I grant, of course, that the BP oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been an environmental disaster, perhaps the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But I also think it might carry a certain spiritual value. How would I explain this gnomic remark? Well, the gusher a mile below the surface of the ocean has confounded everyone. BP executives look and sound befuddled; the crews using the most advanced technological tools to stem the tide of oil are ineffectual; our smartest scientists can’t seem to come up with any solutions; and the President who was hailed, just a few months ago, as The One, is stymied by his daughter’s plaintive question, “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?” I don’t point all this out in order to mock the scientists, businessmen and politicians who are, presumably, striving to solve the problem; I do so in order to draw attention to our profound vulnerability and our inescapable finitude.
This has been a particularly terrible year for gun violence in Chicago. We wring our hands over the killings in the Holy Land, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but things are practically as bad in our own streets. Attention has been drawn to this problem recently because of the Supreme Court’s striking down of Chicago’s gun ban and the City Council’s rapid re-institution of another version of the same law.
I was recently scheduled to address the priests of the Archdiocese of Boston, but bad weather rolled into O’Hare, and my flight was cancelled. However, I’d like to share with you some of the insights I had intended to offer to the Boston priests. As you know, Boston was the epicenter of the clergy sex abuse scandal that came to light in 2002 and that continues to shake the church around the country and around the world. I struggled rather mightily to prepare this talk, for I didn’t want to dwell on the difficulties, and I wanted, above all, to give these priests a sense of hope, but I knew I had to make some reference to the scandal. I decided to take my own advice (cf. an article that I wrote some weeks ago) and look at the issue through biblical eyes.
I have been all across the world these past two years, filming for my documentary on Catholicism. With my team, I’ve travelled to Jerusalem, Rome, Madrid, Mexico City, Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Koln, New York, Philadelphia, Istanbul, Corinth, and Athens. But none of these places had a visceral impact to match that of the city I’ve just visited: Calcutta, India. We had gone there to film in locales associated with the work of Mother Teresa and her sisters, and therefore, we didn’t spend much time in the relatively presentable parts of the city. We went to the slums where, in Mother’s famous phrase, “the poorest of the poor” lived. Here are just some of the images that I trust will stay branded in my mind for the rest of my life: a child of about ten gathering horse manure with his bare hands in order to sell it; people bathing in the river filled with raw sewage; a mentally disturbed woman just outside of the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity emitting a blood-curdling and other-worldly scream; garbage absolutely everywhere, as though the entire city were a trash heap; people whose only dwelling was the street or sidewalk; beggar children surrounding me and gesturing desperately to their mouths; a man at one of Mother’s hospitals with a goiter on his neck the size of a pumpkin; a Missionary of Charity sister, having just tended to a man bleeding from one of his ears, saying to me, “maggots again.”
Here we go again. I just saw the new film “Agora,” which is a re-telling of the story of Hypatia, the brilliant woman philosopher from Alexandria, who was killed, supposedly by a mob of “Christians,” in the year 415. Along with the tales of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, the legend of Hypatia is a favorite of anti-religious ideologues. I first heard the story from Carl Sagan, the popular scientist whose multi-part program “Cosmos” was widely watched back in the 1970’s. “Cosmos” in fact comes to its climax with Sagan’s melodramatic rehearsal of the narrative. Hypatia, he explained, was a scientist and philosopher who ran afoul of Cyril, the wicked bishop of Alexandria, who then stirred up a mob of his superstitious followers who subsequently put Hypatia to death. Sagan commented: “the supreme tragedy was that when the Christians came to burn down the great library of Alexandria, there was no one to stop them.” And just to rub it in, he said, “and they made Cyril a saint.” Sagan’s account found its roots in Edward Gibbon’s version of the story in his deeply anti-Christian classic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In fact, Gibbon was the first to link the murder of Hypatia with the burning down of the Alexandrian library. Alejandro Amenabar’s new film stands firmly in the Gibbon/Sagan tradition, presenting Hypatia as a saint of secular rationalism who desperately gathers scrolls from the library before it is invaded by hysterical Christians and who goes nobly to her death, defending reason and science against the avatars of religious superstition.