The Sunday Herald asked me to write about my attendance at the public mass held by Pope Benedict at Bellahouston Park, Glasgow (my previous column for Caledonian Mercury, written before the event, is published below). A fascinating, moving, troubling day.
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The clouds literally parted at Bellahouston, a roiling sodden carpet of grey, as Pope Benedict's big moment got closer. And as the Vicar of Christ quietly railed against the surface trivialities of the age, the sky above him was an infinite bowl of blue. Typical Catholicism, thinks this particular ex-Catholic, now-scientific-materialist observer: they even orchestrate the Scottish climate, in all its carnaptiousness, to frame their seductive spectacle.
And seductive spectacle it was - even in a time when whatever majesty Catholicism projects is being pelted with stones of scandal, criminality, self-subverting illiberalism. I'm at the age when the only insides of a Catholic church I see are at the emotional milestones of life - birth, marriage, death. But in my youth I was also an altar boy, a reader of scripture, even a lay performer in the Passion play in St. Augustine's Church, Coatbridge.
So it was easy to revert to the apostolic rituals, to join in the collective mumbling at the relevant points, to sing those sweet, melodically childish hymns, and to dwell in the beautiful, spooky ten-minute request for silence that almost every one of these 70,000 pilgrims obeyed. For some of them, particularly the shell-suited Tam-Boabs to my left and the Nintendo-wielding weans to my right, it was a hard call. But submit they did.
Which is, of course, the point at which you realise what you've left behind, and can't go back to. Submit? Me? To anything? I boycotted the original Bellahouston event, even as my whole family made plans to go: and the faintly-bearded teenage Marxist crying "opium!" at my people still lurks within.
A loved one sat me down the other day and told me that, from the inside, "the act of faith feels like a connection to something infinitely bigger than the mundane realities of natality and fatality, love and suffering. These are only reminders of our mortality, in the certainty of what lies beyond".
But for me, on the outside, it can still seem like the laziest of mental simplifications. Does a horizontal act of solidarity with others have to depend on a vertical act of submission to a Christ - or for that matter a Muhammed? (Or for that matter, any glorious leader, religious or secular?)
I would never deny the poetry, the figuration, the ethical power of religious language. Indeed as I strained to hear Pope Benedict's sermon, I was thinking of the then Cardinal Ratzinger's 2005 debates with my great philosophical hero, Jurgen Habermas.
In the course of these discussions, both seemed to come to a momentous agreement. Not just that Western societies were "post-secular", needing to find a place for the dogged endurance of religious belief in modernity. But also, on Habermas's side, that universal human rights had to admit its religious inspiration: the sanctity of every individual equally under God.
For example, in an age where genetic engineering threatens to stack the cards of new-born humans (conceded Habermas), might we need to reclaim the idea of the ultimate parity of each soul at birth, in order to make just and fair choices with this technology?
Heavy thoughts, as the buffalo burger stands did their roaring trade, and the "Pope Benedict God Is Great" merchandise fluttered all around me. And of course, the insistent problem with the Catholic Church, in its promotion of a "Culture of Life", is that They Just Take It Too Far. The video screens blasted out the undoubted achievements of aid agencies like SCIAF, and all manner of social initiatives in Scotland and abroad.
But I found myself wondering how many of the happy, sun-kissed faithful around me would really object to technological contraception being used to prevent large families in the developing world (or even their own). Or to abortion being automatically available to rape victims. Or to the legitimacy of married priests, or for that matter gay priests.
What is it with religions, almost all religions, and their micro-management of human bodies and their passions? And really, what is it with Catholicism? Does the "filth" of child abuse that Ratzinger want to clean from his Church arise out of its own faulty plumbing, the impossibility of the psycho-sexual sacrifice demanded of its most devoted servants?
Yes, at some point, my patience ran out: and after Benedict's sermon, with its barely-masked barbs of anti-modernism, I fled the scene for a long, clarifying walk to Ibrox Underground station. The singing sailed over the greens of Bellahouston, still so lovely that I had stop occasionally and listen.
As I walked, I recalled an event I saw at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival, with the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, talking about his book The Quest For Meaning. An impressive, urbane man, intellectually sophisticated, preaching a post-modern pluralism that anyone could live in.
But still, at the heart of his pleas for co-existence, there is a sacral text, a Holy Koran - so holy an artefact that the threat by one hillbilly preacher to publicly burn it brings Presidents and power elites to panicked heel.
The idiot new atheists presume that somehow, through the appliance of pop science, humans can be persuaded to abandon that old reli-gare: the binding together around some transcendental constant, in the face of tumult and change. It isn't going to happen. The disenchanted will have to live with the enchanted, or not live together at all.
One step at a time, pilgrim. The singing carried me all the way down Copeland Road, past some other giant crucible of collective aspiration and hope I couldn't possibly mention. And with scripted perfection, I was passed by a group of boys swirling their yellow-and-white Papal flags, shouting an improvised chant: "Pope Bene-dict Tar-tan A-ar-my!" Ok: now that's enough transubstantiation for one day.