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.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Defending the truth with holy foolishness

What does it mean to defend the truth? I ask this question in the context of the continued march of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs, who seem quite clearly convinced that they are in possession of the truth. One thing that I am convinced of is that I would never want to be so certain that I was in possession of the truth that I end up behaving in the way that they are behaving!

Yet there is something in that description ‘fundamentalist’ that needs teasing out. One of the mistakes that fundamentalism makes is to see belief as something that people can choose. This is a mistake that really took root with the rise of secularism, especially the thinking of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that our religious beliefs are subject to ethical constraints. What this approach misses is that no matter how much a person may desire to believe – and that belief might be in Christianity or atheism or anything else – our fundamental patterns of thought lie deeper than our wills. We can only change our perceptions if, not only are we conscious of major problems with our existing world view, but there is a much better alternative available for us. Without that better alternative, all the arguments in the world will not advance the discussion one whit. This is why Professor Dawkins has become such a caricature – he is himself a fundamentalist and lacks the necessary subtlety of understanding in this area.

The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “The truth can wait. For it lives a long time.” There is something important here, in that coming to an awareness of the truth is not usually a sudden moment of clarity, along the lines of Archimedes in his bath, or St Paul on the road to Damascus. Normally – as my favourite philosopher once wrote – ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’. The truth is independent of our own certainties; indeed, our own certainties can often get in the way of our perception of the truth. As the Buddhist teaching has it, if your tea cup is already full then there is no more room to pour fresh tea in.

In other words, one of the most essential elements needed in any genuine search for truth is to begin with the frank confession ‘Of course, I could be wrong’ and to empty our tea cups. This intellectual humility is the ground for any healthy intellectual pursuit not least that of science, when it is done properly. The scientific method, rightly understood, is a way of systematically addressing and then removing all the personal preferences and biases that get in the way of attention to how things actually are. As such it has clear origins in the Christian spiritual tradition which applies the same method to the whole arena of human life; and this is, of course, why science cannot be carried on apart from such a spiritual tradition. All the attacks from supposedly ‘scientific’ atheists are ultimately forms of intellectual suicide, for they are sawing off the branch upon which they sit.

One way of describing this intellectual humility is to say that the full truth is always beyond our comprehension. We will never be in a situation where we have a full knowledge and understanding; we are, to refer to one of the classic English spiritual texts, ultimately in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. As the circle of our knowledge expands, the circumference of our ignorance increases all the more quickly. This is why it is essential to hold on to a sense of mystery, and it is this sense of mystery that fundamentalism systematically eradicates. There are so many mysteries, and they are what make the world so fascinating and exciting, from the immensity of the heavens to the astonishing worlds that the microscope reveals, yet possibly the deepest mysteries involve our fellow human beings – that each person is themselves a storehouse of wonder and amazement, if only we have the eyes to see.

Which is – to repeat the point once more – another inheritance from our Christian tradition. For Christians the ultimate truth is a person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” says Jesus, and Jesus is never under our control. We can never seize hold of Jesus and wave him around like a blunt instrument, he resists our vain schemes. What the Christian tradition also says is that every human being bears the image of Christ within them, which means that any defacing of a human being, up to and including execution by beheading or burning, is not simply an injustice but also a blasphemy. It is the Christian equivalent of ripping out pages from the Koran and burning them.

In our tradition there is a profound awareness that the full truth is elusive and mysterious; that, however far our understanding develops, it will always fall short of the ultimate truth; and that we therefore need to cultivate a sense of profound humility and respect for the individual human being, and their views, however strange or bizarre they may seem.

When I think of an image to sum up this tradition, my thoughts keep coming back to the tradition of the holy fool. The holy fool was a member of a Royal Court who had license to speak nonsense to the king. Of course, what was really going on was that the fool was the one person who could speak the truth unto power because he was immune to the consequences. All the courtiers were currying favour, and only the fool can ignore the social manipulation and power struggles in order to serve the truth – which is, of course, serving the realm. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a good example of this. So too, I believe, was Charlie Hebdo.

Which is what I think we need to keep in mind as we contend with the nutjobs who wish to destroy our civilisation. We need to remember our sense of humour and foolishness, for these are the things that stop us taking our own opinions so seriously that we might end up – as we have in past centuries – doing horrible things to people in order to defend our views. Perhaps, rather than sending bombs and bullets, we need to send slapstick and foolishness to ISIS, to cultivate laughter and a recognition of how absurd they are. Of course, we could only do that if we stopped being fundamentalist ourselves, and reminded ourselves of our own spiritual tradition. That might take some time.

Piss Christ and defending the deity

Courier article

In 1987 the American artist Andres Serrano created a photograph that caused much controversy in Christian circles. The image was of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a glass of the artist’s own urine and it was, naturally, called ‘Piss Christ’.

When I first heard about this, and saw the image, my initial reaction was ‘yawn – someone else trying to get shock value from appearing radical’ and to move on to more interesting things. I didn’t think much more about it until I made a passing reference to Serrano’s ‘delinquency’ in an article. This provoked a conversation with a friend that made me look closer at the image and the levels of meaning that it contains.

After all, suspending a crucifix in piss is a rather apt image for the way that secular culture treats Christianity. The culture doesn’t take Christianity seriously enough to want to attack Christians with physical violence, so it just pours scorn upon it. The dominant culture feels that it has won the argument against Christianity and so doesn’t feel the need to engage with Christian claims at any depth. Christianity is simply something to be excreted along with the other rubbish that the body politic has digested.

More deeply than this, however, is the sense that the photograph can be seen as presenting a profound theological truth. That is, Christians claim that Jesus was the Son of God. The crucifixion, therefore, and everything associated with it – the beating and flogging, the insults and spitting, along with the execution itself – tells us something important about the nature of God, and how we human beings relate to the divine. What the crucifixion says (amongst many other things!) is that God cannot be equated with human glory. There was no more shameful way to die than crucifixion, and this presented a huge problem to the early church. How can the promised Messiah be someone hung up to die on a tree? Yet this is precisely the mysterious wonder at the heart of Christian faith – that our own notions of what is glorious are what need to be re-examined. We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

One of the most important implications that flow from this is that God doesn’t need to be defended. If God can be glorified even in the cross, then what is left that God needs to be protected from? The whole notion is absurd. It would be rather like putting a giant wall up in space to defend the sun from attack by nuclear missiles. The Sun is perfectly capable of protecting itself.

Hence, for the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, when it experienced its greatest growth and ended up converting an entire Empire, there simply was no ‘defence’ of Christianity in any physical sense. The early believers allowed themselves to be thrown to the lions in the Roman arena rather than deny their faith – and taking up arms would itself be such a denial. Those early believers were called martyrs, a word that simply means ‘witness’, because they were pointing to the truth of the faith, a faith that did not, indeed could not, be advanced by force of arms.

This has had profound consequences for Christian culture, not least in terms of providing room for the growth of free speech. If a dominant religion does not need protection from being insulted – for it was born out of the greatest insult that human beings could offer – then there is no need to exercise such control over free speech that insults represent. A mature faith can simply laugh it off and move on, regarding it as like the babblings of a toddler, just beginning to appreciate the effects of words.

Wittgenstein once wrote: “Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.”

What the Christian understanding of glory – and truth, and witnessing, and violence – allows for is room to laugh. Room for satire and absurdity, room for all the ways in which we can transgress and play, all the ways in which we can be queer and eccentric and odd – dare I say, room for the religious to wear silly dresses and make up and prance around on a stage? At the heart of the Christian claim is the faith that God has acted in the world to put things right, that we have been saved. The natural consequence of such salvation is joy and laughter, a release from an obligation to take things too seriously, for fear that if we don’t, those things that are precious to us will be taken away.

Which leads, of course, to the question that needs to be put to those of another faith, which may not have such confidence. Is it possible for a faith that was established through violent military victories, and which experienced its greatest growth as part and parcel of those military victories, and which raises up as the ideal man someone who was violent and led such military victories – is it possible for such a faith to co-exist with satire and absurdity, with comedy and pantomime? Is it possible for such a faith to detach itself from the identity that was formed and established through military victories in such a way that it can live in peace with those that it has not conquered? Or is it true what the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “There is no room for play in Islam . . . . It is deadly serious about everything.” Rather a lot depends upon the answer.