The tightrope we must walk

tightropeI write this article a few days after the latest terrorist atrocity in Manchester, and I wonder what is the right word to describe what has happened. Clearly there is a link between this barbarity and previous barbarities in Stockholm and Paris and Nice and Westminster and Florida and the rest. Should they be called ‘Islamic terrorist acts’? I would say that there is a lot of justification for doing so, for such acts draw upon a long tradition within Islamic thought going back to Muhammed himself.

To do so, would, however, open myself up to all sorts of problems that might make my main points irrelevant; or, if not irrelevant, at least unheard. For as soon as the word ‘Islamic’ is deployed in this context, then the clouds of politically-correct opprobrium descend, accusations of Islamophobia and fascism are made, and all rational considerations depart.

Yet this is also why the police force in Rotherham turned a blind eye to the systematic child abuse perpetrated by those of a particular community in that town. They were afraid of being called racist. As a result thousands of girls suffered horror. Perhaps the only courageous path is also the only honest path – we have to start using the most accurate language to describe the problems that we face. In Manchester, as with Westminster and all the other atrocities, what we face is a form of Islam.

How might we engage with and overcome such a problem? There is a tightrope here that we must walk across with great care.

The recent election in France, to my mind, portrayed the two sides of the tightrope, each one representing a fall into the abyss, two equal and opposite catastrophes. The first catastrophe is Macron, representing an unfettered globalism, where nation states are simply inefficiencies to be overcome by technocratic capitalism. Human beings, both individually and as persons bearing particular cultures, are simply resources to be deployed in the great march towards making more money. Such an approach is both dehumanising and ecocidal, a last flourish for the 1% before the deluge.

Yet Le Pen also offered a catastrophe, one of dehumanising nationalism coupled with a near-imbecilic economic policy. Human beings, when threatened, have a long-studied tendency to scapegoat others when confronted with challenges to their well-being and their world-view. When all that has been held sacred by a community is laid waste, and insult is added to such injury by the suppression of truthful discussion, then the subsequent anger seizes upon the closest available victims on which to vent their furies.

The Macron catastrophe leads to an abolition of meaning, where all are dehumanised in order to worship Mammon. The Le Pen catastrophe leads to a moral collapse, where all are dehumanised in order to worship a reactionary fantasy.

There is a tightrope to be walked between these two options, and we cannot walk upon that tightrope without an honest and truthful account of what is actually happening in our society.

Which means, to my mind, that we have to speak openly about several things. The first is that we have to say that there is a problem with the Islamic community. It does not affect the whole community but it does represent a significant part – a part which is convinced of the inferiority of Western ways of life, and the need to attack such ways using violence. There needs to be an honest conversation about the roots of such attitudes within broader Islamic patterns of thought. Without this discussion, without this ‘bringing to light things now hidden in darkness’, the control of this conversation simply passes to the most extreme voices, and that serves nobody’s best interests.

We also, however, need to talk honestly about the nations, about England and Britain, and about what it means to become a part of such a nation. Much of the contemporary secular mentality is premised on the notion that nations are, as such, obstacles to be overcome in the pursuit of a better life. This doesn’t just apply to economics, where the expansion of ‘single markets’ reduces the role for national governments in order to maximise profits. Rather, the nation as a source of stability and identity, a focus for loyalty and thereby a ground for community cohesion, needs to be affirmed explicitly and confidently by the whole range of our leadership.

Lastly, we need to talk about religion. Most especially we need to understand the way in which discussion of religious issues in our society are bedevilled by our own peculiar history. We need to understand that our professed ‘enlightenment’ and release from traditional religious beliefs has served merely to blindfold and handcuff us in this present crisis. Without a coherent understanding of the role of religion within our national life, and most especially within the life of those who wish to destroy our culture, we will forever be compelled to robotically reiterate moronic mantras like ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’ and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences.

We are so much better than this. We need to avoid such politically correct platitudes that avoid addressing our crisis; we also need to avoid all forms of scapegoating and victimising that pretend to wash our hands of any role in what has gone wrong.

Rather we must engage forthrightly, honestly and courageously with our present predicaments, naming truthfully what is presently happening and yet not collapsing into a reactionary fantasy seeking a restoration of what has been.

We have a tightrope to walk. It is a tightrope made of truth, a tightrope that leads to a hopeful future for all who live in this land, where all give their active consent to a form of life that preserves the peace between all our communities, where we no longer fear to wake up to headlines announcing yet another slaughter of the innocents.

May our political leaders find their proper balance as they seek to carry us across the abyss.

What future for faith?

What is the future of Christianity in this country?

The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.

That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!

The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.

This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.

So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.

So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.

The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.

Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.

So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).

When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.

My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.

People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.

Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.

On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

The grounds of our identity

Have you ever heard Mersea described as the “easternmost inhabited island” in the UK? I know I have. The only trouble with such a statement is that it isn’t true. Horsey Island, in the Walton backwaters, is also inhabited, and is several miles further East from our blessed isle (Horsey is featured in the Arthur Ransome novel Secret Water).

Why mention this? Simply because when Mersea gets described in such a way it seems to be a source of some pride, as if such a geographical feature was important, rather than simply a random fact.

Why is this (false) fact something that gets repeated so often? I wonder if it is because we have lost a sense of what is truly important in our lives, and so we clutch at random bits of information about ourselves to plug the gap.

After all, this is what children do as they grow up. When I was much younger my bedroom wall was plastered with posters, often of Marvel superheroes. The choice of which character to emphasise through such a display felt like a way of asserting my own identity. Such ‘hero-worship’ definitely has a place, as it helps to form a child’s own identity.

Of course, when such adoration persists into adulthood it becomes more of a sign of immaturity. By the time we have reached physical adulthood we are meant to have put away childish things and instead be ready to take part in the shared conversation which is our culture, bringing to it those things which are unique to our own identity.

By that time, all being well, we will have found a sense of who we are that does not depend on trivial, accidental facts – like how tall we are, what hair colour we have, where we were born and so on – but rather on substantial elements of character and virtue, such as a capacity for courage or hard work, or the ability to show mercy and compassion to those in need.

Of course, I am writing this from a Christian point of view. An excellent example of what I am describing was shown recently by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after he discovered that his biological father was not the person that Welby had previously assumed. Welby wrote this, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”

Fundamental to the Christian view of the world is the understanding that what the world can offer is of no ultimate importance. Worldly values are for the Christian only ever of intermediate importance, they are means to ends rather than ends in themselves. This includes all forms of material wealth but also all that connects with our material bodies, what St Paul describes as ‘the flesh’ – thus, all the things about ourselves over which we have no control. Rather, what matters for the Christian is who we become through our choices. Do we choose to become more grateful and more gracious, or do we choose to become more cynical and sinful?

As I say regularly when I take a funeral, “We brought nothing in to the world, and we can take nothing out”. What that truth obscures, though, is that our souls do pass on, and our souls bear the indelible marks of our choices in this life. When Christians talk about Heaven and Hell, this is what is meant – that if our choices tend to the good, then our souls will have been enabled to express themselves in this life. If, however, our choices tend to the bad, then in just the same way will our souls have been marred or defaced.

This is one of the most important meanings of the resurrection. All the worldly powers had rejected Jesus – the religious authorities had despised him for his teaching, the political authorities executed him for his insubordination, the crowds cried out for his blood because he had disappointed their hopes. What they then chose to destroy was Jesus’ body. The resurrection is God’s way of saying: the religious authorities are wrong, the political authorities are wrong, the crowd is wrong – Jesus was right! More than this, the resurrection is showing that those who can control the body cannot control the soul, and in the end it is the soul that matters and the soul which is vindicated.

To put that in a different way, it is the soul that determines who we are in the sight of God. The soul is that part of ourselves which is unique, irreplaceable and not subject to decay – that is, it is eternal, it shares in the nature of God, it is the light which draws us on into truth, goodness and beauty.

To walk in the light, for the Christian, means to seek the good, to pursue the Kingdom of God, to combat injustice, to fight oppression, to exercise mercy and forgiveness and seek reconciliation between enemies. These are the things by which we are assessed in eternity. We will not be assessed by how much material wealth we have accumulated but by how much we have shared; we will not be assessed by how famous we are but by how much we have loved.

This is not easy, especially in our present society, which shouts so loudly that the opposite is true – that it is what we own that makes us who we are, that the acclamation of the crowd is what validates us. How then, do Christians gain the strength to pursue the good against such a strong headwind of cultural pressure?

I believe it is because we know for certain that we are loved, loved irrespective of anything we might be able to do or achieve. There is a feeling of absolute safety that can come from being held by God, an assurance that nothing the world can do can touch what is most essential to who we are. More than this, this assurance is bound up with a sense of knowing and being fully known, that all that is most essential to who we are can never be damaged by anyone else.

Our identity, in other words, is found in a relationship with the one who created all things, including us. When that source is acknowledged then we do not need to bolster our identity with random facts about who we are. Rather than identifying Mersea by some spurious geographical locator, let’s instead seek an identity for Mersea which is soulful – that here is a place where we look after each other, where the old are cared for and not left alone, where young people have the opportunity to fully express their talents, where we belong to each other and enable each other to be creative and fully human. That’s something worth working for.

One land, one law, one language

It’s about culture, not race. Whenever there is a discussion about how different people from different backgrounds might be able to co-exist, and potential problems are pointed out – like the fact that ‘co-existence’ might not be the intention of some groups – then the word ‘racism’ gets thrown out.

Racism as an insult has functioned to shut down the debate about immigration that our society really needs to have had. It does that because of the dominance of political correctness in our political conversation. Unless we can signal our virtue by repeating the necessary platitudes then society simply shuns us. (I saw a story that ran before the Brexit vote, about a civil servant that had taken unpaid leave from her post in order to actively support the Leave campaign. It was clearly indicated to her that she had committed career suicide – I hope that the referendum result has changed things for her!)

This is why we need to be clear that the issue is not about race – that is, it is not about particular physical characteristics that a person may or may not have. No, it is about culture, that is, it is about the ways in which we order our common lives together.

Different cultures do things differently. Some cultures encourage free speech and individual creativity; other cultures emphasise the importance of community and shared endeavour. Some cultures prohibit the eating of pork; others delight in bacon butties; others enjoy deep-fried Mars bars (allegedly).

Where there is a healthy distance between cultures, their diversity can be celebrated. Tensions arise when different cultures are required to live in close proximity one with another. At that point, where the cultures clash in significant ways, there is a significant risk of conflict. Put in summary form, if you add cultural diversity to immediate proximity then the result will be conflict.

This is what we have seen in our nation in recent decades. Enoch Powell infamously warned of the ‘rivers of blood’ that would flow from uncontrolled immigration, and that is not a bad description of London after the terrorist outrages of 7/7.

Where I very much disagree with Powell’s analysis, however, is that some groups of immigrants have been able to assimilate into our country immensely successfully, whereas others – a minority – not only have failed in the past but show no indication of succeeding at any time in the future.

So, for example, the ‘Windrush’ immigrants that came in the 1950s came from a distinctly British culture – they were, in general, English-speaking, Protestant, cricket-loving, formed within a state that had adopted British common law. Yes, they faced immense racism on their arrival (to our shame) but in many ways these immigrants were ‘more British than the British’. In other words, once the distraction of racism had been removed, their culture could be seen as profoundly compatible with what already existed here, and the new things that they brought, like reggae, could easily be absorbed.

In contrast to this are cultures with values that are inimical to classical British values, which seem to have established semi-autonomous enclaves within our cities – with horrifying consequences as in Rotherham. Some cultures contain deeply engrained misogyny; worse, that misogyny is particularly focussed on white women who are seen as legitimate targets for abuse, as their behaviour (wearing normal Western clothes) shows that they are not respectable and honourable.

It is not possible to have these two cultures co-existing in one space. In the end, one will displace the other. I would argue that if there is to be any form of healthy assimilation and co-existence between people of different cultures then there has to be an acceptance of ‘one land, one law, one language’. In other words, that if people of a different culture are to live peaceably in the ‘one land’ then the primacy of the existing law has to be paramount ‘one law’ and in order to engage with the wider society there has to be an acceptance that there is only ‘one language’ that can be used in any public forum. To accept that a different language is legitimate is to embed divisions with pernicious consequences over time.

We need, as a single British society, to be very clear about what sort of culture we wish to see affirmed and maintained in this land. The existing culture has been under sustained assaults for many decades, and the Tony Blair-led surge in immigration that has so changed the texture of British life needs to be addressed from a position of strong confidence in classic British values.

What does that look like? I am very fond of the story about Sir Charles Napier, who in the mid-nineteenth Century was the Commander-in-Chief in India. There was an Indian custom called Suttee, which required a widow to be burned alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre. This had been banned several years before, and Napier was being petitioned by Hindu priests to allow a resumption of the practice. As recorded by his brother William, Napier said this: “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This sort of robust and unapologetic assertion of British values is desperately needed in our present context. It is because we have seen such assertions as ‘in bad taste’ that we have ended up in the predicament that we are in. We need both the scope and the confidence to assert our own distinct English and British identities, in order to ensure that the dominant culture in this land is not eventually eclipsed by the present toxic and aggressive alternative.

I am also convinced that such a robust assertion of ‘Britishness’ would be welcomed by the overwhelming majority of immigrants, who quite often identify more strongly with Britain than many who have been born here. After all, they have chosen to come here as a deliberate act, rather than simply enjoying the good fortune of being born in the best place in the world. Those who hate Britain and all that it stands for are a distinct minority, but they are a minority which need to be engaged with and required to accept that we cannot have different cultures co-existing in the one space, for it can only lead to conflict. One land, one law, one language.

(A Jeremy Creake article for the Courier)

In Praise of English Phlegm

Whatever happened to ‘keep calm and carry on’? Since the result of the referendum was announced as a clear victory for Brexit it seems as if all around are losing their heads and blaming it on each other. Surely we can do better than this cacophonous disorder.

One of the most repugnant forms that this disorder has taken has been through the rise in what are now classed as ‘hate crimes’ – verbal and physical attacks upon those who are seen as different, whether a different class, a different race, a different level of ability; a different language, religion or nationality. Such crimes are symptoms of a serious breakdown in our national cohesion, a failure to remember who we are and what we stand for.

After all, we who live in England live in a land that has seen immigration happen for thousands of years, and each generation of immigrants has given something to English identity. Why is ‘French’ such a common name on Mersea Island? Because of the number of French people who were fleeing the Huguenot massacres in the sixteenth century and came here for safety. What is the most popular take away food in England? Tikka Masala – and thank God for Titash.

For sure, there are practical issues and problems around numbers, and on this topic the referendum gave a very clear steer to our political class about what direction they need to travel in. Yet to bring immigration under a greater measure of control, and to reduce the numbers from hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands, is not to give license to the most moronic and bigoted amongst us.

No, surely one of the points about Brexit, about wanting to assert our own identity once more, is that we want to assert the best of ourselves, all the things about which we cam most confidently feel proud. Amongst that is English phlegm.

To be phlegmatic is to be calm and dispassionate; it is to take anything that our leadership tells us with at least the proverbial pinch of salt; it is to be accepting of difference within large bounds of tolerance. That is the best of what it means to be English – that we share a common way of life within our shared land, that we give people the emotional room to be themselves, however eccentric or strange people might seem to be. Phlegm is not a cold indifference, it is a pragmatic way of life that has proven itself down the centuries. It is who we are when we are at our best.

Let us all resolve to work together, calmly, pragmatically, phlegmatically. There is no place for racist extremism here. It’s just not English.

[Courier editorial]

The government of our imagination (converting Richard Dawkins part 2)

Last time out I talked about poetry and the different ways in which language could be used. I want in this article to convey something about how language structures our existence. To do that, I need to talk about imagination and government.

Look around where you are right now – look up from the page in which you are reading these words and see all the different things there are that are close by. Is there anything that wasn’t first born in the imagination of some particular person? If you are in a room then that room was first designed by a human being; the paint on the walls and the features hanging there came from a person’s imagination; similarly, the furniture, the carpet, the cup of tea by your elbow – all these were first formed in someone’s imagination. If there are plants, it is highly unlikely that they are in a ‘natural’ state – no, these too have been formed by the human imagination. Possibly the best case for something around you that wasn’t first born in the imagination is if there is another human being nearby – but that’s worth a more thorough conversation at another time.

My point is simply that so much of the physical space that we inhabit is typically mediated by our imaginations – what we imagine is the parent of what has come to be. Our imaginations, therefore, are tremendously powerful and impactful upon our world. Which means that we need to play close attention to what we do with them.

Which brings me to the question of government. Is the government real? Most would say so. If someone didn’t believe that the government was real – as in, they truly were committed to that proposition – then they would cease to pay their taxes. There would then ensue certain consequences, up to and including the imprisonment of such a person. That wouldn’t necessarily convince that person themselves that the government existed, but it would persuade most onlookers to at least act as if the government were real.

Yet in what way can we call the government real? It is not a material ‘thing’. There is no object that we might touch and say ‘this is the government’, nor is there any person we might touch – not even our most gracious sovereign lady. We cannot walk up to 10 Downing Street and ask for the government, nor Whitehall – not even Town Hall in Colchester.

My point is simply that there are many things that we are normally quite happy to accept as real which do not qualify as material objects. In other words, there are realities in our lives that are not susceptible to scientific investigation, at least in the form that this has historically taken. We might suggest a spectrum of reality from things that are least involving of human beings – like the movements of planets – to those which are most involving – such as the operations of governments – and say that science is a more appropriate study of one end of that spectrum and less appropriate to the other. Adding, of course, that all parts of the spectrum are ‘real’.

The far end of the spectrum, the one that most involves human beings conducting human lives, is the realm which I am trying to point towards in this article. It is born in our imaginations and yet takes on a life of its own. There is no one person on whom our government depends. Should any person with a key role suddenly vanish out of existence, the government will carry on and simply replace that person with another who will take on the duties of the role. It is rather like an ant’s nest – if you remove any particular ant, the colony will carry on as if nothing has happened. If you stamp on the nest and then step back, the ants will simply reproduce the nest once more. The colony can be seen as having an existence separate from any of the constituent parts.

This doesn’t just apply to governments. It applies to all the various institutions and organisations that we human beings so like to form – churches, scientific bodies, golf clubs, theme parks, tribes, shopping centres – the whole glorious gamut of human endeavour. The Bible has a description for all of these things, calling them ‘principalities and powers’. The struggle with these things is the primary location for what Christians call ‘spiritual warfare’: in other words, the never ending attempt to become better people, more open to the will of God.

Now it might be argued, contrary to my ant colony example, that the government does not exist in any real sense. To use the language of my previous article, the materialist would argue that because there is no specific material correlate to the word ‘government’ then it has no ultimate reality. It is simply a construct of human thinking.

What provokes a wry smile in me when I ponder such an argument is simply that it is one that Richard Dawkins’ own work has done quite a lot to undermine. After all, it is Dawkins who coined the understanding of memes. Memes are mental constructs that exist independently of the human minds in which they operate. Dawkins argues that religions specifically are defective memes, viruses of the mind. There is a remarkable correspondence between what Dawkins has begun to describe as ‘memes’ and what the Christian tradition has considered to be the principalities and powers – they are both, using different languages, describing some of the fundamental building blocks of distinctively human life.

This, finally, is why religions pay very close attention to our use of language, and seek to regulate that language through things like prohibitions against blasphemy. When we speak differently we live differently. Words and names have immense power, for both good and ill – which is why Plato, the original fascist, sought to ban the poets. As language is born from our minds, so is the world in which we live structured by our imaginations. If we do not govern our imaginations well then we shall end up being governed in unimaginably bad ways.

How I would convert Richard Dawkins (part one)

It’s a bold claim to even suggest – that it would be possible to convert the most notorious atheist in the Western world. Yet I think that it would be possible, given enough time and good will. How would I do it?

To begin with, I would not engage directly with any of the arguments that Dawkins puts forward in his book ‘The God Delusion’. Instead, I would want to talk about the nature of language. After all, the arguments that are used by both sides of the debate, believer and atheist alike, are embedded in language. If we don’t have an awareness of what sort of thing language is – or, perhaps, of the many different things that language is – then we are likely to go astray.

Given the excellent nature of his writing, then, I would begin by discussing poetry with the good Professor. I would want to explore what makes for good poetry over against bad poetry. Why are some writers revered for their use of language, whilst others are reviled. What is it that gives certain words their power? Through the discussion of poetry what I would most want to achieve is a sense of how we can be creative with words, that words can be manipulated in certain ways in order to achieve certain effects.

Of course, the good Professor may not wish to accept my point here. I have had discussions with some atheists where it has become clear that they are ‘tone deaf’ when it comes to poetic language, and see it as an irrelevance to the question of atheism. At that point, if there is no meeting of minds then the discussion would be over. I’d have to accept failure in my attempt to change a mind.

However, if the point about poetry is accepted then we are away.

My next step would be to explore how we actually use language in every day life, drawing attention to the many different ways in which language does different things in different situations. Consider how the word ‘water’ is deployed in these different contexts: by someone responding to the question ‘what would you like to drink?’; by someone who has just been given a glass of water but who has been expecting a glass of champagne; by someone struggling through the desert for days and who has discovered an oasis.

In these situations we still have a fairly direct connection between ‘water’ and what is being discussed, there is simply a different emotional content being expressed in the use of the word.

Now consider the word ‘lovely’, and how that word might be used in different ways – to express both approval and disapproval, scorn or boredom.

Hopefully by this time the good Professor will be coming to see that language is a remarkably flexible instrument, and see that when we are considering questions of religious belief we need to pay attention to what is actually being done when certain language is being used.

Before talking directly about religious language, however, there is one last element of ground-clearing that would need to be done, and this is connected to the philosophy of science.

If a scientist spoke about ‘water’ it would be a reference to a substance with the chemical composition H2O – and, crucially, in our contemporary culture, this is privileged as the right way to understand the meaning of the word, with all the other ways of using the word (as discussed above) being considered as derivative.

In my discussion with the good Professor what I would most want him to understand is that this privileging of the scientific way of using a word has distinct and particular historical roots. It flows from a decision that what can be measured through instrumentation is more real than anything else, and possibly the only real thing that there is. Furthermore, this attitude is rooted in a philosophy known as materialism, and in the history of philosophy it has had a long struggle with an opposing philosophy known as idealism – the key feature of idealism being the assertion that reality is fundamentally mental and not material.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century heyday of scientific triumphalism, materialism seemed to be self-evidently true. Throughout the twentieth century, however, that confidence came to be understood as increasingly misplaced. The impact of quantum physics, which showed that the separation between the observer and the observed was not ultimately valid, was particularly dramatic. That shift in understandings, however, takes time to filter down from the scientific and academic realm into the area of popular conversations. These days, in philosophical circles, a simple embrace of materialism is regarded as a sign of ignorance – the sort of attitude that a first-year undergraduate might hold before beginning a proper study of the subject.

So to sum up part one, all of the discussions that I would have had so far with the good Professor – about poetry, about the use of language, about the philosophy of science – would have been with the intent to make him more aware of the presuppositions and assumptions that lie behind his other statements. My hope would be that, in becoming aware of those assumptions, he might start to recognise the intellectual integrity of alternative positions. He might not, of course – in which case I would have nothing futher to say – but in that case his arguments are not with religious believers but with the very many (frequently atheistic) philosophers of language and science who disagree with him, and I would happily leave the burden of persuasion to them!

One last point: by ‘Richard Dawkins’ I mean anyone who is aggressively committed to an atheist position, as set out in something like ‘The God Delusion’. My aim in these articles is simply to draw out significant tensions in their position, trusting that if this became clear that it would, at the least, lead to self-questioning and perhaps a less confident proclamation of atheism. The most that I might realistically hope for is an openness to further conversation. I rather doubt that any one person can ‘convert’ another – that is something that needs to be a work of the Holy Spirit if it is going to last and not simply be an exercise in power and manipulation.

No man is an island

In my last column I talked about the spirituality of anger, looking mainly at anger from the perspective of an individual. This week I want to talk about the more social elements.

One of the consequences that often follow from a mistaken suppression of personal anger is that the person concerned becomes depressed. Where anger is a normal and legitimate response to something that has gone wrong, where it is what I call ‘righteous anger’, and where that anger is suppressed for whatever reason then it is common for the person whose emotions are being suppressed to lapse into a depression.

It is rather like the way in which zoo animals can become depressed as a result of being taken out of their natural environment. A lion might be as fully fed as they could ever wish, yet if forced to live within a compound that is just a small fraction of the territory that they are adapted to in the wild then the lion simply will not flourish. A vital part of their instinctive nature has been walled off, and a listless anomie can settle upon them.

I believe that much human depression is analagous to this. Now let me quickly add that depression is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon – an overwhelming experience for those who suffer with it, and a controversial source of dispute for those who seek to understand it. I would hold open the possibility that there are non-social reasons for depression, that is, that there may be some cases or forms of depression that are correctly called an illness. I shall pursue the details of that discussion another time. All I need to rely upon for my purposes here is an acceptance that there are some forms of depression which come about as a result of particular events and circumstances in a person’s life.

My concern is – when this happens, how do we as a wider community react to that person’s suffering?

Do we seek to keep the sufferer silent? After all, there is a long and disturbing history of authorities seeking to silence those who are opposed to the status quo. What happens when the righteous anger of a protester is suppressed? Does the protester then become literally like the lion in a zoo, confined within concrete walls and denied access to our fully human society?

Do we mistakenly medicalise the situation? That would seem so much more humane a response than simply locking up someone that makes the establishment feel uncomfortable. Yet as the magnificent ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ dramatised, a neutralisation of dissent under the guise of medical therapy can be even crueller than the loss of liberty itself.

Or might we start to take the individual seriously, and seek to understand what is happening in their life and relationships? Might we in fact start to treat the individual, not as an isolated atom that can be best understood through isolating them from their fellows, but rather as an integral part of a much larger web of connections? This is the approach taken by, amongst others, family therapists who have long recognised that it is often impossible to heal one member of a family without also engaging with the other family members alongside them.

I would wish to broaden out that sensibility to consider the wider society. If a person has become depressed I would argue that there are often particular roots in political and economic factors. For example, if someone has lived and worked as a miner for twenty years, through to their mid-40s, and then as a result of political decision making that pattern of life is removed as a practical possibility for them, it is not surprising if depression follows. The right response to such a situation is not to punish the sufferer for their wrong views but rather to sympathise with their plight and begin to investigate ways of changing their situation – to give the legs of the lion more room to roam.

Where does such an analysis end? After all, the extent of social injustice stretches very far. For me, I am forced to draw upon the traditional Christian language of the Fall in order to make any headway at all. The doctrine of the Fall states that we are all born into a sinful world and we cannot help committing more sins as we live within it. In other words, there are no easy answers on which we can depend when faced with the messy reality of human psychological health. There is no neat solution that fixes all things and all people. Yet there remain two insights on which to cling.

The first is simply: we are in this together. When one of our number suffers, we all suffer. If we are to become a community of healthy individuals, we need to recognise and take seriously that healthy individuals are the fruit of a healthy community and a healthy community is one that sees each member as part of a greater whole. This is the genius that lies behind the foundation of the NHS, the insight that disease and other medical problems can fall upon any one of us at any time, and it makes for a saner society if we share the risk between us.

The second is that grace arrives in surprising ways. When all things seem to be against us, when all our choices range from really bad to even worse, that is often the time when we can be most surprised by God. The world is not fixed to run along a particular course, and sometimes our hopes can be vindicated after all rational thought has told us to give up.

Sometimes the suffering of a single person is enough to alert a healthy community that something much larger is going wrong. In just the same way that there is a ‘patient zero’ at the beginning of an epidemic, so too do individuals respond first to larger cultural changes. I believe that we cannot fully understand depression and related mental problems in isolation from the families and the communities within which the sufferers live and move and have their being. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

Teflon Trump: a portent to many

trump baby

Why is Donald Trump so popular? Last night he won the Florida primary for the Republican Party. The spin-meisters in the global media conglomerates – who are terrified of Trump for many reasons, including the fact that he is much better at their jobs than they are – have been pumping up John Kasich’s win in Ohio as some sort of sign that Trump’s momentum is slowing down. As if.

Trump’s margin of victory in the March 15th round of elections was significantly higher than his margin of victory on so-called ‘Super Tuesday’ – his share of the overall Republican vote has risen from 34.6% to 40.3%, and this at a time when the deep pockets of the Republican establishment have been raided in order to fund ‘attack ads’ against him, especially in Florida.

So how does the Donald manage to shrug off all these attacks? How did Teflon Trump manage to become so non-stick to all the fully justified criticisms of his policies and personality?

Put simply, all the criticisms are perceived as coming from the governing establishment – other politicians, the mainstream media, government and academia. The disconnect between the governing establishment and those over whom they rule has been getting wider for decades. The governing establishment has accepted many standards of behaviour that are used to identify a person as either ‘in’ or ‘out’ of that group. Foremost amongst these is political correctness.

Trump, it must be admitted, is not politically correct.

More than this, Trump has explicitly identified himself with those who are outside the establishment. His use of aggressive and inflammatory language is quite clearly ‘not the done thing’ within the governing class. It is, however, how a very large number of people speak in their normal interactions.

These are the people that are voting for Trump. They vote for him because they identify with him. They see him as ‘one of us’. This is immensely potent politically.

When the governing establishment attacks Trump, Trump’s support tends to rise. This is simply because his base of support sees those attacks as being, not simply against Trump as a person, but against Trump as representative of a class. For the first time in several generations, the Trump supporters have someone who can not only represent them on a wider national stage, but someone who can represent them and win in struggles against the governing establishment. This is why they are so fired up.

It would be a mistake to portray this in racial terms. The governing establishment likes to portray Trump supporters as angry white men, rednecks with no education and less breeding. That is simply a portrait of their own shadows – the dark heart of white identity, from which the enlightened ones have been raised, never to go back.

Trump is not a racist, and he is in fact doing well with the Hispanic vote in particular. In the Nevada primary, for example, he gained 44% of the (Republican) Hispanic vote. What is often missed beneath the bold rhetoric that Trump is known for is a hard-headed and pragmatic insistence that the job of the United States president is to protect the interests of United States citizens – and nobody else. The fact that this is the most important part of the job description seems to have been lost by most commentators, and the extreme reaction to Trump’s policy simply shows how warped the mentality of the governing establishment has become. Trump wins votes among Hispanics in particular because they are fully aware of what a lawless society looks like – Mexico. They are fully aware that if they wish to make a better life for themselves – that is, if they wish to pursue the American Dream – it needs to be done lawfully, in the context of and with the support of a robust legal and police system.

This is why Trump is popular. It is also what drives the vitriolic and personalised denunciations of Trump himself. Trump is the living embodiment of all that the governing establishment disdains. What has followed is a perfect example of a religious witch-hunt. The high priests are reacting against the heretic discovered in their midst and are whipping themselves up into a righteous fury, a fury that is likely to have a very particular outcome.

Trump is not Hitler. He is neither racist nor a warmonger, he has a long history of working with unions and opposing corporate subsidies. He is, put simply, a very ‘centrist’ candidate for the US presidency. Yet ‘Hitler’ is the word of choice for all those who oppose him. This is dangerous, for to call a person Hitler – that is, to call them by this name with all seriousness – is to render that person beyond a particular community, and once this has been accepted, then that person is no longer entitled to the protections of that community.

It’s a common question – if you could have stopped Hitler before his rise to power, would you have done so? The media narrative around Trump is channelling a huge amount of psychic pressure towards an assassination attempt. If Trump is assassinated then we really are going to move closer to a second American Civil War.

If Trump lives, and if he is allowed to gain the Republican nomination (not guaranteed, there might still be room for a back-stage stitch-up) I predict that Trump will win in November. Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent, is utterly corrupt – a stooge of Goldman Sachs, implicated in several different ethical and financial scandals, and open to a savage critique on her record in office as Secretary of State, during which time the United States’ foreign policy has been a disaster without precedent in modern times. More than that, no person more embodies the face of the governing establishment than the radical feminist who owes her career to the success of her husband.

No. Trump will win, and will win in a landslide. After that, politics will become interesting again.

UPDATE: just came across this cartoon, which says it all:

trump establishment

The spirituality of anger

Anger-inside-outWe live in a society where the open expression of anger is mostly frowned upon. I say mostly because there are some situations where our society seems to deliberately cultivate anger for the entertainment of others – I am thinking here of certain reality television programmes, where watching somebody have a meltdown on camera is considered a reliable way to get attention, and therefore higher ratings, and therefore a higher income. Such is the nature of our decadence.

Yet should such behaviour be exhibited outside of the strange confines of a television studio it is seen as a sign of a disturbed mind, and in some situations strong words are highly likely to lead to trouble with the law.

I believe that this is a problem. We need to rehabilitate the expression of anger in our society, and give it a proper place. I see this as ultimately a spiritual issue, in that the suppression of a healthy anger has caused a great many other maladies in our body politic, causing immense suffering to individuals and allowing for a great many abuses by the dominant powers to go unchecked.

After all, anger is a constituent part of any animal, an element that enables them to live and function effectively within their environment. Without being able to call upon an angry response an animal is an easy target for predators or rivals. Imagine a stag trying to establish dominance within their territory, in order to mate – if another stag comes along and enters that territory without any response then the first stag will soon lose out in his love life and die off. No, anger is an essential part of a full and rich human life.

How can a Rector be arguing in favour of anger – isn’t anger a sin? Actually no, anger is not a sin. Jesus himself is recorded as being angry several times, most prominently when he drove the money traders out of the Temple. This was almost certainly the event which precipitated the authorities taking action against him, and which directly led to his crucifixion.

What Jesus demonstrated throughout his life was something called righteous anger. This is the healthy response of a human being to a situation of injustice. For example, when Jesus sees the religious leaders being indifferent to human suffering he loses his temper with them and ‘goes off on one’, indulging in some quite colourful language to bring home to them how appalling their behaviour is. Most of us react the same way when we see someone being bullied or abused.

One word of warning though – we’re not quite so mentally and spiritually healthy as Jesus. When we experience anger there is no guarantee that we are right to experience it. Sometimes we will experience the anger in response to an injustice that we can see outside of ourselves. Sometimes, however, we will become angry if we believe that we have been slighted, that we haven’t been given our due, that people are not offering us sufficient respect. In other words, the injustice will be bound up with our pride. This can be an unbelievably toxic combination.

How can we discern the difference? Only by prayer. Prayer is often caricatured as begging for the unlikely from the improbable but that misses the heart of the matter. Prayer comes in different forms, and one of the key ways to pray involves giving something our full attention. That is, if we pay attention to something (or someone) then we allow it to be itself; in other words, the process of prayer is the process of seeking to eliminate our own distortions and biases, our own projections and neuroses, in order that the full truth of that something (or someone) can emerge.

This is what needs to happen with our anger. Not that we need to pray before we allow ourselves to become angry but rather that, if we find ourselves becoming angry on a regular basis, we need to ask ourselves some hard questions. Is this anger truly being driven by an injustice out in the world (and if it is, to what use shall I put this angry energy that God has given me)? Or, is this anger simply born from a misplaced sense of pride, and is this angry energy being given to me so that I am motivated to do the hard spiritual work of examining my assumptions and sense of myself, in order that I can then see the world more truly? When Jesus said that some demons can only be driven out by prayer, I believe that this was what he had in mind.

There is a sin – one of the worst, called ‘mortal’ sins – that is related to anger, but which needs to be carefully distinguished, and that sin is called wrath. Anger is an immediate response to a particular situation, an emotion that can quickly blow over, and which certainly doesn’t need to be eliminated from our relationships. Wrath, however, is not an immediate emotional response, rather it is a settled disposition of the will. We have to decide to be wrathful. Wrath occurs when someone is determined to bear ill-will towards somebody else, thus refusing all human contact with them, or making such human contact as occurs devoid of human feeling and warmth. It is a refusal of forgiveness and a rejection of grace. Instead of the volcanic explosion of anger, wrath is the ice field, a glacier cutting off human life. It is, in short, a refusal of relationship – and that is a very useful definition of sin as such. To succumb to wrath is to place our own souls in mortal danger, and the consequence is that the wrathful person becomes sick in mind and often body.

The bible is filled with rich examples of righteous anger directed at those in positions of power and authority who use their status to abuse the weak and vulnerable. Jesus says: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness!” If we imagine Jesus saying this in a perfectly placid and calm tone of voice then we are suffering from a failure of the imagination. No, Jesus was angry and expressing his anger forthrightly. We would benefit from a bit more of such anger today.