.com/

Paris | 07 October 2007  

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