The Myth of ‘Lone Wolf’ Terrorism

I have recently enjoyed reading Kathleen Belew’s historical study of the white power movement in America. Titled Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary in America, Belew’s work is an admirable attempt to trace the development of what is a complex ideological movement. The central difficulty facing Belew and others delving into the murky underworld of extreme white politics is how to obtain accurate and credible information about its activities and history. Thankfully, Belew displays a thorough knowledge of extant primary source materials (including pamphlets, speeches, essays and other propaganda) and has painstakingly evaluated their content in order to map out a history of extreme right and paramilitary organisations in the post-Vietnam era.

After reviewing key events in its history, Belew concludes her work with an account of domestic terrorist and Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh’s activity in the lead-up to his bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. As has been noted by Gore Vidal, the media narrative surrounding McVeigh’s attack depicted the former soldier as a mentally unstable aggressor motivated by little more than a false sense that 519qlqzt3-lthe American government was his personal enemy. (1) The narrative also maintained that McVeigh acted alone in his crimes- a somewhat unbelievable proposition given the sophistication of the attack. Nevertheless, the media offered a sterilised and compartmentalised version of events that understood the tragedy of the Oklahoma Bombing as an outworking of the damaged psyche of McVeigh alone. This conclusion has now been challenged by Belew. In what is the books most insightful and provocative chapter, Belew dispels the myth of McVeigh as having acted alone with a thorough review of his links with various extreme right groups, each of whom offered a range of material and social supports. (2) As I pondered McVeigh’s inter-personal relationships, I was reminded of the essentially relational nature of much terrorist activity and its corresponding religious extremism. This is particularly the case in relation to the forms of terrorism perpetrated by those claiming fidelity to Islamic theologies.  No ideology can spread without relationships, propaganda and complex systems of networking. The dark underbelly of religious extremism is of course no different.

I wrote some years ago about the need to take seriously the role of theology in the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism. That reflection was written from the perspective of youth radicalisation and some of my experiences working with Muslim youth in Western Sydney. I had grown concerned that the narrative of terrorists as being ‘lone wolves’ actually undermined the depth of the issue and, ultimately, allowed for the misallocation of government resources pledged to deal it. It was common in the not-for-profit sector in which I then worked to treat Islamic radicalisation as a sort of sociological problem that could be fixed with mere policy changes and a greater willingness on behalf of non-Muslims to listen and respond to the grievances of radicalised Islamic youth. To me, this view is not only too simplistic but also faintly patronising and condescending. This notion is, in my mind at least, predicated on the assumption that young people are incapable of forming a coherent political and religious worldview, and that expressions of claimed theological beliefs are by default warped. The rationalisation process by moderate Islamic commentators ignored the underlying issues at play, and remains for me deeply unsatisfying and ignorant of the magnitude of the problem. Rather, there is something more significant going on here than mere sociological inequality and cultural divides. It is a phenomenon that is political and religious in nature, and pertains to fundamentally different ways of seeing the world.

Why, then, has the myth of lone wolf terrorism gained such traction? In the first instance we might say that on a superficial level it certainly appears that many terrorist activities are undertaken individually. At least, this is how the media often depicts the outbreak of any new terrorist-related attack here in Australia. An article in The Age newspaper in November last year discussed the facts surrounding the Bourke Street stabbing attack, in which the authors designated the aggressor to be acting alone. However, Victorian Police Commissioner Graham Ashton betrayed something of the complexity of the case in the same article, in which he states that ‘we are treating it as a terrorism incident. He’s (the perpetrator) got family associations that are well-known to us.’ (3) A lone attacker, therefore, does not operate in a vacuum. There are always networks of support and sympathy, often coming from immediate and extended family. Yet there is also a range of social and ideological affiliations which, in my view, can be considered part-collaborators in terrorist activity, even if these influences lie beyond the scope of prosecution. In McVeigh’s time these networks operated primarily as paramilitary organisations that operated from centralised locations. Many of these locations functioned as military-style boot camps; each featured caches of weapons and tactical training programs delivered by former vets who knew their stuff. Today, the context is vastly different. The advent of the internet has allowed terrorist ideology to disseminate its theology across international borders with ease, and this constant flow of propaganda has served to function as a new breeding ground for future radicalisation. (4) What this means is that even though lone wolf attacks might appear to be carried out by socially isolated individuals, they are in fact the result of social processes of radicalisation that justify extremist theologies. Just because these influences may not be physically present in the individuals life does not lessen their impact in any way.

If the portrait of a lone terrorist is in fact problematic and inaccurate, what function does it then serve? It seems to me that the myth of ‘lone wolf terrorism’ is a form of cognitive avoidance. It is the stance those of us take who have not been direct victims of terrorism. We employ this device in order to make things seem more rational than they are in reality. In isolating terrorism to the warped initiatives of single individuals, we overlook the basic fact that such actions not only have their precedent in Islamic scripture, but that these same individuals have invariably received support and sympathy through their social networks. In indulging in this cognitive loophole we ignore the frightening possibility that there might be irreconcilable worldviews at play in Islams clash with the West.  I don’t really have any answers to this complex issue, although perhaps one of the solutions is to dispense with the erroneous narrative that all terrorists are lonely, mentally ill misfits. Rather, we should seek to address the problem at its core, and that means to take radicalisation seriously as a theological and political problem, not as a sociological one.

 

Notes

  1. Gore Vidal, “The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh,” Vanity Fair, Nov 10th, 2008. Accessed Wed 23rd Jan 2019. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2001/09/mcveigh200109
  2. Kathleen Belew. Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 209-34.
  3. See: Erin Pearson, John Silvester & Simone Fox Koob, “Lone Terrorist Responsible for Deadly Attack on Bourke Street,” The Age, November 9th, 2018, https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/two-people-stabbed-man-shot-after-car-set-alight-on-bourke-street-reports-20181109-p50f55.html
  4. Readers interested in this topic in its Australian context should consult Anne Aly’s thoughtful conference paper “The Internet as Ideological Battleground,” in Anne Aly (ed), 1st Australian Counter-Terrorism Conference, November 3rd 2010, pp 1-6. Perth, Western Australia: Security Research Centre, Edith Cowan University. A PDF version of the paper is available here.

 

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Modern Circles of Hell: Some New Proposals

As Dante’s tour guide through hell, the Roman poet Virgil introduces the former to the nine circles of torment that will face the condemned upon death. These concentric circles roughly correspond to the seven deadly sins, but are extended to include such innovations as heresy, violence, fraud and treachery.  As a new entrant to the fiery underworld, one can expect to endure a different mode of eternal suffering depending on the category and gravity of one’s sin throughout earthly existence. The arrogant, conceited, greedy and lustful can expect their own personal and unique sufferings, as befitting a life lived in self indulgence. As the author himself notes, the suffering of hell is thus reserved for those sinners who have ‘sacrificed their reason to their lust.’ (Inf. 5:38-9)

dantesinfernobannerYet as horrifying as Dante’s depiction of the brutality of Hell is, it overlooks the subtler forms of torment that, if not as physically punishing, are nevertheless psychologically unrelenting. Like God, the devil works in mysterious ways, and his tortures are not always blatantly violent. Imagine, for example, being stuck in a doctors waiting room with crying kids for all damn eternity? Sure, your body might survive but your mind will eventually fall to bits. Or imagine that you were stuck in the Woolworth’s express check out aisle for millennia? Just as you approach the counter you are magically transported to the back of the queue and are forced to repeat the process again. It is these milder forms of eternal punishment that I honour here today. As a thought experiment, I offer you six alternate circles of Hell based on my own fear and loathing.

 Circle 1: Minor Annoyances

Circle 1 is the entry point for those entering Hell. Not matter the severity of the evil committed by individuals on earth, all are lumped together in circle 1 for an observational period lasting several thousands of years. Consider it a holding cell in which people are tested according to what they can endure. Those who hold their nerves the longest are given a concession: they will stay in circle 1 for eternity, thus avoiding the tortures that will eventually face the weaker of the lot. Even the devil, it seems, operates with a modicum of grace.

In this circle, individuals are forced to endure the constant noise of construction sites; hammering, circular saws, gruff voices yelling and so forth. Nothing ever actually gets built, mind you. It is always a construction project in progress without any hope of completion. Over time, the construction noise is supplemented with the additional annoyance of a small dog yapping continuously.

There is no night or day in this level, just a soft glow emanating from the reflected light of the fires burning further along the cavern. This gentle glow shines off the surrounding rock, occasionally illuminating the pained and irritated faces of the newly arrived.

Circle 2: Narcissist Plague

Those who have not secured their place in circle 1 are ushered into the toxic world of circle 2. Before they arrive, however, they are forced into a deep sleep. Upon awakening, they find themselves getting ready for work in their former homes. All memory of dying and arriving in Hell is wiped from memory, and for all intents and purposes the individual in question resumes their former life with little more than a faint and vague sense of being in a dream like state.

The only change to their lives? Well, from now on everyone they encounter- be it family, friends, co-workers or service staff- will be either a pathological narcissist or sociopath. All future romantic relationships will also be marked by the presence of these troublesome personalities. Over time, these people wear the afflicted down and destroy their sense of peace and self-esteem. The afflicted lives a life of fear, constantly wondering what might happen to them. Like a parasite, when one narcissist saps all the energy from the afflicted they move on, only to be replaced with another. There is no end to this cycle for all eternity.  One may pray for death, but these prayers are but empty words cast into the abyss.

Circle 3: Dance Music Festivals

Through the process of observing an individual’s earthly life (as well as a pre-hell questionnaire), Satan has gathered in-depth knowledge of his subjects least favourite style of music. For those who detest dance music and hip-hop, the devil has a special torment in mind- although it is only reserved for the very worst offenders.

Similar to Circle 2, the afflicted is put to sleep via a type of sedative gas unique to hell. Upon waking, the afflicted find themselves in the middle of a huge, open-air concrete arena. There is a stage set-up at one end, and the floor of the venue is filled with a mass of shirtless people on steroids. A DJ is blasting the infernal sounds of electronic dance music. Every 3 seconds the music stops and he bellows ‘get your hands in the air.’ The temperature gauge on the arenas scoreboard states that it is 41 degrees Celsius. There is no shade, and the sun is beating down relentlessly.

You find yourself sweating and overheating. Unable to think, your friends approach you. You have taken a bad ecstasy tablet. They don’t know this, and they keep encouraging you to come up the front and party. You eventually overheat. Vomiting and dizzy, you are rushed to the St. John’s ambulance tent where they try to revive you. You pass out. With the help of the St. John Ambulance crew you eventually come to, only to relive the horrible experience over and again, ad infinitum.

 Circle 4: Work, Health & Safety Seminar

 Upon arriving at circle 4, the cursed minions are led down a passageway through the caves and led into a large auditorium lit by piercing fluorescent lights. At this point the remaining stragglers are herded through the door which is locked behind them for all eternity.

What awaits the afflicted is a repeated death by boredom, but a boredom of a particular variety. Just when it appears that nothing of significance will happen, a group of corporate types in suits emerge from behind an oversized white board. They are but ghosts, but this scarcely matters in the present context. Their presence both feels real and invokes terror and obedience. The gathered masses are now forced to sit down with paper and pens at the ready (provided courtesy of Hell). They are told that they will now be subjected to an eternity of Work Health & Safety lectures. All they can expect for millennia, they are told, are endless lectures about the importance of fire and safety, identifying hazardous substances and the appropriate posture when working at a desk. At the end of every lecture are a series of exam questions which must be passed. Failure means automatic enrolment in a second series of classes, the topic of which is ‘creating safe spaces in the work environment.’

Circle 5: Sydney Trains Debacle

It is peak hour in the Sydney CBD, and you are waiting on a crowded platform at Town Hall station. There is barely room to move. The air is oppressively hot and sticky, a fact made worse by the smell of sweat. The station manager has indicated via the loudspeaker that your train to Bankstown is running 25 minutes late. Everyone is frustrated, and you wonder how much more it would take for a violent riot to break out.

Eventually your train pulls up. You see the lights approaching from the other end of the subway tunnel. You breathe a sigh of relief, only to tense right back up again: it is an old unairconditioned tin sweat box model from the 1970’s. You groan and feel close to murder. You have no choice but to enter the sauna alongside all and sundry.

The train soon starts moving, but at a snails pace. Somewhere between Town Hall and Wynyard station it comes to a complete stop. The train guard comes over the speaker in a raspy voice: ‘Passengers, we are experience mechanical difficulties. We’ll keep you updated as we know more.’

As you sweat profusely you ponder your earthly decisions and wonder what you could have done differently to avoid this suffering. Not that such self-reflection matters. After several hours of being stuck between stations you are transported back to the platform to relive the entire experience over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Circle 6: The Eternal Church Service

Let it not be said that the Devil lacks a sense of humour.

Amidst all the suffering of hell, some poor souls see it fit to complain to the devil about the conditions. Grievances about the heat and lack of space are especially common, as is a disgust with the standard of lavatory facilities (a reality too revolting to repeat here). Amongst the more popular laments was the expression of regret for allowing themselves to be cast into hell in the first place. ‘If only I listened to those weird Christians on the street,’ they moan.’ Popular also: ‘I should have gone along to Church with my parents instead of playing FIFA on my PlayStation, maybe then I would be in heaven.’

To these people the devil reserved his most severe contempt. This contempt was, admittedly, born out of a sense of hurt; Hell wasn’t actually so bad, he reasoned. Sure, it was hot. But there were plenty of different activities to do. Constant music festivals and all that. Why did everyone hate on him so much?

In his anger, the devil decided to give these complainers exactly what they wanted: the chance for redemption. The best way, he thought, was to subject them to an eternity of stifling Church services. Although these services varied in style, they all had one thing in common: four hour sermons on Levitical law. During these expositions the congregation members were forced to remain in their seats, unable to even shift their posture. Following these epic sermons the congregation were forced to sing the contemporary praise and worship song ‘Indescribable’ a minimum of 20 times. The only sustenance they received was the post-service milk arrowroot biscuits and Nescafe instant blend.

Observing these poor souls enduring such torment, the devil couldn’t help but chuckle to himself. Maybe he would let them out in a million years or so. Then again, maybe not. In the meantime he grabbed a beer and listed to some Deep Purple.

****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jack T. Chick and The Witches of Nar Nar Goon

The sociological phenomenon known as the ‘satanic panic’ hit the country town of Warragul in the early 1990’s, where for a brief time the locals had become alarmed at the rise in satanic ritual activity amongst the towns youth. Rumours circulated amongst our Church congregation that organised groups of demon-filled young people were systematically targeting local high schools in order to gain disciples. Sinister images were evoked by my Sunday school teacher of profane drug and sex fuelled rituals occurring in the rural wastelands throughout the West Gippsland region, with the small town of Nar Nar Goon thought to be a particular centre of unholy activity. It was reported that local dairy farmers had been finding animals either missing or slaughtered on their expansive properties. Old farm sheds were said to have been hijacked by these satanically inspired hordes and used as places for animal sacrifice and other forms of devil worship. Pentagrams were routinely spray painted on the walls only to be found days later by confused and frightened farmers.

All of this was known to our Church leaders because one of the congregations members own son’s had become caught up in this infernal underworld. Beryl’s sixteen year old son Jeff was familiar to those of us who had been part of the Church for some years, as he would occasionally attend a service for special events such as Easter or Christmas celebrations. He was known as a slightly odd but otherwise pleasant lad who was content to keep to himself. Recent character changes in Jeff’s personality, however, had caused Beryl to seek prayer and spiritual guidance from the Church community. Apparently Jeff had become even further withdrawn into himself, aggressive at home and would sometimes disappear for days on end. When he was home, Jeff would sometimes appear ‘spaced out,’ which Beryl attributed to drug use. Upon further exploring, Beryl uncovered a satanic altar hidden in Jeff’s wardrobe. She had read a book on satanism and youth which had a checklist of things to be on the look out for, and the presence of black candles, animal skulls and pentagrams in the bedroom were considered definite proof of a child’s co-opting by Satanists.

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The manic fear extended beyond the Church itself. I remember that it one of my year 7 religious education classes the teacher saw fit to show us a fear-mongering VHS titled ‘Exposing the Satanic Web.‘ As evidence of the sensationalism and hysteria of the era, the film is an amusing testament to the individual and collective psyche’s ability to scare itself into an illusory panic. It is the same mass-paranoia and demon obsession that fuelled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 17th century. Nevertheless, for impressionable twelve and thirteen year old minds the film frightened us. It was the kind of fear that is bred from sensationalism, in which the end goal is to create a perverted sense of enjoyment and entertainment. For my own part I found the whole thing morbidly exciting. I was revulsed but by the idea of animal sacrifice, but was also distinctly intrigued with the mysterious imagery and pageantry of the whole satanic enterprise. I was also an instant fan of the heavy metal music that played throughout the various documentaries we were forced to watch. From memory, one of the bands featured was Los Angeles rockers W.A.S.P. I was later to find out that W.A.S.P. had caused no small degree of controversy in Christian circles for allegedly using the acronym for ‘We are Satan’s People’ (some also suggested it was ‘We Are Sexual Perverts’) as their band name. Whatever. they looked and sounded cool.

I must have started displaying some subtle warning signs of an impending satanic conversion because my Sunday School teacher- a large and vivacious woman named Victoria-had singled me out for special spiritual intervention. She kept me back after the scripture lesson one morning and expressed her concern that I was ‘dabbling in the dark side,’ and that if I kept heading in this direction I would end up possessed or even dead.  In order to combat the fiery arrows of Satanic attack I needed to pray for strength and read the Bible every day. In addiction, Victoria gave me a selection of comic book tracts by the fundamentalist evangelist Jack T. Chick.

Jack T. Chick’s tracts are notorious for their bigotry, which was a product of Chick’s own brand of dogmatic and miliatristic theology. Since his conversion experience whilst listening to a radio broadcast of Charles E. Fuller’s Old Time Revival Hour, Chick’s theological development was marked by rigidity and judgement. Chick was dismissive of huge swathes of both liberal and orthodox theological belief, and suggested that salvation could be received through the narrow confines of his own legalistic interpretation of the Gospel. Amongst Chick’s more controversial views were his suggestion that Roman Catholics, Freemasons and Muslims were manifestations of the demonic. He also held to the view that any translation of the Bible occurring after the publication of the King James Version in 1611 was inherently heretical. Common beliefs of the Independent Baptist movement were also subscribed to by Chick, albeit with an extremity and harshness that bordered on outright hate. Chick condemned homosexuality, abortion, popular music, astrology and drugs, to name just a few.  The man himself was something of an enigma, and not a great deal is known about his personal biography other than some brief overviews provided online. The best way to learn something of Chick’s personality is through his tracts, which are entertaining and repulsive in equal measure.

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Because I was displaying tendencies toward becoming a satanic metalhead, Victoria gave me a copy of a Chick tract titled ‘The Angels.’ The basic story is of a Christian rock group called The Green Angels, who are unhappy with the lukewarm reception they are receiving on the Church circuit. A satanic entity embodied in the form of a secular band manager approaches The Green Angels after a recent concert. He states that he can make them world famous and provide them with all the booze, women and money they could ever want. Allured by the temptation, the band signs a contract in their own blood at which point their souls belong to the devil. The band enjoy a brief time of rock and roll excess before the destruction kicks in; overdoses and AIDS plague the band, resulting in
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two premature deaths. Only one of the band members finds salvation via a tract given to him backstage by a concerned fan. Once he repents of his former life he commences a ministry testifying to the satanic dangers of pop music. The tract both intrigued and frightened me, and I must concede that Chick had a real knack for capturing his reader’s imagination through utilising a mixture of aggressive theology, striking graphics and an array of sinister characters and imagery that was appealing in its sense of danger. Even though I considered Chick to be another Christian fundamentalist nut job, I have always loved his comics for their unabashed forthrightness and sense of danger.

***

I remembered this time on my life during the Christmas holidays just past. For reasons of nostalgia I took a day trip with my wife to my hometown of Warragul, and on the way passed through the small town of Nar Nar Goon. The place looked much as I remember it in 1993, and appears to have avoided the plague of housing developments springing up throughout the West Gippsland region. As I recollected the stories about the supposed witches and satanic gatherings taking place on the farms surrounding the town, I was reminded of the reality and necessity of ‘darkness’ as an integral element of Christian faith. The light of the world- which John’s Gospel identifies as being Christ himself- only makes sense because of the corresponding darkness which was defeated on the cross. The light of Christ is grasped only when set against the dark forces that shape and govern our world- a cosmic reality also attested to by John. Light exists because darkness exists, and vice versa. I am of course not advocating some kind of morbid obsession with darkness, but I do feel that we need to think differently about the the place of darkness in the world and in our individual lives. We all have the capacity to act on this darkness, which touches the every human heart to a greater or lesser extent. When I remember back to the so-called ‘satanic panic’ era of my childhood, it seems to me that the mistake being made by the Christians around me was that the darkness being expressed through juvenile satanic rituals- however comic and anachronistic they may seem to us today- was something we must intrinsically fear and intellectually avoid. Our young minds were told that all thoughts of the devil would inevitably lead to satanism, and that any fascination with or interest in the darker side of human life was sinful. This dualistic approach to spirituality- although ultimately correct (for the light is not the darkness)- nevertheless emphasised fear rather than fearlessness. The darkness was something we were implored to automatically run from. Reflecting or thinking about its place in the Christian faith was strictly off-limits. This was a tragedy, as it prevented us from fully understanding the depth of our faith and the complex spiritual dynamics at play in the world. The Christian faith is predicated on the battle between light and darkness. The demonic is a present reality in our world, and a theological and spiritual willingness to confront it- both corporately and invididually- is necessary for our faith to deepen. That darkness exists in concrete reality should be attested to and engaged without fear and suppression, for it has ultimately been defeated.

 

 

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Small Moments in Love #1

I was walking her to the train station late one Sunday evening. It was the middle of winter, yet I had not really registered the cold.  She, on the other hand, claimed that she was utterly freezing. I had lent her one of my overcoats for the ten minute stroll. This was apparently not enough to dull the sting of a biting wind. She clung to my right hand as I put my left hand around her shoulders, holding her tight.

I wanted her to stay with me overnight. That is what I so desperately desired, but it could never be the case. Our relationship was secret from everyone. It had to be that way. Her parents would never approve of her seeing someone who wasn’t from her own cultural  background. I was told that they had eyes and ears everywhere, ready to pounce on any perceived transgression from the communities tribal law. Because of this our relationship was chased by the shadows of a temporality that we didn’t really want to acknowledge.

As we walked through the night we chatted about our imaginary future. She had deluded herself into actually believing we could find a way through the disapproval and secrecy. I, however, was merely sad. I longed for the same future but knew in my heart that our time together was temporary. In time I would learn to suppress these feelings and would eventually join her in a shared optimism that maybe we could have an honest relationship. We created this fictional world in our minds because we were in love, and with love comes that kind of hope that refuses to entertain thoughts of its own demise. We both said that we wanted to get married.

We arrived at the station just as her train was pulling out. This meant a fifteen minute wait. We sat down and I noticed her teeth starting to chatter. I broke out into brief laughter. She got upset and scolded me for making fun of her pain.  I hugged her and draw her close to me whilst my mind cursed the bittersweet reality that I had found someone I loved but could not fully have. And so we sat in silence.

Just before the train arrived she tilted her head upwards and met my gaze. Her eyes were deep and pleading. ‘Do you think we will make it?’ she asked. It was a question I had heard countless times before. So I did what lovers do when they want to protect the feelings of their beloved: I lied. ‘Yes sweetheart. We will find a way. We will find a way…’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Journey of Prayer: Part I

I would like to welcome you to my new short story series on prayer. I have gathered together some of my writings on the nature of prayer, in which I reflect on those who have influenced my understanding of what it means live a prayerful life. In each instalment I will introduce an individual who has impacted my understanding of prayer as an essential element of faith. I grew up within the Church as the son of a minister, and as a family we found ourselves changing denominations fairly regularly. In retrospect I think my father was trying to figure out where he belonged, and that his spiritual journey probably accounted for all the moving. In any case, because of this broad experience of Church life I have gotten to know a diverse range of Christians- many of whom have had their own unique insight into the nature of prayer.  At times these people have guided me toward a fuller understanding of prayer as an act of discerning the will of God and orienting oneself in life, and on other occasions these influences have been distinctly harmful and toxic. This has necessitated an ongoing journey of unlearning (or reconstructing) the distorted ideas about prayer that I have, unconsciously, clung to for years.

These stories are my own reflections on these individuals and the lessons I have learned from them about prayer. In this first story I would like to introduce the delightful Bob. Read on!

 

Bob’s Prayer

I.

I wish I could pray like Bob. It seemed that no matter when he was asked to pray- whether during weekly Sunday worship services or at prayer meetings- Bob managed to make it look completely natural yet still deeply meaningful. He had this way of speaking that is best described as a sort of gentle confidence. His tone was soft and calming, but there was also a subtle conviction present. His rich baritone voice might easily have been used to narrate guided meditations, and admittedly there were occasions in which I almost fell asleep listening to him evoke to spirit of God. Yet underlying his meek style was a clear belief that God was not only hearing him, but that he would tangibly act on his requests in one way or another. For Bob, Philippians 4:6 was literal truth, and this conviction meant that he was unafraid to ask God directly for things, no matter how minor. I admired this about him. The directness of his prayer requests often appeared absurd compared to the more prosaic offerings of other Church members who preferred to be more vague and obtuse in their petitions.  I remember one occasion in which Bob asked God to personally ensure that a congregation members upcoming driving test would be successful. He went straight from this request to a much more serious petition for God to intervene in alleviating the suffering of persecuted Christians in the middle east. At yet another prayer gathering, Bob asked if God could provide enough performers for the November annual talent concert, as there was a shortage of registrations. He then continued with a prayer for the ongoing witness of the Church to the truth of the Gospel. For Bob, all of these requests were legitimate as he believed in a sovereign God who continues to act in human history.

A lifelong elder of his local Church, Bob had decided to start a Sunday morning prayer group as a way of both dedicating the service to God and to ask for God’s spirit to be present in worship. The idea was for the Church leaders and volunteers to meet in the fifteen minutes prior to the commencement of the service so that they might pray together. This seemed to be fairly standard Church practice, and he was surprised that no-one had thought of starting a prayer group before. He was even more shocked, however, when he found it hard to get anyone to come along. Bob expected that the Church leadership would be only too eager to set aside fifteen minutes before the service to pray, but it turned out they were busy with more important Church matters during this time. They all wanted to come, they said, but last minute preparations for the service had to take priority; the newsletter needed to be printed, the coffee and tea prepared, the power-point presentation switched on and the pews needed to be placed in perfect alignment lest old Margaret cracked the shits. Because everyone was caught up in this hustle and bustle, Bob most often found himself sitting alone in the prayer room, pleading with his eyes for someone to join him. When no-one came, he would say the Lord’s prayer and emerge into the chapel to join the other worshippers. It was a pitiful scene. This cycle repeated for a year or so until Bob had a bright idea: why not make the prayer time earlier? Instead of meeting fifteen minutes before the service, why not meet half an hour before? This would allow the leaders time to take care of their last minute preparations. This idea was accepted as a wonderful solution, and the leaders vowed to attend as a matter of priority. Initially this went well, but as time passed the leaders dropped off. Most of the time this was because they ran late, and by the time they got to the Church the service was close to starting. Bob took all this in his stride, and even though he must have felt lonely and dejected he persevered with his prayer meetings. Then, one freezing winters morning, he was joined by a new member of the congregation who had observed Bob praying and wanted to join him. This became a weekly commitment, and eventually the group grew to three or four people. It was admittedly a small number, but at least it was consistent. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 18:20 were at the forefront of the groups minds: ‘For when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’  

II. 

A former Biology professor, Bob looked at the world through eyes of wonder. In one of my early conversations with him I learned that his hobby was whale watching from the vantage point of Bronte Beach. Each winter Bob would sit on the balcony of his seaside apartment and scan the ocean with his trusty Nikon binoculars. Oftentimes, his dearly loved wife would join him and they would sip chamomile tea and pass the day in meaningless chit chat as they waited for a coveted glimpse of the elusive creatures. ‘It’s a warmer winter than last year,’ Bob would say absent-mindedly. ‘This time last June it had already got down to 17. 23 degrees at this time is basically is basically unheard of.’ Bob’s patient and loving wife Doreen was used to his preoccupations with weather, and would usually change the topic to something more suitable. ‘I think we need to pop down do the shops and get more milk,’ she would say. Or, ‘did you head they’re knocking down the old scout hall on Mason’s road to make way for more apartments?’ Bob would only faintly register Doreen’s chatter, nodding along with her primarily as a way of keeping the peace. Doreen got rather stroppy if she felt Bob was ignoring her. He learnt this fact approximately two weeks into their marriage after he had been blatantly ignoring her repeated requests to fix the blown light globe in the upstairs bathroom. On that occasion, Doreen’s way of finally getting Bob’s attention was to adopt the role of a military sergeant and yell the house down whilst Bob was in the company of a fellow biology lecturer. With the marriage currently in its thirty ninth year, the threat of similar treatment should Bob disregard her remained an ever-present possibility. Feisty though she was, Bob loved Doreen deeply. Their marriage had been a happy one.   

Whale Watching Season Underway In SydneySome days Bob got lucky and spotted a mammoth whale splashing its tail around for a few precious seconds. When he did happen to catch a glance he made sure he had his long-lens camera ready- just in case it would appear in the same proximity again. Despite his status as a ‘senior citizen,’ Bob liked to keep up with technology. He was part of a whale spotters group on Facebook, and if he happened to get a snap of a humpback he would upload it to the ‘Bondi Whale Spotters’ group page. The approving comments of fellow watchers made him feel good- as if he was connected to something beyond himself. Most days, however,  these majestic creatures of the deep remained elusive. The rarity of actually spotting a humpback whale hardly mattered to Bob. He was a patient man by nature, and in any case the joy was in the waiting. It was common for days and even weeks to pass without spotting anything other than dedicated winter surfers or passing shipping liners. Throughout these extended stretches of time Bob would supplement his whale watching with newspapers or the crossword puzzles that Doreen got for him each week at the local newsagent. He needed to be careful that he didn’t become so immersed in these extra-curricular activities that he missed a precious sighting. Not that he was excessively worried about missing any action, mind. Over years of multi-tasking crosswords, chatting with Doreen and scanning the ocean, Bob felt he had developed a sort of sixth sense for knowing when a whale was about to appear. Although it might sound absurd to the more skeptical-minded, Bob maintains that he gets this sort of peculiar nervous feeling in his stomach just before a whale would appear. He might be immersed in some kind of cryptic crossword when the pit of his stomach would suddenly feel empty and tingly. When this happened he would immediately look up and out to the ocean. There he would see the tail of a majestic humpback rising from and descending into the water, almost as if it were waving to Bob and acknowledging some form of telepathic connection. This phenomenon had happened too many times for Bob to write it off as coincidence. Let the sceptics and atheists say what they will.

III.

It’s true that I had my reservations about Bob’s belief in a radically interventionist God. I found most of what he said through prayer to be either utterly trivial or far too ambitious. I remember one occasion in which Bob was using the liturgical prayers of intercession to ask God to heal Judy’s shingles; the latest outbreak of which had been worse than usual. ‘Dear Lord God,’ Bob earnestly pleaded, ‘we just ask that through your mighty hand you will heal Judy of her shingles and that she won’t ever have them come back again.’ At the time I remember asking myself why the God who seemed to overlook the holocaust should feel that shingles were a condition of sufficient magnitude that he would be obliged to act. I wondered what it might say about the nature of God who would see to it that Judy was healed, only to remain a voyeur to the problems of systemic injustice, corruption and greed facing the world.

Of course, I felt bad about this and assumed that my response to Bob was just my usual cynicism talking. The experience of growing up within the Church as a son of a minister exposed me to some of the harsher realities of what the Church can be like, and I had internalised these memories as constant reminders of the imperfect nature of Christian gatherings. Whenever Bob or anyone else prayed, I put my lack of faith in their words down to the simple fact that my own past had excessively tarnished my belief in prayer, and that the problem was entirely mine. I felt as if I wasn’t a yet a real Christian, and perhaps never would be. The past felt too strong and too cemented in my psyche for it to be overcome . I also felt a sense of naive embarrassment in response to my internal thoughts about God. Despite my theological education I have always wrestled with those obvious questions that never really go away: if God is sovereign, why does he allow evil? If God hears our prayers, why doesn’t he appear to act? Theologians call this line of questioning a ‘theodicy,’ which is a fancy way of trying to understand that which is ultimately incomprehensible.        

Nevertheless,  I knew there was lots I could learn about prayer from Bob, even if I thought his expectations of God were more in line with Freud’s idea of God as being a wish-fulfillment rather than sovereign provider. The thing is, it wasn’t so much the content of Bob’s prayers that intrigued me, but the way in which he prayed. It was a kind of physical devotion to the task of prayer that made him fascinating to me. Leaning forward on his seat with his hands resting on his knees, Bob would close his eyes and begin to address God in that gentle yet confident manner that was so distinctive. His reading glasses would be resting on the end of his nose, threatening to fall off should he lean forward another inch or two. They were the older style of glasses that had a chain attached, commonly seen on bus drivers or librarians. These only enhanced his image as a somewhat eccentric professor. As he moved into the heart and soul of his prayer, Bob’s cheeks would flush red- a reaction perhaps to the intensity of his inner feelings. Occasionally his mouth would make a sort of grimace as he emphasised a particular word or syllable: power, glory, spirit, love. It was always a bit dangerous to look at Bob when he did this, as he actually looked like he was maniacally grinning like the Joker in Batman. If I happened to catch him mid-grimace my own instinct was to laugh, which would of course have disrupted the spirit of  seriousness one must have when approaching God (so I am told). I did my best to stifle any potential giggling through exaggerating my own ‘serious’ prayer pose; feet on the floor, eyes closed and head tilted upwards in a attempt to show that all my energies were focussed heavenward.

What I found most alluring about Bob’s prayers, however, was the way in which he would bring to God the same sense of longing and wonderment he felt when scanning the ocean on the lookout for a humpback whale. Bob’s words always reflected a visual element- what one might in fact call a cinematic approach to prayer. He would always commence his prayer by thanking God for the beauty of the created realm, be it the ocean, mountains, birds or plantlife. But rather than simply list all the things he was thankful for, Bob would take the time to describe in detail that which was the object of his gratitude. Of a bird he might say, ‘God, thank-you for the glorious Rainbow Lorikeet and its striking colors of red, blue, green and yellow. We thank-you for the joy a birds melodic chirping brings to our lives. We know that you provide for their needs and have promised to do the same for us.’ If he was describing a physical place Bob took even more poetic licence, offering through his prayer a stunning array of adjectives that truly evoked a sense of place and time. Bob had a real passion for the outback, and he would often describe the land of Australia in such a vivid way that one was transported through the visuals evoked in the mind.   

IV.

It has been years since I have prayed alongside Bob, but I can still vividly picture him leaning forward, sedulously petitioning his God. Although I remain on a different page theologically, Bob taught me that prayer can be done in the same way a artist develops their craft. When learning the piano, for example, one begins with orienting oneself with the basics of the instrument; the individual notes, scales and chords. Once these skills are mastered the student gradually begins the lifetime process of finding their voice on the instrument and their own particular way of transcribing their emotions, thoughts and observations into melodic form. Bob applied this principle to prayer. It’s clear he was familiar with some of the more orthodox forms of petitioning God, but his passion for and observance of the world around him made his prayers unscripted, deeply emotional and laced with gratitude. In the same way true art is meant to be enjoyed through sharing it with others, Bob’s prayers were an invitation for others to join together in a process of noticing the complexity and diversity of the world; a world that God had ultimately created. Through listening to his weekly prayers, Bob gave me fresh hope that prayer could mean something. In the face of this I could feel my cynicism slowly start to destabilise.

 

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Teilhard de Chardin and the Unity of Experience and Intellect

In his introductory essay to a collection of works by renowned German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Richard John Neuhaus draws attention to the unity of thought and experience in Pannengerg’s theological corpus. He writes of Pannengerg’s commitment to a ‘comprehensive idea of history that challenges the dichotomies of emotive over intellectual existence.’[1] Contrary to the perception of Pannenberg as intellectually highbrow and somewhat detached from the experiential, Neuhaus suggests that it is impossible to divorce Pannenberg’s theology from the wider context of his lived experience. Amongst the important events that shaped Pannenberg’s life was his experience being raised in Nazi Germany. As the second world war drew to a close Pannenberg was drafted into the Wehrmacht in order to defend the Fatherland from the invading Russians. Although sickness prevented him from participating in combat, the background of Nazism and war impacted Pannenberg deeply, which in part explains why he was so focussed on the eschatological kingdom of God as a way of maintaining Christian hope in a world marked by violence and injustice. Raised an atheist, Pannenberg’s underwent a mystical experience of God amidst the turmoil and destruction of war. Reflecting on his so-called ‘conversion’ experience when observing a setting sun, Pannenberg wrote that throughout this experience he felt a deep sense of oneness with the light that surrounded him, and that his eyes had now been opened to the possibility of the spiritual dimension of life.[2]This awakening led Pannenberg to pursue studies in philosophy, but was immediately drawn to the study of theology through the influence of a literature teacher who had been a member of Germany’s Confessing Church.

Neuhas’ desire to highlight the interrelatedness of objectivity and subjectivity in the thought of Pannenberg is by no means a standard theological or philosophical practice. It is still widely held that the two domains represent distinct and separate fields of endeavour, with the pursuit of a cold, detached objectivity seen by many as an ideal that helps to ensure intellectual clarity. (insert reference). Philosophical scepticism reflects something of this tendency in its questioning of the possibility of judgements being drawn based on the perceived limits of human knowledge and experience. Philosophers who advocated for a sceptical approach to human experience include David Hume and Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza in particular was specifically concerned with how the claims of religious experience could be reconciled with the ideals of sceptical enquiry.[3]His conclusion, naturally enough, was that they could not. Yet at the other extreme lies an overemphasis of personal experience and culture with the theological task. The work of Paul Tillich can be considered an attempt at closing the gap between religion and culture which- despite its commendable aims and impressive scope- at times borders on atheism and vagueness. Finding God within everything that makes up the stuff of human life can be a risky venture, and an objective focus on what Barth might have called the transcendent content of revelation protects against the deification of that which exists in the created order.

Nevertheless, there remains a kind of residual Platonism between the alleged purity of ideas in themselves and the temporal, physical world. It is this dualism which is in need of re-evaluation. It is my view that the separation of subjective and objective knowledge as a general principle (or ideal) presents some irreconcilable problems when it comes to the art of theological and philosophical reflection. The particularity of our life and the multitude of experiences that shape our psyche influences not only the shape of our thought, but also provides the source of our underlying passions which in turn dictate what areas of intellectual endeavour we are most interested in. I am not suggesting that objectivity thereby a useless concept. As I have suggested above, the pursuit of objectivity is noble ideal when understood correctly, as it prompts us to question our own drives and motives, whether these be implicit or explicit. Nevertheless, I propose that the idea of ‘objectivity’- at least as far as it applies to the humanities- be understood more as an aspirational goal rather than a criterion to be met before any meaningful insights are gleaned. Considering objectivity as a goal rather than a necessity has two benefits. First, it takes seriously the claim-common throughout many forms of philosophical enquiry- that a state of pure objectivity is actually impossible.[4]The drives and biases of our unconscious mind work through our reasoning process no matter how much we might yearn to be free of them in pursuit of ultimate truth and facts. Second, when objectivity is seen as a goal rather than a dogmatic requirement, we are then in a position to be more honest about the role personal experience plays in giving shape to our thought. Instead of experience being demonised as a barrier to the clarity and integrity of an idea, we recognise its inevitable influence as a source of inspiration that is able to helpfully contribute to our thinking processes. Of course, the dangers of using personal experience as a platform for developing ideas and conclusions is well-attested to, and I do not mean to suggest that all experience is helpful in the pursuit of truth. Rather, what I advocate is for a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity as being both essential elements of philosophical/theological reflection.

In summary, we can both acknowledge the impossibility of pure objectivity whilst at the same time affirming its desirability as a helpful ideal which we can strive towards. Objectivity is understood best when we simultaneously acknowledge the vital role experience plays in shaping our intellectual interests and thinking processes. To highlight the important relationship between personal experience and broader philosophical reflection I will now offer a brief overview of Teilhard de Chardin’s transformational experiences as a soldier in the first world war, with reference to how these events shaped his future writings.

 Teilhard de Chardin and The First World War

 The French Jesuit Priest, scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin remains one of my favourite thinkers, although I must profess that I do not understand much of what he writes. The strongly scientific nature of de Chardin’s corpus baffles me somewhat, and I often find myself struggling to grasp the technical concepts and broad, sweeping visions used by the great scholar when outlining his theories on the nature and purpose of humanity. In this ignorance I am comfortable, as I find the real appeal of de Chardin’s work to lie in a different direction. As much as de Chardin was a gifted scientist who rigorously valued the detached nature of scientific processes, the journey of his fascinating life shapes his philosophy in ways that highlight the importance of biography in the work of truly great thinkers.

I remember being in the University library one afternoon during my first few months of theological college in 2007. I was on a mission to locate various texts that my fiercely conservative Systematic Theology lecturer had explicitly condemned as heretical in nature. The authors of these texts included such controversial figures as Hans Kung, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering and John Hick. Also included in this list of theological castaways was de Chardin, whose commitment to the evolutionary process as the best explanation for the origin of man put him instantly at odds with large swathes of evangelicals. Intrigued, I found myself seeking out a rarely used corner of the library building that the computer told me housed de Chardin’s work. It was in this lonely enclave that I first encountered de Chardin’s 1955 work The Phenomenon of Man. Brushing of several layers of dust after what was presumably years of neglect, I took the book out on loan and delved right in.

To this day much of the detail of this work eludes my intellectual grasp. I am not too proud to acknowledge my bewilderment at the ideas contained within this mysterious volume. I took me quite a while, for example, to even faintly understand de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, which is to my knowledge a faintly Hegelian inspired concept of the sum total of human thought and knowledge. Despite my general confusion, however, I was intrigued enough by de Chardin that I decided to pursue his work further. At this point I undertook a more extensive review of de Chardin’s corpus and was further compelled to pursue a work titled The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier Priest.[5]The work is a collection of letters sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon from the front lines of battle during the first world war. These reflections document de Chardin’s profound experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the 8thregiment of Moroccan Riflemen, which consisted largely of Islamic soldiers from the North African French Colonial empire. De Chardin’s direct combat experiences included participation in the famous battles of Ypres and Dunkirk, amongst others.[6]As a stretcher bearer, de Chardin’s came face-to-face with the bloody brutality of war- a war that was being fought with newly developed killing machines capable a mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Impressively, de Chardin turned down a tempting opportunity to become the regiment’s Chaplain, which presumably would have resulted in his removal from the front lines. Instead of taking the easier path, the humble yet tenacious de Chardin chose to immerse himself in the heart of a bloody battle in which countless men were being slaughtered for no reason.

Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 10.54.53 amDe Chardin might have been forgiven for abandoning all pretence toward Christian faith as the battle raged around him. Discerning the reality of God in the midst of such chaos and violence might well have felt nigh on impossible. It would have been easier to simply to resign his inward faith convictions and concede victory to an atheism that would forevermore reign supreme. Yet this did not happen. We do know that de Chardin’s faith was significantly challenged by the realities of war,[7]however, his experiences in the trenches appear to have drawn him into an even deeper sense of God’s presence.

Emerging from the chaos of death and destruction, de Chardin seems to have transformed this ghastly experience into wellspring of inspiration for his future thinking. It was around this time the de Chardin began to seriously consider the process of evolution as an ultimate shaper of human destiny. Evolution was not just to be considered a theory explaining the origins of man but was a concept that could extend toward the future. Prominent de Chardin scholar Ursula King notes in Spirit of Fire: The Life and Work of Teilhard de Chardinthat the experience of war seemed to unlock an inner vision for a brighter future for humanity, in which the seemingly disparate disciplines of science and theology would be united in a joint effort to promote the mystical union of evolution and spirit in mankind.[8] This was a lofty vision indeed, and unfortunately one yet to be realised. Nevertheless, the miracle of this time in de Chardin’s life-and it seems to me nothing short of a miracle- was that he was able to emotionally and intellectually overcome the temptation to abandon his spirit to the nihilism that permeates the theatre of war.

Because of the intensity of de Chardin’s experience of war, the intellectual ideas and concepts which grew out of them are given more depth and existential weight. The theories he developed over the course of his life in relation to man’s place in the world and the future of humanity are only properly understood in light of his profound experience at the frontlines of battle. Similar to Pannenberg’s observations of the destructive legacy of Hitler’s Third Reich, de Chardin’s experiences in the first world war functioned as a starting point for his future work and grounded his ideas in the raw stuff of human life, as opposed to the abstract realms of pure theory. As such, de Chardin remains a prime example of one who was able to successfully incorporate personal experience with intellectual thought without sacrificing the integrity of either. It is as Immanuel Kant once said of the metaphysical/empirical divide: ‘thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.’[9]The experiential and the intellectual and deeply interwoven, and de Chardin displayed this throughout his remarkable life.

It seems fitting that I should close this reflection with the words of de Chardin himself. These beautiful words were composed during his time as a stretcher bearer in Nieuport during the great war. I believe they capture something of the direction in which his intellectual thoughts were heading despite being surround by carnage and chaos. They are testament to a man whose faith was able to transcend the ugliness of his surroundings yet still be deeply embedded in the material world of our existence:

‘If a Christian really understands the inexpressibly wonderful work that is being carried on around him, and by him, in the whole of nature, he cannot fail to see that the excitement and delight aroused in him by ‘awakening to the cosmos’ can be preserved by him not only in the form they take when transposed to a divine ideal, but also in the substance of their most material and most earthly objects.’[10]

 

References

[1]See: Wolfhart Pannenberg. Theology and the Kingdom of God(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 14.

[2]See: Fred Sanders, “The Strange Legacy of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Christianity Today, September 18th2014. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/september-web-only/strange-legacy-theologian-wolfhart-pannenberg.html

[3]See: Leora Batnitzky, “Spinoza’s Critique of Miracles,” Cardozo Law Review25 (2003), 507-18.

[4]See, for example, Nietzsche’s succinct comment in his notebook of 1886-7 that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations.’

[5]Teilhard de Chardin. The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier Priest, 1914-19. Trans. Rene Hague (New York: Harper and Row, 1955).

[6]Ursula King. Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.

[7] See: Rev. Phillip J. Cunningham, C.S.P., CMC Magazine, http://www.december.com/cmc/ mag/1997/mar/cunning.html. Accessed December 12, 2005.

[8]King, 53.

[9] See: Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Pure Reason. Eds. Paul Guyer & Allen W. Wood(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A51/B76.

[10]See: Teilhard de Chardin. The Prayer of the Universe: Selected from Writings in Time of War (London: Fountain Books, 1977), 46.

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Bishop Ambrose of Milan and the Relationship between Church and Emperor: A Snapshot

For contemporary Western democracy, the idea that the Church and state should remain separate entities free from mutual influence enjoys popular acceptance. In a religiously plural and multicultural country such as Australia, it is widely thought that the Government administration has a duty to formulate laws and policy for the common good of all, not just a particular religious or interest group that enjoys the good fortune of being able exert influence over political decision-making. Yet for much of our shared history the mutual relationship between the Church and State administration has been strong, and often assumed. The political and religious life of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan from 374-97 CE,  is a fascinating example of the close relationship between the Church Catholic and Roman governance in the 4th century CE. During this period the Church was able to exert powerful influence over state political life and decision making. This brief essay will offer a biographical sketch of Ambrose’s theological and political development and his subsequent influence on Roman leadership. I will conclude with some remarks about how the study of Ambrose sheds interesting light on the emergence and development of Christianity.

A Biographical Sketch of Ambrose

According to biographer Paulinus of Milan, that the youthful Ambrose was destined for great things was exemplified in a popular anecdote from his early childhood. In this story, the infant Ambrose is resting in his cradle when a swarm of bees suddenly covered his face and started to fly in and out of his mouth. Alerted to the child’s cries, Ambrose’ father interpreted the event prophetically and restrained a maid from rescuing the boy, saying that ‘if this child lives, he will be something great. (1)

Paulinus’ inclusion of this anecdote  is indicative of the way in which those surrounding Ambrose saw in him the potential for leadership long before he realised these qualities for himself. Ambrose was born in 339 CE in Augusta Trevororum. His father, Aurelius Ambrosius, was a Praetorian Prefect of a vast province that included modern France, England and Spain. Raised in the beliefs and practices of Nicene Christianity (although having postponed Baptism), Ambrose first embarked on a military career and eventually became the Governor of Milan, which at the time was the chief Imperial province in the Western empire. Having proved his leadership acumen, Ambrose may well have continued to distinguish himself within the military. The year 373 CE, however, would represent a significant turning point in his life.

The Christian community in Milan had gathered to choose the new Bishop. The community was heavily divided between the ‘orthodox’ Nicenes and those who supported the so-called ‘Homoean compromise’, which was in reality a milder theological expression of Arianism designed to unite Christendom and soften the negative perceptions of a more pure form of the Arian heresy. (2) It was on this occasion that we have another testimony to Ambrose’s natural leadership appeal. Ambrose was in attendance at the gathering in the capacity of event security. Alongside a delegation of troops, Ambrose was busy dishing out military discipline to the fiery crowd when (so the story goes) a child’s voice called out ‘Ambrose for Bishop.’ (3) The chant caught on, and before long the crowd were unified in demanding Ambrose for the Bishopric of Milan. Paulinus describes this event with all the pomp and grandeur of one truly enamored with his biographical subject, (4) assigning to it the providence and blessing of God. Despite his clear literary embellishment, however, it is clear that this remarkable event was to considerably alter the course of Christianity in the Latin West.          

It is said that Ambrose was reluctant to accept the role of Bishop, although once he had made the decision to accept the role he was rushed through (in 8 days) a period of religious and ecclesial instruction as well as the all-important Baptism. (5) As soon as he was firmly established in the role, Ambrose undertook his tasks with an unrelenting commitment to Christian orthodoxy and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of energy. In terms of his tenure as Bishop, Diarmaid MacCulloch describes Ambrose as a leader who ‘constantly won.’ (6) In this he is referring to the strength of  Ambrose’s political and spiritual convictions and his uncanny ability to influence (including through coercion) others to accommodate his will. Yet before we can explore the ways in which Ambrose was so effective in influencing Roman Emperors, we will need to establish the religious context of his time, particularly in relation to the emergence of Arianism.

The Religious Context of Ambrose’s Bishopric

A full understanding Ambrose’s strong views on the relationship between Church and Emperor can only be grasped when seen through the lens of the Arian and Nicene controversies of the 3rd and 4th centuries. In these theological and political struggles we find the rationale and basis for much of Ambrose’s practical actions as Bishop.

St.-AmbroseThe controversies centred on the pre-existence of the person of Christ. Arianism was a view that was first expressed by Alexandrian Presbyter Arius (250-336 CE), which held that although Jesus Christ was the Son of God, he was created at a specific point in time and did not always exist with God, and was therefore distinct from him. (7) As a school of theological thought Arianism enjoyed considerable growth and influence, resulting in its first round of denunciations at a Synod in Arius’ native Alexandria. Despite the intentions of the Synod, however, Arianism continued to grow and spread in theological influence. The situation reached a boiling point in 325 CE, with the then Emperor Constantine instigating an assembly of Bishops that has come to be called the first council of Nicea. The sole intention of this council was to formulate a specific definition of the relationship between Jesus and the father, and in particular the substance of this relationship (the Greek term used was Homoousios). (8) It was at this council that the Western Church arrived at its fullest theological expression of orthodoxy in response to Arius, who was officially labelled a heretic. The culmination of the theological outcomes of the council was the now-famous Nicene Creed.

After the establishment of the creed the Emperor Constantine zealously ensured it was complied with, excommunicating those who had been disciples of Arius or who had refused to submit to its doctrinal authority. In this he was rather successful, and as a result eliminated the influence of many so-called heretics from the life of the Church, including the deacon Euzoios and the Libyan Bishops Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais. Also included in Constantine’s theological hit-list was any Bishop who had refused to sign the creed. Arius himself was quite obviously excommunicated, and copies of his book of teachings-the Thalia– were burned. And here the history of Arianism might well have ended, were it not for the fact that as determined as Constantine’s anti-Arian mission was, he was primarily a politician, not a theologian. Despite the post-Nicene crackdown on Arianism, it was still an influential philosophy. As a politician, Constantine’s interests lie in keeping the peace amongst differing Christian fractions, and in time his tough stance on Arianism mellowed and he eventually allowed various people previously connected with Arianism back into the community of the Church. Arianism, then, still had ongoing influence throughout the 4th century.  

As Bishop of Milan, Ambrose had inherited the legacy of these Arian controversies- controversies that were still playing themselves out in the Western Church during his tenure, and to which he needed to use every ounce of influence and energy to extinguish.

Relationship with the Emperor: Ambrose’s Views and Experiences

Having reviewed Ambrose’s personal rise to the role of Bishop and Milan’s theological context in the 4th century CE, we can now turn to exploring his complex views on the relationship between Church and state.

Throughout his tenure as Bishop of Milan, Ambrose was in close personal communication with the Emperor’s that resided there. Milan was the administrative centre of the Western Empire at the time, and as such the potential for Ambrose to develop influence over the decision making of the Emperor was greatly heightened. (9) He was, essentially, the Bishop at the heart of Western Christianity. A combination of proximity to the corridors of power, a fierce commitment to orthodoxy as well as a naturally strong personality meant that the time was ripe for the Church to start heavily influencing the state. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate Ambrose’s ability to dictate an Emperor’s decision-making or course of action.

The Roman Emperor Gratian (Son of Valentinian I) ruled from 375 to 383 CE and had achieved a number of key military victories over Rome’s opponents that had helped cement his reputation as a strong leader. Gratian was known to have favored the Christian faith over Roman religion, and so the potential for Ambrose to influence him was clear. They met in Milan in 379, and Ambrose immediately set about exerting his influence over the young Emperor. An initial issue for Ambrose was that Gratian had inherited a sense of religious tolerance from his Father, which was simply not acceptable to the fiery Bishop. Through a process of flattery toward the Emperor in his sermons, Ambrose was able to win the Emperor over to orthodoxy to the extent that Gratian passed his first anti-heretical law in late 379. (10)

The massacre of Thessalonica also demonstrates Ambrose’s uncanny boldness and ethical conviction when rebuking an Emperor in the face of tragic decision-making. The massacre was the response of Emperor Theodosius I to a citizens revolt in Thessalonica in 390, in which a number of Roman authorities had been killed. The resulting massacre of revenge, carried out by the Goths at Theodosius’ instruction, is thought to have claimed the lives of around 7,000 citizens, including women and children. (11) Ambrose’s response was to write a particularly stern and audacious letter of rebuke to the Emperor. He also refused to share mass with him until such time as he had repented for the dastardly act.   

There is a subtle dichotomy at work in terms of Ambrose’s relationship with the Roman state and its Emperors. It is common throughout the scholarly literature dealing with Ambrose’s life to find a repeated insistence that Ambrose’s core belief was that the Church’s authority lay over and above that of the state, and that all attempts by the state to place itself above the Church are to be resisted as being contrary to the will of God. All of this is of course completely correct. Yet a gentle reminder is necessary, in that for all his dismissing of the state as an influence on Church conduct, Ambrose needed the state-,and particularly his relationship with the Emperor- to facilitate the future of orthodoxy. As such, one suspects that the dynamic of the relationship between the two is a little more nuanced than is often credited in the Church-over-state hypothesis.

Concluding Remarks

Ambrose’s impact on the development of orthodox Latin theology is undeniable. Whatever we might make of the results of this influence, that he was a motivated by and acted in line with his genuinely held convictions is admirable. It seems clear that Ambrose was cunning and forward-thinking enough to realise the benefits of maintaining close ties the Roman Government, despite the risks involved. In essence, Ambrose used the State to further the orthodox cause, with very little needed in terms of sacrifice of his own position. In this respect Ambrose’s religious activities did not represent a compromise between the spiritual and temporal realms of God and State, but were in reality an example of what both religious and interest groups must do if a missionary element is present. We can see the same kinds of lobbying tactics taking place in the current political sphere, whether these be religiously motivated or otherwise. The deeper question here relates less to the specific dangers involved when Christianity merges with state power, but whether the separation of the state and any form of proselytising ideology is in fact possible. It seems to me that whilst the influence of Christianity over state politics is decreasing in much of the West, the ideal of a Government free from ideological influence remains a myth.

 

Endnotes

 

  1. Paulinus, “The Life of St. Ambrose,” in The Fathers of the Church: Early Christian Biographies Vol.15, edited by Roy J. Deferrari (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1981), 35.
  2. See: Diarmaid MacCulloch. A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin, 2010), 216-17.
  3. See: James Stevenson & W.H.C. Frend, eds., Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church AD 337-461 (Michigan: SPCK, 1989), 120.
  4. Paulinus, 36-7. For a thought-provoking review of Paulinus’ influence on the study of Ambrose see: Neil McLynn. Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2014), 1-52.
  5. See: W.H.C. Frend. The Rise of Christianity (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1983), 618.
  6. MacCulloch, 299.
  7. For a thorough introduction to Arianism see: Maurice Wiles. Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996)
  8. See: Leo D. Davis SJ. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils 325-787: Their History and Theology (Liturgical Press, 1983), 33-79.
  9. For more on this, see: S.L. Greenslade, ed., Early Latin Theology Vol. V: Library of Christian Classics (London: SCM Press, MCMLVI), 176.
  10. Frend, 620.
  11. See: Theodoret. Ecclesiastical History (Aeturna Press, 2016), 5.17

Bibliography

Moorhead, John. Ambrose: church and society in the late Roman world. Longman, 1999.

Power, Kim. E., “Ambrose of Milan: Keeper of the Boundaries,” Theology Today Vol. 55 Issue 1 (1998): 15-34.

 

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