Holding to the Centre
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
These lines from Yeats’ poem The Second Coming seem as true now as they were when he wrote them between the two World Wars.
If we look at the political situation in Europe, and further afield, we witness the collapse of the centrist parties: traditional political certainties are falling apart. And as in politics so too in our society at large. I cannot recall a time in my life where our society has seemed so divided with areas of common ground increasingly hard to find.
The worst of motives are frequently ascribed to those who disagree with us, one need only think of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump to see examples of groups of hugely polarised people simply unable to comprehend how any right-minded person could have voted other than the way they voted. People speak of online echo chambers where people never encounter anything but the worst parodies of those they disagree with and spend most of their time having their opinions reinforced and applauded by – as a current facebook advert puts it – ‘people like us’.
At the same time on University campuses and in other areas of public life debates rage over issues of diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion. Identity politics is creating huge tensions between people.
Diversity, we are told, is to be celebrated; yet at the moment we feel not so much diverse as divided. Where is the centre? What can hold diverse people together, rather than turning them against one another?
The answer is given us in today’s letter of St Paul to the Ephesians: ‘In Christ Jesus, you that used to be so far apart from us have been brought very close, by the blood of Christ. For He is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart….’
I remember when a friend from my old job came with to Mass for the first time. One of the things that struck him was great mixture of people inside the Church. He made the point that there were very few places in daily life where people congregate and socialise that actually reflect the diversity of our society. Go into a pub, a theatre, a restaurant, a bar, and more often that not there will be a certain demographic that predominates. All too few are the places where people come together and meet people ‘not like us’. What the Church has, that much of modern diversity politics lacks, is something bigger than the differences, something which draws diverse people together and gives them cause for celebration of their difference and there being together.
Now this is not to say that Christians can only take pleasure in the company and the differences of other Christians, but rather that the Christian perspective properly sees each and every human being as a unique creation of God; sees each person as loved, willed, and necessary. The philosophy of materialist evolutionism which is so prevalent in modern academia in the West has no such basic regard for the dignity of the human person. Such a philosophy sees humans as inevitably in competition with one another, cooperating where it serves personal interest, and seeks to explain away altruism.
And yet there remains this thirsting for justice, this indelible imprint upon our souls from God. Those in our society who have been systematically mistreated and downtrodden long for a fairer, better world. The problem is when they long for it without God. Whereas Job was angry with God, modern day expressions of hurt and exclusion tend to be followed by anger at the system and those perceived to control it. As the philosopher Eric Voegelin put it, ‘they rebel against the poor organisation of the world and they maintain the hope of salvation through human effort’.
The danger is that we get trapped in a world of ‘isms’ and their activists, and the counter-activists that arise against the other activists against the ‘isms’ and if we as Christians become too proccupied with these, all that results is that the Lord’s flock becomes divided. We can spend our lives becoming preoccupied by the wrongdoings of others, thinking ‘if only they would change, then things would be so much better’, we become – and I’m fully aware of the possibilities for hypocrisy here – too eager to teach and not eager enough to be taught. And this is where the instruction of Jesus to ‘come away to some lonely place . . . and rest for a while’, becomes so important. It is in such time that we realise our own sinfulness, we realise our own tendency to live like sheep without shepherd.
We may on the surface of things acknowledge Christ as the True Shepherd, but do we follow the example of the crowd in today’s Gospel? Do we hurry to hear to His teaching. Do we pause to allow him to teach us at length?
Because the truth is that Christ is the only true centre and without Him things fall apart.
Readings: Jer 23:1-6 | Eph 2:13-18 | Mark 6:30-34
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.