Scattering The Proud: Christianity Beyond 2000

A review of Seán Ó Conaill’s book of this name, The Columba Press, Dublin, 1999, pp.104.

(Doctrine and Life, March 2000, pp.187-188)

‘The central purpose of this book is to affirm a God for whom human freedom is inviolable.’ (p.74) Seán Ó Conaill sets out to challenge Christians to turn away from what he calls the ‘pyramid of esteem’, namely, the cultivation of power, the structures and symbols of which the church has often adopted. The pyramid of esteem is also a pyramid of exclusion which leaves the majority of people outside the charmed circle, feeling a diminished sense of their own value and – quite wrongly – blaming themselves for it.

In a broad-ranging intellectual and cultural tour de horizon Ó Conaill shows, with quotations from original sources, how the Christian faith came adrift from its biblical moorings and adopted standards which were substantially at variance with those of the gospel. Examples of this were the use of violence by the church, its persecution of its perceived enemies, and its opposition to religious freedom. Ó Conaill sees the death of Jesus on the cross as the supreme “argument” for religious freedom; Jesus did not compel anyone to attend the marriage feast of the Lord, he did not compel them to go in, he was willing to allow them to go away.

Combining spirituality, social comment and a liberation theology without Marx, Ó Conaill gives a fresh and challenging interpretation to biblical texts to show how Jesus opted for a counter-cultural stance based on a child-like acceptance of God’s unconditional love. This leads to freedom from the pyramid of esteem and from the bogus “upward journey” to power, position and possessions, and leads to freedom for the acceptance of oneself. On pages 36-7, he lists six positive benefits of opting for the “downward journey”. These have social as well as individual implications.

The message of the book is essentially an old one: ‘Repent and believe in the gospel’, but the context and the presentation are new and stimulating. It addresses contemporary issues, examining their causes and ideological bases, offering alternative and evangelical ways of facing them. It has the potential to begin bridging the chasms described in chapters 8 to 10.

The book is written for the general reader and is sometimes – perhaps unavoidably – a little too generalized in its comments. A glossary of key terms is provided, though I found the explanation of the word ambivalence substantially different from the standard dictionary definition. The Columba Press have more than lived up to their reputation for consistently good presentation with a very attractive cover picture of Frances Biggs’ stations of the cross.

For anyone seeking a way forward in the Christian faith as we face a new century, Scattering the Proud is a helpful road-map, though not one for the detached academic or the merely curious. It is a call to conversion, a challenge to change. ‘Community begins where one person’s compassion meets another’s need’. (p.79)