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Beyond Consolation

On How We Became Too Clever for God, and For Our O

Author(s): John Waters

ISBN13: 9781441114211

ISBN10: 1441114211

Publisher: Veritas

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  • Waters explores the process by which the hope of a society was sabotaged and plundered in the name of a mis-defined freedom and a utopia of the now. In the late spring of 2008 the acclaimed Irish writer Nuala O Faolain went on a national Irish radio program to tell the Irish people that she was dying of cancer. She was frightened of death and of the short time left to her.

    She went right to the heart of the modern attitude to God, to hope, to life and death. Here was a spokesperson for a generation which now conjured up an abyss for itself, reviewing a culture she had inhabited and helped to create one last time. She believed neither in an afterlife nor in God. This abyss, argues John Waters, is created by pursuing the failed hypothesis that humankind can live without God. The despair she expressed is the despair of a generation which believed it could create a utopia of reason, free of the encumberments of tradition and the dread of the absolute. With Nuala O Faolains broadcast as his point of departure, Waters examines this trajectory of Irish Culture to this point of despair. How reasonable is it to believe in nothing?

    He explores a new language to excavate the journey of Irish society from what appeared to be profound in its traditional faith to this moment of what might easily have been taken as a moment of nihilistic clarity. What modern men and women suffer from in modern culture is the lack of an idea of the infinite and the eternal. Secularization, he argues, is completely meaningless as a term to describe what has happened to them. Taking up the theme of his previous best selling book "Lapsed Agnostic", Waters explores the process by which the hope of a society was sabotaged and plundered in the name of a mis-defined freedom and a utopia of the now.

  • John Waters

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    Waters is well known for his newspaper column in the Irish Times but he is also a playwright, author and not very successful Eurovision songwriter. In his columns and books he has commented on and analysed Irish society over the decades since the 198os. In recent years he has returned to believing in God as he explained in his zoo7 book, Lapsed Agnostic. It is that religious theme which he continues in this book in which he attempts to explain why modern Ireland, like many other countries, has ceased to be a religious society and is one where god has no place. For Waters this was epitomised in the interview which Marian Finucane conducted on RTE Radio 1 with Nuala OFaolain shortly before she died of cancer. Waters saw OFaolains despair and inability to turn to God as indicative of the state of Ireland which was just facing economic meltdown and feeling its own despair. He takes the OFaolain interview as his starting point and ultimately argues that we need a belief in god and that the alternative, a belief in nothingness, leads to despair and an unhappy society. Waters draws largely on his own experiences and his own opinions in constructing his argument, making this a strong personal plea for faith. The author is not linguistically economical.

    - Books Ireland, May 2010

    This book should have repercussions in Irish society for decades to come, like ripples from a stone dropped into the deceptively still waters of a lake.

    It seems that nothing could disturb the surface calm of the lake that is the contemporary Irish mindset. After John Waters stone-throwing, the lake cannot be the same again.

    His starting point is Nuala OFaolains radio interview in the late Spring of 2008 which she gave to Marianne Finucane shortly after she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was the talk of the country.

    Waters applies a scalpel to the interview and to the public reaction to it, including his own personal reaction, in order to uncover the underlying layers of unspoken assumptions that determine Irish contemporary public discourse - contemporary culture. At the root of these is the assumption that all there is to life is the here and now. Beyond death there is quite literally nothing.

    And so OFaolain was beyond consolation - a state of soul not limited to her own sad experience. It is the logical consequence of those assumptions which mark secular Ireland.

    In recent years Waters began to subject his own assumptions, and so those of modern secular Ireland, to a searing self-criticism that is a rare in Irish letters.

    His is not abstract criticism. It often takes as its starting point what he calls an epiphany, an unexpected personal experience that triggers off a reflection on his pervious experiences and their assumptions - such as his different reactions to the experience of death.

    Culture is subjective and interpersonal as well as communal and objective in the form of dominant ideologies. Waters describes that culture from the inside. He also distinguishes between the tongue of the public square, that of public discourse, and the tongue of the heart, that of our intimate spheres (see for instance a passage on p.67). Today, the former tends to stifle the latter.


    The effect of these assumptions can be grasped by those give-away moments in a discussion when it would be logical to mention Christianity or God. One hesitates. It is not that the other person switches off; the speaker himself spontaneously feels inhibited and stops. Such is the control exercised by the dominant culture.

    Waters points out that the cultures of contemporary societies appear to construct themselves or be constructed so as to avoid the contemplation of the great questions (p.31). These touch on the meaning life, death, suffering, and happiness.

    The great lie of our day, Waters observes (p.32), is the proposition that uprooted from the tradition from which I emerged and transplanted into the material world whose primary value is freedom, we can find the happiness for which we all long.


    Suffering, old age or sickness brings home to us the lie of that proposition. In the OFaolain interview, the great questions were gingerly approached and then avoided. Waters argues that this is due to the dominant culture of media-saturated societies that circumscribe our capacity to articulate our deepest needs just as surely as, in a different way, did the simple verities of old (p.36).

    In the wider culture, the words our lives or sanity might depend on are booby-trapped with prejudice and contaminated with disappointment (p.37).

    The first half of the book is devoted to an analysis of the prevailing culture, that silent melody which accompanies us every waking moment. He examines its nature, its inhibitions and its origins (in reaction to traditional Irish Catholicism). He examines this culture from various perspectives such as the new sense of self (as a kind of machine) engendered by progressive ideology, or the despair caused by the glorification of youthfulness, or the undemocratic nature of journalism that controls public discourse.

    Waters analysis culminates in two chapters that expose the negative side of the Irish psyche. He looks at our historical experience of poverty that led to materialism, the Irish model of Christianity that was oppressive, and the sense of self-molded by progress, technology and freedom, that reduces man to a machine. These factors served to abolish the Absolute from our collective consciousness. How did this happen in a Catholic country?

    The answer is to be found in his chapter: The Gulag of Unhope. Waters mercilessly analyses the culture behind the shocking revelations of the Ryan Report on abuse in the industrial schools - a situation that most people at the time knew about, yet acted as though they did not know. It is a powerful indictment of a form of Christianity that, he claims, took hold in Ireland after the Great Famine.

    Greatest abuse

    The abandonment of traditional rites and values after the 1960s that led to modern secular Ireland was fuelled by the desire to get away from that form of Christianity. The greatest abuse perpetrated by the Irish Church - and it was perpetrated by the Church as a whole rather than by a minority of abusers - was the promulgation of the idea that religion comes from the outside, that it is primarily an imposed system of control designed to police the instinctive desires of human beings. For 150 years this moralism was a form of idolatry in Irish society, which is to say that a long time ago the Irish Church broke the first commandment (p.160). This raises many issues for serious debate.

    In the final five chapters, he points to those fundamental aspects of human experience and Christian faith that need to be recovered, if we are to save our humanity. These include a childlike sense of wonder and that true Hope that eludes our immediate grasp and prevents the small hopes that carry us through our every day from disappointing us by becoming ends in themselves.

    Mankinds sense of meaning resides at least marginally ahead of him, and ideally an absolute distance in front of him (p. 186). Here, as occasionally elsewhere, the inspiration of Pope Benedict XVI is evident. The chapter entitled Courtesy towards Christ is concerned with recovering awareness of the mystery of the incarnation - the awesomeness of God becoming man to destroy sin and death. He also reflects on the possibility of finding access to the mystery of the Person of the Risen Christ through the experience of beauty in all its manifestations.

    Break free

    These attempts at recovery are all made in dialogue with the distortions that mark either traditional Irish Catholicism or contemporary secularism. Waters is trying to break free from the constraints of his background and culture into the beautiful form of our true humanity as intended by Christ - like the contorted slaves emerging from stone in Michaelangelos famous sculptures.

    His final chapter is devoted to discovering a new language to hope in. He advocates a reason which is truly open to mystery and to the Absolute. He proposes an understanding of faith as knowledge, that higher reason which illuminates the mind and touches (and transforms) the heart. I am not religious because I am a Catholic, but Catholic because I am religious [by nature] (p. 218).

    What then is the Church? It is a place I look to in order to maintain a structured engagement with the Mystery and also my need for a source of reflective experience of the human condition (p. 219). This may not be a full theology of the Church, but is an impressive starting point.

    This book is not beyond criticism, such as his analysis of traditional Irish Catholicism. What, for example, motivated thousands of men and woman missionaries to spread the Faith in Africa and Asia, often giving their lives for their people? What inspired the vibrant faith communities that flourished in the Irish Diaspora, where the better side of the Irish Catholic tradition seemed to have escaped from some of the cultural constraints imposed on it at home? These questions are not addressed.

    What John Waters does, and does superbly, is to hold the mirror up to our communal face. He allows us to recognise who and what we truly are, so that the truth can set us free. And give us hope to face the future.

    - The Irish Catholic, 13th May2010


Beyond Consolation

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