Goodbye to All That

Screen ShotRobert Graves won’t mind, since his  1929 masterwork echoes so many of the themes which have been part of the fabric of 2017, like our renewed interest in atheism, feminism and socialism, complete with statistics, flag-waving and Jeremy Corbyn.

Reviewing the year is a troublesome pastime, laced as it frequently is with the strychnine of being a year older and the anodyne of not much caring. For some, an annus mirabilis – witness Donald Trump and Prince Harry. For others, horribilis – me, even. This year, several people have been jerked from my life leaving behind either a breath of fetid air or a whispering of roses. Joyce wrote ‘every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ How all the world’s people chatter in our ears, much as we would try to drown them out with our own tuneless singing. We live a short distance from our bodies and come full time we shall one by one all become shades. As I myself grey gently, I reflect on the idea that it might be better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age, with further apologies to Mr Joyce.

What didn’t happen this year? An invasion by extraterrestrials? Scotland didn’t win the Six Nations? What did happen then? Did we all drift into a coma, awakening in some foreign place, inconveniently stiff and cold like a Minnesota dumpster, clutching an empty bottle and wondering where it all went? A reminder then, lest we forget. On January 20 a Republican billionaire was inaugurated as US president, vowing: “America first.” He didn’t really want the job, especially in light of allegations that the Russians meddled with the election. He sets out his stall by pulling out of international agreements on climate, free trade, immigration and UNESCO and making up new words like ‘covfefe’, despite the negative press, thus sparking a nationwide game to try to guess what he really meant. I favoured ‘coverage’ at the time. On December 6, he sent shock waves around the world as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He could have just asked the Jews. An interesting, if somewhat unorthodox opening, as a chess journalist might have remarked.

On March 29, London launches herself off the Brexit cliff, hoping the parachute will open on time, as voted in a referendum nine months earlier. Endless TV shows revisit the possibility that the electorate was basically stupid, ignorant and jingoistic and had they known what they were voting for they would certainly have stayed, huddled behind the towering ramparts of France, Germany and, oh, yes, a few other hangers-on. Fuelled with hubris, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives suffer a major setback and lose their majority in a snap election on June 8. Her supporters snarl and turn on each other, inexorably drifting rightwards while Brussels and London squabble about divorce, specifically its cost. The Labour opposition, now proto-Marxist to a man, sits a distance away from the campfire like a wolf pack in the night, licking their collective lips, waiting to attack. Meanwhile, a youthful Emmanuel Macron and his elderly wife sweep the Socialists into oblivion as the Elysée Palace falls to a pro-European centrist with good taste in suits. Speaking of which, an American actress is joining our own Royal Family – keeping HRH Prince H orf the streets of Mayfair and Las Vegas and into connubial bliss on the same afternoon as the FA Cup Final – bit of a clash there for his older brother.

The Saudis and the Iranians have not been playing nicely together. Attack and counter attack have reduced Yemen to cinder and ash, each blaming the other. The North Koreans love their fireworks and have launched a few of them this year – much to the annoyance of their immediate neighbours and also the Americans who feel threatened for the first time in half a century. Seventy-three coalition partners committed themselves to the goal of eliminating the threat posed by ISIS and have already contributed in various capacities to the effort, to the end that ISIS has been almost completely wiped out, so one less piece of good news for arms manufacturers.

Trying to look on the bright side is often as ineffectual as it was in ‘Life of Brian’. Chechnya still imprisons and tortures gay men, Assad is still in charge in Syria and quite possibly possesses a chemical arsenal to use on his own people. Fanatical Muslims still try to stab people, drive cars on the pavements and blow themselves up at pop concerts. Fires take lives from the Bronx to Grenfell Towers.

But, hope springs eternal and the tabula, sodden with the lachrymal effect of too much Hogmanay alcohol, is washed clean, tomorrow becomes rasa, available anew to write our hopes and dreams upon. May yours be bright and full of promise.

 

 

 

 

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Peace and War

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HMS Queen Elizabeth, June 2017.  Cost: about £4 billion

It’s that nostalgic time of year again when we are supposed to look back – hopefully not in anger, but frequently in regret – to the events of the last twelve months.  For some, this year has been a valley of Achor, a year of hope dawning, new beginnings. For others, loss, deprivation, refugee camps and unremitting terror.

Since early man began acquiring possessions, there has grown up with him the oldest technology in the world – the art of war – and 2017 has not escaped its ravages. We who are relatively untouched by violent conflict would do well to remember that with the crisis in Syria, who tops the fatality list for the third year running, the almost total defeat of Islamist militants in Iraq and the international ongoing stand-off in Afghanistan, it can sometimes feel like the whole world is at war. The sad reality is that this is in fact almost universally the case, according to a think-tank which produces one of the world’s leading measures of “global peacefulness” – and it has been suggested that things are only going to get worse. Given that violent conflict already costs nearly 13% of world GDP, this is not good news.

It  makes for bleak reading, but only eleven out of a total of one hundred and sixty two countries covered by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) latest study were not involved in conflict of one kind or another in the last twelve months. Worse still, the world as a whole has been getting incrementally less peaceful every year since 2007 – sharply bucking a trend that had seen a global move away from conflict since the end of the Second World War. But, it’s really just about following the money. Factories in Sardinia routinely package bombs and other paraphernalia of warfare like Amazon deliveries and blithely ship them to Jeddah where the Saudis load up the warplanes and drop the ordnance on Yemen – in violation of all human rights legislation.

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Syrian refugees, border of Macedonia and Greece.

Neglecting the fact that war is good business for some, we might ask the moral question, ‘why do we fight?’  If there is a thread running like a shameful scarlet ribbon through mankind’s seemingly unslakable thirst for the blood of his enemies, it must be this. From the first moment we declared ourselves owners of something, whether land, material wealth or property, somebody else has wanted to take it from us and we have had to learn to fight to keep it. Riches are gained at someone else’s expense and kept by making sure that others are disempowered so they do not represent a threat. In the modern world, where colonial activity is considered undemocratic, one might imagine that conquest as causus belli could be relegated to the dustier and more shameful pages of history. And yet, we persist, more so than ever before, it would seem. Modern warfare, adjudicated by the UN, takes the peacekeeping initiative and conflict and land-grabbing on an historical scale is simply not tolerated in the modern world as Saddam Hussein found out to his cost.  Instead, people find something else to fight about. They fight over ideas and belief systems instead where the need is less for boots on the ground and more for drones in the air. Our media overwhelm us with footage from any one of a dozen theatres. We can cherry-pick a smorgasbord of slaughter from Nigeria to Syria, to Libya and Iraq and watch it live. We, the bystanders, both appalled at the consequences and relieved not to be part of them, align ourselves, or not, with protagonists on either side, either because we support the ideas they seek to spread or resent their attempts to spread them.

How little, I wonder, have we actually learned since the time when war as a glorious fight for liberty can now so much more easily be seen as a desperate and feral struggle for survival, mostly by people who, if given a choice, would never have wanted to go to war in the first place.

As we say farewell to another year, we all still hope for the magical paradigm shift, as if we could wake up from a bad dream and realise the futility of never-ending, Orwellian conflict and the ability to turn our backs on it forever.

 

Joy to the World. Once More.

The story is told of a little boy, terrified as the bombs rained down, who was told by his mother that if he believed in Jesus everything would be OK. His nanny, the Prussian Fräulein who brought him up, gave him a beautiful carved knife that made him feel safer than his prayers ever did.

Established churches are presiding over the greatest haemorrhage of congregants for hundreds of years. The Pope is retreating into his Jesuit cave, secure in infallibility and the authority of two thousand years. Welby, the well-intentioned, primus inter pares, is presiding over an Anglicanism riven with schism and dithering,  slithering  into indecision because nobody can agree whether queer is sinful or women bishops are a Good Thing.

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Hillsong Sydney December 2017

And yet, there is a willingness to believe. Modern churches with lights and bands, spectacle and motivational speakers are mushrooming. Outfits like Hillsong put on an annual event which may be more attractive to a modern worshipper. It’s spectacular, inclusive and youthful. And yet, the numbers of non-aligned, the unbelievers, the dazed, confused or indifferent, continue to rise because in the clamour for our attention, there are precious few still, small voices.

Atheists seem to be the flavour of the decade, indeed, so far, of the millennium. Faithfulness in its original meaning sounds quaint and stiff, like Victorian moustaches.

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Hillsong Sydney December 2017

Our celebrity culture has no room for faithful people, especially Christians; only Islam appears to enjoy that privilege in our brave, new, postmodern world. In 1966, Time magazine shocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead. Henry Luce, the media influencer par excellence, the man who shaped what America read and the owner of the magazine which dared to print such blasphemy, died soon after.  Was there a hidden message? But Luce was a devout Christian and a great believer in the Almighty, unlike the late Christopher Hitchens, whose favourite targets were priests, Mother Teresa and God, a Christian God whose followers turned the other cheek, so Hitch could slap that one as well. I wondered if his antipathy had something to do with the fact that his mother entered into a suicide pact with a defrocked clergyman and Hitchens blamed God for the loss. The Hitch had comparatively little to say against Allah or indeed Mohammed because he knew the latter’s followers didn’t take kindly to cheap remarks against him, consequently he tended to keep his powder dry, reserving his grapeshot for softer, less totalitarian targets, with a few notable and quite delicious exceptions.

Hitchens despised Christmas celebrations, describing them as ‘the collectivisation of gaiety’ and ‘compulsory bad taste’, a view with which I have to admit to having some element of sympathy. In the social constructivist’s view, these days atheism gets you in through the front door whereas Christianity is reserved for the tradesman’s entrance. Hitch hated the ‘confessional drool’ that families mailed to each other, especially all those simple people who believe in love, forgiveness and angels from the realms of glory.

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is an atheist who is, I have to admit, hard to dislike, perhaps because he comes across as quintessentially British and even if you foam with rage at some of his opinions, they are usually presented with a quite charmingly reasoned diffidence. He’s an expert at Socratic questioning – a useful skill when debating against people who don’t really know what they are talking about. The first modern to go atheist and announce that God had truly fallen off His perch was Friedrich Nietzsche, who later on “lost his reason”, I think it was described as. In fact, he lost all grip on reality and trotted willingly into the fruitcake zone, from which he was never to emerge. Given his views on the press and mass culture leading to conformity, mediocrity and the decline of the human species, whatever would he have made of the Kardashians?

What of the others; John Stuart Mill, Voltaire…so many. Even Freud and Picasso, both quite crappy human beings if history is to be believed, were atheists, as were French fries like Michel Foucault – not the pendulum guy, the one who died of AIDS – H.G. Wells. James Joyce and Philip Roth. One thing all these talented writers and thinkers supposedly had in common, apart from their disbelief in the Almighty, was great physical ugliness. That being so, I myself should be down there among the catamites and the howling. What a cheap shot that was.

But, we continue to ask certainty of ourselves in an increasingly uncertain world. The bedrock of belief has shifted to be replaced with a quicksand of situational ethics. The existentialist theologian Paul Tillich wrote that to believe that God is active at all times, being ‘out there’ somewhere, dwelling in a special place and being affected by events, is a shallow supposition: ‘Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy.’ That’s where ‘there is no God’, the cry from the heart of those who have lost a loved one, comes from and also the weary old chestnut that you need God in order to be good. No, you don’t. God is what makes us understand the difference between good and evil, to paraphrase C S Lewis who understood better than almost anyone else the value of myth.

Charles Darwin – what irony as the father of all the confusion – said he believed in God. Most really intelligent people hold to some kind of belief in God, or are at least prepared to entertain the possibility of His existence, as have most world leaders in the past. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ he called the proposition self-evident. It was a very Christian thing to say because not all men are created equal. What he really meant was that they have equal rights under God, and it is only a Christian God that ensures that such rights can be protected. As we watch what radical Islam is doing to its adherents, how it has cheapened life to the extent that people drive into traffic, attack armed men with knives or volunteer to blow themselves up in order to get rice and virgins, then compare that to Christianity. The idea of the preciousness and equal worth of every human being is largely rooted in the life and work of the Nazarene whose birth is celebrated by unbelievers too. Have a very happy Christmas, defend the faith and, if necessary, carry a knife.

Yerushalayim Shel Zahav

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Let me be clear – I am not a flag-waving fan of the current President of the United States. His public pronouncements have generated a constant stream of criticism, derision and sheer dismay amongst a worryingly large number of Americans, both allies and enemies. However, he has rather surpassed himself on this occasion and it has taken some time for his famous announcement to sink in. In case you’ve been living under a stone for the last few days, he has recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to the consternation of most of the rest of the world, jubilation in Israel and fury of the Palestinians. He has offered no reason for his decision, apart from vague references to ‘new thinking’.

The Palestinians are having hysterics about all this because, for the first time, a weapon of western complicity is now threatened. If the Jews are entitled to regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital then it sets at naught the spurious Palestinian claim that Jerusalem is theirs, as is the whole of the land “from the river to the sea”.  Their claim is based on two separate untruths. Firstly, the claim that “we were here first”. This sometimes gains traction with people in the West who can’t be bothered to learn a little history and it is, after all, a convenient untruth. Secondly the assertion that Jerusalem – of course holy to Jews and Christians – is also one of the most holy places in Islam is again a manifest falsehood. Al-Aqsa is no more the ‘furthest mosque’ than Finsbury Park and Islam was in its infancy when Mohammed decided that they should direct their prayer to the Ka’aba instead – thus in fact presenting their rumps to Al-Aqsa every Friday. The violence of the Palestinians’ reaction, the call for ‘days of rage’ ‘new intifada’ and so on simply underlines the fact that they’re not prepared to share Jerusalem with the Jews, in fact, their express purpose is to make the whole region Judenrein, exactly as happened in Gaza after the Gush Katif giveaway. This is entirely consistent with the Islamic belief that  from Mohammed’s own sunnah he would “expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and will not leave any but Muslim”. In other words, it is inconceivable to a pious Muslim that Israel itself exists, an affront to the Prophet’s own verbal testimony, despite the fact that he was probably referring to what he believed to be the peninsula – a coastal strip from what is now Jeddah down beyond the Yemeni border – Islam spreading to the south rather than the north. Yes, there will be violence and it would be naive to assume that incendiary threats will not be translated into action, they assuredly will. Appeasement, however, does nothing to prevent bloodshed, in fact it encourages more of it because the cause of the terror is religious fanaticism, no more and no less. Trump has not foreclosed any possibility of a Palestinian state, nor indeed the further possibility of Palestinian control over East Jerusalem, he has, in fact, simply stated the obvious. In the last few days, the Palestinians – or at least those determined to incite violence –  have shown their hand beyond all doubt. Their fury at the endorsement of Jerusalem at all shows how much they depend on the west facilitating their strategy, reinforcing their politics of victimhood. There is a feedback loop between Palestinian violence and Western pressure for change; the more violence, the greater the outcry in the West and the greater the leverage against Israel; effectively, the Palestinians are trying to get the West to do their political dirty work for them.  But no longer. In spite of the dismay of America’s allies, appeasement ended when Trump opened his mouth.

Of course, there will be those who simply wonder what all the fuss is about. The Knesset has been in Jerusalem since 1948 – it is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that the seat of government resides in the capital, along with many judicial and nationally important institutions, including the residences of the Prime Minister and the President. Far from the Israeli presence there being illegal, the Jews are the only people who are entitled to the city as a matter of international law, historical truth and natural justice. And yet, the rest of the world screams ‘foul’.

The West’s refusal to follow the American lead is small minded at best and malevolent at worst. By doing so, they genuflect to the men of violence who are attempting to prevent Israel from recognising and asserting its own capital city. If the Germans, for example, demanded that the British relocate their capital to Sheffield, it would be met with derision. What is more sinister is that by aligning themselves with the Palestinian view, the British, French, and Germans and others are saying that they don’t think the Jews have any right to Jerusalem either and it can be bargained away as easily as playing a hand of poker. Their argument rests on the belief that there can be no peace unless Jerusalem is negotiated away – the reverse is true. Trump is playing a card from the bottom of the deck; there will in fact not be peace until there is recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – an essential step. Unless, of course it is a Pax Romana, one that embraces capitulation, surrender, dhimmitude, conquest and ultimately, extermination. The Jews have been there before. Never again.

 

Awe and Wonder

Horsehead Nebula

Of all the physics I taught – from electrostatics to harmonic motion – I think the greatest satisfaction came from dipping a toe into the panorama that is astrophysics, where astronomy, poetry and mathematics converge. We are, after all, just as Carl Sagan once described us as “starstuff”, the little blue dot we call home was forged in the furnace of an explosive supernova a very long time ago. The final retrospective photograph taken by Voyager, as she left the solar system for ever, was a little dot in the midst of a wide, limitless ocean of black, sprinkled with stars. Everybody we ever knew, or heard of, fought against, befriended, made love to, looked up to and celebrated, was found on that little dot – tiny and fragile.

The word “religion” comes from the Latin for “binding together,” to connect that which has been sundered apart which is, perhaps quite an unusual way of looking at it. And in this game of hide and seek, of trying to flush out the deepest interrelations among things that superficially appear to be sundered, the objectives of religion and science, apparently in cosmic conflict, in fact are virtually identical. But the question has always been concerned with the reliability of the truths claimed by the two jousting protagonists – or, perhaps, secret lovers –  and the methods of approach they employ.

An ancient and powerful way to engage our religious sensibility, our childlike sense of awe and wonder, is to look up on a clear night. In this part of southern France, light pollution is minimal and last night yielded a view, a panorama, Hamlet’s ‘brave, o’erhanging firmament’ writ huge across a cloudless sky. Unusually for me to assert a “belief”, I really do believe that it is very difficult to know who we are until we understand where and when we are. I think everyone in every culture has felt a sense of awe looking at the sky – if you ever watch people doing it, notice that they often allow their mouths to fall open. The sense of the vast is tangible – the panorama of space and time unfolds before us like a glittering carpet. We see not as things are now, but as they were, sometimes millions of years ago as the light, blindingly fast as it can travel, takes centuries, millennia and more to cross the immense desert of space to reach us. This is reflected throughout the world in both science and religion. Thomas Carlyle said that wonder is the basis of worship. From Albert Einstein: “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” So, if both Carlyle and Einstein could agree on something, it has a modest possibility of being right.

Palmyra, Syria

It’s interesting to reflect on the fact that statuary and temples to various gods are always larger than life, as if we are smaller and less important than they. Gigantic, squatting Buddhas in Thailand, a great Christ with outstretched arms, the Redeemer of Rio; there are so many examples and even when we know that a religious building has been erected to a long-defunct god, or celebrates a decayed and redundant religion, we hate to see its destruction. ISIL wantonly destroyed the temple to Bel or Baal at Palmyra, erected in the period of the Crucifixion – an act of senseless vandalism. We do not call down strange fire from Baal or any other Canaanite gods in our day, yet the world mourned the loss of a priceless, irreplaceable artefact, and quite rightly. The worship of Baal is part of the journey towards our own tradition, reminding us that for the most part, hopeful travel is more useful than arrival. Indeed, there is impermanence, woven into the fabric of our religious practice as well as the cosmos we inhabit, just the timescales are different. Furthermore, when we understand something of astronomical dynamics, the evolution of worlds, we recognise that although we cannot capture them on the great cosmic timescales in which they operate, worlds are born and worlds die, they have lifetimes just as we humans do, and therefore there is death in the cosmos as well as the possibility of life. There is destruction on cosmic scales – little suns such as ours will balloon, becoming one day red and swollen, swallowing little Earths in the fires of their cooling. Yet, our God took pains to preserve us, for now, on a little island of creation – our theology is terracentric and it is beyond our wit and piety to speculate much on the creations beyond our own. Gottfried Liebniz – the great intellect that rivalled Isaac Newton’s argued that God should be the wall that stopped all further questioning, as he famously wrote in this passage from ‘Principles of Nature and Grace’:

Why does something exist rather than nothing – for nothing is simpler than ‘something. Now, this (is) sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, having no need of any other reason(there) must be a necessary being, else we should not have a sufficient reason with which we could stop.

Yet, we shall not. It is in our DNA never to stop, despite the certainty that we shall never truly find that which we seek, the eternal Fact, exalted above all others, the mind of God.