A Monty Python Sketch?

Today, I watched an interview with John Cleese who is most known for his role in the Monty Python shows and as Q in the later James Bond films.

‘I couldn’t stop laughing… All these people in these silly costumes, all taking things so seriously. I thought it was a Python sketch.’

Making fun of the absurd is the very definition of humour and laughter. This reminds me of the discussion around humour in Aristotle’s book on poetics in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The point of the murders in the abbey and the irrational work of the Inquisition was that someone was hiding a book of great moral authority to preserve an ideology, the sinfulness of humour and laughter.

William of Baskerville approached dogma and truth as a sceptic, seeing truth as fundamentally unknowable and mysterious: there is much in the world and in God’s word that Christians do not understand. In the view of the librarian Jorge all truth is known and all laughter is subversive of that truth, because it “foments doubt. Laughter can be a weapon against liars and those who deny the truth of God because it allows us “to undermine the false authority of an absurd proposition that offends reason”. The very basis of Monty Python is grotesque absurdity, which provokes our emotion of laughter. Aristotle would turn comedy into an appropriate object of philosophical inquiry. Laughter and comedy would be elevated from base entertainment to a form of art. We all find that laughter is good for us. However, there is a limit, where the rhetoric of conviction is replaced by the rhetoric of mockery. Nothing is taken seriously, even that which is most sacred. Jorge’s fanatical hatred of humour destroys the entire library and the abbey with it. This fanatical notion of dogmatic truth reminds us of Hitler’s Götterdämmerung and the epidemic of suicides when Nazi Germany was defeated. For the Romantic sceptic, “the only truth lies in learning to free ourselves from insane passion for the truth”. Doubt and questioning are essential to advance in knowledge and our growth as human beings.

The ultimate expression of scepticism is atheism and materialism, but everything turns full circle. Atheism, or at least hard atheism, becomes another dogmatic religion with its orthodoxy and foundational truth.

What I most observed about this Coronation is that the rite and ceremony made no sense to most of the people watching it, precisely because of the yawning gap between rite and liturgy, and their secular lives without judging their morality or ethics. Even among practicing Christians, the notion of liturgy and sacramental mystery are alien to them. What is important is the word in human language designed to appeal to the rational faculties of the mind. Many people need noise and entertainment, interaction with other people and the community to foster the Christian ideal. Even myself, I watched the ceremony, and it struck me as a caricature, something like the ceremonies of any number of fake princes and vagante bishops. Then, as the most solemn gestures of the ancient rite came around, there was an extraordinary collusion of the humanity of King Charles, the Royal family, the Archbishop and bishops, the invited guests from other religious traditions. I noticed a deeply moved face in the King, a movement of conversion and humility. This is perhaps something John Cleese missed. It is something that passed underneath the radar of the masses.

The more intellectual atheists would try to come out with an apologia of their fanatical dogma or at least what they see as most probable and plausible. For them, get rid of religion, and man’s energy can be turned to improving this world. Christianity itself can be debunked as a spiritual philosophy and reused as a form of Marxist Socialism through Liberation Theology and versions of critical theory. For such people, belief in a god that intervenes in human life, fear of death and solitude are calmed and soothed, and priests can enter the competition against the socialist paradigm and gain control. The atheist is held up as someone who is fair, objective and sincere. The more cynical mind would compare heaven as a condition of afterlife with the notion of modern mass holiday-making and tourism. The atheist accepts annihilation at death with “humility” and thus better serves humanity here and now.

Our atheist will take advantage of the mystery of evil which cannot be avoided in Christian, Jewish and Islamic monotheism. There is no moral merit in being a good human being though fear of punishment or the enticement of reward. Religion is compared with modern business and commercial advertising, and the level drops even lower. So if there is no solution for the mystery of evil (why God allows evil), then the very notion of God is debunked. There is only a material universe and no reason for life.

A good argument against branding religion (re-ligare), faith and spirituality as absurd, is its enduring presence in human culture. It supports collective thought and a motivation for a person to care about another and see a transcendent dignity to be treated as sacred. Atheists are often as fanatical as religious fundamentalists with their dogma and foundational truth. Worse than Nazism, Marxist Communism killed millions of people in the twentieth century, all in the name of opposing the opiate of the people. It does not help the atheist cause to call believers idiots, sheep, gullible people, etc. André Gide said “J’aime les gens qui cherchent la vérité, je me méfie de ceux qui l’ont trouvée” – I like people who search for truth, but I am wary of those who have [or claim to have] found it).

Probably what has done Christianity (and other religions) the most harm is that fanatical and “we have the truth” mindset of the monastic librarian Jorge. The same attitude will make us reject atheism. It is not anti-rational to base everything on spirit and energy from which matter derives its existence. Many modern scientists are sceptical about Newtonian physics and the materialistic assumption.

What is needed is a new basis of our relating to Christ, to truth and our entire spiritual existence. That may seem to be a very modern thought. It is. German Romanticism in the closing years of the eighteenth century had a remarkable insight in this relationship between truth, reason and the human imagination. Friedrich von Hardenberg took the pen name Novalis meaning “the one who clears new ground”. This is not novelty for its own sake but a process of maturity and self-understanding. Philosophy (as in love of wisdom) is not passively accepted but as something to provoke our thought and human reaction. Like the fictional William of Baskerville, Novalis saw the value of irony and humour. We are called to raise ourselves to a state of critical self-understanding. Individuality is only developed in interaction with other individuals, but is not to be confused with collectivism.

The Romantic acts and thinks in the spirit of the Enlightenment, in that we challenge and criticise prejudices handed down from tradition. Unlike what the enlightenment philosophers believed, history and tradition have much to offer for a critical discussion of the present time. We cannot cancel culture – or history.

The Coronation didn’t make me laugh, but it seemed surrealistic until we were brought into contact with the human dimension of people of our time following this very ancient tradition. I was thus able to understand John Cleese and all those for whom traditional rites, history and culture are absurd. We are confronted with the equally absurd slogan cancel culture.

There is a very frightening phenomenon of cultural nihilism. It is important for us to seek to understand both sides. By my year of birth, I am a Baby Boomer, but fifty years ago, we reacted from the conservatism of our parents and grandparents born in the 1920’s and the 1890’s. Now, the new generations of young people are reacting the same way against the “conservatism” of the Baby Boomers! Perhaps their children twenty years down the line will react against them for the same reasons!

There is a deep mistrust of all institutions. I notice the people going to demonstrations against President Macron’s pension reforms, a simple measure to finance the ailing pension system for a little longer. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left politician in France, has created another scandal by defending the hoodlums, vandals and hooligans burning cars and even buildings in the cities. What do those people want? Anachism? But, history has taught us that anarchism and nihilism brought about the evils of the Russian Revolution. They are truly the Demons of Dostoevsky! They will oppose the Monarchy as much as all mainstream institutions.

The Coronation has drawn the hostility of those who would turn the UK into North Korea complete with re-eduction camps and cultural death. It has also drawn the ire of fundamentalist Christians who found that the ceremony was not exclusively Christian by condemning everything else. I have read some shocking things in Facebook entries, including people I know or have met.

Like the Enlightenment and Romanticism, King Charles has manifested his wish for freedom for all, including those who do not believe in any God or spiritual life. What better can he do for the entire people who have been entrusted to his moral and spiritual leadership. The nature of this freedom is difficult to understand and follow, and it needs a lot of work. We’re not there yet!

The late Sir Roger Scruton had a sober view of contemporary culture or the lack of it. I quote from the article to which I linked:

We in Britain are entering a dangerous social condition in which the direct expression of opinions that conflict—or merely seem to conflict—with a narrow set of orthodoxies is instantly punished by a band of self-appointed vigilantes. We are being cowed into abject conformity around a dubious set of official doctrines and told to adopt a world view that we cannot examine for fear of being publicly humiliated by the censors. This world view might lead to a new and liberated social order; or it might lead to the social and spiritual destruction of our country. How shall we know, if we are too afraid to discuss it?

I have precious little idea of what is going through the King’s mind, other than getting his act together and getting his family into order as a force for good and true nobility.

The other reflection I had was also my own question “Is this real?“. I am a priest and had the experience of a series of ordinations and initiations from the Minor Orders, the Subdiaconate, the Deaconate and the Priesthood. I have never hidden the fact that I was consecrated a bishop, though I have ceased to exercise it since 2005 for the reasons of being accepted into an institutional Church as a simple priest under the jurisdiction of a bishop, presently Archbishop Mark Haverland, Metropolitan of the Anglican Catholic Church. I have been dressed in an alb, anointed, given vestments and symbols of the gift and Sacrament I was receiving and acclaimed to those present that something had changed in my life. The Coronation of a King has many parallels with the consecration of a bishop. I have seen the most sublime and the most absurd in churches and chapels. I was thankful that I connected with the reality of this Coronation and was genuinely moved.

Most people do not have the experience I have of being a man of the cloth. Their world is one of family life, work and entertainment – nothing wrong with that, but there is something more. Money and the “status” money brings is not the purpose of our lives. Even if someone is inclined to seek a spiritual philosophy, they are afraid to get sucked into a totalitarian cult and exposed to what is perceived as corruption and perversion in the clergy, the pornocracy. Those people have no idea of liturgical rites or what they mean. They will just pass them off as mumbo-jumbo and something irrelevant. This ancient rite of Coronation of a King will be as irrelevant to them as Mass or Evensong in the local church in their street. Some daring innovations were allowed without destroying the whole. A lady would bring a sword, and some African-Americans sang a piece of Gospel music. At the same time, the Coronation was explicitly and unashamedly Christian.

As Oscar Wilde said: A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.

I do not want to live in a world where only money talks!

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6 Responses to A Monty Python Sketch?

  1. pilgrimdj1 says:

    I liked this . You are kinder than Ashenden I think !☺️

  2. pilgrimdj1 says:

    I think you are kinder that Ashenden

  3. pilgrimdj1 says:

    I apologise for the double comment but it’s very frustrating I find trying to make a comment as entering my details …Wordpress etc with putting password in endlessly , this seems to happen every time I try and write a comment Fr Anthony !

    BTW ….I will be in St Coulomb in July with my Italian grandchildren ….I wonder how near you are and could we meet over a glass of Chardonnay?
    You have my email .

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wikipedia tells me Julien Benda popularized the phrase “La Trahison des Clercs” – I have not (yet -?) read him, and do not know if that is accurate about the phrase-history, but the phrase popped into mind after reading this – in how far which sorts of ‘Oxbridge’ and other ‘clerks’ are guilty of what sorts of ‘trahison’, with what intriguing distinctions. The best-known Cantabrigian Pythons, for instance, with what degree of contrast between them and the Oxonian Python, the late Terry Jones, author of Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980), among other ‘historical works’?

    But the first contrast that came to mind with the shallow pretension scorn Mr. Cleese seems to exhibit, is David Starkey’s serious, learned, though far from unprejudiced and self-confident, attention to the history of Monarchy, of English Coronations, of Music and Monarchy, and therewith liturgy.

    There is that classic line from the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales about the pilgrim-clerk who would both gladly learn and gladly teach. How bizarre is the anti-curiosity, the implicit or pronounced discouragement of interest, of study, learning, reflection, of ‘Cambridge clerk Cleese’ in contrast to the lively and in so many ways enlivening attention of ‘Cambridge clerk Starkey’? Another question is, how successful are the various dismissive aspirant dumbers-down and curiosity-killers? How much innate gladness to learn survives among all the welcomers of the Coronation and Charles Crowned?

  5. Stephen K says:

    Yes, there is a problem with the fact that seemingly so many people are now so historically illiterate and religiously inexperienced that they miss the deeper meanings behind such occasions and rituals like the coronation of a King. The commentary was very largely confined to the external details and notions of pageantry and colour and not much more. I found John Cleese’s comments themselves ridiculous and place him squarely in the ranks of the tear-downers and scorn-mongers; I found Gavin Ashenden’s critique as unworthy and inappropriately scornful and missing the religious wood for the trees.
    Nothing of what they said diminishes anything I said in my earlier post.

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I just caught up with an interesting conversation with a learned and playful American descendant of French Canadians, Charles Coulombe, broadcast 6 May, with many details unknown to me about the Coronation, King Charles, Prince Philip, Kings George V, Edward VII, and Charles I, among other things.

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