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.

Inside the mind of an Islamist


How does an Islamist think? Most especially, what is it that drives young British men to leave their homes and families behind and to trek off to Syria to join up with the crazies in ISIS? Or to stay in this country and perpetrate barbarities like the 7/7 attacks or the savage slaughter of Corporal Lee Rigby on the streets of Woolwich? To begin answering that question, I very much recommend reading ‘The Islamist’ by Ed Husain.

Husain grew up in Tower Hamlets, a child of devout and traditional Muslim parents. When he was a teenager he fell under the influence of more radical teachings associated with the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. As he grew older, his radicalism developed and he became a key recruiter for a group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), which is an Islamist group dedicated to the establishment of a Caliphate, in which Muslims might be enabled to live fully Islamic lives. If you think that sounds exactly like ISIS you would not be wrong – it’s just that HT is a competing ideology, and rather like with Protestant ideologies in Christianity, the smallest differences make for the bitterest rivalries. ISIS recently executed an HT preacher in their territory.

Husain’s work for HT eventually led to a personal crisis, when a close ally in HT made a violent attack upon a fellow student at Newham college, where Husain had become a student. This led to a process of self-questioning and further intellectual exploration of Islam. Husain learned to speak Arabic properly and spent time in Syria and Saudi Arabia, teaching English as a foreign language and working for the British Council. Over the course of several years Husain was gradually able to shed his Islamist beliefs and return to the form of Islam into which he was raised, one which is centred on a peaceable life and spiritual growth.

Husain’s story is a fascinating one, and one which had particular resonance for me as I spent several years working in Tower Hamlets before coming to Mersea, and so I was familiar with the various locations that he described, and the general culture. I was also reasonably familiar with the divisions in Islam that are the background to Husain’s writings. What Husain provides, and it is invaluable, is an extremely resonant portrayal of how those differences work out in practice. For example, Husain describes visiting Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Many traditional believers who visit that most sacred site do so with a desire to express personal devotion to their prophet. This, however, is complete anathema to the Saudi authorities, who follow a particular brand of Islam called Wahhabism. This brand is very much like the Puritans in our own history – and they violently disapprove of any expression of Islamic devotion that might be taken to imply ‘worship’ of Muhammed.

Husain writes, “While trying to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet, I realized that there was precious little left of his heritage in Saudi Arabia. In Mecca, all historical remnants of the Prophet’s life were destroyed with dynamite for fear of polytheism and in accordance with the Wahhabi mantra of ‘worshipping one God’. To visit the Prophet’s house in Mecca, or to view with awe the houses of his close companions, was now considered shirk or polytheism.”

One of Husain’s strongest emphases is that the Wahhabi form of Islam – which is that which dominates the Saudi nation – is a radical break with more traditional, and more peaceable forms. It is worth remembering that 19 of the 20 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi nationals. Imagine that our own Oliver Cromwell had won the English Civil War, and that we had then had two hundred years of Puritan government. Imagine further that we had then discovered an immense natural resource under our land, which generated a wealth beyond imagining, said wealth then being used to export Cromwell’s brand of Puritanism – a brand of Christianity that banned the celebration of Christmas – to other nations around the world. Imagine further that this brand of Puritanism taught that Islam was heretical folly doomed to destruction, and that a clear sign of this imminent destruction was the way in which Islamic nations were slowly being converted to Puritan Christianity – and were paying for the privilege no less!

This is how Britain is seen – a moribund nation with no moral strength, which has been captured by the worship of Mammon and is therefore ripe for being converted. I cannot understand how our government can persist in financially and militarily supporting the Saudi regime. It is as if our government sold arms to Russia during the Cold War – these are people who are utterly committed to the overthrow of our pattern of life! Husain is very clear that this desire is in no way hidden in Saudi Arabia: “What I was taught in clandestinely Islamist mosques and cell meetings in Britain was being taught openly at universities in Saudi Arabia. Islamist extremism was nowhere near subsiding.”

After reading Husain’s book, I am left with a few answers and many more questions. I am reassured that there is a form of Islam which is compatible with British life, with which it is possible to have a mutually beneficial dialogue – a form of Islam which is associated with Sufi teaching. My concerns, however, are now even more sharply focussed. How does that traditional form of Islam relate to the more dominant form (historically and today) which has conquered vast territories, conducted indiscrimate slaughter, and now explicitly wishes to destroy Western civilisation? How does it link to the severely pathological cultural norms that have been imported into this country and which drive barbarities like the systematic child abuse taking place in Rotherham and Oxford and elsewhere?

I am persuaded that there are forms of Islam – possibly dominant forms – that are simply incompatible with being British. Unless we take active steps to engage with those forms – to resist them and overcome them – then our way of life will cease. Husain relates an extremely interesting story about the prophet Mohammed. He has been asked to pray for the area of Najd, which is the territory now occupied by Saudi Arabia. Twice he refuses to pray for that area, and in response to a third request he simply says “The horn of evil will appear from Najd”. In that, at least, he was correct.

Lessons from Cologne cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about the story


I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

What shall we do about the ISIS crisis?

isis barbarity

When we are baffled about what we might do with respect to a particular problem, it can be worthwhile first to consider what not to do. Here are some examples.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has called for compulsory registration of all Muslims in the United States. Here is a perfect example of historical ignorance leading to morally repugnant thinking. Anyone who has any historical sense whatsoever will immediately ask – what next? Shall they be required to wear yellow stars sewn into their clothing? This is how the evils of Nazism began to take root in 1930s Germany. The Holocaust did not happen all at once but rather the human rights of Jewish people were progressively dismantled over time. First the Jews were identified, then they were segregated, then they were shipped in cattle trucks to Auschwitz. We cannot defend an open and tolerant society by disregarding all the human rights that make us who we are. Let us trust that Mr Trump quickly sees the error in his thinking and abandons these evil plans.

Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called for our country to join in with air strikes in Syria. Please remind me: who we are trying to attack at the moment, Mr Cameron? After all, a few years back you were calling for air strikes against the forces of Assad, and supporting what became ISIS. Now we want to support Assad against ISIS? Is that with the Russians or against them? Is that with the Turkish government (presently profiting hugely from the oil sales that come via ISIS) who are our NATO ally or not? Committing our armed forces to an area of conflict, where our past actions bear a significant burden of responsibility for shaping the present fiasco, must surely be based upon extremely clear and convincing reasons, ideally ones which command wide public assent. Without those things a desire to act militarily is just so much knee-jerk posturing.

Earlier this year the Prince of Wales visited Saudi Arabia to pay his personal condolences to the Royal Family following the death of their King. In amongst other matters there was doubtless discussion about the ongoing major arms sales to the Saudi regime. After all, the UK has been selling arms to the Saudis for many years. Some of those sales were even investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, until political pressure forced them to stop. Let’s remember what Saudi Arabia is – it is a feudal monarchy that retains the death penalty for gays and adulterers and from that country came 19 out of the 20 hijackers on 9/11. The particular strain of Islamist nutjobbery which dominates ISIS has clear roots in the Wahhabi ideology which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. This ideology cannot tolerate any compromise with the West – and it is this ideology which is preached in all the mosques financially backed by the Saudis throughout the world, including many in the UK. Perhaps we need to be clearer as to which sorts of ideology help mutual flourishing in our society, and which do not?

If we are to engage constructively with this present crisis we would surely benefit from some clear and honest thinking and conversation about these issues. We face an ideology that is committed to the destruction of our western ways of life. As a minimum, might I propose that we stop financially and militarily supporting that ideology?

The critique of our society which that ideology offers is not entirely without merit. By which I mean that it makes sense to significant numbers of Muslims – for if it did not make any sense, nobody would support it. According to a BBC survey earlier this year, one in four British Muslims “have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”. Clearly our society is doing a very poor job at assimilating those who come to this country with different values. This is where we need to concentrate our energies – not in some vainglorious foreign adventuring, or in short-term political posturing, or simple money-grubbing obsequiousness to murderous dictators.

The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ (written during the Second World War), argued that for a tolerant culture to exist, it must tolerate all things except for intolerance. He wrote, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This is the situation that we are presently living in.

It is undoubtedly true that most Muslims are not suicide bombers. Most Muslims – as with most human beings – simply want to live a peaceful and prosperous life within which they can love their families and pursue the goods that God has given them to seek. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that most suicide bombers are Muslims and that, in the last fifteen to twenty years, whenever there has been a terrorist attack, the chances of one of the perpetrators being named Muhammed is pretty high.

We simply cannot tolerate this, for if we do then we shall cease to exist. By ‘we’ I am not referring to our biological existence; rather, I am referring to all the things which make up British life. I like the fact that we live in a country where sexual orientation is no longer a matter for legal investigation and blackmail. I like the fact that we live in a country where my daughters can receive a full education alongside their brothers and are enabled to pursue their own interests. I like the fact that we – still, just – enjoy a culture of free speech and open debate in which the pursuit of truth is allowed to proceed without government interference. If we tolerate the intolerant then all these good things, and many more, will come to an end. That is what I mean by saying that ‘we’ shall cease to exist.

I do not believe that we can engage properly with ISIS and all the other strands of Islamic terrorism without properly rooting ourselves in our own deepest traditions. We cannot succeed militarily without engaging intellectually – and that means spiritually. Without it, military means are pointless and self-defeating. Yet we also cannot engage spiritually unless we recognise our own spiritual blindness, the way in which we have turned away from spiritual truth in favour of materialist and utilitarian ends. We have to assert our values, and we can only do that when we have rediscovered them for ourselves.

Gibbon’s analysis of the decline of the Western Roman Empire remains of value for us today. He argued that it was the moral corruption of Rome that rendered it vulnerable and impotent in the face of new challenges. We do not have to suffer the same fate.

Protecting the alien and choosing life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The queen of the sciences

queen of sciences 2
What does it mean to claim, as I do, that theology is the Queen of the Sciences? It is a title that stems from the medieval era, when theology was openly acknowledged as the most important intellectual discipline. Surely, by now, we’ve grown out of such superstitions? Well, that is the default assumption of the modern world, but as devotees of The Silence of the Lambs will know well, if you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Truly, the last remaining superstition is the one that denies theology her proper place as queen.

There are all sorts of ways to consider our forms and patterns of knowing, and those forms and patterns interlink in particular ways. Most importantly, there are intellectual hierarchies. There are some areas of study which open up other areas, and where a development will cascade down to transform how things are understood. For example, physics and chemistry were once entirely distinct intellectual pursuits; now, however, it is understood that chemistry is effectively an intellectual subset of physics. That is, a full understanding of physics is determinative for how we understand chemistry. This does not mean that the study of chemistry isn’t separate from the study of physics. One can become an expert physicist without at the same time becoming an expert chemist; what it means is that the ultimate explanation for truths in chemistry are dependent upon the ultimate explanation for truths in physics, and not vice versa. There are no truths in chemistry that cannot finally be grounded upon truths in physics.

So to claim that a particular area of study is the Queen of the Sciences is to claim that this particular study is the one that underpins all other areas of knowledge. This is the original claim made for theology, that, properly understood, a right understanding of theology guides and determines the way in which all other subjects are understood. There are no areas of study that are excluded from the Queen, in just the same way that there are no areas of our nation that are not ultimately subject to the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, if there were areas outside her purview, that very fact would mean she would cease to be Queen.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that there have been two principal areas of study that have pretended to the throne. The first is mathematics, the second is physics. Whilst there are some academics who still dream of a ‘theory of everything’, which would establish their area of expertise upon the throne, I believe most would recognise this as a clear example of an ambitious reach exceeding intellectual grasp. This is what it means to live in a postmodern intellectual environment, for the ‘modern’ was precisely the notion that science, as best exemplified in mathematical physics, would provide a new and more rational way of understanding, and therefore ordering and controlling, our human world. That dream died at least fifty years ago, although there are still some who cling to somnolent fragments. Must I mention Professor Dawkins again?

So to have a Queen of the Sciences means to have an intellectual hierarchy, within which some subjects are fundamentally shaped and determined by other subjects. This isn’t just a matter of scientific knowledge (to think that it is is to maintain the modern assumption that science is the most important form of knowledge). Consider Jane Austen, and the study of her novels. Knowledge of Jane Austen is a subset of knowledge of nineteenth century English novels, which is itself a subset of English literature – and that in itself is a subset of literature as such. So it is possible to become an expert in Jane Austen, her novels, her writings, her context and so on – and yet still recognise that such expertise (admirable and enjoyable though it may be!) is only a small area of equivalent expertise across a wider field.

Now imagine that there is someone who is a devotee of science fiction novels – who studies Asimov and Clarke and Iain M Banks – and who denies that this has anything to do with the study of literature. Now this might be well-intentioned, and a question of semantics. In the same way that ‘classical’ music has become identified with music of a particular period, even though similar music is still being composed today, it may be that our aficianado of science fiction is simply segregating out one form of literature from another. That is a defensible position. Yet to say that science fiction is not literature, and by that to mean that issues of the use of language, plot structure, characterisation, thematic explorations and so on are not present in these works is not a defensible position. To say that science fiction has nothing to do with the questions of marriage in early 19th Century england, and is therefore not literature, is to restrict the subject matter of ‘literature’ arbitrarily.

Which is how I tend to feel when someone denies that theology is the Queen of the Sciences. In order to fully understand any subject area there must be an understanding of the investigator themselves. There has to be a level of self-awareness, an appreciation of the limits of what can be understood properly, of what might be useful speculation and conjecture and, most especially, of the way in which our desires and ambitions can distort our perception of the truth. In other words, all our forms of knowledge – even the most ‘hard’ of scientific realms – is ultimately dependent on our most fundamental commitments and beliefs. We need to cultivate an awareness of those commitments and beliefs in order to gain a full and proper knowledge of every other subject area, whether in the sciences or the humanities.

This is the realm of theology, and this is why theology is Queen of the Sciences. Theology is precisely how we talk about what we are most committed to, our faiths and beliefs and creeds. It is not essential to be a Christian in order to study theology – that is the same as saying you need to be a student of 19th Century novels in order to study English literature. What is essential is to have the capacity to engage in a discussion about these matters with an awareness of one’s own commitments and assumptions. This is why atheists can study theology without being committed to a particular devotional stance, and why people of all faiths and none can explore the subject.

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

witt vienna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have faith in your pills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jesus is Santa Claus for adults”

santa science
I want to take issue with the comment attributed to Christopher Hitchens by Nick Cohen in the last edition of the Courier, to the effect that ‘Jesus is Santa Claus for adults’.

What is being alleged is that the belief in Jesus held by Christians is similar to the belief in Santa Claus held by young children. That is, there is a fantasy figure who comes bestowing gifts in a hidden fashion, that the children believe because they are told the story by adults. As the children grow up, so the understanding about the nature of Santa Claus changes, and belief in the real existence of Santa Claus gives way to a shrewder understanding of parental manipulation (if you’re on the naughty list Santa won’t bring you any presents), a manipulation which those very same children then indulge in when they become parents themselves. It is something that adds to the wonder and excitement of Christmas for the children after all, so where is the harm in it?

To think of Jesus in these terms is to think of Jesus as a nice story told by the grown ups to the children in a similar fashion, a way of duping the understanding in the service of a more effective manipulation by those with a fuller knowledge of the truth. To stop thinking of Jesus in traditional Christian terms is therefore, on this analogy, akin to a child growing up and looking behind the curtain, or seeing Mummy kissing Santa Claus, or simply glimpsing presents wrapped up and hidden that later ‘inexplicably’ come down a non-existent chimney from Santa. Belief in Jesus is therefore a child-like fantasy, which no grown adult could countenance.

I want to emphasise this aspect of Hitchens’ point. Belief in Jesus is seen as a childish, a relic of a superstitious age that those with a more mature outlook on life have simply left behind. Notice that this means that, in our present society, those who do retain some belief in Jesus (still a majority of the population even now) are seen as child-like by those who have rejected such a belief, like Mr Hitchens.

What I would like to know is how this analogy bears up when an adult is converted to Christian faith. After all, this is not a rare occurrence, it is a daily event. Has any adult ever been converted to a belief in Santa Claus? In contrast, in this country and abroad, mature and responsible adults are converted to a belief in Jesus Christ each and every day – I would guess thousands every day, if not more.

I would like to describe one such example which I know quite well, which is my own. When I was a teenager at school I was a militant atheist, by which I mean I was a devotee of the writings of Richard Dawkins, most especially his excellent ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, and I used his arguments to regularly attack Christian friends. I’m pretty sure that I used the Santa Claus analogy myself. I was quite certain that I was right, that I had matured away from a childish belief in a sky-fairy, and that the march of reason was unstoppable.

What shifted my perspective was going up to university to study philosophy and theology and therefore become forced into a much more rigorous pattern of thinking. I remain grateful to one particular tutor who was immensely patient with me as I trotted out the standard Dawkins lines and in each case he pointed out the logical fallacies and absurdities associated with that position. I would add: this isn’t intellectually difficult, The God Delusion could happily be set as a first-year undergraduate set text in philosophy as it contains so many excellent examples of bad argumentation. Properly considered it would provide a very thorough grounding in how not to make a coherent case.

Put simply, when I was forced to think through an intellectual position more thoroughly than I had done so before, when I had to dig more deeply and not rely on supposedly witty soundbites like the Santa Claus reference, I discovered that what I had been rejecting all along was not Christianity as it had been understood for the best part of two thousand years. Rather it was a caricature of the faith that had become dominant in the Protestant countries of North-Western Europe as a direct result of the political and social effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions. Dawkins was simply echoing arguments first raised several hundred years previously, as Hitchens then echoed Dawkins.

How, then, is my belief that ‘Jesus is Lord’ similar to a child’s belief in Santa Claus? The real irony is that what I came to realise was that it was my understanding of science that was more like that of a child’s belief in Santa Claus. After all, it was science that had the supposedly wonderful story to tell. Here was a method that provided wonderful benefits, that was a royal road to truth, that was practiced by people who were wiser and more rational than the common person – in sum, it was science that was the dominant belief system in my mind. What a proper academic study of science did for me – and what I really wish someone like Richard Dawkins could make time for – is realising that science is a human endeavour just like any other, with benefits and costs, and which is very much prone to making mistakes.

To my mind, it is the prevalent belief in science, and the deference given to those who dispense science, which is most like the child’s belief in Santa Claus. It is a naïve understanding, and not one that can be sustained after a ‘look behind the curtain’ which marks the threshold from childishness to maturity. This is not an abstract point – lives are at stake. I will write next time of one area in our cultural life where this childish deference towards science has done immense harm to us, with a look at the pharmaceutical industry.