Friday, 30 August 2013

Atheism and girl guides

The recent national and local spats about the new 'Godless' oath for Girl Guides (eg: Daily Telegraph article, here) symbolizes a growing issue in public spaces as an increasingly stroppy and numerous atheism grapples with inherited Christian forms.

At one level, the atheist reworking of the Girl Guide oath to drop mention of God makes absolute sense: if you have disparate groups, you try to find a common level on which they can all agree. In the past, Catholics, Muslims, Jews etc managed to meet on a non-denominational theism. Now, theists and atheists meet on a programme of shared morals. It's about compromise and agreeing on what we share rather than what divides us.

For a Christian, however, what you have is a serious impoverishment of a culture. Particularly in an organization which is devoted to the character formation of the young, that formation essentially consists in getting young people to see the difference between what they think or feel, and what is actually the case; what they want to do, and what they should do. There are (at least) two elements to this: a cognitive element based on understanding the world in a certain way; and a narrative element which provides us with a network of stories and heroes that provide analogies for our own behaviour. So, eg, a Christian formation will regard the world as meaningful and directed by the will of God, and will refer to (eg) the Bible as a stock of narrative on which we can draw.

From a Christian perspective, the more attenuated the stock from which the formation is drawn, the worse that formation. At best, the formation of character is weakened. At worst, it is actually poisoned by a pernicious alternative: to replace, "love my God" with "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs" is to replace an objective source of values with feeling.

In the end, this is not just about atheism vs theism, but an impoverished narrative vs a rich one, and relativism vs objectivity. A lot of modern atheism is simply dumb: it's the sort of thing 18 year old computer geeks would come up with. Christianity is being dumped, but instead of being replaced by a rich humanism soaked in the classicism and literature of the past, it is being replaced by a void. The better sort of atheist realize that but most don't and even fewer have any sort of viable proposals to fill that void.

My own guess is that, for the last couple of generations or so, religion in much of public life in the UK has been run on the basis of 'it's good for the kids': a short lived experiment to send me out to Sunday School in my childhood was explicitly described in those terms by my mother, and I doubt she was unique in this. The forms of the Christian religion were kept simply because they offered a way of articulating those central differences between seeming and being, one's desires and one's duties. That facade has now fallen, but the need for a similar structure to replace it remains. From a Catholic point of view, there is simply nothing that will work in the long run beyond a true religious formation. I don't expect atheists to agree, but I do expect them to start provide suggestions which go beyond simply using the delete key or suggesting that four year olds study Darwin.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Intervening in Syria

Catholics believe in the possibility of a just war, so the suggestion of military intervention in Syria is not something that can be rejected out of hand.

Turning to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, you could start with the broad principles of the Just War (s. 500)

To be licit, the use of force must correspond to certain strict conditions: “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success; the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. 

And you could follow that up with the duty to protect the innocent (s.506):

The international community as a whole has the moral obligation to intervene on behalf of those groups whose very survival is threatened or whose basic human rights are seriously violated. As members of an international community, States cannot remain indifferent; on the contrary, if all other available means should prove ineffective, it is “legitimate and even obligatory to take concrete measures to disarm the aggressor”.[1063] The principle of national sovereignty cannot be claimed as a motive for preventing an intervention in defence of innocent victims.[1064] The measures adopted must be carried out in full respect of international law and the fundamental principle of equality among States.

Without wishing to shortcircuit the detailed reflection on both the principles and the application of those principles in the present situation, I think it's fair that Catholic teaching rests heavily on three principles and an overriding aim: the principles are the question of effectiveness, the question of human dignity and the question of legitimate authority. The overriding aim is that of the establishment of the kingdom of peace and justice in the world.

On the principles, again, it's roughly the case that they represent a combination of deontological moral reasoning and consequentialist. There is no point doing something if it doesn't work. Clearly 'something must be done' in relation to the use of chemical weapons (if, as seems likely, it did occur). But it is quite possible that nothing, in the short term, can be done, or that punishment will only make matters worse. Good intentions here aren't enough. Moreover, even if military intervention 'works', it can't be at the expense of using people (in the Kantian phraseology) as 'means rather than ends': you can't go around slaughtering people just to make your point. Finally, although individual governments may have a legitimate right of intervention, there is a strong bias towards the authority of international rather than national action: some sort of international consensus would help here.

On flipping through the Compendium just now, it's clear that, beyond all the details here, there is (rightly) an overarching need to avoid violence where possible and to resort to diplomatic and other non-violent means: whatever is done must be done with the aim of achieving a just and peaceful world order.

So what does that add up to? I don't know, and to be honest, perhaps one of the most important things now is for people (including politicians) to admit their lack of knowledge. There is a great temptation for a democratic leader to try to look as though he or she is in charge: firm, resolute, having no doubts of the direction in which we should travel. I'd recommend thinking about what it is to exercise the virtue of practical wisdom (prudentia) in this case and particularly its connection with the virtue of humility.  Our MPs and Prime Minister could do far worse than flipping through the relevant chapter of the Compendium and praying:

  Prayer for peace in Syria

God of Compassion,
Hear the cries of the people of Syria,
Bring healing to those suffering from the violence,
Bring comfort to those mourning the dead,
Strengthen Syria’s neighbours in their care and welcome for refugees,
Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms,
And protect those committed to peace.

God of Hope,
Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies,
Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria,
And give us hope for a future of peace built on justice for all.

We ask this through Jesus Christ,
Prince of Peace and Light of the World,

Petition: For the people of Syria, that God may strengthen the resolve of leaders to end the fighting and choose a future of peace.
We pray to the Lord…

(H/T: Linen on the Hedgerow)

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Should we abandon the struggle on gay marriage?

                                                         Do we surrender?

There's a bit of a cultural meme where a former bigoted sky fairy worshipping homophobe sees the light and becomes in favour of gay marriage and stuff. The evangelicals in the UK had Steve Chalke a while back and now American Catholics have Jody Bottum, former editor of the excellent 'theocon' journal, First Things.

It's of course a bit dismissive to describe changing one's mind as a 'meme'. People think and change their views and that's exactly how it should be. But reading Bottum's article gives the impression less of an intellectual rethinking, and more of a sort of world weary bowing to the inevitable.

The Catholic US response to this (H/T Catholic Herald) has rightly pointed out the meandering and inconclusive nature of the arguments. Indeed, it's hard to see it really as an argument: it's much more of a experiential report on the world wearying nature of being against same sex 'marriage' and of the promised land of relief once it is accepted. It is, after all, quite a demanding job to be a full time homophobe on this issue. Almost no one will thank you for it. If you voice your opinion and you're a politician or public figure, Stephen Fry will start tweeting at you. Friends (such as Jody Bottum's gay friend) will start hating you. You constantly -as a Catholic- have to tread the lines between hating the sin and loving the sinner, and distinguishing between the province of law and the province of morality. It really is much easier to change your mind and give up.

Insofar as there is an argument in Bottum's article, I think it's here:

And so, I argue, a concern about the government’s recognizing of same-sex marriage ought to come low on the list of priorities as the church pursues the evangelizing of the culture. For that matter, after the long hard work of restoring cultural sensitivity to the metaphysical meanings reflected in all of reality, Catholics will have enough experience to decide what measure of the deep spirituality of nuptials, almost absent in present culture, can reside in same-sex unions.

Two aspects to that. First, the practical one. Given limited resources, the Church ought to be turning its fire against other, more important things. Second, a principled one. The development of a disenchanted view of sex in modern culture-a view of sex as simply the rubbing of surfaces rather than a sphere enchanted with theological and moral meanings- means that the arguments against same sex 'marriage' have no purchase. We need to go back, argue for the re-enchantment of sex, and then see where that leaves us with the gained 'experience of the deep spirituality of nuptials':

If marriage is nothing more than a licensed sexual playground, without any sense of sin attached to oral sex and anal sex and almost any other act, then under what intellectually coherent scheme can one refuse to others the opportunity for the same behavior?

And, of course, not only did marital relations become a value-free zone in the sexual revolution, but non-marital relations did as well. The seal of virginity, the procreative purpose, the mystical analogy of marriage to Christ’s espousal of his church, the divinely witnessed vow, the sexual body as a temple, the moral significance of chastity: all that old metaphysical stuff got swept away. And regardless of whether the metaphysics was right or wrong, without it there is simply no reasoning that could possibly outweigh the valid claims of fairness and equality. Same-sex marriage advocates don’t just have better public relations than their opponents. They have better logic, given the premises available to the culture.

Let's take the principle point first. Bottum seems to be suggesting that, once we (as Catholics) have thought through the meanings of sex, then we'll be able to come to a conclusion about same sex 'marriage'. Now I think that's fine insofar as it suggests the Catholic idea of the development of doctrine: that we deepen our theological understanding over time and, in this case, through wrestling with ideas in the public space. (Certainly, my own understanding of marriage has deepened through arguing about same sex 'marriage'.) But it's not fine insofar as it suggests that the general shape of our conclusions will change. The Church simply doesn't have the theological possibility of change on the issue of homosexual practice and the nature of marriage: homosexual acts are always going to be wrong; marriage is always going to be about the procreative and educative function of the relationship. More may be said on these areas. But that basic minimal foundation simply cannot change: it's far too deeply enmeshed in the 2000 years of theological reflection in these areas.

Given that the truth about marriage can't change, that leaves the practical point: we have better battles to fight. Now, from a US point of view, that simply strikes me as defeatist:in some of the individual states, same sex 'marriage' is a long way off. In other countries (think Russia), same sex 'marriage' just isn't going to happen in the foreseeable future. But let's turn to an example nearer home. Very shortly, when the Scottish Parliament starts its new session in September, a Bill will be introduced to create same sex 'marriage'. That Bill will, given the widespread crossparty support in Holyrood, pass. What should Catholics do about that?

Bottum's point, broadly, seems to be that the sort of argument we raise against the Bill simply can't be appreciated in a culture which has the present idea of sex that it has: we need to work on that understanding of sex. I don't disagree with that. I think that, given the current view that sex is just pleasant rubbing and marriage is about celebrating emotional attachments, it's not surprising that we have lost the argument in fact if not in principle. OK. So what do we do about getting the message out there about the nature of sex? Well, lots of things, but one thing is to argue as clearly and publicly as we can against the Bill.

Leo Strauss (in Natural Right and History) talks about this in connection with Burke:

Burke comes close to suggesting that to oppose a thoroughly evil current in human affairs is perverse if that current is sufficiently powerful; he is oblivious of the nobility of last-ditch resistance. He does not consider that, in a way in which no man can foresee, resistance in a forlorn position to the enemies of mankind, "going down with all guns blazing and flag flying," may contribute greatly toward keeping awake the recollection of the immense loss sustained by mankind, may inspire and strengthen the desire and hope for its recovery, and may become a beacon for those who humbly carry on the works of humanity in a seemingly endless valley of darkness and destruction. He does not consider this because he is too certain that man can know whether a cause lost now is lost forever or that man can understand sufficiently the meaning of a providential dispensation as distinguished from the moral law. It is only a short step from this thought of Burke to the supersession of the distinction between good and bad by the distinction between the progressive and retrograde, or between what is and what is not in harmony with the historical process. We are here certainly at the pole opposite to Cato, who dared to espouse a lost cause.

Bottum notes that a number of American conservatives have abandoned the Republicans as a result of the party's response to same sex 'marriage'. And that is precisely Strauss' point. A conservative, a Burkean conservative, is ultimately resting on what is and the desire to preserve it. A Catholic (or a Straussian) is resting instead on what is a matter of natural law: what ought to be. We cannot assume that what is happening is good: what is good is discernible not entirely through history, but only through the moral law.

Opposition to same sex 'marriage' provides an opportunity to point out the errors of so much that passes for thought in the modern world: a misunderstanding of sex; a misunderstanding of morality; a misunderstanding of the nature of law; a misunderstanding of progress. We won't win the vote in Parliament. But we may, eventually, win the cultural argument. In any case, clear and reasoned opposition to the Bill will make clear that there is a difference between winning an argument in terms of political success, and winning an argument at the level of principle. Surrender, at least in the sense of keeping stum on this issue, simply isn't an option.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Did Cardinal O'Brien block sex abuse enquiry?

The Scotsman is carrying the following story:

DISGRACED Cardinal Keith O’Brien blocked an independent inquiry into cases of historic sexual abuse that had the support of every other bishop in Scotland, the retired Archbishop of Glasgow, Mario Conti, has revealed.

The Catholic Church in Scotland had planned to invite an independent academic to compile a report on each diocese’s “secret archives” and each bishop’s handling of allegations, which would then be made public.

However, Cardinal O’Brien, then the president of the Bishops’ Conference, refused to co-operate and the planned inquiry was shelved, Archbishop Conti wrote in a letter to be published in the Catholic newspaper the Tablet today.

Difficult to know what to say about this other than, if true, it is further evidence of the need for clarity over what Cardinal O'Brien did or didn't do in his past. In any case, the general need for clarity about the state of the Church in Scotland -particularly child abuse- is underlined by this revelation.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Promoting homosexuality and Peter Tatchell

Those nice people at the British Humanist Association have been worrying about the reappearance of Section 28 (ie the now repealed legislation outlawing the promotion of homosexuality in schools) by other means:

45 schools continue to have sex and relationships education (SRE) policies that either replicate section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 or are unhelpfully vague on the issue, the British Humanist Association (BHA) can reveal. Section 28, which said that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’, was repealed a decade ago, and the BHA believes that all the schools concerned should urgently review their policies to remove offending statements.


It's tempting to point out to the BHA that removing a legislative ban on promoting homosexuality isn't the same as introducing a legislative duty to promote it. It's also tempting to wonder why all Roman Catholic schools aren't on the list since (presumably) the BHA might find the treatment in the Catechism not to its taste:

Chastity and homosexuality

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.

2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

But putting all that aside, I'd like to focus on this question of 'promotion'. It's often claimed that it's impossible to 'promote' homosexuality and that the ban on 'promotion' is simply a mealy mouthed way of encouraging homophobia. Peter Tatchell -as so often- sees the matter more clearly:

The homophobes are thus, paradoxically, closer to the truth than many gay activists. Removing the social opprobrium and penalties from queer relationships, and celebrating gay love and lust, would allow more people to come to terms with presently inhibited homoerotic desires. In this sense, it is perfectly feasible to ‘promote’ lesbian and gay sexuality and ‘make’ someone queer. Individuals who have a homosexual component in their character, but are inhibited by repression or guilt, definitely can be encouraged to acknowledge their same-sex attraction and act upon it.
Were future generations to grow up in a gay-positive, homo-friendly culture, it’s likely that many more people would have same-sex relationships, if not for all of their lives at least for significant periods. With this boom in queer sex, the social basis of homophobia would be radically undermined.
In this state of greater sexual freedom, where homosexuality becomes commonplace and ceases to be disparaged or victimised, gayness would no longer have to be defended and affirmed. Gay identity (and its straight counterpart) would thus, at last, become redundant. Hurrah!

Now Catholics are all into repression. There's a fundamental clash between a world view that sees our sexual desire as inherently unproblematic unless repressed and one, such as Catholicism, that sees it as fundamentally good, but twisted due to original sin. For Catholics, getting sex right is incredibly difficult (which is one reason why, when you find a Cardinal panting after priests or a male public figure self asphyxiating whilst dressed as Marilyn Monroe, there is a tendency to shrug it off as just a slightly odder example of something we all struggle with).

Peter Tatchell's vision of society is 'bonobos in paradise': getting off with whomever and whenever feels good. The Catholic view (plus or minus a few nuances) is of sex as something that constantly needs restraint:

2342: Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life. The effort required can be more intense in certain periods, such as when the personality is being formed during childhood and adolescence.

2343: Chastity has laws of growth which progress through stages marked by imperfection and too often by sin. "Man . . . day by day builds himself up through his many free decisions; and so he knows, loves, and accomplishes moral good by stages of growth."

(Cathechism, here.)

The only sexual activity that should be promoted in a Catholic (or any other) school is none (celibacy) or procreative (within a proper marriage). That's tough for all of us, straight, gay or queer. Someone with predominantly homosexual desires has a slightly different path to walk from someone with predominantly heterosexual ones, but it's not that different (and in some ways it may even be easier in avoiding some of the distractions from our supernatural end that our society's distorted view of 'normal' heterosexual coupledom can promote).

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Chief Rabbi and marriage

                                              Down with that sort of thing....

The Chief Rabbi has spoken out in favour of government support for marriage:

Ministers must do more to encourage marriage and support stay-at-home mothers, the UK's chief rabbi has said.

Lord Sacks, who is about to step down from his post after 22 years, told the Times the government "should certainly recognise marriage in the tax system"....

"I think the government has not done enough," Lord Sacks said.

"The state has an interest in marriage because the cost of family breakdown and non-marriage, the last time I looked at it, was estimated at £9bn a year."

(From BBC website, here. (H/T Sub umbra.) )

Of course, this is just the Chief Rabbi 'not getting with the programme' as the Prime Minister would doubtless put it. Marriage in England and Wales (Scotland, no doubt, soon to follow) is not about having children. It's not even a particularly good idea but just one life style choice among many. With the introduction of same sex 'marriage', 'we' have decided that there is no pressing need for an institution dedicated to ensuring the best environment for the upbringing of children, but that there is a pressing need for an institution which allows people to watch their aged Ps' doing the birdy dance and giving  slightly long in the tooth friends a chance to get pie-eyed on cheap fizz.

Cameron and Salmond should give this beardie loon a quick dressing down. There is no point in marriage now it has been severed from its function of procreation and education. To encourage marriage now is akin to subsidizing Friday nights down the pub.

Monday, 19 August 2013

History of the world in a couple of paragraphs

                                                     An earlier attempt....

Bit bored, so thought I'd write a history of the world. Are you sitting comfortably?

God created the world, but human beings mucked it up (along with some uppity angels). Ever since then, it's all been about trying to get back to that original perfection.

Greeks couldn't do it: great ideas, but absolutely lousy about getting sewers in working order etc. Romans couldn't do it: they were great with plumbing but, from the moral standpoint, were rather too keen on experimenting with lions and arenas. Anyway, then the barbarians came along and it was really a matter of trying to hang on to whatever you could of civilization in a monastery whilst pagan tolerance was raping and pillaging outside the walls. Thanks to Christianity, the good bits of Greece, Rome and Germanic and Celtic barbarism were forged into something worthwhile which gradually oozed out of the monasteries into the surrounding societies. All great except that the modern secular West seems determined to undo all that good because it's rather too keen on experimenting with lions and, er, just about anything really...

                Anthony Grayling explains the advantages of extending marriage to robots

So that's the story of our natural goal: a gradual extension of knowledge and progress but with the threat of it all being undermined by human pride. Threaded throughout is the entirely ahistorical question of our supernatural end: the beatific vision of God. In some ways, nothing really happens there. God reveals himself to Abraham, the Jews know what they have to do, and then spend three thousand years occasionally doing it but more usually not. That's the constant, unchanging human background: whatever we do and whatever we do well, we muck up constantly unless we trust God. (And that means Christ as the pinnacle of the revelation of God.)

In sum: on the one hand, Catholic Christian culture with its blending of the best of the past of Greece and Rome as the best we can do on our own behalf; on the other hand, the only way we can maintain those efforts despite our best attempts to screw them up is by an absolute surrender to God and the constant repetition (as seen throughout the Old Testament) of that rhythm of acknowledging our failings and returning to God.

Put another way, Catholicism offers a picture of the world which does absolute justice to our real potential for good -for establishing order in ourselves and in the world through our reasoning- whilst at the same time taking full account of that fatal flaw which constantly brings our best efforts to naught.

I am an old man who has experienced much. I have  
been a man of action and have fought for my King and  
country at sea.
I have also read books and studied and pondered and  
tried to fathom eternal truth.
Much good has been shown me and much evil, and the  
good has never been perfect. There is always some flaw  
in it, some defect, some imperfection in the divine  
image, some fault in the angelic song, some stammer in  
the divine speech. So that the evil still has something to  
do with every human consignment to this planet of  
Oh what have I done? Confusion, so much is
confusion! I have tried to guide other rightly, but I have  
been lost in the infinite sea. Who was blessed me? Who  
saved me?

(Captain Vere, Billy Budd.)

(Youtube clip here.)

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Thomism and system: getting the whole picture:


In our own age, Thomism has become one of the only plausible contenders left that  offers an authentic vision of the  sapiential  unity  of human knowledge  amidst the diversity of  university disciplines.  Politically, our situation is one of cultural disenfranchisement, to be sure. We are complete outsiders, an underground movement frequently unwelcome in the university. But the rivals who today are offering either the Church or the modern world a plausible narrative of  the intellectual life are diminishing and are not having such an easy time themselves. As a Dominican friar of the Toulouse province said in the 1970’s during an episode of particular turmoil: “Brothers, things are bad here, but by the grace of God, they are worse elsewhere.” If your goal is to win over the larger culture today, inside the Church or outside of it, it is not much easier today to be a Kantian, a Balthasarian, a Marxist, a logical positivist or a Derriddian, than to be a Thomist. In this heterogeneous landscape, there is an increasingly level playing field, and in that case its not bad to have Aquinas on your team. 

(Fr. T. J White O.P, Thomism after Vatican II. H/T The Smithy.)

One of the oddest things when reading a neo-Scholastic manual is the insistence on system. For example, Harper's The Metaphysics of the School (pp. liv-v) (published 1879):

Hence it comes to pass, that our modem Metaphysics is a thing of shreds and patches ; — here a Logic, — there a sort of Psychology, — in another work, an Ideology, — sometimes an essay on causes, — or a dissertation on final causes,— or a discussion on the primordial constituents of primordial substance. There is no order or completeness, but a general disintegration; and the disintegrated parts receive their respective names in token of their individuality. Accordingly, we read of Teleology, Aetiology, Morphology, and other imposing clones without number, which remind one of Job who  'openeth his mouth in vain, and multiplieth words without knowledge.' 

The simple fact is, that the educated men of our time, owing to the prepossessions which they have imbibed from their cradle and to the specimens of philosophy which have fallen across their path, have not as yet realized the fact that Metaphysics is a science,— with its own terminology and its own first principles, — most difficult of acquisition — requiring long continued, patient, devoted, laborious study. They seem to imagine that they can jump into it all at once with as much ease as they can get into a new suit of ready-made clothes. 

This emphasis on systematic, careful study is even more at variance with the typical modular pattern of modern education in the humanities: a bit of Derrida here, a bit of a language here, a bit of psychology there.

Without the ability to articulate -but perhaps even more importantly to see- the world coherently, the averagely educated, non-specialist in the humanities is flung upon the tide of fashion. Pumped up with the desire to be open minded, but without a thorough enough formation to retain an intellectual integrity through that open-mindedness, those external fashions sweep opinions before them. One year we're in favour of free love and encouraging children to express their sexuality. The next year we're in favour of keeping children in a sort of sexual purdah for fear of abuse, whilst plying them with contraceptives and pornography. One year, we're laughing at funny effeminate men. The next we're abolishing marriage to respect their dignity.

System is important in two ways. It is important because Catholics are rationalists: because the world has been made by intelligence, it is discoverable by intelligence. The rational structure of systematic philosophy and theology reflects the systematic structure of the world. But system is also important morally. Without a coherent Weltanschauung to inform and structure your life and personality, it is hard to see how a person can develop character, that wholeness of being that allows one to deal with the world as an agent rather than as a piece of flotsam.

For Catholics who are intelligent enough to need the structure of academic philosophy and theology, but who are not specialists in those areas, there is a need for a basic systematic understanding: for many reasons, not least historical, Thomism looks best placed to provide that basic structure. That isn't to say that specialist theologians or philosophers within the Catholic tradition have to be Thomists, or have to adopt a particular form of systematic Thomism. But it probably does mean that we should all be starting from that sort of firm formative foundation, and continue on to work within a sort of scholastic Ideenraum, a space which is structured by the inputs of the various philosophical and theological schools of scholastic and patristic Catholicism, in turn built on foundations of classical Greek philosophy and classical Jewish thought.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Post-Christian Nationalism: no blood, no sweat, no tears

                                                       Mel Gibson's Christ....

I don't quite know how an atheist morality is supposed to work (and perhaps the fairest thing to say about it is that atheists really ought to be clearer that morality in the absence of God isn't the strikingly obvious thing that many of the Dawkinsians seem to think it is). What we should do and why we should do it is always a difficult question and one that isn't made any easier by dumping Christianity.

Insofar as the less sophisticated atheists do think about the foundations of morality, I suspect that most of them are content with some sort of egoistic hedonism where the value of (say) altruism is derived from long term enlightened self-interest, that self interest being expressed in terms of feelings of pleasure. That of course makes self-sacrifice or considerable amounts of foreseeable pain quite difficult to incorporate into your morality. Compare that with Christianity where we positively revel in self-sacrifice and carrying our cross.

One of the effects of the increasing absence of a Christian 'tone' in public discourse is the consequent absence of the ideas of sacrifice. In terms of the Independence debate in Scotland, that's led to a basically utilitarian rhetoric: if Scotland is independent, things will be better because.... (And then it usually boils down to the ability to tailor economic policy to local circumstances, or the freedom from an English governing class whose policies are distorted and harmful due to an obsession with the City of London or past Imperial dreams.)

Whilst these issues are certainly important, the avoidance of a traditional language of sacrifice does add an air of unreality to the Independence campaign. When compared to earlier nationalisms -which tended to canonize the martyred dead (think Easter 1916)- the current Independence campaign seems to avoid not just the idea of death in struggle, but any struggle at all. Of course, I can see why: the day the First Minister appears on TV saying that he has nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat is unlikely to be the day that support for Independence bursts through the roof. On the other hand, it's simply implausible that a small country, in the midst of a world economic crisis and neighbour to a rather grouchy former partner would have an entirely easy time of it. Admitting that difficulty and revelling in the consequent struggle is a difficult message and one that I'm not sure is even possible in a modern, post-Christian politics. You can't even proclaim that our sacrifices are being made for our children's benefit if having children is simply a lifestyle choice (and rather a selfish one at that).

I suppose this all underlines just how radical the difference between a truly post-Christian society would be and one (as ours) that merely thinks it is post-Christian but has still not quite  (but almost) used up the cultural capital of former ages. Reading the Declaration of Arbroath provides rather a fun contrast. Quite apart from some rather nice Catholic stuff -being addressed to the Pope and going on about 'devout kisses of his Holy Feet'- which must make Protestant atheists rather queasy- you have the famous line which doesn't really have much time for egoistic hedonism:

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

                               ....Mel Gibson's Wallace (can you spot the subtle analogy?)                                      

Monday, 12 August 2013

Gerry Hassan, John Haldane and Hegel

                       Wherever you are on the political spectrum, you can feel his eyes watching you...

[This is a repost of something I wrote back in December. Not quite sure what happened, but I seem to have pressed something at some stage which means I either have to repost or to lose it entirely. As I don't want to lose it, you'll have to put up with it again!]

Scottish readers of this blog worried by the suspicion that I am stalking Gerry Hassan and John Haldane may have noticed that, by a happy coincidence, both were present on Newsnicht last night discussing my other obsession, same sex 'marriage'. (12 December episode of Newsnight Scotland available here for seven days. The Haldane Hassan discussion is first up.)

Recovering my mental equilibrium with difficulty at the prospect of such a feast, the discussion itself proved an occasion where a fair amount of agreement was achieved between the participants, not on the substance of same sex 'marriage', but on the wider implications of the debate for Scottish politics.

Both Hassan and Haldane agreed that there was something troubling about the way that the concerns of ordinary Scots were not reflected in the Scottish Parliament. A striking instance of this was of course the debate on same sex 'marriage' where, according to Newsnicht, only eight MSPS (out of 129 seats) will oppose same sex 'marriage' (the Equal Marriage Campaign bumps this up to a whopping 10!) whilst in Westminster, not only are 99 MPs estimated to be opposed, but their opposition is far more vociferous and visible.

Although Hassan didn't seem to regard same sex 'marriage' as a critical issue in the same way that I would, there was clear agreement between the two that the gap between the performance of the Scottish Parliament and public concerns in general -a gap even greater than that between Westminster and the people- boded ill for public engagement in Scottish politics.

Pace Hassan, I want to return to the specific case of same sex 'marriage'. The almost complete absence of opposition to same sex 'marriage' among the commentariat and the Scottish Parliament is not a sign of the effortless superiority of pro same sex 'marriage' arguments, but of the absence of a truly conservative presence in Scottish political life. I'm not a great fan of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind, but it does have a truth at its heart that we need in Scotland to take account of.

Haidt's central argument is that there are six moral foundations in human life, and the way in which they select and weight these foundations defines conservative and progressive (Haidt talks of 'liberals' in the US context) worldviews.

As one review puts it:

But the larger points Haidt makes are that our views are based more on moral intuition than finances, reason or even self-interest. 

Extensive interviews on six "moral foundations" - caring, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity - help explain basic thinking on the right and left.

Both sides place high value on caring, fairness and liberty; although liberals are more into caring, conservatives more into fairness.

Conservatives are huge on loyalty, authority and sanctity; liberals ambivalent.

So conservatives offer a broader moral foundation and liberals need to crank up some moral precepts if they hope to achieve wider appeal.

In essence, both sides have a point and both need to learn from each other.

Whilst I'd want to nuance that approach in a longer discussion, that seems to me about right: a healthy politics has both progressives and liberals in some sort of constant dialectic with each other. Now I don't believe that the 'conservative' worldview has disappeared from Scottish people (God help us if it has) but it has certainly almost disappeared from the Scottish Parliament and the commentariat. And that matters, because it is in those institutions that the top down exercise of state power and the bottom up exercise of popular power meet and are mediated into some sort of modus vivendi. To focus on the Scottish Parliament for a moment, Hegel makes the following points about the Estates (ie the Prussian equivalent of Parliament):

Regarded as a mediating organ, the Estates stand between the government in general on the one hand and the nation broken up into particulars (people and associations) on the other. Their function requires them to possess a political and administrative sense and temper, no less than a sense for the interests of individuals and particular groups. At the same time the significance of their position is that, in common with the organised executive, they are a middle term preventing both the extreme isolation of the power of the crown, which otherwise might seem a mere arbitrary tyranny, and also the isolation of the particular interests of persons, societies, and Corporations. Further, and more important, they prevent individuals from having the appearance of a mass or an aggregate and so from acquiring an unorganised opinion and volition and from crystallising into a powerful bloc in opposition to the organised state.

Estates Assemblies, open to the public, are a great spectacle and an excellent education for the citizen, and it is from them that the people learns best how to recognise the true character of its interests. The idea usually dominant is that everyone knows from the start what is best for the state and that the Assembly debate is a more discussion of this knowledge. In fact, however, the precise contrary is the truth. It is here that there first begin to develop the virtues, abilities, dexterities, which have to serve as examples to the public. Of course such debates are irksome to ministers, who have to equip themselves with wit and eloquence to meet the criticisms there directed against them. None the less, publicity here is the chief means of educating the public in national affairs. A nation which has such public sittings is far more vitally related to the state than one which has no Estates Assembly or one which meets in private. It is only because their every step is made known publicly in this way that the two Houses keep pace with the advance of public opinion, and it then becomes clear that a man's castle building at his fireside with his wife and his friends is one thing, while what happens in a great Assembly, where one shrewd idea devours another, is something quite different.
(S. 302 and S.315 Philosophy of Right)

In essence, Parliament is a place where the relatively unstructured views of the people develop an articulated expression and are moderated by the exigencies of government into forms which in turn are fed back into the populace: without this place of mediation, the executive becomes oppressive and the people a mob.

It's hard to be exact about why there is no visibly conservative presence in the Scottish Parliament. One reason may be the collapse of the Conservative Party here as a result of the loathing for Thatcher felt by many Scots. Another reason may be the paralysis of normal political debate caused by (take your pick) the dependent status of Scotland within the Union, or the emphasis on the independence question by the SNP: either way, conservative energies that would otherwise be devoted to social and economic issues are instead focused on the question of Independence and the Union.

But for whatever reason, the absence of a visible and vociferous conservative voice in the Scottish Parliament is damaging, both because it alienates people from an institution where they have no voice, and because, objectively, something important about loyalty, sanctity and authority is being overlooked in public debate.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

From MTV to Mecca

From MTV.... Mecca

From MTV to Mecca: Book review

I read this book mostly because it came up as one of those 99p one day offers on Amazon and was expecting a pretty standard story of a woman looking for a bit of structure in her life after the maelstrom of a media life and turning to Islam. That it didn’t turn out this way probably says more about my tendency to oversimplify than anything else.

Kristiane Backer was an MTV presenter who converted to Islam. So the broad outlines of a woman who turned her back on a pretty chaotic Western lifestyle in favour of a greater certainty and security are certainly there. But there was quite a lot that didn’t fit neatly into this narrative.

First, there was the fact that a key moment in her conversion was erotic: she fell in love with Imran Khan and expected to marry him. (Although they seem to have mended whatever bridges needed to be mended since then, it’s fair to say that Khan doesn’t come out of this terribly well.) Through him, she was introduced to the rich (and exotic) cultural and spiritual world of Islam the attractions of which have lasted beyond the end of the relationship with Khan.

Second, her Islam is centred on what might caricature as a liberal Sufism rather than the some of the more restrictive versions of Islam. If she rushed to escape the inchoate West, she did not end up entering a prison house version of Islam.

There’s a lot that could be said here about Western understandings of and relationships to Islam. But I want instead to concentrate on the general issue of religious quests in the modern West. Steven Sutcliffe  (for example here)  in his analyses of modern religious movements such as the New Age has made much of the idea of ‘seekers’ Sutcliffe emphasizes the idea of serial and multiple seeking –put crudely, the caricature of the hippy who flits from yoga to Islam via Wicca in the course of a life or even in the course of the normal week. Backer doesn’t fit into this idea: she seems to have moved from a very superficial Lutheranism to a very deep Islam without any detours.

But where she does fit into the idea of seeking is in the sense of movement and of exploring the unknown. Islam for her is both erotically attractive (she falls in love with both Imran Khan and, more importantly, with Islam) and capacious enough for her to feel it can be explored and travelled further into over the course of a life. Thinking about Catholicism, can we capture the seeker? There is certainly a sort of seeker that is problematic: the sort of Catholics who finds Catholicism a bit boring unless it is jazzed up with Tibetan singing bowls and Tantric sex workshops. That sort of restless bricolage is probably more a result of accidie than anything else and is difficult to incorporate into an orthodox Catholicism unless treated as a vice. On the other hand, if the serial or multiple seeker is regarded as analogous to a package tourist, Backer is rather equivalent to a traveller who has fallen in love with a particular region and has spent the rest of her life exploring it. If we’re going as Catholics to attract that sort of seeker, we need to be both exotically attractive and deep (capacious) enough to allow exploration once someone is inside.

Catholicism certainly can look strange and exotic to someone from a Protestant or secular background. Even the plainest, most modern Mass can seem profoundly odd to someone who hasn’t encountered it before (and, believe me, that was my reaction even to a very liberal, very low key Anglican Communion service when I encountered it for the first time). When we get it a Tridentine Mass, it certainly ticks the boxes for exotic. And although, in general, many parishes do look aesthetically dreadful, as a tradition taken over the centuries and over the world, Catholicism can look as beautiful and odd as you might wish. (It might be objected that being exotic isn’t desirable. I won’t pursue this here, but my answer would be that the exotic (or merely strange) can be symbolic of the transcendent: that lust for the out of the ordinary can be related to the lust of the human being for the partially glimpsed transcendent end of human beings. And certainly, the exotic nature of Catholicism points to that transcendent end rather than simply to an enjoyment of mucking around in silks.)

On depth, it’s hard to imagine anything (intellectually, aesthetically, morally) deeper and more capacious than Catholicism when it is firing on full cylinders, provided that we have not allowed ourselves to become estranged from the full inheritance of our 2000 years of existence. So, as with the exotic, the possibility is there even if the reality, in many parishes, is that depth seems to end with finger painting Bible stories.

In sum, when dealing with modern culture, Catholics should be aware of how to attract seekers through the exotic and the deep. We need to be confident that we possess those attributes, but need to be more careful about ensuring such possibilities are manifest in the local branches of the Church.