Terry from Derry: Scratch the Surface
by Terry Boyle
At a time of uncertainty, the word faith tends to get overused. And, when this well-worn word is peddled so readily, there is always a caveat. Blind faith, suggesting that faith is something that transcends reason and requires us to suspend our critical judgment, is often the type of belief that gets us into trouble.
This type of faith is not restricted to religion. Extreme nationalism can sometimes require this sort of faith, which inevitably results in romanticizing the founding ideals of a nation and re-writes history.
Denis Johnston’s play, The Old Lady says “No!”, was seen as anti-nationalist when it was produced in Dublin in 1929, since it depicts the character of Robert Emmet as a crazed patriot. Johnston, in this work, is skeptical of romantic nationalism, especially when its heroes are venerated beyond the point of reality. Romantic rebels idolize the nationalist cause for the sake of propaganda and recruitment so that when you scratch the surface of any of these tall stories, they crumble to dust.
The Lives of Saints
Religious romanticism is an easy target for a cynic like me, especially when you’ve grown up in a pious household. I remember devouring a book on the lives of saints (a topic known to theologians as hagiography). In particular, I salivated over the life of Saint Theresa of Avila.
Most of these accounts of these haloed ones were written to inspire the weak of faith and make all Catholics feel privileged to belong to the ‘one true faith.’ But, when you scratch the surface, you find this elitism is based on political wrangling, debauchery, and any number of unattractive human vices. The church used these saints to deflect attention from its wrongdoings.
For most ideologues, the mission to convince us relies on our goodwill and naivety. When the propagandist begins to simplify, they’re hiding something they don’t want you to see. When the bible believer tells you it’s ‘God breathed’ or ‘sacred’, they are asking you to abandon reason and believe implicitly in an interpretation of something they probably do not understand themselves but accept blindly.
When you scratch the surface of these great books, they are the result of a society trying to organize itself by devising rules and regulations appropriate to its cultural understanding. Just how much of what they understand is the result of divine inspiration is a matter for debate.
Paul (the apostle), for instance, seems to accept slavery as a social norm. He is misogynistic, and highly judgmental. When reading his letters, you need to do a lot of mental gymnastics to make what he says tolerable to the 21st Century, unless you live in a fundamentalist society.
In a world that has become reduced to sound bites. It is hard to have any meaningful debate. You simply cannot have a conversation with someone who has a placard mentality, especially if they reside in the White House or occupy the Senate.
Democracy, as we’ve seen in our times, is not the form of government most of us thought it would be. When you scratch the surface of our present democratic system, you find the rot underneath.
A Place for Every Bad Man
Those who formerly espoused conservative morality will now validate the actions of a president who lies, cheats, and demonstrates no moral compass, simply because it’s politically expedient. To quote the 19th century Irish politician, John Curran: “In this administration, a place can be found for every bad man.”
The Republican Party has learned nothing from the actions of the Catholic Church and continues to deflect and distract us from seeing their cultish allegiance to a man who constantly usurps the rule of law at whim. If we scratch the surface of those who defend the actions of a man who claims to have faith, we find a self-serving agenda. The GOP’s love of Trump is not of him as a person. For them, he provides the GOP with a base that keeps them in office.
Liberalism is not without its own romantic illusions. The hippy era, for example, espoused ‘free love,’ ‘make love not war,’ and yet many of these people were incapable of translating this dream into a reality. Hippy communes were generally run by male chauvinists who didn’t treat women as equals but rather as objects of desire.
The novelty of socialism soon wore off when some of them discovered the delights of financial enterprise. Soon, the jolly green giant of commercialism took them off to a better more prosperous place. We see this also when it comes to the great leaders of social progress, Kennedy, MLK, are less ideal human beings than we were led to believe. Scratching the surface can bring some surprising discoveries.
Does that mean we should simply reject it all? No, there is a case to be made for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Humanity is capable of incredible advances.
Sometimes, when we scratch the surface, there is change. I was encouraged by the Evangelical singer, Daniel Dietrich and his new song “81 percent”. In his lyrics, he points the finger at his Evangelical brethren for voting for a president who does not serve their lofty moral goals.
Pope Francis, unlike his predecessors, is another example of radical change. He is not attempting to deflect or ignore the the reality of clerical abuse and problems with celibacy. This kind of person advocates faith without blinding themselves to the truth.
*Terry is a retired professor at Loyola University, Chicago. He writes and reviews plays, while also teaching modern Irish and English drama. Moving from Derry, N. Ireland to Chicago in 2004, he continues to enjoy is work with the Irish American community throughout America. He can be reached: [email protected]