Monday, April 09, 2012

Nothing stands in the way of social media


My two Easter meditations on heretical books, films and music lead to this final one on what Krishnamurti describes as "the influences that are always impinging, interfering, controlling, shaping". Above, reproduced from a book in my library, is the Nihil Obstat which the Catholic church uses to "preserve Her sheep from deviations from the Truth". When a practising Catholic writes a book that touches on matter of doctrine it is first submitted to the diocesan Censor Librorum (censor of books) who checks it for doctrinal and moral error. If approved he stamps it Nihil Obstat (nothing stands in the way). The book is then sent to the diocesan Bishop who, if he finds nothing objectionable, gives the book his Imprimatur (let it be printed). Historically the Nihil Obstat controlled style as well as content and Robert Giroux's scholarly introduction to that spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain tells how its author Thomas Merton fell foul first of a Censor Librorum who criticised its content "severely", then of a bishop who rejected its "colloquial prose style".

It is wrong to dismiss the Nihil Oblat as a fascinating but irrelevant anachronism, as Cullen Murphy explains in his newly published God's Jury. The book is based on the thesis that the impact of the Catholic Inquisition can still be observed in contemporary events, and in it Murphy warns of the dangers of epistemic closure, the philosophical concept whereby we close our minds to unpredicted consequences of acting on available knowledge because we believe we have perfect knowledge of those consequences. As an example Cullen Murphy describes how "the Internet and social networking, which some tout as mainly a force for good, also allows people to confine themselves to a Möbius strip of the like-minded..." In other words the Nihil Oblat has morphed into the much prized Facebook 'likes', YouTube 'views' and Twitter 'RTs', all of which are contemporary ways of confirming that content is free from crowdsource defined doctrinal error.


* The Nihil Oblat seen in the header image was granted to In Search of a Yogi - Himalayan Pilgrimage, an exploration of the links between Hinduism and Christianity by Dom Denys Routledge. Which takes us to Father Bede Griffiths, an interreligious advocate described by the National Catholic Reporter as "dangerous". Thomas Merton fought against epistemic closure and his journey took him to Buddhism and Sufism. John Jacob Niles' settings of Merton's verse feature in Sweet irrational worship.

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