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Archive for November, 2009

The art of drawing lies more in being able to see the world as it is than in having any special technical ability with the pen or pencil. This was the idea put forward at an exhibition I went to last week of the New English Art Club.

It runs like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: Any artist can submit their own work. They pay a small fee, face a panel of judges, and see if they are lucky. A friend from my home parish was delighted to have one of her collograph prints accepted (see it here) – and so I got an invitation to the private view.

The New English Art Club is committed to figurative art. There is a range of media and styles, and not every work contains the human figure; but they are all realist works that have some recognisable subject.

drawing in colors by Bern@t.

The reflection on ‘seeing’ came as one of the members did a plug for the classes put on by the New English Drawing School. What he said applies to writing and thinking as much as drawing. I’m paraphrasing from memory:

We teach people to draw what they see, and this involves an education in seeing. We teach people to look, to concentrate. People have to be trained to pay attention and to notice things. When children come to the classes I don’t sit them down on the floor with a sheet of paper and a big stick of charcoal and tell them to express themselves. They are already very good at expressing themselves! Instead, I teach them to observe what is there, to make distinctions within their field of vision, and then to put this down on paper. The rest will follow.

The exhibition is well worth a visit – it runs until 7th December. It’s at the Mall Galleries in London, on the Mall, at the end near to Trafalgar Square.

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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Britain Going Blog Crazy - Metro Article by Annie Mole.What makes a good blog? What makes a successful blog? What makes a worthwhile blog? I’ve no idea. (And – it’s worth noting – these are quite different questions.) I ask them because I am celebrating an anniversary today. Not ten years or even a year, but three months of happy blogging. This might seem a bit premature, but I said to myself when I began that I would keep going for six months come what may; so the halfway mark gives a small excuse to take stock.

Mostly, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m posting about three or four times a week, and the rhythm of writing has forced me to think about the topics at hand, and made me reflect more generally on what is happening around me and in the press. I’m more curious, and a bit braver about trying to express (or at least trying to form) my own opinion. Usually an idea grabs me or annoys me and I scribble it down for an upcoming post. Now and then I’m feeling a bit blank or too busy to think, and I feel the pressure to write (‘what if I fall silent?!’). Then something catches my attention, or I put it off for a day.

Other unexpected effects of starting to blog: I write quicker than three months ago; and once or twice a post has grown into an article that has been published – so the blogging has helped me risk stepping into a more public debate. Hopefully, some of the posts have got people thinking about something they might have missed, and reflecting a bit more deeply. This is the point! And that is what makes me feel as a priest that it is worth wasting a little bit of time on this.

The stats: I get about 100 page hits a day. WordPress doesn’t tell you how many unique visitors you get, and I don’t want to sign up to these statistics websites because with my love of detail I would get drawn into obsessing about the stats. Anyway, if there are a hundred page hits, and each person is clicking on each of the twenty-five posts displayed, then that means four people are reading the blog each day! (I know, it’s possibly slightly more than that…)

But I had one exceptional weekend, just ten days ago. For some reason my post about ‘best movies of the decade’ got picked up and put on the WordPress homepage (they choose a few every day) – this is like getting invited to the Oscars – and I had six thousand hits in three days. Suddenly I was ‘out there’ in this strange world of connections and clicking and commentators; and then, as quickly as the link was taken off the WordPress page, I was back in my office with my four friends… WordPress.com, by the way, has been a fantastic (and free) host.

my brief moment in the blogging stratosphere last weekend

I’m still not sure if the blog has any unity. Friends have called it ‘eclectic’ – I think they mean it is pretty random. This is my concern, that there is no focus or theme to the posts, so readers aren’t quite sure what they are coming to, or why they should come back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. Or perhaps there is a theme developing: Even with all the random posts about film or technology or faith or morality, I feel an underlying thread is the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I teach a number of courses in philosophy and theology, and most of the posts here would provide food for thought in the course called ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person.

So another three months lie ahead. To any regular readers: Now is the time for feedback. I’m not fishing for compliments, just genuinely wanting to know how you are finding the blog. What have you enjoyed most? What isn’t working? What would make it more interesting for you? Any concrete advice about the topics that could be considered, the frequency of posts, the length of posts, the use of images, etc. In a nutshell, what has your experience been?! (As they say…)

Do post any of your thoughts in the comments box below. And that is another matter itself – how do you encourage people to comment and interact more?

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Astroturf Couture by {platinum}.Does the internet expand the possibilities for political freedom? Or does it actually allow oppressive regimes to take more and more control of the flow of information in society?

I learnt a new verb yesterday: to astroturf. This means, apparently, to add comments onto blogs and social networking sites, in the hope of influencing the discussions and the whole cultural environment – all the time disguising your real identity and subversive intentions. I presume the reference is to the inherent fakery of getting rid of your real mulchy soil and grass and replacing it with plastic turf.

Bryan Appleyard writes about all this in the Sunday Times. Here are the key passages that recount the progressive ways in which the internet can become hijacked by those in power:

There have been three phases of state control of the internet. First came the “great firewall” of China. You simply block access to sites regarded as sensitive. But everybody knows you’re doing it.

So phase two involves selective blocking — known as “just in time attacks”. A site may go down as a protest is being organised. It’s a network problem, claim your goons. Also in phase two are vague regulations that allow your police to press charges no one quite understands. And there’s the blackmailing of internet companies — basically you push them out of business unless they block sites or hand over information. More crudely, as in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, there is the threat of prison.

Now, it’s phase three, which is much more sinister. In China this phase is represented by the so-called 50 cent army — people who, for a tiny sum of money, go out and “astroturf” blogs or Twitter.

Astroturfing means placing comments while concealing who is behind them. So pro-Chinese comments and posts are frequently placed by government proxies. The freedom of the internet is used against itself. Even in liberal democracies this means internet content may turn out to be pure propaganda. It cannot be a replacement for old-fashioned politics.

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Barcelona - Supercopa 2009 - Thierry Henry by boldorak2208.What’s the difference between an outright cheat and someone who tries to push the boundaries without being caught? This is the moral debate raging after Thierry Henry’s handball gave France their win against Ireland in the world cut playoff game on Wednesday. [The photo is Henry playing for Barcelona.] The story has moved from the back pages to the news and editorial sections, with politicians and pundits weighing in. Perhaps this moral questioning is heightened by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the financial sector.

Is Henry a cheat? He has confessed to handling the ball, but claims it was an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment. So if cheating means consciously breaking the rules and trying to get away with it, then it’s grey. We are into a debate about whether we are responsible for our instinctive reactions, and whether it is the job of the footballer to referee himself.

In some areas of life the fact of not being caught is enough to make something acceptable. The classic example is the card game ‘cheat’, where you have to put down as many cards as possible, telling your competitors which cards are in this hidden pile, and hoping that they won’t call your bluff and catch you out. The very point of the game is to get away with as much as possible.

But say you are playing poker, and you hide an extra ace up your sleeve and use it to your advantange. If this comes to light after the game you’ll be disgraced, have your winnings taken back, and be branded a cheat and a liar. No-one will think you clever or audacious. Poker, despite the deceptions and subterfuge, is an honest game. The same is true in golf, if you ‘accidentally’ kick your ball into a better position without anyone seeing it; or in cricket, if you tamper with the ball illegally.

Football is grey. Diving in the penalty area and deliberately handling the ball are generally considered immoral – like cheating at poker. But trying to edge past the defender against the offside trap and getting away with it is considered legitimate – if it goes unseen. No-one really expects a striker to put his hands up after a goal and say ‘sorry ref, I was six inches behind the last defender, but unfortunately the linesman didn’t spot it’.

The problem in politics and business and finance, and in much of contemporary social life, is that more and more people think they are playing ‘cheat’ instead of poker or golf. There is no ‘inner accounting’ – to the idea of sportsmanship, or to the voice of conscience, or simply to one’s own integrity. There is only the ‘outer’ accountability of whether we get caught or not. There has always been dishonesty, but the question now is whether this dishonesty becomes so built into the culture that we become unaware of what we have lost. [See Henry Winter's article in the Telegraph for an example of righteous indignation at Henry's behaviour; and see the comments below the article for the view that he was just playing a tough game and doing all he could to bring his team to victory.]

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Does it matter which way a church faces? The scripture readings this weekend were about the end of the world, and the second coming of the Son of Man. I chose to speak about the physical orientation of Christian churches: how it is an ancient tradition to build them on an east-west axis, so that you enter through the west door and face the sanctuary/altar at the east end. In this way you have a double symbolism: of Christ coming to meet you, like the rising sun, in the liturgy that you are celebrating; and Christ coming to meet you (soon, but not quite yet), at the end of time. So the sanctuary is a threshold that allows us to meet the divine now and to await the divine in the future.

This is all well-known, and doesn’t need blogging about. (See, for example, Part II, Chapter 3, of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.) What was interesting though was preaching about this in a church in Clerkenwell in the centre of London, with two medieval examples just a stone’s throw away. Today’s St Paul’s Cathedral is of course not medieval, but I assume (please correct me) that it roughly follows the floor plan of the previous cathedral. It’s like an arrow on a huge compass at the centre of London, running perfectly east-west. Yes, it happens to sit tidily on the line of the river Thames at that point too; but it illustrates the way the geography of a Christian city can reflect the spiritual longings of the human soul – for a saviour, for God’s final Word to greet us at the end of our lives, and at the end of time.

Inside St Etheldreda's by Lawrence OP.

The second example, just down the road from Clerkenwell, is St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, in Holburn. This church does not sit at all tidily into its present environment. The east end faces the street, so there is no easy access, and you have to enter the church through a warren of corridors and steps. But once you are there, the same spiritual/geographical truth is apparent, that you enter from the west, from the darkness, and look towards the east, towards the hope of Christ’s coming – in this case represented by a glorious wall of stained-glass above the altar.

There will be hundreds of other examples. It was good to have these at hand on Sunday.

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The quest for immortality can now take a digital form, with a gadget that takes a photo of the world as you see it every thirty seconds, and so has the ability to create an unbroken log of your life from start to finish. Kurt Kleiner reports for the New Scientist:

A camera you can wear as a pendant to record every moment of your life will soon be launched by a UK-based firm.

Originally invented to help jog the memories of people with Alzheimer’s disease, it might one day be used by consumers to create “lifelogs” that archive their entire lives.

Worn on a cord around the neck, the camera takes pictures automatically as often as once every 30 seconds. It also uses an accelerometer and light sensors to snap an image when a person enters a new environment, and an infrared sensor to take one when it detects the body heat of a person in front of the wearer. It can fit 30,000 images onto its 1-gigabyte memory.

The ViconRevue was originally developed as the SenseCam by Microsoft Research Cambridge, UK, for researchers studying Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Studies showed that reviewing the events of the day using SenseCam photos could help some people improve long-term recall.

It’s just about memory. But the beauty and genius of the human memory is in fact the way it allows us to forget – selectively. We all dream of having a photographic memory, but this would only create information overload. And we’d have to sift through the same stuff all over again in order to see what was significant, what was actually worth remembering in the first place – and worth forgetting. We create the person we are in the present by what we choose (consciously and subconsciously) to remember and what to forget.

Day 17 (September 27th): Memories by blythe_d.

This gadget reminds me of the lovely central idea from the 1995 film Smoke. Harvey Keitel plays a tobacconist around whose shop the main characters revolve.

He has an unusual habit: every morning, at the same time of the day, he photographs the same street corner, and puts the pictures together in a series of albums. It’s time-lapse photography on an enormous scale. He can’t explain why he does it. He just needs to do it. And it’s a really marvelous device for delivering the movie’s main theme: everything that matters, all the meaning in the world that can be condensed from holy books and vows and catechisms and poems, is right there before us. We just need to have the eyes to see it. [Imbd]

Yes, there is a longing in the human heart to hold onto the past. But the real question is how we take it into the future. And no amount of digital technology is going to help us answer that.

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