Monday, April 16, 2012

Review of Beyond Consolation by John Waters

Beyond Consolation by John Waters
Continuum, 2010

I like John Waters. There is something very endearing about a commentator who is willing to think out loud in public, in newspaper columns and the pages of his books. And I always admire somebody who can openly admit to having been wrong, as Waters did upon his metamorphosis from a rock journalist (with all the anti-religious, anti-traditionalist ideological baggage that usually entails) to a kind of spiritual gadfly who stings Irish culture for its materialist and liberal assumptions.

Besides, he gets away with landing the most abstruse kind of prose onto the unsuspecting shelves of newsagents. Can you imagine another Irish journalist writing the following, in the columns of a widely circulated newspaper?

True love is an infinite quantity corresponding to the love of God that has stretched itself over our nothingness. Conversion, then, allows the true love to enter into this weariness and possess it.

Waters doesn’t just turn on that philosophical strain now and then, for show. He writes like that all the time. And that’s actually why a whole book of his ruminations can be very tough going—as compared to his page-long articles in the Irish Catholic, where his style comes as a welcome tonic.

Beyond Consolation
, which was published in 2010, is a kind of sequel to his fine 2007 volume, Lapsed Agnostic, in which he described his journey towards Catholicism.

Or maybe not Catholicism, but Christianity.

Or maybe not Christianity, but theism.

Or...well, the problem is it’s very difficult to work out what John Waters actually believes. In fact, at one point in Beyond Consolation, he treats us to this confession:

I don’t “believe”. I can’t. If believing is just gritting my teeth and adhering to some proffered concept of what is and might be, I cannot do it. If a “faith” is merely a collection of people, a club, in which everybody affirms everybody else, and together they affirm a set of dogmas that have been agreed long before by others, then count me out.

Full marks for honesty and introspection, but two out of ten for clarity. Waters steps forward onto the soapbox to tell us stuff like this. Presumably he expects that it will help others in their journeys, but how exactly? There is very little to affirm, deny, debate, or get your teeth into in this kind of thing.

The spur to the musings in Beyond Consolation is Nuala O’Faolain’s famous radio interview with Marian Finucane in 2008, in which she described her feelings and thoughts as she faced terminal cancer, a disease that she knew would kill her within weeks. What is interesting to Waters is that O’Faolain received much popular acclaim for her bravery and honesty, but few people seemed willing to discuss the most striking fact about the interview—that this woman, who seemed in many ways emblematic of the social liberation Ireland achieved in recent decades, found nothing to give her comfort and meaning in her last days. And she emphatically rejected the hopes of religion and an afterlife, even seeming to do so with a certain amount of grim resolve.

Waters asks the question; how has our country become so hostile to the idea of God, that we are prepared to embrace despair rather than so much as open up a chink to the transcendental?

Waters touches on many interesting subjects in his ramble through the spiritual (or anti-spiritual) state of the nation: the cult of youth, the extent to which our thoughts are conditioned by our culture, modern man’s enslavement to the machine and subsequent belief that he himself is a machine, the possibility that opinion polls only work because we have been so effectively chicken-cooped into conformity.

He makes great play in this book, and in his newspaper articles, of the fact that reality can’t be reduced to the quantifiable and measurable, as in this quotation from the philosopher Mike Cooley:

“We are at a stage now where we can only accept something as rational and scientific if it displays three predominant characteristics: predictability, repeatability, and mathematical quantifiability. And, by definition, this precludes intuition, subjective knowledge, passive knowledge, dreams, imagination, and purpose.”

Yes. Absolutely. This is a vital insight, one all too often overlooked by our science-bedazzled generation.

But it only takes you far, and Waters seems relucant to say any more, merely reiterating this theme over and over again. He even seems to regard anything more as a kind of fossilization into dogma, a lapse into inauthenticity, as in this passage:

This is the kind of paradox that the Mystery throws at us. Reality is reality. God is just another word, a tool for getting to grip with this. But it is a word that, used in a certain way, can be made to open up things rather than close them down.

And later:

I am waiting for whatever it is that my humanity asks for, and I see no particular reason not to call this Christ.

But why Christ? Why not Krishna or Buddha or the Reverend Moon or the Meher Baba?

Later, he explains his choice this way:

If you have a path, why waste time looking for one? I see no point in fighting the Catholic Church any more than I might think it a good idea to fight the air of kick a tree. Neither do I see the church as a refuge, or a club, or a political party, still less a source of moral guidance. The church is a place I look to in order to maintain a structured engagement with the Mystery and also in my need for a source of reflective experience of the human condition.

The Church seems little better than a pis-aller, then, the spiritual franchise you happened to find closest to you. But this logic couldn’t have applied to the missionaries and martyrs and suffering millions who have handed the faith on to us, who quite deliberately and heroically chose Christ and the Catholic Church over paganism and Protestantism and communism and every other creed that fought for their bodies and souls.

It seems disrespectful to those people, great and obscure, who laboured so heroically in the vineyard, to enjoy the fruit of their labours in such a noncommital way.

It would be unfair to Waters to leave it at that, though. Christ himself does not seem like a mere cipher to him, to tell from this book, but an overwhelming personality. This is one of the most interesting passages in the book:

We cannot look at Him, but still we do not condemn him or castigate Him. None but the most insistent, and often the most demonstrably damaging secularising voices in our cultures do not, as a rule, attack the person of Christ, or suggest that He was not who He claimed to be…Despite everything, the icon that is Christ remains intact in our culture—venerated by some, but quietly respected even by those who deny belief in or adherence to the Christian proposal. This is strange and interesting.

It most certainly is.

Perhaps the thing that bothers me the most about John Waters is the way he wrinkles his nose at institutional Irish Catholicism—actually existing Irish Catholicism, so to speak. He is at great pains, over and over again, to assure the reader that though he is no longer one of Us (meaning the liberal commentariat), he has certainly not become one of Them, either:

I am turned off by a strain in almost all organised religions, and strikingly in the more traditionalist strains of Irish Catholicism, which seem to glory in the vindication of seeing people brought to their knees. I have no sense of being a prodigal son come home to be feasted. I shudder a little when someone congratulates me for returning to the “faith”. I have returned noplace, except closer to an understanding of myself.

Waters misses the point if he abhors the fellowship of Catholic believers as a mere club, a faction. It is neither. It is the mystical body of Christ, composed of living stones. The Church is not a road-sign, but a reality—a thing to be loved in itself.

The gag reflex that Waters describes so well, when it comes to the modern Irish horror of tradition and religion, seems to survive within himself. I even get the impression, reading his books and articles, that he thinks that only somebody lacking in imagination or sensitivity or joie-de-vivre could wholeheartedly embrace a traditional Irish Catholic identity.

But that’s exactly what I do, Mr Waters. I don’t have to shudder or bite my fist or grimace when I pass the portal of an Irish Catholic church. I don’t feel burdened by any exaggerated shame in the history of Irish Catholicism, despite the abuse scandals. What I feel for the history and traditions of Irish Catholicism is, overwhelmingly, gratitude and affection—not to mention a keen (if belated) sense of belonging.

Thank God for John Waters. Amongst the legions of sneering liberals in the ranks of Irish journalism, he is a brave and unique figure. But I hope he comes to realise that being a maverick isn’t always braver, or better, than being a disciple.


  1. Everyone's faith ebbs and flows. I know atheists and agnostics who converted with gusto and after being poked by the world once or twice fell back into their old ways. John Waters is probably just over the first flush of love and realising the new wife's snoring isn't that cute and viewing her with a more critical eye. It's to be expected with those who convert or revert, he is just sharing it all. Please God he'll stay committed, he's a great fan of the Pope and if he continues along those lines he'll not go far wrong. It can be disappointing to hear those kinds of inner thoughts but it really isn't surprising, he's a baby in the faith, it'll take time to find his feet.

  2. Well, I didn't mean to attack John Waters so much as to express frustration at a particular, almost universally accepted mindset-- "well, of course traditional Irish Catholicism was embarrassing and squirm-inducing and full of craw-thumping buffoons"-- it almost seems that, in Ireland, you have to preface any support for religious faith or Catholicism with this disclaimer. I think the shortcomings are greatly exaggerated.

    I do think it's great that John Waters shows such admiration for Pope Benedict, though.

  3. Ah I see, I'm sorry. I thought you were expressing disillusionment with his disillusionment. Sort of. Hmmm. Anyway! Before TG4 and certainly before Sharon Ní Bheolain and Gráinne Seoige there was the same sort of embarrassment about Irish. We do seem to have a sort of shyness about our past and about anything that isn't niche or cosmoplitan here. I bet you a tenner if Miss Seoige did an indepth series exploring Love and Responsibility Veritas would sell out and if Brian O' Driscoll told Ryan Tubridy on RTE he loved attending Eucharistic Adoration people would think it respectable. I don't know if it's shame of who we were or insecurity about not following the pack but it's sad. We had a history teacher who told us that she felt the psychological reverberations of The Flight of the Earls left us leaderless forever and we're still groping in the fog for someone to follow. I never forgot that.

  4. I think the phobia about organized religion runs deeper than the phobia about national traditions. Personally I'm sceptical that something as far back as the Flight of the Earls could still feed our national psyche-- somehow I imagine that TV and consumer culture dominate us so much there isn't much room left for historical legacies. I like the idea of a national psyche, I just think we barely have one at this stage.