Touch Me Not

This post goes in a number of different—though related—directions. It’s somewhat rough, but… well here you go:

Dicit ei Iesus: Noli me tangere, nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum: vade autem ad fratres meos, et dic eis: Ascendo ad Patrem meum, et Patrem vestrum, Deum meum, et Deum vestrum. Jesus saith to her: Do not touch me, for I am not yet ascended to my Father. But go to my brethren, and say to them: I ascend to my Father and to your Father, to my God and your God. (John 20:17)

I’ve been reading José Rizal’s novel Noli Me Tangere, an indictment of colonial (and clerical) rule in the Phillipines.   (There was a hiatus due to losing it on the train and having to repurchase it.)  Described, reasonably, by Penguin’s editorial material as an anticlerical novel, I’m struck by the irony of an anticlerical novel that takes its title from the Gospel of John.

Once you’ve allowed clericalism to define the terms of the debate, even to be anti-clerical is to participate in the religion based culture on which anti-clericalism is parasitic.  In a truly secular society, anti-clericalism is nonsensical.

I’m also reading Patrick W. Carey’s fascinating biography, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. In Carey’s discussion of Brownson’s reading of French writers, particularly the Saint-Simonians.

With the exception of [Henri-Benjamin] Constant [de Rebecque], who perceived religion primarily as religious sentiment (a view that was vigorously criticized by the Saint-Simonians), most of the other French writers understood religion or Christianity in its historical and social dimensions, and they all, even Constant, understood the significant role religious institutions had played in history and would continue to play in the post-Revolutionary world of early nineteenth-century France. These writers had what André Siegfried called “the ineradicably catholic habit of the French mind.” Even when the French writers were anti-clerical or anti-Catholic, they were catholic in outlook because they could not separate religion from politics, history, or society.

Even when they’re anti-clerical, the clerical/non-clerical distinction pervades their thinking.  This is in some ways similar to Émile Durkheim’s sacred/profane distinction.  The sacred is that which is set apart or forbidden (as clerics are).  In Durkheim’s model of how religion works, making this distinction is the fundamental characteristic of religion.  But the sacred (in Durkheim’s understanding) is not necessarily good, it can also be evil.  Interestingly then, an anti-clerical view shares the same sacred/profane split as a clerical view, but reverses the polarity of how it views whether the sacred things in question (clerics) are good or evil.  Of course, since Durkheim is French, his views about religion may be a result of being immersed in the clerical/anti-clerical world-view.

I came across something similar in Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Parts of that novel are intense indictments of trends in philosophy (e.g. phenomenology).  One of the main characters presents herself as being anti-philosophical.  But, just as the anti-clerical view is parasitic on the clerical view, when you attack philosophy in the way the book does, you accidentally find yourself doing philosophy as you try to explain why this or that philosophy is nonsensical.

At left: a detail of the painting “Noli Me Tangere” by Hans Holbein the Younger, which appears to feature Karate Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *