Monday, 30 September 2013

Gerry Hassan and Missing Voices

                             Georg Wilhelm Friedrich: click magnet extraordinaire

For reasons unfathomable, my most popular post to date was one on Gerry Hassan and Hegel. Partly in the hope of attracting all those groovy Hegelians out there, partly because the two 'Hs' do just seem to go together so well, I'm returning to the theme...

Hassan's latest essay on the missing voices of public life returns to his well worn case that Scotland is soothed by a comforting narrative which excludes some of the grim realities of life and, relatedly, some types of voice:

One of the positive accounts of modern Scotland which has risen in recent years has been the richness of artistic and cultural Scotland. This was witnessed in the recent Creative Scotland stramash which saw its Chief Executive Andrew Dixon shown the door. An organised group of artists and cultural figures saw themselves as defending the interests of a community and a set of inclusive, enlightened values.
This cultural narrative of modern Scotland has fed into the political narrative and vice-versa, with both cross-fertilising each other. Thus, the cultural ‘official story’ has been bought into by the political and non-cultural world which has little detailed cultural intelligence or knowledge (with honourable individual exceptions). And at the same time, the dominant political account of Scotland – of difference, autonomy and being a centre-left inclusive nation that doesn’t vote Tory – has been absorbed by the cultural world.

Now what’s the problem with all this you might say? The trouble is that these are selective, panglossian accounts of Scotland. They have elements of truth, but also of omission and significant wish fulfillment.

This cross-fertilisation of cultural and political stories is something little understood. Both reinforce and validate each other, the cultural world buying into the political version second hand with little detail, and the political community reinforcing the cultural story based on scant knowledge. And the cumulative effect of this is to strengthen Scotland’s comforting story of itself: as the land of good people and values who reject Tories and market vandalism.

Now, as so often, Hassan has good points here. There are some nauseatingly simplistic narratives floating around which serve to obscure real problems in education and health. (And indeed art.) But we need to be careful to distinguish between two issues: the quality of any particular narrative; and the poverty inherent in the narrative process itself.

Let the great man (Hegel, that is) speak:

Public opinion therefore deserves to be as much respected as despised — despised for its concrete expression and for the concrete consciousness it expresses, respected for its essential basis, a basis which only glimmers more or less dimly in that concrete expression. But in itself it has no criterion of discrimination, nor has it the ability to extract the substantive element it contains and raise it to precise knowledge. Thus to be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great or rational whether in life or in science. Great achievement is assured, however, of subsequent recognition and grateful acceptance by public opinion, which in due course will make it one of its own prejudices.

Addition: Public opinion contains all kinds of falsity and truth, but it takes a great man to find the truth in it. The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of his age, tell his age what its will is, and accomplish it. What he does is the heart and the essence of his age, he actualises his age. The man who lacks sense enough to despise public opinion expressed in gossip will never do anything great. [Philosophy of Right, Part III, The State, s.318)]

Hegel's point is that public opinion needs to be worked on, to be transformed through institutions such as political leadership and the press into something rational and substantive rather than mere chatter. Now it is perfectly possible to argue that Scotland's current institutions (journalism, artists, politicians) make a bad job of doing this -and that's indeed plausible enough (although it's hard to avoid the thought that most Western democracies might make similar claims). But Hegel's point is that the process of translation and selection is essential and requires the exercise of power, in particular political power. From that point of view, Hassan himself is part of that essential translation of public opinion: as he spins his myth of marginalized selves and Scots troubled by the sense of a 'missing self', new absences are created, new elisions made.

Hassan goes on:

There is a modern version of it in the independence debate with the redoubtable Pat Kane recently commenting, ‘This nation is in conversation’.

Much as I would like it to be otherwise, the whole nation is not engaged in conversation. Challenging such assumptions isn’t about some abstract notion of an idealised, participative democracy, but the limits of Scotland’s public sphere and the truncated democracy we live in. If people want to change that, as I know Pat does, we have to start by reflecting this and then discussing how we change it, not continuing the comforting stories.

Well, unless everyone has become a Trappist, then I suspect the whole nation is engaged in  conversation. The problem is that it isn't focused on the sort of things that Hassan wants it to be focused on, essentially politics and, in particular, the politics of the independence debate. (Even there, I suspect there can't be many households where the subject hasn't cropped up. But I suppose Hassan would then ask: has it been discussed properly? Which is, of course, to say, in the manner in which a certain class of political commentator might approve.)

To transform the texture of everyday life and conversations into a Conversation fit to be approved of is an exercise of power. It would probably take a herd of Foucaults to do justice to the detail of the ways that this happens, but Hassan's piece is itself part of that exercise in construction, highlighting some of the conversations, taxonimizing all, dismissing some. But by presenting this as the merest commonsense, rather than a particular take from a particular standpoint, it merely reinforces what is one of the most pernicious of all Scottish myths, which is that there is an identity between true judgment and the poses of 'progressive politics'.

The profoundest absences are created in precisely those areas which 'progressive' politics finds most difficult. Let's pick three. First, there is the individual, that interior spiritual life referred to by Plotinus in the flight of the alone to the alone. Political narrations such as Hassan's find it difficult to cope with the essentially interior which borders on the inarticulable: the very process of constructing the narrative excludes a space which needs, in order to survive, to be both ignored yet also protected by politics. (Witness 'Secular Scotland' (Popular Front (Continuing)) and its persistent campaigns against spiritual education.) Secondly, there is the erotic rather than the sexual: what goods one loves and how one lives out those meanings, rather than the publicly available, crass physical gymnastics of sex. (Witness the equation of profoundly different types of love in same sex 'marriage'.) Thirdly, there is religion. How people come together to live in a communal yet private space that does justice to both the erotic and the spiritual, the natural end and the supernatural end of human beings. ('We don't do religion...' Well fine, but expect it to end in tears, because human beings without religion are tattered coats on sticks.)

Perhaps another way of putting this is that all storytellers are liars and, as in Plato's Republic, probably deserve to be expelled from the city. The two spaces within which most of humanity lives out its profoundest experiences are the family and religion, spaces in neither of which we spend much time telling tales*, and rather more simply being (even 'knocking around'). I'm not sure that the life of such spaces can be captured at all in public narratives. But at the very least that capture is extremely difficult, and all I see in narratives such as Hassan's is a relentless focus on what can easily be translated into political campaigns rather than a grappling with the fullness of humanity.

[*Rereading this, I'm conscious how the claim that we don't spend much time in religious spaces telling tales runs against (eg) the obvious fact that a  lot of (bible) stories are told in churches and (in deeper theological mode) the emphasis of a lot of modern theology such as Hauerwas' on narrative. I'd resist this: I think there's a good case to be made that many religious practices undermine the neatness of narrative in a similar manner to the way small children undermine coherent storytelling by vomiting at inconvenient moments or demanding the toilet. But for another time...]

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Platonism and Catholicism

Ed Feser's blog pointed me in the direction of Pure by Mark Anderson. As you'll see from Feser's blogpost, it's a work that puts forward a Platonic vision of the world as an alternative to modernity.

It's not a long read at 108 pages, but well worth spending time with. Perhaps the most striking thing for me is its restatement of that Platonic insight that to see truth properly requires a certain sort of character: you can't just argue your way to truth, but you also require to be a certain sort of person (and that sort of person is only achieved through effort, both individual and social).

A sample passage:

One may begin by regarding Platonism as an abyss, by leaping into the system motivated by a Nietzschean desire for intellectual exploration. But the man who does so will find that he does not fall, that he is supported, that beneath his feet there is no void, but rather solid and stable ground. And one day he will learn that his desire to plunge into murky abysses was naive and misguided to begin with -was, in brief, an expression of the decadence of modernity, for which the best remedy is the Platonism that now sustains him.

Some of the oddest things I've come across recently are people saying that 'Catholicism just makes random stuff up'. (It's usually in the context of sexual teachings.) It surprises me because, of all the charges you could make against Catholicism, this is one of the most implausible. One of the first things that ever made me think that Catholicism might be worth exploring (and it took many more years until I actually did) was the claim (by an atheist philosophy tutor) that he admired the systematic nature of Catholic moral teaching as one of the great intellectual monuments of human culture. He thought it was wrong -perhaps even dangerously wrong- but its system and rigour impressed him.

It is certainly this intellectual purity of Catholicism that attracted me: its system and its clarity. In different ways, for example, both the Catechism of the Church and the Summa Theologiae  are beautiful: systematic and comprehensive. That doesn't make them right or true (although of course a Platonic thought is that goodness, truth and beauty are linked) but it does make them attractive. (And thus one more reason for thinking Pope Francis has a point in making the 'big vision' the centre of missionary endeavour.)

I'd originally thought about using an image of a crystal or the like to represent purity at the top of this post, but it's very hard to look at such a thing in this context and not to be overwhelmed by nauseating waves of sentimentality or kitsch. Zurbaran, on the other hand, manages to portray the stuff of ordinary life with a pure spiritual intensity. If you're attracted to Platonism, Catholicism provides all the rigour and intellectual clarity you could want, but with something that Plato often misses: a love for the individual and the human. Catholicism is pure but human. It is also, in a way that neo-Platonism isn't, a living option: try taking up neo-Platonic theurgy and you'll likely as not end up as some sort of 'Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn' crank, squabbling over who has the correct authorization from the Secret Chiefs or such like. Take up Catholicism and you'll find yourself in the midst of not only a system with peerless intellectual, aesthetic and moral purity, but also one that has branch offices on practically every corner.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The Pope's interview

Everyman and his dog (well, cat, since dogs apparently haven't yet worked out how to use the new i-phone) in the Catholic blogosphere have been worrying away at Pope Francis' 12,000 word interview.

Somewhere between the secular 'Pope abolishes morality and welcomes gay sex' (Yah!) and the ultra-Catholic 'Pope abolishes morality and welcomes gay sex' (Boo!) interpretations, there is lot that's worth pondering on. So let's do that very Jesuit thing of trying to apply what he says to our here and now in Scotland and the rest of Western Europe.

I think the heart of the interview is this:

Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

The Catholic Church stands in Scotland (secular, Protestant) and the rest of Western Europe as a missionary: we cannot rely on preaching to those who already have a good understanding of and good attitude towards Catholicism. Much better to think of those early Jesuit missionaries walking into a completely different and even hostile culture. Given that framework, what should the missionary do? There is little point in issuing isolated moral injunctions: they won't make sense to people and they will simply trigger hostility. The central point to be got over is a vision. And here the vision is of salvation and healing:

I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.... And you have to start from the ground up.

And in getting over that vision, there is an attitude:

The senses that find God are the ones St. Ignatius called spiritual senses. Ignatius asks us to open our spiritual sensitivity to encounter God beyond a purely empirical approach. A contemplative attitude is necessary: it is the feeling that you are moving along the good path of understanding and affection toward things and situations. Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.

So, first the big picture, then the detail of what follows from that:

A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. 

OK. What follows from all this? Let's take two (very) specific cases.

First, there is the question of same sex 'marriage' in Scotland. Where we are now -not where we'd want to be, but where we in fact are- is that it is in the process of being introduced. As I've said before, that means, now, that we're in a new phase: not one which is about the immediate influencing of policy, but one where the Church's interventions are about the vision of marriage and sexuality: the big picture. There is absolutely no chance of that vision having an immediate effect, but we need to focus on putting it forward, both as part of our contribution to the closing phases of the political debate, and as part of ensuring that the Church (and the family) continue to exist as part of the field hospital: without that continuing vision of what human sexuality is truly like, as part of that more general insight that we are all sinners and all broken vessels in need of God, then they cannot continue to function as healing in the world.

Second, and this is rather a personal focus, what of the Pope's comments on manualist Thomism?

Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.

Now, I didn't particularly want to read this. My present view is that the tradition of Thomistic commentary and, in particular, the manuals produced by the nineteenth century neo-Thomist revival are underrated: they have a clarity and system that we clearly need in the intellectual life of the modern Church. On the other hand, a Church that was formed entirely in this tradition would be jejune: without (to put it very roughly) the sort of 'literary' sensibility that you find in eg Balthasar  (another refugee from the manuals), or perhaps more exactly that sort of open ended exploration and incompleteness you find in Plato's earlier dialogues, Catholic theology and philosophy would be impoverished.

So where does that leave me? Academically, it's always a good thought that if whole periods of intellectual endeavour are written off as decadent, they are probably worth investigating: the 'Whig' view of philosophy that holds it blossomed in Greece and then went into a 1500 year deep freeze until Descartes won't wash, and I don't see that we should adopt a similar 'Little Ice Age' view that nothing worthwhile happened between Aquinas and the present day in Thomism. On the other hand, 'ressourcement' can be an excellent idea and some minds (and periods) are indeed greater than others. That leaves me here:

Our life is not given to us like an opera libretto, in which all is written down; but it means going, walking, doing, searching, seeing.... We must enter into the adventure of the quest for meeting God; we must let God search and encounter us.

That general piece of advice holds as good for the intellectual life as it does for anything else in the human quest.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Alex Bell, faith and nationalism

                                                     Careful now.....

Watching Alex Bell (slightly) sticking the boot into the Independence campaign on Newsnight Scotland yesterday got me thinking again on the difficulties nationalism faces in a post-Christian world.

Bell's analysis as I understand it is roughly that the pro-Independence campaign should be making far more of a radical vision for Scotland as an alternative to the failed state of the UK: he talked at one point of the UK being a clapped out motor, no longer fit for purpose, which was being forced to do one more lap.

Putting aside the question of the truth of that analysis, the real problem is of course the alternative. It's fine to argue that the modern UK -along with other European states- is confronting serious problems which it simply isn't facing up to, rather more difficult to explain convincingly how an independent Scotland would do better.

In a previous post, I argued that the inability to talk of the value of sacrifice was harming the pro-Independence campaign. Bell's attack suggests that another problematic absence in a post-Christian culture is the lack of faith and hope as virtues. Much of the current pro (and anti-) Independence campaigning is portrayed as presentation of facts: that if independence occurs, this or that, good or bad will happen. But really, this is all horribly unconvincing. It's quite clear that: a) Scotland could function as an independent country; b) it's not at all clear how well it would function. For nationalists, there oughtn't to be anything particularly odd in accepting such a claim as b): in fifty years time, we have absolutely no idea who will be running this country. It is absolutely certain (simply by the luck of the draw) that at some time in the future, Scotland will be ruled by a bunch of idiots and the rest of the UK will have a set of extremely competent leaders. (And, at other times, the other way round.) Perhaps things will work out. Perhaps they won't.

We simply don't know what will happen to an independent Scotland or a continuing UK. It's quite right to talk about the possibilities and the probabilities, but I suspect we're fast approaching the stage in the debate where the main lines are already well known. Bell appears to be offering more of the same, albeit on a slightly more dramatic scale. And as the questions get bigger, the answers don't become any easier or more obvious: how, for example, should an independent Scotland deal with an aging population and increased competition from economies such as China? (How should China deal with those issues?) No doubt lots of suggestions, but any that are obviously right and which Scotland is clearly going to be able to put into effect?

Again, we have a politics of utilitarianism: rationally assess the outcomes and chose the best among them. But that''s precisely what it's incredibly difficult to do.

I quoted the Declaration of Arbroath last time. This time I'll turn to the Proclamation of the Easter Rising:

In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.

Nothing there about structural changes or possible economic benefits. Instead, there is faith -going beyond the evidence and calculation- and a hope in what can genuinely be obtained: not utilitarian goods, but freedom from another country.

This post is diagnostic rather than offering a cure. Modern Scottish Nationalism has moved away from the blood and soil versions of the past. Modern secular society has abandoned God and, at the least, easy rhetorical access to values such as sacrifice and the theological virtues of faith and hope. In some ways, that's a good thing here: where nationalism has been too free with such terms, blood usually ended up being spilled. But in the absence of a virtue which allows you to take a leap into the unknown, coupled with a focus exclusively on those physical goods which cannot be guaranteed rather than those spiritual and cultural goods which can, arguments for radical and inherently risky change become much more difficult to articulate.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Stupid atheists

                                Some Catholics are dunces, but are some Brights dull?

A while back, I managed to irritate a 44 year old atheist computer geek by suggesting (as he read it) that some atheists were dumb. (Ironically, in view of his protestations of smartness, he'd misread what I said -which was (in essence) that some types of atheism betray the sort of stupidity characteristic of smart but immature and narrowly educated young men- but put that aside.)

Putting away the sniping here, why should the suggestion that some atheists are not intelligent be regarded as such an insult? Certainly, I'm quite happy to accept that some Catholics aren't intelligent: indeed, I positively glorify in that fact. When I was becoming a Catholic, one of my wife's family declared that the only people in her family who were Catholics were the servants. Quite apart from the factual oddities here (Mrs L is hardly blue blooded) I remember thinking that this was as good a reason as any for going ahead: what sort of Christianity wasn't for the servant and the master, the bright and the stupid? Whatever else is clear from the New Testament, it is perfectly clear that you don't enter the Kingdom of Heaven via diplomas and a healthy bank balance.

The only entry ticket for Catholicism is being human. It starts from conception and ends with the death rattle. You can be mentally disabled or a genius: it doesn't matter. How you contribute to the Body of Christ will be affected by your talents, but there is a place for everyone.

Atheists, at least of the New Atheism variety, seem heavily invested in their (individually) being smart. Dennett's adoption of the 'Bright' label is the most obvious symptom of this, as is the obvious smarting of the 'smart' commenter at my jibe. But behind this is the foundational illusion of New Atheism: they are out to free people from the tyranny of religion so they can think for themselves. That's fine if you're a public school educated Oxford academic (well, you'd think so anyway) but what of those less well endowed? And frankly that's really all of us at some time: no one is smart throughout their life; no one is completely master of all fields of knowledge. New Atheists seem compelled to pretend to a greater knowledge than they actually have; Catholics sooner or later admit that we fall back on faith and authority. We are, as MacInyre puts it, 'dependent, rational animals'.

New Atheism really seems to substitute a new, rather ill-imagined authority structure for old, rather more thoughtful ones. As a Catholic, there is a very explicit authority structure on which I rely: its very explicitness allows me to assess and critically engage with it. New Atheists have a very inexplicit authority structure, but one which is just as real: a set of slogans; a set of heroes; a set of holy writs.

So what should stupid atheists do? Is there any room in the Bright new tomorrow for the fool or even the slightly below average intellectually? Or is the solution a final one: that when you are a suboptimum child, you are aborted? When you are disabled, you are  euthanized? And when you can no longer read even The God Delusion with complete understanding, you ask nurse for the final remedy for all cognitive failure?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Secularism and schools

                                                      A proper assembly....

Sicut canis, qui revertitur ad vomitum suum, sic stultus, qui iterat stultitiam suam...

So back to secularism. Last time, as you recall, I'd been posting about how Secularism Scotland (aka Scottish Secular Society) had been banging on about making religious observance in schools a matter for a parental opt in rather than (as it is at the moment) a matter for an opt out. In pursuance of this aim, they've got together a petition to the Scottish Parliament (the background to the petition is explained by the petitioners here).

As a result of my last post, I got some comments from Caroline Lynch and Robert Canning of the Scottish Secular Society. You can see some of my replies in the combox there, but our exchange also raised a general point that I'm going to pursue today.

Secularists tend to live in a black and white world. You are either a 'religionist'/'believer' or you are not. This binary approach structures their analyses: you either have religious observance or you do not. (Hence, the opt in or opt out.) Behind this lies the faith/reason dichotomy: religion is a matter of faith (credulity); non-religion is a matter of reason (reasonableness).

From a Catholic perspective, there is also the exercise of reason, but in a sense, everything we believe is an exercise of reason: we just do it more or less well. If we allow reason full rein, we take advantage of revelation and authority to guide and supplement our cognitive imperfections, whether those imperfections are the result of nature (being human) or personal (being a bit thick). So there isn't a binary division so much as a spectrum: human beings struggling to understand the world and succeeding and failing in a variety of ways.

To secularists, there is simply the choice between being dumb and being smart, which leads to the choice: opt in to religious observance (dumb) or remain outside (smart). For a Catholic, once you step outside the sure guidance of the Church, you have a multiplicity of error and a multiplicity of imperfect graspings after truth.

We've seen what the conclusions of secularism are for religious observance: a simple choice between religion and non-religion. But what are the implications from a Catholic perspective? Well, as before, let me start by making clear that, in Catholic schools, it should simply be a Catholic religious observance: if you send your child to a Catholic school, you should expect (and get) unapologetic Catholicism. But for non-denominational schools, the three possibilities are either 1) a multiplicity of observances within particular traditions; 2) no religious observance; or (as at the moment) 3) a compromise religious observance with a general leaning towards the historically dominant form of Christianity in Scotland, the presbyterianism of the Church of Scotland.

1) I take to be practically impossible and anyway to violate the aim to 'express and celebrate the shared values of the school community'. 2) I take to be a bad idea because it removes from children's education exploration of the spiritual. (If hard line atheists can't stomach this, then they should have the right to withdraw. But I see absolutely no reason why most Scots' education should be damaged by the unreasonable attitudes of a few.) Which leaves 3) and the status quo (with perhaps some tweakings).

The campaign for the petition rests on two main grounds: firstly, a) the idea that parental choice is a desideratum; and b) that the current situation is clearly untenable. On a), the idea that parents should be able to micro manage their children's education is clearly a poor one. I'm all in favour of a variety of different types of school to reflect parental wishes (hence the existence of Catholic schools and, if the secularists could find enough people willing to bring up their children in such a way, schools for atheists) but once there, educational expertise rather than parental whim should be the main driver. Conscientious objection is fine and not in question. But the idea that parents should in effect be able to vote to exclude a major part of a humane education is foolish. On b), the campaign has pointed to various 'pro-Creationism' leaflets that a school in Kirtonholme apparently let a pastor distribute to their children. The story doesn't seem clear to me (The Scotsman piece here): is this a case of an evangelical Protestant simply being given an opening to explain his views or is he being allowed to dominate religious observance in the school? But let's assume the worst case. Even if one school in Scotland got it wrong, that proves nothing about the general shape of religious observance. (I had a Baptist biology teacher who used to come out with all sorts of odd stuff in biology lessons: should we ban biology or deal with a (possible) individual abuse?)

To get some perspective, this is the range of materials that the Church of Scotland currently suggests as good practice. A random example is 'Be all you can be', (PDF) a proposed secondary school assembly. This contains such shocking sentiments as:

We want to help you think about the big issues in life. Through Religious and Moral
Education classes, Social Education and assemblies we will discuss our views of life.
Life is complicated and you deserve chances to think and decide for yourself. Don't
just accept what other people tell you — even me!

Do I approve of everything in the suggestions? Nope. It sounds pretty fluffy to me. But I'd rather have that gentle reminder that most human beings have taken spirituality seriously than nothing.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Goodbye Sarah Teather (and John Bellany)

Some time over my lifetime, the Liberals went from being a party of odds and sods who were united by little else other than a desire to do the right thing at the expense of political pragmatism and eccentric sartorial tastes, to a party which has signed up to a Stalinist commitment to 'bonobos in paradise' politics (that's like 'bobos in paradise' but with added bonking).

Sarah Teather stood out like a sore thumb in this modern mess. She embodied that central Catholic commitment to the common good and the poor, with a willingness to think through what that actually meant in politics. That led her to two rebellions against her party. One was in rejecting the welfare cap on benefits. (Loud cheers.) The other was in rejecting same sex 'marriage'. (Guess how that went down...)

Her decision to vote against [same sex 'marriage'] saw her attacked by precisely the same people who had previously been lauding her independence of mind. “It was an extremely difficult choice,” she says, “and in many ways I’d rather not resurrect the whole argument again. It wasn’t one of those issues that I went into politics to tackle, but once a vote became inevitable I spent ten or 11 months weighing up the issues – of equality on the one hand and family life and what it meant for the definition of marriage on the other. I did a lot of reading and eventually I came to my conclusion, based not on any effect it would have in the short-term, but on the change it would mean for marriage over a longer period of time.”

Was she tempted to abstain? “No, because I had thought very hard about it, and finally reached a position, so to try and dodge expressing a view didn’t feel right.”

[From her interview with The Catholic Herald.]

Unsurprisingly, she has now decided to leave Parliament. She mentions in particular:

But over the last three years, what has been difficult is that policy has moved in some of the issues that ground my own personal sense of political vocation – that of working with and serving the most vulnerable members of society.
“I have disagreed with both Government and official party lines on a whole range of welfare and immigration policies, and those differences have been getting larger rather than smaller.

Teather's refusal to accept same sex 'marriage' highlights what I think is the primary motivation that most Catholics have for opposition to it. It's nothing to do with homophobia but everything to do with a vision of how important marriage is to how people, particularly those without much in the way of economic resources, survive and thrive in society. Watching John Bellany's son's film about his father last Sunday night was to be plunged into what a nightmare family breakdown can be, and how families can also function to restore damage. (For those unfamiliar with the story, it can really be summarized thus: alcoholic artistic genius leaves mother to raise three children in poverty. Children go off the rails. Parents eventually get remarried. Children (and parents) gradually pull their lives back together. One of the most poignant moments for me was when Bellany's daughter, Anya, contrasted her parents' stable churchgoing childhood with her own chaotic childhood.)

I can understand why people disagree on the shape of family life, but I can't understand why people think it doesn't matter, or that, despite much evidence to the contrary, those who support a traditional two parent, biological parent set up are clearly wrong and ill-motivated.

Anyway, that's two posts I meant to do in one! I had meant to say something about the passing of the living Scottish painter who has always meant the most to me: I can't think of a time when Bellany's odd blend of Marc Chagall and Otto Dix hasn't been pulling away at my consciousness, my not being quite sure what to make of it wrestling with a fascination. (The above is wholly inadequate but will have to do for now. Perhaps the paintings should be left to speak for him.) And I wanted to wish Sarah Teather well. She was a striking presence in British politics and her departure reflects badly not on her, but on the state we (and the Liberals) are in.

Monday, 9 September 2013

A humanist on New Atheism

                     Petrarch -not hard enough on sky fairies to count as a proper humanist?

Perhaps it's a bit difficult for 'New Atheists' to take a telling from Catholics, but maybe they'll listen to one of their own:

It was only slightly amusing to watch these religion haters develop all of the essential symptoms and pathologies of a cult, traits which were less obvious to them because they had never studied religious behavior and the psychopathology of cults.

But all the markers were there: a book, or canon of four books; a savior and a few lesser avatars; the promise of intellectual salvation using a formula for separateness and difference; most of all, the certainty that they are on the straight path, the right road, that others are wrong, and its behavioral corollary: intolerance of contradiction and correction.

With a few of my friends...I have pleaded for the return of the remains of serious humanism to mainstream intellectual and social life.  But the infiltration of the key outposts of humanism by religion-haters makes the job of reclaiming or “restoration” one for Atlas.  Outside the halls of academe, the word humanism is today almost synonymous with the word atheism, and atheism synonymous with the lowbrow definitions of its loudest, pop science-worshiping groupies.

(R Joseph Hoffmann, here.)

Hoffman gives his own definition of humanism in his article. I tend to take the much simpler view that humanism proper is what the (Renaissance) humanists did -and that really boils down simply to soaking themselves in the Classical World. From that engagement with a culture other than that of Mediaeval Europe, a variety of different things happened as a result: the sola scriptura of Luther; the learned bawdiness of Rabelais; the neo-Platonism of Ficino; the scepticism of Montaigne. But all these developments, some good, some bad, were characterized by a deep engagement with what people are really like, and what a rich literary culture is really like: they were soaked in humanity.

And then you compare that with modern humanism, at least in its Dawkinsian end. In a recent exchange with one New Atheist blogger on what should replace Christianity and the Bible in education, some of the suggestions from the audience were Ursula Le Guin's novels and Iain M. Banks the 'Culture' novels. (A much better suggestion was Shakespeare, although I'd be delighted to know what New Atheist kids would make of Hamlet. ('A good dose of Lithium to clear up the mood swings and hallucinations, and no worries about 'what dreams may come': just euthanize yourself and it'll be fine'...?).) Quite apart from the poverty of the material -what may be a good modern novel is not a complete literary culture- there is the difference of seriousness: what one may read as entertainment (not in a trivial way for amusement, but as ideas -fictions- that one may entertain) is not the same as a world to which one commits oneself. (And read any of the lives of the great Humanists and you'll see that their commitment to Classical learning was complete, not just entertained.) (If you're interested, my exchange with the blogger (The Digital Cuttlefish) is here.)

What so much of modern atheism lacks is what a good education in the humanities should give: a sense of the complexity of human life; the meaningfulness of the universe but the mysteriousness of that universe; the reality of death and suffering but the nobility of the human spirit. New Atheists often pay lip service to such points, but these are not a brief list of items that can be swotted up and recapitulated when necessary: they are much more the 'knowledge how' which emerges from a constant encounter with great minds in great works of art (and, I would add from the Catholic perspective, that greater mind which is God's):

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

(Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium.)

Friday, 6 September 2013

Father Ray Blake: distorting his message

The Catholic priest and blogger, Father Ray Blake, has been the subject of a scurrilous distortion of one of his posts. In essence, Father Ray was reflecting on what Bonhoeffer called 'cheap grace': a discipleship without cost. In his article, he talked about the costs of living out a life which really tried to engage with the poor in obedience to Jesus' instructions. In it, he talked of some of the disruption to his life caused by dealing with drug addicts and drunks, concluding with:

The sin of the Pharisees, of the rich man in the story of Dives and Lazarus is complacence. The rich man didn't even notice the mess that Lazarus created at his front door, he didn't respond to it, he needed someone to bring him out of his complacency. My big difficulty with confession at the moment is that I have grown complacent in my lifestyle, I don't want it changed, the message of the Gospels seem to be let the poor into it to mess it up a little.

Unfortunately, a local journalist has seen fit to transform what was a rather deep reflection on spiritual complacency (and the difficulties of being a parish priest) into a shock article on an uncaring priest. The article has now been sydicated by the national and international press. Father Blake has asked:

I understand Mr Gardner's little piece has been syndicated internationally, perhaps kind readers might, if possible post my response.

This I am now doing. (From Father Blake's blog.)

[Update 10/9/13: a) Richard Collins (Linen on the Hedgerow) has suggested 'a spiritual bouquet' for Father Blake with a daily rosary for a week. Excellent idea which I heartily support (and am currently doing). b) I have added on the sidebar a 'support Father Blake' poster which I'll leave up for the rest of the month.]Thursday, September 05, 2013

Bill Gardner: an unscrupulous journalist

Have a look at this article by a'journalist' called Bill Gardner, in our local paper, it is his take on this piece I wrote on the poor.

I was saying that the poor, the really poor, turn our lives upside down. I know the local paper pays peanuts and expects its journalists to create stories in order to get onto the news networks but this is just a malicious and deliberate misrepresentation.

It is very interesting to see what a disreputable journalist can do with a few carefully chosen adjectives. I didn't 'condemn', 'complain', 'blast' etc, and I am pretty certain that some of his other quotes are not my words, especially not, 'test my holiness', I don't speak like that, 'only God is Holy'. Though I admit in an informal moment I might question the marriage of the parents of someone who disrupts the worship of an entire congregation, especially if they consistently steal from the church or other poor people.

It is interesting to see how an unscrupulous journalist can so easily put an entirely different slant on a simple theological reflection, presumably even basic Christian concepts are beyond the comprehension of some.

Well, journalists are obviously as messy as the poor; except unscrupulous journalists can do more damage. Perhaps Mr Gardner might like to help on our soup run, it doesn't have to be 365 day a year, once a week would be fine, providing he treats our clients with respect, or maybe he could take Jason or Daryl or Pawel or Dawn out for a cup of coffee or a meal, or just come a clear up the next time someone comes in and vomits or bleeds all over my kitchen because he is drug or has been beaten up.

Maybe next time I run out of money I could tap him for a few quid when some vulnerable 17 year old girl needs to top up her phone to speak to her mum because her boyfriend has beaten her up or she needs a roof over head because she is sleeping in a tent and it is just few degrees above zero and she is vulnerable, or maybe the next time I am arranging a child's funeral and someone comes to the door in need of someone to talk because they are suicidal I can send them round to Bill's place so he can spend a couple of hours listening to them.Here, to, I am neither complaining, blasting, lambasting or anything else, just asking.

Fast and pray for Syria

                                              St Ephrem, pray for us and Syria....

For all Catholics, the Pope has proclaimed Saturday a “day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East and throughout the world.”...

The Pope said he was inviting everyone, “including our non-Catholic Christian brothers, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.”

[Catholic Herald.]

Prayer for 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,

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Secularists' petition against religious observance

                  Members of the Scottish Secular Society (Popular Front) on a school visit

One of the bewildering factors of modern Scottish public life is the succession of letters from various people claiming to be chairmen (and it's inevitably chairmen) of this or that Secular Society in the Scottish press.

I think there are four main groups on the go at the moment: the Edinburgh Secular Society, the Scottish Secular Society, Secular Scotland and the National Secular Society. (If I've left anyone out, I apologize.) Anyway, their current campaign is to get religious worship out of schools and they've sent a petition to the Scottish Parliament to do this. (My comments below are about the position of non-denominational schools. My position on Catholic schools is quite simple: if you send your child to a Catholic school, you should expect them to engage in Catholic practice. Full stop.)

I've posted before on this in connection with a related attempt aimed at Edinburgh Council. The current petition takes the initially more plausible tack of arguing for an 'opt-in' rather than an 'opt-out':

Lodged by parent Mark Gordon and Secular Scotland, the petition calls for the Scottish Government to change the law so that religious observance, such as attending a church service or religious assembly, becomes an opt-in choice rather than the current opt-out basis.
(From The Scotsman here.)

OK. Sounds fair enough: more choice. What's wrong with that? Well, schools run on the basis that children work in large groups: if you don't do that, you start facing difficult choices about resources and viability. If S1 all go to the local Church of Scotland for a session, fine. If Johnny goes to the Church, whilst David goes to the Synagogue, whilst Ewan goes to the Quaker Meeting House etc etc, it all gets fiddly and the school will probably stop doing it because it's too much hassle. Moreover, most (all?) events at school are done on the basis that in the judgment of the teachers concerned they're a positive contribution to a child's development. Accepting the teachers' professional judgment is part of the educational covenant you enter into with the school:  whilst there may be occasions for an opt out, the rule should be that what teacher thinks goes.

So really, this boils down to an attempt to make religious observance more difficult to run in schools with the clear hope that they'll gradually drop it. Opposition to the petition is based on the view that such observance is a positive contribution to a child's education and, whilst opt out should be allowed, non-participation shouldn't be encouraged.

Putting aside, for the moment, the exclusive truth claims of the Catholic Church, mainstream religions are a way of seeking truth, beauty and goodness in life. They are not the only way but, historically and culturally, they are the main way. If the secularist groups had a positive suggestion to make about the content of such a 'time for reflection' (and, yes, that's the description that the 'narrow confines of tolerance' (as Neil Barbour of the Edinburgh Secular Society describes it in a letter to The Scotsman today) of the Church of Scotland suggest for religious observance (in that Church's evidence to Parliament, (PDF here)), then it might be worth listening to. But instead, their only contribution is the attempt to impoverish: to remove rather than to debate.

On a final related point, 'secularists' often claim that they are simply about ensuring a level playing field in public life rather than having any animus against religions. Really? How about this from the Scottish Secular Society's website comment on the Catholic Church's opposition to the petition:

Catholicism can be argued to be the most greedy of that power. Simple steps such as translating the Bible into a form accessible to all have resulted in bloodshed and upheaval, and the history of the Catholic Church is drenched in the blood of innocents.

Thankfully in modernity the Church no longer has the ability to persecute those who deny their dogma. Their power, along with their followers, is on the wane, and they know it. This is the root of the opposition. They fear they are in terminal decline, and so all change, no matter how minor, is met with hysteria and fear. The sad irony is that secularism has no wish to end faith, no position on faith at all. Faith is of value to millions on the world, millions in the UK, and it will continue to be so in the future. We simply ask for faith to be a private matter, for the end to privilege for religion, and for parity of faith and non-faith in the public arena. That is a huge challenge for an institution which has evolved to be as much about the worship of power and influence as it is about the worship of God.

So we have no position on faith at all, but Catholics' faith is drenched in the blood of innocents. (But we still have no position on faith at all.)

It's almost enough to make you adopt 'Jime's Iron Rule' (from the blog Subversive Thinking )

In previous posts, I've formulated what I've called "Jime's Iron Law", which is a purely empirical finding according to which hard-core atheists and "skeptics" are demostrably stupid, irrational, illogical, structurally impaired to rational thinking, that is, their cognitive functions don't work properly specially regarding (but not limited to) spiritual or religious matters.

Hardcore atheists and sceptics whose feelings are hurt at this characterization should take it up with Jime. Me? I of course have 'no position on atheism at all'.

Monday, 2 September 2013

The struggle against same sex 'marriage' continues in Scotland

OK. So we haven't given up yet:

SENIOR Scottish politicians from all the main political parties this week joined the campaign to save traditional marriage, as the 50,000th supporter signed up to the Scotland for Marriage campaign.

SNP MSP John Mason, Tory MSP Murdo Fraser and Labour MP Michael McCann appeared together at a Scotland for Marriage event on Wednesday in a rare coalition to warn of the dangers of redefining marriage. Several hundred people attended the meeting, one of many planned over the next few months as the Scottish Parliament prepares to consider proposed legislation to change the law.

The SNP Government published the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill two months ago but the Scotland for Marriage campaign now has more supporters than there are members of the four main Scottish political parties and has pledged local campaigns in all 73 Holyrood constituencies.

(From Scottish Catholic Observer. The website for Scotland For Marriage is here.)

Patrick Harvie MSP -who's been doing Admiral Nelson impressions about arguments against same sex 'marriage' for a while now- commented:

At the end of the day, they are going to have to admit that the battle for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights is being won. Their continued opposition simply comes across as futile and mean-spirited."

He claimed the real purpose of the continuing campaign was to seek concessions in the legislation amounting to the reinstatement of Section 28 or repeal of anti-discrimination laws.

"That's just not going to happen," said Mr Harvie.

As I've said before, I think it's key that we don't just roll over on this one. Quite apart from trying to protect the rights of those who disagree with this innovation, there remains the importance of making clear the case against same sex 'marriage', so that the political success of same sex 'marriage' is not confused with winning the argument in principle. There, I think we have to be careful to realize that we are in a new phase of the campaign. All the evidence I've seen suggests that the measure will breeze through Holyrood whatever we say. Up till now, we've been concentrating on simply mobilizing support against the measure. Now, I think it's more important to make clear why it's wrong, and why laws can be passed and yet remain wrong. I don't think this will make any difference at all in the short term. But what we can do is to make sure that no one is under any illusions at all that the principled opposition to the measure remains and why it remains.