Thursday, December 13, 2012

John Waters Talk Sponsored by the Iona Institute

As I've mentioned in the post below, last night I attended a talk by the Irish newspaper columnist and author John Waters, held in the Davenport Hotel in Dublin. John Waters began as a rock journalist in the eighties and then (I hope I am getting this right) branched out into cultural and social commentary. He has been willing to take on unfashionable causes, like the rights of fathers. In more recent years, he has gone even further and actually dared to warn Irish society against turning away from the transcendent and the Absolute. He described his spiritual journey in the book Lapsed Agnostic, (a priest in UCD recently drew on this book for his homily).

John Waters has also been highly critical of the internet and of bloggers-- both very sensible positions to take, in my view.

I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, despite being seated to the speaker's left and developing a sore neck towards the end. Mr. Waters recapitulated many of the ideas he has explored in his books and articles, but I think he went a little deeper into some of the ideas.

I was surprised that he spoke so fluently and so eagerly (David Quinn, the chairman, struggled to get him to wind up), since in his book Lapsed Agnostic he confessed that speaking in public terrified him. Maybe he's over that.

Amusingly, a Skeptic's society was having a meeting in the conference room next door. Mr. Waters, beginning his talk, said, "Maybe we're the real sceptics". This wasn't simply a swipe, but was close to being the very theme of his talk-- reflected in the fact that, in his closing remarks, he adverted to it again.

The title of the talk was "Ireland and the Abolition of God". Put crudely, Waters believes that God has been demoted to a kind of minority interest in Ireland. It is permissible to talk about Him in church, or in a religious education class (maybe), or perhaps in a philosophy seminar, but He is no longer a presence in everyday life or in everyday conversation. Mr. Waters returned again and again to the hypothetical scenario of somebody listening to the radio and watching television, non-stop, from seven a.m. to midnight or beyond. His point is that such a person would be presented with a picture of human life in which nothing was offered us except our roles as worker, commuter, student, consumer, and so forth. The human yearning for the transcendent, for the infinite, for mystery, is ignored.

Taking a phrase from the current Pope, Mr. Waters calls this prison of man's self-created reality-- a reality that is empirical, utilitarian, positivistic, and serves to block us from the wonder and fear and wildness of ultimate reality-- "the bunker". He insisted that our task today is "to make the bunker visible", a phrase he repeated again and again.

In a previous post, I complained that Mr. Waters was becoming tedious in his overuse of the bunker metaphor. I see now that this constant repetition is not accidental. Mr. Waters is trying to din this concept of the bunker into the Irish public, and he is right to do so.

What is truly refreshing and remarkable about Mr. Waters is the approach he takes to faith and spirituality. He is not in revolt against the modern world. He is not a nostalgist. He is not a reactionary. And he very consciously strives to escape the ghetto mentality that can close around a religious believer in today's Western society-- especially, indeed, in today's Ireland.

He spoke about the assumption, shared today by both anti-religious and religious people, that belief in God is a mere legacy, a relic. Very interestingly, he pointed out that this sense of preserving an historical trust against modern attacks can make religious believers more fervent and dedicated. However, this spirit of a rearguard action is ultimately limiting. Religious believers, given this assumption, are always on the backfoot, always on the defensive, always half-acquiescing in the idea that we are an anachronism.

Mr. Waters seemed to be saying that religious belief, an orientation towards the ultimate and absolute and transcendent, should not be seen primarily as a legacy from the past, but as a proper reaction to the wonder and awe and mystery of the world around us. The advance of science is so often seen to be hostile to religion, but Mr. Waters made the point that those on the cutting edge of scientific discovery often feel a particular sense of exposure to this primordial mystery. (I didn't know tha the last thing Buzz Aldrin did before stepping onto the moon was to take communion, though I did know that Neil Armstrong's reaction to the experience was intensely spiritual.)

It was also interesting that Mr. Waters evoked the size of the universe-- indeed, the size of the possible multiverse-- as another source of awe and wonder leading him towards an awareness of God. The size of the universe is so often used as an argument against the existence of God, it is important to be reminded that there is no good reason why this should be so-- no good reason why the opposite should not be the case.

Indeed, at one point Mr. Waters threw all caution and convention overboard and suggested that human evolution itself-- that trump card of the New Atheists, and indeed of the old atheists-- was such an unlikely and marvellous occurence that it, too, led us to the contemplation of a Divine Being.

Mr. Waters also had some extremely pertinent things to say about public discussion in Ireland. He seems shocked-- and indeed, he should be shocked, and we should all be shocked-- in the way in which all serious reference to God has been dropped from public debate. As he put it, it has happened in five years, at the least, and twenty-five years at most. It is as though there has been some kind of tacit agreement that mankind's profoundest and greatest and most consequential idea-- the idea of God-- is obsolete. It is as though some scientific finding or philosophical breakthrough or advance in human consciousness had disproved Him-- but, of course, no such thing has happened.

In this regard, I always find myself thinking of a moment in my favourite film, Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray says: "Well, maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe He's not omnipotent at all, He's just been around so long that he knows everything." I love that incidental acknowledgment of God's existence, in a conversation that is far from being pious or theological. Some people might say that it is good for us to always have to defend this thesis, that it exercises both our reason and our faith to always have to assert our belief in a Deity, to live in a world where that assumption no longer applies. But why is it better for the opposite assumption to hold? Why is that any less unthinking and complacent?

Considering that the speaker made such efforts to avoid a mere tribalistic or clannish Catholicism, it was rather disappointing that the atmosphere at the talk was both clannish and tribalistic. Perhaps this is inevitable at any meeting of like-minded people. But I winced a little every time Mr. Waters made a joke at the expense of secularists or atheists that was met with loud and rather artificial guffaws.

As should be obvious, I was greatly impressed by John Waters, and especially by the fact that he had arrived at religious faith from such an existentialist or philosophical or imaginative route. I think that a story such as his own is a powerful witness that religious belief is not simply inherited like freckles, or an irrational and defensive reaction to a scary and rapidly-changing world.

And yet, and yet...for all my admiration of the route he has taken, and the witness he bears, I still can't help thinking that the sight of a woman saying a rosary on the bus is an even more powerful witness.

In other words, I do not think we should be too dismissive of rote-learned, breast-beating, Miraculous-Medal-wearing, metaphysically naive, candle-lighting Catholicism, either. I think we need that sort of example, just as we need the example of a free spirit and enquiring mind like that of John Waters.


  1. I just discovered this talk with John Waters a couple of months ago, and I was pleased to see it linked in your latest post (you trying on wedding suits). I share the same sentiments about John Waters' efforts: he was impressive.

    What do you think of the Iona Institute? (Maybe you addressed this in a past post?)

  2. I think the Iona Institute are wonderful and heroic. Anyone who gets the liberal-secularist-progressivist-right-on-brainwashed zombie hordes of Ireland into such a lather (and they really do) has to be doing something right.

    (Normally I wouldn't indulge in such a flip, partisan comment, since I think they aren't very helpful. But I'm in a mood today!)

    Seriously, though, I think they are very brave, considering the sheer volume of loathing and vitriol they endure. I was at a talk given by David Quinn in UCD where he said a voice message on their answerphone had declared he should be hanged from a lamp-post. There is a massive pressure on right now, especially in Ireland, to push the views the Iona Institute defend outside the bounds of respectable, even mentionable opinion, and I think they are doing a very important public service in fighting this.

    I'm not crazy about their reliance on "studies" and "research", since I think arguments based on empirical data (unless it is beyond all question, like the number of road deaths per year) are rather weak. But I could be wrong there. Maybe this is what impresses people.