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Archive for July, 2010

A few months ago I posted about Jean-Paul Sartre’s faith and said that the story of his death-bed conversion is just an urban myth.

There is an urban myth that Sartre had a death-bed conversion, called for the priest, and died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. It’s not true. But it is true that in the last few years of his life he re-evaluated some of his core existentialist convictions, and in particular became more open to the idea of God and the significance of religion. He was undoubtedly influenced – some would say coerced – by Benny Lévy, a young Egyptian Maoist who was rediscovering his own Jewish inheritance at the time he was working as Sartre’s secretary and interlocutor. Their conversations were published just weeks before Sartre’s death.

M. A. Dean countered in a recent comment on that post, and I wanted to bring his remarks into a proper post here because they are so emphatic and controversial:

This conversion is not urban myth. When I was at Notre Dame in 1980-81, Father John S. Dunne, a noted writer and teacher, told me personally that a priest friend of his was called to Sartre’s deathbed, where the noted atheist confessed his sins and came into the Church. Father Dunne also claimed that a fiery article by Simone Beauvoir appeared condemning Sartre’s “fall into superstition” at his end. I have to find the article by Beauvoir.

Here is my reply:

I believe what you say, but I just wish it were better documented; and I wonder why there is so much silence about this event. I haven’t found any references in the many biographies I have looked at. And unfortunately the outbursts by de Beauvoir have been interpreted in different ways – most people take them simply as evidence of de Beauvoir’s unhappiness about the influence of Levy on the elderly Sartre, and Sartre’s increasing openness to God and the place of religion, and not as evidence of a concrete act of conversion at the end. So I wish we knew more! I’ll post about this to see if anyone else can fill the gaps. Thanks very much indeed for this piece of the puzzle.

Please do comment below if you have any other information, hard facts, or references.

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The restored shrine of St Alban

I was at the Bright Lights festival a few days ago, which ended with a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Alban in St Alban’s Abbey. I’ve always known that he is Britain’s first martyr, but another obvious thought struck me very forcefully for the first time: that he is our first ever saint. Of course there could have been many other holy men and women before him, but Alban is the first we know about, the first to be honoured as a saint, the first whose shrine still stands.

Here, in this town where I happened to go to school, is where things began. This is where our pagan culture first encountered the beauty and mystery of Christianity. This is where Christianity began to transform that culture from within, not as a threat or a danger, but as a seed of hope, a vision of what the human heart longs for but hardly dares to believe.

If you don’t know Alban’s story, here is a short biography:

St Alban was the first martyr in the British Isles; he was put to death at Verulamium (now called Saint Albans after him), perhaps during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. According to the story told by St Bede, Alban sheltered in his house a priest who was fleeing from his enemies. He was so impressed by the goodness of his guest that he eagerly received his teaching and became a Christian. In a few days it was known that the priest lay concealed in Alban’s house, and soldiers were sent to seize him. Thereupon Alban put on the priest’s clothes and gave himself up in his stead to be tried.

The judge asked Alban, “Of what family are you?” The saint answered, “That is a matter of no concern to you. I would have you know that I am a Christian.” The judge persisted, and the saint said, “I was called Alban by my parents, and I worship the living and true God the creator of all things.”

Then the judge said, “If you wish to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice to the great gods at once!” The judge was angered at the priest’s escape and threatened Alban with death if he persisted in forsaking the gods of Rome. He replied firmly that he was a Christian, and would not burn incense to the gods. He was condemned to be beaten and then beheaded.

As he was led to the place of execution (traditionally the hill on which Saint Albans abbey church now stands) a miracle wrought by the saint so touched the heart of the executioner that he flung down his sword, threw himself at Alban’s feet, avowing himself a Christian, and begged to suffer either for him or with him. Another soldier picked up the sword, and in the words of Bede, “the valiant martyr’s head was stricken off, and he received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.”

The feast of St Alban is kept on the twenty-second day of June each year.

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A lot of pressure has been put on the British public over the last few years to try to convince them of the scientific necessity of harvesting stem cells from human embryos. It’s been a kind of emotional blackmail: If you won’t support this kind of research and therapy then you are condemning millions of people who might have benefitted to unnecessary illness and suffering.

Brain neurons

It’s good to hear that research into adult stem cells has been hugely successful. It shows that you can be scientific and ethical at the same time. That you can respect human life at its very earliest stages even as you are trying to help those who are suffering in its later stages.

This report came out recently from the BBC:

UK researchers are launching a study into the potential of using a person’s stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease. A Oxford University team will use adult stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell in the human body – to examine the neurological condition. Skin cells will be used to grow the brain neurons that die in Parkinson’s, a conference will hear. The research will not involve the destruction of human embryos.

Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells were developed in 2007. At the time, scientists said it had the potential to offer many of the advantages of embryonic stem cells without any of the ethical downsides. Three years on, it seems to be living up to that claim.

The team at Oxford University is among the first in the world to use IPS to carry out a large scale clinical investigation of Parkinson’s, which is currently poorly understood.

Researchers will be taking skin cells from 1,000 patients with early stage Parkinson’s and turning them into nerve cells carrying the disease to learn more about the brain disorder, the UK National Stem Cell Network annual science meeting will hear. The technique is useful because it is difficult to obtain samples of diseased nerve tissue from patient biopsies. IPS enables the researchers to create limitless quantities of nerve cells to use in experiments and to test new drugs.

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Rent a Friend has just launched in the UK. You pay someone to keep you company, or to join you in some activity. It’s not a dating site; nor is it a front for an escort agency. There is a strict ‘no sex’ policy.

Haroon Siddique explains some more:

“You can rent a local friend to hang out with, go to a movie or restaurant with, someone to go with you to a party or event, someone to teach you a new skill or hobby, or someone to show you around an unfamiliar town,” explains the US website. It also suggests using its services for a friend “to help motivate and spot you during your workout”. Popular activities people are renting friends for, according to the website, include teaching manners, prom dates and “wingman/wingwoman”.

Subscribers pay up to $25 a month for access to a database of more than 200,000 “friends” who have profiles and photographs to enable browsers to make an informed choice. Once they have chosen a friend, they can negotiate an hourly fee with prices starting from $10 an hour. Rent a Friend founder Scott Rosenbaum, who lives in New Jersey, said he was moved to start his business because, amid all the websites offering every imaginable dating experience, there was a gap in the market.

“I wanted to go a step back,” he told the Times. “No one was offering friendship.”

There are two reactions to this. One is to take the high ground and dismiss it as a complete distortion of the meaning of friendship. Another is to shrug the shoulders and accept that all friendship is at root motivated by self-interest. Helen Rumbelow in the Times takes this latter route:

Show me a friendship of any duration and I will show you a balance sheet of who did what for who: the dance floors tackled, the shoulders cried on, the hair held back over the toilet, the boxes moved, the dark nights endured and the champagne breakfasts that followed.

Ruthless accounting is involved, and if one party goes even a little into the red – a certain someone who stayed just a little too long in someone else’s spare room, for example – then the emotional auditors may be called in. Bankruptcy can follow. Friendship is a gift, but it’s part of a gift economy. [July 19, p11]

Aristotle still gives the simplest and truest account of friendship in Book 8 of his Nicomachean Ethics. He recognises that not all friendships will be perfectly pure and altruistic, and that many will be based on the need to find support, help, companionship, pleasure, fun etc. But this doesn’t make him cynical. It’s part of human life, to be brought together with others for all sorts of mutual interests.

That’s the key to friendship, however - it has to be mutual. And that’s what’s missing from Rent a Friend, the mutuality. That’s why I feel, however worthwhile it may be, it’s not friendship. If people didn’t pay, and just met through a website because they wanted to meet others, that would be a different matter.

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The title says it all: social network giant Facebook has just registered its 500 millionth member.

You can see some graphs here about the relative growth and decline of various social networking sites. (Facebook, Twitter, Orkut and Linkedin are growing; MySpace, Flickr, Bebo and Friends Reunited are in decline.)

Matt Warman gives this report:

Yesterday Facebook announced that it now has half a billion users worldwide – if it were a country, it would have the third largest population in the world. One in 14 people around the globe is on the site. It’s as big as the US and Brazil combined, and only India and China – two markets the web has yet to reach en masse – are larger.

Jeff Mann, a vice-president at analysts Gartner, points out that there are “a small number of people who get really angry about the privacy issues – but they’re off. They’ve left. The vast majority continues to stick with it and to find it very useful.”

All of this is a long way from Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, where Facebook began. And the strapline for the forthcoming movie about Facebook, called The Social Network, is telling: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies”. In the six years since Facebook has been active, there have been numerous lawsuits, concerns about its use to paedophiles, arguments about its potential to compromise its users’ privacy and – perhaps most crucially – doubts about its value, financial and practical.

After all, to those not on Facebook, it’s hard to see the value. The site invites users to create profiles, write regular updates about what they’re doing and then connect their profiles to those of their friends. But our friends are the people we all know already – where’s the utility in discovering what they had for breakfast?

The answer, in the words of the company’s head of European Policy, Richard Allan, is that Facebook has enabled a whole “new depth” to how we connect with people. It encourages all of us to show people photographs of our weekends, to see who likes what. So when a meeting in real life takes place, it’s arguably Facebook that means 500 million people don’t have to bother with silly small talk.

“In real life,” says Allan, “you have enough time to maintain regularly going out with 20 to 30 people. Facebook typically extends your social circle by another 100 people. So you feel connected, in real time, to that wedding of a family member you haven’t seen for a while. But it typically remains an online way of sharing information about real events.”

There’s a darker side to the social network, however: the recent controversy about a number of tribute pages to murderer Raoul Moat; an only recently concluded debacle about how young people using the site should be protected from adults who might seek to groom them; and a series of self-inflicted crises brought about by Facebook’s repeated decisions to tinker with privacy settings which left some people feeling uncomfortably exposed.

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Toy Story 3 is an astonishing film – one of the most profound, beautiful and funny I have seen in years.

Please don’t think that it is just for kids. Sure, if you have children, or know any, take them along. But if you don’t, then just go and see it for yourself. Don’t worry – there will be other adults in the cinema without children accompanying them. You won’t look strange.

I’m not usually so directive in these posts, but here we go: You should see this film!

There are some minor themes and sub-plots: love, loss, friendship, bereavement, justice, forgiveness, family, childhood trauma, freedom, redemption, etc. (Only in a trilogy as sophisticated as this one could these be flagged up as ‘minor themes’.)

The deepest existential theme is one that has run through the whole trilogy: that of personal identity. I’m not giving any real plot away if I tell you the premise of the film, that Andy has grown up and is going away to college, having boxed up his toys for the attic. So the toys are caught between their desire to remain loyal to Andy, and their longing to find someone who would appreciate them for what they are: toys. It’s that irresolvable tension between past and future, between duty and desire, between living for the other and living for the self. And the whole film turns on the question of whether it is possible to do both.

It struck me that the situation of the toys represents, above all, the situation of parents when their children leave home. Parents, like the toys, are left in the empty nest. Their whole life has been defined in terms of their relationship with their children, who seem not to need them any more. They want to remain loyal parents, open to giving and receiving love. But they also need to discover some new sense of purpose, or at least a deeper and more expansive way of living that vocation to be a parent – one that is not defined by the immediate needs of their children.

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Some good news, at last, about HIV and AIDS. A recent press release from UNAIDS (and see the Reuters summary here) said that HIV prevalence among young people has declined by more than 25% in 15 of the 21 countries most affected by AIDS. This is because the number of new HIV infections among young people has declined significantly.

In eight countries—Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe—significant HIV prevalence declines have been accompanied by positive changes in sexual behaviour among young people.

For example, in Kenya there was a 60% decline in HIV prevalence between 2000 and 2005. HIV prevalence dropped from 14.2% to 5.4% in urban areas and from 9.2% to 3.6% in rural areas in the same period. Similarly in Ethiopia there was a 47% reduction in HIV prevalence among pregnant young women in urban areas and a 29% change in rural areas.

What’s striking is that the first two factors cited as playing a part in this reduction are (i) waiting longer before young people first have sex and (ii) reducing the number of sexual partners.

Young people in 13 countries, including Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Malawi, are waiting longer before they become sexually active. Young people were also having fewer multiple partners in 13 countries. And condom use by young people during last sex act increased in 13 countries.

Yes, condoms are mentioned. But the report recognises that significant changes have come about in part through a transformation of patterns of sexual behaviour among young people. This is UNAIDS reporting, not the Vatican Press Office. And it’s a reflection of what’s working not just in one or two statistically insignificant areas but in two thirds of those countries most affected by AIDS today.

It’s interesting that the person who uploaded this image to Flickr in May 2006 did so in order to criticise abstinence campaigns because of their illiberal suggestion that people might want to rethink their patterns of sexual behaviour. This is part of the image caption:

AIDS campaigns funded by churches and/or the US government tend to emphasize abstinence and fidelity to one’s spouse instead of describing options available to persons who choose to have sex outside of marriage.

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But, following on from yesterday’s pro-media post, Peggy Noonan warns David Cameron not to follow the sound-bite politics of the States:

America is not Britain and Britain is not America, but the culture of our politics – the polls, the imagery, the fixation on sound bites, the nonsense, the essential shallowness of presentation and of thinking, the inability of political figures to think long term – has grown similar. To your detriment, by the way.

Shall I tell you what Americans think? We think you used to have fusty, occasionally dishevelled, pipe-smoking, brandy-taking, hopelessly avuncular figures as your leaders: no one cared what they looked like, though they were interesting to listen to, or at least to watch moving through murky waters – like Harold Macmillan. Mrs Thatcher, too, was this sort, though never dishevelled. Now you have leaders who are young, sleek, slick, who believe always and almost only in what used to be called public relations and is now called the brand. I name no names. And, actually, I don’t mean to be harsh.

Here is the punchline:

You can today go to any office of any great leader in America and Britain – business leader, church leader, political leader – and you will find the great topic of conversation, the great focus of attention, the object of daily obsession, is not the mission (making money, spreading faith, leading an anxious citizenry in the right direction) but how the mission is playing in the media. It’s all they talk about. This is very sad.

Peggy Noonan is a columnist for the ‘Wall Street Journal’ and was a speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan.

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It often seems that Christians in general (and the Catholic Church in particular) are locked in a perpetual battle with the secular media. The Church thinks the media is out to get it; and the media assumes that the Church has nothing credible to say to the contemporary culture. That’s the way the story is told.

I was at Worth Abbey last weekend, helping with a retreat for members of Catholic Voices. The whole project is built on the idea that the media can be a force for good in society, and that Catholics need to engage with the media more and not less.

Take a look at the promotional video here:

You can read a recent article here about Catholic Voices from the National Catholic Register.

And here are some words of explanation from their website. I especially like the quote from Cardinal Newman:

What’s the idea?

To train 20-25 Catholics in the art of speaking about their faith in the quick-fire settings of media interviews and public debates.

Where does the idea come from?

Catholic Voices has three main sources of inspiration:

1.      A recognition of the need for articulate, reasoned and committed Catholics to be present in the media, especially during the papal visit when the Church will be placed under the spotlight.

2.      Cardinal Newman’s call for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men [and women] who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

3.      Pope Benedict XVI’s 1 February call, in his address to the English and Welsh bishops in Rome, for Catholics in the UK to “insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society” and for “great writers and communicators” to follow the example of Cardinal Newman in courageously communicating their faith.

A kind of Catholic Evidence Guild?

Yes, in the apologetic tradition – understanding your faith and the teaching of the Church, and learning how to express these clearly, succinctly, and reasonably. But CATHOLIC VOICES is different from the old model in that it is geared to the demands of the modern media.

So why the special training?

Partly the training is in media skills. Many people simply aren’t familiar with the idiom and the methods of modern TV and radio. That lack of familiarity can make even the most articulate Catholics defensive or simply ineffective. CATHOLIC VOICES will show how you can be open, transparent and positive in the media, as long as you are also strategic. Part of that is understanding the role of journalism and the pressures that exist on editors and journalists.

A large part of the training will be on the issues that the media – and society at large – is interested in. Church teaching can often seem abstract, aloof or inhuman; it needs grounding in real human experience. Rather than seminars in church teaching, we’re arranging vigorous dialogues with experts where the hard questions are not skirted but confronted straight on. That allows our team to think through their own positions, and for the co-ordinators to assess which speakers will be best to talk on which topics.

Is this an evangelisation initiative?

We do not see our task as evangelising through the media. We respect the media’s role to probe, question, and hold to account those who have power and influence, as the Church does. In responding to this demand, we are not so much evangelising as clearing the obstacles to evangelisation – presenting, we hope, the true face of the Church to replace the often mythical one portrayed in the media. What’s needed is an attitude of openness and transparency: we respect the media’s role in holding us to account, and we are happy to give an account of ourselves. If that leads to people having a truer view of the Church and the Catholic faith, we’ll have achieved our objectives. We are concerned less with persuading people than with articulating the Church’s positions in a way that is accessible, reasonable and accurate.

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A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.

Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.

Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.

The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.

I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.

Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).

Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.

This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.

Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.

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Toy Story 3 is about to hit these shores, and the Economist’s Schumpeter wonders how the studio that created it can continue to be so successful.

Pixar has mastered the art of creativity, but how can this be sustained? They have two answers.

The first is that the company puts people before projects. Most Hollywood studios start by hunting down promising ideas and then hire creative teams to turn them into films. The projects dictate whom they hire. Pixar starts by bringing in creative people and then encourages them to generate ideas.

The second answer is to encourage people within the studio to interact and give constructive feedback to each other.

In most companies, people collaborate on specific projects, but pay little attention to what’s going on elsewhere in the business. Pixar, however, tries to foster a sense of collective responsibility among its 1,200 staff. Employees show unfinished work to one another in daily meetings, so get used to giving and receiving constructive criticism. And a small “brain trust” of top executives reviews films in the works.

Pixar got the inspiration for this system from a surprising place—Toyota and its method of “lean production”. For decades Toyota has solicited constant feedback from workers on its production lines to prevent flaws. Pixar wants to do the same with producing cartoon characters. This system of constant feedback is designed to bring problems to the surface before they mutate into crises, and to provide creative teams with a source of inspiration. Directors are not obliged to act on the feedback they receive from others, but when they do the results can be impressive. Peer review certainly lifted “Up”, a magical Pixar movie that became the studio’s highest-grossing picture at the box office after “Finding Nemo”. It helped produce the quirky storyline of an old man and a boy who fly to South America in a house supported by a bunch of balloons.

Pixar also obliges its teams to conduct formal post mortems once their films are complete. In lesser hands this might degenerate into a predictable Hollywood frenzy of backslapping and air-kissing. But Pixar demands that each review identify at least five things that did not go well in the film, as well as five that did.

Imagine what your community or workplace or family would be like if people were really free enough to give constructive criticism and suggestions to each other – in the right context. It takes a great deal of trust, and a certain self-confidence. You need to have enough security to know that your place in that community is valued and assured – both to give it without unkindness and to receive it without defensiveness.

I’m not saying that the seminary where I work is perfect, but we have a very useful system for reviewing the year. We meet for a morning or afternoon each June to look back over the year together. In groups of five we collect ideas about what the highlights of the year have been for us personally, about what things have worked well in the life of the community, and about what improvements we could make for next year.

We feed all these ideas back to the larger group, and if there are any common or controversial issues emerging we talk through them to get some idea of what people feel, and to note any practical suggestions.

You can’t act on everything, and at the end of the day the Rector and his team will need to make some executive decisions, but it is a great way of acknowledging together what is working and discerning how to move forward. At the very least it stops you getting stuck, or (even worse) undoing the good that might already be taking place.

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What’s the point of studying obscure topics in the arts and humanities when there seems to be no practical purpose or economic benefit for the students themselves or for the society that funds them? Six years ago the then Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, was happy to suggest that public funding should only support academic subjects of ‘clear usefulness’.

Nigel Biggar wonders what universities are for, and gives a beautiful reflection on the poverty of this kind of utilitarian assessment. He explains the importance of the moral education that takes place when we study histories and literatures, religions and cultures, theologies and philosophies, music and drama:

One valuable gift that the arts and humanities make is to introduce us to foreign worlds: worlds made strange by the passage of time; present worlds structured by the peculiar grip of unfamiliar languages; worlds alien to us in their social organisation and manners, their religious and philosophical convictions.

Introduction to these foreign worlds confers a substantial benefit: the benefit of distance from our own world, and thereby the freedom to ask questions of it that we could never otherwise have conceived. In foreign worlds, past and present, they see and love and do things differently. And in reflecting upon that difference, it might occur to us from time to time that they see and love and do things better. So, one precious contribution of the arts and humanities is their furnishing public discourse with the critical resources of an understanding of foreign worlds, resources vital for social and cultural and moral renewal — a renewal that deserves at least an equal place alongside scientific and technological innovation.

He develops this idea and says that it is not just about appreciating other worlds and other people but understanding how to relate to them. This is ultimately a training in virtue:

The arts and humanities not only introduce us to foreign worlds, they teach us to treat them well. They teach us to read strange and intractable texts with patience and care; to meet alien ideas and practices with humility, docility, and charity; to draw alongside foreign worlds before we set about — as we must — judging them. They train us in the practice of honest dialogue, which respects the “Other” as a potential prophet, one who might yet speak a new word about what’s true and good and beautiful.

A commitment to the truth, humility, a readiness to be taught, patience, carefulness, charity: all of these moral virtues that inform the intellectual discipline into which the arts and humanities induct their students; all of these moral virtues of which public discourse, whether in the media or in Parliament or in Congress, displays no obvious surplus. All of these moral virtues, without which this country and others may get to become a “knowledge economy”, but won’t get to become a “wisdom society”.

And public decisions that, being unwise, are careless with the truth, arrogant, unteachable, impatient and uncharitable, will be bad decisions — and bad decisions cause needless damage to real institutions and real individuals.

What I’m saying, then, is that in addition to providing talented individuals with the opportunity to grow their gifts and find a social role to exercise them; in addition to producing qualified applicants for positions in legal practice and in public administration; in addition to training the labour-force to man a high-tech, service-oriented economy; and in addition to generating new scientific knowledge with technological or commercial applications, universities exist to form individuals and citizens in certain virtues — virtues that are not just intellectual, but are also social and political.

It’s no surprise that he turns to John Henry Newman for inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether Newman’s ideas about university education get any new publicity when his beatification takes place in September.

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I haven’t been to the map exhibition yet at the British Library. But in a recent conversation someone was telling me about the history of ‘upside down’ maps.

It was a delight to discover so many of these on the internet. It had always puzzled me why the map of the world is always printed one way up — with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. And I’d wondered about the psychological and cultural effects this must have on our understanding of the world.

It was hard enough for me to see an old Australian school atlas with Australia in the centre, Asia, Europe and Africa to the left, and the Americas down the right-hand side. Let alone turning the whole thing upside down. But why not?

Most of the images on the net are in copyright, but this one below is Creative Commons:

I remember seeing a TV documentary years ago about an experiment to change one’s ordinary perception. Some team had designed a set of ‘spectacles’ that you wore, a set of small mirrors that turned your visual world upside down, literally 180°. So you looked out and saw the same normal world, but the sky was at the ‘top’ and the ground at the ‘bottom’.

The remarkable thing was that after about 48 hours of wearing these mirrors, the volunteers involved in this experiment could function normally. Their brains had readjusted. One of the scenes showed them riding bicycles!

[Ann Karp, the designer of the image above, wrote the following: "This is an image I created for the back of a t-shirt. It was done for Cafe Campesino (www.cafecampesino.com), a wonderful fair trade coffee company. The upside down map is also the Peters version of the map of the world--notice the landmasses, accurate in area compared with your traditional Eurocentric map."]

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I was on the verge of ending this blog. First, after pouring my heart out in a profound meditation on traffic management the other day, a friend put the following comment on my Facebook page:

You so need to get out more!

(I wouldn’t normally repeat personal comments, but this was already alarmingly public in the first place.)

Second, and much more seriously, I read this article by Todd Gitlin about the effects of using the Internet. Gitlin reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a challenging thesis. It’s not just that the Internet dumbs information down (it’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the profusion of intelligent content on the net). It’s that the way we read and process ideas on the Internet is actually making us less able to think and reflect in any meaningful way.

So no matter how profound the ideas in this blog, it is just contributing to the cultural malaise of our times. That’s the suggestion. Do you agree? I don’t mean “is this blog in particular contributing to the malaise?” I mean “would we be better just switching off the computers and going to the library?”

It’s worth quoting a few paragraphs.

Carr grabs our lapels to insist that the so-called information society might be more accurately described as the interruption society. It pulverizes attention, the scarcest of all resources, and stuffs the mind with trivia. Our texting, IM-ing, iPhoning, Twittering, computer-assisted selves—or self-assisted computing networks—are so easily diverted that our very mode of everyday thought has changed, changed utterly, degraded from “calm, focused, undistracted” linearity into “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.” Google searches, too, break our concentration, which only makes matters worse: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” Carr writes. Because we are always skimming one surface after another, memories do not consolidate and endure. So we live in a knife-edge present. We turn into what the playwright Richard Foreman called “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” We collect bits and the bits collect us.

Worse still, no one has dragooned us into the shallows. Nobody is forcing us from pixel to post. We are our own victimizers, because we crave interruption. When we grow up texting every few minutes, legato—which now feels like an eternity—yields to staccato. Taking a break during the writing of this review, while watching a recent Lakers-Suns playoff game, I observed a couple of women in four-figure courtside seats behind the Suns’ bench working their thumbs on BlackBerries as the camera panned over them. Maybe they were live-blogging, or day-trading on Asian markets.

With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

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I heard trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Orchestra at the Barbican recently. They played a string of bebop classics from composers like Neal Hefti, Charles Mingus, Ernie Wilkins, Gerry Mulligan, and some of the later works by Duke Ellington and his composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn.

It reminded me why I love jazz so much. I’m sure this has been said many times before, but no other form of music manages to exemplify so well the meaning of human freedom, as something that hovers between those two elements of the human condition: on the one hand, order, structure, necessity, tradition; and on the other hand, chaos, innovation, creativity and chance.

When you see the soloist stand up from within the orchestra and take the music in a direction that even he doesn’t know where it is going to go (this orchestra was uniformly male). When his improvisation reaches some sublime heights without betraying the rhythm and tonal structure of the piece. And when the solo finally finds its way back into the formality of the notes that are written on the page, and the player sits down to become again just one part of the ensemble. Then you have an insight into the true meaning of freedom.

Here is the Jazz at Lincoln Center promo:

And this video gives a better feel for some of the music:

 

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Four men from Allen Hall were ordained to the diaconate at Westminster Cathedral on Saturday morning. It was a beautiful end to the seminary year. Archbishop Vincent said that a deacon is consecrated to a life of service to others, and that this spirit of service is like a seal that is imprinted on his very being. You can read a full report about the service here, which includes a few paragraphs from each of the new deacons about their own story and what helped them in their vocation.

St Vincent the Deacon

If you have never been to an ordination, here are the questions that the bishop puts to the candidates before they prostrate themselves for the litany of saints. It’s very powerful to hear a group of young men make these lifelong commitments in front of so many people. The answer to each question, by the way, is ‘I am’!

Are you willing to be ordained for the Church’s ministry by the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Are you resolved to discharge the office of deacon with humility and love in order to assist the bishop and the priests and to serve the people of Christ?

Are you resolved to hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, as the Apostle urges, and to proclaim this faith in word and action as it is taught by the Gospel and the Church’s tradition?

Are you resolved to maintain and deepen the spirit of prayer appropriate to your way of life and, in keeping with what is required of you, to celebrate faithfully the liturgy of the Hours for the Church and for the whole world?

Are you resolved to shape your way of life always according to the example of Christ, whose body and blood you will give to the people?

And after the prayer of consecration and the putting on of the stole and dalmatic (the deacon’s vestments), the bishop places the Book of the Gospels in the hand of the new deacon and says:

Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.

A reminder that you do not have to be a saint in order to preach the Gospel, just a believer, but that you do need to have a desire to live by your own preaching.

(Lawrence OP gives the following commentary on the image above: “According to legend, after being martyted, ravens protected St Vincent’s body from being devoured by wild animals, until his followers could recover the body. This painting in Burgos Cathedral depicts that miraculous event.”)

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