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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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