Rather than attempt some review of Denis McLaughlin's book on Edmund Rice and the Christian Brothers, what I have found myself more inclined to write are a series of impressions about how what he writes has impacted on my own outlook. I think Denis has uncovered a bit of a gold mine of valuable information through this research and trying to condense it down into some kind of review looks an increasingly impossible task for me at least. Today's reflection is largely based on Chapter 7 of his book, Further Distortions of Edmund Rice Education, but it ranges further than that and begins with a personal reflection on what Brian Coyne sees as a personal dilemma in his own set of beliefs, and which he suggests might be wider than a personal dilemma but part of the institutional dilemma that helps explain the present series of crises it is facing. ...Brian Coyne, Editor
Obedience to God,
Let me start this reflection today by sharing with you a personal dilemma I have concerning my beliefs.
From my studies in, and fascination with, the sciences and technology in general, I do not believe this wonderful and extraordinary cosmos we live in occurred by random chance. I think it required a Creator. My belief in this doesn't so much come from looking at the pretty garden outside my window, the National Park just beyond that, or the view of a good part of the entire metropolis of Sydney just beyond the edge of the mountains I sit on. It comes from an appreciation of the growing insight we have into all the laws of genetics, biology, physics, mathematics that we are slowly discovering that tell us how it all "hangs together". And the "hangs together" is not just metaphorical. Literally what is emerging through our scientific and mathematical insight is this deep sense of the relationality of everything in Creation.
Literally the waving of a butterfly's wings does have some impact on things going on around the other side of the world. At times it might be insignificant to the point of not being able to be measured. At other times it might be likened to some terrorist's bomb going off in a crowded street in the third world and how that becomes a tsunami in the media of the first world. (Back the other way just think of that dumb YouTube video somebody in California posted a few weeks ago and the riots it caused around the Islamic world. How many deaths can be directly attributable to that video?) Life is all related; science is all related; all of our lives are related. Our actions, like the actions of an insignificant butterfly, can have huge impacts in far distant places to where we live. I simply believe this "relationality" had to have an inventor or a Creator. I am inclined to worship his, or her, insight and genius in much the same way as I worship the genius of an Albert Einstein, or Watson and Crick, or Madame Curie, for the insights they gave us into "how life ticks".
The personal dilemma...
So, what, may you ask is the dilemma? My dilemma is simply this...
Nowhere in the evidence of what we can see, and what we can observe through the scientific instruments and insights we have today, is there any evidence that this "Creator" intervenes in life today. There is simply no evidence to suggest that this Creator intervenes to spin planets or galaxies into new orbits, to interfere with the weather patterns on earth, to cure our cancers, in any ways that disrupt, challenge, alter or suspend any of the base laws and relationships that we are still slowly uncovering through the sciences. I suspect we still only know a minute amount of what is yet to be discovered and understood about what we euphamistically call "the mind of God" through our modern research. We are still like "babes in the wood" compared to the genius of the Creator who thought this whole "relationship" up that we lable as "Life" or "the Cosmos".
Yet, while I no longer believe in an "intervening Creator" somewhere, deep in my intuition (or is it my "Catholic brainwashing") I continue to believe this Creator has an ongoing relationship with what he or she Created. In other words I don't believe in the clockmaker or architect Creator who "set the whole think ticking" and left it to run down until there is no energy left in the battery or spring that powers it all. The entire "relationality" built into the very structure of the Cosmos suggests to me that there is also some "relationality" between the ultimate Source, or Creator, and the product of that Creator's work, Creation itself.
The deep dilemma is this: how can you have a Creator whom you believe does not intervene and yet who is still "in relationship" with Creation? If you think about it the proposition is logically absurd. It doesn't make sense.
I confess that I have not fully resolved that dilemma in my mind yet. I've written in the forum at various times some of my thinking on how it might be resolved, and I see this present exploration I've been engaged in with Fr Eugene Stockton in the search for "The Deep Within", or "the search for an Archetypal Theology" as related to searching for a fuller answer to the dilemma. For the moment though I don't want to venture into that territory as I think it might distract from the present train of thought.
But it's not just a personal dilemma...
The proposition that I want to put up here for your reflection is that the dilemma I have posed above is not simply a personal dilemma belonging to me. I think it is an "existential dilemma" — one relating to the very nature of our existence — that is confronting all of humankind as we "move forward in time" and gain greater insight through the sciences, and our increasing understanding of "how creation ticks". The God of our fore-fathers and -mothers looks increasingly problematical. Many people today in the educated world no longer believe that praying to God for favourable weather works. God does not interfere with those "massive equations" that drive the world's weather patterns. We do not yet have supercomputers powerful enough to fully understand the equations or predict the weather much more than a few days in advance. We at least have enough insight to appreciate that there are massive forces at work that drive our local weather — and those "forces" are natural rather than supernatural!
Let's introduce Edmund Rice and Denis McLaughlin's study into all this...
As I was reading Chapter Seven of Denis McLaughin's book last night my mind was drawn to the dilemma I've just outlined. The Chapter is entitled "Further Distortions of Edmund Rice Education".
As I attempted to explain in my reflection on Monday, in the previous Chapter of McLaughlin's book we were introduced to a conflict that arose with the second generation of leaders of the Brothers who rejected, changed or strayed from the original vision of the founder, Edmund Rice. In this Chapter, McLaughlin goes on to outline how the clash of these visions ended up distorting the educational methodology employed, even who the entire endeavour was directed to assisting, and down to the sort of relationship that was mandated between the teachers and the pupils. And it wasn't just the Brothers themselves caught up in this conflict. Tom McMahon, in his commentary last Friday [LINK], told us of the influence of the Primate of Ireland, Cardinal Paul Cullen, helped play in all this — and McLaughlin has plenty of quotes in this chapter to back-up a lot of what Tom wrote. In a sense though you cannot even blame Cullen. This was a conflict the entire population of Ireland was engaged in.
None of what I write here is to suggest that the alternative vision of the second generations of Brothers, or of the likes of Cardinal Cullen, were not without their merits. All changes in society — we learn this from science — are accompanied by an upside and a downside, positive benefits and negative consequences. It is very rare that any change is 100% positive or 100% negative. Usually there is some trade off or negotiation involved in assessing whether the benefits from some mooted change will outweigh what costs might be involved. That's a big lesson in economics and finance also — which you find in that other book I've been reading by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty".
The thrust of Denis McLaughlin's research would seem to suggest that while the vision of the second generation brought various benefits to the Congregation they also set in train a series of negative consequences that eventually brought great pain to the Brothers and their Congregation. His study, in a sense, is an enquiry into trying to find out what went wrong and where it went wrong.
The dilemma facing Edmund Rice and the Brothers...
I have been a fan of Edmund Rice for a long time. I've explained some of that previously — mainly connected with him being a married man and a parent and also because he had some understanding of the "lay" perception. Denis McLaughlin's book has increased my appreciation of Rice. While I sense that Edmund Rice had a fairly simple theology and spirituality. I think, as was the general ethos of the time, he would have believed in an interventionist God. He would have believed that, if he prayed in the correct manner, God would help guide his fledgling endeavour. The irony is that in one sense God didn't answer his prayers because he lost control of the agenda for his Congregation in the autumn years of his life. On the other hand, I have a suspicion from what I've read, that if Edmund Rice were alive today he'd also understand the dilemma I have posed in the opening to this essay.
Let me repeat some paragraphs from my reflection on Monday...
Chapter Six of Denis McLaughlin's book is devoted to exploring the tensions caused within his communities over this matter of becoming affiliated with the government and the National Board of Education. McLaughlin's argument is that it is this tension which leads to the first distortion of the original vision of Edmund Rice. Curiously enough, the fly in the ointment wasn't so much money, it was about Irish Nationalism and the ideological refusal of some to have anything to do with the government.
Edmund Rice comes across not as some ideologue but as a pragmatist. He had a vision — the education of the poor (those whose parents could not otherwise have the financial means to educate their children). He was also a flexible man. McLaughlin concludes the chapter with this observation:
The Edmund Rice vision has the priority, and structures are respected as means to implement the vision and not to become ends in themselves.
What comes across to me is that Rice's vision is truly a religious or spiritual vision modelled on the service to others encouraged by Christ. He's not ideological or obsessed about what means will be used to give life to the vision. His priority is "the service of others" (in this case the poor) not in becoming obsessed with structures and the relationships necessary to bring that vision to reality. For others the focus becomes the structure and the means of trying to achieve the vision. Ideological and dogmatic Catholicism tends to get in the way.
By this stage, 1832 onwards to Edmund Rice's death in 1844, Rice is beginning to lose control, perhaps simply as a result of the aging process as much as anything else, and a new generation of Brothers have emerged with a different vision — and the means to implement it.
Chapter 7 of Denis McLaughlin's book I found a little vague in spelling out the real theological or idelogical difference between the original vision of Edmund Rice and the one that subsequently was adopted by the second generation of Brothers, aided by the likes of Cardinal Paul Cullen. Yes, we do see there the priority on "serving the poor" in Rice's vision and how this gradually got subverted to 'serving the Catholics, and particularly in developing a strong middle class of Catholics, (against the English)' [that's not a direct quote but an attempt to synthesise a complex argument]. We also see the clash in outlook between Rice, who appeared to see the whole endeavour primarily as one of "serving God through serving the poor" (and letting God worry about any rewards that might be dished out for doing that), and a more egotistical and anthropocentric vision of building a Congregation, building an educational system, defeating the English oppressors and overlords, and building a nation (and paying lip service to any Divine will).
Let me quote just two paragraphs from Chapter 7 that illustrate what I've just written:
The clear conclusion to be drawn is that it too many instances Edmund Rice's compassion for the poor was sidetracked by pressures among the deprived themselves for upward social mobility, which required, at school level, an intense driving concentration on examination success with pupils under severe control by the Brothers to search for academic achievment. This phenomenon unfortunately generated a contemporary legacy in Ireland's psyche concerning the 'Disturbing ... exposure of the stern and sometimes abusive record of the Christian Brothers within Irish schools'. [A.Jackson, Ireland, 1798-1998, London, 1999, p 395] [This entire paragraph from pp 328-29 of The Price of Freedom]
Cardinal Cullen was so 'successful' in generating a Catholic middle class obedient and subservient to the church that its reality had social repercussions in Ireland well into the next century. 'The symbolic struggle for moral and spiritual equality came tied into a strict ethical life, a rigid adherence to the rule and regulations of the Church. The rigorous orthodoxy was to equal if not surpass anything produced by the most conservative of British Victorians; it was to outlast them by well over fifty years'. [T. Inglis, Moral monoply: The rise and all of the Catholic Church in modern Ireland, Dublin, 1998, pp 98-9] [This entire paragraph from p 337 of The Price of Freedom]
Bringing all this to a conclusion...
Way, way, way back in our religious culture, long, long before there was even a thing called Christianity, or the Christian imagination, a profound piece of wisdom was injected into the human imagination. It comes from our Jewish heritage. Some believe it was literally handed to Moses on two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai. My view today is that the instructions on those alleged stones were "inspired insights" from some ancients, whose names we don't actually know, about how to live intelligently. [See Wikipedia page on the origin of The Ten Commandments LINK.] The second of those pieces of advice stated simply: "You shall have no other gods before me". Popularly we think of that as meaning false statues and "craven images". What it also means is "false ideologies and theologies". My sense is that Edmund Rice would have understood that well. He understood the importance of putting God first. Those with a different vision wanted to put their cause, their Congregation, Irish nationalism and their superiority over the British overlords, on the pedestal above God. There was, of course and as always goes on in human clashes over ideology and vision, a lot of rhetoric to suggest that that is not what they were doing. The reality is that they were.
Every chapter in Denis McLaughlin's book ends with a short conclusion where he attempts to draw out the lessons for workers in the Edmund Rice field in the 21st Century. I have a sense the leaders of the Christian Brothers of today who encouraged this lengthy study by Denis McLaughlin are endeavouring to imbue the modern-day initiatives still sponsored by the Christian Brothers, but now largely staffed by lay people, with some of the original vision of the founder.
Link to further information about the book, including the Foreword by Cardinal Edward Clancy in the Catholica Spiritual Marketplace:
Brian Coyne, 24 Oct 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?