Sunday, February 24, 2008


One of the best nights I have spent in the theatre was for An Evening's Intercourse with Dame Edna Everage. Emily Perry, who played Edna's bridesmaid, Madge Allsopp, died last week aged 100. One of the tributes paid to her was that her job was to do nothing, and she did it beautifully.

During the more than twenty years she worked with Barry Humphries she travelled the world, though she admitted, at the age of 99, she couldn't remember a thing.

Doing less, and eventually doing nothing, but beautifully, seems like a good plan for retirement. Between now and when I'm 100 I'd like not so much to see more, do more, and travel further, as to digest, value, appreciate what I have; reflect on what I have seen, read and done.

And then, mercifully, to forget.

Is religion good for you?

Oliver James reckons that people who go to church once a week are more likely to be mentally healthy. He asks whether this counts as evidence for the existence of God.

I hate it when people make religion a kind of health-trip. Getting yourself crucified is far more damaging to your health than smoking.

Hereafter Again

If talk of the survival after death of a non-material body leaves you, like me, in a state of complete incomprehension, or desperately seeking convincing evidence, then it may be that the dualistic view of human beings made up of two parts, the body, and the mind or soul, may help us still to make sense of our Christian belief.

One problem is with that word 'part'. Unless my soul is me, and not just a part of me, as one philosopher put it, the news of the immortality of my soul would be of no more concern to me than the news that my appendix would be preserved eternally in a bottle.

My own view of what human beings are, and what a person is, rules out the notion that I am essentially an inner thinking substance that could conceivably have an existence quite independent of the physical world we share or the other persons we share it with. I can't begin to imagine how life without its public aspect of relationships, shared language, meanings, and experiences, would be a human life, with the capacity for what we call introspection, in the first place. Giving meaning to words is itself a public rather than a private matter.

What then of reincarnation? And, before you reply, 'I don't want to come back as a tin of milk', I will say - more later.


The ability to identify significant movements in thought, and present them in a way that helps others to grasp their significance without oversimplifying, is a valuable art. I can still recall the excitement that I experienced when the works of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud were first linked in my mind as thinkers who had progressively shifted our perception of human beings, once seen as freely autonomous individuals, the crown of God's creation, set on earth, at the centre of the universe, to the much more modest position we now occupy in the cosmological, evolutionary, and psychological worlds of most people.

Sometimes though this ability can be put to the service of sinister causes. I suppose every petty dictator has a vision of the world and himself which neatly accommodates his own megalomaniac fantasies.

Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine Jewish newspaper editor who was kidnapped and tortured by the death-squad regime in his country in the late 1970s, analyzes the work of the neo-Nazi element that formed such an important part of the military/clerical dictatorship, and quotes one of the “diagnoses” that animated their ferocity:
“Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why you no listen?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
-- George Bernard Shaw

Is brown the new black?

Tidying my underwear drawer the other day, I noticed that my erstwhile black underpants had over time turned a shade of brown. A question occurred to me: Why do men, and women who buy for their men, buy far more pairs of black underpants which eventually turn brown, than brown ones which presumably stay brown? Why not buy brown in the first place?

I am now going to drop my underpants.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

What are you hereafter?

I have commented that every belief in survival after death I've come across is either the product of confused thinking, or subverts my understanding of morality, which is about doing something for nothing, and generally gets in the way of appreciating and loving the world we live in as it is.
I want to argue that life after death makes Christianity (the religion I know best) and morality (as I understand it) impossible.

One principle I'd like to explore is that beliefs in an afterlife are unsatisfactory religiously speaking insofar as they are rooted in a desire for more of selfhood rather than more of God. They seek to satisfy an anxiety that my life might be meaningless without its continuance to a fulfilment beyond death; as if life is not worth living, and good not worth doing, unless it can be justified by post-mortem events.

There has never been convincing evidence that 'we' can survive the dissolution of 'our bodies'. There is an important sense in which we are our bodies. Still, the reputation of many psychical researchers have been dashed in the attempt to produce evidence for the existence of non-material bodies. No such 'subtle bodies' have ever forced themselves upon the attention of physical scientists, however sensitive the apparatus they have deployed.

Perhaps though my essential self has nothing to do with bodily existence at all. Perhaps it is to be found elsewhere. Perhaps a dualistic solution should be sought.

Monday, February 18, 2008

In memory

I wrote a letter of condolence to the widow of a priest I worked with many years ago.

"One thing I have valued over the years may surprise you. Denis had what I then found to be an infuriating habit, when discussing things in a meeting, of rehearsing how part of him thought and felt this, whilst another part of him thought and felt that. With the impatience of youth I often wanted to make progress by asking him to come more quickly to the point, but thought better of it. I later came to appreciate that this way of speaking may have come from his counsellor training and I found, and find, it a liberating way of talking especially about more personal things. Through it you can own thoughts and feelings you do not like and would certainly not wish to act upon. A part of me says ‘this’. A part of me says ‘that’. Thanks Denis."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Love is a losing game

The real winners in life, says Oliver James, "are those people who don't worry about winning and losing."

My own view is that sooner or later we are all losers. We are all going to lose everything that we have and we are forever. So better accept it.

Among the groups of people least willing to come to terms with this unavoidable truth are the religious. They are mostly hooked on the idea of some kind of afterlife in which they can go on going on, so that they don't have to lose everything, at least not forever.

But they do. And this craving for something they can't have prevents them developing a real spitituality - a spiritualty with guts.

Or so it seems to me.

Getting off to a good start

On a blog thread the other day I recounted that on my first day in a new parish, a second curacy, one of the churchwardens, very much the senior one, was about to introduce me to his wife after Evensong. I had met the lady earlier that day at the 8am Holy Communion. I therefore interrupted the churchwarden to say 'Oh I've already met your MOTHER.'

What made it more inexcusable was that she wasn't even older than him. Fortunately she was one of those Christians who really did forgive. As far as I know she never held it against me.

In my defence (or is it hers?) I can without effort be twenty years out on either side in guessing any person's age.


In the Church Times, Andrew Brown does what he does best; writes about journalists and journalism. Towards the end of a fine piece on Rowan Williams' recent bad press, he says:

"By the time that Dr Williams rose to speak on Monday, the outline of a defence was clear. He had been brutally and unfairly attacked for things he never said. What the press had done was an assault on the very possibility of nuanced discussion - and this is true. But it is much more important and and just as true that he was brutally and fairly attacked for things that he did, in fact, say, and quite probably meant."

Give a mouse a bad name

Douglas Adams, back in 1999, saw how the internet was being demonized.

"Newsreaders still feel it is worth a special and rather worrying mention if, for instance, a crime was planned by people 'over the Internet.' They don't bother to mention when criminals use the telephone or the M4, or discuss their dastardly plans 'over a cup of tea,' though each of these was new and controversial in their day."

Bring Back Jehovah

Simon Hoggart illustrates what it is about Christians that gets right up intelligent noses.

"A week ago the TV news included a heartwarming story about an 11-month old baby boy in Tennessee who had been picked up by a tornado and thrown for 150 yards. Rescuers found him lying face down in mud, but alive and only scratched.

"Neighbours and friends lined up to say how kind God had been, how God had looked after him, and so forth. I wanted to yell at the screen: "But his mother died! He's an orphan! What was God thinking of?" You don't have to be Richard Dawkins to realise that belief in a God who is both all-benign and omnipotent is going to lead you into some pretty tricky philosophical tangles.
Americans seem to have come up with the notion of God as the fourth emergency service, stepping in to mitigate misfortunes which for some reason He couldn't prevent: Hurricane Katrina and 9/11 for example.

"I've seen Christian newsletters which argue that God worked hard on 9/11, organising traffic jams in Manhattan so that hundreds of people didn't get to work in the twin towers before the planes hit. A bit rough on those who went by subway.

"Maybe they ought to get back to the Old Testament Jehovah, angry and vengeful, constantly seeking blood, destruction and revenge. It would solve so many problems."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Double Entendre

She showed me hers. I showed her mine.
She found it so exciting that in no time at all she believed we would be related by marriage.
I had another look at mine to see what it was that had impassioned her.
Upon closer inspection I found that her great-great-grandmother is mine as well.
Genealogy is sexy.


My wife can't get randy.
Is this a psychosexual problem?
No. It's 5 Down in today's Quick Crossword.

Quote of the Day

The Ten Commandments contain 297 words. The Bill of Rights is stated in 463 words. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address contains 266 words. A recent federal directive to regulate the price of cabbage contains 26,911 words.

– The Atlanta Journal

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


From Prodigal Kiwis:

This led me to revisit my own understanding of the vocation … question, and I finally asked it the right way. What I asked myself was this: is there anything in my life that I have always felt called or compelled to do, any drive or impulse that I have ultimately been able to ignore?... I can ignore it, but it does not go away. I am happier when I am following it than when I am not. It is something that gives me a sense of integrity and meaning…” (Gregory Augustine Pierce).

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Jewish Heretic

I like this epithet as applied to Jesus.

Jewishness appeals to me because a religion that ends in 'ish' has a suitably modest opinion of itself.

To be out of step, as a heretic must, with something so ill-defined as to end in 'ish' in the first place, makes the man from Nazareth all the more attractive to those of us who have never found it easy to nail our colours to a particular doctrinal mast.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The great Iraqi insurgency

From Harry's Place:

The BBC is carrying
a report about two bombs exploding in busy Baghdad animal markets have killed at least 64 people. According to the report the devices were attached to "two mentally disabled women, and were detonated remotely".

Is this some new dispicable low? Is the great Al Qaeda going around and rounding up the mentally ill and strapping bombs to them?

Iraqi security forces spokesman Brig Qassem Ata al-Moussawi told the BBC: "The operation was carried out by two booby-trapped mentally disabled women. [The bombs] were detonated remotely.

"Forensic and bomb squad experts as well as the people and traders of Al-Shorja area of the carpet market have confirmed that the woman who was blown-up there today was often in the area and was mentally disabled...

"In the New Baghdad area the shop owners and customers of the pet market confirmed that the woman who was blown-up there was mentally disabled as well."

Gene adds: This isn't the first time the "resistance" has done such a thing.