So today the Catholic church has a new pope, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, aka Francis 1. He was a bit of a surprise to those predicting the frontrunners, though apparently he was a frontrunner in the last election which Joseph Ratzinger, then Pope Benedict, won. For a while, there have been calls for a Pope from outside Europe and finally, there is one, also the first Jesuit pope. Latin America is still the safest choice from the developed world, the closest culturally to Europe, but it’s a start.
The Guardian had this interactive “Choose your own Pope” page and even as other had an entertaining time picking their favourites based on names and face (Kurt Koch, anyone?), I lost quickly lost patience.
It’s my personal preference that the Pope looks like a benign grandfather, even if they are not as John Paul II, the Pope of my childhood, did. Pope Benedict was too hawkish-looking for my liking, Pope Francis seems to fit the bill looks-wise, and as V said, “at least he can stand properly on his own”, although he’s 76. He is said to be conservative (and came out against gay marriage) but he is close to the poor, which is something. He is said to have given up the luxurious archbishop accommodation in Buenos Aires for a simple flat and a commute to work on the bus. So that’s nice. Will he be able to bring the Curia, the powerful papal bureaucracy, to heel? He’s an outsider, and apparently when offered a secretariat job after the election of Pope Benedict, he said “Please, I would die in the Curia”. But he did rise from priest to cardinal incredibly fast and there’s definitely politicking involved in that so many he’s not as politically naïve as one thinks.
I’m going to use this opportunity to pontificate (pun intended) on my views on religion which have evolved from childhood rebellion to a distanced peace.
Watching the news footage of the papal conclave, I did not roll my eyes at the pomp and ceremony as I would have as a teenager. The pomp and ceremony, the ritual, the performance, the theatre of it, is the point. If it was practical, plain, close to real life, it would defeat the purpose.
Increasingly, I see religion and the paraphernalia of it, as art, as a performance that is meant to both stir and calm the imagination. Recently, I read a quote from a book “Seven Days in the Art World” in which a woman at an art auction confessed that she sees art as her mother sees religion, as a way to unravel the mysteries of the world, and for her, the viewing of art and the participation in the surrounding practices is like worship.
And so is religion. It satisfies the human need for narrative, for community, and for ritual tying narrative and community together. To do this, there are a lot of frills. The frills are not peripheral. If not the essence, they are still essential. The medium is the message, as Marshall McLuhan said.
There might be those of us who don’t need this form of narrative characterised by mystical ostentation in our lives. Some flee to the other end, retaining the spiritual essence, the fanciful pared away and scorned. In theory, in my rational mind, that is the path I subscribe to. In my aesthetic and emotional one, though, I like the frills, I’ve always had. Why should a church be so ornate, why have legions of saints, why have unexplainable mysteries? Why not? The purely rational and factual is boring. Fiction often holds great truths. Stained glass is pretty and gives children something to look at while their mothers kneel and their teenage cousins check each other out. It is why I have remained Catholic though my beliefs at core lean towards the Protestant.
There are those who believe they have thrown off the chains of narrative altogether. That they have pierced through the aura of mystery and discovered that The Emperor Has No Clothes and shouted this truth loud and clear. The thing is, maybe everyone, okay not everyone, but many people already knew that. But they liked pretending they could see gorgeous robes.
And also, can we ever throw off narrative? In a book on neuroscience made simple that I read, one of the special characteristics of the human brain is narrativising. We are wired to do it. And till date, I think, we might be wired to create fictions which allow us to metaphorically pass our burdens on, where we can believe another walks beside us always. A lot of people need that, some more than others, and the ones that don’t have often shored up privilege over centuries. The world is sufficiently controllable that they don’t need the stories to make sense of it anymore.
Even then, I doubt we are ever entirely free. Inspired by Nietzsche’s Death of God, Roland Barthes’ wrote The Death of the Author , and Michel Foucault countered that we can never really kill the Author, or at least not yet. The void left by the Author is filled by something else, and that something else is often not that different from the Author.
It has increasingly struck me how atheism was taking on the characteristics of religion, starting first with a tendency to irritating proselytizing (yes! spelled it right. I think) and now there’s this.
It was Pope Benedict, I think, who said that religion provides the counterpoint as science races into the future. It is the balancing weight, the one that ponders over implications, that calls “caution, caution, caution”, that pulls against change. And frustrating as its presence is to those of us who want to race ahead, because we have already established that 2+2 =4, maybe there is a place for the leaden challenger.
I believe the narrative structure of religion is beautiful and useful, particularly for children. It can become a prison and, yet, most religious people are not fanatics. They use the fiction to suit them.
So why not? Because the Church, and other religious organisations, have been responsible for so many atrocities over centuries, for the violence, for the conservatism. Some people are affronted that the Church is involved in politics and money. But all these are characteristic of any multinational organisation and almost all nation states. It’s the nature of the beast. They are providing a service, a service costs money, and when a service goes global, it will not be pretty as it tries to consolidate its power.
If we boycott religion, will we boycott banks, large companies, nation states? Some may, but most won’t because it’s too damn hard and unless there’s one degree of separation to the violence, unless it becomes personal, the purposes it serves to one individually trump the greater bad. Some of us are in a position to see religion as a frill but to many people it isn’t, it is the glue of their lives, and all our logic isn’t going to fill that gap.
That’s not to say, we have to swallow every idiocy and injustice. Standing in the system doesn’t mean you can’t speak against it. I’m not arguing that we all buy into religion. I myself now have only one foot in. But it is a foot I am loathe to remove, because as I grow old, as I turn to gold and pearls, those red robes, slow-moving sceptres, incense, painted ceilings and slow movements are a performance I quite admire.