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.

Inside the mind of an Islamist

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

story_telling

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.”