Paul Tillich on Christmas.

By Richard Miller

madonna-and-child-1505_jpg!BlogBy long established custom my Christmas begins when I swing my old red Volkswagen off the roundabout just South of Gorey and head down the back road to Wexford where I stay the night with kind friends before travelling to England by boat the following day. This year there was a welcome variation to the programme. No long after I arrived than we all drove through the dak lanes of South Wexford to a Carol service held in a nearby Protestant church.

The service lacked the Household Brigade efficiency of a similar operation ( sic.) in England. But was no less moving for that. The combination of the biblical readings and the images of angels and Magi conjured up by the carols worked for me as it always does- and as I am confident it did also for the rest of the congregation- most of which then adjourned to a nearby castle for “craic” and yet more carols. It was a great evening thick with the spirit of Christmas .

On such occassions it is difficult to avoid nostalgia. But are we just fooling ourselves in haze of sentiment? Is the message of Christmas really one that can commend itself to the educated adult? Are we in Santa Claus territory as my more sceptical friends think? How seriously sould we take the claims that are being made in the pasages that are read to us, and in the words we sing?

Well, I think very seriously indeed. And here is why…..My witness- and there is no doubt I could find plenty of others- such as T. S. Eliot,  is Paul Tillich ( 1886 – 1965 see one of our recent posts 220px-Paul_Tillich) probably the greatest liberal protestant theologian of the twentieth century. My text is that of a remarkable sermon he preached at Union Theological seminary soon after the war and which was published in 1947 in his collection “The shaking of the Foundations.”

It is a strange, challenging, disturbing, and even troubling piece piece, a very long way from any imaginable carol service. But that is why it is so poweful. While Tillich carefully avoids the kind of Christmas language- deployed so effectively a few nights ago in South Wexford. But yet he signals that his is in no shallow revolt against the immemorial witness of the church by employing a  traditional translation of the text on which he hangs his discourse.

Instead of referring to either St Luke’s or St Mathew’s Gospel- the sources for most of our rhetoric about the nativity, or even the prologue of St. John’s gospel with which our carol services tend to conclude- Tillich reaches to the Epistle to the Hebrews which is perhaps the most difficult, and most sophisticated theological resource in The New Testament:-

“Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” ( Hebrews 2, 14)

“The darkness” Tillich begins “into which the light of Christmas shines is above all the darkness of death..Our having to die is a shaping force through our whole being of body and soul in every moment…this frightful  presence of death subjects man to bondage and servitude all his life.”71mvC2VJzdL__SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

But according to Tillich this fear of death is not so much a fear of our own extinction, but rather our failure to understand that that our very conciousness of death means that we are in fact beyond the reach of death. More partcularly he urges us to  ask ourselves whether as we listen to the prophecies of advent ( like those read in every carol service) whether or not our attitude to death has changed. In short could the stories of Christmas really have emerged from a materialist world in which we simply rot when we die?

Nicely put. But we seem to have a problem here. This is, at any rate at one level, appears to be simply a version of the ontological argument for God’s existence, in which his very existence is proved from the idea of his perfection- which most ( not all) philosphers reject.

Perhaps then the Nayes have it! There is obviously no certainty here.  But listen again in the light of Tillich’s question

Hark the herald angels sing

“Glory to the new born king!

God and sinners reconciled”

…Born that man no more may die

Born to raise the sons of earth

Born to give them second birth…

YES! I think that he is onto something! The analytical pholosphers may have picked holes in the ontological argument, and yet I cannot help thinking that a world in which the  story of Christmas is told and flourishes, is a world in which death is not the final statement about our lives. Or put differently why should a whole lot of lumps of meat want to sing carols, as they evidently do? Because, I suspect these lumps of meat are not just lumps of meat, but are rather mysterious immortal beings which  inhabit a world in which the tinsel of Christmas is in fact much more than tinsel…and it is why ( among other very good reasons !) I relish being reminded of this that I am so grateful to my hosts in South Wexford, and why am so glad that I can I wish all those who visit this web site a very happy Chritmas!










Water Charges- latest!

Roman aqueduct near Nimes

Another clash between Pilate and the Jewish authorities arose out of his construction of an aqueduct to augment the city’s  water supply. The construction of this aqueduct, carrying water from the southern highlands to Jerusalem, was the one positive boon that his governorship brought to Jerusalem. The temple in particular benefited from it, because it continually required an exceptionally large water supply – not only for the ritual ablutions prescribed for the priests but also for keeping the are clean and fresh after the incessant slaughtering and sacrifice of animals which went on there.

                               Pilate therefore- very naturally from his point of view- demanded that payment for the cost of the aqueduct be made from the Temple treasury. The Temple authorities protested that it was an act of sacrilege to appropriate for such a secular purpose money which had been dedicated to God; but Pilate insisted that they should pay what he demanded, and raided the fund into which each adult Jewish male throughout the world contributed half a shekel annualy for the sacrificial services. Crowds of indignant Jews gathered in protest against the sacrilege, but their demonstration was forcibly broken up by the procurator’s troops.


F.F. Bruce ( 1910-1990)

  F.F. Bruce, New Testament History  ( New York 1972 ) p.36- 37- slightly rearranged.

Crime in the Countryside

By Richard Miller.

Crona Esler, “Unless by Invitation, Crimes that Shocked Ireland.” Blackwater Press, E, 9.74

Padraig Nally had recently been robbed several times, and had become increasingly fearful for his property and safety. He had taken to cradling his legally held single barrel shot gun for as many as five hours a day, as he nervously awaited another raid on his house in South Co. Mayo. So when at  1.30 pm on 14 th October 2004 he heard a car revving in the road outside, he went out to investigate.2007_Padraig-Nally_H

In the melee which resulted Mr Nally shot one of his “visitors” dead. If ever there was a case in which “the devil was in the details” this was it. And these details are too complicated to be recounted again here, although Mrs Esler tells the story well. She shows real sympathy for both sides in this horribly divisive case which gripped Ireland and attracted international attention ten years ago. The one certainty though is that the circumstances surrounding the death of John Ward ( who was certainly up to no good) will always remain bitterly controversial. On the one side of the debate will be the representatives of the travelling community of which Mr Ward a part; and on the other were what might be called the “plain folk” of rural Ireland represented by Mr. Nally.travellers-community-protests-390x285

My hunch, both at the time, now when I read this instructive volume, and when I reflect on my own experience of rural crime ( Mr. Nally is not the only victim! ) is that Mr. Nally over reacted to what were undoubtedly extremely trying, indeed all but impossible, circumstances. Clearly the six year sentence for manslaughter imposed on him in his first trail was harsh. Nevertheless I think that, on balance, his acquittal in his second trail also amounted to a miscarriage of justice. My thought ( I would hardly want to dignify it with the word conclusion- because I was not after all in court) is that Mr. Nally was indeed guilty but that he deserved at the most only a nominal sentence, or should perhaps have been pardoned- although there would probably have been insuperable political difficulties attached to this course.

Mrs Esler’s book though has the advantage of not dealing only with Mr. Nally’s case. She places his story firmly within the contest of rural crime in the West of Ireland, but also deals with the similar English case of Mr Martin who, it will be recalled was imprisoned for manslaughter for killing a thief who had broken into his house in Norfolk.

The events which Mrs Esler describes with such zeal and skill are so horrifying that it is difficult to discern the core of the matter. But regarded in tranquillity, and we should remember that neither Mr. Nally nor Mr. Martin ( in truth an odder man than Mrs Esler allows ) had much opportunity for reflection, is that neither the police in England nor the Garda here seem to be able to provide for the security of those who live in the countryside. The Garda admit this privately, and the spread of electric gates in my part of North Wexford bears testimony to the reality of the matter.

This though in turn is no more than a reflection of a deeper difficulty that besets the social democratic state in dealing with remote and sparsely populated areas. Most voters are congregated in the towns and want as many “free” services as they can get- for example such as good policing- while paying a little tax as possible. This leaves those relatively few voters who live in rural areas at a substantial disadvantage..and the criminals ( as well as the Garda ) know it…and hence the electric gates- for those who can afford them!

There needs to be a far clearer understanding among decision makers that it is the moral responsibility of the state to ensure the safety and chattels of all its citizens- and not just  those who live within a few hundred yards of a police station. This can only be done if the forces of law are more widely dispersed than they are at present which is, I suppose, a complicated way of saying that we badly need to bring back the village policeman or his equivalent. There is no other alternative unless we are to have many more terrible and tragic cases like those Padraig Nally and Tony Martin.Tony martin

There are two sorts of books about episodes such as these. There are books which  dig deeply into what happened; and there are those which merely to describe what happened. Mrs Esler’s contribution is in this latter category. Those looking for learned sociology or criminology will be disappointed here. But this is a solid piece of work on which others may build with confidence- and we are in Mrs Esler’s debt for her writing it; although it might perhaps have been wiser- if only to forestall criticism- for her to have noted, something that she seems to have unaccounatbaly missed namely, that Mr Martin is the nephew by marriage of the far right activist Andrew Fountaine ( 1918- 1997) who was deselected as Conservative candidate for giving an anti- semitic speech in 1948!


Housing Crisis


Michael Dwyer


Ronald Regan once said that the scariest words in the English language were “we are from the government and we’re here to help”. Well if that’s true the phrase recently used by our own dear leaders must still be in the top ten : Housing Strategy.

It is a long standing habit of governments to create a slew of problems and then rush heroically to the scene of disaster and declare that only government action can remediate the problem.

We are in the midst of a housing crisis. Homelessness is rising fearfully and families on low incomes are finding it nigh impossible to rent accommodation in the capital city. Why?

Well some years ago Dublin city councillors made cheap apartments illegal. Reacting to the traditional squalor of student bedsits and the boxy flats of the Celtic Tiger they decided that it was against the dignity of man to live in what they called shoeboxes. They passed a series of regulations for new build apartment blocks that ensured the shoe box would be forever a thing of the past.

And so they are , and so is cheap rental accommodation. The minimum build size is now sixty square metres. Which is a very decent sized flat. Each flat must have dual aspect. Every two flats must be serviced by dedicated a lift and stairs. Each must have a one basement located car parking space. There is more that that gives the gist.

Every single one of these arbitrary rules add massively to the cost of construction. We can have all the nice intentions in the world but extra space and extra spec will mean a higher price. Though the left is loathe to admit it no matter how much you torture them , one and one will always add up to two.

So today we have young professionals, low income families, students and single folks starting a career all competing for a shrinking pool of affordable housing. The new flats when they come on stream will not help. As Ronan Lyons shows in his excellent work on the subject the added costs of regulation will mean city apartments will start at around 450,000 euro to buy, way beyond those at the bottom of the housing ladder.

In Milan where I lived for a decade it was accepted that when young folk left home they started in what is called a monolocale which could be as small as twenty square metres but rarely bigger than thirty five. As they earned more they would pay for more space and more comfort but every must start at the beginning. Our planners seem to think we should start at the end.

If the  state is serious about ensuring a plentiful of supply of affordable rental accommodation then the best thing is it can do is undo the mess it has made , strip down the opaque and Byzantine planning process and then get out of the way.