Lessons from Cologne cathedral

Did you hear about the young German louts who got in to the sacred shrine in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and went around pulling off the face veils of Muslim women there? No? Me neither. I did, however, hear about what happened at Cologne cathedral, where large groups of immigrants went round systematically groping and assaulting young German women, in at least two cases going so far as raping them. Why is it that we do not hear about the first, but our front pages are full of the second? For the simple reason that we have lost all confidence in the values of our own society. Consequently, those values will in turn be lost.

Consider this thought experiment. There are four tribes leaving close to each other. These four tribes are peaceable, and they trade various products easily. All is well. Now imagine that one of the tribes changes in such a way that they become warlike; they are no longer interested in trade with the neighbouring tribes, instead they simply decide to take up arms and go in to take what it is that they want. The other three tribes face a dilemma. If they do not resist in a warlike fashion, then their tribes will die and be assimilated. If they do resist in a warlike fashion, however, then their culture will be changed, from a culture of peace to a culture of war. As a result of the one tribe changing, all the other tribes will change, and the ‘culture of war’ has become universal. The culture that chose to become warlike has succeeded in changing the other cultures – even if they do not win militarily.

This is now happening in Western Europe. Muslim countries which are much more restrictive in their attitudes about sexuality and the role of women in society are now succeeding in imposing their own cultural values upon the West. Consider the advice that the Mayor of Cologne has given to the young women there – that they are to ‘stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood’ and so on. Soon, no doubt, well meaning political leaders will start arguing that young women need to dress modestly if they are to go outside, then soon after that they will start saying that ‘it is only prudent’ that young women don’t go out without a trusted male relative to look after them. At that point we will have succeeded in importing muslim cultural standards wholesale into our society. Do we really want this to happen? And if we don’t, how will we make sure that it doesn’t happen?

Do you remember the ‘Arab Spring’? There was such a sense of optimism that various regimes in the Middle East would throw out their dictators and a wonderful rainbow unicorn fairy land would emerge. There was one incident in Tahrir square, however, which was deeply disturbing, and was clearly a harbinger of what was to come. The CBS reporter Lara Logan was caught up in a mass sexual assault by dozens of young men. She was rescued by the security services and flown back to the United States where she spent four days in hospital being treated for her injuries. This form of assault has a particular name in Egypt – it is called taharrush gamea. Young men seek the cover of a large crowd, and then pick on the vulnerable with impunity. The German police have now admitted that this is what happened in Cologne.

According to Gibbon, the Western Roman Empire did not fall because it was beaten militarily by the barbarians, but rather because it had first succumbed to a spiritual and moral defeat. That is, those who exercised power on behalf of the Empire no longer believed in a higher purpose to what they were doing. I believe that we are in a similar position – our spiritual roots have been discarded and we have lost ourselves in a search for material gratification, we have ‘sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage’. Yet I do not believe that the culture and civilisation of Europe is doomed to the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. If we are to avoid such a fate, however, we need to remember and renew our own spirituality, and refresh the well-springs of our own culture.

The reason that we do not hear about young German louts acting offensively in Mecca is because entry to the sacred sites there is restricted to those who are Muslim. The Saudi authorities take their religious obligations seriously, and this is both a source of strength and a symptom of strength. By way of contrast, we have turned our great cathedrals into tourist venues, picturesque museums which show how our ancestors lived. The vibrant vitality of our historic culture has now been absorbed into mindless consumerism, the confessional becoming the selfie.

We are facing a challenge to the very foundations of our civilisation. If we are truly to continue on an enlightened and Enlightened path then we need to start taking steps to ensure that those values that we are most committed to are transmitted forward. This is not a matter simply of words, although words are essential, but also of action. We need to embody our highest values and not simply pay lip service to them. Unless we become a virtuous people once again then our values will pass into history and forgetfulness.

A start to this process would be to reclaim control of our own borders, so that we can make sure that we can decide for ourselves whether we wish to endure the delights of taharrush gamea in England. Just one more reason for voting to leave the EU when the time comes.

Protecting the alien and choosing life

refugeeWhat shall we do about all the refugees? I want to make three points about the present situation, to provide some background context for how a Christian might understand what is happening.

Firstly, there is some clear biblical guidance to draw upon, which is unanimous in saying that we are to be generous and merciful to those who are without a permanent home. In Scripture the refugees are often called the ‘alien’ – in other words, those who are unknown and unfamiliar in a particular context – and so we get texts like these: “You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21); “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27.19); and “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23.22). Scripture is insistent that the alien is to be treated with justice, that the alien is not to be abused or exploited, but rather to be fed and clothed and treated with compassion. This, then, must guide our immediate response.

So far, so good. What is not so often referenced when discussing the present plight of refugees is all the other law written out in Scripture, which offers something of a balance for that emphasis upon compassion. For alongside the insistence on compassion comes an even stronger insistence upon the necessity not to worship foreign gods, and for those who are alien to come under the same law as the native. So we have texts like this, from Numbers chapter 15: “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.” This law for the natives is founded in the ten commandments which begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” This stark insistence comes with a promise – from Deuteronomy chapter 30, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” So the second point that I want to make is that, in Biblical terms, compassion for the refugee is set directly alongside the requirement for the refugees to come under the same spiritual and legal framework as the native.

We need to hold both these things in mind today, and not just with respect to the present surge of refugees fleeing from the Middle East. We need to be very clear about what our own values are. Without that, we cannot ensure that anyone who comes to this country as an alien is treated with compassion and justice but also required to accept those values. Some might find this uncomfortable. Isn’t this a form of imperialism? Who are we to say that our values are better than somebody else’s? I find that when I mention such things in polite society it isn’t received very well. I become marked out as some sort of right-wing proto-fascist. After all, who are we to boast of our society, of our values, of our God? For that is what commitment to one set of values over against another – one God over against another – that is what it means: it is to say, we believe that this is better than that.

Well – who are we not to? Is every culture in the world to be accorded dignity and respect except for our own? I believe it is healthy and good to feel proud of our own values. Moreover I believe that it is impossible to be humanly committed to a particular way of life without it, and that it is a form of self-hatred to try to avoid all forms of national pride and celebration. To see those things in other cultures is wonderful – why can we not enjoy the same sense of wonder and celebration at all that makes our own culture distinctive? To do so, however, would mean recognising and honouring the place of our spiritual and religious beliefs within our national life, and the particular debility which we endure is that our dominant narratives are entirely secular, with no place for such things. Our tragedy is that we have blinded ourselves in the belief that it will enable us to see things more clearly.

Which brings me to my third and concluding point. We cannot avoid sharing in the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. We are by no means the principal source of the difficulties there – my view is that each country is largely responsible for its own destiny, and the fact that the Middle East is such a blighted region culturally and economically is best explained by reference to indigenous factors, not the impact of outside agents. Yet we have intervened militarily and culturally, and we have done so on the basis of our own blindness. The critique given of Western society by groups like ISIS are not entirely without merit, however barbarous their methods. Until we learn to engage seriously with the underlying theological analysis that they draw upon, and recognise that such analysis is shared very widely throughout the world, we will not be able to begin making amends for what we have done wrong, and enabling a greater peace in the Middle East.

Human beings live within worlds of story and meaning, in the same way that fish swim within water. It is the medium within which we live and move and have our being. When those aspects of our lives are deliberately scorned and belittled, in the name of another story and another God – secular technocratic science in our society – then it is as if we have started to pour toxic waste into our own water supply. We cease to function properly, and we move blindly from one mess to another, each one worse than the last. If we are to navigate through these crises effectively, we need to draw once more from the deep wisdom of our own spiritual tradition. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

witt vienna

What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990′s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.

Do you have faith in your pills?

bad_pharmaIn recent years many of the insititutional pillars of society have fallen into disrespect. Politicians, obviously, but also journalism, the priesthood, the police, many others. Groups that were trusted who have now fallen from grace. Are doctors going to be next?

This is a question raised by Ben Goldacre in his extremely stimulating book ‘Bad Pharma’, which I read on holiday. Goldacre is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist, and presently a lecturer at Oxford. In his book, published in 2012, Goldacre sets out to show, in his words, that “Drugs are tested by the people who manufacture them, in poorly designed trials, on hopelessly small numbers of weird, unrepresentative patients, and analysed using techniques which are flawed by design, in such a way that they exaggerate the benefits of treatments. Unsurprisingly, these trials tend to produce results that favour the manufacturer. When trials throw up results that companies don’t like, they are perfectly entitled to hide them from doctors and patients, so we only ever see a distorted picture of any drug’s true effects.”

Goldacre supports these contentions throughout his book building up a detailed critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the way in which it systematically distorts the medical process at every stage. The motivations for the pharmaceutical industry to do this are quite straightforward, given that it is a multi-billion pound industry and a successful new drug can mean the difference between a company flourishing and failing. However, in pursuit of that economic end, Goldacre documents the ways in which the industry undermines the scientific process in order to make more profit. The material that Goldacre presents is utterly shocking, and if I had any residual faith in the science lying behind much modern medical and psychiatric treatment, it has certainly vanished now.

Goldacre describes one example from when he was working in General Practice, which relates to the drug Reboxetine (Edronax), which is used as an anti-depressant. He had a patient who was not improving on other drugs, and was considering using Reboxetine to see if it had a beneficial effect. He looked at the available literature which seemed positive, and agreed with his patient that it was worth trying, and duly wrote out a prescription. However, shortly after this, a review of all the research on Reboxetine was published, which for the first time included data from medical trials that had not been published (one of the main ways in which the pharmaceutical industry manipulates things is by only publishing information about trials that show their drug in a favourable light, whilst suppressing information that is critical). Goldacre writes, “I did everything a doctor is supposed to do. I read all the papers, I critically appraised them, I understood them, I discussed them with the patient and we made a decision together, based on the evidence. In the published data, reboxetine was a safe and effective drug. In reality, it was no better than a sugar pill and, worse, it does more harm than good. As a doctor, I did something that, on the balance of all the evidence, harmed my patient, simply because unflattering data was left unpublished.”

The problems that Goldacre are describing are recognised as serious problems by some influential voices. The British Medical Journal, for example, recently published an editorial written by Goldacre entitled “How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it” so there are some grounds for hope. However, very little of substance is changing, and the pharmaceutical industry continues to operate with a great deal of freedom in how it manipulates the scientific process.

What really needs to happen is that the light of public attention needs to shine on this area in a sustained and intensive way. We need to become as worked up about what is happening in pharmaceuticals as we are about all the other scandals of our time. All institutions run the risk of becoming cocooned in their own ways of thinking and patterns of life, and sometimes it takes an outsider to come along and say ‘this is simply not right’. MPs doubtless thought that claiming expenses for the draining of their moats was simply how things were done; journalists doubtless cynically accepted that phone-tapping was the way in which the truth was discovered; church hierarchies were doubtless concerned that priests accused of child abuse had to be given a chance for redemption. In the same way I believe, following Goldacre, that the medical profession needs to be told that the present practice of relying on the pharmaceutical industry as the principal guide for the benefits or otherwise that come from any particular medicine is not acceptable.

I suspect that this will be a very difficult process because there is something different about the medical profession at the moment that doesn’t apply to the other examples. In our current society, as I have said many times, “science” operates in the role that theology used to, in that it is the overarching and dominant form of knowledge, which incorporates all others. Those who are learned in this form of knowledge are the priests of our contemporary age and, in particular, those who provide forms of healing on the basis of that form of knowledge function in the modern world in a very similar fashion to ancient shamans. Sometimes the healing can be entirely ritualistic, as is most apparent when considering the difference in effectiveness between anti-depressants and placebos (sugar pills) – both have the same healing effect, which rather suggests that such healing as takes place is a product of the ritual visit to the tribal medicine man. In other words, what we are dealing with here is not a simple, practical, technical problem that can be solved by the application of sufficient determination and good will. No, here we are seeking to topple the gods of our society, and Goldacre is a blasphemer and heretic.

There are, obviously, many ways in which the pharmaceutical industry has helped the common good, and Goldacre gives credit where it is due. However, it is equally clear that the present system is broken. I would thoroughly recommend Goldacre’s book to anyone who is interested in this subject. I shall be following the ongoing conversations with great interest.

Of Greeks, Barbarians and smooth ball bearings

barbarianI write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.

Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.

There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.

Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.

In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.

Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.

Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!

The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?

It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.

A few thoughts about Game of Thrones

Lots of spoilers after the picture – be warned!

jon snow

So I’ve been thinking about Game of Thrones, most especially the differences between the books and the TV show, but also what might come along in the future.

It’s very rare for me to think of a TV or film being better than the books, but this may be one of those occasions – I won’t have a final view until both forms are finished. I think that the TV show is definitely benefiting from a forced economy of story line, which keeps things ticking over. Yet there are some elements where, despite the verbiage and distraction, Martin has got some wonderful things that the TV show either cannot or has not shared.

I miss Lady Stoneheart. I am looking forward to the resolution of her plot in the books.

I miss the emphasis on warging by the Stark children, most especially with Jon.

I miss the detailed POV account of Arya in the house of black and white, although here I think the show is doing reasonably well.

I miss Jaime in the Riverlands, and the way in which that aspect of the plot is working out (and the different way in which the Dorne plot has been taken through). I have a very romantic desire to see Jaime and Brienne end up together – alive and married and having children!

I don’t particularly like the different path show-Sansa has taken compared to book-Sansa.

I don’t miss the ‘young Griff’ stuff. I’m not sure anybody does.

I love the show though…

Yet what next? I keep thinking about Jon Snow, and what has happened to him, and whether and how he might come back in the next book/next season. For Jon to be dead – as in, definitely, finally, no coming back in any form dead – would mean that GRRM is a bad creator, and I do not think that he is that.

Quite how this is done I find a fascinating conjecture. Personally I don’t think that it can happen until the wall has fallen down – and I wonder whether the betrayal of Jon and the associated betrayal of the vows by the Night’s Watch – is what ‘undoes’ the magic of the wall and leads to the southern Ingress of the Others (love what the TV show has done on them). I don’t recall the horn of Joramun being mentioned on the show, but I could be wrong on that. Oh yes, another bit I enjoyed in the books – the sailors from the Iron Islands heading for Meereen.

Hmm. Yes. The show is brilliant – but actually, there is a lot in the books that hasn’t been incorporated, and it isn’t all lists of food eaten or long boring journeys along a river….

The paradoxes of progressive thought

There is a particular way of viewing the world which has been, in my view, dominant in our society for the last forty years or so. It is the mindset that has largely governed our political leadership and also much of our media; it is certainly entrenched in the BBC. As a shorthand I want to call it ‘progressive thought’ as it is tied up with all the various causes that are seen as being righteous today, so anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-Islamophobia, anti-homophobia and so on. These are good causes, of course, but it seems to me that there are contradictions embedded in this bien pensant worldview that are now becoming inescapable.

The first, on which I have written in these pages before, relates to immigration, and the fostering of a tolerant and diverse society. It is a good thing to welcome the stranger and the refugee and to provide a home to those who are in dire need. There is good Biblical instruction on this, in both Old and New Testaments. The paradox comes when that welcome becomes ultimately self-defeating, in that the embrace of the stranger fosters a culture which is itself intolerant of diversity. The most prominent form of this is the ‘hate preacher’, commonly found in the Saudi-funded institutions that have arisen here in the last few decades. It has also, I would argue had an effect in other ways in places like Rotherham, where a politically correct attitude has inhibited a vigorous investigation of systematic child abuse. For fear of appearing racist, appalling crimes were allowed to proceed unchecked. The progressive approach wants to avoid both racism and sexism and Islamophobia. Reality, sadly, does not cooperate with such an ambition, and we are being forced to choose.

The second paradox I want to draw attention to arises from a particular story in the United States recently, concerning a woman called Rachel Dolezal. Dolezal was, until a few weeks ago, the area president in Spokane, Washington State, for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This after a career and training focussing on black culture and advocacy. Dolezal was forced to resign after her parents ‘outed’ her as being, in fact, a white woman presenting herself as being a black woman.

Before and after

Before and after

I find this fascinating because it embodies in one person a further contradiction in the progressive world view. As I recall, in the various racist institutions of the American South, the purity of your bloodline was tremendously important, and ‘one drop of black’ meant that you were non-white (the Nazis were slightly less extreme, as they only went back as far as grandparents when assessing race). Now it would seem that, from the progressive perspective, the purity of your bloodline is equally important. You can only work for a progressive institution – and nobody is doubting that Dolezal was doing a good job – if you qualify under the nostrums of racial purity. As I was once told by an African-American Marxist, racism is the belief that there are different races. As soon as you adhere to that point of view then all sorts of follies necessarily follow.

Underlying the Dolezal story, though, is a deeper question about how far it is possible to ‘remake’ ourselves, so that we establish an identity which is in keeping with our deepest motivations even when such an identity seems to go against that which has been set at the biological level. For Dolezal there seems to have been a very sincere and profound identification with African American culture, no doubt strongly influenced by the fact that her parents adopted four African American children with whom she grew up. Since then she has clearly lived her life as an African American woman, to the extent of changing her appearance to fit in with that culture.

This remaking is finding greater salience with the rising prominence of ‘trans’ issues, whereby people are able to change their biological inheritance to be more in accord with their own self-perception of identity. Some of the fiercest criticisms of this development have come from a particular strand of feminist thinking, which insists that even when obvious physical signs are changed, someone with a certain chromosomal pattern will always and forever remain what that chromosomal pattern dictates for them to be. In other words, there is something essential about being male or female that cannot be changed, no matter what else happens. One drop of male and that’s it.

This simply demonstrates to me the inadequacies of such essentialist thinking, where there is an insistence that people have to be placed in one of two boxes ‘male’ and ‘female’ (or ‘black’ or ‘white’). What happens if someone doesn’t qualify under either heading? It brings the classification system itself into question.

This thinking is a key part of what underlies the teaching in Leviticus 18 & 20 that it is an “abomination” for a man to lie with a man. The understanding is that there is a right way for sexual relations to be ordered, and it involves the two parties being members of particular and opposite categories (with male superior to female of course); the boundaries must not be transgressed. Human beings have to fit into the different categories (‘male and female he created them’) and, again, if there are people who don’t fit, it brings the classification system itself into question.

What I want to ask is: where are Christians called to stand today? Are we with Leviticus in saying that there is something essential that needs to be safeguarded and preserved – the boundaries are absolute? Or are we prepared to be flexible, allowing our categories to be bent?

For me the answer is pretty clear. We are called to recognise and relate to all people as individuals, not as members of one class or another. I see this as a development rooted in Christian understandings, and a natural development of them – not so much in Scripture as the unfolding of a tradition from that Scripture, specifically the teaching that in Christ there is no male or female – in other words, in Christ all the old essentials have been dissolved. Our identity now rests in our relationship with Him and all the other categories can get lost.

From a Christian point of view, we are all fallen – in other words, we are all queer, bent and broken. The important and interesting thing is what we are enabled to become over time as the grace of God is set free to work within us: not what we were, but what we yet might be.

The real political earthquake is still to come

Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.

Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.

Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.

This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.

Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.

So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.

We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?

Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.

In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.

Of airplane crashes and anti-depressants

The story of Andreas Lubitz and the doomed Germanwings flight is a terrifying one. There are many details of the story yet to emerge, most especially around what may have been Lubitz’s motivation in enacting such carnage. I have been struck by the way in which steps taken to make us safer have sometimes made us more vulnerable, in that making the cockpit impregnable from the outside makes the passengers on a plane even more dependent upon the good intentions of the pilot. A good example of where good intentions can go awry and make things worse.

What seems to occupy the headline writers on the shelves of shame opposite the tobacco counter in the Co-op is the question around his ‘depression’. I do not wish in any way to question the reality of the experience that is presently given the label ‘depression’. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with how these phenomena are understood and how those who have to endure them are treated, both by medical professionals and by wider society.

Firstly, I would want to ask questions about the convenience to a society that has available to it a form of language that isolates the problem within a single person. If it is established that Lubitz was ‘mentally ill’ then it substantially relieves the wider society of any responsibility for what has happened. Any questions about the social context within which a person is living, and which may contribute to their mental suffering, are side-stepped. It is simply bad luck, the misfortune of a particular genetic inheritance. Nothing to see here, move along.

In contrast I would want to insist that ‘no man is an island’ and that we cannot understand mental suffering without paying close attention both to the social context in which that suffering takes place, and to the particular life-story of the person concerned. Is the person diagnosed with a ‘mental illness’ a victim of discrimination or bullying or social isolation? Are there people in their lives who love them? Has something happened recently, such as a bereavement or divorce, that might trigger severe sadness? It is, after all, perfectly understandable that someone in such a situation would experience all the symptoms of what are presently labelled ‘depression’. Such a person is not mentally ill, they are grieving, and this is a perfectly normal and human response to a particular situation. It says a lot about our culture that the dominant psychiatric guide for dealing with such a situation has recently changed its policy so that, if someone is deeply sad for more than two weeks after a major bereavement, they can now be classed as ‘depressed’ (the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition’ or DSM5).

This leads directly to my second area of questions, which is to highlight the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the forms of diagnosis that are offered. In American Law – and the DSM5 is an American publication – it is only possible for drug companies to sell medicines for named disorders. Where those medicines are being provided by commercial enterprises, as with the American health care system, there is a strong financial incentive to increase the number of named disorders so that there are more opportunities to sell medication. This is why there has been an explosion of ‘disorders’ that can justify the sale of new pharmaceuticals. I find it significant that almost all the major pharmaceutical companies spend vastly more on the sale and marketing of their drugs than they do on researching their effects. (For more on this, read ‘Big Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre.)

big pharma

My final area of questioning is about the efficacy of anti-depressants, that is, do they actually enable a person to be cured of ‘depression’? The evidence rather suggests not. I recently read an excellent book by Irving Kirsch entitled “The Emperor’s New Drugs”, which I heartily recommend for anyone with an interest in this topic (Kirsch is a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School). Kirsch’s main target is what he calls the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ of depression, and his main area of research is the comparison of anti-depressant drugs with placebos. Kirsch does not dispute that people who are given anti-depressants experience a benefit from having done so; what he disputes is that there is anything medically effective going on. That is, his case – a case that I find thoroughly persuasive – is that anti-depressants work because people expect them to work, no more and no less. Kirsch writes: “Depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it is not cured by medication. Depression may not even be an illness at all. Often, it can be a normal reaction to abnormal situations. Poverty, unemployment, and the loss of loved ones can make people depressed, and these social and situational causes of depression cannot be changed by drugs.”

What concerns me about the language being used with respect to Lubitz is that it can confuse our understanding of all that led up to the crash. It is too convenient to argue that it was the result of one person who was mad or bad or both. I believe that we need to have a much more thorough conversation about what is presently called mental illness, starting from the areas of questioning that I have outlined above, to ensure that, as with locked cockpit doors, we are not simply making a bad situation worse as a result of misguided good intentions. It is also true, of course, that what is presently considered to be the preserve of psychiatrists used to be well understood as the cure of souls. I will return to exactly what that phrase means at a later date.

On the question of what is permissible in church

The Daily Telegraph has a story about a church in London which has been hosting an Islamic prayer service. There are more details here, presumably written by the person who shot the video.

First point: do not believe everything that you read (or see or hear!) in the newspapers (I speak with authority).

That being said, unless the video is demonstrated to be a forgery, I think this is a serious breach of ordination vows – specifically the declaration made at ordination and then repeated at each new appointment that “in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”. I believe that there are other elements of Canon Law that are relevant.

I believe that our words matter, and when ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is chanted in a church, then this is a quite straightforward example of blasphemy – it is a profaning of Christian worship – and sacrilege – a profaning of the place of Christian worship. To argue otherwise is to indulge in syncretistic nonsense of the worst sort. The different faiths, whilst they have all sorts of family resemblances, are not simply different paths up the same mountain. It matters that Jesus was crucified, and to preach Christ crucified is to say that Jesus was killed, which the Koran explicitly denies.

I can see all sorts of arguments for pursuing peace, hospitality and friendly co-operation with those of non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. What I cannot see an argument for is abandoning our own distinctive identity, with all that binds it together.