A triumph over the blind forces of history

VJ Day and the Feast of the Assumption may seem to sit oddly together, writes Duncan Macpherson, but their coincidence gives grounds for a more lasting optimism.

The day of 15 August 1945 marked the defeat of Japan and the final Allied victory of the Second World War. 15 August is also the date on which Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; the sharing of the mother of Jesus over sin and death. While it would be fanciful to attach too much significance to the fact that the war ended on an important feast-day of the church calendar, the coincidence of dates offers some interesting possibilities for reflection.

There is little immediate connection between the end of a devastating world war and a feast celebrating a highly speculative doctrine rooted in devotion rather than upon historical evidence, and based upon logic and deductive theology rather than the Bible. Indeed, although the doctrine was celebrated for hundreds of years, it only attained the status of a doctrine of the faith for Roman Catholics in 1950, when Pius XII defined it as a belief "necessary for salvation" that "Mary having completed her human life was in body and soul assumed into heaven".

The attitude of reformed Christians is best summed up in the description given by my Irish Protestant church history tutor, who referred to it as "that Roman Catholic doctrine so rightly called the Assumption".

In defining the Assumption, however, Pius XII did not see himself as pulling a revealed doctrine out of the hat, but was keen to emphasise the teachings of the early Church Fathers back as far as the second century, when Mary was first characterised as "the Second Eve" having a symbolic value as the mother of all those living in Christ parallel to Eve's role as mother of humanity as a whole. In the words of the definition,

In the last resort the Fathers base their conclusions on the Bible which has given us the picture of the Lord's Mother as inseparably attached to her divine son and constantly sharing his lot.

Nevertheless it is a long way from the Bible and the typology of the early Christian writers to the uncompromising language of infallible doctrine, and today many Roman Catholic theologians, sensitive to ecumenical questions, often prefer not to mention the Assumption at all. If pressed they quote the second Vatican Council, that there is a "hierarchy of revealed truths", and teaching suggests that this particular truth may figure fairly low down in such a hierarchy. Others may draw attention to the fact that nowhere does Pius XII assert that only Mary experienced whatever is meant by the Assumption. Mary is a model for the whole community of believers and her triumph is not so much unique as typical.

Seen in this light the Assumption can be interpreted as having relevance to the most mundane and secular aspects of modern history, challenging received ideas about the value of the human person and the dignity of the human body; the more so in the context of total war, where the killing of civilians is seen as justified as a means to the good of military victory.

The victims of Nagasaki destroyed by an atomic bomb on 9 August included large numbers of Catholics. The city was not only the centre of the Japanese shipbuilding industry, it also included the highest concentration of Christians in Japan. Those who survived until 15 August will have been preoccupied not with the remote idea of the bodily Assumption of Mary, but with the immediate bodily disfigurement of burnt human flesh and the reduction to dust of as many as 70,000 human beings they had known and loved.

Nevertheless, the doctrine of the Assumption represents the triumph of Christian hope over 20th-century experience; asserting, as it does, the triumphant value of the human person over the blind forces of history, and of the human body over the ravages of war.

In the face of so much evidence that human beings are murderous and beyond redemption, and that the human body is ultimately reducible to so much disposable radioactive dust, Pius XII's definition poses an alternative and optimistic vision of human beings as loved, body and soul, by God and as destined to share fully in the victory of Christ. Such a vision offers a triumph of more lasting significance than the victory over Japan; it also supplies the strongest humanistic basis for the reconstruction of human community, continually undermined by war and injustice from the Second World War until today.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own