Month: April 2017

Skateboarding to Valhalla (Mind the Gap)

We live in uncertain times, socially, politically and culturally.

Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 21.14.25.pngI read a rather gloomy piece the other day asserting that established denominational churches are closing all over Europe, whereas the mosques are full to overflowing and people often resort to praying in the street. Dire warnings about hijrah followed. I wondered whether the author was suggesting that this was because Islam is true and Christianity is not, and why does the Christian Church seem so powerless in the face of the Mohammedan onslaught? Will a paradigm shift as fundamental as this create cultural fissures, irreparable cracks in the social masonry? A few thoughts, then, as to why this might be happening beginning with the appeal of atheism, the ‘baby and the bathwater’ argument.

Atheism is fashionably postmodern, its high priests and bishops are articulate, verbally persuasive and personable. It ridicules all religions in the assumption that all religions are the same. They are not.  Different faiths make different claims about what is true, and about what is right and wrong and produce radically different societies with very different laws, indeed it seems inconceivable that a country of wealth and privilege like Saudi Arabia can legally behead people for apostasy.  The same is true for different political ideologies: consider the different trajectories of North and South Korea.  Atheists have helped entrench this belief that ‘all cats are grey in the dark’, because to acknowledge material differences between religions would undermine the atheist (and radical secularist) narrative.

It is an increasingly prevalent belief that religion is causally irrelevant. According to this view, religion can be exploited or hijacked as an excuse or an instrument of oppression – such as an ‘opiate of the masses’, but not an underlying cause of anything.  Marxist ideology has made a significant contribution to establishing this belief and in accordance with this assumption, security analysts all over the Western world presuppose that religion per se cannot be the cause of terrorism therefore they assert that terrorists have ‘hijacked’ religion.

Do we all worship the same God, irrespective of what format our religious practices take? My view on this has been published elsewhere, but for argument’s sake some suggest that we do – the assertion that ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Furthermore, if there is one God, why not many? If we believe in the existence of one God then there is little intellectual barrier to our holding to a pantheistic belief that there might be a lot more, much as some hold to the idea of ‘multiverses’ rather than just one Universe. Instead of us all joyously skateboarding to Valhalla, there are thousands of different gods with all their confusing characteristics and making different demands, and the social constructs surrounding them make for very different communities. Islam has no such scruple, submission is the only objective and heresy is harshly punished. Some modern Christian theological teaching buys into a postmodern fallacy that all meaning is in the eye of the beholder, a thesis the Muslim scholar would be appalled by.

It is surprising to reflect on the fact that the Christian Reformation was not a progressive movement; the Reformers’ objective was to return to the example and teaching of Christ and the apostles.  Throughout the whole medieval period reformatio always meant renewing the foundations by going back to one’s origins. I was once told at theological college that Islam needed its own reformation to extract it from medieval, seventh century thinking towards an enlightened and more contemporary worldview. But, the truth is, Islam has had a reformation, beginning in Saudi Arabia with Wahhabism and spawning Al Qa’eda and its many-headed daughters in an attempt to return to the example and teaching of Muhammad, no less radical that the Christian equivalent.

Those who hold that interfaith dialogue is a good thing and generally increases tolerance believe that dispelling ignorance will increase positive regard for the other- the message of Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a MockingbirdAlthough it is true that antisemitism or racial hatred, for example, can feed on and exploit ignorance, accurately dispelling ignorance sometimes rightly increases the likelihood of rejecting the beliefs or practices of another rather than the reverse.  For example, it requires a knowledge of the Islamic notion of abrogation in the Qu’ran where early peaceful verses are superseded by their later more aggressive counterparts, which is a much less attractive prospect. Radical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as are used to support terrorism, almost always involve an appeal to a rich understanding of the context in which the Qur’an was revealed, including the life of Muhammad.  On the other hand, many have taken peaceful verses of the Qur’an out of context to prove that Islam is a peaceful religion. The belief that putting something in context will always produce a more innocuous interpretation is not true.  Attending properly to context can make a text even more offensive than it would otherwise have been.

It is illogical to assume that those opposed to a belief are the ones who are most ignorant about it.  Ignorance can breed positive regard for what is wrong just as easily as it can breed prejudice against what is good.

The ecumenical and interfaith dialogue movements historically hold to the belief that everyone is good and decent, and if we just make a sincere effort to get to know someone we will always come to respect them. On a personal level, this may well be partly true but on a societal level is not universal.  Those who have experienced life under evil governments or in dysfunctional societies are shocked at the naivety of this assumption.

Politicians in the West are fond of asserting that extremism is the problem, and consequently moderation is the solution. Warnings against taking things to extremes are as old as Aristotle.  More recently, the idea was promoted by Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer  that mass movements are interchangeable, and an extremist is just as likely to become a communist or a fascist, for example voting interchangeably for either Jeremy Corbyn or UKIP, Sanders or Trump.  He claimed that it was the tendency to extremism itself which is the problem. We are then faced with the notion that ‘moderation’ or ‘laxity’ in belief or practice is undesirable – witness the atavistic aversion the Labour Party has for Tony Blair, the centrist prophet of moderation. The rhetoric of the activist therefore overcomes measured caution and pushes us towards the thesis that ideas that we suppose are good and true deserve unwaveringly committed support, and the best response to bad ideas is rarely lukewarm moderation.

The West, especially Germany, is still enslaved to collective guilt which may underlie Angela Merkel’s open door refugee policy. It is essentially a silencing strategy, sabotaging critical thinking. Hand in hand with this is the ‘two wrongs make a right’ reasoning. Someone says the Qur’an incites violence, to which someone else replies ‘But there are violent verses in the Bible.’  This kind of reasoning is a tu quoque fallacy, meaning you can’t challenge someone else’s beliefs or actions if you or your group have personally ever done anything wrong. A Catholic argues that violent jihad is bad, but someone else  counters that popes supported the Crusades.

Mankind, it seems, has a childlike belief in progress; everything will always get better in the end. This is seductive but false wishful thinking since bad ideas usually have bad consequences – witness Stalin’s purges or Mao’s Cultural Revolution.  In summary, good but flawed societies can easily become disastrously repressive if they jettison good ideas for bad ones, an example being the rise of the Taliban.  Bad situations can last for a very long time, and may very well keep getting progressively worse. It is not true that ideologies or religions will inevitably improve or become more ‘moderate’ as time passes, as if by some magical process of temporal transformation.

The Chinese curse their enemies by saying “may he live in interesting times”. Looking back on these days with the reverse telescope of the future will determine whether we have been cursed or blessed. As the doors on old European certainties are closing, we should realise that a fissure is created in our society and we therefore should make every effort, as on the London Underground, to ‘mind the gap’.

 

Harmless Blots.

Screen Shot 1Do I have your attention? Yes, I thought so. A commonplace sight along the upper reaches of Agrippas Street is throngs of black clad haredim, eyes downcast as if searching for cigarette butts to collect and reuse. Clearly, they’re feeling tempted by images of scantily-dressed women on sexy billboards or (Heaven forfend) actually walking past them on the street. In order to shield them from the raging temptations for fornication, masturbation or worse, they can now buy special devices to prevent sin-enticing images from sneaking into their peripheral vision. There’s an organization called The Committee for Purity in the Camp which is selling special stickers that the observant-but-easily-vulnerable-to-lady-business can wear on their glasses. The stickers “blur vision of anything beyond the range of a few meters and so diffuse immodestly dressed women to a harmless blot.”  (also cars, terrorists and runaway horses.) If you don’t happen to need glasses, the Purity Committee sells a non-prescription pair with stickers for the soul-saving bargain price of around $32.) What goes around comes around. These devices were on sale a few years ago and now they seem to be making some kind of comeback.  Or, perhaps, the advertising has become insupportably risqué.

Looks like a change of tactics. Rather than the righteous trying to force women to cover up and spitting on children with exposed forearms – yes, it’s true – these blinders place the onus for avoiding temptation where it belongs: on us, gentlemen. If the choice is between harassing women for displaying bare skin and turning men into blinkered carriage horses, we really need to go with the latter. Unfortunately, there’s always collateral damage and there are two unmistakable, equally toxic messages being sent. Firstly, women’s bodies have, it seems, such power to do harm that we men need to partially blind ourselves for our own protection against untrammelled lust. Second, we are totally incapable of self-control; what the eye sees it will possess. Outsourcing willpower to a pair of glasses makes the idea of self-control almost meaningless.

I used to live in Jamaica, and one massive perk of living there (pun intended) was daily exposure to vast quantities of some of the most stupendously voluptuous mammary flesh on the planet. Expecting an image, were you? Go find your own.  Here in France, décolleté is still deliciously and plentifully apparent. One tries not to stare of course, being British and so forth. Nevertheless…

Shooting Fish

 

Screen Shot.pngC S Lewis capitalized the important things and I have friends who are Writers. Real wordsmiths, their craft broken on wheels of insomnia or the anvils of pain.

I’m not. But, why do I admire those who are? Because they have mastered the art of partial disclosure, giving us a peep inside the labyrinths of their souls as if the reader is an uninvited guest at the party and gets to mill about with everyone else. They write stories, or better, partially shadowed myths, climbing a pole of imagination like an eremite. Having surveyed and described the view from the top, they can no more climb down, nor can they rejoice since in a moment, they can see everything, the good and the appalling under the surfaces of the imaginations.

It’s become fashionable these days to say that the writer writes because he is not whole, he has a wound, he writes to heal it, but who cares if the writer is not whole; of course he is not – which of us is – nor is he necessarily particularly well. There is something unwholesome and destructive about the entire writing process. It eats like rust on chrome, often from within as the author tries to make contact – the perennial question being – ‘is there anybody out there’? He is the recovering perfectionist, prone to anxiety, stumbling around, tripping over his words in the pitiless twilight in search of ‘the great, cold, elemental grace which knows us.’

I never expect to be nourished by my own work – writers don’t write for themselves, or, for that matter, their prospective readers, even if sometimes in craven hunger I binge heedlessly on impurity, sugar or alcohol and expect to be fed and comforted. I am found pathetically eager to serve the greater visionary, the master of ideas who so easily overtakes the frenzied scribbling, the search for the perfection of Heaven. And yet, knowing well that one must inevitably be satisfied with less, only occasionally startled by a rare but refreshing lightning bolt of a phrase. Margaret Atwood once remarked that writing was like shooting fish in the dark with a slingshot. Somebody, somewhere might be pinged into wakefulness, perhaps, but mostly not.

Henry Miller enjoined the writer to work calmly, joyously and recklessly on whatever is in hand. Jack Kerouac invites him to remove all literary, grammatical and syntactic inhibition and, like Proust, be ‘an old teahead of time’. I wish I’d written that.

Myth Convenient

Screen ShotIt’s really not very important to anybody but me but I’m filling up some time with a little bit of study.

Harvard Divinity School isn’t exactly a soft option and although the online lectures are not difficult to follow, all the hard stuff is in the reading that one is supposed to do as well.

The course involves looking at parallels between Christian and Jewish thinking; the lecturer is a rabbi, amongst other things, he treats his subject matter with little sentimentality and is entirely prepared to tear the guts out of the material, leaving sacred cows twitching and bleeding on the floor.

I asked myself  “Why am I doing this?” One answer might be that one engages in it for a variety of reasons, some academic, others quite personal – asking basic questions like ‘what is the truth of the matter?’ Not being an expert in either Hebrew, Aramaic or New Testament Greek, I reluctantly have to accept the word of others in order to establish exactly what they mean by truth and how such truth is applied to reason and judgment when examining particular passages. “What is meant by….” Is the most fundamental of questions and one which seems to invite negotiation. We may approach a book or a passage using form criticism or historical criticism, or any combination of the two but it isn’t simply choosing to negotiate the principles by which we interpret scripture in order to decide what is true or not. It involves a whole raft of feelings and loyalties, a commitment to a community or denominational standpoint who see scripture in a particular way, an emotional commitment which I was surprised to discover was quite independent of intellectual inquiry. In other words, if we have no feeling, we gain little sense. We have an emotional investment in what we believe, and we don’t just change it because the opposing argument is good. As human beings, we are social; like a wolf pack we follow the lead of others, and we fear stepping out of line, even people like me who have spent a lifetime doing just that. I seem to be arriving at the conclusion that I can’t or won’t be able to really talk about the ways I interpret the scriptures until I’m honest about the feelings that underlie my commitment to them. I found myself returning to childhood patterns of belief systems, although I know that many of them lack rigour and logic. But, there’s stubborn resistance to letting go of old ideas even when I know them to be false or, at best, misapplied. John Robinson’s ‘Honest To God’ might well have answered a few questions for some, but, not for me. His secular theology seemed weak for exactly the same reasons that mine is – it’s all too easy to misapply the God of the cosmos to fill the gaps in our own thinly woven cultural identity, papering over the logical cracks, instead of looking for the light that shines in the darkness, knowing that the darkness did not understand it.

At this time of year, I am faced with the biggest ‘truth’ of all, the Resurrection. On it hangs everything – if it was a myth convenient, then a billion people plus the multitudes who came before have signed up to a fairy story since everything after hangs inescapably upon it.

I ask myself every year which bits of the Nicene Creed can I really sign up for but at least I don’t have to believe in the Easter bunny.

 

Doodling in the Dust

Screen Shot
LDS Media Library. “Woman Caught in Adultery”

It’s been quite a few days since the Westminster Bridge attack.  First reactions are always frenzied and overblown, as everyone, involved or not, casts around, seeking someone or something to blame. Just like almost everyone else, I saw the images – a dead man in the street – and jumped to the conclusion that this was the work of a crazed terrorist, fuelled by his twisted interpretation of Islamic propaganda and fully prepared to shed blood in the symbolic precincts of democratic liberty. But the speed with which I rushed to this judgement I found worrisome; how slickly I was prepared to join up the dots and fill in the blanks despite the fact that hard evidence was thin on the ground at the time. I was enraged by the Mayor of London’s glib, throwaway remark that big cities must come to expect this sort of thing, as if an act of terror, wanton and deliberate, was no more important than a shower of rain. Now,  as the dust settles, a different and possibly more accurate perspective emerges as today, injured survivors joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a memorial service in the Abbey. The service took place just meters away from the bridge where Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians in his car before stabbing a police officer outside the Parliament building. I found the proximity comforting. When evil shakes his gory locks, the Church – not the mosque – finds ways of bringing healing and a sense of perspective. British Muslims were quick to politically distance themselves. They wrote:  ‘An attack on our democracy, the police, people on our streets, is an attack on our nation, on all of us. We condemn this act, an attack not just on the capital but on the values that people across Britain hold dear. We pay tribute to the bravery and prompt reaction of police officers and the emergency services, whose work keeps us safe.” Soundly patriotic but by no means enough. A pre-existent narrative which someone of any faith could have delivered can never excuse the fact that the perpetrator, just like so many before him, used his faith as a weapon of mass destruction. Moderate Muslims’ efforts would be better expended owning the connection between their faith and a suicide cult and denouncing radicalism in all its forms rather than attempting to tell people how much like the rest of us they really are.

Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales was a few yards from the World Trade Centre when the first plane hit. He afterwards wrote a little book ‘Writing in the Dust’, a meditation on 9/11 and its aftermath. The book does not offer solutions but asks questions about how we should respond to terrorist attacks, and how we should learn to conduct ourselves in the climate of fear and aggression that such attacks can create. He asked ‘can anger be put to good and proper use?’ ‘What constitutes a “just war”?’ ‘What do the terrorist’s actions say about globalized cultures and economies?’ If there is a worthwhile program of Christian political action in a post-9/11 world, he wisely does not suggest one. However, he does suggest, gently and repeatedly, that “trauma can offer a breathing space.” He used the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ reaction to the woman caught in adultery to encourage a pause before response. Surrounded by incipient violence and anger, instead of responding immediately to the accusation and the threat of summary and immediate vengeance, Jesus “bent down and started to write – perhaps doodle – on the ground with his finger.” Instead of  an instant reaction to the infamous advice about throwing stones, “again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”

It is not a bad example to follow. When the atmosphere is thick with aggression and violence, we stop, pause, and wait. We drop the stone and try to write something new.

April, Come She Will.

March came and then she went, in a kaleidoscope of bright flowers and dark silence from me since unusually I have relatively little to say or write about. So, here we are, April come she will. It’s been a month of reflection, extended spells of a hand cupping a chin, Rodin’s thoughtless thinker. In defence of this unusually poetic beginning, I am not altogether oblivious  to changing weather patterns, but being incapable of basic floral recognition I’m nothing more than a colour-blind sojourner through the botanical seasons – something of a metaphor for the whole of last month. My idea of a garden is a neat, rectangular lawn, requiring the mower’s blades to remain at a civilised 5cm all season. Instead, I live here. It’s chaotic, wild, hard to manage and really quite beautiful.

Which brings me to what I really wanted to talk about. The month hasn’t been entirely wasted, my online course is well underway but Harvard has been deceptive. To borrow a skiing metaphor, from the top of the hill, the ski trail looks easy. Until you launch yourself down the mountain and  realise with a frisson of alarm that it’s going to be a rather bumpy ride and a good deal more challenging than it looked. So it was that I have been mired in a welter of Jewish historical thought and being a slave to Graeco-Roman thinking, it sometimes feels as if I am trying to communicate with a dolphin – we are both intelligent but inhabit different worlds.

By way of light relief, I’ve been reading about communities, how they function, what kind of people join them and so on.  Not historical communities such as the Benedictines or the Amish, but modern variants. Many years ago, I was, as always, a flying buttress on the outside of a community – more than one, in fact. One in particular around which I nervously prowled fell apart in a messy, blood-spattered divorce, sexual misconduct and authoritarianism being major contributors to its demise. I counted myself fortunate to have walked away without serious psychological harm – some of my friends weren’t so lucky. Ever since that time, I’ve often peeped through the windows of such places – asking why, apart from injunctions in the fourth chapter of Acts, do people feel the call or perhaps need, to huddle together, share everything they own and live lives of psychological exposure and wild unpredictable chaos. Those drawn to a lifestyle like this often speak of the pain of transparency and it has always seemed to me to be masochistic to expose one’s deepest thoughts and feelings to people who almost without exception are not to be trusted. Because, people are like that. A group of community elders were polled some years ago about the kind of people that they were drawn to and what qualities they valued. They listed forgiving, loving, honest, responsible and obedient – all characteristics of a communal lifestyle. They were looking for the malleable and teachable. Last on their list were those who were independent, intellectual, ambitious, polite, and logical, characteristics of an individualistic, rational way of life. Not unsurprisingly, I fall solidly into the unpopular camp so it is rather unlikely that I’ll be asked to become a member of a shared fellowship any day soon.

April, come she will.