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Archive for August, 2011

I met someone recently who is involved in ‘ethical hacking’, where a company pays another company to test its cyber defences by attempting to hack into the system and expose its vulnerabilities. We have heard so many stories recently about hacking and how fragile the security systems are of some of the biggest and most trusted online companies.

This report from the BBC describes what the US government is doing to create a ‘scale model’ of the internet to carry out cyber war games:

Several organisations, including the defence company Lockheed Martin, are working on prototypes of the “virtual firing range”.

The system will allow researchers to simulate attacks by foreign powers and from hackers based inside the US.

More than $500m (£309m) has been allocated by the Department of Defense to develop “cyber technologies”.

The National Cyber Range project is being overseen by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (Darpa), which was also involved in early network research that led to the internet.

When ready, it will function as a test-bed for defensive and possibly offensive technologies such as network protection systems.

Having a controllable mini-internet would allow researchers to carry-out experiments “in days rather than the weeks it currently takes,” Darpa spokesman Eric Mazzacone told the Reuters news agency.

The United States has been gradually increasing funding for internet security-related projects.

US defence secretary Robert Gates said that the country was under almost constant cyber attacks

In 2008, the US military was the subject of a serious cyber attack when part of its network became infected by a worm known as agent.btz.

President Obama, in May 2009, declared the cyber threat to be one of the “most serious” challenges facing the country.

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Every few weeks there is another expose about the average cost of a wedding in Britain or the States, but reading Kirsten Hansen’s article was the first time I had come across this wonderful phrase: ‘The Wedding-Industrial Complex’.

We spend far more on a wedding than we would on any regular party. But that’s the point. Weddings aren’t a regular party; they are a booming business.

According to TheKnot.com, a popular wedding site, the average American wedding costs about $24,000. A wedding in larger urban centres could easily cost closer to $50,000. Who says you can’t put a price on love, dreams and happiness? According to the website CostofWedding.com, the price per guest alone for a wedding in New York could easily be about $200 – if a couple is inviting 150 guests, they’re already looking at $30,000.

Just what exactly happened? How did weddings go from celebrations of a new marriage to incredibly expensive extravaganzas that put couples or their families in debt? The wedding industrial complex is to blame. The term refers both to the way the wedding industry has worked to sell the “perfect” wedding (check out a bridal magazine, it’s all there in gorgeously retouched advertisements), and to the social expectations about what makes a wedding (tuxedo, diamond and white dress splendour). It is a big machine, all working to ensure that anyone getting married should expect to pay a whole lot of money for the privilege. Unless, of course, they’re willing to sacrifice their dreams and crush their love under the heel of practicality.

The wedding industry is out to make money, and someone’s special day is how they do it. It has been a brilliant marketing campaign, not least because most of us have bought into it. They’ve already sold us on their merchandise which is wrapped up as “romance”, “hopes” and that “one perfect day”. The price tag shouldn’t matter if a couple is really in love.

Of course, there are many couples out there who reject the idea that their wedding has to cost them as much as a downpayment on a house. DIY weddings are becoming more popular and couples are finding ways to put their own stamp on the big day for a lower price. They are finding free venues, having potlucks, hiring amateur photographers or choosing weekday weddings. A couple can forego many things like wedding favours and huge guest lists; there are definitely ways to cut costs.

There is, however, only so much a couple can do about their budget unless they’re willing to ditch the “perfect wedding” ideal entirely. A larger guest list, a rented venue, a caterer – every little bit adds up, and if they are unlucky, the place they live might be expensive by nature.

I take a middle line here. I think it’s important to celebrate, and especially to celebrate something as significant as a wedding; and celebrations, usually, cost money. But it’s also important to distinguish between what is really helping a couple to celebrate, and what is instead being imposed by some unacknowledged social pressure or some insidious marketing campaign.

Of course every couple has some social obligations that must be fulfilled at a wedding; one of the reasons for getting married is that it brings your ‘private’ relationship into the public gaze so that it can be acknowledged and supported publicly. But I still think there should be an inner freedom about the choices a couple makes, so that they can decide what they truly think is best for themselves and for their families and friends. Is it possible, however, to escape the clutches of the Wedding-Industrial Complex?

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I’m just back from World Youth Day in Madrid. We took the non-budget option, thank goodness; so instead of staying on school floors and going for a communal ‘hose-down’ in the yard each morning (as some friends had to do), we had the relative luxury of beds and hot showers. You can’t imagine the Madrid heat if you haven’t experienced it. It was 39°C walking to the Vigil on Saturday afternoon (that’s over 100°F), with rucksacks and sleeping bags on our shoulders. No wonder the medical services were stretched.

There were 121 pilgrims in the group from Westminster Diocese. At the beginning we had four glorious days in Salamanca. I’m glad, this time, that we didn’t stay with Spanish host families, because we needed time to get to know each other. Many of the young people came as representatives of their home parishes, and so wouldn’t have known many others before. Salamanca gave us the chance just to be with each other before the madness of Madrid; with time for prayer, catechesis, discussion, and plenty of opportunities to explore the city, to soak up the pre-World Youth Day atmosphere, and learn the meaning of ‘tapas’ and ‘cerveza’.

For some, the highlight was doing the conga round the Plaza Mayor, perhaps the most beautiful square in Europe, with several hundred Koreans, Zambians and Australians, as the clock struck midnight. For others, it was a frenzied search, instigated by our irrepressible Spanish guide, for a mythical frog carved into the facade of the university which – if found – would guarantee you delivery of a faithful and loving spouse. Pretty high stakes.

After a day in Avila, visiting all the Teresian sights, we got to our accommodation in Madrid on Monday evening last week.

What is World Youth Day? Let me give you the basics, in case you haven’t heard much before; and then a couple of reflections. Hundreds of thousands of young Catholics converge on a different city every two or three years to celebrate their faith and meet the Pope. At the beginning of the week, there is a Mass of welcome, which is the first time that you get a sense of how many people are there. This time it took place in the centre of the city around the Cibeles area. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is a pattern of smaller-scale local catechesis in the morning, with the afternoons and evenings free to join in the ‘Festival of Youth’.

The catechesis takes place in language groups, often in a local church, but sometimes in a big stadium or conference hall. It’s usually a package of music, drama, testimonies, etc., organised by a particular youth group. The centrepiece is a chunky catechetical talk from a bishop, together with a Q&A session. It’s one of the rare occasions when young people get the chance to fire questions at a bishop – any questions at all – and to hear his spontaneous responses. And the morning session ends with Mass.

The ‘Festival of Youth’ is a vast jamboree of events that take place over the city during the week. Hundreds of concerts, exhibitions, prayer services, talks, panels, and much more. You can spend hours just browsing through the programme, and the challenge is to select just one or two things each day that sound especially appealing and try to make them. Or you can eat. Or you can sleep. Or just hang out. It’s hard to do everything. And in the intense heat of Madrid I did a lot less than I wished and usually opted for a long lunch and a siesta, with the odd venture out into the city.

Midweek the Pope arrives, which is an excuse for another huge central celebration. Sometime on the Friday there is traditionally a World Youth Day Stations of the Cross. And then everyone who is registered, together with hundreds of thousands of others, head to a vast out-of-town venue for the Prayer Vigil on Saturday evening and the final Mass on Sunday morning. In Madrid it took place at Cuatro Vientos, an airfield in the south of the city.

By the time we got there, about 5.30pm, the main area – which holds 800,000 people – was already full. It gives you an idea of the sheer scale of the event. In our overflow area, which was meant for the day visitors the following morning, there must have been two or three hundred thousand people by the time the Vigil started; so I can quite believe that with the addition of ordinary Spanish parishioners who came for Mass the next day there were over 1.5 million people and even nearer to 2 million, as the organisers claim. Just take a look at the aerial photos. I’ve since heard that some groups didn’t even get into the overflow area because that was full.

On the one hand, it was incredibly frustrating for us to be ‘outside’, given that we had reserved tickets for sector E1 in the airfield itself. Someone had done their calculations wrong, or opened the gates without any scrutiny of the passes. And there was a shocking lack of care for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the overflow area – above all the lack of drinking water and food (our designated food parcels were inside the complex and we were not allowed in to collect them), and the complete absence of information or hands on assistance. On the other hand, people were very patient and accepting, recognising without the need for any sermons that there is a grace in not having the best seat and bearing this kind of small deprivation humbly. We could see a screen easily; emergency supplies arrived at 3 in the morning; and the advantage of being on the outside was having space to stretch out and as many portaloos as you could wish for – unlike those penned inside.

Just as the Pope came out, about 8.30pm, an incredible storm came over the area; lightning, thunder, horizontal rain. It was pretty scary, and the organisers obviously didn’t know what to do, so they just stood there behind their white umbrellas, trying to keep the Pope dry; and we huddled together; and the less trusting ones amongst us – me included – wondered whether we should leave while the underground trains were still running.

Eventually the storm passed, and there was an incredibly profound twenty minutes of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s quite something to kneel in silence before the Lord with over a million people, and have a sense of how the silence and prayer are taking you deeper and deeper. People commented on this when we had Exposition in Hyde Park on the Saturday of Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain; and I felt it even more in Cuatro Vientos – the power of silent Adoration, not just as a psychological manifestation of being united in such a huge group, but something spiritual, the power of Christ’s Presence.

We slept under the stars, when the singing and dancing finally died down in the early hours, and woke for Mass at 9.30. With some other Westminster priests, I managed to use my ‘sacerdote’ pass to get into the main airfield, and then to the seating just in front of the sanctuary reserved for concelebrating priests – thousands of us. One of the first things I did was stand on my seat just to take a look at the crowds behind me – a staggering sight, although it made me appreciate the numbers that must have been at the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000, which seemed to be even greater. I slept in my seat before things started, and then managed to stay awake for Mass. It was heartbreaking that Holy Communion couldn’t be distributed to most of the congregation, because most of the chapels scattered round the airfield that were meant to hold the consecrated hosts were literally blown away in the storm the night before.

The storm coming in during the Saturday evening Vigil

Somehow we got back to base after the Mass; showered and slept a bit; had a final evening together in the hostel; and came home on the Monday.

I’m just writing about external events, and it’s hard to convey the deeper currents that flow through the week-long celebration, and through the hearts and minds of each group and each individual. What is it about World Youth Day that touches the people involved so profoundly and so personally? I think that there is a real grace to the event, a grace of conversion, of being renewed in faith, of glimpsing something of God and of the Church and of oneself as if for the first time – I’ve seen this on every World Youth Day I’ve been on (and this is my fifth…). It’s far more than some kind of mass hysteria; far more than an over-blown youth festival or an outdated homage to John Paul II (as some might think).

First, I think it’s an experience of the Church. The ordinary, simple reality of the Church, that is simply not seen very often. People being together, knowing each other, sharing each other’s lives. The beauty of the faith explained, in ways that speak to the heart and connect with the ordinary realities of life. The sacraments celebrated worthily, joyfully, with some solid catechesis behind them. The diversity of what it means to he Catholic, and the unity of the Catholic faith – at the same time. And of course meeting the Pope, praying with him and with so many others in such a visible expression of Christian communion. I don’t think there is some great secret to Catholic youth work – it’s just about living the Catholic faith, and creating a context in which it can be lived, in all its fullness.

Second, it’s obviously an experience of pilgrimage, in a particular form. So all the well-known graces of this experience are allowed to flourish – getting away from things, making sacrifices, travelling to a holy destination, carrying a particular intention, meeting new people, putting ordinary life in perspective, having extra time to pray and reflect, etc. This is true for Lourdes and Walsingham and a thousand other pilgrimages.

Third, I think World Youth Day allows young people to experience not just the Church as Church (faith, sacraments, Pope, community, etc.), but the way one’s whole life can be transformed by a living faith. Maybe because people are trying harder, maybe because they are liberated from some of the struggles that plague them back home, maybe because it’s easier when you are constantly being reminded about the meaning of faith and noticing it in the lives of those around you – but you really see what it means to love Christ and to share his love with others, and you see how much better the world is because of that. You see how the Catholic faith makes sense of life; how it makes life more alive.

You see how different life is when it is founded on prayer, generosity, service, sacrifice, forgiveness, joy, humility, and all the other virtues that can so easily be forgotten or even dismissed. You see how different life is when people are really living their Catholic faith and founding it on the love of Christ, even with all their human weaknesses; and when a community is trying to live it, not just for their own integrity, but for the sake of others too. It really works; it shines and sometimes dazzles. It’s just not put to the test very often. When you see it, on these strange occasions like a World Youth Day pilgrimage, you can’t but be affected. And no wonder the young people coming home are coming back a little bit different.

You can see some of our Westminster photos on Flickr here, and the official Spanish WYD photos here.

Apologies for the long post – it’s been quite an intense few days!

I’m off to Walsingham on Thursday for another huge youth event, this time the annual Youth 2000 summer festival. It’s like a mini-World Youth Day, only in Norfolk, England! So if you are between 16 and 35, and didn’t get the chance to go to Madrid, why not think about coming along. Or even if you did. It’s from Thursday 25 August to Monday 29. The details are here.

And to finish. One of the few disappointments from Madrid was this year’s theme song. So here is the one from Sydney three years ago, one of my favourite ‘worship songs’ of all time (if it comes under that category):

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It was announced some months ago that Pope Benedict will go to Assisi in October to commemorate Pope John Paul II’s interreligious meeting there in 1986.

Assisi

The stated aim is to witness to peace, and not – as some people have feared – to pray together or to deny the uniqueness of Christ. As Cindy Wooden wrote in January:

He did not actually say anything about praying with members of other religions. Announcing the October gathering, he said he would go to Assisi on pilgrimage and would like representatives of other Christian confessions and other world religions to join him there to commemorate Pope John Paul’s “historic gesture” and to “solemnly renew the commitment of believers of every religion to live their own religious faith as a service in the cause of peace.”

While Pope Benedict may be more open to interreligious dialogue than some of the most conservative Christians would like, he continues to insist that dialogue must be honest about the differences existing between religions and that joint activities should acknowledge those differences.

John Allen, more recently, looks as the significance of the coming meeting.

Movers and shakers in Rome are well aware that John Paul II’s 1986 interreligious summit was among the iconic moments of his papacy. It helped make the pope a global point of reference, it enhanced the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy, and it boosted the moral authority of the church.

Today, the Vatican could use another win like that in the court of public opinion. In the West, it faces a hostile political and legal environment, with Ireland even threatening to breach the sanctity of the confessional. In other parts of the world, it needs the good will of governments and leaders of other faiths to protect Christians under fire. Tuesday’s car bomb attack against a Syro-Catholic church in Kirkuk, Iraq, offers tragic proof of the point.

A high-profile public event such as Assisi, which showcases the papacy’s unique capacity to bring religions together, could be a real boon — provided, of course, it doesn’t turn in to another PR debacle.

Assisi is also important to Benedict XVI. Although he’s made great strides in inter-faith relations, especially with Islam, in some quarters he’s still dogged by the image of a cultural warrior associated with a September 2006 speech in Regensburg, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor critical of Muhammad.

Given all that, one can expect Vatican officials to act with alacrity to put out any potential fires related to the Assisi summit.

Naturally, the fact that then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was among those seen as ambivalent about Assisi back in ’86 also lends subtext to the October edition. In light of that history, Vatican officials will bend over backwards to insist that this is not, as Koch put it, a “syncretistic act.”

I look forward to seeing what actually happens, as well as listening to what is said, since the visual symbolism of these meetings can often say far more than the words that are spoken.

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Lucy Kellaway gets nostalgic whenever she thinks of the prehistoric flip-chart pad and its unwieldly aluminium legs.

She has managed not to use PowerPoint as a presenter, even though she has been forced to watch more PowerPoint slides than she can count.

And what have I got from the experience? It is hard to say because my default reaction has been to blank it. I can’t remember one single slide that I’ve ever been shown. And as I must have been shown hundreds of thousands of them altogether, a hit rate of zero seems rather on the low side. This doesn’t mean I’ve never sat through a good PowerPoint presentation. But when I have, it has been because the person speaking managed to get a message across despite the distracting visual clamour going on behind them.

The Anti PowerPoint party has attempted to calculate the economic damage of gawping at all these slides and has concluded that Europe wastes €110bn a year from people sitting though dull presentations.

I suspect the true figure is even worse, as this ignores the secondary effects. PowerPoint must be the least enjoyable way of wasting time there is; a heavy slideshow can leave one feeling grumpy and passive and in no frame of mind for proper work.

Worse, it lowers the quality of discussion and leads to bad decisions. PowerPoint performs the miracle of making things simultaneously too simple and too complicated. It reduces subtle ideas to bullet points, while it encourages you to pad out a presentation with irrelevant data because cutting and pasting is far too easy.

The APPP is hoping to fight PowerPoint through peaceful means; it wants lots of journalists to write articles just like this one. Even if lots do, I hold out little hope of success. The seminal, devastating article on the subject, PowerPoint is Evil, was written by Edward Tufte in 2003 and published in Wired. And what has happened since then? Nothing, except that PowerPoint has gone on getting bigger.

Persuading everyone to stop using PowerPoint is going to be much harder than persuading them, say, to reuse plastic bags or get the loft insulated. People cling to it for three powerful reasons. First, because everyone else does. Second, because it is much easier than writing a proper speech, where you have to think carefully about what you are saying ahead of time. Third, and most important, PowerPoint assuages speakers’ nerves – standing in a room with low lights, dumbly following prompts on a screen is not all that frightening.

Kellaway thinks the APPP is too tame, and needs to resort to direct action:

…which would advocate cutting the wire in the middle of the table that connects the laptop to the projector. Or it could help people tamper with slides, inserting at random ones that said: “HERE IS ANOTHER DULL SLIDE” or showed a picture of people fast asleep.

Better still would be to campaign for an outright ban. In a world without the crutch of PowerPoint, presentations would be fewer in number – people would be put off by nerves and by the hard slog of preparation – and shorter. It might even mean that audiences listened. The human voice, especially when connected to a brain that has done some thinking, and a body that has done some rehearsing, can be a wonderful, memorable thing.

What’s your experience as a presenter or as someone on the receiving end? Is this just a needless rant from a bunch of technological luddites? Or a genuine insight into the way we have been duped into using something we don’t want and don’t really need?

Most Catholic churches in this country don’t have a screen and projector mounted in the sanctuary, but I’ve been to a service in the US where an evangelical preacher used PowerPoint slides to illustrate his sermon. I liked it! But don’t worry – I wouldn’t want it during Mass…

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I’m dying to see James Marsh’s new film Project Nim, not only because he directed one of my favourite documentaries of recent years (Man on Wire), but because it’s about the question of whether or not human beings have a unique ability to communicate with language.

Marsh documents the attempt by Herb Terrance, a psychology professor at Columbia University in New York, to discover whether chimpanzees can learn a human language.

Mick Brown explains:

Terrace’s idea was to give rise to one of the most idiosyncratic scientific experiments of the era, to take a newborn chimpanzee and raise it as if it were a human being, while teaching it to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL). For a period in the 1970s Terrace’s chimpanzee, named Nim, became a celebrity, featuring in newspapers and magazines and appearing on television chat shows – the tribune, as a New York magazine cover story had it, of a ‘scientific revolution with religious consequences that occurs once every few hundred years’.

Herb Terrace was not the first person to hit on the idea of communicating with an ape through sign language. In 1661 Samuel Pepys described in his diaries encountering ‘a great baboon’ brought from ‘Guiny’ that was ‘so much like a man in most things… I do believe that it already understands much English, and I am of the mind it might be taught to speak or make signs.’ In the 1960s a husband and wife team, Allen and Beatrix Gardner, had raised a chimp named Washoe, claiming to have taught it more than 300 signs.

Terrace’s own experiment was forged in a spirit of heated debate about language and behaviour that was raging through academia in the 1960s and 70s. A disciple of the behaviourist BF Skinner, Terrace wanted to disprove the theory of Skinner’s great rival, the linguist Noam Chomsky, that humans are uniquely ‘hard-wired’ to develop language. Even the choice of his chimp’s name, Nim Chimpsky, was designed to cock a snook at Chomsky.

In search of a surrogate mother for his chimp, Terrace turned to one of his former graduate psychology students – and a former lover – Stephanie LaFarge. ‘Herb wanted to do something equivalent to Galileo and Freud in creating a paradigm shift for human beings,’ LaFarge says. ‘That’s who he is: very arrogant and very ambitious.’

Things didn’t work out as planned – you can read the article or see the film to find out why. But here are the conclusions that Terrace came to about the possibility of chimpanzee-human language:

Terrace remains unrepentant about the experiment and its findings. He is presently working on a new book, with the provisional title of Why a Chimp Can’t Learn Language. Chimps, he believes, as Nim demonstrated, are highly intelligent but they do not have what is called ‘a theory of mind’.

‘No chimpanzee – no animal – has ever engaged in conversation. It’s always been “gimme, gimme, gimme”. They’re very astute readers of body language, as Nim showed. But a chimp does not have any reason to think of its own mind, or that somebody else has a mind.’

Not only would a chimpanzee not be able to construct a meaningful sentence of ‘man bites dog’, Terrace says, but ‘he would have no interest in communicating that. A chimp is never going to say, “This is a beautiful sunset”, or “That’s a lovely suit you’re wearing.”’ In short, they will forever remain a closed book.

Terrace ends up agreeing with Chomsky and concludes that there is something unique about the mental and linguistic abilities of human beings.

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I don’t post about every sermon I preach, but here are a few lines from a nuptial Mass I celebrated at the weekend about the difficulty and the importance of making promises today:

Lasso Lumineux

There is something very beautiful and very simple about the wedding vows that you will make in just a few moments time. A man and a woman promise to love each other without reservation for the rest of their lives, and to embrace all the implications of that love: To love for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. To love the whole person, with their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. And to be open to the new life that love always brings; whether that is through the gift of children, or through the life-giving love that flows from your friendships and openness to others.

It’s hard for people to make promises today, partly because we are unsure about so many things. Unsure about the future; unsure about who the other person will become; unsure about what we want now; and even more unsure about what we might want in the distant future.

But there is a paradox here. Making a promise is what actually makes something sure. When you promise to be faithful to each other, come what may, you give a security and strength to this love. We talk about ‘the bond of marriage’, not because it is a chain to take away your freedom, but because it creates a space in which you can keep loving each other, freely – which is what you both want most of all.

I was the priest at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She’s Mexican, and they have this tradition of the lasso – you may have heard of it. As soon as the wedding vows are made, the families of the couple bring a lasso to the front of the church – one of these huge ropes that you catch cattle with – and literally tie the couple together as they sit beside each other. The bride, my Mexican friend, is grinning like a Cheshire cat; while the groom, who hasn’t got a drop of Mexican blood in him, is sitting there very self-consciously, with a face that says ‘what on earth is going on?!’

Now I’m not recommending this today; I’m just giving it to you as a symbol. When you make these vows, something big happens. You bind yourselves to each other; and God takes you at your word and puts his own seal on your marriage. It’s a bond of love. It’s the security given by your own promises, and by the promise of God.

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I wrote about providence recently, and the question of whether God has a plan for our lives or not.

St Margaret Clitherow & Cardinal Newman

Here is the marvellous meditation on providence and trust by Cardinal Newman, in case anyone hasn’t come across it before.

God knows me and calls me by my name.…

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purposes… I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us.

He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me— still He knows what He is about.…

Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see— I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.  

The passage is from his Meditations and Devotions, “Meditations on Christian Doctrine: Hope in God—Creator”, March 7th, 1848.

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Charles Guignon has written a lovely book called On Being Authentic. He draws on a number of philosophers and historians, and on examples from contemporary culture, to tell the story of where our modern notions of ‘being authentic’ and ‘being true to oneself’ really come from.

Broadly speaking, according to Guignon, we have seen three types of ‘self’ in the West. In pre-modern times, in the classical and medieval worlds, we had ‘the extended self’. Here, what makes me ‘me’ is that I belong to something bigger than me, something that comes before me, and extends beyond me. I don’t choose or define this larger whole – it defines me. As Guignon writes:

My identity is tied into the wider context of the world, with the specific gods and spirits that inhabit that world, with my tribe, kinship system and family, and with those who have come before and those who are yet to come. Such an experience of the self carries with it a strong sense of belongingness, a feeling that one is part of a larger whole [p18].

It reflects the interwovenness of all reality. I am part of an overarching whole, a cosmic scheme. The meaning of my life is very clear, and it is not at all up to me. There is lots of identity and belonging; but very little freedom.

In modern times, over the last four or five centuries, the idea of individuality and subjectivity has become more prominent. I am a subject with my own experiences, feelings, desires and opinions. I relate to the outside world of course, but that relationship is partly determined by my own decisions about how to construe that relationship.

The key term here is ‘autonomy’, so that the modern self is not so much ‘extended’ as ‘nuclear’ or ‘punctiliar’ – meaning I am the centre, the nucleus, of my own world, and not just the periphery of a socially constructed world. I still have an identity, but it’s one that I have helped to create through my personal choices.

In a post-modern culture, according to Guignon’s summary, the very notion of the stable self or subject has been called into question. Human identity is fluid and contextual. We now have different selves and limited powers of choice. There is no stable centre to the self but multiple centres with different perspectives. We have different masks, different roles, different potentialities. Some we are responsible for and in control of, some not. We absorb the values and visions of others without acknowledging the process.

The nuclear or punctiliar self of modernity gives rise to the fragmented or decentred self of post-modernity.  There is at once a radical freedom, even to go beyond who you are and recreate yourself; and a radical impotence, because you never have the secure foundation of a self from which to move or make a decision.

This is all very familiar to philosophers, but Guignon is a good teacher, and he writes with great insight and wit. And what I find so interesting about today’s Western culture, at least in Britain, is that it is one huge pile up of conflicting notions of the self. It’s not actually post-modern. It’s pre-modern and modern and post-modern all at the same time (and maybe some people would say that this a very definition of post-modernism!). We are longing to belong, and to be true to our inner selves, and to set off in radically new directions – all at the same time. No wonder we are confused!

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