Saturday, 3 April 2010

Churches, churches everywhere

It's possible in Venice to escape from a number of things – MacDonalds and other fast-food outlets for starters. There's apparently only one of the former in the city – which seems like a laudable achievement to me.

But one thing that you cannot hope to escape from in Venice is religion. There are churches everywhere – every famous vista of Serenissima has some religious note or other in it. The piazza in San Marco? Will that be 'San Marco' as in 'Saint Mark', with the Basilica di San Marco and the Campanile di San Marco? Even the Doge's Palace is covered in ornately carved religious references (left, Adam and Eve).

And if you want to see art, well the best places to go are the churches – apart from Gallerie dell' Accademia; but then that turns out to be dominated by religious art, much of which was hauled out of assorted religious establishments by Napoleon, who set up the Gallerie and filled it with the works from the establishments he'd just disbanded. I knew Boney must have had his good points.

Our church visits were limited to three – Palladio's Il Redentore (left, but not the same architect's Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, due to the timing of Venetian lunch), plus a church on Murano, Chiesa di San Pietro Martire, and then another in, I think, Dorsoduro on the main islands, and which dated from the 9th century.

There were Bellinis to be seen and Tintorettos and Tiepolos. In short, you could easily risk a religious art overload. And that's before you start spotting the little shrines in the streets themselves (see picture below).

And of course, we’d also contrived to be in Venice for the first half of Holy Week, as the sight of people walking along the narrow streets, carrying olive branches, was a constant reminder.

But if it’s impossible to avoid the signs of religion in Venice, it’s difficult too not to find oneself contemplating what brought into being those buildings and displays of artistic brilliance. In other words, to consider religion.

My own religiosity died a remarkably painless death, unnoticed, around 10 years ago. “Why?” asked my friend George one evening, several pints into a post-work Friday drink, when I had insisted that, for all my disavowal of organised religion, I still believed in God.

I couldn’t answer that simple question and the subject dropped. But when the next census landed on our doormat and I was filling it in, I realised with some surprise that I was going to answer the religion question as ‘none’. Subconsciously, it seemed, that ‘why?’ had done its work.

After decades spent under a burden of guilt and fear, it was no loss. Although then began a new process – partly of trying to logically work out why I’d arrived at my new state of unbelief and also one of anger with the institution that had held such sway over my life.

It was a few years before I would willingly enter a church again – the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, as it happened, for a recital of organ music – without my mind grinding a metaphorical axe as I entered.

But not only was this Venice, with its myriad (mainly) Catholic churches, this was also a time when the Catholic church itself is desperately trying to deal with the scandals around child abuse by clergy and the subsequent cover-ups of that abuse.

More than one person has asked whether the Catholic church can surivive. Well, of course it will.

But aside from the survival of the organisation in question, it has also been asked as to how religious belief can survive in the face of such a scandal.

My first reaction was that it is entirely legitimate to point out that God is not the same as the abusive clergy.

But that, as I wondered around Venice, struck me as too easy.

The Christian god has always been represented as omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent – and indeed, if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t, for instance, be able to see your sin. Which might be something of a disadvantage come Judgment Day.

So for all that ‘free will’ can be used to explain the actions of abusers – and the influence of Lucifer too – that still leaves a little problem: that of the abused. Surely an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful god, who – as the Bible has us believe, gets upset when even a sparrow falls – could have protected those children? It wouldn’t have had to be overly dramatic – nothing to interfere with the challenge of faith: just a heart attack here, a fall there, and the abusers would have stopped their abuse.

But it’s more complex even than that.

Because if an all-powerful God created everything and, in being all-seeing and all-knowing, knows not only everything that has ever existed but everything that will ever exist, then that God actually created the situations that would cause the abuse, knowing that it would happen.

He might, to offer another explanation, have created a situation whereby everyone had a couple of choices available to them on any action. Or more – because the number is irrelevant. The all-seeing, all-knowing God has always known what would be the outcomes of his actions and his creations and his decisions: and in the case of child abuse by his own servants, he has apparently lifted not one, divine finger to stop the suffering.

“Suffer the little children”, means, it would seem, exactly what it says on the tin.

So even if this God existed, it rather belies the idea of a loving God, as sold to people down the millennia since the advent of Christianity.

And why – other than for entirely dishonest reasons of self-preservation (Pascal’s Wager, in other words) – would one wish to worship such an entity, even if that entity wouldn’t actually know perfectly well that one’s worship was not genuine?

This is the ultimate mindfuck. And the deeper you let yourself contemplate this quite labyrinthine matter, the more paths you find that lead you back to this same conclusion.

If he exists, the Christian god is either not omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient – or he is not the ‘loving’ god of Christian tradition; quite the opposite.

But then again, perhaps the children really should suffer? Perhaps, indeed, they should have suffered in (bought-off) silence – a sort of religious character-building exercise?

I lost track some time ago of how many pictures of the martyrdom of St Sebastian we saw, each one seemingly feyer than the previous one.

‘Oh look – I’ve been shot full of arrows, but I’m not the least bit distressed because I’m a good boy, I am, and I’m going to Heaven.

‘Oh my – I’ve pulled one of the arrows clean out … now just as long as they don’t muss my golden locks at all I’ll be able to endure anything.’

St Bartholomew was managing a similar expression as he was being flayed. And never mind all the artistic representations of the crucifixion.

Suffering: it’s good for the soul.

And never let it be said that Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular hasn’t relished a bit of sado-masochism – and they have the nerve to call kinky people perverts!

For some reason or other, one night when we were in Venice I dreamt that I met and had a debate with the Pope. Perhaps it’s a good thing that, by the time I’d woken, I could remember only that, and no details of the dreamt conversation.

But if Venice leaves one with an idea about religion, it’s surely the impression that more humans have created more beauty for the Christian God than that god deserves on the basis of his cruelty and barbarity.

The creations of a Palladio or a Bellini or even a Vivaldi (another son of Venice) are ‘holier’ (if you will) and purer and more deserving of reverence than the god that many of their works were intended to praise.

And I hope, therefore, that whatever happens to the Catholic church (and other religious groups, Christian and non-Christian), the buildings and the art of Venice will surivive. And for that reason, I happily handed over €10 for a pass to the so-called Chorus churches (including Palladio’s Il Redentore), on the basis that their preservation is well worth a donation.

1 comment:

  1. This world operates exactly as one would expect it would in a world with no god to intervene. Professor Bart Ehrman addressed the problem of suffering in his book "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer" and human suffering was the factor that caused him to change from an Evangelical Christian to an atheist.

    The churches, the architecture and the artwork throughout the world tell a fascinating historical story of humanity and yes, it's all worth preserving.