Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Diarmuid Ó Murchú's "Reclaiming Spirituality": Book Review

I confess if this book had not featured the author's name on the spine at the used section of Bodhi Tree, I'd never have picked it up. Yes, he's a Murph from Cork by any other name, a missionary (but not a priest) counselling in London in an apostolate as what must be quite an open-minded social psychologist. This review appeared today on Amazon US. (N.B.: see the footnote about faulty pagination. I wish I had noticed this before paying $8 for my copy.)

The strengths of this book rest in its asides more than its direction. While I sympathize with much of what Ó Murchú's critiquing concerning the dead hand of religion vs. the living potential for change within that which precedes the Church and all organized structures, the spiritual that attracts so many disillusioned or unable to conform to religion, his analysis offers little that is new. The book begins promisingly as he encourages religious people not to fear what's been labelled as pagan, primitive, New Age, or natural. He reminds us that we have been symbolic searchers for answers for at least 70,000 years, compared to at the most perhaps five thousand years of monotheism, which built its triumph upon the ruins it made of the societies and the more co-creative, maternal, and eroticized consciousness of our ancestors. Ó Murchú reminds us how much of our inheritance grounds itself in a deeper pattern of looking to the body, the stars, the earth, and our own needs for connection. These all predate, and have not yet been entirely obliterated by, the religions billions claim fealty to today. In these older forms of meaning, Ó Murchú excavates enduring evidence of a gentler method by which we may heal ourselves, our neighbors, and our psyche. And, perhaps, these lessons may generate changes that may restore our society and our world. So he ambitiously hopes, in this thoughtful, if flawed, analysis.

He is best when illuminating his topic with explanations or analogies. He evokes, for example, his native Cork hillside, and contrasts its allure with the grotto placed there-- apparently close to if not that which in the mid-90s electrified the Irish media as a supposed "moving statue" at Ballinspittle. Ó Murchú asks: which possesses the true power of the creator? The hillside or the grotto, the natural or the man-made? This sort of image, for me, sums up the provocative energy that energizes the book's most accomplished sections.

These, I found, were earlier in the narrative, as he provides a nuanced understanding of how a seeker can be turned away by the institutional Church or establishment. He encourages a genuine openness to searching, while realizing that many of us go in and out of periods of belief, and may wander long throughout our lives in a pattern that reveals both our need for faith and our suspicion of what's touted as solutions to our human condition. It seems that part of our humanity consists, if Ó Murchú is correct, in simply not knowing, and being aware that such a state can bring its own peace rather than leading to more anxiety.

Parts of this study merited more elaboration. Among them are the Trinitarian patterns that he only alludes to as being part of many non-Christian systems, the sacralization of work (he touches upon the now-"post-Christian" provocateur Matthew Fox's work here; similarly much of the book relies upon, being written in 1997, what's now found its own niche as "creation spirituality"), and the importance of a non-procreative, trans-genital (my term) sexuality that takes in the entire body and mind as part of our union with the transcendent. These subjects all earn some attention, but not enough.

Rather, much of his rather reductive cultural analysis merely repeats such popularizations as Riane Eisler and Fox have provided themselves already. While I can consider their suggestions, I remain somewhat suspicious of the nearly total acclaim given by the author to many of his sources. He assumes a total paradise before agriculture fomented the lust for land, horses, war, and conquest. Spirituality linked everyone to his or her surroundings, harmony ruled, and strife never entered the garden. This appears to suspicious me as a bit too pat.

I lack the in-depth knowledge to verify how far subsequent scholars have questioned and challenged the somewhat tidy dichotomies of maternal vs. patriarchal societies that Ó Murchú accepts. However, I suspect much of his anthropological suggestions which are collated here may rest too securely upon such controversial academics as James Lovelock, Marija Gimbutas, and Mary Daly. I wonder how much of our restlessness can be attributed to the ravages of the past five thousand years, and if, as Ó Murchú insists, our farther-removed progenitors possessed only sweetness and light in what must have been often brutal lives and difficult times.

This is not meant as a denial of their Mother Earth ideology. It's admirable that Ó Murchú takes on the conventional and tired pieties. On the other hand, his own plan for reviving the "Basileia," the radical, spirit-driven dynamism he imagines that Christ himself wished in his mission to overthrow the dominant religious system, remains too utopian. The Church is eroding, no doubt. Yet, it has not shown the openness to the transformative suggestions which those allied with Ó Murchú have advocated. Ten years later, I wonder if it ever will.

Now, my hesitation has been anticipated by him. His applications encourage a community-based, imaginative, and sincere effort to replace our will-to-power with rituals geared towards our innate will-to-meaning. I only wonder, however, since the New York Times the other day buried on page A-8 a small piece about the UN warning us that we are much closer to a dreadful "tipping point" of no return in harming our planet, if any such prescriptions as Ó Murchú and like-minded idealists offer can palliate the poison that the systems, religious or pseudo-religious that pass as our drives for production, consumption, and expansion all push us further down the road to self-destruction.

A note on the 1998 Crossroads printing: my copy has pp. 87-118 missing while pp. 119-150 are printed twice. My post on this book, therefore, needs to be considered in this limitation. I give it three rather than about 2.5 stars, therefore, acknowledging my limits. Shame, however, on the publisher. Caveat lector emptorque!

No comments: