Saturday, June 30, 2007

Tony Wilson

Tony's just been on Newsnight. He says that the best way to get people to love you is, like him, to be dying with cancer. People who used to hail him in the street with cries of "Hate you." "Wanker." "Big 'ead." and "F.... off." now tell him how much they love and care for him.

It works like magic!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Mental distress

I had come to a full-stop - been diagnosed with clinical depression, and put on medication. I was 56, two years into what was to be my last ministry post combining a priest-in-charge with a prison chaplaincy. I had worked as an Anglican priest for nearly thirty years. On one of his infrequent visits (he dropped in a couple of times, having phoned to say he wouldn't be staying long as he was on his way to another appointment) the area bishop remarked with surprise that there was no way that he could tell that I was not well. I seemed to be perfectly normal.

Well, what was I meant to do? Make it easier for him? Act the part of one in mental distress? But my distress was real. The fact that I was not sitting in the corner, huddled up for protection, or staring vacantly into the middle distance, was, I would have thought, a good thing for him as well as me.

People are often unwittingly insensitive to those in mental pain. As a time-served insomniac, I wish I had a mogadon for every time that a person with whom I've shared this personal problem has thoughtlessly replied, "You know, I always sleep like a log. I'm off the moment my head touches the pillow." I mean you wouldn't say to a victim of blindness, on first being apprised of their affliction, "You know, I can see perfectly well with both eyes." Would you?

Or imagine saying to the bereaved parent of an eighteen year old killed in a road accident, "You know, I wouldn't be able to tell by looking at you that you were even slightly upset." Yet here was my professional Father in God, as I stood on the edge of an emotional and vocational abyss, telling me how good I was at hiding my true feelings. As if I needed him to tell me. As if that wasn't a big part of the problem.

If someone has a physical disease like cancer or Alzheimer's they will rightly, with a bit of luck,
a) be showered with sympathy
b) receive unconditional support, or be seen as deserving such support, and
c) be told how brave they are even when they reject such accolades because, as John Diamond insisted, cowards get cancer too.
It is very different, sometimes the complete opposite, with emotional pain.

There is little acknowledgement that emotional pain may be intractable (a malignant sadness) and that what is most helpful is the solidarity without judgement of someone who cares enough to want to understand.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

From Fantasy to Faith

I have so far here, here, here, here, here, and here looked at the way that D Z Phillips has explored some of the central issues concerning religion through twentieth-century literature.

We have discussed the view that, at this stage of civilisation, we should have put aside the childishness of religion. We have begun to look at what might take its place once we have emptied heaven. One possibility is art. But could it be that we are not as self-sufficient as we think? Is religion simply one of those charitable untruths we need to get through life?

In the next few postings I shall review Phillips' analysis of religion and morality.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Apology for an Unbeliever

Writing about the relationship between Thomas Merton and the artist-craftsman Victor Hammer, Beth describes Hammer as "what some people call an “unbeliever”. Though he was Catholic by birth, he distrusted the Church and no longer practiced his faith within the context of Church. He died in July 1967, refusing the Sacraments.

Merton referred to Victor as “a very believing ‘unbeliever’” – one whose distrust of Church is part of a deeper belief - and it was compassion for him, in part, that prompted the essay “Apology for an Unbeliever”. Here is an excerpt from that essay:

"At this point I am making a public renunciation, in my own name at least, of all tactical, clerical, apologetic designs upon the sincerity of your unbelief. . . I think this apology is demanded by the respect I have for my own faith. If I, as a Christian, believe that my first duty is to love and respect my fellow in his personal frailty and perplexity, in his own unique hazard and need for trust, then I think that the refusal to let him alone, to entrust him to God and his conscience, and the insistence on rejecting them as persons until they agree with me, is simply a sign that my own faith is inadequate.

"My own peculiar task in my Church and in my world has been that of the solitary explorer who, instead of jumping on all the latest bandwagons at once, is bound to search the existential depths of faith in its silences, its ambiguities, and in those certainties which lie deeper than the bottom of anxiety. In these depths there are no easy answers, no pat solutions to anything. It is a kind of submarine life in which faith sometimes mysteriously takes on the aspect of doubt, when, in fact, one has to doubt and reject conventional and superstitious surrogates that have taken the place of faith. On this level, the division between believer and unbeliever ceases to be so crystal clear. It is not that some are all right and others all wrong: all are bound to seek in honest perplexity. Everybody is an unbeliever more or less."
- From "Apologies to an Unbeliever" by Thomas Merton

I have long felt that the important conversation that Christians have to initiate is across the line between belief and unbelief. But first we have to discern that line. We need to know how deeply it cleaves our own souls.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The End is Nigh

Patrick Barkham in the Guardian draws our attention to those soothsayers who warn that the year 2012, with the London Olympics, may well be our last. According to some predictions 21st December of that year is a day of doom. Others say it will simply see the destruction of this shoddy world and its replacement with something shinier.

Shinier? How I just hate shiny. I'm a matt man myself.

Queen in shock Rushdie beheading

The only answer.

Expresso Tales

John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, reviews this book by Alexander McCall Smith in today's Church Times. He calls it "a life-affirming book . . . it has an innocence and emotional wisdom about it . . . like a soap opera."

Smith, he continues, "combines social comment and philosophy with light comedy, and has a feel for narrative and characterisation. He is a practising Episcopalian, and I think the values of his faith come through. In the end people get their just deserts."

But isn't a belief in "just deserts" the very opposite of religious faith? If we're all going to get what's coming to us, what difference can God make?

It's a living

A vicar and his wife were having drinks in the lobby of the theatre. A blonde walked past wearing an evening gown that looked as thought it must have been sprayed on.
She smiled and blushed, "Well, hello there, Father," and kept going.
After a moment's pause, the vicar looked at his wife and said, "Don't worry dear, that's just a young lady I know professionally."
His wife raised an eyebrow.
"Hers or Yours ?"

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Bernard Manning

I feel the loss of Bernard Manning. In a way I knew him. Not personally, but you could not grow up as I did in Ardwick, Manchester, with any awareness of the life and humour and guts of the place, without being acquainted with many of Bernard's kindred spirits.

We were more a Ken Dodd household ourselves, though not at all because we were squeamish. My father would have shared the values and politics of the Embassy Club without himself being a member. He worked too hard to have much of a social life but I dare say he recycled a few of Bernard's jokes. Both of these men made me laugh.

There's a fitting tribute at Harry's Place which includes this reminder.

"Those who defend Manning often mention his tireless charity work. Unlike some other celebrities who earned regular plaudits for giving their time free of charge – sacrifices invariably accompanied by fat expense claims for hotels and travel - Manning never took a penny for his efforts. Indeed, he was better known for marking his pro bono appearances with sizable, personal donations of his own. No fanfare, no kudos. There are countless stories of audience members at one of his gigs receiving lifts home in his limo and his bankrolling of numerous community projects - youth clubs, local football teams, etc. – is common knowledge around the north west."

Blackmail, Misery and Cheating

Patricia McKeever, whom he describes as the internet Torquemada of Scottish Catholic gaydom, comes in for a stern word today from David Aaronovitch. Most of it is well directed at Scottish Catholicism but there is a wider relevance.

"Let’s not make this just about Catholics. There are all kinds of people who, for religious or cultural reasons, wish to see greater social control over what women, homosexuals and youngsters are allowed to do. They would like the rules on divorce tightened, the morning-after Pill discouraged, women to wear modest headscarves so that their hair doesn’t drive men wild with misplaced sexual desire. They want clear and stringent rules on what people may and may not do. They forget that, from Saudi Arabia to TV evangelism, such illiberalism always runs on the black hypocrisy of cheating husbands, punished women, blackmail, misery and self-slaughter."

Diagnosing Lear

Anthony Daniels reflects on attempts to explain what was wrong with King Lear.

As usual with Shakespeare, it's like looking in a mirror.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Passionate Sceptic

As an earnest young Christian I was excited and amused by the writings of Bertrand Russell. Another young man, whom I had been asked to see by the Manchester Samaritans, introduced me to them. I had volunteered to befriend Samaritan clients and Glyn was one of them. He had been brought to the brink of suicide by appalling family circumstances, which his father had escaped by hanging himself. Russell was one of Glyn's intellectual heroes and we spent much of our time together discussing some of his more accessible essays and ideas.

As part of his polemic against Christianity Russell somewhere tells of a conversation he had with a Christian missionary recently returned from an evangelistic trip to China. Russell explored with him the logic of evangelism. According to this missionary the heathen had a right to hear the gospel, and he had a corresponding duty to preach it. Those who heard and believed would be saved to enjoy eternal bliss in the nearer presence of the Lord. Conversely, those who heard but rejected the missionary's message would be rejected by God, and go to hell. Russell enquired about the fate of those who had simply never heard the saving truth. What would become of them, eternally speaking? The evangelist assured him that those who 'died not knowing' would not be condemned by God but judged mercifully.

It turned out that on his mission to China the evangelist had preached to a thousand people of whom a hundred had converted to Christianity. Russell sadly concluded that by dispelling the ignorance of his audience he had in effect delivered a hundred of them to heaven, whilst consigning nine hundred to hell. Hardly a proud achievement!

It was this kind of cold but necessary analysis that led me to question the entire basis of evangelical religion from the outset.

Later on in my Christian education I came across an even more disturbing illustration of the logic of salvation, this time as it applies to children. I heard of a primitive tribe, I think it was in South America, though factual accuracy is a bit beside the point, where new mothers, believing that children who die are guaranteed the status of angels in the world to come, figured that the kindest act was to kill their offspring, literally bash their brains out, in infancy rather than run the risk of losing them to Godless ways later. It occurred to me that such an act would be a powerful combination of child-sacrifice and a mother's self-sacrifice, as by acting to secure the child's eternal happiness the mother would be forfeiting her own - an act of supreme selflessness. The logic and morality is impeccable, but it exposes starkly the destructive and life-negating nature of all ulterior religion. Ultimately, it leads to infanticide.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I sometimes think . . .

. . . that my life is based on a true story.


I was in the chemist's shop, waiting for a prescription. An oldish woman came in for something or other, said she wasn't in a hurry, because, "well you're not when you're retired, you've got all day."

Then she added, with a frightening absence of logic, "I sometimes wonder how I ever found time to go to work."

I wondered what the connection between these statements could be. Perhaps her own weariness.

Beyond caring, for logic at least.

Sunday, June 10, 2007



This sign was prominently displayed in the window of a business in Philadelphia.

You may ask what kind of business would dare post such a sign?

Answer: A Funeral Home

(Who said morticians have no sense of humour?)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Charitable Untruths

What are we left with After Empty Heaven?

Philip Larkin is widely regarded as an honest poet. Yet a collection of essays by his admirers to celebrate his sixtieth birthday included the titles, "Nothing to be Said" and "Like Something Almost Being Said".

In a poem called Myxomatosis, Larkin is confronted by a rabbit in a trap. He kills it quickly with his stick. 'I'm glad I can't explain', he writes. It is a mark of his honesty. Explanations, religious or otherwise, which offer large, sweeping, answers to the ills and misfortunes of life, are a deception. What we have had too much of, is not the imperfections of life, which are real, but the delusion of false expectations, timeless essences, transcendental absolutes.

Larkin famously expressed his alienation from the whole of human life in the line 'Man hands on misery to man.' His bleakness is not to be consoled by the false promises of religion. He believes that there are no absolutes, religious or otherwise. Love, 'that much mentioned brilliance', is to him a puzzling phenomenon, one from which he feels excluded.

An important aspect of Larkin's writing is the pain and suffering caused by the limitations of human life, not least death, 'the anaesthetic from which none come round.' He does not find an answer to his fear of the void either in permissiveness or rejection of religion. There is an ache in the soul. As Hamm says in Beckett's Endgame,'You're on earth; there's no cure for that'.Larkin insists on the truth gently. 'Our almost instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.' Unsentimental charity is to him the most valuable quality.

He describes a church as 'a serious house on serious earth' that 'never can be obsolete,/ Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious'. But, says DZP, there are religious perspectives of a kind that Larkin seems unaware of, which ask the believer, as forcefully as Larkin does, to die to the desire for compensation.

After Empty Heaven

Some people think that emptying heaven of the gods may have created a dangerous void, a dangerous interregnum, and that without religion as a stabilising factor public morality might break down. The poet Wallace Stevens is mindful of this, but his hope is that poetry will address this new situation. Out of this poetic music Stevens hopes new possibilities of union and accord will emerge - 'in which being there together is enough.'

But, DZP asks, can poetry take the place of empty heaven? Can salvation be found in art when religion fails? Denis Potter (see Priests of Our Time) attacked the efforts often made in the name of religion to bandage the injuries of life. Such religion is couched in the language of false consolation, for religion is not the bandage but the wound, a wound caused by the longing for some kind of perfection, for something more than the merely human.

People have often thought of this world as a place of exile, and they long for a somewhere else, a better place. In Pennies from Heaven, Arthur thinks there must be somewhere where the songs are true, but his longing cannot transcend sentimentality. In Blue Remembered Hills the longing is for the supposed lost innocence of childhood which turns out to be no more than nostalgia. Such innocence is a myth. Our sins are indeed original. When one of the children is burnt alive, the others deny any knowledge or responsibility concerning it.

Nostalgia can paralyse us in the present. A longing for a better place beyond the rainbow can actually deepen human wounds. The expectation that we will be compensated somehow, somewhere, sometime, goes deep with us. We feel that something must turn up, to rectify matters, to balance the books. It's as if there is a higher perspective which will make everything right in the end. This transcendental superstition has dream-like quality which places it beyond disproof. It is a wounding illusion, because the only boat that awaits us is Death; a boat which has no compensating cargo.

Priests of Our Time

DZP looks next at the way that religions can cut us off from being human in the very attempt to make sense of human life. (see Emptying Heaven)

For Wallace Stevens, once we have emptied heaven of the gods, the sky will seem friendlier, just part of the human story and human science. The God above the sky, if he existed, would be responsible for what happens to mankind and therefore guilty of the most monstrous crime, the unalleviated sufferings of his creatures.

In Denis Potter's 'Follow the Yellow Brick Road' Jack Black comes to the conclusion that we are all in a dirty play, written by an author who has put filthy words into our mouths. The psychiatrist tells him there is no need to walk around burdened with a sense of disgust. With the help of Megabrium 2000 years a go at least one wild man would have stuck to carpentry. Disgust is a purely medical phenomenon. Jack cannot accept this rationalisation and longs for purity. But what kind? The kind we see in the simple immediacy of TV commercials. These commercials blind us to the realities, but then so do religious stories of a happy land, far, far away, a new and improved pie in the sky.
In 'Joe's Ark' the bleak, matter of fact realism of a dying girl is extremely powerful compared with the religious illusions on offer.
In 'Brimstone and Treacle' the yellow brick road of religion turns out to be a road to revulsion. A suffering girl, reduced to the status of a vegetable, is raped by a young man who persuades her mother that the suffering of her daughter is given meaning by the great love it has called forth in him. Some philosophers of religion argue that God allows people to suffer so that others may have the opportunity to develop morally in helping them.
In these three dramas religion is criticised for dividing man off from the realities of life, from common decencies.

Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts is a male advice column writer. He considers the job a joke until he finds that some of his correspondents are taking him seriously. He comes to believe that Christ is the answer but wants to keep away from 'the Christ business'. In him we see our own struggles to mediate religious sense.
Some critics see Miss Lonelyhearts as an exposure by West of the illusion religion necessarily is; that the love of God and man which Miss L seeks is impossible. But it is the features editor, Shrike, who mocks the religious vulgarities and the alternatives on offer viz a Thoreau-like celebration of the soil, a Gauguin-like retreat to the South Seas, an aesthetic hedonism, for all ignore the realities of human affliction and seek to impose a false order on human life. The desperate character of Shrike's cynicism reveals a longing for something more, something different.
Others see the novel as an unqualified celebration of religion, identifying the Christ complex with genuine faith. But for West Miss L is not a prophet in our age, but a product of our age. Yet others see in Miss L a holy fool in industrial America where success, money and power conspire to cast out love, freeze the heart, and dull sensibility. They confuse religious zeal with psychoneurosis. They miss the point that West's Miss L is a priest of our time who has a religious experience.

Just as Flannery O'Connor said that the South was not Christ-centred but Christ-haunted, so Miss L has not so much a belief in Christ as a Christ complex. His life can be seen as a series of botched sacrifices. The romantic cleft between word and action runs all through his life, and that of other characters, though in Miss L it takes a religious form. The trouble with him, the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer life, only an inner one. His religious complex is unmediated in the detail of human life. He wants to get to Christ directly, without the patient mediation of salvation in the detail of human life. Instant salvation is still peddled and magical solutions still offered, thus Miss Lonelyhearts remains a portrait of a priest of our our time.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

One man and his dog

Here's one for MadPriest, and other petophiles.

A man and his dog were walking down a country road, when they were hit by a truck. Coming to, the man found he was still on the same road, but now there were a pair of pearly gates just ahead of him.
"Where is this?" he asked the white-bearded gatekeeper.
"It's heaven," came the reply. "You were both hit by a truck and killed, and that's why you're here. Come on in – but we don't allow pets, so you'll have to leave the dog."
"I don't know," replied the man. "I think I'll just carry on walking a bit further."
A mile down the road, he came across another set of pearly gates.
"Where is this?" he asked the gatekeeper.
"It's heaven," came the reply.
"But I thought heaven was a mile further back," said the man.
"No," said the gatekeeper. "That's hell. They're not very good neighbours, but at least they filter out people who would leave their best friends behind."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Food Miles

While the leaders of the world’s richest countries are discussing ways to make farmers and grocers cut down the 'food miles' of what we eat, new research seems to show that it costs a lot more energy to grow lettuce or apples in the UK, or roses in Amsterdam, during the winter than it does to import them from Spain, New Zealand, and Kenya respectively. Similarly, by using hotbeds and hothouses, you can raise good grapes in Scotland. But it costs 30 times more than growing them in France.

The truth is that as many as half our ‘food miles’ have nothing to do with importing produce from overseas. We clock them up bringing home our groceries from the supermarket.

The Creative Pause

Thanks to Prodigal Kiwis for this.

“In the dance there is a movement called the creative pause between the completion of one movement and beginning of the next.
This pause is an essential part of our process and belongs to everyday.

The creative pause is called for when the yarn is tangled, the window stuck, the project half-finished, or the friendship faltering.
In loss, in grief, in crisis, the creative pause lends itself to creative solutions.

Often we use this moment in resentment, reaction, revenge. We pull harder. We strike and strike and strike. We tug tenaciously, pound at the problem, trying to bring about an answer – any answer.
Overwhelmed by helplessness, we obscure solutions of clarity.
Then, exhausted, we are quiet.

God works in the waiting, wanting only our best, only what is right for us. Into the silence, God comes bringing peace in discomfort, confidence in confusion, trust in frustration.
Gently, child, gently, God says. Give me your loving attention and wait willingly. I will make clear your way.
Wait in confidence
and trust this creative pause.”

Paradoxically, Dorothy Rowe, an atheist psychologist, says that, in all our significant decisions and actions, the moment belongs to God.

Monday, June 04, 2007


Why does nearly everyone conclude that because no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq they almost certainly didn't exist? Richard Perle (I know, American, neocon . . . but stay with me) speaking at the Hay Festival said that the only way WMD might have been found there would have been by Hans Blix or the Americans being shown precisely where they were. As he repeated, a cache of anthrax is easily 'lost' in a country like Iraq which is about as big as France.

He has a point. The IRA managed to 'lose' their weapons in Northern Ireland in spite of the fact that the police and armed forces who were looking for them had local knowledge, had been searching for many years, and had an area one-thirtieth the size of Iraq to cover.

The store of IRA weapons was never found. How was General de Chastelain able to satisfy all parties to the Good Friday Agreement that the arms had been decommissioned? He was shown where they were.