Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is God Real?

D Z Phillips ('Introducing Philosophy' p.145) offers a way forward in answering this question.

Why do we assume that no matter what the subject matter - trees, money, love, God - we can always draw the distinction between the real and the unreal in the same way? How would we go about distinguishing between a real and an unreal tree, real and unreal money, real and unreal love, and a real and unreal God? It is in the different ways in which we go about this that we come to appreciate the notions of reality involved.

So we do not know, free of any context, what the distinction between the real and the unreal come to. But if this true, why should it not apply to religion? Should we not explore the kind of reality involved here? May we not find that, surprisingly, the reality involved is a spiritual reality? If this is so, then finding God would be finding this spiritual reality. Struggling to believe would be struggling to find it. Rebellion would be defying or hating this spiritual reality. This is the direction I think the enquiry should take.

Gender Agenda

Julia Langdon comments on what she calls 'the gay movement'.

It started with "outing," which was an unforgivable intrusion on the private lives of homosexual persons; it labels gays who live by a moral code and prefer to live quietly as "self-haters." It insists on separateness -- gay neighborhoods, gay pride days, gay rites, gay clubs, gay cruises -- while demanding "full inclusion and acceptance." It shouts down as "homophobic" anyone who respectfully disagrees.

Not many women I knew bought into the feminists' agenda; no homosexuals I know want much to do with the activists' agenda, either. They are church members, business owners, and employees whose homosexuality is a small part of their makeup and not their reason for being. They resent all of the attention and don't see taking on churches and church leaders as particularly helpful.

Julia is, I think, an honest and decent enough journalist, but how many feminists and homosexuals does she really speak for?

In praise of email

I can't pretend to be as switched-on technologically as Fat Man but I would like to associate myself with his little eulogy.

Nature pink and fluffy

A pair of Sumatran
and a set
of young
all abandoned at birth,
have become inseparable after sharing a room at an Indonesian zoo.
Not quite the lion with the lamb
- but close.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

You don't have to be depressed - but it helps.

During a televised interview the novelist John Updike was asked why his books contained so many parsons, and why they appeared in such a bad light. Updike replied that most clergymen he had met were not particularly deep human beings, and that he was fascinated by people in bonds. Parsons, he added, are men in very visible social bonds.

I retired from stipendiary ministry as an Anglican priest in the year 2000, ostensibly disabled by anxiety and depression. I have since come to see that depression had become a condition of my ministry. It was the treatment for depression, initially in my case a course of Prozac, which led to my resignation. As, with help of medication, I came to identify and admit the misery I had long felt, the possibility of a return to my clerical office receded.

I had for some time resisted the conclusion that there is necessarily a conflict between the claims of professional ministry and personal integrity. Now I found myself wondering aloud, not least to clerical friends and colleagues, whether it is possible to be entirely honest, as a Christian and a priest, about what I think, feel, believe, do not believe, about who I am, and how, as we grow, that changes. The demands of clerical office (e.g. performing church services, giving comfort and assurance) seemed to require ever more feats of mental and emotional gymnastics. I was beginning to feel that the arts of pretending, condescending, posturing, play-acting, more pertinent to show business, had subverted the Church's more serious agenda.

My doctor, concerned about my mental state, asked whether I ever had thoughts of suicide or self-harm. I never did. It occurred to me however that accepting early retirement, which by now I had begun to consider, might be described as 'professional' suicide. His advice I found helpful. He suggested that leaving a job that threatened to destroy me as a person was the very opposite of suicide. It could be necessary for my survival!

As I understand it, and have experienced it, depression is, among other things, a means of self-protection from the sometimes-painful intensity of feeling fully alive in a fragile, fleeting, complex and morally ambiguous world. It is, in particular, a defense against uncertainty. Thus in this sense the opposite of being depressed is, I suppose, to be honest, open, out and free. It is also to be uncertain.

At an early stage of my troubles I had sought the support and understanding of my professional colleagues. I figured, naively, that the project of liberated life would be meat and drink to the Church in which I had been an ordained priest for thirty years. I seem to remember a time (in the seventies?) when this would have been true. So I set out to find, first among my brother priests, the kind of open, honest, adult, serious, and generous human beings I had in mind.

Whether their embarrassed reaction to my difficulties is better described as a failure of friendship or of pastoral care, I am still not clear. Those senior members of the diocese, with whom I was emboldened to share my religious doubts and sense of vocational crisis, often betrayed an alarming cynicism.

One excused himself with "Sorry, I don't do deep." (this from a priest who hears, presumably only shallow, confessions.) He was busily promoting a daily parish mass whilst confiding to me that he looked forward in retirement to never having to go to church again. I was urged repeatedly not to take religion so seriously. Another priest, with responsibility for training the junior clergy wrote, "I can't make any useful comments about your tension between faith and the Church. I suppose that having lived with being selective with the truth for most of my life, I find it quite natural - even if constricting - to juggle hypocrisies. The Church as an institution claims almost none of my allegiance and I simply plough my own furrow, as far as possible."

Cynicism Rules - OK! But what is at the root of it. For one thing, I believe, perhaps surprisingly, that it is somewhat connected to the Church's policy of discrimination against gay and lesbian clergy, a large minority, and the enforced celibacy it imposes. The concealment and deceit that is a necessary part of maintaining this fiction, for more often than not it is a fiction, about one's personal life sustains a culture of fear, evasion and denial which undermines the essential integrity of office. What is no less damaging to morale, is that those who choose to conform to the celibate ideal and live the single life may, unless it is a choice they are comfortable with, suffer great loneliness. We should not underestimate how injurious this is to the soul of the Church, and how corrupting of its internal politics.

A few years ago Elizabeth Templeton highlighted some of these issues when she wrote, 'We live (in the churches), if not with an active conspiracy, at least with a terrifying collusion of public silence about questions that need to be asked', which in turn leads to 'the isolation and furtiveness which people feel about their own wonderings, doubts and alternative understandings.'

And what is true of the churches is true a posteriori, and with knobs on, of its clergy. There must be no public inkling that they have any such unfinished agenda; that for them the search for an honest and credible faith is still on. Those who persist in their search are likely to find their distress compounded by the addition of guilt, and with guilt the fear of disclosure, stigma and opprobrium.

Templeton continues, 'We are learning from the courage of minorities who come out of their closets that fear is a sapping and festering overload on anyone's system." Should we not accept that "everyone wrestles with major questions about faith, unless they are brain-dead or bullied into concealment."

The conclusion I came to was that, although you do not have to be depressed, cynical or homophobic to be a clergyman, it can improve your chances of success!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Go Gaily

I'm taking a holiday. Back in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Early Retirement

This might cause a sigh in all book lovers.

In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, anniversary of his birth, Michel de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public enjoyments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned Virgins [Muses], where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life now more than half run out. If the fates permit, he will complete this abode, this sweet ancestral retreat, and he has consecrated it to his freedom, tranquility, and leisure.

It's not so easy when you're the son of a workaholic. Love you Dad.

Attack on Giant Pakistan Buddha

Further evidence that it isn't just support for the Iraq war, or even publication of those cartoons, that upsets our Muslim neighbours.

Now the Buddhists are being attacked for having 'non-Islamic' statues. Where will it end?


Tariq Ramadan is one of those apologists for Islam who uses long words to obscure the obvious truth.

Thus, he tells Egyptian television that the destruction of the Israeli state is for the moment "impossible" and he describes the idea of stoning adulterous women as "unimplementable." This is something less than a full condemnation, but he is quick to say that simple condemnation of such things would reduce his own "credibility" in the eyes of a Muslim audience that, or so he claims, he wants to modernize by stealth.

He would fit well into the modern Church of England if it wasn't that the shariah penalty for conversion is death.

Feel Good or Do Good

Researchers led by Robert Davis, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, have concluded that the number of heat-related deaths in New York in the 1990s was only a third as high as in the 1960s. The main reason is simple: air-conditioning.

On the basis of such evidence, Dr Bjorn Lomborg argues that the best strategy in the face of climate change is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York, so that people elsewhere can afford to do things like shore up their coastlines and buy air conditioners. He calls Kyoto-style treaties to cut greenhouse-gas emissions a mistake because they cost too much and do too little too late.

Dr. Lomborg, who’s best known (and most reviled in some circles) for an earlier book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which gathers economists to set priorities in tackling global problems. In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.

Makes a lot of sense to me.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Islamic Fanaticism

Merrick at My Telegraph is afraid we are heading into deep trouble.

"A man whose family was German aristocracy prior to World War 2 owned a number of large industries and estates. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can guide our attitude toward fanaticism. "Very few people were true Nazis", he said, "but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So, the majority just sat back and let it all happen. Then, before we knew it, they owned us, and we had lost control, and the end of the world had come. My family lost everything. and I ended up in a concentration camp and the Allies destroyed my factories."

We are told again and again by 'experts' and 'talking heads' that Islam is the religion of peace, and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is entirely irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff, meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the spectre of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam.

The fact is that the fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history. It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of the shooting wars worldwide. It is the fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and are gradually taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, murder, or honour-kill. It is the fanatics who take over mosque after mosque. It is the fanatics who zealously approve the stoning and hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. The hard quantifiable fact is that the 'peaceful majority', the 'silent majority' is cowed and extraneous.

Communist Russia comprised Russians who just wanted to live in peace, yet
the Russian Communists were responsible for the murder of about 20 million people. The peaceful majority were irrelevant. China's huge population - it was peaceful as well; but Chinese Communists managed to kill a staggering 70 million people. The average Japanese individual prior to World War 2 was not a war-mongering sadist. Yet Japan murdered and slaughtered its way across South East Asia in an orgy of killing that included the systematic murder of 12 million Chinese civilians; most killed by sword, shovel and bayonet. And, who can forget Rwanda, which collapsed into butchery. Could it not be said that the majority of Rwandans were "peace loving"?

History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don't speak up, because like my friend from Germany, they will awake one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun.

Peace-loving Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Rwandans, Serbs, Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Somalis, Nigerians, Algerians, and many others have died because the peaceful majority did not speak up until it was too late. As for us who watch it all unfold; we must pay attention to the only group that counts - the fanatics who threaten our way of life."

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Waiting for the Barbarians

This poem I came across today is about what happens when an external threat is removed. Religion has historically been used as just such an external threat. But what happens when God is no more?

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?

Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

What laws can the Senators pass any more?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,

and sits at the greatest gate of the city,
on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

And the emperor waits to receive
their chief. Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out

today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
wonderfully carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,

and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as always

to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;

and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why all of a sudden this unrest

and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.

And some people arrived from the borders,
and said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

Those people were some kind of solution.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1904)

And another thing

A few further thoughts about ourselves and other animals.

First let me emphasise my belief that in all our doings ‘human beings come first’. My only worry is that often when those words are used it is in part an excuse for doing nothing about either human or non-human animal suffering, rather than about making a genuine choice between incompatible alternatives.

Next, we need to remember that humans are sometimes inhumane, towards other humans, and that non-human animals are not always savage. What seems often to be overlooked is that animals are able to form complex social relationships and experience grief in times of separation and loss. I have heard it argued that because other animals kill for food, we may do so too. I say that doesn’t follow but in any case there is a certain irony in the fact that the very animals we choose to kill and eat are mostly themselves vegetarian.

May I also add that whilst I uphold animal liberation, I am a bit of a separatist. That’s to say; I feel that other animals should be given scope to live their own lives, as much as possible on their own. We should leave them alone as much as we possibly can. I am no longer a keeper or even a lover of pets of any kind. I find pet lovers rather sentimental and often indifferent to the cruel treatment of animals they don’t own and who, or whose products, finish up on their table. What’s more I am appalled by the way pet owners permit their charges to foul the pavements, our pathways and parks. Think of how they would react if children were permitted by their parents to do the same. In the same way I am astonished that elderly men, who have never and would never have changed a baby’s nappy, not even their own baby’s, should follow their pet dogs, clearing up their mess with such selfless devotion.

I’ve heard it said that if abattoirs were made of glass, we would all be vegetarians. So why is it that the mass media, who cover the most shocking events in war, and include scenes of the most bloody violence in film drama, steer so clear of the everyday scenes of life and work in the abattoirs of our own country? I for one cannot remember a single interview with a slaughter man, exploring what he does and what affect it has on him, let alone on the animals.

Another question: In an age of ever ‘greener’ politics, why is it that we hear so little about the sheer wastefulness of meat eating? We have to use fertile land to grow protein crops, which we then feed to animals. Animals turn out to be a very inefficient converter of protein in that the yield of protein in their meat is only a fraction of the protein they are fed. This is not only wasteful of animal life, but also of good land, and even more critically, of water.

I must say I also get a little irritated by the frequent complaint that children these days have lost touch with agriculture and need to be re-educated in order to understand the connection between animals, food and farming. Attempts to do this are usually so sanitized that the children are left ignorant of the process by means of which a whole, live sheep, pig or cow, gets to be a neatly and bloodlessly packaged tray of meat at the supermarket. To describe the use of animals in the processing of human food without mentioning slaughter is, I think, like giving an account of war and soldiering without reference to guns, weapons, fighting and killing.

Finally, may I assure you that giving up meat eating does not necessarily entail the sacrifice of all your traditional pleasures. The synthetic meat business is booming. Sausages, burgers and, yes, even ‘bacon-butties’ are all available in meatless form. You probably won’t be able to tell the difference – but the animal will. It’ll still be alive!

Stop the War - or at least slow down a bit!

Norm draws our attention to what can only be described as an overwhelming tide of public opinion.

[The Stop the War Coalition] has organised more than a dozen national demonstrations since [February 2003]. None has been attended by fewer than 50,000 people.
Population of the UK: 60,587,300.