Category: Uncategorized

Joy in the Journey

Scott Martin, adventurer, on the Ottawa River

“It’s probably wise to bury losses” was a remark I made to myself a week or so ago. Careless, perhaps, a too-cavalier, throwaway approach to something that deserves to be taken more seriously. After further reflection I came to realise that loss is not like a paper napkin, discarded after use, it is a panorama of unfolding that has defined us all – a vast data set – where does one begin to catalogue what we have lost? Relationships, love, career, opportunities, youthful good looks, loved ones through the inevitable visitation of death. The scenery of life continually changes, like watching from the window of a train. In order to keep our emotional footing we are blessed with two gifts. Memory allows us to look back and recall wisps of sensory information, half-grasped and poorly held as we reach out to touch, to hear, see and smell vaporous ephemera of who and what really was, blurred by time. Anticipation allows us to imagine and peer into the nebulous cloud of space between the present and the horizon, filled with possibility. Rewind and forward buttons; they’re the only two that work. If we can’t bury losses we may do well to box them up, tie them with a bow, and archive them in places only we allow ourselves to go.
And what then about the loneliness of the journey? Life is full of small comings and goings, some leading us far from the place we call home and into spaces about which we know nothing, but we can only imagine and hope, hope for the best. And why possibly our greatest human need is to feel understood and cherished by and relevant to at least one other person on the planet. Without that, we are horribly, dangerously alone in the darkness where the lost gibber and moan.
One of our greatest fears is of being forgotten and irrelevant, hence the human need to connect. The need to share memories of the past and visions for the future, the pain and the joy, the ridiculous and the sublime. We look and touch and listen so as to create a virtual reality, a hologram that we can walk around, rosily familiar and warm, an image of another in our mind for future reference. We need to interact because we need to learn the choreography of altruism and where we can spend the spiritual currency of friendship, loyalty and love that redeems our solitude. Subconsciously it all gets stored away for anticipated change and loss.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. There is a strange sorrow to this, to being a creature that carries its fragile sense of self on an endless tearful pilgrimage to some promised land of belonging. We are willing to erect many defences, marmoset-like, to hedge against the emptiness and buttress our fragility. But every once in a while, we encounter another such creature who reminds us with a persistent yet undemanding affection that we need not walk alone and there is joy in the journey.





Between Earth and Heaven

Soyuz returns to Earth, Kazakhstan 2015 (Bing image detail)

There is, it would seem, no right way to experience bereavement, the neither here nor there between earth and heaven. Which of itself is a comforting thought. I recently wrote that I had lost two people close to me – yesterday I added a third. To say “lost” of course is absurd, they were not mislaid like a bunch of keys which could be rediscovered at some later time, neither did they disappear on the magician’s stage to be spectacularly reincarnated with a drum roll and a tinselled twirl from his assistant, but “gone for ever”.

I suppose some people derive comfort from visiting a funeral home and “viewing” the deceased, as if they were a work of art, which in one sense, they have become – a statuesque representation of what they once looked like – if you want to drop twenty or more years all you have to do is die and the undertakers make you look really good. I hope people find closure in so doing; I do not.

But, they have departed, which is a much more meaningful term. Looking at a dead body, serenely presented in its little box, brings the stark realisation that, in the words of the famous meme ‘Elvis has left the building’. It is as if they have left behind a breath of half-familiar perfume, a wisp of blue cigarette smoke, easily dissipated and so very ephemeral. Whoever they were has begun the journey and there in the funeral home it’s clear that they’re a long way away now and the carapace left behind is merely a representation of who they once were.

It was, of course, my mother, old and grey, full of sleep and memory, who slipped away like a tiny ship casting off in the fog, almost unnoticed in her sleep, five years short of a century. She was born on a Wednesday, on a spring day as England was just beginning to stand unsteadily on her feet in the aftermath of the Great War and the world shifted a little on its axis. She lived through Hitler, the Sixties rebellion, mass immigration, the birth of the Internet and a million other cultural shifts and nuances, much of which rolled off her mind like dew off a cabbage leaf. And, what is left? As people age, their belongings dwindle. She had, it seemed, a few scraps of clothing, trinkets and gewgaws each holding some shred of sentiment for her, perhaps, otherwise, nothing. What little there was will be collected and stored until someone picks them up or leaves instructions what must be done with them. The room in the nursing home will be cleared for another occupant today, a metaphor for the fact that life grinds mechanically along and another aged individual will sit in the same chair and wait for the reaper’s visitation.

Everything has been taken care of. Lawyers and undertakers are processing without emotion, which is probably for the best. I am the detached bystander, waiting to exhale.

A Time to Dance

Shema, Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One, is a twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment) for observant Jews. It is traditional for them to say the Shema as their last words and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night.

Who or what is this ‘one’, whom we anthropomorphise so readily? An external being – separate, discernible as we discern neutron stars or the behaviour of butterflies? Perhaps not.

The notion of panentheism lies at the heart of much rabbinical thinking. It is the belief that the “divine”, whatever we conceive that to be, pervades and interpenetrates every part of the Universe, extending beyond time and space, thus obviously not detectable by telemetry, spectacularly sensitive though it is.

Gravitational Waves (Artists impression) CalTech

The Nobel Prize for Physics this year was awarded to three men who built a detector so sensitive it could detect the ripples in the fabric of spacetime as two black holes collided over a billion light years away – Einstein’s century-old prediction finally vindicated.  But not enough to find God. A God beyond and greater than the Universe, perhaps? Is God its ‘soul’ as we imagine ourselves to have souls. Two people I knew well have departed this life in recent times and as their earthly tent is rolled up as a scroll so I imagine them to have begun a journey outside of space and time, slipping silently through a shimmering barrier to another country where things are so different that imagination provides us with nothing more than blind speculation.

Just after ten o’clock on the Sunday morning of October 3, fifty-nine people died and over five hundred were injured in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. It was as if Passchendaele had torn a hole in spacetime and had visited itself afresh on a sunny American street. A man waited, having stockpiled automatic weaponry, for three days, then calmly and systematically opened fire from a room on the thirty-second floor of a hotel on to a crowd of people enjoying a country and western concert in the open arena below. As of this moment, the crime seems motiveless, cruel, evil beyond description. It seems almost irrelevant that he took his own life as a final act of rebellion.

Where was God, and, more importantly, what kind of theodicy are we supposed to use to attempt an explanation?

Perhaps the easier route would be to reasonably argue that there is none. Yuval Hariri in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind writes “As far as we can tell from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning, humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary (and sociological) processes that operate without goal or purpose.” Presumably therefore, death by random shooting is simply an event, like a melanoma, merely unfortunate, something that happens without rhyme, reason or purpose. The atheists and even the agnostics can breathe a sigh of relief – here is an explanation, our intellectual honour has been satisfied and we need look no further.

We hate a loose end, when it doesn’t make sense. But, what if we were to speculate that God is present throughout all existence, that Being or YHWH -related to the word for existence or being, underlies and unifies by processes outside of reason all that is. At the same time (and this is panentheism as distinct from pantheism), this whole is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent componentry which may of course not exist, cramped as it is by dimension and structure.

So, given that God is part of the great evolutionary panoply which we dismiss as ‘nature’, or ‘astrophysics’, we can perhaps discern or at least imagine that the entire process of the evolution of the universe and ourselves rolling out along with it is “meaningful“. There is a One that is constantly revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life, the shadow of death and the tragedies of our failures. That One is Being itself, the only constant in the endlessly changing parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to the discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. We have not found the One. If we had, we would know why men do as they do, dealing death and destruction from hotel windows or slashing throats on a street in Marseille and why children have cataracts and why people die from disease and on fields of battle.

And yet, we are creatures of hope since we ourselves have created it, it belongs to us, Pandora’s evils were all released when the jar was opened, leaving hope alone inside after she had closed it. We hope to understand, one day, why bad things happen to good people, why bad people are as they are and what moral laws govern the Universe so we can tell the difference. Until that time, we can only weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn in the hope than one day, there will come again a time to dance.




The Sin of Witchcraft

Along with so many others, I have been thinking about what the consequences will be as thousands upon thousands of people, desperate to reach the West and mostly from impoverished Muslim countries, reshape the societies that my children and grandchildren will inherit. There continues to be speculation and wide variations of opinion in the Western press about the long-term effects on European societies of allowing almost unfettered immigration. It is well understood that incomers who are mostly from Muslim countries and whose members historically have difficulty integrating, often form ghettos in European cities, rapidly morphing into ‘no-go’ areas. Enclaves where the bars are empty and the cafés full of men only while their wives huddle indoors, venturing out only if covered with an abbaya and a hijab represent a threat to many of the indigenous population, particularly if so-called ‘religious police’ are out on to the streets to enforce Shari’a concerning alcohol or female dress.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 21.49.56Yet, it is not these, disturbing as they are, perhaps, who will swell the ranks of the next incarnation of terror. After Al-Qaeda, which preached a more cerebral Salafism, came the Islamic thugs who in the cultural post-Saddam abyss that was Iraq identified with the nihilism, glory and martyrdom of ISIS. As we witness the slow but inevitable strangulation of the self-styled caliphate we see that it too will pass, at great cost, but another head will grow on the hydra – Boko Haram conflates politics of deprivation and extremism, Hamas majors on antisemitism – every new flowering of terror has at its heart rage and rebellion. The attack on Charlie Hebdo was not perpetrated by Yemeni gunmen flown in expressly for the purpose; instead, Al-Qaeda drew on a reservoir of already disaffected French youth, already freshly radicalised, in search of a label, a cause with a grand narrative to which they could add their own bloody signature. The departure of so many young, impressionable wannabe fighters from the backstreets of Europe to go and fight in a war that has so little to do with them politically provides a fingerprint from which we can deduce why they went and how their radicalisation came about.  As an example, looking at French jihadists, two narratives are dominant at present, which are shaping media debate.

First, the cultural explanation suggests a recurrent “war of civilisations” theory: the revolt of young Muslims demonstrates the extent to which Islam cannot be integrated into the West, at least not so long as theological reform has not struck the call of jihad from the Qu’ran. The second interpretation – a Third World scenario –  evokes post-colonial suffering, the identification of these youth with, for example, the Palestinian cause, their rejection of Western intervention in the Middle East, and their exclusion from a French society that is racist and Islamophobic. In short, they are singing a very old song: as long as we haven’t resolved the Israel-Palestine conflict, there will be a revolt. This may be truer in the streets of East Jerusalem than in Paris but the principle is transferable across a range of post-colonial scenarios.

Screen Shot 2017-08-08 at 21.52.14But the two explanations run up against the same problem: If the causes of radicalisation are structural, then why do they affect only a tiny fraction who call themselves Muslims? It has been said that jihadism is, if you will, a ‘second generation’ problem Its adherents have grown up without any particularly strong affiliation to a mosque, have chased girls, drunk beer and smoked weed. And yet it is these – “such a nice boy… seemed to get a bit religious, grew a beard and started carrying around a copy of the Qu’ran” – who have become the standard-bearers for the prideful nihilism that is the hallmark of the jihadist. The common ground between the second generation and the converts is primarily a generational revolt: both have ruptured with their parents or, more precisely, with what their parents represent in terms of culture and religion. They have literally, as well as metaphorically thrown the baby out with the bathwater. They want nothing to do with the culture of their parents and by extension the Western culture which has become a symbol of their own self-hatred. It’s interesting to note that jihadists are often blood relatives, as if the blood tie recreated for them an identity which their parents had debased. Death or glory videos simply reinforce the culture of belonging that the super-gang called ISIS insists upon and the threat of death is simply an adrenalin spike added to the toxic mix which began with a charismatic preacher on the Internet. Young converts, similarly, adhere to a “pure” form of religion; cultural compromise is of no interest to them; their allegiance is to an “Islam of rupture” — generational rupture, cultural rupture, and, finally, political rupture. It serves no purpose to offer them a “moderate Islam”; it is the radicalism that attracts them in the first place and they celebrate it actively on social media. Therefore, jihadism is primarily an attack on the family – just as in the Hebrew scriptures, ‘rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft’.


The Smiling Crocodile: Reflections on Hell

Somebody asked me the other day whether I believed in Hell, inviting me to write about it. An unusually direct question; a bear-trap even and an attempt to answer feels a little bit like sticking one’s head voluntarily between the jaws of Lewis Carroll’s smiling crocodile. I know people whom, I imagine, run with the whole lake of fire scenario, where the flesh consumed regenerates spontaneously to be roasted anew, for eternity. I can only surmise this to be the case since they tend to hold fundamentalist views about other contentious issues of faith. On the other hand, my humanist, atheist and non-theist friends presumably all hold to a spectrum of ideas none of which involve the existence of the entity that is “me” surviving the flames of the crematorium, perhaps tittering quietly behind their hands that thinking about such medieval nonsense is even worthy of the time spent in our comfortably postmodern world. As it happens, and those who know me well will be aware that I do spend quite some time reflecting on such things, my belief system extends beyond the brief candle that is consciousness. Fortunately (or not) I am not alone and people have argued unceasingly about these ideas, for example Swedenborg’s Manichean view of Hell was challenged by William Blake who wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell in the early 1790s. So, here’s a first thought. Do I believe in Hell – Dante’s Inferno –  including all the fiery unquenchableness of it all? No, I don’t, since to do so is to believe in a god for whom justice trumps mercy and the permanently sadistic vindictiveness of such a state is not consistent with the actions of an all-forgiving deity. Good enough for Islam’s ‘jahannam’, perhaps, but not for me. The doctrine of hell is one that people write undergraduate essays about and has evolved just like every other doctrine, over time. John Calvin was an expert at putting the frighteners on his hearers even more than the Catholics who sold indulgences. He wrote this in 1559. “As language cannot describe the severity of the divine vengeance on the reprobate, their pains and torments are figured to us by corporeal things, such as darkness, wailing and gnashing of teeth, inextinguishable fire, the ever-gnawing worm.” He goes on to describe in blood-curdling detail the consequences of separation from God.  Hearers of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon preached in Connecticut in 1741 unequivocally entitled ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ apparently clung to the pews for dear life lest the indignation of God sweep them pell-mell into the abyss. I was once asked to reflect on the competing positions of Aquinas and Augustine whether the corporeal body consigned to the Pit suffers eternal anguish or not, an essay that took me rather a long time to write.

The medievals were encouraged to believe that Gehenna was somehow located deep underground, accessed by fiery pits, but I suggest that rather than a spatial location, a place of divinely-imposed torment, perhaps hell is an existential state – the internal condition of the individual in denial of salvific reality and in rejection of any concept of a redemptive relationship. This implies two things, either the resident of Hell believes that redemption exists but he has declined to accept it, or that he does not believe in the existence of redemptive grace at all.

Furthermore, I think hell is subject to kairos, not chronos. It is not just a future state but one which had a beginning and continues in the here and now and beyond. It is the continuation into the hereafter of a present condition of heart and mind, one whose trajectory is anti-relationship, anti-reality which rejects the assumption that the existential reality which we currently enjoy is a prefiguration of something better. C.S. Lewis makes the point that those in hell will have always been there; that hell reaches back to taint all the steps that have led to it, conversely heaven reaches back to redeem all that has gone before.

So, how should we describe ‘hell’? In C S Lewis’ great metaphysical story, “The Great Divorce”, (all here as a pdf), he suggests that by comparison Heaven is a state of greater, more concrete reality. We leave grey, rainy streets with their legions of grumblers and travel to the heavenly country which we discover to be too solid, too real, for the wisps of smoke, the ephemeral shades of the unredeemed to inhabit – they would be pierced by its grass as if by knives and crushed by its raindrops as if by boulders. To be able to live there permanently and make the long journey to the mountains they need to be transformed, become more solid, more real.

Thus, by contrast, hell is a place or condition where one is less real, one’s personality, ability to choose, any joy and all hope is lost. We almost literally disappear in a puff of smoke.

This of course is completely unsatisfactory since it fails to remember mercy which in order to be genuine, must be visible. Aquinas argues that we will rejoice in the justice of God displayed in the cries of the damned. I respectfully disagree.

Finally, had I wanted to insert images of Hell, there are plenty to choose from. However, the image I have chosen is metaphorical – the moon is at the same time in shadow and in the full light of the sun. Let him that has wisdom…

The Forgetfulness of Hummingbirds

Gustave Doré, illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Fates drink from the river of forgetfulness.

Retired people are supposed to keep mentally alert. It stops us frittering whatever time we have left away as our brain wanders off unbidden into some kind of intellectual no-man’s-land from which there is no return. Some do Sudoku, others crosswords, and some go for long walks with other like-minded people, identifying flora and fauna. In my case, no, thank you, none of the above. I occasionally attempt to solve calculus problems in my head but I don’t really think that counts.

The Internet is a marvellous thing – organic, growing, addictive. It contains about ninety seven percent absolute rubbish – with a hat tip to ‘The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency’ – a small portion of quite useful material and a minuscule droplet of pure gold. Cats on skateboards fall into none of these categories, neither do pictures of my grandchildren, for whom special circumstances apply.

When I was a boy, I read, stripping the school library bare. From Hesse to Lawrence to Shakespeare – there was a skeleton left of things even I didn’t want to read, otherwise, the place had been systematically plundered. As an adult, I collected books, filling shelves and more shelves with fiction, biography and whatever else caught my eye.

It’s not just interesting but absolutely frightening to observe that the young do not read. Really read. Sit in a corner or under the piano with a book. Holding information for more than a handspan of time, undistracted. Instead, their eyes rarely lifting from the Orwellian screen, they flit from paragraph to paragraph like hummingbirds, attention wandering from one topic to the next, pond-skating on a surface like licking an ice cream cone, bouncing along from one tiny dopamine high to the next. It may be permanently affecting their brain chemistry.

I’m doing a course online, which is hard enough since I have no background in the material so it’s a bit like trying to learn group theory when you haven’t been taught how to add up.  All of the foregoing arose from thinking about a lecture I’d been watching this morning; the easy bit of my course.  The required reading for it reminded me that if I actually want to learn something well enough to reflect intelligently about it, I can’t just skip the hard bits, the bits I don’t like because I can’t immediately understand them. Instead, I have to spend time engaging all my faculties – for me – in silence, reading and re-reading the text so understanding crystallises long enough to think and form conclusions.

There are no easy answers. Successful people have long realised that the Internet is the opiate of the people, the river of oblivion, the Lethe of forgetfulness and most people retain very little from all the clicking and jumping around, instead doing themselves few psychological favours. I have told myself that I am going to buy a few more real books, paper ones, not downloads, that I can flip the pages on, turn a corner down as a bookmark and remind myself of my youth. I think that might be one small way to help keep the craziness and oblivion at bay.


Unbearably Light Relief

It’s getting stupid and claustrophobic out there. I blame Brexit; more specifically the total dog’s breakfast all those on both sides of the House are making of it, thus follows hereinafter ( is this right?) a little light relief.

It has always been a delight to shuffle through the Sunday papers, nodding benignly at the things I agreed with and gnashing my teeth at the things I didn’t. The Kuwait Times was often a source of endless merriment as bootleggers knelt in supplication before their confiscated wares, mostly still in possession of a functional pair of hands. But, it is the Turkey of Mr Erdogan that is the source of amusement today, much excitement to be had as his Government sends its people straight back to the Middle Ages. No passing ‘Go’ and no collecting 200 lira.
The latest thing to be banned by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s excitingly forward-looking administration is the theory of evolution. Children will no longer be taught it. One Turkish newspaper announced that primary school pupils have been given books depicting Charles Darwin as “a big-nosed Jew who enjoyed the company of monkeys”. A pro-Erdogan columnist gives evolution a twist: Darwin was partly right he explained, but had things the wrong way around. Evolution is true, he says, but monkeys are descended from Jews who were being punished for their sins. It’s all there in the Qu’ran, apparently.

Nice to see that bigotry is alive and well all over the place, especially in regard to persons whose sexual preference is not the same as either my own or 90% of the rest of the population. Two evangelical preachers won an appeal this week against a conviction for being horrible to homosexuals in Bristol; the judge had decided that their going round the streets reading blood-curdling passages from Leviticus through a megaphone fell within the law’s definition of free expression of their faith.

Finally, there are Westminster whispers that my personal crush kid, Mozza, aka Jacob Rees-Mogg, the only eighteenth century Tory still in existence might be putting himself up for the Party leadership, thus ensuring a woman, his nanny, becomes deputy PM. He’d know when to use ‘hereinafter’.