Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Leaders' spouses

As questions are raised about whether Gordon Brown has a bit of a temper, Michael Skapinker in the FT suggests that:

"the signal service spouses can render is to tell leaders what no one else dares to.

"In June 1940, Clementine Churchill wrote a letter to her husband, tore it up and then wrote it again. Roy Jenkins, in his biography of Winston Churchill, described the letter as "terrifying", which it must have been – both for the writer and the recipient.

"My darling," Mrs Churchill began. "I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something that I feel you ought to know. One of the men in your entourage (a devoted friend) has been to me & told me that there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues & subordinates because of your rough sarcastic & overbearing manner. If an idea is suggested (say at a conference) you are supposed to be so contemptuous that presently no ideas – good or bad – will be forthcoming. I was astonished & upset because in all these years I have been accustomed to all those who have worked with & under you, loving you – I said this & I was told 'No doubt it's the strain'."

"My Darling Winston – I must confess I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be cannot bear that those who serve the Country & yourself should not love you as well as admire and respect you – Besides you won't get the best results by irascibility & rudeness."

"Please forgive your loving devoted & watchful Clemmie."

"You don't get that quality of advice from many management consultants."

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Remember Churchill when you think of Iraq

 Daniel Finkelstein is on fine form today:

Whatever view you take of Mr Blair’s dossiers or George Bush’s politics, without a proper estimation of the possible consequences, as seen at the time, of not acting, the whole war is impossible to evaluate or understand.

A school I'd have been happy at

"If I were choosing a school for a child I should avoid any which imagined itself competent to do more than teach efficiently and provide a polite and civilized environment in which children were not exposed to physical or psychological attack from either the pupils or the teachers."
Celia Green

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A Questionnaire I completed recently

  1. What does it mean to be religious and/or spiritual? The kind of words that come to mind are - urgency, single-mindedness, intensity, integrity, moral courage, the individual, the exception, the outsider.
  1. Would you describe yourself as religious and/or spiritual? I’m working on it.
  1. How is religion and/or spirituality important in your life? Please comment on how it is or why it isn’t. Without something that I can identify as a religious purpose I can hardly see the point of living at all. This made the decision to have children of my own a tricky one. Fortunately my two adult daughters, as far as I can tell, do not share my squeamishness on this matter.
  1. What is the contribution (if any) of religion and/or spirituality in dealing with questions of peace, justice and sustainability? When I started to think seriously about religion as a young adult it was under the guidance of a priest who was a pacifist (in wartime a conscientious objector). He lived a life of self-denial, offered his home to the homeless and brought the gospel to the poor. One of my early philosophical mentors was John MacMurray. He taught that all human thought is for the sake of action, and all action for the sake of friendship. This has made sense and informed my thinking at the deepest level all my life - friendship as a kind of end in itself, the Trinitarian God a kind of ideal community of friends (Friends?). I have come seriously to re-think my position on this. I am increasingly drawn to the view that the kind of this-worldly emphasis in modern theology has been a distraction and even a betrayal of those who have rightly sought in religion a way of transcending the limitations of human finiteness. I am so unused to thinking in this way I am almost embarrassed to be doing it, but this is where I am. I find myself asking for the first time whether this focus on human relationships, morality and politics  which has been the central concern of much modern theological writing is anything more than a distraction from, and defence against, the overwhelming and possibly intractable problem of existing at all, as we humans do, in a state of ignorance, uncertainty and powerlessness. This is a new direction in my thinking and as yet more than usually tentative.

  1. Were your parents (or other carers) religious/spiritual and in what ways have they influenced the views you hold now? My parents introduced me to the reality of human existence, they brought me to birth - a happy event? Actually they were lovely people who just didn’t stand a chance. My mother was a tormented person who committed suicide (?). My father had troubling thoughts about life, death and human destiny. He railed (quietly) against the human predicament, especially that he had not been consulted on the two most important questions – whether he should be born and whether he should die. He was also one of the funniest and most entertaining people I have known. 
  1. Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self? If so, please briefly describe your experience. God is love – crucified – makes a kind of sense - also the absent and hidden God of R S Thomas’ poetry.

  1. Does prayer have a place in your life? If not, please comment on why. If so, please describe when and how you pray and what for. I’m not sure whether my problem with prayer is how to do it or how to stop doing it. My apprehension of life and living things and sometimes even inanimate objects is mostly of a hypersensitive kind. Trying to connect everything to everything else and to God is my ongoing experience and practice of prayer. Liturgical worship and prayer have always meant a lot to me. I can lose myself in it. My parents were RC and took me and my sister as small children to Mass. I liked it.

  1. Is the notion of God meaningful for you? Please comment on why or why not. God, Love, the Absolute, have been a vital part of my life-vocabulary.

  1. What is your understanding of Jesus? A scary man who made quite unreasonable demands on his followers. A holy man, a lonely man, an individual. An inspired genius whose life, death and teaching brought into being the Christian Church, the cradle of much of what is best in western civilization.
  1. Do you think Jesus was conceived by a virgin? Please comment on why or why not. Nothing that is important to me depends on this being literally true. In any case I consider virginity to be ludicrously over-rated.
  1. Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Please comment on why (and in what sense you understand that) or why not. I have found the best way of understanding this is in terms of the Church as the risen body of Christ.

  1. In what way is a religious outlook compatible (or not) with the idea that life on earth, including human life, has evolved? To be credible a religious view must be compatible with reality – all that exists – and the way that it exists and has come or might have come to exist. Actually we do not know much about the universe, its origins and what it is made of. There is very little, if anything, we can be certain of. A profound and radical skepticism about everything is probably the only rational option.

  1. In what way have the media articles or TV programmes celebrating the anniversary in 2009 of Charles Darwin influenced your view? As I think we know so little about what and how and why the world is then every bit of seemingly solid knowledge and more or less credible theory such as Darwin’s is to be welcomed. At the same time I regard as vain and disreputable the attempts made by some in the name of religion to equate nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ with the eternal purpose of a Great Designer.
  1. What, if anything, should primary school children be taught about religion? I have never believed that Christianity is a simple faith and I doubt that there is such a thing. It is most likely to be understood and appreciated from a position of mature reflection that is only possible later in life. Those who wish to commend religious belief to children must be careful not to talk down to them.

  1. What is your view of homosexuality? What is my view of heterosexuality? I think that all human beings have their own way of being close to and intimate with others. Among these are homosexuals – and heterosexuals.
  1. Should churches offer blessings for same sex partnerships? Please comment on why or why not. Churches should bless all good, loving, life-affirming relationships.
  1. Should abortion be available on demand? Please comment on why or why not. I have always been strongly in support of a woman’s right to choose how and when her pregnancy should end.
  1. Should assisted suicide for those with terminal illness be made legal and available in the UK? Please comment on why or why not. Apart from the safeguards necessary to ensure that the person who chooses suicide has done so freely and without any form of coercion, my main concern here would be how to negate the power of the state to intervene by prescribing or refusing the medication chosen by the individual seeking to put an end to his life.
  1. What do you think happens when we die? I don’t want to be stuffed. But seriously I can hardly make sense of the question. What I don’t see is why this is a religious question. A longing for ‘life after death’ is more likely to be selfish (more of me/more for me) than religious (more of God).
  1. In what ways (if any) does your answer to question 19 influence how you live your life? If there is no ‘life after death’ I have no reward or punishment to look forward to or fear so I had better get on with making the most and the best of what life I have, practicing goodness for its own sake, and even loving God for nothing.
  1. As you think about your life at the moment what gives you most fulfillment? I am not at all fulfilled. The nearest I get to that feeling is when a child we look after who is severely disabled falls asleep in my arms and I think to myself ‘If I’m good enough for Daniel, I’m good enough.’
  1. Have you ever had to deal with a personal tragedy or crisis, and if so, who or what did you turn to for comfort. If not, who or what do you imagine turning to in those circumstances? As a priest I have been more used to being the one that others turn to. I am not that good at turning to others. The Psalms have helped.
  1.  If you ever just want to feel a sense of calmness or soulfulness, what do you do? Where do you go? To the seaside.
  1. What are some important morals or ethics that you try to live by in your daily life? For the sake of the planet I don’t eat meat and I don’t fly. Actually I don’t like flying and meat eating is unnecessary and probably unhealthy and nearly always involves avoidable cruelty and pain to innocent animals.
  1. Do you think the world would be better off with more religion, or less? Religion is here to stay. Given the extent of extremism and fundamentalism more of the same would be a calamity. We need to raise our game.