Fear and the exponential function

Courier article

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” So says Al Bartlett, a now retired US professor of Physics, who has given the same talk on this topic nearly two thousand times over the last forty years. I think he has a point, and I’d like to explain why, with particular reference to the Ebola epidemic now taking root in West Africa.

A quick refresher on the exponential function – that is, on what it means when something grows exponentially. Exponential growth occurs whenever something grows at a constant rate – for example, an economy that is growing at 5% a year. So if we begin with 100 widgets of production, and our production grows by 5% then after 1 year we will have 105 widgets. If the growth continues then after another year we will have 110.25 widgets. After another year we will have 115.7625 widgets. Notice that the amount added on increases each time – 5 widgets in the first year, 5 and a quarter in the second year, five and a half in the third year. That is because the underlying quantity has increased. So exponential growth is not simply adding on a fixed amount each year, it is adding on an increasing amount each year.

The interesting thing about exponential growth, and what makes it so marvellous and miraculous and devastating, is something called ‘doubling time’. When a certain percentage of growth is maintained over time then we can expect the underlying quantity to double at a particular rate. For example, if growth is maintained at 7.5% a year then the underlying quantity will double (approximately) every ten years. This is well understood in financial circles, and is seen as the ‘miracle of compound interest’, whereby your bank balance – at least when interest rates are higher than they are at the moment – increases significantly year on year, so long as it is left untouched.

The reason why I want to talk about the exponential function again is because I see it as extremely relevant to understanding why the Ebola epidemic is such a cause for concern. I want to argue that we need to be a little more frightened than we are at the moment, in order that we end up being much less frightened overall. I’m sure we are all familiar with the nature of the Ebola virus, and the ghastly death that it causes in the majority of people who have succumbed to the disease. What seems to be less widely understood is that the number of people who are becoming infected with the disease is growing exponentially, with a ‘doubling time’ of around three weeks. If the virus is left to grow in the human population unchecked, then we are looking at some very scary projections. The trouble is that so far our political responses seem to be marked mostly by complacency.

It has been assumed that Ebola would not be able to spread rapidly in a Western country, due to our highly advanced health systems, and also to what might be called either a ‘scientifically informed common sense’ or a ‘reasonable sense of disgust’. There are particular cultural habits in West Africa which have enabled the virus to spread more rapidly, especially due to funeral practices, and even if we had similar habits in this country, I think that we would let go of them quite rapidly once we understood that they enabled the disease to spread. However, as I write this column there is coverage from Texas of an outbreak of Ebola there, where it would seem that best practice was not followed, even in an advanced hospital. I shall continue to watch with interest to see how widespread the infection becomes.

Have you ever watched one of those movies that is about an epidemic, where the senior ‘man in charge’ of the US response starts telling people what is going on, and how scary it is? Well that person in real life is called Tom Frieden, and he is the Director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He recently said this: “The speed at which things are moving on the ground, it’s hard for people to get their minds around. People don’t understand the concept of exponential growth. Exponential growth in the context of three weeks means: ‘If I know that X needs to be done, and I work my butt off and get it done in three weeks, it’s now half as good as it needs to be.’ ”

Put simply, if we are to ensure that this outbreak of Ebola is contained, we need to take much stronger and sterner measures at an early stage. We need to contain the outbreak and prevent it from expanding, and such measures would include (for example) establishing strict quarantine measures for any travellers coming to this country from West Africa. Such a process would undoubtedly be a cue for squeals of outrage from the politically correct, and would be denounced as ‘racist’ and (much worse) profoundly inconvenient for those who want to take advantage of air travel around the globe. I think that such things are luxuries, and if we are to prevent a serious health crisis in our own country, we need to take much more direct measures immediately. A few weeks of extra hassle and fewer options is a small price to pay set against the horror and squalor than an uncontrolled outbreak would bring.

What we face with the Ebola crisis (at least for those of us who live in the rich West) is not necessarily an existential crisis. There is no element of the disease that cannot be handled by our health care and social welfare systems – so long as we act in good time, with all proper caution and due diligence. Where my concern lies is not in our physical capacity to deal with this, but with our decision making processes, that is, with the political leadership that we presently endure – and that is not a point about a particular person but about the quality of the political class as a whole. My fear is about their fears – that they are more afraid of short-term unpopularity brought about by seeming politically incorrect and draconian, rather than being afraid of what the unchecked exponential growth of a contagious disease will cause. As another US expert has put it: “The virus is moving on virus time; we’re moving on bureaucracy or program time.” That’s not good enough.

(Quotations found here)

We won’t win with weapons of war

Courier article

In a speech about the crisis in the Middle East, which he gave on September 26th, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said “My Lords, a danger of this debate is that we speak only of Iraq and Syria, only of ISIL, and only of armed force. ISIL and its dreadful barbarity are only one example of a global phenomenon… it is also necessary, over time, that any response to ISIL and to this global danger be undertaken on an ideological and religious basis that sets out a more compelling vision, a greater challenge and a more remarkable hope than that offered by ISIL. We must face the fact that for some young Muslims the attractions of jihadism outweigh the materialism of a consumer society… if we struggle against a call to eternal values, however twisted and perverted they may be, without a better story, we will fail in the long term.”

I am delighted after all the years of politically correct pabulum that our overlords normally spout, we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with first-hand experience of Islamic terror who is prepared to speak the plain truth. We are engaged in a profound civilisational struggle, and, put simply, if we solely rely on bombs and guns we will never win – and all the many blessings of our own tolerant civilisation will be snuffed out.

The Archbishop’s central point is that we need ‘a better story’. Much of our discourse, from politicians and the media is frighteningly shallow. “Ooh look, bad guys are chopping heads off, they must be evil, let’s go and bomb them.” We have to engage with these issues at a much deeper level. We need to understand the part that our own society has played in leading up to the present crisis – and by that I do not mean simply referencing previous invasions of Iraq.

After all, there has been warfare between the different societies and nations for rather a long time – has there, indeed, ever been a time of peace? Simply to look at the history between Islam and Christendom, it was born in warfare (Muhammed was a remarkably gifted warrior and general) and that has never changed. Islam expanded militarily, first pushing back and forcibly converting the Eastern Roman Empire and also conquering Spain. The Western European lands pushed back, first with the Crusades (much misunderstood) but then much more substantially after the Industrial Revolution, first with Napoleon’s incursions into Egypt and then the more directly imperial processes through the 19th and 20th Centuries.

One of the most misleading parts of the conventional story that is broadcast is the notion that the terrorists are ‘medieval’, which is a profound calumny of the ways of thinking that lie behind our own delusions of ‘progress’. On the contrary, the forms of Islamic terrorism that so disturb the world today are profoundly Modern. They are intolerant of difference and particularity and excessively intellectually focussed – in other words, they are a form of fundamentalism in just the same way that Christian fundamentalism is, and also in just the same way that the conventional Western understanding of science is (think of Richard Dawkins as the best exemplar of that attitude).

This terrorism is fuelled by the sense that elements of their society which are valued, which are important, which constitute their identity are at risk of being obliterated by the overwhelming force of Western culture. As we are within Western culture, I don’t believe we often ponder just how dominating our technocratic patterns of life are. It is as if people are talking together in a quiet cafe on a street corner, and then a truck comes in with industrial grade amplification and the Rolling Stones start playing a concert out front. The patrons of the cafe are no longer able to think coherently, let alone talk and continue their conversation. Western culture has many things to learn from non-Western societies, things which it once valued but has forgotten. Perhaps we might learn how to turn our own volume down, and start listening to the still, small voice of calm which might – just might – have something to tell us about how to move forward in our present impasse.

However, this might seem to imply not only that Western society is ‘to blame’ for what is presently happening and, worse, that our past behaviour justifies the terrorists. This is not the case. One injustice does not legitimise another. To say that it does is to identify oneself as a ‘barbarian’, that is, one that has neither faith nor civilisation. In just the same way that the present crisis asks profound questions of our Western culture, so too does it ask some very sharp and painful questions of Islamic society. The muslim world is also called to look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they have the resources within their own religious tradition to develop in a more peaceful direction. This is what Pope Benedict discussed in his Regensburg address in 2006, a speech which was inevitably misunderstood by our own pathetically ignorant media, but which repays attention at this time.

After all, there are many strengths and weaknesses in Islamic thought – as with other faiths (and non-faiths!). Why is it that if we look at the world today, the overwhelming majority of conflicts involve Islam, such that there is a ‘ring of fire’ around the muslim world? If we start to list the names it is striking how a remarkable diversity of human contexts has given rise to the repeated expression of a militant Islam which resorts to despicable acts of terror in order to advance what is self-identified as a religious mission. There is Boko Haram in Nigeria, where Christian daughters are kidnapped and sold into ‘marriage’. There is the Taliban, determined to physically eliminate all evidence of other faiths and societies in Afghanistan. There is Hamas, explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the nation state of Israel. There is also ISIS, the enemy which is now being used to justify our continued military intervention in the Middle Eastern oil fields.

If we are to succeed in our struggle for peaceful co-existence then we need to acknowledge that this is a spiritual aim that needs spiritual resources. Clearly, when it comes to discussing the nature of that struggle both the Archbishop and I have well understood commitments that shape how we understand the issues. Yet for the purposes of this column I am very happy to concede it may not be Christianity that we need, it may be something else. What I would insist upon is the need to tell a better story – to share a vision of full human flourishing which includes all human beings simply because they are human beings. I believe that it is the society that can best articulate such a compelling vision that will not simply win this struggle, but will deserve to do so too.

Comment problems?

One regular here has told me that he has a problem leaving comments on the blog – has that happened to anyone else? I notice that the last comment received was in mid-June (real life has distracted me hugely recently). I am deluged with spam since switching to WordPress – why wasn’t I warned? – so I changed the settings a while back. If it’s simply that nobody wants to leave a comment, that’s fine, but if there is a systemic problem please let me know (email is blog title at gmail dot com).

Comments are always welcome, even if I don’t instantly respond! My life should become a little more normal very soon…

The nature of forgiveness and non-judgement

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the practice of forgiveness lies at the very centre of Christian faith. There is a caricature of Christian faith that suggests that the most essential thing is to be able to proclaim a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’, so that the possession and use of a particular vocabulary is what marks a Christian apart from the non-Christian. To my mind this is pernicious nonsense, and cuts directly across Jesus’ own teachings, most especially when he describes the separation of the sheep from the goats at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. There, Jesus explicitly teaches that it is not those who call him Lord who enter the Kingdom, but those who have acted according to God’s will, irrespective of the language that they have used in doing so. The language of ‘personal relationship’ isn’t even found in Scripture, which is rather ironic, all things considered.

So if it is the case that, as described in the Book of Revelation, that we will be ‘judged according to our deeds’, what sort of deeds are Christians called to carry out? Jesus lists several – to heal the sick, to visit those in prison, to clothe the naked and so on. I would argue, however, that underlying these specific commands is a more general one, which has the nature of a fundamental spiritual law, and which Jesus repeats in several different forms and on several different occasions. As such, I regard this teaching as the central element of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. If we get this right, then all the rest shall follow.

This central teaching is about forgiveness. This is the command to ‘turn the other cheek’, to ‘pray for those who persecute you’; it is the injunction to ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’; it is the warning that we are to examine the beams in our own eyes before we have the temerity to start pointing out the motes in the eyes of another. Why do I describe this as being about forgiveness? I do not believe that the orientation of the human heart towards non-judgement can be separated from the attitude of forgiveness. That is, I believe that the nature of forgiveness is essentially that of non-judgement towards another; it is the resolve to always have a heart which is open to reconciliation. Let me spell out two elements of this, so that the link might hopefully become clear.

Firstly, forgiveness is one element in the process of reconciliation, and that process runs through a number of stages. The classic understanding of sin – what Christians call those acts which cause us to become strangers to God and one another – is that sin involves the breach of a relationship. That might be a breach of our relationship with God, breaking the first great commandment that we are to love God above all things; or, it might be a breach of our relationship with our neighbour, breaking the second great commandment that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. The question is: how might we overcome that breach? In other words, the solution to the problem of sin (a break in a relationship) is reconciliation (the restoration of a relationship). In order for a reconciliation to take place, there needs to be an acknowledgement from one party that they have caused a breach, and this we call ‘repentance’. This is the apology, the ‘sorry I got that one wrong’. There also needs to be an openness to reconciliation on the part of the one who has been hurt by the breach. This is the ability to forgive, to accept the apology. Where there has been a breach in a relationship, then when one party says sorry, and the other party accepts the apology, then there is a reconciliation. When this happens, this is what Christians call the Kingdom of God.

The second element that needs to be clarified is that when Jesus teaches ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’ he is not recommending a lifestyle of radical imprudence. If there were to be a serial killer abroad in our society, it is not a breach of Jesus’ teaching to say that such a person needed to be caught and locked away for a long time. There is a distinction that needs to be drawn between judgement as condemnation and judgement as discrimination. In other words, what Jesus is teaching us is that our hearts must always remain open to the possibility of relationships being repaired. The serial killer might come to their senses and repent of their sin – in which case, the Christian path is to accept that forgiveness and enable a relationship to be restored. That relationship might well mean that the serial killer remains behind bars for the rest of their life – that is what a right discrimination on the part of the authorities might mean. Yet this is also why Jesus says that we are to visit those in prison, to ensure that they are not lost from human contact.

For this is the essential teaching – that no human being is to be cast aside. We are not to reduce those human beings who hurt us to the state of ‘less than human’. We can see this human tendency repeating throughout history, when the enemies of a society are reduced to an ‘other’, to a ‘them’, which makes the hatred and murder of ‘them’ legitimate within a particular society. It is happening now with respect to those human beings who are part of ISIS in the Middle East. When they are chopping the heads off from journalists or aid workers, they are engaging in acts which are barbaric and evil, and they must be opposed. Yet the challenge for the Christian is to oppose them without reducing them to the status of ‘less than human’. We are to always remain open to the restoration of a full relationship. We might also, of course, ponder our own culpability in creating the situation in the Middle East that has led us into this situation.

In the end, the spiritual heart of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and non-judgement is, for me, the teaching that ‘the measure you give will be the measure that you receive’. In other words, if we harbour judgementalism in our own heart against those who have wronged us then that judgementalism will itself cripple our own ability to experience an abundant life, a life in all its fullness. Forgiveness does not benefit the one who is being forgiven, it benefits the one who is doing the forgiving. It is the setting down of a burden, a setting down of hurt, a setting down of the desire to be God and to weigh the soul of another human being in our own scales. We are simply not capable of that divine discernment, and the prideful pursuit of righteous condemnation leads only to greater and greater suffering. We need to let go of such things, and leave them to God.

One of the most moving things that a priest can ever do is to hear a confession, when a penitent comes to a “discreet and learned minister of God’s Word” in order to “open his grief” and be relieved of the spiritual burdens that they have been carrying. For me, the most important part of this service, however, comes at the very end, when the priest says “The Lord has put away your sins. Go in peace, and pray for me, a sinner too.” I’m not sure it is ever given to a priest to say something more truthful than that.

It’s because we don’t believe in God

I am more and more persuaded that the problems that we face in the Church of England stem from a collapse of faith. We no longer believe in God, we no longer know what we do believe in, and so we chase desperately after idols, hoping that one or other of them can fill the gap.

This will never happen. Between the idol and the Living God is an incommensurable distance.

Which idols am I thinking of? Here are some.

The idol of public acceptability, leading the Church to marry the spirit of the age, leading to inevitable widowhood.

The idol of ‘family’ as if the worth of the church can be measured by how far it can compete with Go Bananas.

The idol of intellectual respectability, as if conformity to Modernist rationalism is the acme of faith.

The idol of Herbertism, as if priesthood could be reduced to the niceness of middle class mores.

The idol of bureaucratic managerialism, as if ministry can be reduced to the manipulation of numbers and financial returns.

Let us not be naive. The worship of idols requires sacrifice – not the sacrifice of thanksgiving but the sacrifice of human flesh: burnt out pastors, spiritually impoverished congregations, human misery in myriad forms. Idol worship makes the church sick, and the sickness then infects the wider body of society.

We no longer know what we are here for. The old has definitely passed, and because we worshipped a particular cultural role, and enjoyed the importance that flowed from it, we didn’t notice when God left the building. We are reduced to more and more frantic efforts to rekindle flames but the world can see the difference between orange paper and that which burns.

The Living God is taking away all the things which we valued, in order that we might concentrate once again upon the one thing needful. This is an act of love, and it is only painful in so far as we fight it.

We need to let go – of all of it. All our inherited expectations of what church looks like, of what ministry looks like, of what worship looks like, of what Scripture and teaching looks like. We need to go out into the desert without looking behind at Egypt and Babylon. We need to trust much more joyously in the provision of the Living God.

We need to have our hearts broken open, so that the rocks might be replaced with flesh.

Woe to us. Woe to us. Come let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us and will heal us. I just think we need more tearing before we are ready for the healing.

Prayer: an introspection and an ecstasy

Prayer seems often to be understood as an auditory dialogue. That is, in our minds we forms words and sentences – even paragraphs! – that we then address to God; then, in turn, God responds in the same way.

This, after all, is how things are repeatedly portrayed in the Bible. The Word of the Lord came to so-and-so and said “…”

Whilst I wouldn’t for one moment want to say that this does not happen, I would want to say that this has never been my experience of prayer. Although I am someone who has occasionally had ‘visions’ I do not experience God ‘speaking’ to me in the form of explicit words.

So why am I comfortable with the language of God speaking to people? Of God directing them, of God answering prayers?

I have found two forms of prayer to be satisfying, and when I talk about prayer, this is what I am referring to. (Those who know their Augustine will recognise the shape of what I am describing).

The first is what comes when I start the process of ‘emptying’ my own mind and awareness in order to let God speak into it. That can often happen through liturgy and ritual, eg Morning Prayer, but it can also happen just as reliably out of stillness and peace. As the general noise of my own internal monologue quietens down, other thoughts, images and ideas come forward. Some of these have a particular character, a ‘glow’ about them, a ‘smell of something good’ (those are metaphors). I have found that if I dwell with those particular thoughts, they lead me to a place of spiritual growth. I learn more about myself. I learn more about what I am called to do with my life. I find that I become a better person from paying attention to such things. This I experience as the principal means by which God ‘speaks’ to me – it is not about specific words, it is more about recognising a particular pattern of compulsion. Sometimes this compulsion can be utterly overwhelming (and thus: terrifying) but I hope – pray – that such things have passed, and that I can pay more attention to God’s promptings before He has to resort to extreme measures.

The second way relates to being in nature, especially when I am on the beach or, more rarely, when I am in a forest or – best of all – if I am sailing. What happens in these cases is less direct than the introspection that I described above, but is more clearly a form of ecstasy, ie ex – stasis, a ‘taking out of myself’. When I lose myself in the natural world, when my internal monologue is quietened, I often experience two things – one, the sense of ‘divine presence’ and comfort about which our religious tradition so often speaks, a sense of ‘being-at-home-in-the-world-ness’ (surely there is a German word that means exactly that?); second, sometimes there will be a particular idea or thought that leaps as if fully formed into my consciousness, provoking an ‘oh, of course’. Again, there is a particular character to these things, which makes me recognise them as being ‘of God’.

A sceptic atheist might object – this is just a question of accessing your unconscious! Why bring God into it?

To which I would say: what is the benefit of such a redescription? It is no diminishment of God to say that He works through the normal processes of our minds. As Wittgenstein once said, ‘why can’t God work in accordance with a calculation?’

I reject the redescription, not because I see it as false, but because I see it an incomplete, and as cutting off the insight that is possible from integrating our own experience with the experience expressed through a tradition that is thousands of years old and which has vastly more wisdom embedded in it than contemporary secularism could ever dream of.

So that is prayer, for me – an introspection and an ecstasy.

Please sir, can we protect our daughters?

It would seem from the relative amount of column inches and the vehemence of feminist opinions expressed in recent newspapers that the greatest trauma that can be suffered by a woman is when someone who makes a living from appearing in public ends up having more of a public appearance than she had planned. This at a time when we learn that some 1400 young working class girls have been systematically and repeatedly raped in Rotherham, and that such abuse extends to other towns and cities in this country, like Rochdale, Oxford and Didsbury. Clearly what happens to the rich and famous is far more important than what happens to the poor and vulnerable.

We are living in a profoundly sick and decadent society. The destruction of all our inherited norms and practices, dependent on the millenia of Judeo-Christian worship, has led us into a cultural abyss where we no longer know what we stand for and we let abominations pass unremarked whilst working ourselves up into a tizzy over trivialities. I feel that I have a better understanding now of what is meant by the references to Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned. Our version involves indulging in prurient shock whilst our daughters are systematically raped in the streets and the authorities continue to say ‘move along now, there is nothing to see’.

Actually it is worse than that. The authorities themselves are compromised. I notice that where a celebrity might possibly – conceivably – have been involved in the abuse of a child, that same police force that has been criminally and culpably negligent with regard to hundreds of poor girls makes sure that the world knows through live BBC coverage that they will leave no stone unturned in rooting out decades old evidence whilst the occupant is abroad. Once more, it is what happens to the rich and famous that is considered important – as for those girls, well, they’re just a bunch of chavs so they don’t count do they?

In our society, it is, after all, a much more profound violation of our new cultural norms to be a racist than a rapist. Consider the remarks from Denis McShane, the former MP for Rotherham, who has said that he was far too much of a ‘Guardian-reading lefty’ to investigate what was happening to the constituents that he was sworn to represent and protect, and that “there was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat”.

This “multicultural community boat”: this is the problem, this is where there is a foundational contradiction which generates chaos and moral collapse and which leads directly to the trauma of Rotherham’s children. I have written before in these pages that you cannot support the progressive expansion of rights for women and gays and all the other wonderful things about a humane and tolerant society and at the same time also allow cultures which vehemently repudiate those progressive values to flourish. One will eventually have to give way to the other, and I am genuinely afraid that, beneath all the public headlines, it is the non-Western values that are becoming the most deeply rooted in this land.

We need as a community to have a positive vision for what sort of society we would like to live in, and then we need to take positive and active steps to ensure that such a society is defended. This cannot be left to the authorities. This cannot be conducted as a ‘top-down’ exercise but has to be embraced by the community as a whole.

What most concerns me in the stories coming out of Rotherham, which I am sure are repeated elsewhere, are the tales about fathers wishing to protect their daughters and then being prevented from doing so by the intervention of the authorities, both in the form of the South Yorkshire police and the various other council and social services. (Let us remember, of course, that this is also the council that took foster children away from a happy home simply because the parents were revealed to be UKIP supporters).

Those who are in positions of power and authority need to be brought back to an awareness of the nature of public service, and to align their own values more closely with those whom they serve. At the moment the distance between the officials and their public is dangerously wide, leading to contempt on both sides. This can only lead to an outbreak of rage, not least on the part of those fathers who have been sidelined – a sidelining, after all, which is perfectly in keeping with the wider cultural shift that has caused such havoc over the last two or three generations.

Those who exercise power and authority over us can only do so if, in the end, they have the consent of the governed. Their monopoly on use of force can only be sustained when there is a wider trust in those who control the use of force. When the establishment is quite clearly a diseased and cancerous monstrosity, which fails in the most elementary and foundational duties of protecting the most vulnerable – and then prevents ordinary people from carrying out their own most basic and foundational duties as parents – then, sadly, there will come a time when men will snap. I think there is still time to avert Enoch Powell’s gloomy prophecies from coming to pass – just – but we need to pay much more serious attention to all the aspects of this issue, and not let ourselves get distracted by the embarrassments of film stars.

Greenbelt 2014 #gb14

TL;DR: it was great…

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1) I think this was my seventh Greenbelt, and (obviously) the first at Boughton House, which I thought was a stunningly good venue. For me, the benefit was crystallised on the Sunday afternoon – when there wasn’t much on that I wanted to take part in – and I was able to spend an hour in the shade of a tree looking across the grounds and drink in the simplicity and beauty. The bustle of the festival was just a background hum, and it was a matter of a few minutes walk to re-engage, but that opportunity to indulge in natural refreshment was priceless and for me justified the move completely. Having said that, there are clearly teething problems with the site, and I ended up leaving the festival mid-Monday morning because of the weather and the knock-on effects on talks – and that was obviously a prudent move on my part! I’m sure those problems will get sorted though.

2) I went to more talks than last year, for various reasons. A particular highlight was when Vicky Beeching was given a spontaneous standing ovation, that was really moving (and that talk was pretty good too – I definitely will purchase Robert Song’s book). I have a new intellectual crush…
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Her talks were all good, and the session on ‘Does the Church of England have a future’ was very stimulating – I might do a post entirely on that theme in the next week or two; I definitely want to do a Learning Church session on it.

3) As I have come to expect, one of the most important features of Greenbelt is catching up with old friends and making new ones, and this year didn’t disappoint. Friday night was particularly good as I had three different conversations in succession in the Jesus Arms! I am more and more conscious that Greenbelt is becoming my ‘tribe’ religiously speaking – generously Christian, but with very fuzzy boundaries; non-denominational, inclusive, curious, artistic, passionate. All things that I would like to develop more. As I despair more about the central institution of the CofE I rejoice more in the faith itself and what small groups of believers are able to accomplish together.

4) One final thought, following from that. I am sure that I am not the only person who identifies more with GB than with other Christian badges, and I wonder how far the GB leadership committee have explored the “expansion of the brand”. There are lots of hazards to this, but – especially in the light of the access problems – lots of advantages too. I’m thinking of something like taking over a hotel for a weekend and turning it into a single venue like the Pagoda – a limited number of tickets, one or two key speakers – like a conference but done according to GB principles. Have one just for CofE clergy mid-week! I think an awful lot of productive engagement would come out of such a thing.

Anyhow, loved it – not quite as much as last year, but there were particular reasons why last year worked so wonderfully for me, which will probably (hopefully!) never be repeated. I’m definitely going back next year – but I might do the glamping option…

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Atheism and the heart of darkness

The recent pictures of the beheading of James Foley are simply the latest exemplars of the brutality that drives the Islamic State. It would appear that the executioner spoke with a British accent which must surely make us ask ourselves – what is it about our contemporary British society which is so awful that it can generate those who wish to travel to a foreign land thousands of miles away in order to take part in systematic savagery?

Let’s move past the trope that it is religion that causes this. In the contemporary secular understanding of the world, it is, of course, purely down to religion that people can be horrible to each other, but such an approach is less and less credible as time goes on. Recent research published in the three volume ‘Encyclopedia of Wars’ shows that of the 1,763 wars listed, covering all of human history, some 93% were waged for non-religious reasons. Of the remainder, more than half were driven by muslim expansion. So all the other religions combined have been responsible for less than 3% of all the wars that have ever been waged. The reflex response to the horror of James Foley’s end in our society is to blame religious ignorance – indeed, to insist that to be religious is to be ignorant – but to stay in that mindset is to abandon any hope of either genuine understanding or progress in resolving conflict.

After all, what we see on the small scale with James Foley’s murder is reproduced in societies around the world. This is the heart of darkness, about which Conrad wrote so compellingly, and which Coppola translated to effectively onto the screen. This is ‘the horror, the horror’, the element of human nature that exults in blood and death. There is a human propensity to violence, which surely has a genetic root. After all, if chimpanzee troops can engage in violent savagery against each other, why should human troops be so different – and so far as I am aware, there is no argument to say that chimpanzee violence is rooted in religious beliefs.

What seems more plausible is the notion that in the struggle for resources and reproductive fitness human biology has inherited all the instincts that lead chimpanzees to slaughter each other. When human beings are placed in a situation where there is an easy way to distinguish between one group and another, and when those groups are placed under severe pressure associated with access to scarce resources, then those human beings are highly likely to end up slaughtering each other and playing football with the decapitated heads of the enemy. Put more succcinctly, proximity + diversity + pressure = darkness.

This darkness is a potential of every human heart. Civilisation is that thin crust covering over the darkness and enabling all the higher expressions of humanity, all the things which liberal society values, such as the possibility of peaceful disagreement, respect for human rights and diversity and so on. My concern is that the taproots of civilisation, most particularly the taproots of our civilisation, have been progressively destroyed over the last few centuries, and that it is this which means that we produce young men who wish to go overseas.

After all, this darkness is a central part of the Christian world view – we call it sin, in extreme forms we call it depravity, and we say that this is an inescapable part of our nature. We all sin, we all fall short of the glory of God. If we say that we have no sin then we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. We have stories that talk about how sin came into the world, and stories that talk about the immediate consequences of that sin – the original murder that followed the original sin. Much more important, we also have tools that enable us to engage with, overcome and redeem that sin – to turn our hearts of darkness into hearts of light. Such tools, principally our language of forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation – all that makes for peace and builds up our common life – these are what enable creative resolutions to human conflict. Without such tools, we are doomed to repeat the biological processes of our primate cousins, with the notable difference that we are apes armed with far more powerful weapons.

The question that I wish to ask the atheist is simply: is there anything in your worldview which enables the overcoming of the heart of darkness? Clearly the existence of the heart of darkness of itself need not trouble an atheist worldview, although it shatters the complacency embedded at the centre of liberal progressivism with which atheism is often associated. My question is about what can enable the heart of darkness to be changed: what are the resources which an atheist perspective brings to the table to enable our community to engage with and overcome the darkness which explicitly proclaims its desire to destroy our civilisation?

To change a human heart requires rather more engagement than a dispassionate understanding of the world can offer. We need to engage with our emotional health, and we need to discuss questions of pride and humiliation, both in ourselves and in other cultures. We need to have an honest conversation about the bleak brokenness of human nature, what the potential triggers for murder lust might be, and what we might be enabled, as a community and society, to do about them.

Although I greatly respect the insights that evolutionary biology can offer, they cannot get us very far on the journey we need to travel. I rather suspect that pondering the story about the political execution of an innocent man on a cross can tell us more about this than all the tomes of the evolutionists put together. It is because such tales have been relegated to the category of ‘fairy stories’ that we have become culturally bankrupt, lacking the capacity to engage creatively with the crises of our time. We will only be able to make progress when the dominant secular narrative accepts a more humble role, and we once again give stories the place of primary honour in the shaping and moulding of our civilisation.

The United States is channelling Daggett

This is from the screenplay of The Dark Knight Rises


Daggett bursts in, furious. Stryver tries to placate him.

How the hell did Miranda Tate get the inside track on the Wayne board?! Was she meeting with Wayne? Was she sleeping with Wayne?

Not that we know of -

Clearly you don’t ‘know of’ anything, do you?! Where’s Bane?!

We told him it was urgent -

Then where is the masked -

Speak of the devil…
Daggett turns. Bane is already there.

…and he shall appear.

What the hell’s going on?

The plan is proceeding as expected.

You see me running Wayne Enterprises?! (Moves towards Bane.)
Your stock exchange hit didn’t work, friend. And now you’ve got my construction crews working all hours around the city? How’s that supposed to help my company absorb Wayne’s?

Leave us.

You stay right there! I’m in charge!
Bane places a gentle hand on Daggett’s shoulder.

Do you feel in charge?
Daggett is taken aback. Stryver leaves.

I’ve paid you a small fortune -

And that gives you power over me?
Daggett considers the heavy hand on his shoulder. Nervous.

What is this?

Your money and infrastructure have been important. Till now.

What are you?

Gotham’s reckoning. Come to end the borrowed time you’ve all been living on…
Bane gently takes the terrified Daggett’s head in his hands…

You are true evil…

I am necessary evil.
Stryver, on the steps outside the living room, flinches.

I think that the United States (by which I mean: the small group of profoundly naive and ignorant in the State Department guiding US policy, not the US as a people – see this) has lost its way in the world, and has placed its trust in Mammon. Whether it is Russia or China or ISIS that plays the part of ‘Gotham’s reckoning’, that moment of truth is closer every day.