Tuesday, 16 August 2016
I came upon this sign outside a bar in the delightful university city of Heidelberg - no doubt a valuable one to warn passers-by of undergraduates enjoying liquid inspiration to aid their intellectual endeavours. But it set me thinking....
There's a similar warning triangle outside our local church, but that one (reflecting the demographic of the congregation) shows two old people walking with sticks. They have a right to cross the road at that point, whether fast or slow; I have a right to be driving down the road, fast (within limits) or slow. But the exercise of those two freedoms creates a potential for harm, which is why I need to be warned. But what of the drunk? To what extent should I be expected to modify my driving just in case a drunk crosses the road in front of me? Or should others be warned if I am about to stagger into the street? And should that warning have legal force? It strikes me that everything we do depends upon the behaviour - good or bad - of others, and they likewise depend upon us. As soon as I drive on the public road, I am putting my trust in the road-sense of other drivers. We have to take human folly into account in almost all social arrangements, and no laws or warning signs can deal with all eventualities. Even the best organised of societies - and Heidelberg is, after all, in Germany - cannot fully legislate for all the potential interactions between fallible human beings.
Wednesday, 27 July 2016
I sense rebellion in the air, and it even extends to the normally law-abiding Dutch. This sign clearly forbids the parking of bikes against the railings, but - hey - this is Amsterdam chock-a-block with bikes on a warm summer's afternoon, so I'll just go ahead and chain it up there anyway!
There is great power in the word 'no'. I shall not obey your petty rule, especially if it is imposed arbitrarily. If you insist in telling me what is in my own best interest, I shall challenge you. Line up all the political and economic authorities to tell me to vote for 'A' and I shall opt for 'B'.
The appeal of existentialism when it burst upon the world (well, upon Paris actually) in the years following the Second World War, was its appeal in enpowering individuals to say no to dull conformity and assert their right to be different, to shape their own lives. The 'yes' of self-affirmation can onlyfollow the courageous 'no' to conformity. Rebels tend to have a cause, and it is their strength - even if it all ends in tears.
But this year I sense that a rebellion is taking place on a scale that transcends the problem of finding a place to park your bike in the centre of Amsterdam: a general sense of 'What the hell? I'll do it anyway!'
Talking to some peole who voted for Brexit, it is clear that the attraction of voting to leave the EU was not generally the result of a careful cost-benefit analysis of membership. Even if the country is the poorer for it, many wanted to say No to the EU, especially when the Prime Minister and every authority, political and economic, that he could muster lined up to plead for 'Remain'. Sick of the political elite in Westminster, a referendum is the one occasion in British politics when everyone's vote actually counts, and it gives an ideal opportunity to offer those in authority the two-finger salute. You've told me I shouldn't, but I can so I will! This is not to suggest that all who voted for Brexit did so as a gesture of defiance - there were many good reasons why one might have despaired of the EU or the possibility of its reform - but an element of defiance, against the establishment, gave emotional weight to the arguments.
And do I sense the same thing happening with Corbyn and the Labour Party? An idealist and a rebel, he is most unlikely ever to compromise sufficiently to enable the Labour Party in Westminster under his leadership to present itself as a realistic alternative to the Conservatives in government. He's not an insider as far as the parliamentary machine is concerned - but that is exactly his appeal. And in the USA, the unthinkable is happening on the political front - Donald Trump receives the Republican nomination, against the wishes and expectations of the establishment. And that is his appeal. Free from political experience gained by being an insider, he can say whatever he likes. He can sell himself, rather than explain the nuanced business of government, a rebel of the political right.
A rebel wants - needs - something different from the present establishment, even if the result is chaos. But when Nietzsche saw that God was dead, he recognised the seriousness of the plight in which humankind found itself, with the consequent loss of goal, directin and horizon. He recognised that God needed to be replaced by a human construction - in his case the Ubermensch - to take up the role of direction-giver, motivator and inspirer. What troubles me, as I feel the attraction of the political and moral rebellions today, is that I do not see what is being offered to replace the present order of things. Protesters seldom do contingency planning for what happens if their demands are suddenly met.
We live in a dangerous, violent and unpredictable world, faced with the most daunting challenges in terms of security, terrorism, displaced populations seeking asylum and the growing economic gulf between rich and poor. There are no easy answers. But in such a world, a cry of frustration is both understandable and, hopefully, therapeutic - just as long as the two-finger salute is not mistaken for policy.
Friday, 29 April 2016
It’s been a while, but at last I’m coming out of my latest attack of nerdiness. This time it was to do with photographic equipment. Obsessing over megapixels and focal lengths, optimum apertures and performance charts, I have spent far more time on the technical side of photography than actually taking pictures. I was dreaming 2.8 lenses with nano coating, of Vibration Reduction that might hold a lens rock steady even in my large and shaky hands. The benefits of a full-frame camera, with all the lenses I might possibly need, seemed to outweigh any discomfort, stooping under the weight of a bulging camera bag. But now I’m in recovery and reflecting on why it is that we are tempted to obsess in this way.
When life seems complicated, it’s always easier to deal with one small question at a time, rather than keep focus on the broad issues. It gives the illusion of progress; it pretends that a problem is more manageable if broken down into its constituent parts; it adopts an inappropriately scientific approach to existential issues. If I can just decide, definitively, which of these two lenses is better, then I don’t have to ask why I am taking photographs. So I dig down, study, compare and come up with answers that will soon be discarded as new factors are taken into account. Although I know I am sinking into complexity, I don’t mind as long as I feel I am making some progress; I pretend that every flaying of arms must help, even as I go lower into the quicksand.
Recovery only starts when I find myself asking ‘Why?’ This runs the risk of a bout of angst, if I conclude that all life is utterly futile, but at least it provides an opportunity to get my head above the water of obsession.
And that’s where philosophy comes in. There are two polar directions of thought – the analytic and the synthetic. To generalize, the analytic seeks precision and digs down into each problem, it is keen on definition, logic and precision in language, it weighs empirical evidence, it appears scientific. It avoids the vague, the touchy-feely or the intuitive. At its most extreme, it breeds the professional philosophical nerd, whose latest paper will be read and understood by no more than a handful of people, and who has successfully defined his or her position on the question in hand with reference to its subtle differences from those of all other thinkers. But, more generally, it is the process whereby big issues (should Britain remain within the EU?) tend to reduce to detailed economic projections (is there a definitive answer to the question as to whether we will be statistically better or worse off, as individuals or a nation, if we Brexit?) and the resulting profusion of detail tends to cloud rather than clarify the essential questions. Chancellors know that it is difficult to predict economic performance one year, or even six months, ahead; and yet there is endless wrangling about whether the average family will by better or worse off by a small amount ten years hence on the basis of this year’s decision. We know, as we study the figures, that they will not persuade. It is not just the margins of error involved, or the questionable assumptions upon which they are based, but the fact that they only satisfy those who have already been obsessing about figures. In the end, the big issue is about Britain’s place in the world, and whether Europe can act coherently, whether economically or politically. But those questions seem too big, so we analyze particular factors and economic implications, balance one thing against another and soon start to sink into an analytic quicksand within which we are never going to discover a simply holistic answer. When we finally vote, it is mostly based on intuition, not the balancing of charts and figures.
The tendency to analytic rather than synthetic thought has cursed almost all areas. Neo-liberalism – the unspoken political and economic assumption of our day – allows us to reduce many political decisions to a weighing of economic benefits and the unchallenged assumption that everyone wants minimum regulation and maximum economic freedom, a view that mostly benefits the wealthy, but which may be packaged as the economic theory of choice (however unrealistic in practice) to those further down the economic pecking order who nevertheless aspire to better things. That GDP may be a fraction of one percent greater or smaller is not really an answer to what I want out of life, but it may be packaged as such.
Stopping and asking ‘Why?’ whether in politics, economics, or photography, is healthy because it forces us to adopt a synthetic approach – linking the particular to the overall, checking meaning in its widest context. And that is why I, personally, regard existential questions as the most important. If we know why we are doing something (or indeed why we are doing anything) then we can set about finding the ‘how’ – thought then becomes a functional and pragmatic challenge with a purpose already in mind.
So, as I go into recovery from this latest attack, I salute synthetic thinking – looking up and making connections, asking the most general of all questions. And that is why I have never given up on the Philosophy of Religion, despite the fact that many of its questions and arguments are still mired in literalism and supernaturalism. It is a branch of philosophy that encourages us to explore the ultimate context – to ask the ‘why’, to seek a sense of meaning that we intuit but cannot define.
On the other hand, if you want advice on the best focal length and aperture combination… Aaaaaagh!
Tuesday, 19 January 2016
It came over me again yesterday as I sat in my office, the horror at all those lost thoughts and arguments. I felt it in the pit of my stomach, inducing a kind of vertigo. I’m starting to recover, but the experience still lurks in the back of my mind, mocking the attempt to set down anything like a coherent argument.
It started innocently enough. I wanted to check something for a book I am writing about the theologian Paul Tillich, and went to my bookshelves. Pulling down a well-worn compilation of essays on his thought, produced back in the 1960s, I came across some really good and relevant material. But, in scanning it, I could not ignore my earlier underlinings, exclamation marks and comments in the margin. Fifty years ago I had been enthused by this stuff, inspired even. But then it was lost to me, overlaid by other arguments, ideas, articles, books. Suddenly it seemed to me as though the ideas were receding away into a void.
Then the horror really struck. For these were wonderful arguments, unpacking important issues. They showed a richness of thought, and yet – like leafmould – they had been lost beneath the surface of my consciousness. Here was an appreciation of religious ideas that was subtle, nuanced, not taking sides as in combat, but exploring them to get a rounded view. And what had I done with it? Simplification, summary, the making accessible, the delivery of exactly the right number of words in the all-too-short timeframe of a publishing schedule; the frustration of trying to explain, whilst subtleties slip by unexplored.
And then I thought of the cascades of tweets I attempt to scan briefly each day, tweets which often link to articles of real value or significant book reviews. I dip for a moment into that stream and am often lucky. But in the brief moments while I explore one link, a host of other tweets passes me by, each one of which might (if I were to be naively optimistic) hold things of equal value.
And all this material, all these ideas, flee across our screens into the void. And our own brief words, however deeply felt, might hope to get no more than a quick ‘like’ in passing before they expire. Oh the horror of all that lost thought. And there's always pressure to produce more, academics are under pressure to publish, educational writers try to keep pace with changing exam specifications, authors are expected to be active on social media, to hone their profiles, to keep up an interesting stream of material to build a readership. And it flows and flows... but mostly into a void. Time seals it off from its readers. Books go out of print and those on library shelves eventually become tattered and are sold off. And yet... all those wonderful ideas going to waste, lost to new readers.
I’d love to start again, to return to my bookshelves and appreciate again the arguments and insights massed in those long-since-closed books; but there is no time in this short life to return over the decades to re-read or use all that stuff.
And this has come fresh to my mind now as I sit before the heaped piles of notes and early draft material for my new book about two theologians who faced one another across the mud and barbed wire of Verdun in 1916. A couple of years ago, sorting out copies of the ‘Teilhard Journal’, I came across an article of mine from the early 1970s entitled ‘Through Mud and Barbed Wire: notes for an unwritten book.’ And it had remained unwritten and forgotten for 40 years. A simple coincidence, two great thinkers describing life on either side of the same battlefield – and yet here I sit surrounded by endless notes on the huge impact of the Great War on the 20th century and the development – for good or ill – of religious ideas over the century.
The horror of battle – particularly at Verdun – is the way in which rank upon rank of men hurl themselves forward into destruction, into a hell of mud and exploding shells, deprived even of a semblance of glory at engaging the enemy as they encounter only the incoming scream of shells and the showers of mud. Hundreds of thousands of men were killed on those slopes, French and German together in the mud, inseparable in death, their bones now lying together in the great ossuary at Douaumont. The horror of lost lives.
And why write of it? Perhaps to do homage to two great thinkers who inspired me and whose lives and thoughts were shaped a century ago on that battlefield. Perhaps because, by chance, I have a new angle on things already written about so many times.
And yet, ‘vanity of vanities,’ all this hurtles towards the void of lost thought, that body of past writing in which only the greatest works make their permanent mark, and even then are at the mercy of later commentators and the mangling of over-simplification. And yet we still do it; still add to the layers of thought, still over-simplify in our attempts to sum up and explain; still launch words towards the void; still tweet feebly into the howling gale. It's a compulsion to spin the logical yarn, to make sense of things, to share things seen, to get it off our chests. Live for the moment, live for the words on the paper and the work of trying to hone sentences into shape, live for the moments - however few - when ideas and words flow.
Monday, 23 November 2015
Violence in God’s Name by Oliver McTernan (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003)
Never have I found a book, plucked by chance from a library shelf, more immediately relevant. On Thursday November 12th, the day before the terrorist attacks in Paris, I came across Oliver McTernan’s Violence in God’s Name in the library of King’s College, London. Although published 12 years ago, the issues it deals with are equally those that face us today, with the on-going violence of the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups. It should be required reading for all religious and political leaders, for it provides an honest and hard-hitting analysis of the phenomenon of violence carried out in the name of God, seeks to understand the phenomenon of religious violence, and how it may be countered. As we mourn the recent deaths in Paris, Egypt and Mali, feeling revulsion at the madness of the slaughter, we need to look honestly and carefully at such violence in order to understand it, and thus stand a more realistic chance of opposing it.
No brief summary here can do justice to McTernan’s research and arguments, but I would like to share just a few reflections of my own on themes that the book explores and which seem to me to be of the utmost importance:
Within all of the world’s major religious traditions there have been, at various times in their history, groups that have used violence in an attempt to impose their particular religious view. Killing in the name of God is therefore a fact with which all religions need to come to terms. Within a European and Christian context, for example, one has only to recall the terrible loss of life during the ‘wars of religion’ in the 16th century, or the merciless persecution of groups – such as the Cathars in southern France. Therefore it makes no sense to blame Islam as a religion for what is now being done in its name by a fanatical minority, unless one is also prepared to say that such violence is a potential within all religion and thus that all religion is in some way implicated. Extreme religion thrives on confrontation and hopes to provoke it, because it takes a binary view of the world; we should therefore be very wary of falling into the trap of allowing extremism to drive a wedge between the broad religious and cultural traditions. ‘Islam’ is no more to blame for the actions of these fanatics than ‘democracy’ is to blame for all that is done by political regimes that include ‘democratic’ within their title!
But that does not mean that the extremists are not religiously motivated. The post-Enlightenment tendency to see religion as a purely personal matter has never done justice to what religion is about, and has largely been used as a way of eliminating religion from the public sphere. All religions express their spiritual values in terms of morality and social justice. To suggest that one should never mix religion and politics is to fail to appreciate the scope of what religion is and has always been. But it is equally important not to fall into the corresponding reductionist trap of suggesting that the religious element is simply a cover for political, social or economic aims. Injustice, poverty and repression may serve to recruit disaffected young people to join such groups – but they are not in themselves enough in itself to explain the level of fanatical commitment and personal devotion extreme religious motivation. If people say that they are acting in the name of God, we may argue that they are deluded, that their interpretation of religion is wrong-headed and narrow, that their idea of God is barbaric, and so on, but we cannot say with any certainty that they are being dishonest. So religious fanaticism needs to be taken seriously as religion, if there is to be any chance of understanding and countering it.
By taking a literal interpretation of narrowly selected religious texts, religious groups are able to justify violence. They tend to refuse academic scholarship, or any attempt to contextualize or critically analyse scripture. They seek a clear mandate; one which will place them at the forefront of a new world order; one which will release them from the normal ambiguities of life and its limited aspirations; one that will purify and free them, even through death. An absolute conviction that one is right and the rest of the world – including the majority of those who share one’s own religious and cultural background – are wrong, and that God is on one’s side, is utterly empowering.
My sad conclusion is that the very power of religion, which can be such a force for good, can also, if it takes this narrow and fanatical path, produce a hideous distortion of the very positive things - a sense of belonging, personal value and meaning, and the opportunity to devote oneself to a cause – that religion can offer.
One implication of taking the religious aspect of terrorism seriously, of course, is that military or political action against religious terrorists has its dangers. It is necessary to counter acts of violence and to prevent terrorism, but it is unlikely to be enough in itself to eradicate the problem. Worse, the use of military force inevitably runs the risk of civilian casualties, which is likely to feed the confrontation upon which terrorist groups thrive.
There are no easy answers here, and recent history has shown that the attempt to fix one problem may only serve to create another. My few thoughts here are simply offered because – often for the best intentions – there is a desire to minimize the religious element in this terrorism. Since the Enlightenment, some have been too ready to assume that religion is in inevitable decline, to be replaced by science, reason and harmony among peoples. I do not observe that to be the case. Religion is both powerful and dangerous. It can ignite deep feelings and provide motivation for great acts of heroism and self-sacrifice. Sadly, however, it can also produce the very opposite.
Political and military action will be needed to counter terrorism, but also education – for the best Religious Education offers the opportunity to examine the world’s religious traditions, the values they espouse and the way in which their scriptures may be interpreted. Hopefully, it might also illustrate the shortcomings of the religious arguments of the extremists, but also of the larger fraternity of fundamentalists in every religion. Religious Education – if done well, and I have no illusions about the ability of RE to be done in a partisan and unhelpful way – gives young people the tools to understand and evaluate religious literature and traditions, and hopefully thereby to provide them with what they need to reject the claims of those who would ‘radicalise’ them. To be a radical, in the true sense, is to get to the heart of the matter, the fundamental beliefs and values which a religion promotes. Sadly, the terms ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘radical’ have been appropriated by some who use them to indicate only a literal application of a very limited range of ideas, which fail to do justice to the broader traditions from which they are taken.
But, to return to where I started. McTernan’s book is a valuable contribution to the debate about how best to contain terrorism done in the name of religion. It’s examples may reflect the turn of the century and the aftermath of 9/11, but its arguments remain compelling. It’s a reasonably expensive paperback, but I see that there are used copies available on Amazon, and some, like me, may be fortunate enough to find it in a library – and if it’s not there, order it!
Friday, 13 November 2015
Blessed are the Poor?: Urban Poverty and the Church by Bishop Laurie Green (SCM, 2015)
Those who take a philosophical approach to religious questions may too easily slip into the trap of seeing religion as fundamentally a set of beliefs to be critically analysed, dismissed or defended depending on whether or not they are based on sound logic and evidence. Believers in this trap cannot understand why their arguments, although arguably sound, carry little weight in our secular culture; atheists cannot understand why religion continues to survive – flourish even – when they consider themselves to have long since dismissed its beliefs as nonsense. And it is easy to feel that little has progressed in these debates since the Enlightement.
How refreshing therefore to come across a book that is solidly rooted in 21st century reality. Laurie Green, a retired Anglican bishop, explores what it is to be poor in Britain today and how life is shaped by the experience of living on a housing estate surrounded by social deprivation, isolation and a sense of being ignored by those in power. His analysis – illustrated in the book by the experiences of the many people he has interviewed – is ruthlessly honest and politically hard-hitting.
He presents engaged theology, relating the biblical narrative to present day situations and drawing parallels between Jesus’ encounters with the poor and with the social and political realities of his day and those of the 21st century urban poor. The book is all about religion and the way in which it impacts upon people’s lives. It raises questions about values and commitments, about how people’s lives can be transformed if they see themselves differently and feel valued. But the Christian beliefs he explores are embodied in the experience of those communities, they are not held at an intellectual distance and debated. There is nothing here that even starts to address the sort of questions posed within papers on Philosophy of Religion at A level. And yet… it is more real and relevant to an understanding of religion today than any of the traditional religious arguments.
Everyone involved in the Philosophy of Religion should be required to read a book of engaged theology just once in a while, to become earthed in the reality of religion, before returning to their more refined intellectual games. And yet, for some of us, the Philosophy of Religion is still essential, because we cannot with integrity subscribe to beliefs that membership of a religion still appears to require. My guess – and it is no more than that, although based on serious discussions with some of my friends – is that, for the sake of the benefits that religion can offer, both aesthetic and practical, many are able to bracket out their intellectual questions. Without being able to resolve them, they are able to set them aside and get on with the essential religious job, as they see it, of transforming life for the better, or at least being open to the deep human resources that make such transformation possible.
And, by coincidence, as I was getting towards the end of Bishop Laurie’s book, I came across an article by Michelle Nicolle, a Zen chaplain in the USA, entitled ‘The Great Matter’, about her experience of being alongside those coming to the end of their lives, just listening, using whatever language they felt comfortable with, allowing them to express themselves, being a ‘compassionate presence’ for them. (Contributed to upaya.org on August 24th, 2015), and recognized that the great religions, however different their philosophies and doctrines, can meet in the thoughtful engagement with human life at its most fragile and vulnerable.