Bearing False Witness by Rodney Stark

imageSubtitled Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, Stark’s latest work takes ten commonly held critical views concerning the Roman Catholic Church and obliterates them from the face of the planet using sound argument, scholarly citation and statistical analysis.

This book uses plain English and I very much appreciate this approach. The fact is that Stark is not making a rhetorical case for Catholicism (indeed, he is not even a Catholic) but he is offering a robustly constructed historical argument in precise though often confrontational language. This makes the book easy to read, understandable, and accessible. This approach is also unfashionable. The academic world tends to look down on writings that are constructed using plain English. I am convinced that this is because of the wide-ranging influence of fraudalent obscurantists like Jacques Derrida whose postmodern idiom has become a smokescreen for a generation of social scientists whose rhetorical flourishes exist simple for the purpose of obscuring the fact that their arguments are baseless, empty or (most of the time) non-existent. How refreshing therefore to read a book written by a top academic who wants to communicate clearly and forcefully to a wide audience with actual arguments that are backed up by logic and evidence rather than fashionable and elitist posturing.

Stark takes aim at ten commonly held beliefs regarding the supposed backwardness and immorality of the Roman Catholic Church and sets the historical record straight. Two of these chapters stood out for me. Chapter 9, Holy Authoritarianism, takes aim at the myth that the Catholic Church has historically supported dictators and opposed democratic and free forms of society. In a moving series of pages, Stark recounts the horrendous persecution and martyrdom that the Catholic clergy and monastic communities suffered during the French Revolution, the Russian Communist Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. During the latter, for example, the Church was accused of siding with Franco and Hitler against the left-wing Republican revolutionaries. What is often forgetten about the Church’s stance is that it was provoked by the murderous anti-clericalism of the revolutionaries. This desire to rid the state of religion and the subsequent torture and murder of priests, monks and nuns was almost exactly the same in France and Russia during their revolutionary periods:

In 1936, the struggle between the Republican radicals and the conservatives (who controlled the Spanish army) came to a crisis, touching off an anti-Catholic massacre. Scholars now agree that beginning slightly prior to Franco’s intervention in Spain and lasting several months, Republicans murdered 13 bishops, 4,172 diocesan priests and seminarians, 2,364 monks and friars, and 283 nuns – a total of 6,832. And, as in Russia, the deaths often involved bizarre brutality. Some “were hanged, drowned, suffocated, burned to death, or buried alive. On many occasions, victims were tortured…which could include forcing the victims to strip naked, beating, cutting, skinning and mutilation. In the cases of mutilation, there was a morbid fixation on genitalia….Finally, irrespective of the type of death they had suffered, the corpses fo clerics were likely to be dragged through the streets, exposed in public places or desecrated in many ways”. (p.205) (Quotation from de la Cueva, 1998, 368.)

One of the interesting things about Stark’s book is that he rarely speculates on why exactly these anti-Catholic beliefs proliferate and persist to the extent that they do. This is probably because Stark is presenting a factual case which he doesn’t want to obscure through speculation. But, in this case, it seems to me that the willingness to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is an instrument of totalitarian oppression is part of a general myopia especially amongst young hipsters in the West who consider it cool to promote left-wing political viewpoints. Their ignorance of the literally hundreds of millions of people who were murdered under left-wing governments in the twentieth century and their belief that the Nazis and their supporters (including the Catholic Church) were the sole criminals of this period excuses the need to think more seriously about the consequences of the political viewpoints they are promoting.

Secondly, Stark’s chapter on science lays out very clearly the falsity of the belief that modern science appeared out of nowhere around the seventeenth century thanks to martyrs and heroes like Galileo and other proto-secularists. Many people are aware of the almost total falsity of the story of Galileo’s supposed persecution at the hands of the Catholic Church, but perhaps fewer are aware of the overstated place of Nicolaus Copernicus and his ostensible “Copernican Revolution”. The fact is that Copernicus contributed nothing to cosmology apart from the one piece of speculation that the sun was the centre of the solar system, and this he tried (and failed) to prove by speculating that the orbit of the surrounding planets were circular and not elliptic (as Kepler realised a century later). This realisation was simply the next logical step in a series of scientific discoveries that had been going on in Church-founded universities for literally hundreds of years. Stark summarises:

Of course, even with Kepler’s additions, there still was no explanation of why the solar system functioned as it did, or of why, for example, bodies remained in their orbits rather than flying off into space. The achievement of such an explanation awaited Isaac Newton (1642-1727). But over several prior centuries, many essential pieces of such a theory had been assembled: that the universe was a vaccum; that no pushers were needed because once in motion, the heavenly bodies would continue in motion; that the earth turned; that the sun was the center of the solar system; that the orbits were elliptical. (p. 151)

Again, why does the belief persist that the Church opposes “science”? I honestly have no idea but, once again, it takes a certain amount of willful ignorance on the part of Dawkins and others to be unaware of the fact that, rather than being an enemy of modern science, the Catholic Church practically invented it. And there was certainly no break in its development between the so-called Dark Ages and the arrogated Renaissance-Enlightenment periods.

A quick summary of some of the other chapters:

Sins of Anti-Semitism – Although anti-Semitism has been rife throughout history, the Catholic Church has never officially sanctioned it and, throughout the period of the Crusades, openly opposed anti-Semitic mobs in the form of its bishops who protected and sheltered many thousands of Jews in the Rhineland area to their own peril.

The Suppressed Gospels – The Catholic Church didn’t supress the other “lost” Gospels. Rather, these books are centuries older than the canonical Gospels, fraudelent in their authorial claims and Gnostic in theological outlook – often in extremely mysogynistic terms.

Monsters of the Inquisition – Contrary to the ubiquitous belief that the Spanish Inquisition was a murderous outburst of sadistic violence against heretics, it was actually moderate and civilised compared to other penitential systems in mainland Europe. From 1480-1700, for example, an average of ten people per year were sentenced to death under the Inquisition – a low number and ‘a small fraction of  the many thousands of Lutherans, Lollards and Catholics…that Henry VIII is credited with having boiled, burned, beheaded or hanged’. From 1530-1630, the English averaged 750 hangings per year, many of them for minor thefts.

Blessed be Slavery – Rather than sanctioning and promoting slavery for most its history, the Catholic Church abolished slavery a thousand years before the birth of William Wilberforce, and then opposed its resurrection in the Americas. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, for example, clearly outlaws the practice, a prohibition that is indicative of the Church’s general historical stance towards it.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Snuff for Secularists

Having not read the book and watched the first four episodes of the television adaptation, here are some quick thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly deeply anti-Christian. As so many historians have claimed Christians ruined the past – the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the early modern period and so on – now science fiction writers are predicting that Christians will ruin the future. So it’s nothing new in a sense.

In another sense, however, it is quite new. Most of the dystopian fiction that I’m aware of – 1984, Brave New World, latterly The Hunger Games, the fiction of Ray Bradbury etc. – see the world as a highly secularised, desacralised reality in which the state has made itself the ultimate object of transcendence. This makes perfect sense, and this is always what happens when totalitarian or dictatorial regimes come about: they abolish religion. Why? Because religion has the dangerous feature of commanding a loyalty to something greater than earthly power. (This, incidentally, is why monarchies are such a good idea.) 1984, for instance, (surely the greatest dystopian novel ever written by quite some distance) creates a picture of a society so utterly restrictive in its compelling immanence that the human persons caught within its ambit are crushed by the oppressive atmosphere into comformity at the very deepest emotional and psychological level.

The Handmaid’s Tale by contrast (and this might change, I don’t know) provides no account of how the society depicted could go from a highly secularised, liberal Western democracy to a mad, dictatorial, fundamentalist, religiously-fanatical totalitarian state, nor does it give an account of why the powers that be would want their state to be ordered in such a way. Would highly educated and powerful Westerners all across America suddenly begin to buy into interpretations of Christianity which cause them to throw away all their secular, liberal values and start to enslave and systematically  rape fertile women using only the most absurdly crass and literalistic interpretations of the Bible imaginable? Could the secularising trend of the last four centuries be overturned in a matter of days? Of course not.

The scary thing about 1984 and others is their prescience. The fact that they are a warning to society about what could happen if certain things are taken too far (the whole point of science fiction en generale really): government surveillance, for example, or the right to free speech and thought. That is why 1984 remains so pertinent to this day: its prophetic edge. The Handmaid’s Tale, however, though very well acted and produced on the whole (barring the bizarre soundtrack choices), is ludicrous to the point of farse. And in the absence of a credible scenario, the immense suffering of its protagists simply becomes a kind of anti-Christian torture porn, snuff for secularists.

James K.A. Smith on A Radical Orthodoxy Manifesto

In my previous post on Radical Orthodoxy, I sketched the theological background, which is taken by Smith to be the confrontation between the liberal theology of the Tubingen School and the neoliberalism of Karl Barth’s Basel and his successors. The school most associated with RO is Cambridge, and I begin with a quote by one of the key three figures, Catherine Pickstock. She writes, “There are no sharp boundaries between RO and other identifiable tendencies within what one might call post secular theology.” For ‘postsecular’ here we could simply use ‘postliberal’, to mean those theologies (Barth etc.) which confront and oppose the theologies that identified themselves with the secular Enlightenment project. The main difference, or development, between, for example, RO and Karl Barth (that I can see, at any rate) is that Barth’s theology is a kind of complete denial of the presence of the divine within creation and all disciplines that are not explicitly based upon the Christian revelation. Therefore, Barth doesn’t do philosophy, because he doesn’t think that we can find any truth apart from the particular revelation of God in Christ. One of the great strengths of RO (in my view, and as we shall see) is that RO calls into question the opposition between faith and reason and sees reason as a participation in faith. We could simplify this by saying that both Tubingen and Basel oppose faith and reason to each other as enemies; Tubingen buys into the secular Enlightenment project and ultimately opts for autonomous reason over faith, whereas Basel rejects the Enlightenment so thoroughly that it ends up denying a role for reason in human knowing altogether and so ends up with what could be construed as an almost blind fideism. RO, however, rejects this antithesis wholesale and says that true reason is always and must be a participation in faith.

Smith then sketches five distinctive aspects of this movement that could constitute a kind of introductory manifesto.

1. A critique of modernity and liberalism

John Milbank writes, “The end of modernity…means the end of a single system of truth based on universal reason, which tells us what reality is like.” This is a critique of modernist epistemology which holds that in order to have knowledge we must have a kind of scientific certainty. This claim frames the conversation about faith and reason discussed above, and must be rejected as too constrictive a definition of human knowledge. Truth is always a participation in belief of some sort and therefore reason is always
a participation in faith.

RO is also a critic of liberalism because of “its assumptions regarding human nature (as in Thomas Hobbes, for instance) and its atomistic account of the social sphere.” Milbank famously critiques the political philosophy of, for example, Thomas Hobbes and Machiavelli (or whoever really) as being fundamentally anti-Christian because they take as their starting point a belief in a primordial war of all-against-all. Milbank, however, very powerfully argues that Christian theology posits the belief in an aboriginal peace, grounded in the loving difference of the Holy Trinity and its overflow in Creation. (This is also a claim of one of my favourite theologians David Bentley Hart in his wonderful book The Beauty of the Infinite.)

2. Post-secularity

As we saw earlier, post-secularity calls into question the modern distinction between faith and reason. Politically, the implications of this claim is that religious faith is not a private matter which can be ostracised from the public sqaure. One of the key claims of RO is that everyone is a confessional theorist,  and a religious believer of some description. Smith writes:

The hope is that, once the theoretical foundations of secularity are dismantled…the spaces for public discourse…will provide new opportunities for the expression of a properly theological or Christian account of reality.

What are the practical implications of this? As far as I can tell this is still a very open question.

3. Participation and Materiality
This is RO’s metaphysical model for understanding Creation. In contrast to the flat, materialistic and nihilistic ontologicy of modernity and postmodernity, RO has ‘a participatory ontology – in which the immanent and material is suspended from the transcendent and immaterial’. This metaphor of the suspension of Creation from the transcendent illustrates a kind of stretching or deepening of creation that creates space for difference and harmony. Modernity and postmodernity are implicitly nihilistic, and can create only an immanent sphere, in which there is no depth and hence no room for true difference or meaning. Only a participation in the transcendent can ‘stretch’ Creation so that is has depth and meaning.

4. Sacramentality, liturgy and aesthetics

Because of this participatory ontology, central to RO 

…is a renewed appreciation for the liturgical or doxological character of creation and the role that liturgy plays in leading us to the divine…A particular consequence of revaluing embodiment is an emphasis on aesthetics and the arts as a medium of revelation and worship…RO’s aesthetic correlate might be that outside the liturgy there is no visible, such that only a doxological account can underwrite the arts.

5. Cultural critique and transformation

RO calls into question the extent to which the world is under the sway of the devil. Again, Tubingen implies that the world is not under the Dark Prince’s sway at all, whereas Basel claims that everything under the sun is in his thrall. RO has a very positive view of creation – claiming that the fall is basically redeemed by God almost immediately after its occurence – whilst not wanting to make Tubingen’s mistake of capitulating to the faithless secularity of the liberal project. There is quite a diversity within RO concerning the relationship of the church to the state, raning from Milbank’s remnant Christendom theology – which advocates the gradual subsumption of the state into the church as the church is increasingly succesful in its witness – to Ward’s more conciliatory Anglican approach, to the anarchic oppositionalism of William Cavanaugh.

So, there you have it, a brief sketch of the Radical Orthodoxy manifesto. As you can see, this movement makes enormous claims about theology, philosophy, history, politics, aesthetics, the arts, the church, pretty much everything really. As such, understanding RO is like trying to absorb a holistic and diverse, sophisticated worldview, so this account is necessarily extremely brief and oversimplified. Sorry about that.