Balls and wheels and thrones

Latest Courier article. Normal blog service may be resumed next week, DV.

I’m writing this shortly after England’s victory over the Ukraine in the European Championships, which has – alongside France’s loss to Sweden – meant that England have reached the quarter-finals, and are avoiding Spain. If only we get past Italy we have a very tasty semi-final with Germany to look forward to. (edit: ha!!)

One of the reasons why I love football so much is because of the rich human drama that is always thrown up by it. Consider poor Harry Redknapp (if a highly successful multi-millionaire could properly be considered ‘poor’). Back in February Harry was on trial for tax fraud, and was facing a long stretch in prison if found guilty. He was acquitted, and on the very same day Fabio Capello resigned as the England manager – and those two things together seemed to be a ‘sign’ that Harry was destined to take on the England role, not least because Tottenham were playing so well. Yet since that day Spurs suffered a terrible run of form, have very unluckily missed out on the Champions League, and Harry not only didn’t get the England job but he has been ‘released’ from his Spurs job too – despite what any unbiased observer could only describe as a period of success for Spurs. From the heights of acquittal and acclaim to being discarded and out of job. Of course, the story isn’t over yet – one of the great comforts of football is ‘there is always next season’ – and it wouldn’t be a surprise to find Harry rising up once more, and trusting that the wheel of fortune will be kinder to him on the next spin.

There is, in any human life, a very large element of ‘moral luck’ – and that language of ‘wheels of fortune’ is one of the ways in which we discuss it. Football throws up all sorts of ways in which that luck is obvious, and there are many non-football equivalents (think of the lottery). What I find interesting is how we are to respond to it. To reference Kipling, how can we treat Triumph and Disaster as equal impostors? This is an issue in our society simply because of the shallow way in which we treat success, and worship those who are successful as celebrities. Indeed, our society has decayed so far that it is now possible to develop a career purely as a ‘celebrity’, not based upon any virtue or character or natural talent at all (I would name names, but it would be rude and indecorous). Whereas – and here my inner Victor Meldrew asserts himself – in previous ages there was at least some lip service paid to the classical virtues (hypocrisy being the tribute that vice pays to virtue) now we live in a society where the failure to be virtuous is held up as itself worthy of emulation. Now, I do not wish to argue that previous ages were more moral than ours – some were, some were not – only to point out that we have lost any shared consensus about how to assess moral worth. We no longer have the capacity to talk about morality – which means our ethics, which means our character as individuals and as a society – and as a result our character starts to disintegrate.

Consider all the various talent programmes that are so popular. Sometimes they throw up a charming tale – as with Ashley and Pudsey – yet to me (as someone who admittedly very rarely watches) much of the desire to watch is associated with the inevitably humiliation heaped upon certain contestants. This is the how and why of Simon Cowell’s success. This is the modern recapitulation of the Roman arena, where we watch slaves being thrown to the lions (fortunately with less blood – one of many ways in which we are more moral than that culture). Each programme represents a spin on the wheel of fortune, for the contestants and for the audience, all sharing in the illusion that the prize is worth the risk. This is the logic that leads us back to Roman culture, the inevitable end point of our decadence.

For me, these truths have for a long time been unmentionable in public and secular discourse, simply because they necessarily use language that cannot be translated into the nostrums of either science or public policy. How do you measure character? How do you heal a soul? However, because we all know that these things are of vital importance, and we want to learn about them, there is a very vigorous market for all those things which discuss it – through all the imaginative mediums of films and novels and theatre. This is where the interesting work is being done. For example, the very successful ‘Hunger Games’ sequence of novels is very good at digging out the underlying logic of our talent programmes, and it is not an accident that the society described there is called ‘Panem’.

Which brings me to my latest interest, which is called ‘Game of Thrones’, a TV series based upon a series of fantasy novels, and in which there is simple motto of ‘You win or you die’. At the risk of letting slip a ‘spoiler’, the first series (book) builds to a climax where one prominent character is executed – and that character is in many ways a moral exemplar. The world that is being described – in which we can, of course, read reflections of our own world – is simply one where being moral, being virtuous, is counter-productive, and simply leads to immense suffering for all those who are loved. The necessary skills for playing the Game of Thrones are deceit and treachery, subterfuge and ruthlessness – these are what enable a character to survive.

Is this a fair description of our world? And if it is, is this really the world that we want to live in? Can we do anything about it? I think the answer to those questions are: yes, no and yes – but explaining why will have to wait until my next article.

A few thoughts about gay parenting

This is really by way of a supplement to my previous post about civil partnerships, and prostitutes getting to heaven before the priests.

My argument there is that we need to draw a distinction between sanctioning and blessing relationships which are purely about the relationship between the parties involved, and sanctioning and blessing relationships which involve the raising of children. I believe that the wider society has a much stronger interest in the latter than in the former. Whilst there is all sorts of Christian thinking that can be considered in such cases, my overwhelming feeling is that it is for the Christians concerned to establish what is right, between them and God (and if they explicitly seek God’s blessing for their endeavours then the church should enable such blessings to take place). In other words, I think it is a matter of taking their baptism seriously, and trusting in the outworking of grace in the lives of brother and sister Christians.

The latter situation, involving the raising of children, involves more factors. Two things to say about this. First, I believe that – in so far as we can use such language – it is part of God’s original intentions for humankind that each child is to be loved into being and raised by their mother and father, and that there is something inevitably biological and organic at the root of this. That is, any situation which results in a child not being raised in love by their biological mother and father is the result of sin somewhere along the line (not necessarily sin by the parents – it could simply mean that one parent has lost their life for any of a multitude of reasons). I think that it is important to hold on to this as the normative model for parenting.

My second point, however, is a recognition that, in our fallen world, we have to cope with many situations that fall short of the ideal. What then? Well, we make the best we can from what we’ve got. We patch up our families, putting together whatever pieces work in so far as we can do so. We recognise that things aren’t ideal, and we rely on God’s grace to plug the gaps. As I argued before, I suspect that it may be easier for God to do his work when people recognise their own brokenness rather than otherwise (“every heart to love will come… but like a refugee”). Given this, I don’t have any problems with couples of all shapes and sizes and orientations adopting or fostering children. Seems to me that if there are loving homes available, and children in need of loving homes, then everybody wins.

However, I would add a caveat to this. If we accept God’s intentions as normative – that a child is to be raised by their biological mother and father – then this places a question mark against all the ways in which there is a conscious choice to bring a child into the world without their biological mother or father being the ones to raise the child, eg through artificial insemination. That would seem to be to be actively choosing against what is normative, rather than simply coping with what is not normative and redeeming a broken situation.

So to sum up my present thinking:
– blessing of civil partnerships – big yes;
– adoptions by gay couples – yes (subject to same restrictions as heterosexual couples);
– actively choosing to bring children into world without mother and father – no.

Current ambiguity still to be explored – if a gay couple with children seek church blessing – does that mean ‘gay marriage’?! I think not, but I still have further thinking to do on this…!

Tell me again – Leonard Cohen and the problem of suffering

Long time readers may recall a long and eventually fruitless argument I had with Stephen Law about the problem of evil. My concluding thoughts are here, and a link up is here.

Time and reflection haven’t changed my thoughts much. I still think that the ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering is a life lived, and that the intellectual analyses rather miss the point. Most crucially, I believe that the essential path is to be like Job – to tell God that you have a bone to pick with Him – but to accept the answer that isn’t given, and pray anyhow. Or, as Elie Wiesel describes, “It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.”

I’m listening to Leonard Cohen a lot at the moment, and this theme runs through so many of the songs – I see Cohen as articulating the only faithful response that is possible. Consider this:

I don’t smoke no cigarette
I don’t drink no alcohol
I ain’t had much loving yet
But that’s always been your call

or

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave

And most clearly of all, this:

‘Gay marriage’ and the blessing of civil partnerships

My latest Courier article

There is much fuss at the moment about the status of marriage, whether the Church of England should be obliged to bless civic partnerships in church, and whether the state should allow something which is described as ‘gay marriage’. This is definitely one of those arguments that is generating more heat than light, but I hope I can add a little bit of the latter rather than the former.

The first thing I want to say is that, amongst the very few mentions that Jesus makes about marriage, that we have recorded in the gospels, one of the most important is to say that ‘there is no giving and receiving in marriage in the resurrection’ – in other words, marriage is principally a this-worldly arrangement, and is not part of our eternal nature. So what is at stake in these arguments is not quite as important as it is sometimes made out to be. Put bluntly, civilisation will not come to an end if our society chooses to redefine how marriage is understood. The Bible records a great many diverse marital arrangements through history, and life-long monogamy is only the most recent form.

From an anthropological perspective it is possible to see that monogamy developed because it provided the most long term peace for a society. In human history 80% of females have succeeded in reproducing and passing on their genes, whereas only 40% of males have achieved the same. That is because in the animal kingdom the ‘alpha’ has greatest access to mating opportunities, and those males who don’t measure up have no chance to reproduce, and get eliminated. This also means that violent conflict is inevitable, as one alpha overthrows the next. What monogamy meant – and it is something that only became possible with the development of agriculture and permanently settled land – is that most men gain a chance to reproduce. Where monogamy is enforced – that is, where female adultery is taken seriously and has consequences like public shaming or being stoned to death, as described in the early part of the Bible – then the great majority of men have a stake in the maintenance of a stable society, and the level of internal violence within a society is greatly reduced. This allows for the establishment of laws and the much more rapid development of culture. Yes, this is completely patriarchal and sexist, but the gains that have come from monogamy have not been trivial, and should not be trivially set aside.

There is a second way in which society has needed to regulate sexuality, and that is because the wider society has a stake in how children are raised. Everyone suffers the consequences if children are raised without the sense of emotional security and trust that is provided by a stable family framework. Until the advent of modern contraceptive technology there was a fairly reliable link between sexual relations and conception – and that meant that the wider society had a significant stake in the regulation of sexual relations, and this was what lay behind the stigma of illegitimate birth. Our technological development means that we are in an unprecedented situation – the link between sexuality and procreation has been made optional, and our theologies and ethics are still catching up with what that means.

For example, the root of the ban on contraception in the Roman Catholic church goes back, via Aquinas, to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that each element of the human body had a particular purpose, and that right behaviour lay in conforming our desires to those purposes. The purpose of the sexual organs was reproduction; therefore, any use of those organs for purposes other than procreation was wrong. If that basic assumption is rejected – if, for example, you believe that the sexual organs may have a role in “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one [partner] ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (1662 Prayer Book) – then a wider understanding of sexuality is acceptable, and so is contraception.

This also means that some aspects of sexuality need not be so tightly regulated by society, and that some sexual expression that was previously forbidden may now become acceptable. Homosexuality is one such. Now there are, of course, a small number of Scriptural texts – often misunderstood – that would seem to argue against the wisdom of this change. I would be quite happy to discuss such texts, their meaning and their applicability, at another time – maybe in another column, if that would be of interest. If sexuality has a place in providing cement for a relationship, however, irrespective of the needs for procreation, why should such a relationship only be allowed for heterosexual couples? The general acceptance of this line of argument is what has led to the development of civil partnerships, and the pressure on the Church of England to allow such civil partnerships to be blessed in church. It is what has led our Prime Minister to lead calls for accepting ‘gay marriage’. It seems to me that there is a confusion of thinking here.

In previous times, where there was a direct link between sexuality and procreation, where that understanding guided the ethics of a society, and where society had a great stake in the raising of children, the society established strong boundaries around the expression of sexuality. We no longer live in such a society, and so it seems to me that we need to distinguish between two forms of relationship: one in which the mutual society of the two partners is the central element, and one in which the raising of children is the central element. The first is effectively a civil partnership, the second is what has classically been understood as a marriage.

I believe that society can sit very lightly towards the former, and that we can celebrate human love and affection wherever it can be found. Whilst there are undoubted gains in the quality of a relationship where it is intended to be life-long, should such relationships break down, the pain and suffering is principally restricted to those directly involved. In so far as the church might be able to assist such relationships to flourish, that would seem to me like a worthy Christian endeavour. At the moment blessings of a civil partnership in church are forbidden, but should I ever be in a position to vote on the matter, I would happily endorse them.

The latter form, however, is different. It does still require more profound social involvement, for we all have a stake in the raising of healthy children. I am not convinced that it makes sense to move from what is already available – civil partnerships – to an acceptance of ‘gay marriage’. Here is where I have some sympathy with Aristotle, for I would argue for the normativity of a child being raised by both its parents and, at least for now, that means a mother and father, a heterosexual relationship. Biology may not be destiny entire, but a proper respect for our biological inheritance would suggest that the procreation of children is not a core part of a gay relationship. This is why I think the government is confused in its thinking – there is no need to redefine marriage in order to enable a full equality for gay people.

Occupy London, St Paul’s and the Rebel

One of my formative philosophical influences – and I can say that without being pretentious because I was about 17 when I read it, and pretention is expected at that age – was Albert Camus’ ‘The Rebel’, most especially the first few pages. These describe the reaction of a slave who has simply taken too much abuse and turns round to say ‘No’. From that refusal comes a sense of value and a sense of self – and these are the building blocks for creating something new. This is the primal reaction from which all else comes. Camus writes “An awakening of conscience, no matter how confused it may be, develops from any act of rebellion and is represented by the sudden realisation that something exists with which the rebel can identify himself…”

I’ve been pondering this whilst following the events outside St Paul’s. There has been much criticism of the Occupy movement for not having ‘clear goals’ (on which see this great cartoon). That is immediately to try and force the rebellion to conform to the dominant discourse, to be co-opted into the patterns that pose no threat to the establishment. Specific claims will, I do not doubt, follow in due course. For now, however, it is enough for there to be the protest, the rebellion – the saying ‘No’ to manifest injustice, arrogance, ignorance and greed.

So what of St Paul’s at this time? I can’t be the only one who is dubious about the ‘Health and Safety’ rationale for closing the cathedral, not least because those grounds have not been clearly communicated to the Occupiers, who are therefore prevented from being able to take action in response to allay the concerns. Clearly it is a way of trying to bring moral pressure upon the protesters to get them to move along and not cause such bother. Yet if I’m right about the rebellion being the ‘awakening of conscience’ then the cathedral authorities are lining up on the wrong side of the divide – their moral pressure is simply an expression of convention rather than a receptivity to the right. In Camus’ terms they are embodying the abuser, metaphorically and literally. What I find most intriguing is that the Occupy actions have inadvertently put the spotlight onto the national church, rather than causing immediate difficulties to the financial institutions. What are the real values that guide the Church of England? With whom shall we stand? At the moment, sadly, it looks as if the Church is simply another element of the governing class, an Erastian placeholder cavilling at those protesting wickedness because it is simply not the done thing. Will the Church ever get to a point where it can say to the establishment ‘thus far and no further’? It would return to the Church that sense of value and sense of self which is conspicuous by its absence. I believe that it is what the people of this country are in fact looking for – the Occupiers not least among them.

(In the meantime plaudits and kudos to Kathryn Rose for following where the Spirit leads!)

Why shouldn’t we let the bankrupt go bust?

A genuine question, and I’m trying to work out the answer (so here I’m thinking out loud).

If Greece defaults – which looks very likely very soon – then there are banks which have made loans to the Greek government which will then not have those loans repaid. This is on such a scale that it is likely that many banks would themselves become insolvent. There is thus great pressure on governments to ensure either that Greece does not default (they’ve lost that one) or, if it does, that the banks are ‘ring fenced’ from the consequences of their actions.

This doesn’t seem right to me.

Assuming Greece defaults (or the other PIIGS) why shouldn’t we let the banks go bust in consequence? After all, it is their decision making which such a fault would put to the test. What would be the malign consequences?

Well, for the ‘average person’ probably not very much. In the UK – and I guess elsewhere – there is deposit insurance, which means that most people’s bank accounts are protected. If one bank goes bust then their customer base is an asset which is then sold on by the auditors who are trying to maximise the asset value from the bankruptcy proceedings. So that side of things is covered.

Those who are richer will get a more or less severe financial haircut, in several ways. Firstly, there is a threshold to the deposit insurance, so deposits above that level would be lost. Second, those who have shareholdings in the bank will – largely – see that investment be destroyed. Thirdly, those who have pensions may be at risk of seeing those pensions lose value if those funds are invested in insolvent institutions.

The thing is, those latter malign consequences I do not see as being anybody else’s business. That is the nature of the free market. If you invest in a company that makes bad decisions then you will likely lose your money. What I most object to is a systemic bias towards privatising gains whilst socialising losses. Or, to put that more simply, I believe that it is shockingly immoral for general taxation to be used to subsidise incompetence and greed. To use an admirable politician’s latest catchphrase, this is simply crony capitalism, and it is corrupt.

At this point the spectre of ‘systemic risk’ is raised. If we don’t stop the banks going bust then civilisation will collapse – I paraphrase, but that is normally the gist. Civilisation is collapsing anyway – and not least because we have ignored the moral foundations of our communities and societies. My view, therefore, is that destroying the notion of moral hazard, making the rich invulnerable to the consequences of their own misjudgements, is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

So I say – let the bankrupt go bust. If we no longer bail out the venal and the incompetent then perhaps there will be a little bit of money left over to look after those in genuine need.

Make sense?

Captain America, remembering to be righteous

Took my eldest to watch Cap the other day, I thought it was rather good.

As is often the case, I feel that popular culture is often more revealing than high culture of the moods and currents currently flowing in our civilisation.Captain America represents old values, things that we have forgotten.

This is the struggle that we face. An attempt to restore forgotten virtues in a culture that has become corrupted. From the ‘ur-text’ of “After Virtue”:

…if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness that constitutes part of our predicament. 

The reason why I like popular culture such as this is because here they are at least conscious of the problem, and seem able to explore it freely. (See here for an article about the riots, see here for a bit more on the mythology of Cap)

Evil suffers a (small) setback

This is going to be a bit of a rant, and I’ll probably wish I hadn’t written it tomorrow… BUT

I’m glad the News of the World is shutting down. I generally see the tabloid newspapers as being a physical embodiment of many of the worst aspects of human nature (and not just because I’ve been bitten by them, it long predates that). To put that in a less wordy fashion, I think the tabloids are evil. I think they serve the Enemy. And now, for one brief and no-doubt temporary moment, the bright white light of public scrutiny has been turned on to those who have caused or colluded in wickedness and we are revolted by what we see. Thank God we still have some moral substance in us.

No doubt there were good and conscientious Germans who worked hard for the Nazi regime and never personally murdered a Jew, but who were out of a job when the camps shut down. Yes, an extreme analogy, but the difference is only one of scale. Never forget that the Nazis were enabled to pursue their policies because they had first whipped up the scapegoating process, and it is precisely that evil scapegoating process that the tabloids specialise in.

So I am glad of heart. I don’t care that this will be cynically manipulated by Murdoch and that we will soon have the Sun seven days a week. For one brief moment evil has suffered a setback. Today is a good day.

Another hymn meme, and some more good thoughts on music

We care so much about music in worship – and we care because it matters.

Some good thoughts from Tim here, and the Artsy Honker here, and I am shamelessly stealing this CS Lewis quote from the latter, which I love:

“There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

“The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

“But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.”

My musical thought for the day: mindless and emotive worship music is popular (in some circles) because it is a corrective to the excessive rationalism promoted (in some circles) by our culture. It might explain the apparent paradox of brilliant IT nerds enjoying near-fundamentalist churches – it brings balance to their force 😉

Here’s the meme, again from Doug, who won’t let me escape…

1. Choose a hymn that you love to hate. It must be in a widely used and current hymn-book.
2. Say why.
3. Tag three people.

An honest answer would be ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ but I think that would be too easy. So a possibly controversial one:

1. Make me a channel of your peace.
2. A good prayer set to a difficult tune which is often murdered by a congregation that is unfamiliar with it. What makes it worse is that it is quite often chosen for funerals because people have been exposed to a good performance by a pop star (eg here) and the sentimental level is pushed up to 11. Blech.
3. I tag: Byron, Cranmer and Dave W.

Another hymn meme, and some more good thoughts on music

We care so much about music in worship – and we care because it matters.

Some good thoughts from Tim here, and the Artsy Honker here, and I am shamelessly stealing this CS Lewis quote from the latter, which I love:

“There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

“The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect. Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace; not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

“But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste – there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.”

My musical thought for the day: mindless and emotive worship music is popular (in some circles) because it is a corrective to the excessive rationalism promoted (in some circles) by our culture. It might explain the apparent paradox of brilliant IT nerds enjoying near-fundamentalist churches – it brings balance to their force 😉

Here’s the meme, again from Doug, who won’t let me escape…

1. Choose a hymn that you love to hate. It must be in a widely used and current hymn-book.
2. Say why.
3. Tag three people.

An honest answer would be ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ but I think that would be too easy. So a possibly controversial one:

1. Make me a channel of your peace.
2. A good prayer set to a difficult tune which is often murdered by a congregation that is unfamiliar with it. What makes it worse is that it is quite often chosen for funerals because people have been exposed to a good performance by a pop star (eg here) and the sentimental level is pushed up to 11. Blech.
3. I tag: Byron, Cranmer and Dave W.