Wednesday 27 November 2013

Hannukkah, the Consultation on Marriage, and Tina Beattie

The Jewish festival of Hannukah starts today. The exclusion of the books of the Maccabees  by Protestants may well have resulted from sincere theological doubts about their place in the Canon, but a consequence of this act has been a downplaying of the place of revolt against governments in the life of the Church, and, more generally, of the importance of resistance to a dominant culture.

Much of the substance of the Books of the Maccabees can be reduced to a struggle to resist the imposition of a dominant, Hellenistic culture on Jews:

13 Then certain of the people were so forward herein, that they went to the king, who gave them licence to do after the ordinances of the heathen:
14 Whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen:
15 And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen, and were sold to do mischief. (1 Maccabees 1: 13-15).

That struggle against Hellenism is analogous to the modern struggle of Catholicism against a secular culture. All sensible people in the Mediterranean world knew that to be well educated and decent, you had to be Hellenized, worship a variety of gods, join in with the homoerotic cult of the male body, and place the will of the state above that of your traditions. Equally, all sensible people now know that worshipping God is silly, that only the old fashioned think there is anything wrong with screwing around, and that vox populi, vox dei. (If there were a god of course.)

I have absolutely no intention in indulging in the traditional sport of Beattie baiting. But taking up Tina Beattie's contribution (here) to the Vatican consultation on the family in the spirit it was explicitly offered -'to share some ideas and arguments'- and as representative of what loosely be termed 'liberal opinion', I am struck by two points in particular. Firstly, there is an emphasis on personal experience. In one way, that's fine: there is absolutely nothing wrong in explaining (for example) how incredibly difficult it is to live out the Church's teachings on the family and marriage in an environment that is either actively hostile or simply oblivious to an alternative, non-secular approach. I was particularly struck by her answer to the question:

How successful have you been in proposing a manner of praying within the family which can withstand life’s complexities and today’s culture? 

This question makes too many assumptions about the kind of Catholic life many of us experience in modern families and marriages. I pray for my family every day, but I do not pray with them because my husband is not a practising Christian and my children have all left the Church. I firmly believe that we learn our attitudes to culture and our values by example. I know families who pray together whose values I would not want to emulate, and others who do not pray together but who are inspiring in their values and lifestyles. 

Now, I have sympathy here. Although that isn't my family situation, we haven't escaped the influence of a society which is profoundly hostile to religious practice and particularly to Catholicism. (I speak of Scotland but the situation is a common one in much of Western Europe.) And let's be exact about that: I haven't escaped that influence. I have failed and I go on failing. And perhaps the worst part of that is tracing the effects of my failures on my children. My children still practise -but I don't think I've done terribly well in passing on the fullness of Catholicism. Part of experience is the experience of failure and the correct emotional response to that failure: when I look at my broken life, I feel regret and guilt. And that element of the self-critique of experience -that I get it wrong and that I am a sinner- seems to be totally lacking here. Such an attitude of critical humility seems an essential part of Christianity, and it problematizes the idea of 'experience' as a criterion of theology. In the present case, if my experience is one of brokenness, I need to experience it as brokenness and failure, rather than pretending it is evidence of a different sort of goodness. (Mightn't a shorter, more straightforward answer be here, 'pretty unsuccessful'? That would be my first response to my own situation even though, admittedly in a pretty scrappy fashion, we have succeeded in maintaining some sort of communal prayer life.)

Secondly, there is running throughout the response (and the accompanying post and linked material) a rhetoric of power. Although there is a superficial narrative about resistance to the domination of Vaticanparatchiks on behalf of an oppressed laity (eg: the linked 'Catholic Scholars Statement' talks about a previous consultation where 'only carefully hand-picked members of the laity were invited. They offered no critical voice and ignored abundant evidence...') there is an underlying narrative about the deepness of theological thought being frustrated by an authoritarian Church. The Catholic Scholars' Statement is most evident here: its very title and the litany of academic positions and institutions soothes the unwary reader into a sense that scholarship is on one side, and the '(almost) Dead White Men' of the Vatican on the other. The problem with this is that it ignores how such academic power is constructed in the modern West: you don't get academic positions without (eg) an itch to 'make it new' rather than simply hand on traditional scholarship; you don't get academic positions unless you can speak the language of secular thought, eg, the Lacan of Beattie's latest book on Aquinas or feminist ideology. Again, such reflections problematize 'experience': what I think of the world is the result of a long process of formation in a society that we know is severely damaged; and, narrowly, such experience is often elicited and articulated by a cultural elite that is itself the result of a hugely problematic formation.

Of course, such reflections can't be the final word. I know what I'd reply to them on Beattie's behalf ('what about how authority in the Church is constructed, eh?'). And the whole whirligig of academic reflection and dialectic goes on which, in itself, can be a de facto admission of the abandonment of authority: to get down and dirty with the philosophers even in defence of authority is to an extent an acceptance of the inferiority of authority to that ongoing dialectic. There is no easy answer here: the solution is neither fideistic rejection of reasoning, nor the abandonment of Magisterial teaching. Salvation is, in the end, a matter of grace, which is to say that it exceeds the description of language and human reflection. But the Maccabees remind us that, whatever that most magnificent, deep, philosophical culture of Hellenism (or even its shallower offspring, modernity) might be saying to us, sometimes our duty is much, much simpler:

1 It came to pass also, that seven brethren with their mother were taken, and compelled by the king against the law to taste swine’s flesh, and were tormented with scourges and whips.
2 But one of them that spake first said thus, What wouldest thou ask or learn of us? we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.
3 Then the king, being in a rage, commanded pans and caldrons to be made hot:
4 Which forthwith being heated, he commanded to cut out the tongue of him that spake first, and to cut off the utmost parts of his body, the rest of his brethren and his mother looking on.
5 Now when he was thus maimed in all his members, he commanded him being yet alive to be brought to the fire, and to be fried in the pan: and as the vapour of the pan was for a good space dispersed, they exhorted one another with the mother to die manfully, saying thus,
6 The Lord God looketh upon us, and in truth hath comfort in us, as Moses in his song, which witnessed to their faces, declared, saying, And he shall be comforted in his servants.
7 So when the first was dead after this number, they brought the second to make him a mocking stock: and when they had pulled off the skin of his head with the hair, they asked him, Wilt thou eat, before thou be punished throughout every member of thy body?
8 But he answered in his own language, and said, No. Wherefore he also received the next torment in order, as the former did.
9 And when he was at the last gasp, he said, Thou like a fury takest us out of this present life, but the King of the world shall raise us up, who have died for his laws, unto everlasting life.
10 After him was the third made a mocking stock: and when he was required, he put out his tongue, and that right soon, holding forth his hands manfully.
11 And said courageously, These I had from heaven; and for his laws I despise them; and from him I hope to receive them again.
12 Insomuch that the king, and they that were with him, marvelled at the young man’s courage, for that he nothing regarded the pains.
13 Now when this man was dead also, they tormented and mangled the fourth in like manner.
14 So when he was ready to die he said thus, It is good, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God to be raised up again by him: as for thee, thou shalt have no resurrection to life.
15 Afterward they brought the fifth also, and mangled him.
16 Then looked he unto the king, and said, Thou hast power over men, thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt; yet think not that our nation is forsaken of God;
17 But abide a while, and behold his great power, how he will torment thee and thy seed.
18 After him also they brought the sixth, who being ready to die said, Be not deceived without cause: for we suffer these things for ourselves, having sinned against our God: therefore marvellous things are done unto us.
19 But think not thou, that takest in hand to strive against God, that thou shalt escape unpunished.
20 But the mother was marvellous above all, and worthy of honourable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord. [2 Maccabees 7: 1-20]

Of course, removal of the Books of the Maccabees was done for the best possible theological reasons rather than to discourage discontent with the existing order.  But Max Romeo wasn't convinced:

Monday 25 November 2013

Consultation on Marriage and Family Life: Part II

                                                Decently clothed near relatives

Right. Well the first thing I want to share today is that you really don't want to google 'wet towel over head' in looking for images to put at the top of a blog. What started as an innocent attempt to find an image suggesting hard intellectual graft lead to a wall of (admittedly often pleasant looking) young women abluting themselves. (Still slightly in shock, I have resorted to chimps modestly attired in body hair.)

Passing swiftly on, here follows my first attempt to reply to the Consultation of Marriage and Family Life. As you'll see, I haven't attempted to deal with every detailed question raised, and have tried to keep hammering home an overall message. It's probably a bit ranty at the moment, and it won't be going in as is.

My previous post on the subject is here.

Questions for the Consultation on Marriage and Family Life:

1. The Diffusion of the Teachings on the Family in Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium

Understanding of the Church’s teachings varies considerably according to the people in question. However, I think the broad outlines of many of the Church’s teachings on moral rules concerning such matters are widely known. (So most people (eg) know that the Church believes that contraception is wrong and that divorce is impossible.) Where there is generally little understanding –both within and outwith the body of the faithful- is any understanding of the reasoning behind these rules. As a result, they are widely regarded as arbitrary commands. Moreover, due to a widespread absence –again, both within and outwith the body of the faithful- of belief in the divine teaching authority of the Church, these ‘arbitrary’ commands are disregarded.

2. Marriage according to the Natural Law

Again, understanding of the Church’s teachings varies considerably according to the people in question. Outwith the Church, there is almost no understanding of Catholic teaching on natural law: it is generally regarded simply as the arbitrary pronouncements of a patriarchal, outdated institution. Within the Church, there is little understanding of the natural law as being based on an understanding of human nature and its flourishing: too often, both from those who try to be faithful and those who do not, it is seen merely as a set of rules imposed by authority.

3. The Pastoral Care of the Family in Evangelization

Generally, families are left to sort out their own approach to raising children. Those families whose parents are already devout will find ways and means of support. Those who aren’t won’t. Catholic schools are widely seen as unreliable in their support for the transmission of orthodox teaching and practice.

4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

In Scotland, we are moving to a widespread acceptance of the impermanence of marriage and of its cultural triviality. There is little sign that, among the general Catholic population, that there is much resistance to this cultural background.

The Church needs to be much better at explaining its counter-cultural understanding of family life. Whilst compassion and support must be shown to the very many who are victims of the prevailing mores, that compassion includes making sure that the vision of a better life isn’t diluted. Certainly, it is difficult to live out a life which isn’t damaged by present cultural values. But it is essential that this damage is seen for what it truly is.

5. On Unions of Persons of the Same Sex

The Scottish Government is in the process of introducing legislation to extend marriage to same sex couples.

For many people within the Church and outwith it, such a change has been welcomed as an extension of a human right to an oppressed minority group. The Church’s opposition to it is seen as simply homophobic.

Homosexual people, both in and outside relationships, need to be clear that the Church is for them: we are a Church for sinners. But this can’t be at the expense of the sort of clarity about teaching that they themselves (and indeed others) need to move on in their quest for sanctification. There needs to be clarity a) about the nature of marriage; b) about the complementarity of the sexes and the essential nature of that sexual difference; c) about the relationship between supernatural and natural ends (so that someone who is troubled by sexual longings can offer up this Cross to progress towards their supernatural end); and d) an absolute demonstration that, wherever they are on their journey towards God, the Church and its members really do love them as fellow sinners. Too often, however, genuine attempts at demonstrating such compassion have been confused with the underplaying of Church teaching.

6. The Education of Children in Irregular Marriages

Given current attitudes towards marriage in Scotland, we can expect to see large numbers of children from such irregular backgrounds. Whilst there is an opportunity here to pass on a fuller account of Catholic teaching to both parents and children, there is a difficult balance to be struck between not diluting the teaching and not driving away people who have imbibed a secularized understanding of life. My suspicion is that a combination of a shortage of priests, poor formation in both clergy and lay catechists, and a general unwillingness to challenge modern culture have resulted in lost opportunities here, along with lost opportunities in much of Catholic education.

7. The Openness of the Married Couple to Life

While most people, within and outwith the Church, know that the Church opposes artificial contraception, this is widely regarded as an arbitrary command. As in my reply for 1), there is no understanding of the reasoning behind such rules. Coupled with this, there is a genuine difficulty in reconciling the practice of modern employment and education with the operation of natural fertility: the modern understanding of a woman’s life does not fit easily into having many (or often, indeed any) children.

Solution? 1) Clarity about the fullness of the teaching behind the rules and a complete vision of the Catholic family and a society which enables that. 2) Recognition of how difficult it is to live out such a life in the modern economy.

8. The Relationship Between the Family and the Person

For many people, the romantic encounter with a member of the opposite sex and the struggles to bring up children remain a point of entry into a deeper experience of humanity. The Church needs to foster a sense of what modernity has lost in covering up this depth and how, albeit imperfectly, individuals can reclaim it.

9. Other Challenges and Proposals

1) There is a constant tension between compassion and the welcoming of the imperfect on the one hand, and the need for clarity about the Church’s vision of humanity. There is a huge danger that in the search to express its unconditional love for all, the teaching of the Church is obscured and its role as a means of sanctification obscured. We need to both teach the truth and show understanding to fallen humanity: these are both parts of the Church’s mission of love.
2) In general, the modern Church, particularly in Scotland, is extremely poor at explaining the reasons for its moral teachings. To the extent it does, it tends to rely exclusively on fideistic wording rather than on an account rooted in our human nature, and, more particularly, its natural end.
3) The term natural law is often heard as emphasizing the law part, and its rational basis in human nature is misunderstood. In general, there needs to be an intellectual revival in a broadly Thomist approach to human flourishing in order to emphasize that natural law is not based simply on arbitrary divine commands.
4) Catholicism should work with other religious and cultural groups to build alliances against prevailing anti-Christian understandings of humanity. However, such ecumenism should not obscure the intellectual riches of Catholicism. For example, by underplaying the differences between the reasons for Catholic teachings and the (broadly) fideistic basis of modern evangelical Protestantism or the plat-du-jour secularized philosophies of liberal religion, Catholic teaching is seen as simply the arbitrary decisions of a group of old men, which will, as in many other religious groups, be changed as a new generation with new ideas comes into power.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Dr Who impersonators against same sex 'marriage'

                                   Bertrand Russell contemplating a fifth marriage

As comet ISON appears in our skies, triggering all sensible folk to bewail their manifold sins and wickedness, the Scottish Parliament will doubtless agree later on today that it 'agrees to the general principles of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill'. In other words, another major stage of the introduction of same sex 'marriage' to Scotland will have been passed.

Although there is important business to be done by our legislators in ensuring -as far as possible- that Catholics and others won't be sacked or end up in the jug for daring to go on resisting such nonsense, I shall spend today's post lobbing the verbal equivalent of turnips at our betters, not because I think it will do any good, but simply to let off some steam. (Those with a taste for more serious engagement might start here , here or here.)

So, to start off with, that well-known  sky fairy worshipper and William Hartnell impersonator, Lord Russell:

But for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex...[I]t is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution. [Marriage and Morals]

                                              Derrida with sonic deconstructor 

Or we could have Jacques Derrida acknowledging the nature of marriage (and dreaming about getting rid of it):

If I were a legislator, I would propose simply getting rid of the word and concept of 'marriage' in our civil and secular code. 'Marriage,' as a religious, sacred, heterosexual value -with a vow to procreate, to be eternally faithful, and so on-, is  concession made by the secular state to the Christian church, and particularly with regard to monogamy..

                             A young Roger Scruton ponders travelling back in time

Finally, we have Roger Scruton:

And some of us are troubled by the shallow reasoning that has dominated the political discussions surrounding this move, as though the threadbare idea of equality were enough to settle every question concerning the long-term destiny of mankind and as though the writings of the anthropologists (not to mention the poets, the philosophers, the theologians, the novelists, the sociologists) counted for nothing beside the slogans of Stonewall. Are we entirely wrong in this?

Other Doctors were unavailable for comment.

Monday 18 November 2013

Marriage and the Family Consultation and Gerry Hassan

                           Members of the Parish discussing Marriage and the Family

As noted on previous occasions, I quite like much of the sound of Gerry Hassan, but the nasty, sceptical intellectual who lives within keeps wanting to ask for some more details before we crown him 'Scotland's main public intellectual'...

In a recent piece, he returns to his one (only?) theme: the need for a re-envisioning of Scottish politics and the need for a deeper, different conversation about the nature of society:

Somehow we need to nurture a mature, democratic conversation about work, class and the lives, identities and memories we shape around it. The conservatism of British trade unionism even at its peak was a product of the capitalism it opposed, while the limits of management and capital were glossed over but magnified in the Thatcher and Blair eras.[Full article, here.]

Well, fair enough. But the devil is undoubtedly in the details. What sort of conversation? What sort of structures? How to move from a conversation (which, essentially, is reflective rather than directed to action) to deliberation prior to decision? It's hard to get away from a suspicion that the sort of conversation that is likely to ensue would be rather akin to those meetings of the Red Guard where the rhetoric of popular control is foregrounded, just so long as it follows the lines laid down by the Gang of Four/Progressive journalists.

Unless you dig down into how concretely deliberation and conversation is constructed in specific situations, you are, I suspect, simply doomed to reproduce existing patterns of power, or, at most, simply to shift the pieces a little, so that a quite powerful faction becomes a very powerful faction, or the most powerful faction gets demoted to a merely extremely powerful faction: if people ain't already talking,  they have to be led to talk, and those leading them are inevitably those with a certain amount of existing control. 'Ever the pessimist, dear Lazarus?' Well, not necessarily. But I'd like details of how in specific cases, such a general tendency is going to be avoided.

So let's take a real, not imagined, consultation/conversation/survey: the current 'Marriage and Family Consultation' out of the Vatican. (Hassan ought to be interested in this as he noted thatA radical left would talk about power and the strange lack of curiosity that Scots seem to have about who holds it, whether it is in the Catholic Church, Rangers FC or our various establishments. Or perhaps it is the wrong sort of conversation simply because it is merely Catholics who are holding it as insiders rather than the 'radical left'? In which case, reflecting on a real -rather than vaguely imagined- 'conversation' should help get closer to what a proper conversation looks like.)  I mostly agree with Joseph Shaw on its design: his post entitled 'The Worst Survey in the World' is the best analysis of its problems that I've found. But putting on my Panglossian hat, most attempts at conversation are like that: fumbling and dependent on the goodwill of the participants to make up for initial deficiencies. (Lesson 1: life is a vale of tears and conversations/consultations never achieve the sort of frictionless success that progressives imagine.) So how do we make the best, in a spirit of helpfulness, of a fumbling reality?

Well, I think (oddly, considering its source) that Father Gerry J. Hughes' advice is good on this:

The sometimes technical, and sometimes slightly tendentious phrasing of questions should not put anybody off; nor should people be too concerned with the niceties of what they think which, in a poll this size, might well get lost. What is important is that you should

1. identify what you think the question is about

2. give as clear and unambiguous an answer as you can

3.try to give as honest a view of the issue/situation as you  see it, as crisply     as you can

Nuances are not really going to count for a great deal in such a wealth of information.

Remember that those to whom the poll is to be returned, will have to work out the detail for themselves: what they are asking for, is for you to point them clearly in the direction you think best.

So Lesson 2: keep your response clear and simple and focus on the main points you want to put forward.

I'm going to come back to this over the coming days, with some thoughts on what should go into a response. But I suppose my main message would be something along the lines of the following:

You will hear lots of calls to change Church teaching. Ignore them. The key problem is that most Catholics don't understand Church teachings and, in particular, the rationale behind them, and aren't helped to live them out. They are therefore left defenceless against the pressures of modern societies and modern ideologies. 

Details of the Scottish consultations (with instructions for how to take part as an individual) are:

For Glasgow: here
For St Andrews and Edinburgh: here.

(If anyone has the links for other dioceses, please let me know in the combox and I'll update the above.)

Thursday 14 November 2013

John Tavener and spirituality

28 January 1944 – 12 November 2013

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

John Tavener had an unusual public prominence for a serious composer. When one considers those modern composers who've made some sort of wider impact in a culture that, generally, is pretty hostile to the practice of art music, it's striking how many of them have a strong element of spirituality in their music. In Scotland, James MacMillan is well known as a devout Catholic. Arvo Pärt is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Philip Glass is apparently a 'a Jewish-Taoist-Hindu-Toltec-Buddhist'. And the popularity of Gregorian Chant, Bach and assorted settings of the Mass all testify to a hunger for some sort of religious/spiritual element in music.

Tavener's own spiritual journey is summarized by him as follows:

There were three stages. There was the Presbyterian stage, and I can’t say that was all totally negative because I met some of the pastors of that time and one in particular impressed me tremendously. His humanism and his doubts impressed me.
Then there was the Catholic stage and the Spanish influence. Particularly mystics like St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila. Even the composer Vittoria. They were enormously important to me, and still are. If I go to the Maundy Thursday service I still weep.
There was the influence of Metropolitan Anthony [the late head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain and Ireland] and things Russian as well. I married a Greek when I was 30 and fell in love with Greece – the culture, the religion and everything connected. I also felt that Greece was a country that still had a sense of the primordial.
Much later on, when I was married again, I had a vision of Frithjof Schuon, the universalist philosopher. He started out a Protestant and at 30 was a Sufi. He always embraced all religions. It’s rather wild-sounding story, but it seems perfectly natural to me. It was after an American Indian holy man had come here [to his house in Dorset]... and brought me the gift of a pow-wow drum. He played the drum to me and said having it in the house will bring miraculous events. After he left I had a vision of Schuon who seemed to be saying to me that God was revealed in different ways and that I should somehow stick to Christianity in terms of personal life but I should express my interest in other religions. [Full interview in Catholic Herald, here.]

He talks in the same interview of (organized) religion as having gone 'senile' and the solution lying in 'a return to the heart, away from the mind. A sense of prayer within the heart.'

Although the question of 'secularization' is a much vexed one in religious studies, there appears little doubt, in Western Europe at least, that organized religion has declining social impact. On the other hand, there is really little evidence that spirituality is declining. For example, take those declaring 'no religion' in recent American studies:

A far more important indicator, as many recent studies—including the Baylor National Religion Surveys—have found, is that those who say they have no religion are surprisingly religious. Most say they pray, and a third even report having had a religious experience. Half of these respondents who would be considered by survey takers to have “no religion” believe in angels. [Article here.]

Attacks on this 'spirituality instead of religion' understanding of secularization (such as Steve Bruce) are careful not to conflate claims about institutional decline with claims about cultural decline: thus, in Bruce's Secularization: In Defence of an Unfashionable Theory he avoids making claims about cultural spirituality (evidence, for example, in the proliferation of entertainment based on supernatural stories), instead focusing his attention on the decline of institutional religion and institutionalized spirituality: certainly, formal New Age practice isn't going to replace institutional Christianity, but that's very different from claiming that spiritual interests and desires are disappearing.

'Spirituality' is of course a baggy term, but it at least covers a widespread sympathetic interest in religions and a variety of rather vague beliefs and practices. I'd guess that the national religion is Scotland now is probably nearer Sheilalism rather than Presbyterianism:

I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice...It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.

This broadly all fits in with what a Catholic understanding of natural religion might expect. In broad terms, 'natural religion' is what people come up with if left to their own devices in the absence of revelation. [Here.] I suspect that many Scots would also probably talk in terms of believing in 'something' rather than God.

If true, this has a number of implications. Perhaps the most immediate one, in the Scottish context, is that the recurrent attempt by the various atheist movements such as the Scottish Secular Society to drive religion out of the public space might well generate public support insofar as they are attacks on the influence of organized religions such as the Church of Scotland, but have less support insofar as they are attempts to create a spirituality free Dawkinsian space: it's important that widespread suspicion of organized religion isn't used by hardcore atheists for destroying natural religion as spirituality. The latter is an inadequate response to the divine, but inadequate is better than nothing. (And so 'Time for Reflection' is a sensible rebranding of 'religious observance' in non-denominational schools.)

For Catholicism, the implications are trickier. It's important that we recognize the good in spirituality: this sort of natural religion is the response of human nature to the reality of the spiritual world and life and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, the Church believes itself to possess the full revelation of God: it mustn't allow that treasury to be watered down because that revelation makes further demands on us than are readily accepted by those who are merely 'spiritual': a great part of the pernicious influence of the Spirit of Vatican II is a result of reducing Catholicism to a merely natural religion.

Monday 11 November 2013

Jewish backing for secularist petition in Scotland?

I was a bit surprised by the headline: 'Scotland's Jews back opt-in to religion in schools' in the Sunday Herald:

SCOTLAND'S Jewish communities have backed an "opt-in" system for religious activities in non-denominational schools.

The Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) has raised concerns that non-Christian pupils often feel "excluded and alienated" during prayers and ceremonies, in a response to a petition by Secular Scotland which has called for an end to pupils automatically participating in religious observance. [Full article here.]

For those of you who haven't been following this, one of the current features of Scottish politics is the growing noisiness of the many (tiny) atheist groups up here who seem to think that the current constitutional uncertainty plus a rebranding of hardline atheism under a 'secularist' label might serve their purpose of undermining religion. I've blogged about this generally and, in particular, on the Scottish Secular Society (aka Secularism Scotland) and its attempts to remove religious observance from schools under the pretext of making such observance an 'opt in' rather than an 'opt out'. (Previous posts here and here.)

Given that (in particular) the former Chief Rabbi has been such an effective presence in the defence of religion in the UK, it was therefore with real disappointment that I read the article. However, the actual submission itself is rather more nuanced. (PDF here.) The first question to be asked is where did the Herald's article come from? The submission was made on 10 October according to the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities website (here): it can only be assumed that its appearance in the Herald a month later and only shortly before the secularist petition is considered by the Parliamentary committee on Tuesday is the result of spin generated by the Scottish Secularist Society. Well, fair enough, they're trying to win this thing -but it's worth bearing in mind the relentless publicity machine that is Scottish atheism.

Turning to the submission itself, the first thing to be made clear is that it rejects any attempts to undermine religious observance in denominational schools:

The situation with regard to denominational schools is different. When parents 
make a conscious decision to send their children to a denominational rather than a 
non-denominational school, they do so with  the foreknowledge that its activities 
will include the religious observances of  that faith. In this case they have, 
effectively, already opted in, and it would not be reasonable  for them then to 
demand that the school change  its ethos and practices.  We would, therefore, 
argue in favour of maintaining the status quo for these schools. 

Such clarity is extremely welcome. A key target of the atheists is undoubtedly 'Rome on the rates': the widespread provision of Catholic schools supported by the state. It's clearly unreasonable to expect Catholic (or Jewish) schools to be anything other than Catholic (or Jewish): if you send your child there, you have to put up with the ethos.

In denominational schools, it does suggest there is a 'strong case' for an opt in. But to note that there is a strong case is not in itself a clear statement of support. The submission makes a good point about the nebulousness of the definition of 'religious observance', that it is defined by Scottish government guidance as

community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all 
members of the school’s community and express and celebrate the shared values 
of the school community

precisely to get round the statutory requirement for religious observance without the need for changing legislation. It goes on to say:

The problem, as with all creative reinterpretations, is that the words are then left 
ambiguous between the original literal meaning and the neologism. So "religious 
observance" as redefined according to that deliberately nebulous definition, might 
be an acceptable all-school activity, but genuine religious observance – faith specific worship, dietary rules, and dress code, for example – is not. 

A fair point, fairly made. The substance of the submission is that Jewish children are being forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to take part in acts of Christian worship -and, quite reasonably, Jewish parents don't want this.

Instead, the SCOJeC submission wants a very clear right to remove children from such worship -whether by way of opt in or opt out doesn't seem in fact to matter much as far as the submission is concerned- but (and here's what you don't read in Secularism Scotland's spin) proper facilitation of religious practice for both minority and majority religious groups:

However, adequate provision must then also be made for those who do opt in, and 
not only for the majority faith. A non-denominational school must be able to 
accommodate pupils who wish to eat only  kosher or halal food, fast during 
Ramadan, observe religious festivals, or wear a hijab or a kirpan, and, where 
required, should also facilitate faith-specific worship and, faith-based counseling. A 
possible model is that of hospital chaplaincy (aka “spiritual care”) in which 
honorary chaplains are appointed from all relevant faith communities. Education is 
at least as important, so that even  if geographic considerations may present 
practical obstacles at a local level, resources should be found by central 

So, in SCoJeC's utopia, there would be:

a) community acts which express the shared values of the school community;
b) optional worship in specific religious traditions; and
c) support from the school for specific religious practices.

In other words, the 'school space' would become a genuinely multifaith space, rather than the religion free wasteland envisaged by Secular Scotland.

I've got serious doubts about the advisability of such a position. In particular, I worry over its practicality and how it leaves the vast number/majority of Scots who, whilst having no formal attachment to a religion, wouldn't put themselves in anti-religion camp of the Scottish Secular Society et al. But whatever its faults, it certainly isn't a secularist position.

There's been a lot of talk about ecumenism over the years. I'd like theistic religions in Scotland to start talking about how they can form a united front against the increasing force of new atheism in Scottish politics. It probably won't be possible to get everyone on board all the time, but it would be a shame if, as in the present case, a thoughtful raising of genuine problems with present provision, is used by atheists to destroy an existing imperfect situation and replace it with something much worse.

I'd suggest (merely as a starting point) the following basic principles in non denominational schools:

a) the recognition of the Scottish Presbyterian tradition as the historically dominant ethos of religious provision in non-denominational schools;
b) a willingness on the part of that tradition to be generous and respectful in its dealing with other religions and worldviews such as atheism;
c) the existence of clear parental opt outs from activities such as tradition specific worship or moral education in areas such as sexual relationships;
d) corporate, 'time for reflection' , which is open to as many traditions as possible, but with a view to a) and b);
e) the encouragement of religious practice among minority groups such as Jews by the provision (eg) of chaplains.

Moreover, the provision of religious schools should be supported where this is likely to be viable.

Any takers?

Thursday 7 November 2013

Looking at women

First, an apology to women readers. I'm going to be talking about how men should look at women simply because I'm a man. There's an analogous discussion to be had about how women should look at men, but I'm the wrong blogger to do it. (And there are also different discussions to be had about how men should look at men (and women at women) and although I'll touch on that here, that'll be mainly for another time perhaps...)

Chris Monloch's article in The Independent on Afghan pederasty (bacha bazi) (H/T Standing on My Head) is troubling in a number of ways. Most obviously, it is troubling because it deals with an evil practice and raises questions about the West's involvement in Afghanistan. At a slightly more theoretical level, I find Monloch's approach to the subject slightly worrying. There's clearly a history to the practice which goes beyond the recent turmoil in the area. (Wikipedia suggests that it was actually more common in the past until the colonial powers' disapproval (quote: 'Victorian era prudery' ?! -good for the Victorians!) reduced its prevalence.) It's clearly not just (as Monloch's term 'paedophilia' and much of the article suggests) the particular perversion of a few odd individuals but a socially endorsed and constructed practice. Moreover, it isn't a practice that is unknown in other societies (for example, the ancient Greek practice of pederasty is clearly analogous). If Monloch is supposed to be representative of a US intelligence expert, I'd worry that US intelligence is woefully out of its depth in dealing with other cultures, treating what is clearly a deeply embedded cultural evil as the perversion of a few damaged individuals ('rid themselves of all paedophiles')...

Anyway, putting all that aside, I was struck by the following paragraphs:

A second corrupting, and perhaps surprising, consequence of bacha bazi is its negative impact on women's rights in Afghanistan. It has become a commonly accepted notion among Afghanistan's latent homosexual male population that “women are for children, and boys are for pleasure.” Passed down through many generations and spurred by the vicious cycle created by the pedophile-victim relationship, many Afghan men have lost their attraction towards the opposite gender. Although social and religious customs still heavily dictate that all men must marry one or more women and have children, these marriages are often devoid of love and affection, and are treated as practical, mandated arrangements.

While the Afghan environment has grown more conducive to improving women's social statuses, the continued normalization of bacha bazi will perpetuate the traditional view of women as second-class citizens — household fixtures meant for child-rearing and menial labor, and undeserving of male attraction and affection.

As I posted recently, there is evidence that (at least in Japan) there is a reduction of male interest in real women. Now, that's worrying for all sorts of reasons, but one of the reasons is that it means men just aren't interested in what women really are but instead regard them as 'undeserving of male attraction and affection'. As I also recently argued, worrying about how to look at women is an important aspect of (as Foucault would put it) 'care of the self': that practice of constructing and purifying the self in the task of achieving virtue.

One of the damaging splits that has taken place in modernity is that between being interested physically in someone and being interested in them as a person. Partly as a result of crude versions of feminism, men find themselves subject to a critique on whether they like a woman for her body or for her mind. This separation is embodied (take that as a pun if you will) in a view of the development of erotic attraction: you become an achieved person erotically once you have discovered whether you like female (as a heterosexual) or male (as a homosexual) bodies. Of course, that makes erotics trivial: much more important than what sort of flesh you like is liking minds. And no one, no one openly is allowed to say that they only like male minds as the storm over Stephen Fry's twitter comments on women evidenced. It's fine if you're gay because you don't like women's bodies. It's not fine if you're gay because you don't like women (or at least their personalities).

Now, on the whole, I think this commonsense view is pure hokum. It is, I suppose, just about possible to construct a form of erotics based just on the body ('phwoarr, what a scorcher!') and I think that, in fact, is pretty much what modern society is doing. But many/most men -and I would say all good men- couldn't separate out what is attractive in women in that way: body and personality are not simply separable. It is, moreover, a separation that becomes (or at least should become) less and less plausible as you grow more mature: what might (just) be forgivable in the young (obsession with a particular body shape or part) becomes simply embarrassingly juvenile in anyone over thirty. There is nothing -absolutely nothing wrong- in men finding women erotically attractive, in looking at women erotically. But the mature male gaze is one that finds women -embodied, real women- attractive rather than women stripped of their minds and personalities and reduced to meat. Modern popular culture is busy reducing women (and men) to meat: what is striking about both pornography and fashion photography is that personality, individuality is obliterated.

Feminism -at least in many of its forms- finds the idea of a male erotic interest in women wholly problematic: men should respect women just for their minds. (Which of course then reduces any erotic interest that men might dare to have to the triviality of meat fetishism.) 

What both tendencies encourage is a separation of male interest into neat packages of physical interest (which is optional because it's just about meat) and personal interest (which is unerotic because women's minds are just like men's). But the correct male view (yes, I'm a Catholic: I'm unrepentantly normative) is one that finds women -real embodied women- attractive. If that gaze disappears, then that powerful erotic combination that is found in the idea of romantic love also disappears and we are left with societies where men prefer computer screens or boys or whatever to women; or where erotic interest is simply focused on impersonal, fungible flesh rather than anything more individual and important.

Monday 4 November 2013

Law, religion, Sir James Munby and Gorns

                                       The Judge in the Hampstead Coffee Shop.... 

Although I'd been vaguely aware of Sir James Munby's ruminations (PDF here) on the law and religion, I'd filed it mentally under the heading 'another sign of things falling apart' without giving it much attention until the Law and Religion blog got its teeth stuck into it. That blog gives it quite a respectful hearing. I'm afraid my reaction is rather different.

My overall impression of Sir James' speech is frankly disbelief that a senior legal figure should come up with something quite so superficial. I might hope it's simply rubber chicken syndrome: like many of those in the great world, he finds himself yet again invited to one of those annoying dinners where the price of entry is getting up on your hind legs and speaking; he puts something together at the last moment, utters forth to the accompaniment of soothing noises from rhubarbing middle aged men; and then settles down to wrestling with an indifferent fowl bathed in some sort of gloop. It's only a speech, you  might suspect he would say if challenged...

I fear however since it is dubbed 'a keynote address' that it must be held to rather higher standards. Much of his argument centres on the disputes between John Stuart Mill and James Fitzjames Stephen in the nineteenth century,  and Hart and Patrick Devlin in the twentieth. Both have taken on the status of symbolic struggles between a broadly libertarian view of the law as promoting the maximum amount of negative liberty subject only to the avoidance of harm (Mill and Hart) versus a view of the law as embodying substantive moral content (Stephen and Devlin). (A very brief summary of the key issues is given here.)

Now oddly enough, I'm rather on the side of Mill and Hart in this. Given the nature of our society, I'd rather have the legal protection to carry on (in Mill's terms) my experiments in living, rather than having government or other agents stepping in to curtail my negative liberty. Do I think that's an ideal state? No, but it's better than one where I -as a member of a minority (Catholic) group- am subject to state coercion to restrict or change my views or behaviour. Mill bases his view on the great importance of liberty; living your life according to your own lights is, for Mill, the central aspect of long term human happiness which he, as a utilitarian, is intent on promoting.

This rather grand and bracing vision of human nature is completely ignored by Munby who turns a debate centred on liberty into a debate centred on religion. There is little in Munby's speech about the importance of autonomy, free speech and experiments in living. Instead, we have:

Today, surely, the judicial task is to assess matters by the standards of reasonable men and 
women in 2013 – not, I would add, by the standards of their parents in 1970 – and 
having regard to the ever changing nature of our world: changes in our understanding 
of the natural world, technological changes, changes in social standards and, perhaps 
most important of all, changes in social attitudes.  (p7: PDF)

Now, according to Mill and Hart, the simple answer to this would be no: the judicial task is to make sure that I have as much negative liberty as possible subject to the harm principle:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

On the other hand, 'the standards of reasonable men and women in 2013' reads as though Munby is channelling Devlin:

How is the law-maker to ascertain the moral judgment of society?...English law has evolved and regularly uses a standard which does not depend on the counting of heads. It is that of the reasonable man. He is not to be confused with the rational man. He is not expected to reason about anything and his judgment may be largely a matter of feeling. It is the viewpoint of the man in the street -or to use an archaism familiar to lawyers -the man in the Clapham omnibus. (Devlin: The Enforcement of Morals.)

It is this blindness to the real nature of the Mill/Hart and Stephen/Devlin dispute that is most worrying about Munby. It is one thing to note that we live in an extremely fragmented society where there is no real shared substantive view of the good. For such a society, there is much to be said for Mill's view of maximizing personal liberty, the negative liberty of freedom from interference, particularly by government. In the sort of recent 'hot button' cases concerning religion, that would mean that religious minorities would have a strong presumption in favour of their right to act as they like unless clear and direct harm was being caused to others. (So B&B owners would be almost certainly be able to discriminate against unmarried couples and registrars would be able to negotiate exemptions from carrying out same sex 'marriages' etc.) It is quite another thing to suggest that, now the man on the Clapham omnibus has changed his views, we should be imposing a religion-free morality in the same way that Devlin and Stephen would have imposed a religious morality.

Of course, there may well be arguments in favour of such a Devlin-like position: Frank at Law and Religion seems to endorse Lord Justice Laws' view which is that

the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims.

In essence, the claim is that morality based on religion is subjective and the law deals only with objective morality. Frankly, this is utter tosh. The philosophical debates in this area ought to be well known, but, in short, the taking of such a view would have to respond (at least) to Macintyre's analysis of all moral thinking as taking place within a particular tradition, and the Catholic understanding of reasoning about our nature and its flourishing taking place within an Aristotelian conception of ethics rather than one based on faith. There's absolutely no sign that either Laws or Munby have even started to grapple with such considerations.

In fine, we are left with the irony that Munby is defending a position like Devlin's whilst under the apparent impression that he is supporting Mill and Hart. (It is merely that the test is now the judge in the Hampstead Coffee Shop rather than the man on the Clapham Omnibus.) If one assumes that there is one commonsense moral opinion that can, in rough terms, be discerned by the mind of the passenger on the omnibus, then the imposition of that view may be possible, even if it leaves open the further question as to whether that view (and its enforcement) is actually morally good. But the deeper challenge of post modernity -or, perhaps more narrowly, the challenge of a society that no longer coheres around a particular institutionalized worldview (such as that of the Church of England or Church of Scotland) is that there is no longer such a single worldview. There is no such thing as one secular worldview that remains after religion is subtracted.

The unnoticed confusions in the speech over the relationship between Mill's views and James' championing of a Devlin like test based on a social coherence which no longer exists suggests two conclusions. Either our great and good are too dumb to understand what they are arguing; or they know quite well what they are saying and are simply covering up their real intentions under a smog of verbiage. We can immediately reject the first possibility as too bizarre to be worth considering. I am therefore going with the assumption that our country is being run by giant alien lizards who are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to impose secular (ie Gorn) standards on us.

You read it here first...

            A member of the judiciary proposing a toast to the overthrow of  Christianity