Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review of The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan

The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan
Arlington House

Where are the writers, the artists, the intellectuals who will proclaim Christ's gospel today? Christianity remains a force in Irish and English society-- sometimes, it even seems to be a kind of official opposition to the liberal consensus, and even to be widely recognised as such. In many ways, being pushed out of the mainstream of society, having its respectability questioned, seems to have been a shot in the arm for Christianity in the British Isles. A Christian today is almost more likely to be questioned by police than to be invited to speak to schoolchildren or to give an inspiring talk on the radio, and this has had something of a galvanising effect.

But where are the modern equivalents of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Malcolm Muggeridge, JRR Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers? It is true that JK Rowling is a declared Christian, and the Harry Potter books have a pretty strong Christian flavour. But it is difficult to imagine her writing a straightforwardly religious work, or actively using her prominence to evangelize. On the other hand, irreligious writers like Philip Pullman are more than happy to thump the tub for atheism.

In Ireland, the situation seems even worse. John Waters is perhaps our only Christian writer who can claim a standing independent of his religious beliefs, who is immune to the accusation of being a hired pen, and whose talent was recognized before he shocked the nation by going all churchy.

So I felt more than a little nostalgic when I read The Hungry Sheep by John D. Sheridan, a book from a time that is really not all that long ago-- less than forty years-- but which seems a world away in this regard at least, that Sheridan was a nationally-known columnist and author who, in this book, took up the cause of Catholicism in a work of unabashed apologetics. And, unlike the religious writings of John Waters, which are determinedly idiosyncratic and personal, John D. Sheridan is content to roll up his sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty of explaining, and arguing for, definite doctrines of the faith.

The title is from Milton's Lycidas (ironically, from a Papacy-bashing passage of the poem): The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed. Sheridan's time had this at least in common with ours; that Catholic catechesis was already inadequate by then, and that the faithful were being sent out poorly armed against the assaults of the infidel. This is how he describes the atmosphere after Vatican II:

"The man in the street, who in the days when the Church spoke with one voice might have got official rulings by knocking at any presbytery, is utterly confused on such issues as papal infallibility, freedom of conscience (every man his own theologian), and "co-responsibility". Young priests in polo-neck sweaters (and old ones who should know better) tell him that things are managed more democratically in Holland, advise him to read Teilhard de Chardin (though the Monitum of the Sacred Congregation on the dangers of Teilhard's 'theology-fiction', as Maritain calls it, is still in force), and bewilder him by saying that he need not worry unduly about his own inner spiritual life so long as he loves his neighbour and is concerned about starvation in the Third World."

I like the spirited tone of this book. It is not a "plea", or an "invitation", or "the beginning of a conversation", as so many religious works of today tend to style themselves. It is a call to arms, plain and simple. I really do believe that secular culture will respect religious writers more if they drop the Uriah Heep impression. The "Jesus freak" sketches of the Fast Show ("that's a bit like Jesus, isn't it?") mocked the sort of Christian who is always trying to sneak faith under the radar. Being unabashed might not make you friends, but at least it wins you respect-- even if it's grudging respect.

Sheridan begins at the beginning, which is so often-- and so surprisingly-- left out of discussions about religion. That beginning being, of course, the very existence of the Man Above (as Sheridan terms him), and the reasons we shouldn't assume that the physical world is all there is. Surely this should be the starting point of all apologetics, and all debates with unbelievers? And yet, religious believers seem rather coy on the subject, tending to concentrate instead on the psychological benefits of religion, or our culture's debt to Christianity, or some other topic.

The immateriality of the mind is the entry-point Sheridan chooses:

"Impressions come to me through my senses, but there is something which uses these impressions as raw material for absorption, as the data for that mysterious activity which we call thought. Is this something a part or a function of my material body? Obviously it is free from the limitations of my material body. It can project itself to the stars or to the days of the Roman legions in the twinkling of an eye; and this instancy, this independence of time and space is not a property of material things, which are either here or there, and which take time to move from one to the other."

Philosophers of mind might wince, but surely Sheridan has captured the essence of the problem here. Thought is "about" something in a way that physical matter can never be "about" anything. This simple fact makes a nonsense of all philosophical materialism. If religious believers would drive this point home more often, surely the sceptic would be on the backfoot from the start?

The evolutionary theory of human origins is given short shrift in this book, though Sheridan adds that he would be happy to change his mind if he was given compelling evidence, and points out the freedom of thought that the Church allows on this matter. (The Church never condemned the theory of evolution. The current Pope and his predecessor seem to have accepted it, but a Catholic is not bound to follow their example. For my own part, I claim no knowledge of science, but I am officially agnostic on the subject of Darwinism. What I understand of it seems very questionable to me, and the attitude of witch-hunting hysteria displayed towards proponents of "intelligent design" speaks volumes.) The literal truth of the Adam and Eve story is staunchly defended by Sheridan, which made me reflect on how seldom this is even discussed in today's Catholicism.

Sheridan makes a grand tour of all the battlefields on which Catholic teaching and the modern world contend; attitudes towards death, the existence of conscience (and its implications for a material view of the world), the Scholastic proofs of God's existence, the life of Christ and the evidences of the Resurrection, Papal supremacy, free will, original sin, the Virgin Mary, humour and its implications for materialism (a very interesting and original chapter), the sexual revolution, liberal clerics, the spectre of overpopulation, euthanasia, social decline, the Reformation, and Hell. All this in a book of 175 pages, printed in rather large type, and written in an easy, conversational style. I doubt if even Chesterton (though a much more brilliant writer) has produced such a handy one-stop apologia for the Faith.

In fact, seeing all the bases covered at such a strolling pace makes me feel rather frustrated-- at myself as well as other people. It's not so difficult, after all. Every Catholic should have the basic answers to questions and challenges from non-believers and seekers. We should be willing to engage the sceptics head-on rather than perpetually looking to strike glancing blows, or to win skirmishes. We should all, as far as we are able, be like the Catholic Evidence Guild members who stand at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park and are ready to give an answer to every objection. I am lamentably short of that ideal myself. I hope to move closer to it.

Sheridan's book is a pudding well worth tasting for yourself-- it can be bought cheaply on Amazon, second-hand-- but I will scoop out a few of the plums.

I particularly liked one passage where Sheridan shows up the folly of the classic existentialist response to human life, as articulated here by Bertrand Russell (hardly an existentialist, save in this regard): "Condemned to lose today his dearest, tomorrow to pass himself through the gates of darkness, it remains for Man only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that enable his little day...to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate for a moment his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power."

Sheridan exposes this, and all similar poses of noble defiance (like that struck by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus) as sheer muddle-headedness:

"But if man is no more than a chance collocation of atoms, what meaning is there in his defiance, and what reason is there for thinking that the wanton tyranny that shapes his outward life leaves him an inner sanctuary in which he is free to think lofty thoughts-- since from Russell's premise it must shape his inner life also? For that matter, how can his thoughts be "lofty"-- or even his own-- if his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are shaped and determined by irresistible forces which have no prevision of the ends they are achieving?"

(I am constantly struck by the impression that atheists and humanists and liberals simply haven't thought their ideas out "to the absolute ruddy end", as CS Lewis once phrased it. Their daring challenges are simply never daring enough. Or as Sir Francis Bacon once put it: "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth about men's mind about to religion." I am not here referring solely to Russell's rhetorical flourish above, but to a whole range of different problems.)

When it comes to philosophical arguments for God's existence, Sheridan writes: "The existence of God can be proved from reason, but the famous proofs of Aquinas, which are developments of the proofs advanced by greek philosophers sixteen centuries earlier, are not for everyone; and even for those who can follow them they are not coercive....An argument [like the argument from contingency, one of Aquinas's proofs] is not laced with fire. It inspires no passion of belief. Nor does it involve any commitment, other than an intellectual assent...it will buttress faith, but it will not inspire it unless God speaks when the thinking is done."

All of that is true-- and yet, how important buttressing can be! I know that accepting the argument from contingency (basically, the argument that this contingent universe must be rooted in something eternal and perfect) was a crucial moment in the formation of my own faith. After all, there is plenty of "fire" around us all, plenty of stimulants to religious feeling-- a baby's gurgle, the night sky, the poetry of the book of Job, the words of a Christmas carol drifting on winter air. But what the modern world requires-- and what the opponents of the Faith demand-- is steel rather than fire. Difficult as the proofs of Aquinas are, I wonder if it might not be a good idea to teach them in Catholic secondary schools.

Most of the subjects to which Sheridan devotes chapters are predictable, but one that is not is the subject of laughter. Sheridan was a professional humourist, so perhaps this inclusion shouldn't be that surprising. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising at all, because I have often felt-- and I imagine the intuition is a common one-- that laughter and religious faith are strangely linked. As Sheridan puts it:

"It will be objected that laughter is not the monopoly of the Christian, nor does it mark him off from the materialist; but the Christian can offer a rational explanation of laughter, whereas the rationalist (who so often, unknown to himself, is drawing on the spiritual investment of his ancestors) is in difficulties at once; for if directed chance or molecular structure governs all our actions, there is nothing against which we can measure the unexpected or incongruous."

I think the point could be pushed further. I think the rationalist, if he was a consistent rationalist, would be in difficulties over pretty much every human activity and passion. The rationalist can never say "Best of luck!" (what does he mean?) or "Happy birthday" or "Get better soon!". He can never even say "That's odd", since "odd" and "ordinary" can't really have any meaning for him-- everything is what it is, and that's all there is to it. There are no true surprises in a rationalist universe, no occasion for amazement or awe. Statistical anomalies are only to be expected, after all. Nor can the rationalist invoke "the spirit of the sixties" or "the spirit of science" or "the Blitz spirit", since there is no such thing as a spirit in his universe, not even as a metaphor. Because what would it be a metaphor for, anyway? Does he really believe radicalism was unique to the sixties, or fortitude was unique to the Blitz? Or that either of those emotions are anything but a combination of glands, hormones and circumstances?

On the subject of the permissive society, Sheridan writes: "Today's children...will take their places easily and naturally in the brave new world; the world which regards contraception as "a sort of polio vaccine designed to deal with the disease of procreation" and sex as a game without rules; a world in which promiscuity is the accepted ethic...a world in which blue films get bluer and bluer and even the prestigious Sunday papers publish material which would have led to prosecution thirty years ago; a world which accords pornography the status of a legitimate industry supplying a clamant human need; a world in which copulation-- real or stimulated-- may be watched on stage and screen, and in which the sex motif sells everything from central heating to bubble gum. Whether the permissive society will become still more permissive in time (and as things stand it does not even stop short at murder) is an open question, but now that its recruiting sergeants are at work in the schools the future is anyone's guess."

I wonder what Sheridan would think of today's society? Have we become even more permissive? I think it's an open question. We are probably all increasingly educated about a whole range of perversions, but somehow I feel that the straight-faced seediness of the sixties and seventies has receded. I recently watched a film from the seventies-- The Fog by John Carpenter-- in which a female hitchhiker is picked up by a male driver, late at night. That we soon see them lying in bed together can be guessed; the fact that they only exchange names afterwards is rather more surprising. At least, it's surprising today. I'm guessing it might have been less so to an audience at the time.

I believe that the longing for love, romance and commitment continues to reassert itself, if only as an ideal. The romantic comedy heroine might sleep around, but the audience still demands that she swear faithfulness before the credits roll. And the oh-so-serious sexual radicalism of the Age of Aquarius has, in our day, been replaced by the smirking irony of Graham Norton and his ilk. I am grateful for small mercies.

We can guess what the defenders of Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian D'Arcy, both priests recently censured by the Vatican, would think of this passage (which concerns apostate rather than dissident priests):

"Since Vatican II the Church's attitude to deserters, and especially to priest deserters, has been one of the utmost compassion. One wonders, however, if this leaning backwards towards mercy and understanding has been altogether prudent, especially as many of those concerned have made full use of the printing press and the television screen to pose as heroic souls who have seen the light. Compassion for apostates must not blind us to the fact that apostasy is the most horrendous of treasons."

A chapter entitled "The Population Explosion", full of statistics, proved tough reading for me. I've always felt that statistics are the worst of all arguments, since they can so easily be disputed. And yet we cannot avoid them at times. The subject of "overpopulation" and the Catholic Church's supposed contribution to it is very tricky terrain, since it cannot be answered simply by analysing concepts, but must involve delving into demographics.

The next chapter, which takes in family planning, contraception, and euthanasia, contains a rather prescient passage: "If we may snuff out new life early without qualms of conscience, we are equally entitled to take steps to ensure that those who are so old that they have become a burden to themselves and to society should be snuffed out when they have outstayed their welcome and become a strain on our resources- preferably, but not necessarily, with their own consent, and in these twilight hours the question of consent will be misty on one side at least. Indeed, if the quality of life is what counts, the case for euthanasia is open and shut, for people are living longer nowadays, the number of pensioners are increasing, and there are limits to what wage-and-salary earners can provide for their support withotu disrupting the national economy."

And the last words of the chapter make the overall point with ringing clarity: "Either [life] is sacred, God-given, and inviolable, or it is not; and both abortion and euthanasia are logical corollaries of that death-wish we call contraception". There is an infinite gulf between the sacredness of life and its mere preciousness. A teddy-bear can be "precious".

The book is sprinkled with references to Communism and the Soviet Union, which obviously date it now, but also give us pause for thought. There was something strangely comforting in the existence of the Evil Empire-- though not, of course, for its citizens. It was a visible and tangible antagonist, the embodiment of all the forces that were assailing Christendom. Now the Evil Empire is gone, but the forces of anti-Christianity have lost none of their vitality. The conservative author Peter Hitchens believes that the West's radical left-- or cultural revolutionaries, as he terms them-- were actually liberated by the fall of the USSR. No longer need they be embarrassed by gulags and secret police and the spectacle of a real Revolution at work. No longer would they have to defend the indefensible.

Another regrettable legacy of the Cold War is that conservatism came to be equated with individualism, private enterprise and economic freedom above all else. Strangely enough, this tendency seems to have only increased since the fall of communism, as though the partisans of the free market and of unlimited personal license are still tilting against the ghosts of Stalin and Kruschev-- rather than the more real and impersonal forces of dissolution all around us, forces which often hitch a ride on the tailcoats of the free market.

 The Hungry Sheep ends on an admirably Christological note:

"In seeing God, and in knowing and loving Him, we shall see what makes us different one from another, and how we are all-- in the mass and as individuals-- linked with Him and loved by Him. We shall also see ourselves for the first time, for we shall see ourselves in Him, and it is only in Him that we are really meaningful. He must increase and we must decrease, but our decrease will not be a shrinking nor a diminution. In Christ, our pilgrimage ended, we shall reach our full stature. Our selfhood will be complete and intelligible; and in the end, as Augustine says, there will only be one Christ, loving Himself."


I fervently wish that we had more books like The Hungry Sheep. I think it is time for Veritas Publications, and other religious publishers, to stop putting out books with titles like What Being Catholic Means to Me and start putting out more books like the one recently written by Michael Coren, the Canadian broadcaster, under the title Why Catholics are Right.

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