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Sunday, March 23 2014

500 Year of Friendship

This series starts on BBC Radio 4 this week, and don't forget the additional material online, including this below from the introduction to my book The Meaning of Friendship...

What exactly is friendship? What is its nature, its rules, its promise? How can one differentiate between its many forms? How does it compare to, and mix with, the connections shared between lovers and within families? If at least a kind of friendship is elastic enough to survive the relational stresses and strains of our flexible ways of life, is that friendship also strong enough to bear the burden of the human need to belong, to be connected, to be loved?

These questions are trickier to answer than it might first seem because friendship is hugely diverse. Although it is relatively easy to come up with definitions that account for part of it, it is much harder to find one that does not exclude any of its facets. Aristotle, whose writing on friendship still sets the philosophical agenda to this day, found as much 2,500 years ago. Friendship, he proposed, is at the very least a relationship of goodwill between individuals who reciprocate that goodwill. A reasonable starter for ten. However, as soon as he tried to expand it, the definition seemed to unravel.

He looked around him and saw three broad groupings of relationships people called friendship. The first group are friends primarily because they are useful to each other – like the friendship between an employee and a boss, or a doctor and a patient, or a politician and an ally; they share goodwill because they get something out of the relationship. The second group are friends primarily because some pleasure is enjoyed by being together; it may be the football, the shopping, the gossip or sexual intimacy, but the friendship thrives insofar, and possibly only insofar, as the thing that gives the pleasure continues to exist between them. Aristotle noted that these first two groups are therefore like each other because if you take the utility or the pleasure away, then the chances are the friendship will fade.

This, though, is not true of the third group. These are people who love each other because of who they are in themselves. It may be their depth of character, their innate goodness, their intensity of passion or their simple joie de vivre, but once established on such a basis these friendships are ones that tend to last. Undoubtedly much will be given and much taken too but the friendship itself is independent of external factors and immensely more valuable than the friendships that fall into the first two groups.

The meaning of friendshipThat there are better or higher friendships – different people may call them soul friends, close or old friends, or best friends – as opposed to instrumental and casual friendships, or mere friendliness, is surely right. But to say that great friendship is defined solely by its goodwill seems to miss its essence. Goodwill exists in these best kinds of friendship, but, unlike the lesser types, best friendship – arguably the quintessential sort – is based on something far more profound. In other words, a definitional approach to friendship has its limits.

This ambiguity as to what friendship is reflects, then, the ambiguity that appears to be part and parcel of friendship in life. Try listing some of the friends you have – your partner, oldest friend, mates or girlfriends, one or two family members, work colleagues, neighbours, friends from online chat rooms, family friends, a boss perhaps, therapist, teacher, personal trainer – whoever you might at some time think of as a friend. A look at such a list puts your friends in front of you, as it were, and highlights the vast differences. For example, the friendship with your partner will in certain key respects be unlike that of your oldest friend, though you may be very close to both. Conversely, although friendship is for the most part a far less strong tie than say the connection to family, you may feel less close to members of your family in terms of friendship than others with whom you have no genetic or legal bond. Then again, lovers might make you blush and families can make you scream, but friendship – even soul friendship – is usually cool in comparison.

As you continue further down the list to the friends who are in many ways little more than acquaintances, associates or individuals for whom you have merely a sense of friendliness, it is obvious that friendship stretches from a love you could scarcely do without to an affection that you’d barely miss if it ended. Some people would say there is some minimal quality which means that it makes sense to call all of them friends perhaps Aristotle’s goodwill. Others would disagree: they are the sort who say they have a handful of friends and that others are people they only know. In other words, the ambiguity of friendship extends to the very possibility of prolific and profound friendship-making.

Personally, I think that Aristotle is on to something in his belief that the closest kind of friendship is only possible with a handful of individuals, such is the investment of time and self that it takes. ‘Host not many but host not none’, was his formula. He would argue that less is more and it is easy to substitute mere networking for the friendships it is supposed to yield. He actually went so far as to express a fear of having too many friends, ‘polyphilia’ as it might be called. There is an expression attributed to Aristotle that captures the concern: ‘Oh my friends, there is no friend.’

One of the things I think the philosophy of friendship tells us is that life produces personal relationships of many types, but out of these connections good friendship may or may not grow. Certain associations or institutions like work or marriage can foster friendship but those same associations or institutions need not necessarily be characterised by deep friendship themselves; friendship emerges, as it were, from below up. It is a fluid concept.

Another dimension to the ambiguity of friendship is its apparent open-endedness. Unlike institutions of belonging such as marriage which is supported and shaped by social norms, or work where individuals have contractually defined roles, friendship has no predetermined instructions for assembly or project for growth. People have to create their friendships mostly out of who they are, their interests and needs, without any universally applicable framework. On the one hand, this is a potential weakness, because a friendship may ‘go nowhere’ or ‘run out of steam’. On the other, it is a potential strength because there is also a freedom in this that is crucial to friendship’s appeal: it is part of the reason for the diversity within the family of relationships called friendship.

In summary, then, it seems that it is not possible to say unequivocally what friendship is. Sometimes it is intense, sometimes it is thin. Sometimes it appears to embrace many, sometimes only a few. This might seem to be a bit of a blow if the question is what is friendship. However, far from ambiguity automatically leading to philosophical impasse, an exploration of the very ambiguities of friendship is actually a very good way forward. After all, is not mistaking relationships for what they are not – that is being blind to their ambiguity – arguably the greatest cause of disappointment and failure? A married couple may assume they are friends in some deep sense when really they only have goodwill for each other because of the kids; unless they realise that, when the kids leave home, the marriage may falter too. An employee and a boss may think they are good friends after all the late nights, trips abroad and hours spent together: but when the day arrives for the appraisal or pay rise, and both turn out to be modest, the friendship stumbles and falls.

Honesty about any relationship is likely to improve it, even if the honest thing to do is not put too much hope in it! The mistakes that people can make in friendship are also exemplified in some of the things people commonly say about it. For example, many would say that the test of good friendship is being able to pick up immediately where you left off even if you haven’t seen the friend for some time. Aristotle, though, thought that good friendship depends on shared living and spending substantial, regular, quality time together. ‘Cut off the talk, and many a time you cut off the friendship,’ he said. The question is how much time, how much talk is needed?

And yet, if it is really quite easy to make mistakes by thinking the relationship is something other that what it is, the best kinds of friendship (however that is judged) are essential for a happy life: human beings need people they can call friends and not just people who are relatives, partners, acquaintances, colleagues or associates. In other words, the corollary of friendship’s ambiguity is that it is packed with promise and strewn with perils.

Philosophy is frequently overlooked as a resource for thinking through friendship in this way. This has much to do with the fact that only a relatively small number of philosophers have written on the subject at any length. What is more, those who have, although generally agreeing that friendship is essential for a happy life, also say that it provides no automatic satisfaction of human desires for deeper relationships or society’s need for connection. Friendship is ‘a problem worthy of a solution’, as Nietzsche gnomically put it. Or as Aristotle wrote: ‘The desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.’ The implication is that the best kinds of friendships are only possible between people who properly value it and who understand how many things from the personal to the political can compromise, undermine and destroy it. There is an art to friendship. Philosophy can teach us something about it.

This is an edited extract from the Introduction of The Meaning of Friendship by Mark Vernon (Palgrave Macmillan).

Wednesday, April 10 2013

Where's the good news?

First thoughts on Men and Women in Marriage, a new document from the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England.

1. The moment of hope for gay couples seeking public blessing comes in the document's advocacy of 'pastoral wisdom'. This is perhaps as much as could be expected from the commission, given the pressures to hold the Anglican communion together. That's the realpolitik.

2. Personally, I agree that the disagreement over same-sex marriage is not just a disagreement 'over mere names'. Serious scholarly, psychologically-informed and humanly-compelling discussion is needed. The church has largely stymied its own contribution by its mostly hypocritical reactions to the discussion of human sexuality. Might this be about to change? Sadly, not, it seems.

3. What is dismaying, then, is not that there is no overt policy change. Rather, it is the poor quality of the theology, history and psychology on display in the document. This highlights the deeper impact of a prior policy constraining a genuine process of discernment and exploration. The document reads defensively and often rather literally-minded. There is little good news in it, not fundamentally because there is no policy change, but because it conveys such a narrow vision of human love and sexuality.

4. The non-negotiable, hard place is that marriage is a 'creation ordinance', defined as between a man and a woman, as apparently implied in Genesis. This is either making the norm the rule or reducing the rich myths of Genesis to a formula. If it's the former, it's simply a category error. If it's the latter, it's an appallingly reductive reading of scripture that strips it of life. (In fact, the Biblical treatment often amounts to little more than proof-texting. For example, St Paul in 1 Corinthians is cited to show that men and women are 'not independent' of each other, which is tantamount to a truism, the proof-texting charge evidenced as if that was St Paul's last word on the matter.)

5. The idea that Genesis sanctions the nuclear family is, actually, a modern idea: I believe it can be traced to John Locke's 1690 Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government. Then, a legal definition of marriage was required because before, committed relationships had gained their social sanction by being made before God. Also, before then, families rarely looked like Adam and Eve under the fig tree because people died too often: hodgepodge families seem far more likely to have been the norm. (The document inadvertently shows it's modern roots by quoting the slightly earlier Jeremy Taylor. Presumably one of the committee had a dictionary of quotations to hand, as there is no sign that Taylor's thoughts on love and friendship are reflected upon in any deep way. Further, Taylor is quoted as if in support of marriage as a paradigm of society, when the word 'society' did not mean a form of social organisation at the time, but merely human company.)

6. The point about modern prejudices is important because it makes the report blind to the diversity of relationships available to Christians in the medieval and ancient periods. We live in an exceptional age in which marriage has a monopoly. As writers from Alan Bray (The Friend) to Rowan Williams (Lost Icons) have argued, ours is actually the idiosyncratic period, one that has depleted our relational imaginations. (In a presumably unintentionally humorous moment, the document considers the 'exogamy' of the Old Testament, arguing that it was intended 'to be of limited scope'. Lucky Abraham.)

7. The document says that the lack of a clear understanding of marriage makes for 'disappointments and frustrations'. I doubt whether marriage guidance experts would agree. Rather, it's an inability to tolerate difference and diversity in marriages that makes it so rigid and unbearable that it falls apart in people's hands.

8. Discerning the goodness of God in the natural world is advocated. Now, of course, natural goodness is tricky to discern in a fallen world. The document nods to the arts and sciences in helping with that. But a paragraph or two after this moment of openness, it shrinks back to a narrow biologism that would embarrass even Richard Dawkins: our biological existence, apparently, means one man, one woman. The fact that homosexuality exists in nature is ignored. God can bless same-sex swans raising cygnets together, but not same-sex humans.

9. The issue of parenthood is discussed, in terms of the ideal. Well, actually, the evidence is pretty good now that a committed couple, with one parent who is especially devoted to attending to the child's needs, is 'good enough'. Further, ideal parenting is actually rejected in modern psychology, because it is recognised that the child needs parental 'failures', within safe limits, in order to gain a rich sense of itself. Hence, parenting being described as 'good enough'. Such an understanding of parental needs does indeed call into question some of the desire for children that can be expressed today. But it is clear that good enough does not automatically mean heterosexual.

10. I find the document's discussion of the balance between nature and freedom confusing. I think it would have been better to talk about commitment and freedom, that is against the default assumption of choice as freedom. It seems, in the document, that this is the work the word 'nature' is being asked to do, though also being asked to carry the extra, unsustainable load of an assumption of heterosexual commitment.

11. The commission does get onto talking about the spiritual needs of the individual, as supported in marriage, particularly in the sublimating (my word) of erotic instincts. This is basic, Platonic stuff. Yes: permanence, faithfulness and stability are most likely to nurture the higher loves that lead to God. Though again, this section is being made to work in a narrowly heterosexual direction that is imposed, not inherent in the argument.

12. My sense is that the thinness of the document means that it will satisfy no-one - not in the political sense of dealing with the issue of same-sex blessings and marriage, but in the deeper spiritual sense. Theologically, biblically, psychologically, spiritually, this is not life in all its fullness. Frankly, who would want it?

Wednesday, November 28 2012

Stoic week, and a challenge to Christianity

Stoic Week looks like a genuinely interesting and valuable experiment. But two things struck me that I think are worth pondering.

First, there's no mention in the online literature of the logos - the divine principle that ancient stoics believed ran through all things and which meant you could trust life, even when it seemed to be going wrong. The basic aim of stoic practices was to align yourself to the logos, hence the meaning of going with the flow. It was not just any old flow.

Then, I see no mention of the stoic preoccupation with divination, the attempt to discern the logos by looking at the outer world of the heavens, which was thought to mirror the inner world of the self. Of course, astrology is suspect these days, but to lose touch with divination risks also losing touch with contemplating how the outer mirrors the inner, and vice versa, and that might render modern stoicism a solipsistic, lonely enterprise.

I guess the reason why the organisers felt they had to drop these theological elements is that they feel they won't run today. This is something that Christians might think about, because there is, in fact, a version of ancient stoicism that is alive and kicking in much of the world today, namely Christianity.

St Paul cites stoic thinkers and hymnody when, say, he talks about God as being that principle in which we live and move and have our being. St John too implies that Christ is the logos incarnate. Stoic practices such as reflecting on the day were incorporated into Christian liturgies and habits.

The question I am left with is whether Christianity has become so front-loaded with doctrinal ideology that we've lost touch with the fact that it too is fundamentally a way of life that is meaningless without the practices?

Wednesday, November 21 2012

Synod and the spirit of the age

It worries me when the Prime Minister says the church should just 'get on with it', and when the Archbishop of Canterbury observes that the synod may seem 'wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in... wider society.'

My perception is that conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics alike regard such a stance as somewhat heroic, as if the right course is typically against the spirit of the age. They may read such remarks as endorsing their position.

Someone should be quoting Luke 16:8. 'For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.' That is surely the point.

Monday, May 14 2012

Dalai Lama's Templeton Prize press conference

I was just at the press conference with the Dalai Lama, organised before he receives the Templeton Prize 2012 this afternoon in St Paul's Cathedral, London.

It was inevitably a little frustrating: journalists think in headlines, so I just shouldn't expect an in-depth exploration of science and spirituality, much as it would be fascinating to get deeper into the now commonplaces His Holiness champions in the west - the honesty, truthfulness, warm-heartedness that builds an inner self-confidence and peace of mind, for all the pain that life throws up. It's only when you think that life should be easy that you get frustrations and violence, he remarked. We need to research the causes of events like the economic crisis, he said in response to another question, and not just the economic causes but the moral causes too.

The main theme on the science and spirituality front was that the psychologists with whom he has worked (Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson were on the panel too) have gained useful insights from Buddhist psychology that they have then explored in a scientific frame. Plus, the Dalai Lama's very presence in debates about mental health catalyzes all sorts of interest across the scientific community. This was the significance of his presence at the 2005 meeting of America's Society for Neuroscience.

And perhaps it's the presence that counts most of all. He is disarmingly direct, attentive, undefended, even in front of a bunch of sceptical journalists seeking a headline. That felt remembrance of time with him perhaps matters more than anything he actually says. It communicates a certain way of being human, not otherwise conspicuously evident in the world today. Call it divinity, saintliness, or just happiness. It's arresting and inspiring.

I asked Daniel Goleman afterwards how to think about the relationship between science and spirituality, not least as many scientists might think the two are opposed, or at least regard the spiritual element as a colourful surplus. What is lost when insights from religious or spiritual traditions are stripped from that setting and reconstructed in the secular sphere?

He said there were losses and gains. The gains are the insights that might be applied to develop discrete interventions, particularly in a therapeutic context. Mindfulness and CBT together are shown to be particularly potent, for example, when tackling depression.

But that is not to say the spiritual quest inherent in Buddhism or Christianity is not worthwhile. It is just that the science is not interested in it - is theologically blind, in a way.

(As an aside, I was struck again by how much Christianity disables itself by presenting itself as a belief system, not a practice, such as you find in Western Buddhism. The beliefs matter in Buddhism, of course; but they are typically seen as the summary of a life's experience, not the necessary starting point and hence obstacle, as so much talk about the need for conversion implies amongst Christians.)

I do wonder how much the holistic context of a religious way of life matters. Isn't the western, secular way of life itself responsible for so much ill health, and so doesn't that have to change? After all, mindfulness is just one element out of eight in Buddhism. Or in Christianity, you have the daily effort to shift your attention towards others and God too.

But I guess you can't force it. Perhaps the science is simply at the stage of helping us realize that Aristotle, Jesus and/or the Buddha were right all along, more or less. Western culture must find its way, make its own mistakes - manifest in the pain and joys of a million individual lives. If we sense the need for the spiritual dimension, then it won't be lost.

Thursday, March 29 2012

Templeton Prize 2012 - the Dalai Lama

Thursday, November 24 2011

All in the body

I was fascinated by Dr Kenneth Heaton's research into Shakespeare making deep connections between the physical and the emotional - and wondering whether doctors might learn a lot about their patients' emotional wellbeing by attending to their physical state; partly because I recently came across Shakespeare's Entrails by David Hillman.

Hillman discusses Shakespeare's 'visceral knowledge' - knowledge experienced in the body, as well as of the body. In the Bard, entrails are a locus of subjectivity and otherness, belief and doubt. He argues that Shakespeare lived at the beginning of the modern period, which has become such a somatically precarious age, what with mind/body splits.

Further, our language of the body has become muted by familiarity. When we say, 'on the one hand and on the other', or talk of 'venting our spleens', it feels like mere metaphor. We've become disconnected from our own experience, tending to spirit away the body, as if bodily references were just a gloss on mental life. Psychic interiority has become separable from the interior of the body. There's been a process of 'excarnation', already well underway by the end of 16th century.

Perhaps it's only now turning around...

Saturday, October 22 2011

The vestal virgins of St Paul's

There is a striking sense of anger at the closure of St Paul's cathedral, even in secular quarters, directed against the dean and chapter. It feels like they are our vestal virgins, supposed to keep the flame of the city alight, not hand it over to health and safety.

Funny how myths stay alive.

Wednesday, September 21 2011

A spat in the psi-wars

Every so often, I catch a skirmish in the psi-wars - the often raucous, evidence-hurling debate between paranormal researchers and their sceptical debunkers. There was a bit of it yesterday, when Chris French, the gentleman amongst sceptics, wrote a piece claiming psychic Sally Morgan had been exposed with an earpiece through which she hears her messages from the other side.

Danny Penman, on the other hand, who writes broadly psi-favourable articles, or at least open-minded, had previously written an article on our Sal, which concluded she can produce 'amazing insights', whether by paranormal means being moot.

In this piece, at least, Chris hardly holds the high standards research in this area requires. His exposé is based upon a women called Sue who called into an Irish radio programme. It reads as if Chris hadn't verified her testimony or even who Sue is, else I'm sure he would have said; he also didn't speak to Morgan - who denies the accusations on her website. Danny, on the other hand, had a consultation with Sally Morgan, and sent three plants to do similarly, all of whom reported some positive findings. Who knows the truth of it.

I was left wondering why I can never, quite, get excited about the paranormal. I've read a few books, the last, Randi's Prize by Robert McLuhan, struck me as balanced and thorough, and concluded the evidence is substantial and weighs in pro, and that sceptics routinely go into denial. No doubt the sceptics would claim the evidence is all dodgy and believers are inventive, usually honest, self-deluders.

But I suspect that the reason the paranormal so excites some is not that, if true, it threatens to overturn the whole of physics; you could hardly add to the weirdness of physics as it is. Nor that if science proved there were life after death or somesuch, western civilisation would rock on its axis; most people believe it already. Also, it seems a bit silly to me to be interested in the possibility of a telepathy that knows the colour of your sofa or what you ate for breakfast. Even if true, that would be just party tricks; mere spectacle.

Rather, the psi-wars appear to manifest a deep ambivalence about our way of life. It's something like this. The sceptics seem to fear that the gains of the modern world, particularly its rational empiricism, risk being lost to human folly, and so they champion a science that would understand the whole of life to keep that risk, and its propagators, down.

The believers, or open-minded, sense that a reductionist mindset risks reducing our humanity. The constant noise, distractions and demands that modern materialism have created prevent us from noticing the subtler ways we belong to one another, experienced, say, as an embodied feeling, a sense or intuition. Paying attention to that not the spectacle, as I believe is attempted in practices such as meditation or therapy, is important and can be life-changing.

Thursday, September 15 2011

What is lost when we learn to write

A Welsh linguist has helped the Shanjo people of Zambia to develop a written version of their oral language, ciShanjo. Fascinating. Paul Tench reports, 'It would be good for the Shanjo people’s sense of self-worth, their dignity, pride in their distinctive culture, their standing in the region, not only to be literate in their own language, but also to develop their own literature and to give visual expression in public signs, at school and in all their institutions.'

I've no doubt that's true. It's the way of the world. However, I read the story at the same time as reading The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. He argues that nothing less than the ecological crises we face today stem, originally, from the huge shift in consciousness that was precipitated by oral cultures learning to write.

Roughly, he argues that the magic of reading and writing happens on the page, the extraordinary way in which scribbled marks can grip you to convey sense, voice, meaning, engagement.

But in an oral culture, language is written, as it were, on the landscape. It is intimately connected with the sensuousness of place. The classic case in point is the Aboriginal culture of Australia. Abram vividly describes the synesthesia of identity, environment, dreaming and language that roots Aboriginals, and other indigenous peoples - and that is lost with writing. Alienation from nature is the result.

As the technology of writing encounters and spreads through a previously oral culture, the felt power and personality of particular places begins to fade... Writing down oral stories renders them separable, for the first time, from the actual places where the events in those stories occurred... Once the stories are written down, however, the visible text becomes the primary mnemonic activator of the spoken stories - the inked traces left by the pen as it traverses the page replacing the earthly traces left by the animals, and by one's ancestors... Gradually the felt primacy of place is forgotten, superseded by a new, abstract notion of "space" as a homogeneous and placeless void.

A lot has happened when you've learnt to write.

(Image: Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia, Thomas Schoch)

Monday, September 12 2011

Healing hearts

Listening to some of the commemorations of 9/11, it struck me how often the human heart was referenced, in the context of healing. And I wondered: is this meant metaphorically or literally?

For example, Mark Oakley in St Paul's preached a great sermon, which included this thought: 'Whereas our bodies often do quite a lot to heal themselves, human hearts are not so skilful. They need to be loved back into life...'

And Prince Charles, in a very thoughtful speech, remarked: 'But then I began to reflect that all the greatest wisdom that has come down to us over the ages speaks of the overriding need to break the law of cause and effect and somehow to find the strength to search for a more positive way of overcoming the evil in men's hearts.'

Is there evil literally in men's hearts? Can human hearts really be loved back to life? I suspect the phrases can be taken literally, that the heart is more than a mechanical organ capable of carry metaphorical associations.

There is, of course, Shakespeare's line about hearts having reasons. Digging around on the internet, not always the best guide, it seems there is a growing acceptance of the notion of the 'functional heart brain', following the research of Andrew Armour. There's a short summary paper from the Royal College of Psychiatrists here. For example, and if I've understood it right, after a heart transplant, the nerves of the heart do not reconnect for some time, and yet the new heart functions. In the paper, Mohamed Omar Salem discusses how hearts may communicate with the rest of the body and the brain via their exceptionally strong magnetic fields too, and further:

There is now evidence that a subtle yet influential electromagnetic or ‘energetic’ communication system operates just below our conscious awareness. Energetic interactions possibly contribute to the ‘magnetic’ attractions or repulsions that occur between individuals, and also affect social relationships. It was also found that one person’s brain waves can synchronize to another person’s heart.

(There's further speculation about the heart's involvement in precognition, though this is obviously controversial, and so I'll avoid the distraction.)

It's funny how we need MRI scanners and the like to help us believe things many intuitively know, and our ancestors presumably took to be blindingly obvious aspects of life. The heart has its reasons. Duh! Such are our times.

Then again, I know that in the heart unit up the road from here, people undergoing open heart surgery are told that it is a particularly emotive operation. You are warned about having a seemingly irrational moment of breakdown, after the wound itself is well on the mend, because your heart will have been exposed in more than one way.

Can hearts be helped literally by being loved? Can forces such as evil reside in men's hearts? It seems so.

Friday, September 9 2011

God and the race to the White House

A lesson from history, if you're watching with mounting horror the rise of evangelical forces in the American Republican party. (There's a good state-of-play survey at FaithWorld.)

Thomas Kidd, Baylor University historian and scholar of religion, observes that in the election of 1800, Federalists took out weekly newspaper advertisements asking whether Americans would prefer a 'God and religion' leader like John Adams to Thomas Jefferson and 'no God.'

In spite of the smears, Jefferson won.

Thursday, September 1 2011

The Faith Machine, on losing your soul

The Faith Machine had its first night at the Royal Court last night. It went down well.

The story features that rare creature, a bishop who was broken by the 1998 Lambeth conference, the 'anti-gay one' that Peter Selby likened to a Nuremberg rally. Bishop Edward has some of the best lines too. 'Nihilism is the victory of the status quo,' was one I chewed over on the way home.

Congratulations as well to Alexi Kaye Campbell who deftly finds a relatively fresh response to the arguments of atheism. 'Fools, fools, fools', Edward says, for trying to understand 'the soul of the world' without myth and poetry. 'The militant atheist saying, "Don't think like that, don't dream like that, don't wish like that, don't breathe like that."'

Thinking, dreaming, wishing, breathing like that is traumatically demonstrated when Edward loses his mind to dementia. All he can remember are lines from the Bible. I've heard carers report the same thing. The person would say nothing all day long and then recite the Magnificat or the Lord's Prayer in perfect King James English. The lines are not remembered in their minds, which have gone, but are written on their souls. They can still think and dream a little.

The story of the play revolves around Edward's daughter, Sophie, and her off and on boyfriend, Tom. She is all soul, becoming a journalist so as to devote her life to reporting personal stories of war and exploitation. He had soul in his youth, manifest in an unpublished novel, though then he sold his soul to the highest bidder - becoming an amoral, highly paid advertising account manager.

That's a bit of an easy dig, though it got good laughs. It fascinated me as well that the Royal Court wanted a play that spent quite some time discussing the arguments of the Anglican communion.

But the message? On the face of it, that is obvious: Tom loses his soul. The word is used against him several times. However, I was surprised when, in the final scene, one of the characters says this line: 'For what good shall it profit a man shall he gain the whole world?'

It's another Biblical quote, and garbled, and at first I thought the actor must have got it wrong. But Alexi must have meant it that way: I checked the script.

The original poetry runs, 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' So I took the message actually to be more subtle. We're in danger of losing the line about losing our soul, and we hardly even know now that it can go.

Friday, August 19 2011

Sacred values and the riots

Gordon Lynch has penned an excellent piece for Open Democracy on the riots and the habits of virtue. He adds the interesting dimension of the sacred, not so much a religious concept as those values which 'define the moral boundaries of human society' and so exert a powerful social force. He continues:

If broader, sacred values can also bind us into a deeper sense of shared moral community across society, we might also ask how these can be nurtured. Our society has distinguished itself in creating built environments that show the least signs of any sense of sacred meaning of any period in history. Our high streets are dominated by chain stores and global corporations who promise convenience but little meaning. New-build properties offer modernist-lite conceptions of style, devoid of any sense of modernism’s original moral purpose. The explosion of public art has left our towns and cities with works that are all too often vacuous and un-compelling. Policy makers are clearly aware of this gap and have tried to address it, usually through repeated and unsuccessful attempts to re-launch a sense of ‘British-ness’. But convincing moral visions for society cannot be created in ersatz fashion through short-term policy ideas. They are already at hand, woven through the moral significance that is variously given to the nation, nature and humanity in the stories that our society tells about itself. Learning to see where these sacred meanings still move us, as well as the shadow-side of sacred commitments, is another long task for a remoralising society.

Thursday, August 18 2011

City of the sharp-nosed fish

You may know about the Oxyrhynchus discovery, half a million fragments of papyri dug out of the Egyptian sands, showing texts from the Bible and Plato to private letters and land leases.

In the hundred-odd years since, only a small percentage of the material has been transcribed. So now the project has had the good idea of allowing you and I to assist in the mammoth task online. Go to Ancient Lives.

Wednesday, August 17 2011

Religious violence and the logic of all-out war

With a seminar on religious violence approaching at the weekend, I've been reading Mark Juergensmeyer. One of his big points about 9/11 was how the government response to the atrocity turned a terrorist attack into a cosmic war - a conflict that understands itself via the symbolism of the apocalypse. It allowed a rich eccentric extremist called bin Laden to present himself as winning against America. The conflict ramped up exponentially, and left the political sphere to become perpetual.

He contrasts that with how the government responded to Timothy McVeigh, which was to treat him as a terrorist, plain and simple, a strategy that starved his following of any oxygen. He also points to the success in Northern Ireland, where the British government learnt from its mistakes, reached a strategy that refused to escalate the violence, and so paved the way for a political solution. Religion could feed hope rather than rage.

Anyway, it was striking to read this as David Cameron was announcing an 'all-out war' on gangs. Paul Mason took to the streets and asked gang members what they made of it. There'll be 'big war' was one response, 'bigger war than already'. There's the logic. Never can they have felt so important, provoked, thrilled.

If Juergensmeyer is right, the metaphor of war is all wrong. Criminality is quite adequate.

(Image: Burnt out van, Hackney, Alasdair)

Friday, August 12 2011

Rowan Williams on virtue and the riots

After venturing a little on virtue yesterday, I saw that the Archbishop of Canterbury did the same in the rather more important forum of the House of Lords debate on the riots. He put things rather well, focusing on seizing the moment to refocus on the need for an education system that teaches excellence not instrumentality, which 'takes seriously the task of educating citizens - not consumers or cogs in an economic system, but citizens'. Some other key points:

... character involves not only an awareness of the connection between cause and effect in my own acts but a deepened sense of empathy with others and a deepened sense of our involvement together in a social project in which we all have to participate.

What we have seen is a breakdown not of society as such, but the breakdown of a sense of civic identity - shared identity and shared responsibility.

Then, noting the 'generous, sacrificial and imaginative' way that affected people have responded to the riots, he concludes:

People have discovered why community matters. They have discovered why solidarity is important. They have begun to discover those civic virtues that we have talked about in the abstract. In other words, this is a moment that we must seize; a moment when there is sufficient anger at the breakdown of civic solidarity; sufficient awareness of the resources that people have in helping and supporting one another; sufficient hope - in spite of everything - of what can be achieved.

Thursday, August 11 2011

What they're making of London burning

So the post-riot ideological battle lines are almost fixed.

In the blue corner, for it's broadly on the right, we have the family breakdown argument. The looting and violence is the predictable outcome of a deep forgetting in our society of the fifth commandment: honour your father and mother. Authority begins in the home. Liberal forces, or experiments, have emasculated it.

In the red corner, for it's broadly on the left, we have the culture of greed argument. We live in a smash and grab society, which politicians and bankers have exploited too, so who can now blame them if aspirational gangs and street opportunists join in? The riots are the predictable outcome of deep divisions in society.

It's an inevitable war, and another sign of an impotent politics that can't really do anything about family breakdown or runaway markets anyway, should either option be thought desirable. Further, and to isolate a more specific concern, it seems to me that the divide draws too on largely redundant conceptions of ethics. The blues are broadly deontological: enforcing 'thou shalt not' is their solution. The reds are broadly utilitarian: the greatest happiness is not being brought to the greatest number, but to an elite few. Neither, I think, can get to the real issues.

I feel a bit scholastic suggesting it - as another siren screams past my window - but a virtue ethics approach might offer something different. The analysis might work better if it's considered that relatively poor parts of society have lost much hope of the good life, and relatively wealthy parts of society have little love of the common good. There is little motive in either, therefore, to work on the habits and character that instills the social virtues we called Citizen Ethics.

To be frank, our project stopped just as the trickiest issue was becoming clearer. If the telos of life is not hedonistic consumption, not radical individualism, not serving markets and capital, then what fundamentally is it to flourish as a human person? Answers below the fold.

Actually, I'm sure such questions can't directly be answered. As in one's own life, so in society: any renewed vision of how to live well must gather, emerge, unfold - and probably only in conjunction with breakdown and pain. That's part of what it is to be all too human too.

Wednesday, August 10 2011

Why was London burning?

The moment is arriving to try to understand what has been happening on the streets. It is complex, of course. However, as I listen to what experts and punters are trading, one concept strikes me as particularly useful. It’s the psychological phenomenon of group conscience.

The modern world teaches us that we are individuals. Autonomy and rights are the moral ideals that shape our age. But at best, that's only half the story. We are social animals, as Aristotle observed, meaning not that we like to socialise, but that our identity is primarily collective. My family, my gang, my team, my nation are where I feel most fully myself and we will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain that sense of belonging.

This is what group conscience protects and enforces. It keeps you in, even if that means keeping others out. It can be likened to the way birds wheel and swirl in the air. The science suggests that they obey just one or two rules. Head for the centre. Mimic your neighbour. They are the rules of the group. We humans are driven by similar compulsions, as the psychologist Bert Hellinger explains. We long to know our place.

What, then, of the rioters? There is a lot of outraged comment about why youths don’t know the difference between right and wrong. But I warm to those who point out that this is necessary but by itself also misses the point. Like the birds, the looters are not primarily acting as self-autonomous individuals. They are copycats – doing what their mates are doing; doing what other gangs are doing. This also explains why the violence spreads, and why that is so alarmingly hard to control.

As journalists interview rioters, this is what you hear them say. ‘It was fun.’ ‘We show we can do what we want to.’ ‘It’s time for payback.’ These are collective sentiments. The morality these guys obey is that of the group. And unsettlingly, it can be half good as well as bad. Some of their values, it seems, are driven by a sense of rage and injustice. Others are driven by the culture of greed that opportunistically puts its hand in the till – a value embodied in many other groups too, it should be said.

In fact, we are all the same. The difference is that our groups probably follow values that are mostly, thankfully, pro-social. Group conscience has been heart-warmingly demonstrated by #RiotCleanUp: ‘It's a movement’ declares Dan Thompson, the organiser of the broom army. It has also been on display amongst the vigilantes seeking to protect their property – though they must be careful to monitor the rules they obey.

Heading for the centre and mimicking your neighbour are powerful urges that can lead anyone astray.

Tuesday, August 9 2011

London's burning

Many philosophers have argued that society is a structure for containing human desire, viciousness and aggression. Freud adds a novel twist. He argues that society doesn't hold the aggression in check. Rather it introjects it back into the individual. Destructive desires are internalised. Most of the time we 'put into action against the ego the same harsh aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other extraneous individuals.'

But it's a fragile setup. It holds for much of the time. But when upset, pent up aggression overspills, violence follows fast, and the structures of society that had seemed so strong dissolve like salt.

As my part of London effectively went into curfew last night, and we scanned blogs and exchanged texts to see how far the looting and arson had spread, the city felt like a case in point.

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