Thursday, July 31, 2008

Relativism ... concluded

For the background to this discussion see the earlier posts, here and here.

I am a Catholic. However, I choose to make decisions about my life, such as in contraception, which may not be in accordance with the Church's teaching, but I am following my own conscience. Does this make me a relativist because someone might say that I am picking and choosing only the bits of catholicism that I want? Also, although I believe that protection of life is sacred and have and would influence those that I know, I do not think it is right to impose my views about abortion on others. Having strong views about truth is one thing but if you impose them on everyone else surely this is just as bad as totalitarianism. I'm trying to think it through. I think that there really is no black and white, it really is just many shades of grey.

My response

No. I think there is black and white. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Of course, this doesn't apply to everything! Some things are neither right or wrong and some things are only right or wrong depending on the context and intention (i.e. running for a bus is neither right or wrong in itself - but could be right or wrong depending on the reason you are rushing to get on it!). However, that is not the same as 'many shades of grey'.

Some things are certainly wrong - ending the life of the unborn - but the guilt which attaches to this bad act may vary according to the situation of the person who commits it. So, for example, a young woman who is put under great pressure to have an abortion, or who does so in shear desperation, or who simply had no idea that it could be wrong to do so, cannot be said to be to blame in the same way as some one who willfully and maliciously decided to procure an abortion. This is not making excuses for anyone, or even reducing the seriousness of the act - it is just a fairly obvious moral principle: you can't blame someone for doing something wrong if they did not know that it was wrong. This is not relativism - because we distinguish between the wrongness of the act and the culpability of the individual who does the act.

Another point to bear in mind is that the conscience is the moral sense given to us by God, and the Church has always taught that we should act according to our conscience even if it is wrong. Of course we have a duty to educate our conscience, and we must also accept the consequences of acting in accordance with our conscience, but neither of these points takes away from the importance of acting in accordance with our conscience. This does not mean just pleasing ourselves - on the contrary, it means being responsible for our own actions.

Now then, does this means that the Church is totalitarian? I don't think so - because of the importance which we give to conscience. But what about the person who believes it is right to do something which we hold to be wrong?

Now, it seems to me that the honest (by that I mean logically consistent) relativist will say that that is their choice - but in fact they do not really believe that, because most relativists while allowing a choice for abortion will not allow a choice for racism. So what is the difference - well, as I said in an earlier post, in regard to these life issues the key point is the moral status given to the foetus: there's no relativism here, there is (1) an absolute judgment about the value and dignity of human life and (2) a moral judgment that the unborn human is neither human nor alive.

The Church takes a different approach, of course. Some things are wrong, but how we deal with the sin may vary for two very good reasons.

(1) Everything which is wrong cannot be made illegal, and everything illegal is not necessarily wrong. There can hardly be laws against dishonoring one's father and mother or coveting, for example, and not every lie which is told incurs a criminal penalty. Similarly we no longer criminalise adultery, serious matter though it is.

(2) The person committing a particular sin may be in dire circumstances and morally unaware of what they have done. They may need pastoral care and perhaps careful catechesis. Being judgmental and condemnatory may be of very little help. Christ himself befriended prostitutes and other sinners (though he did tell them 'do not sin again'!)

But these points (1) and (2) above don't compromise the idea that a sin is still a sin.

And this is the problem of relativism. We know that life is difficult. We know moral choices often place us in dilemmas. We know that what the Church says teaches about what is right and what is wrong is sometimes difficult to square with our lives, if not impossible in particular circumstances. But the relativist answer - that there no such thing as right and wrong, that each must make their own choices, that what is right for me may not be right for you .... this is just a cop out, and instead of respecting conscience it does away with it entirely. Surely the thing about our conscience is that it often challenges us about what we are going to do, are doing and have already done ... But how can that be if it is all a matter of personal choice?

... comments welcome.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Relativism 2 ...

For the background to this discussion, see the earlier post.

Are you saying that although there appears to be relativism in the world, there really is not as everyone on an individual level has some views of right and wrong that they feel strongly about. So does relativism really exist? This is quite a complex area.

My response
I think I'd put the question differently.

Clearly 'relativism does exist' because there are people who hold this viewpoint. The question is philosophical rather than phenomenological. That is to say 'Is relativism logically consistent?'

I would say that relativism as a way of thinking serves two purposes. One is good, that is that it encourages tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and viewpoints. Another is not so good, in that enables the relativist to pick and choose beliefs, ideas and especially a moral code without reference to any external standard (unless it suits to do so).

This leads to a serious consequence, of this way of thinking, and that is that relativists must accept one absolute value, which is relativism itself. Therefore - according to the relativist - you can believe what ever you like so long as you do not hold that you are right and other people are wrong. For the relativist that is the only and most wicked heresy. You can find your civil rights limited if you hold this view too strongly.

Let me give an example of what I mean. I listened to an advocate of the human embryology bill being interviewed on the radio. She made an interesting comment. The interviewer asked her whether - given the proposed changes in the law - she considered the UK now to be the most liberal western country and if so why. She said that our legislation is 'not liberal, but evidential'. In other words, it is not driven by ideology, but by facts, (scientific) evidence. But of course, it is not the facts which were at issue, it was the moral implications of those facts. For someone to claim to be 'evidential' is to say that they do not consider any kind of moral code significant to the decision to be taken, but only the facts of the matter. But this is just a sleight of hand. This is not neutrality or 'evidential' because if someone believes in - for example - experimentation on embryos, this is because they have taken two moral positions: (1) that such experimentation will improve the lives of individuals in the future and (2) that the embryo does not have the moral status of a human person. Neither of these are 'evidential'. These are moral choices - rightly or wrongly which are based on some absolute values. It is a deceit to say that they are based on evidence.

And this is why the likes of Cardinal Pell, and for that matter Pope Benedict, keep going on about relativism, because relativism tries to sidestep moral argument (and other philosophical considerations) by pretending that such things are not relevant. As such it is dangerous.

If someone decides to be a relativist - that may be their conscientious choice - but they should not pretend to 'neutrality' because in fact they are being absolutist.

More to follow ...

Relativism 1 ...

I've not blogged for a few days. Several reasons. One is that the weather has been wonderful I my motivation levels for sitting in the study and typing away have receded. But there's a better reason - I realise I have been doing a quasi-blog in writing in answer to thoughts and questions from some of the trainee teachers at Maryvale Institute.

I work part-time at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK, mainly on the PGCE (Teacher Training) Course. This is a ground-breaking course training teachers in RE for English, Welsh and Northern Irish Secondary (11-18) schools by distance learning. For more about the course, read here.

Now, I have entered into a correspondence with the students, who are currently studying a Unit on World Religions and Nostra Aetate. In their studies, the theme of relativism has been raised. For some, this is a very familiar theme from the teaching of the Church, especially under Pope Benedict. But clearly for others, there is much implicit relativism and little awareness of it. It seemed to me to be a good idea to edit these conversations into a series of posts. (After all, one of my maxims is that if some thing is worth using at all it is worth using more than once).

I won't identify the student who wrote the questions, for two reasons. (1) I have not asked permission, so it would be impolite to use the questionner's name, and (2) I have modified the questions a little for the purposes of this blog.

So, here goes:

Just reading about The dictatorship of Relativism by Cardinal George Pell. It is powerful stuff but I am still inclined towards thinking the author although making some very good points, is too extreme in his views. Pell thinks that true Christians and Catholics are being truly marginalised. and attacked on all sides. Well I must be a relativist. I cannot dismiss and judge other's choices in life; I feel that that is acting superior. Truth - yes, we must make a stand for truth - but, maybe it comes back to making our stand 'with gentleness' and with dialogue and communication. There is no easy answer here.

My reply
I agree to this extent. Cardinal Pell is outspoken (well he is former Australian Rules footballer after all). It is also quite right to say that we must be tolerant of others and respect their conscientiously held views. Conscience - even an incorrect conscience - is a key feature of our human dignity and it must be respected and protected.

However, there is a very subtle shift which is often made in the modern world from tolerance and respect of different views to a belief that all views are more or less equal. This is what is meant by 'relativism', - it is the idea that what is true for me may not be true for you, and what is right for me may not be right for you. And so, we move from a belief that there is a such a thing as truth, to a belief that there are only opinions.

Now I would hold that this approach, while it has some attractions (live and let live, one man's meat is another man's poison etc) especially in a multicultural society, is actually ridiculous, and although people might say they hold this view they don't in practice. For example, those who believe there is no absolute truth, only opinions, are the same people who would oppose attitudes to women in the developing world, and propose legislative equality for homosexual partnerships and so on. Many relativists would oppose the cultural imperialism which imposed Christian views on colonial societies, but the same people would find it hard to be critical of the missionaries who suppressed the common Indian practice of sutee, in which a widow was expected to die on her husbands funeral pyre. The conflicts which are taking place between the Church and legislatures in this country and throughout the developed world on issues surrounding human life and the family ironically show that this is the case. It is just those who reject dogma who trying to enforce a dogma of their own.

It seems to me that there may be a very real and lively debate about what it is good and true, but the relativist idea that there is no such thing as an absolute truth or goodness, is a wilful self-delusion.

... to be continued

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spiritual Alzheimers

I am loathe to comment too readily on the tribulations of the Anglican Communion emerging at the Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops (for one viewpoint, read here) however, a very direct speech to the conference by Cardinal Ivan Dias is worthy of mention.

You see, the Cardinal quite bluntly told the assembled anglican bishops that they are in danger of 'spiritual alzheimers' and 'ecclesial parkinsons' if they forget the apostolic tradition and go 'whimsically' in one direction or another with no reference to authority or unity. His hearers politely listened, but his words caused great offense elsewhere.

The Alzheimers and Parkinsons Societies jointly complained:

Seeing the challenges faced by people with Parkinson’s disease or dementia trivialised by comments from such a prominent public figure is demoralising. People with dementia and Parkinson’s face the challenge of coping with a physical condition which slowly robs them of their lives. These comments serve to reinforce negative stereotypes surrounding these devastating conditions.

It is indeed a strong image. And perhaps a little insensitive for some. However, isn't it rather remarkable that sufferers of Alzheimers and Parkinsons are more offended at being compared to the anglican communion than the other way round? Indeed - to compare such sufferers with the assembled anglican bishops may be a very 'negative stereotype'.

By the way, the Cardinal also described the anglicans as 'myopic'. However, although short-sighted myself, I shall be making no complaint.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The concept of friendship has died

There are two things in the media which are annoying me at the moment. (What, only two?).

The first, is the narrow and bigotted reporting by the BBC on the wonderful event of World Youth Day in Sydney. 20,000 young people from England and Wales went to Sydney - represented perhaps two hundred times as many from their various parishes. I wonder how many will travel to Beijing for the Olympics? Perhaps not quite so many ... yet we all know what coverage that event will get on television and radio. I'm not going to write any more, the case is well made by Fr Tim Finnigan and Abbot Christopher Jamison. It's mostly about the media's obsession with sex.

The second annoyance grieves me a little more. As is widely reported (here, and here) the Vatican has instructed the Oratory in Birmingham to arrange the exhumation of the body of Cardinal Newman from the tiny cemetery at Rednal and to the Oratory Church in Edgbaston, in preparation for his beatification and the expected stream of pilgrims.

The reasons for this are clearly explained by Fr Paul Chavasse, Provost of the Oratory

One of the centuries-old procedures surrounding the creating of new saints by the Catholic Church concerns their earthly remains. These have to be identified, preserved and, if necessary, placed in a new setting which befits the individual’s new status in the Church. This is what we have been asked to do by the Vatican with regard to Cardinal Newman’s remains, which have laid at Rednal since his death in 1890. We hope that Cardinal Newman’s new resting place in the Oratory Church in Birmingham will enable more people to come and pay their respects to him, and perhaps light a candle there.

Clear enough? Well it seems not. You see, Newman was buried at Rednal at his express wish in the same grave as his close friend, priest, and fellow convert from anglicanism, Fr Ambrose St John. The exhumation of Newman's body, does not, of course include that of his friend.

So along comes the Daily Telegraph claiming that the Vatican has 'ordered Newman to be parted from his priest friend in their shared grave', that the Vatican has 'overridden ... his dying wish', and also that the Vatican had 'slowed his path to beatification' because of 'misgivings' over his relationship with Fr St John. Hardly surprisingly, others have picked up the spin on this story, most notably the homosexual campaigning journal Pink News: Cardinal's same-sex resting place upsets Vatican saint makers.

Responding isn't so easy. If we cry 'Lies' 'A slur on his character' we will be accused of homophobia. If we say that there is no evidence of any kind that Newman was homosexual, we will similarly be accused of being foolish - a man who doesn't marry, who has a close friend whose death leads to a bereavement which he himself compares to being widowed, surely ... it must be ...

Fr Ian Ker, quoted in the Telegraph article, makes a vital point: "The concept of friendship has died". In our age, in which sexual activity is not the expression of marital love open to the creation of new life, but no more than pleasurable self-expression, people actually find it difficult to understand how a close and deep friendship between two people can exist without it being sexual. 'Come on', they say. 'Get real'.

We live in a society which thinks it understands humanity so well, and yet which has such a limited understanding of Love.

Fr Ambrose St John and Cardinal John Henry Newman

Monday, July 21, 2008

Pass the Gin, please, Father

On Sunday afternoon our oldest son, Allan, who is a builder, painter and decorator, came to do some work on the Presbytery. Of course Kerry and the children came too, and while Allan was glossing the hallway, our two year old grandson, Elliott, knocked over a whole tin of white gloss onto the carpet - which was fitted only last autumn.

But that was only the start of the trauma.

How could we get the paint out? Most was scooped up with a brush and some wallpaper, but what about that which had soaked into the carpet? Hot water and detergent? But this is gloss - the detergent won't get it all out. Pour turpentine onto the stain? No, Allan said, this will destroy the underlay.

So, Shirley, Allan and Kerry start to scrub away at the flour with washing up liquid and water while I take a few photos (obviously not distressed enough for their liking)

So Kerry decides to consult Jeeves. What does he say? Off she went into the parish office to the Internet.

Use Gin. About a litre and a half.

At this point, in some distress, I left the house to say Mass in a neighbouring parish, leaving clear instructions for the ordering of a new carpet.

... but when I came back (most of the damage actually now repaired without the need of gin) I decided to see what Jeeves actually said. Several ideas and suggestions. Most involve 'white spirit'. But no mention of gin.

Ever been had?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The pursuit of truth

The Holy Father continues to inspire. He is now in Australia for World Youth Day. For a man of his age simply to travel that distance and greet the thousands of young people is an achievement in itself. He only needs say Mass for them and encourage them and they will be satisfied and the world's press will get their photographs.

Pope Benedict does far more. As we have come to expect he has spoken words which not only encourage and inspire, but which also provide solid substance for reflection.

The headline writers are already concentrating on what he had to say about the environment, see for instance the account in the Sydney Morning Herald. But in fact what the Pope had to say was much more than sophisticated than a simple plea to save the planet. Indeed, he spoke of the "scars which mark the surface of our earth: erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world’s mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption".

But he went on to say something even more important. While praising the modern search for freedom and the importance of tolerance, he describes as sinister "the fact that freedom and
tolerance are so often separated from truth
". Life, he says, in the pursuit not of experiences, but of truth.

It is one of those insights which is at once simple, and yet so profound. As human beings we long for truth. We ask questions about existence, about suffering, about truth, about our origins, about our purposes. We consider our hopes and our aspirations, our anxieties and our yearnings. Human beings hunger and thirst for what is right and are prepared to suffer and die for it - and yet we live in a world which so often values experience - a variety of experiences, a right to enjoy experiences, to choose whatever we wish - separated from a moral context, quite distinct from any idea of truth. For Freedom and Tolerance - great values in themselves - when separated from the pursuit of truth become no more than the pursuit of experience, the right to pleasure. It is the search for truth that makes us truly human.

These are uplifting and inspiring words:

My dear friends, God’s creation is one and it is good. The concerns for non-violence, sustainable development, justice and peace, and care for our environment are of vital importance for humanity. They cannot, however, be understood apart from a profound reflection upon the innate dignity of every human life from conception to natural death: a dignity conferred by God himself and thus inviolable. Our world has grown weary of greed, exploitation and division, of the tedium of false idols and piecemeal responses, and the pain of false promises. Our hearts and minds are yearning for a vision of life where love endures, where gifts are shared, where unity is built, where freedom finds meaning in truth, and where identity is found in respectful communion. This is the work of the Holy Spirit! This is the hope held out by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is to bear witness to this reality that you were created anew at Baptism and strengthened through the gifts of the Spirit at Confirmation. Let this be the message that you bring from Sydney to the world!

History repeats itself ...

As the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops from around the world begins, one UK newspaper reports that Holy Father is quite anxious that the Church of England should not fall apart.

The Pope is leading an unprecedented drive by the Roman Catholic Church to prevent the fragmentation of the worldwide Anglican Communion
writes the Independent, under the headline Pope rides to Rowan's Rescue.
The article argues, with some claim for authority, that the Vatican is by no means keen on another immigration of Anglicans - especially Anglican bishops - into the Catholic fold.

Of course, this is only one interpretation. The commentator Phil Lawler argues on the contrary, that the Pope is by no means discouraging converts, and indeed it is the timid English and Welsh hierarchy who are cautious about the influx of anglican refugees.

This is all so reminiscent of 1992, when after the vote in favour of the ordination of women (for ever known afterward to some of us as 'The Vote') many anglicans, myself included, 'crossed the Tiber' and became members of the Catholic Church, and some, joyfully in due course, were ordained to the priesthood.

Then too, we were told of an enthusiastic Pope/Vatican and an apprehensive local hierarchy. Then too we read (and encouraged the idea) that thousands were ready to cross, that many would come if they could remain together in a group. And many argued that the credentials of the Anglican supplicants should be accepted without question. I also remember reading about the wonderful liturgy of the Anglicans, and the poor liturgy and indeed ugly churches of the English catholics. Many anglicans told us that we would be unhappy in the Catholic Church, and that we would soon return. Many Catholics worried that a hoarde of narrow conservatives and misogynists were about to invade the Church arrogantly asserting their prejudices. Look back in the archives and you will be able to read it all.

However, while there was substance in some of this, most of it was untrue, or at least much too simple. The welcome I encountered from my Bishop was warm and generous, and many priests were reconciled happily with the Church. The desire for converts to remain as a group soon dissipated, and in any case the number of lay people who wanted to become catholics was far too small - ironically perhaps it was those who lost their livelihood who found it psychologically easier or more compelling to enter the Cathoic Church. The welcome we received highly respected our background and experience, but the Church was right to put all candidates for the priesthood through some kind of selection procedure, and I would be very ready to concede that not every former anglican clergyman who became a catholic was suitable for ordination to the priesthood. The liturgical question was more complex too. Remember that the immaculately precious anglo-catholic liturgy may be found in one or two places in each large town or city with small congregations - catholic practice does not compare unfavourably with that, and much more impressive - even nowadays - is the individual devotion and commitment of very many lay catholics, something not encountered on anything like the same scale amongst lay anglicans. We settled happily and well in the Catholic Church, overcoming some trials and struggles along the way, because we came for the right reasons - not because we could not bear the idea of working with women, nor even because we were particularly 'conservative' - but because we came to understand that the fulness of Christian truth is found in the Catholic Church. That conviction, and that only, can lead someone to be received into the Church.

In fact, I would assert that it was the most conservative, most beligerent, most narrow and misogynistic who could not countenance becoming part of a Church with variety and colour and a true universalism. In the early 1990s those who stayed with the Church of England developed a deeply rooted congregationalism, and though they claimed to be 'catholic', this was selective, focussed on a particular idea of liturgy and the sacraments, but less on moral theology and hardly at all on ecclesiology. I've no reason to think things are much different now.

I sincerely wish the Anglican communion well, though fear times are likely to be hard and bitter. And I encourage those who feel uncomfortable with the current Church of England to consider again the claims of the Catholic Church.

But do not come to us in order to escape your past, but rather to embrace your future.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Christmas is coming ...

I remember September 1st 1980. That was the first day I began work as assistant manager at Martin the Newsagent, Congleton, Cheshire. And my first job? to arrange the display of Christmas toys, cards and decorations. I wasn't very good at display then, and I hadn't improved much when I started teaching on 1st September 1995.

I was reminded of that day 28 years ago today when Hamley's, the toy shop in Regent Street, London, gave their Christmas preview.

Well - it is July.

Apparently the top toy of the year is going to be a dancing telly tubby. 'Retro' toys are also likely to be popular (queue up now for your Rubik's cube and Monopoly) and of course a smattering of electronic games and toys.

And the Dalek. Oh yes, save a dalek for me.

Back in 1980, I seem to remember, there was a small hand-held car game which involved racing cars on a simple screen. Now we would think of it as very basic, then it was like gold-dust. We kept one in the back of the shop (for break times, and visiting reps) and two others were in the shop itself. We never sold the two in the shop. But after a couple of days they were nowhere to be seen.

Well all this could be a good opportunity for a very pious complaint about greed, distortion of the true meaning of Christmas, greed breeding greed and so on and so on. Such a homily is so obvious it can write itself. And I think of it mainly as a sort of self-righteous scroogery. At least Ebenezer was genuinely misanthropic.

No, let's have fun. But can we enjoy the summer first?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Desmond Tutu and Gordon Banks

This evening I met both anglican archishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Gordon Banks, former Stoke City goalkeeper, World Cup Winner and local resident. I'd like to say that this was a private audience, but of course there were about 500 other people there, though I did get to speak to both
Gordon Banks and Desmond Tutu personally.

It was an inspiring evening, a civic reception here in Stoke on Trent before a charity match tomorrow and unveiling of a statue of Gordon Banks at the Brittania Stadium. The archbishop and the goalkeeper will be joined tomorrow also by Pele, the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.

So many superlatives. And all deserved.

The event has come together thanks to the work of Don Mullan. Don was also present this evening. He was born Derry and became a peace campaigner after Bloody Sunday. Through his work he met Desmond Tutu, and he later wrote a book about Gordon Banks - 'Gordon Banks - the man who could fly' - describing how Gordon Banks inspired him as a child to make something of his own life.

And this was the theme of the evening and especially of Tutu's inspirational words. In a way he didn't say much - but he said it so well. Small things and ordinary people can achieve so much. Everyone, in their own way, can change the world.

I live in a city in which people generally lack aspirations. So many young people do not think that there is anything very much for them to achieve in life, little to aim for. So the message of this evening was a particularly appropriate one.

At the end of the speeches, one of our parishioners, Jaye Cohen, a ten year old who made her first communion just a few weeks ago, presented a peace plate which she had designed which won a city wide competition. Until I got there I had no idea that she won this honour: this was a wonderful surprise.

Of all our aspirations, the greatest of all must be for peace.

Gordon Banks - Best Save Ever

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Lies, damned lies ...

Here in cold North Staffordshire (my phone says its 17°C, but how could it know - it feels about half that) I'm still frustrated about the new iPhone. O2 can't tell me whether I have managed to order one or not. It may - note may - be possible to tell me tomorrow. Oh.

The reason it seems is that on Monday morning the O2 Web site was overwhelmed with orders - it reached 13,000 orders per second, they said. Now, given that the Web site was crashing all day - until 2.30pm at least when they pulled to plug - this seems to equate to about 46 million orders and hour and about 250 million orders before they finally ran out!

Of course that's not possible. And of course, I'm taking a figure, which may have been reached for just a few seconds, and trying to extrapolate it over six hours, just to make O2 look ridiculous. A reasonable motive I suppose, but intentionally distorting.

It just led to me think about statistics. It was Oscar Wilde, I think, who made the famous quote, 'Lies, damned lies and statistics'. And people often dismiss statistics. Politicians can twist them in their own way. We can misinterpret them. I remember a politician - I think it was Ken Clarke - once saying that it was unacceptable that almost half the children in the UK were below average in reading. And how many politicians, I wonder, are above average in maths?

Have you noticed that the word 'statistics' is used less and less? They prefer the word 'data'. It sounds solid and factual. In education we are bombarded with data, but we do not always know how to interpret it. Never mind raw data, what about 'residuals' and 'value added'. You almost need a degree in statistics - sorry, Data Analysis - to make any sense of it at all.

The emphasis on 'Data' is part of a supposed idea that we can have objective information that will speak for itself. Evidence which cannot be controverted. But it is not so. Human beings must interpret, evaluate and decide. Moral and ideological choices must be made. The data may tell me that I have before me a glass containing 50% of water - but I need to work out whether it is half full or half empty.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Simplicity and Functionality

As a recent convert, I just love this picture:

No pointing for a while

While I am not one to seek sympathy, nor invite people to feel sorry for me, I have got a very sore finger at the moment. The joint of my pointing finger is sore and inflamed. The nice nurse at the hospital said she didn't think it is broken. It could be an infection on the joint or even the onset of arthritis. (I'm getting old) I have to keep it in a sling while I am walking about, but when I am sitting down I can just prop it up with some cushions.
Driving, saying Mass and typing are not so easy to do while wearing the sling.
I can, however, drink gin in safety.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Looking on the bright side ...

I've been a bit frustrated today. I have had so much to do, and got most of it done, but in the middle of all that I have been trying to order an iPhone. At 8am today the O2 pre-ordering Web site went live, then promptly crashed. Eventually at 2.30pm, after being given three order codes which I could not use, I think I managed to place an order, and got a message to say so on screen. But when the screen refreshed it said all the phones had gone. So I don't know if I'm getting one or not.

So let's look for something to lighten things up.

Well, there's a story that 20% of road accidents involve a parked car. One in five accidents are caused by one car banging into another one which isn't moving. Apparently this problem is worst in London, but proportionately much worse in Glasgow. All manner of possible explanations spring to mind, which I will refrain from stating.

The following story is much better. There has been much concern about unnecessary calls to the emergency services. One caller phoned to ask for help in voting in the X factor. Another asked for a one pound coin for a supermarket trolley. But this is the best:

Control: "South Wales Police, what's your emergency?"

Caller: "It's not really. I just need to inform you that across the mountain there's a bright stationary object."

Control: "Right."

Caller: "If you've got a couple of minutes perhaps you could find out what it is? It's been there at least half an hour and it's still there."

Control: "It's been there for half an hour. Right. Is it actually on the mountain or in the sky?"

Caller: "It's in the air."

Control: "I will send someone up there now to check it out."

Caller: "OK."

After the police patrol car arrives, the script reveals the exchange between the control room and the police officer sent to the scene.

Control: "Alpha Zulu 20, this object in the sky, did anyone have a look at it?"

Officer: "Yes, it's the moon. Over."

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Keep taking the tablets ...

The International Herald Tribune reports about the discovery of a 1st Century BC tablet which throws interesting light on the religious and political background to the rise of Christianity. The 87 lines of text, seem to indicate Jewish belief in a suffering messiah who would rise from the dead after three days. This flies in the face of almost all established scholarly opinion, that the idea of a messiah who would suffer, die and rise from the dead, was very much a Christian innovation, and not found in Jewish ideas of the time.

The tablet is fascinating, especially to Biblical scholars, archaeologists and students of the period, but quite not the earth shattering discovery some might claim.

Firstly, much of this current understanding comes from Israel Knohl of the Hebrew University of Jersualem, who is known as something of a maverick. He published a book in 2000 which puts forward the ideas he now finds represented in the tablet. However, the tablet is not complete, and some of the key passages in what is being referred to as 'Gabriel's revelation' have many missing words. Indeed it is not even newly discovered, but has been around for at least a decade, and only recently has it attracted scholarly attention.

Secondly, while the tablet may bring into question a scholarly consensus, it is not so likely to shake the foundations of the faith. One reading of the claims being made for the tablet is that perhaps, after all, Christianity firmly emerges from the Judaism of its time - the ideas found in the New Testament were already commonly held. And so, it might be argued, Christianity is not so unique after all - just another Jewish sect. Similar points were made half a century ago after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But this is a difficult argument. While the present agreement of scholars that Christian ideas were far from mainstream may appeal to many Christians, it is nonetheless true that for the first Christians, their reading of Old Testament prophecies was much the plainest one. In the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke's Gospel, Jesus makes clear 'the full message of the prophets' (Luke 24:25-27). Subsequent commentators too understood Jesus to be clearly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures - without the need for any more recent 'revelations' or prophecies.

You can argue from the tablet whatever you want to argue. You could claim that Christianity is little more than another Jewish sect, entirely dependent on the ideas of its day, not at all new or distinctive; or you could claim that it emerges solidly from its Hebrew heritage and so is deeply rooted the emerging Revelation of God.

Or you could wait for the next theory or interpretation. In the meantime, keep taking the tablets ...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Latin Consecration and Moving the Peace

A recent Italian publicastion, Panorama, reports that the Pope is considering two changes to the Order of Mass which would affect Mass in every language.

One is that the sign of peace be moved from its current point - just before communion - to immediately before the offertory.
The second is that the words of consecration ('This is my body' - 'This is the cup of my blood', etc) in each national language mass, should instead be said always in Latin.

It needs to be made clear that this is very much at the level of rumour, and even if true what is happening is that the Holy Father is asking for consideration of these ideas rather than firmly proposing them.

Let's deal with these one at a time.

The first one - the peace - is easily explained. Already Pope Benedict has suggested such a change be considered. Immediately before the offertory is the oldest known place for the peace - it is mentioned by Justin Martyr in the second century. It is the location of the peace in the Ambrosian rite, used in Milan, and is common in liturgies of other Christian bodies, notably anglicans. The current place, before communion, while it has great symbolic significance, can also be a point of disturbance at a moment which should be one of reverence and recollection. There are some good arguments for the the change - it is ancient, it is ecumenical, and it enhances the reverence of the Mass. And we might also add that it is in keeping with earlier revisions of the liturgy by looking to ancient forms, rather than following the practice of the Tridentine Mass (the extraordinary form, as we now call it) in which it had become only a clerical gesture. I think I am right in saying that this would have been an option in the proposed English translation of the Mass which was thrown out a few years ago for being too divergent from the Latin Missal. As a change in the Mass this would be rather ironic, considering the trend at present towards the extraordinary form - but it has a lot going for it. If I were a betting man, I'd go for this change coming into effect, though I think the odds are narrow.

The second idea is rather different. This is the first I have heard of re-introducing Latin into the vernacular rites. It has some arguments in its favour. It guarantees the universality both of doctrine and the varying translations of the keys words, if the formula of consecration is in Latin, that's to say the same language in every translation. It also fits with the long held intention to preserve the use of Latin even in translated rites, though this has usually related to the sung parts of the Mass only: Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and so on. It gives a particular solemnity, reverence and of course prominence to those particular words. Furthermore in international gatherings, or places where many language groups may be worshipping together (like my parish) it gives a common core which all will know.
However, I also see a big problem. The reason for translating the Mass from Latin was always to enhance both the participation and understanding of the laity. While it may be extraordinary now to think that 'hoc est enim corpus meum' might not be obviously understood by the people worshipping, who are so familiar now with the words in their own language, some time down the road we may not be able to make the same assumptions. Surely it goes against the whole principal of vernacular translation to mask the most important words, the words of consecration or other sacramental formulas, in a tongue which is not spoken by any of the worshippers. We would be in danger of making the sacramental formula look and sound like 'magic words', a spell from Harry Potter. No, I wouldn't put any money on this at all - if may be a viable option for a limited number of appropriate occasions, yes, but as the normal practice, I trust not.

There is just one further brief point I would like to make. There is a big difference between a point for discusssion and a proposal. When something is offered for discussion, there is sometimes an assumption that there is a firm intention that this should happen. In fact, Benedict XVI has already shown himself open to discussion on a number of issues, without necessarily expecting immediate changes. I can think of matters surround divorce, annulment and admission to communion and the possible ordination of older married men as two such issues. Let's not mistake consideration - if it is taking place - for a firm intention to proceed.

The advance of the mobile phone

The BBC Web site has a photogallery illustrating the advance of the mobile phone in Afghanistan.
We could interpret this in more than one way, of course. On the one hand it is the advance of Western culture through its technology over a developing society, in the process damaging cultures and structures which can hardly resist. There's probably something in that.

On the other hand, the pictures tell another tale - the assimilation of the technology into a culture. It may at first look odd, or even amusing, to see the call centre operators wearing the headress, just as some people seem to expect that as a priest I will know little about the Internet, and Digg and Facebook and Twitter or whatever it may be. They expect the clerk in holy orders still to hold a quill and perch at a writing desk.

Perhaps these photos instruct us that our technological advances, once made, are not bound to our culture or our way of life or our beliefs or even to our values.

The proliferation of the mobile phone and the Internet may make it harder for governments to stifle debate, but they don't guarantee a particular political system either.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Seeing and Believing

The Church of England, and its international cousins in the Anglican Communion seem to be tearing themselves apart. As a former anglican there is a bit of 'I told you so' in my thoughts about all the controversy over gay clergy and women bishops, but in the main I don't take any delight in this. I agree with the Cardinal that "We don't rejoice at all. It diminishes the standing of Christianity.”

However, reading through some of the news items and the readers comments upon them I was struck by a curious observation. It seemed to me that the comments fell into three groups - those who believe the Church must 'modernise', those who believe that the Church must dig in and return to the old values and practices, - no surprises here - and a more surprising third group which rails against the Church of England, Christianity, the oppression of religion, the 'imaginary friend' and so on and so on. One rather long and vehemnent comment on a paper's web site ended with the comment that religion is a delusion, no one cares anymore, and the paper shouldn't report it.

So why leave comments?

Here is the irony. If the news article had been about a dispute in UEFA or a Premier League club there would of course be the comments for and against. But would there be as many comments saying that football is just a waste of time, 22 men kicking a pigs bladder around a field for an hour and a half? Well I don't think so, no. Those who don't care, don't care enough to comment.

But those who think faith is irrelevant, pointless, a waste of time and uninteresting etc etc etc want to have their say. We are told that religion is a delusion, that it is 'dying out' - so why write comments under news arcticles? why write books against it?

Perhaps believing does have some power after all.

It is the feast day of St Thomas - the doubting apostle. A good saint for today.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets

As the countdown to July 11th (iP 3G day) moves along, and as the excitement mounts (well at least for me), I reflect on the nature of gadgets themselves. Well I just love them! Boing Boing Gadgets has produced for us a list of the top ten gadgets of all time - rather like on of those programs which appears late in the evening on Channel 4. What would you include on the list? The toaster? Have a look to see if you agree.

There is something very human about gadgets. Not content only with nature, we have to devise ways of adapting and channelling it to serve our purposes better. Gadgets are the exercise of our reason, our intellect and our skill. Wonderful things. Yes, gadgets are the practical application of science.

But that doesn't mean that every gadget is good or even necessary.

There is the story (is it true, or one of those urban myths?) about the US space programme which spent millions of dollars developing a pen which would work in zero gravity - as, you see, gravity is normally needed to force the ink down the barrel onto the paper. In the space craft readings have to be taken and recorded, notes made of environmental conditions, temperatures, pressures, and perhaps the occasional crossword done too. Try writing with pen on paper placed above your head, and you'll soon realise that gravity plays an important role. So, after months of research and development, the working item was produced and put into use.

While the Russians saved their roubles and used pencils.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Atheism and all that

You've heard the one about the research that show that such and such a percentage of anglican clergyman don't believe in God. I've always found that quite funny - though wondered what it meant.

Here's an even better one. According to recent research, published in the Washington Post, no less, 21% of US atheists believe in God. That is more than one in five (for those who are numerically challenged). A figure I must remember. It speaks of the logical reasoning of the rationalist.

Read this