When I was a child, in the manner of children everywhere, I would express my identity as: John Waters, Main Street, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Milky Way, The Universe.
Now, all the time, the pressure is on me to live in a smaller and smaller version of reality, and this pressure is almost entirely undetectable.
When I was a child, too, the story of Jesus was part of the everyday reality that imposed itself on me. It wasn’t distant, in either the time or space sense.
Jesus never walked into a room I was in, but He was always somewhere close by. In a different sense, my reality was not defined by a dateline or an address, but somehow remained connected to the infinite, eternal dimensions out of which I had recently tumbled, and in this context Jesus made absolute sense.
His existence, his ‘back story’, was no more strange than anything else. Everything was strange, or nothing was — I was never quite sure which it was.
Nowadays, I struggle to reclaim and hold onto this sense of expansiveness and certainty about my situation and relevance in time and space.
Why? Because most of the messages I receive are so loud, so relentless and so insistent as to their own absolute relevance that it is only with the greatest effort that I can hear beyond them.
The immediate culture proposes ‘explanations’, ‘rationalisations’ and ‘justifications’ for my existence that seem to preclude the necessity to go further.
The sounds and images that might flood in from ‘beyond’ are kept at bay, in part by what seems their own incongruity.
What matters is what I can see, hear, touch and measure in my vicinity. The rest becomes distant, superfluous, possibly improbable.
Whether there is ‘truth’ in anything out there is a question left in abeyance; the only issue is does it matter to me now, do I have to consider it? And the answer that comes easiest is ‘no’.
This is one way of gesturing towards what has happened to Christianity in our culture, for the purposes perhaps of awakening a shared understanding.
Pope Benedict, speaking last year at the Bundestag in Berlin, described mankind as having built a ”bunker without windows”, in which he seeks to convince himself that, in his expanding understanding of his situation, he is entitled to crown himself the creator of all things.
The Pope was seeking to draw our attention to the reductions of reason that infect our consciousnesses without our knowing it, imposed by positivist forms of thinking which, precisely because they infect our thinking, preclude us from seeing them as infections.
There are many other ways we might go about attempting to describe the problem, but the Pope’s image would be hard to beat.
And yet his point remains a little elusive, because our grasping it would really depend on our being able to exit the bunker and perceive its absurdity and self-delusional falsity.
Yet, from inside, the bunker seems utterly coherent, and all other possibilities are rendered implausible. This includes the Christian story.
The bunker logic does not demand that we decide against it, but simply that we re-categorise it as extraneous, remote, ‘super-rational’.
Subject to this logic, it begins to lose its realness. Indeed, inside the bunker, we seem to have no real choice but to do this, because the logic of what surrounds us seems incapable of entertaining a broader picture.
Thus, a separation enters in between what is ‘real’, i.e, near and ‘logical’, and what is — however desirable and beautiful — remote and somehow ‘unreal’, and therefore increasingly implausible.
This contemporary problem of Christianity is never talked about in Christian circles in Ireland. Indeed, to bring it up is to draw the disapproval of what has become a resolute denial.
To try to capture the issue in words is to invite allegations of betrayal or weakness of ‘belief’. The only way to ‘deal with’ the problem is to deny there is a problem.
Thus, the landscape divides between those who, seduced by the logic of the ‘bunker’, decide that the proposal Christianity offers is ipso facto unreasonable, and those who, clinging loyally to what they have been given, seek to ignore the fact that, for them also, the din of the immediate culture renders their beliefs more beleaguered by the day.
This is no mere theoretical problem. It is in the nature of such questions to be, at best, capturable in language, which tends to create parallel ‘realities’, abstracted landscapes of concepts and ideas.
Thus, what should be immediately relevant to the lives of human beings becomes ‘philosophical’ or ‘theological’, which falls into the logic of the bunker by adding incomprehensibility to implausibility, a vicious cycle that seems to allow no means of exit.
Last summer in Rimini, Italy, I glimpsed, the possibility of an antidote.
I have in mind an exhibition at the Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, last August, called ‘Through the Eyes of the Apostles: Life Overwhelmed by a Presence’.
The exhibition was, put simply, a reconstruction of elements of the context into which Jesus first entered the public life of the world: the first places He was encountered by other men and women for who He was.
There were several elements: the waterfall at which John the Baptist baptised Jesus; the village, Capernaum, where he lived for a time; a reconstruction, based on archaeological digs, of the house of Peter, in which Jesus stayed at an early stage in his public life; the locations in which Jesus spoke; and then, the location of the Resurrection, where history recommenced.
But this exhibition is not intended primarily as a proffering of information. Yes, we are taken to these places, in terms of fact, history, what the Gospels tell us; but we are also taken there in a different sense: in all our human senses.
I did not feel that I was there to be informed. It was impossible not to be moved, impossible not to be transported.
Perhaps ‘teleported’ is a better word. For what I felt was that suddenly I had been embraced in something involving a collapsing of time and space. History was foreshortened and the past 2,000 years became irrelevant.
I was in Capernaum. I could smell the trees and hear the lapping of water. I could hear sounds, voices, floating across the lake. I was a child again, a citizen of the universe. I had returned to the centre of history, which I had once felt so certain was the locus of my own origin.
‘Is He here?’, I found myself wondering. Is He here?
At the heart of what I encountered was a question: what moved these men to follow this stranger?
The inhabitants of Capernaum and its surrounding areas were drawn to Jesus because they saw, sensed, that he was exceptional. Never had they felt like they felt in His presence: His wisdom, His goodness, His power over nature.
By following Him, they experienced life as more intense than anything they had known before.
The cultural problem confronting us concerning the Gospels is that they have quietly, by osmosis, come to be regarded as mythical, as the result of a failure to confront the question of what reason is and how it fits into our ‘modern’ minds.
The bunker requires that we reduce everything to what we can easily understand and believe. The resulting wooliness about the greater questions has rendered sentimentality and moralism the only ‘safe’ grounds from which to survey the challenge posed by Christianity.
Growing out of an initial inability to fit the Gospel stories into the reason of the bunker, there has been a gradual re-categorising of them as something like quasi-fables, containing important moral parables but, when the question is starkly put, not necessarily to be taken as literal truth. The very thought of this hurts those who regard themselves, in spite of everything, as Christians, so the response, on being confronted in this way, is to shut the thought out, to denounce the messenger and push blindly on. But the problem remains: not so much ‘whether to believe?’, but ‘how to believe?’
Everything that we call Christianity comes to us from the testimony of the men who followed Jesus in His travels through the synagogues and fields of Palestine. Do we, as Pope Benedict has asked us, trust the Gospels?
Our bunker-culture teaches us to be sceptical about everything, and this leads us to demand certain forms of proof, usually empirical proofs.
But is there any other way of seeing things? Is there anything else we can trust? When we hear the stories from the Gospels, do they seem to be at all rooted in the same reality as us, or do they float away into some half-light dimension, becoming part-real, part-myth, part-lesson?
If we factor in other elements: our basic need for something we cannot find; the questions that gnaw away at us, in spite of all our efforts at self-distraction; the utter mysteriousness of ourselves and the fabulous reality that, if we look beyond the bunker, promises to overwhelm us — then, the stories from the Gospel seem to describe a place where our needs might be met, our questions answered, the mystery made visible.
In a more everyday sense, if we did not believe in the idea of witness without empirical proof, we would trust almost nothing and make ourselves mad.
I do not know what day it is other than because, some long time ago, I have become convinced that the way of understanding time and dates is coherent and trustworthy.
A jury member must listen to the evidence, but must also look into the eyes of the witness and decide if he trusts what is being said. We do this all the time, accepting things because we trust the line of communication along which the information has travelled.
When I walked through the exhibition, I was overcome by the idea that what it enabled or recreated was an opportunity for the human imagination — a place / moment where Irish culture needed to be positioned if the reasonableness of Christianity is ever to be reclaimed.
Only by re-entering history in our own imaginations can we dissolve the sceptical clamour of the bunker and reorient ourselves towards the only centre of reality that has ever made total sense of everything.
This is the Good News. And the good news about the Good News is that this exhibition is indeed set to come here, as part of the Eucharistic Congress in June.
Through the efforts of the Dublin branch of Communion and Liberation, the core elements of this exhibition are to be constructed at the RDS in Dublin, and made open to the public for the duration of the congress.
It is an ambitious and costly project, but happily a substantial element of the cost has already been covered by a number of generous donations.
Further financial contributions are welcome, but even more valuable would be offers of practical help and assistance in building the exhibition.
And this will not just be a construction project, but a process of demolition as well — the razing of the bunker which man has constructed to shut out the light of reality’s true significance.
All enquiries and offers of help to CongressExhibition@gmail.com