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Press: Tangling up the political with the theological

07 September 2018


I USED to believe that the techniques of modern political hatreds had been learned from the religious world. The struggles within the Anglican Communion, first over women and then over gay people, were the first situations in which I watched the internet turned into a kind of junkie’s retort for the distillation of outrage and self-righteousness into a concentrated narcotic that the user could shoot up at any hour of the day or night.

Although I made a couple of lifelong friends from mailing lists in the late ’90s, I also lost the ability to take seriously any arguments about sexuality which I disagreed with: in particular, the phrase “tore the fabric of the Communion”, always used as one word; I came to seem nothing more than a kind of tourniquet to cut off the flow of thought and plump up a vein for a fresh shot of delicious outrage.

But, watching the conservative assault on Pope Francis last week, I thought that one side, at least, had brought to a theological dispute the techniques first tried and perfected in American secular politics. The meat of it is a 7000-word statement by a disgruntled former Vatican ambassador to Washington who states that Pope Francis is the willing instrument of a homosexual mafia centred around the disgraced former Archbishop Theodore McCarrick. The whole business is tremendously obscure, and neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican will talk of it on record; but that is no hindrance to those who want to believe the worst of him.

Reuters carried an illuminating background piece on the way in which news and propaganda have now merged into a single weapon.

“Aldo Maria Valli, a journalist who covers the Vatican for Italian state television RAI . . . says Vigano arrived at their last meeting in a secret location wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap — unusual headgear for an archbishop.

“On Aug. 22, Vigano went to the home of Marco Tosatti, a longtime Vatican journalist who writes for conservative publications. . . ‘Tosatti said he helped Vigano rewrite and edit the statement during a three-hour meeting. Valli told Reuters Tosatti then sent him and other selected journalists the final version.’

The statement was then published through a well-funded network of right-wing websites and television stations. “Valli says in his blog that its release was specifically timed so that it would come up during the pope’s in-flight news conference from Dublin to Rome. Experienced Vatican journalists such as Valli and Tosatti understand that the papal plane is a rare chance for reporters to ask the pope questions.”

Of course, none of this will shake the faith of those who want to believe the story in the slightest. In this, too, we are looking at a dispute that is covered as if it were wholly political.


NEITHER was it the story of the week which most closely tangled the political with the theological. That came from another wire service: the Associated Press, which has been looking into the activities of the Russian hacking group FancyBear, widely believed to a be state operation. It turns out that they have been trying to hack the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. The Russian State is very keen that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church not be recognised as autocephalous (Comment, 31 August). The difficulty with this plot has been that the Patriarch himself does not use email at all.


IT WAS refreshing to turn to Philip Pullman in The Guardian, reviewing an exhibition of magical artefacts at the Ashmolean Museum. This contains an entirely persuasive blasphemy against Richard Dawkins: “Everything that touches human life is surrounded by a penumbra of associations, memories, echoes and correspondences that extend far into the unknown. In this way of seeing things, the world is full of tenuous filaments of meaning, and the very worst way of trying to see these shadowy existences is to shine a light on them. . . Imagination can give us an empathetic understanding of the world of magic; reason reminds us that the cast of mind that persecuted witches is still alive.”

Only once you realise that rationalism is itself a construct of the imagination can you begin to understand the great shakings of the religious and secular worlds today.


RATHER less surprising is the news that Paul McCartney once saw God while smoking a powerful hallucinogen, the active ingredient of ayahuasca. He told The Sunday Times: “I once took a drug, DMT. There was the gallery owner Robert Fraser, me, a couple of others. We were immediately nailed to the sofa. And I saw God, this amazing towering thing, and I was humbled. And what I’m saying is, that moment didn’t turn my life around, but it was a clue.”

In not wholly dissimilar circumstances, I once saw God, in the form of a jam biscuit on a rather dirty carpet. But what makes McCartney’s experience interesting is that the hallucination was consensual. Fraser saw the same thing at the same time: a vision of “a massive wall that I couldn’t see the top of, and I was at the bottom”.

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