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Archive for April, 2012

Are you, at least in relation to most of the human population, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic)? Then it’s likely that culturally and politically you are a left-leaning liberal whose highest values are autonomy, self-realisation, social justice and fairness. And you are probably suspicious when people appeal to religion, human nature or the well-being of any non-inclusive group to justify their values and political agenda.

David Goodhart reviews The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better. His main insight is simple but powerful: liberals understand only two main moral dimensions, whereas conservatives understand all five. (Over the course of the book he decides to add a sixth, liberty/oppression, but for simplicity’s sake I am sticking to his original five.)

Liberals care about harm and suffering (appealing to our capacities for sympathy and nurturing) and fairness and injustice. All human cultures care about these two things but they also care about three other things: loyalty to the in-group, authority and the sacred.

As Haidt puts it: “It’s as though conservatives can hear five octaves of music, but liberals respond to just two, within which they have become particularly discerning.” This does not mean that liberals are necessarily wrong but it does mean that they have more trouble understanding conservatives than vice versa.

The sacred is especially difficult for liberals to understand. This isn’t necessarily about religion but about the idea that humans have a nobler, more spiritual side and that life has a higher purpose than pleasure or profit. If your only moral concepts are suffering and injustice then it is hard to understand reservations about everything from swearing in public to gay marriage—after all, who is harmed?

Haidt and his colleagues have not just plucked these moral senses from the air. He explains the evolutionary roots of the different senses from a close reading of the literature but has also then tested them in internet surveys and face to face interviews in many different places around the world.

Morality “binds and blinds,” which is why it has made it possible for human beings, alone in the animal kingdom, to produce large co-operative groups, tribes and nations beyond the glue of kinship. Haidt’s central metaphor is that we are 90 per cent chimp and 10 per cent bee—we are driven by the “selfish gene” but, under special circumstances, we also have the ability to become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives.

One of my most politically liberal friends read this book and declared his world view to be transformed. Not that he was no longer a liberal but now “he couldn’t be so rude about the other side, because I understand where they’re coming from.” This will be music to Haidt’s ears as the book was written partly as an antidote to the more polarised American politics of the past 20 years, marked by the arrival of Bill Clinton and the liberal baby boomers onto the political stage.

The American culture wars began earlier, back in the 1960s, with young liberals angry at the suffering in Vietnam and the injustice still experienced by African-Americans. But when some of them adopted a style that was anti-American, anti-authority and anti-puritanical, conservatives saw their most sacred values desecrated and they counter-attacked.

Some conflicts are unavoidable and Haidt is not suggesting that liberals should stop being liberal—rather, that they will be more successful if instead of telling conservatives that their moral intuitions are wrong, they seek to shift them in a liberal direction by accommodating, as far as possible, their anxieties.

I’m not sure about this. It suggests that those on the right – politically and culturally – have a bigger, better, clearer and richer view of the complexity of human life and motivation, and that those with a liberal mentality focus on too narrow a range of social values. But if a more naturally conservative thinker fails, say, to be troubled by income disparity or the possession of first-strike nuclear weapons, doesn’t this reveal a moral blind-spot or a failure to recognise certain fundamental social values? Or at least, wouldn’t someone on the left think that?

It also suggests that those on the left are less likely to be religious – and we disproved this in a recent post.

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The answer to all these questions (which I know have been troubling you for many years) is: sort of.

I’m sure you spotted this years ago, but I have only just discovered the ‘Traffic’ box on the right-hand side of Google Maps, where you can tick the Public Transport option, and – hey presto – see exactly where the tube lines run in relation to street-level reality. I’ve seen these ‘real geography’ (there must be a technical term for this) maps before, and I know that the very first tube maps – like the present Paris Metro maps – were more or less real, without the present simplification, and so with the kinks and the corners and the vast expanses between suburban stations left in. But I haven’t played around and explored the detail in this way.

What it doesn’t show is the zillions of miles you have to unknowingly walk when changing between lines that are theoretically at the same station – e.g. Green Park, Kings Cross, etc. At least Paddington, Bank, etc, have the honesty to have multiple white ‘station dots’ (more technical vocabulary needed please)  linked with the white lines to announce that they are not really the same tube station but no-one has had the nerve to admit it yet.

There must be some site or app that brings to light these dark secrets of the Underground system. Do post one in the comments if you can find it.

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I’m staggered by Keith Ward’s suggestion in a recent article that the Church of England should ‘modify it’s traditional basis’ so that ‘it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts’. His vision for the Church of England has hardly any room for revelation, truth, authority, scripture or the supernatural.

St Paul's Cathedral, London

The Christian community becomes a place where people can express themselves, their aspirations, their questions, their explorations, and their tentative answers; Jesus hardly gets a mention; and even when Ward proposes, as an alternative to ‘the acceptance of some formal creed’, a basic commitment to ‘an objective morality, and loyalty to a God believed to be revealed in and through Jesus’, he qualifies this by stating that ‘many interpretations of that revelation’ will be possible.

It’s a fairly hollow version of Christianity. Or, to be less judgemental and more theological, it’s a presentation of Anglicanism in this country as a purely natural religion, a holding place for all our human religious and quasi-religious longings and instincts, but nothing more.

You probably think I’m exaggerating, but just read a few paragraphs here:

The opportunity for the C of E today is so to modify its traditional basis that it becomes the guardian and tutor of our natural religious instincts.

The Protestant heritage can best be expressed today as the encouragement of freedom of thought and rational criticism of all authority. The church should raise the big questions about human meaning, purpose and value, and encourage their exploration, without pretending it has the final answers.

The national basis of the church must today take fully into account the diversity of modern England, and aim to be fully inclusive — open to all without exception, but not seeking to decry alternative options of thought and belief where they are conducive to human well-being. It will never be, and never has been, the church of all English people. But it can be a national church, in expressing the moral and spiritual ideals of our society and aiming to promote compassion and spirituality throughout society.

Establishment in its present form may not remain. But the church can continue to reflect and help to shape the moral and spiritual values upon which our society at its best is founded — freedom, democracy, justice, a concern for the flourishing of all persons, and a concern for the weak and disadvantaged. All religious and humanist groups can co-operate in this, but it is beneficial to have a national institution formally committed to promoting those values.

This requires a liberal and humane approach to the Christian faith, a commitment which is not narrowly restrictive and doctrinally inflexible, but which preserves a distinctive vision of God as morally demanding, unrestrictedly loving and personally enabling. That vision is seen in many different ways in the person of Jesus and the inner power of the Spirit which filled his life and is present in human hearts. There is no thought here that God is not seen in other ways, too. But this is a way that should attract by a desire to love the good for its own sake, not by a fear of punishment by a basically vindictive God.

Many — I hope, most — Anglicans in England already believe this. But there can be a certain timidity about making senior appointments in the church which, afraid of the anger of those who want a much more exclusive and doctrinally divisive church, and who seem obsessed with gender and sexuality, will opt for a safe and therefore insipid archbishop. What the Church of England needs is an uncompromisingly liberal archbishop, who can lead a Protestant (which must now mean critical and questioning), national (which must now mean inclusive and tolerant) and established (which must now mean committed to the promotion of broad humane and spiritual values) church in an age of rapid scientific advance and moral change.

There is a mistrust of certainty that makes it impossible to believe or propose anything as being true, and Ward states this quite clearly:

[This new Church of England] would have to stop any ordained ministers from pretending that they alone are ‘true’ Christians, and get them to accept, as a condition of ordination, that they are part of one inclusive church with many diverse interpretations of Scripture and tradition, none of them certain and unchangeable.

Has this version of Anglicanism got legs?

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I can’t say I have read many graphic novels, but this is an extraordinary book. It tells the tale, as you would expect from the title, of Simone Lia’s search for a husband, and her struggle to understand God’s plan for her life. It’s Cosmopolitan meets St John of the Cross via Snoopy and the Far Side. The cartoon-like illustrations are endearing, funny, and often beautiful. Her emotional honesty is sometimes heartbreaking. But you have the sense of listening in on the inner dialogue of a soul – one that is innocent, wounded, brave and slightly quirky – rather than intruding or being the recipient of a clunky disclosure.

There is a moment of grace and enlightenment near the end of the book (I’m not spoiling any plot) that is both profoundly moving and presents a spiritual insight that is worthy of the contemplative masters, and that I don’t think could have been communicated so effectively in any other medium. It takes a lot for me to say that, as a cinema fanatic; but perhaps there is something in this graphic novel thing.

You can buy it here on Amazon.

I’m delighted that Simone has done the illustrations for the parents booklet I have been working on with Ten Ten Theatre. I’ll post about that when it is published in the next couple of weeks.

Just in case you think I am only writing this because I’ve got a vested interest in promoting Simone, or in promoting any artist/author who is bringing Christianity into the mainstream, here are some paragraphs from Rachel Cooke’s review in the Guardian:

Lia is a Catholic – a devout one: the kind who goes to confession and has nuns for friends – and when she asks God to find her a husband, she really means it. Standing in the middle of Leicester Square, having recently been dumped by email, she looks up at the sky and says: “To cut to the chase, God, I’m going to be 34 in two weeks’ time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” Does he reply? Not exactly. But she experiences, as people sometimes do, a kind of epiphany. She decides to go on an adventure with God.

How Lia pulls off what happens next without ever seeming a) repulsively pious or b) stark staring mad, I do not know. It’s partly her tone, which is inquiring and funny, but never hectoring; and partly it’s her drawings, so heart-stoppingly neat and expressive. Mostly, though, I think it’s down to the disarming feeling that creeps over you as her sincerity (not such a rare thing in comics as in some other realms, but still pretty rare these days) quietly hits home. Lia is a knowing artist – flirting with a riding instructor in the Australian outback, her self-portrait transmutes into a luscious drawing of Penélope Cruz – but she has a vulnerable innocence that puts you firmly on her side.

And what of her “adventure”? Well, she spends a fortnight in a nunnery, where she takes comfort in routine and quiet, and then she takes a trip to Oz in search of a hermit and a hunk (naturally, she tells her nun advisers only of her desire to find the former). Nothing dramatic happens, though she does get to play Operation – yes, I do mean the battery-operated game – with Jesus (and even the son of God, it seems, struggles when it comes to extracting the tricky spare rib). I must not reveal, here, whether her travels result in the bagging of a husband. But I will say that this is a brave and beautiful book, and Lia is lucky to have a publisher who, though he must secretly have longed for another volume of Fluffy (her 2007 hit about a talking bunny and the neurotic man it takes for its father), has allowed her so intimately to follow her heart.

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A follow-up from yesterday’s post about religious freedom and the global persecution of Christians: see the information below about Aid to the Church in Need’s Night of Witness on 17 May at Westminster Cathedral. Details here – and copied below.

17 May 2012 17:30

Westminster Cathedral Ambrosden Avenue London SW1P 1QW

“[Religious freedom is] the first of the human rights, for it expresses the most fundamental reality of the person.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Will you join with us and persecuted Christians around the world as we come ‘Together in Faith’ this May?

Our Night of Witness aims to bring religious freedom to the forefront of public debate and give a voice to millions of suffering Christians around the world.

As attacks against Christians – and Christianity itself – become more prevalent, please help us to give a voice to the persecuted Church.

Taking our lead from Pope Benedict XVI, we are hosting a public witness event at Westminster Cathedral and on the cathedral piazza, to:

  • Give a voice to Christians and others persecuted for their faith
  • Remind society of the gift of religious liberty
  • Call on the government to make religious freedom a diplomatic priority

Guests who have agreed to take part in the Night of Witness include:

NB We regret that Monsignor Roko Taban Mousa from Sudan will no longer be able to join us.

  • Archbishop Joseph Coutts from Pakistan
  • Bishop Joannes Zakaria from Egypt
  • Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton
  • Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster – greeting participants on the piazza
  • British Pakistani Christian Association
  • Iraqi Christians in Need
  • Priests and faithful from Iraq, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Lithuania

Performers on the Night of Witness include:

  • Catholic band ooberfuse, winners of the World Youth Day 2011 global song contest
  • Eliot Smith Dance Company debuting new piece Persecuted and Forgotten
  • Singer Helen Munt
  • West End Gospel Choir
  • Urdu Christian musician Hammad Baily
  • Catholic poet Sarah de Nordwall

Programme for the Night of Witness

Please join us for all or part of this inspiring evening:

5.30pm Sung Mass to remember the modern-day martyrs to the Faith, concelebrated by Archbishop Joseph Coutts of Karachi, Pakistan, Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor, Egypt, and Bishop Declan Lang of Clifton.

6.30pm Rally for Religious Freedom on the cathedral piazza, celebrating our faith through speeches, music, drama, dance, poetry and film, with groups from Iraqi, Pakistani, Sudanese and Egyptian communities in the UK, as well as others.

7.30-8.30pm Solemn, candlelit vigil in Westminster Cathedral – in thanksgiving for the inspirational sacrifice of Christians today.

Please come ‘Together in Faith’ as Christians to make our concerns heard

Through music, prayer and speeches by guests from Pakistan, Egypt and the UK we will explore what it means to be a Christian today – both at home and abroad. And, through examples of the courage and faith of others, we can grow in faith and resolve ‘to stand in the public square and proclaim the Lord’.

The vigil will also be a public statement about our own right to religious freedom.

To find out how you, your parish, school or group can participate please email witness@acnuk.org or call us on 020 8642 8668.

Download a flyer for the Night of Witness

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You expect an organisation like Aid to the Church in Need to document the persecution of Christians in the Middle East – which it does assiduously. See their News Section for various updates, e.g. the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs, which has created a forced exodus of over 50,000 people to the surrounding towns and villages; e.g. fears voiced by ACN-UK Director Neville Kyrke-Smith that ‘the Arab Spring is threatening to turn into a disaster for Christians in the Middle East – and Western indifference is making the problem worse’.

So it is reassuring, at least a tiny bit, that there seems to have been a gradual increase in reporting on this tragedy and its implications in the mainstream media.

I cut out an article from January’s Prospect, by Rachel Aspden, writing about post-revolutionary Egypt.

For the last three decades the Copts have had a stable, if not cordial, accommodation with the Mubarak regime. In late January [last year], Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic church, appealed to anti-Mubarak protesters to return home—before quickly expressing his support for the revolution two weeks later, after the president had departed. “We suffered discrimination under Mubarak, but at least we knew he would protect us and the rest of the country from Islamic fundamentalists,” says Samia [a 70 year old Egyptian Coptic Christian]. Now the old certainties have been shattered.

Since the military council, known as Scaf, took power in February, the Copts’ situation has worsened. Attacks on churches and congregations in Cairo and Upper Egypt were followed by the killing of 27 protesters, mostly Christian, by security forces at Maspero, Cairo in October. Like many Copts, Samia now believes the army has a clandestine power-sharing deal with the Muslim Brotherhood—and is willing to sacrifice the rights of minorities to secure it.

In the small flat where she lives alone, Samia worries about the future. On her bedside table, silver-framed photos of her daughter Nisreen sit next to a picture of the pope and an icon of the Virgin Mary. After Samia’s husband died 15 years ago, Nisreen emigrated to the United States. Samia joined her for eight years. “But the homesickness became too much and I had to return,” she says. “Many of my Christian friends here are securing foreign passports now. I have a green card, but I’ve decided I will live and die here.” Although many lack the will or means to emigrate, the Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that 93,000 Copts have left Egypt since March [last year].

And last week there was a long article by Douglas Davis in the Spectator about how more generally Arab Christians are being driven out of their homelands. He gives some of the shocking statistics.

[Look at] the dwindling Arab Christian minorities in the region who believed their arabness would trump their Christianity — the Copts and Chaldeans, the Maronites and Melkites, the Latin Rite Catholics and Protestants, the Armenians, Syriac Orthodox, the Assyrian Church of the East and others. They have paid a high price for hanging on. Christian Arabs constituted 20 per cent of the region’s population a century ago; today, they represent about 5 per cent, and falling.The remnant of the 2,000-year-old Christian population is being decanted from the Arab world.

Take Iraq, whose liberty was won at the cost of thousands of soldiers from the Christian West. When the Americans invaded in 2003, about 1.4 million Christian Arabs called Iraq their home. Since then, some 70 churches have been burned and about 1,000 Christians killed in Baghdad alone. Three quarters of the community have fled, leading the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, the Revd Jean Benjamin Sleiman, to lament ‘the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East’.

Across the border, a war-within-a-war is raging in Syria. While Homs has been besieged by the army of Bashar al-Assad over the past two months, Islamist fanatics from the ranks of the rebels found time to root out the city’s 50,000 Christians and force them to flee. The Christians of Homs, having abandoned their homes and their belongings, are now sheltering in mountain villages about 30 miles from the city. They are unlikely to return.

The Catholic News Agency reports that Syria’s Christian community has suffered terrorist attacks in other cities, too. Last month, a car bomb exploded in the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure. ‘The people we are helping are very afraid,’ said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing a Catholic aid programme. ‘The Christians don’t know what their future will hold.’

If the Christians of Iraq and Syria are being ‘persuaded’ to leave by Islamic extremists who bomb their churches and murder their priests, so, too, are the Copts, who have lived in Egypt since the days of the pharaohs, well before the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

Last year, some 200,000 Coptic Christians — such Christians once made up about 10 per cent of Egypt’s 80 million population — fled their homes after being subjected to killing, beatings and church-burnings in Alexandria, Luxor and Cairo. On New Year’s Day last year, 21 Copts were slaughtered in their church in Alexandria; a further 27 died in clashes with police in Cairo.

This week, the Coptic Orthodox Church announced that it was withdrawing from talks on a new Egyptian constitution because Islamist domination of the process has made its participation ‘pointless’. The haemorrhage continues. There are no such problems in the Gulf, of course, where Christians, virtually all ‘guest workers’, have no chance of becoming citizens. The Saudis have gone one step further to preserve their ethnic purity: churches and Christian worship, in line with the opinion of Sheikh Abdullah, have been outlawed (the small, isolated community of Syriacs are forced to live as ‘catacomb Christians’ and worship in secret).

Earlier this year, the Saudis demonstrated once again they mean business when they deported 35 Ethiopian Christians, mostly women, for ‘illicit mingling’. Their crime was to attend a prayer service at a private home in Jeddah. Before being deported, Human Rights Watch reported, the women were strip-searched by religious police and the men beaten up to chants of ‘unbeliever’.

When I visited the then-mayor of Bethlehem, Elias Freij, about 30 years ago, he happily boasted that about three quarters of the population of his town, the birthplace of Christianity, was Christian. Today, after a reign of terror which included land theft, intimidation and beatings by recently arrived Islamic extremists, the figure is estimated to be down to 10 per cent. The Christians of Bethlehem, under pressure from the new Muslim majority, are quietly finding new homes wherever émigrés are permitted safer havens.

Bethlehem is a microcosm of a phenomenon that is evident throughout the Palestinian territories. Against a drumbeat of harassment, which has included calls by Muslim extremists to slaughter their Christian neighbours, half of the Palestinian Christians of Gaza have fled their homes since the Hamas putsch in 2007. In the West Bank, Christians, who once accounted for 15 per cent of the population, are now down to less than 2 per cent.

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I’ve just seen Audrey Tautou’s latest film Delicacy (6/10). The highlight of the trip, however, was to discover that after an experimental period of about three months, Cineworld have finally put the not-so-cheap-but-nevertheless-cheerful pick’n’nix sweet selection back in the foyer.

They made two fundamental mistakes: they went posh, and they went healthy. Instead of the cola bottles, jelly babies, strawberry bonbons, fake-chocolate-covered raisins, pink shrimps, non-Cornish-non-dairy fudge (perhaps this post is getting a bit too confessional for a blog), they created a beautifully displayed posh nuts and healthy dried fruit pick’n’mix counter.

Can you believe it? What a complete misreading of the psychology of cinema, which is about comfort food, returning to the childhood wonder of our first cinematic experiences, eating what is bad for you not just because you like it but because of the added frisson of guilt associated with the transgression itself, the surging highs of an industrially produced sugar hit and the corresponding lows just seven minutes later, the knowledge that you are paying so vastly over the odds per gram of plastic liquorice that you just have to savour it for all it’s worth, and the sheer gastronomic delight of chomping through the panoply of artificial flavours and colours, or of making a single piece of ‘fudge-that-isn’t-really-fudge’ last through the whole of the first act of Citizen Kane.

As if we were going to pay £1.78 for 100 grams of hand-hatched pecan nuts and beach-dried mango strips.

Anyway, the people have spoken, Cineworld has listened, the fruit and nuts have gone, and the technicolour junk is back. The guy at the till told me that no-one was buying them. End of story.

It was worth it as an experiment though. Why? Because it means they finally had to clear out the five-year old sweets that had been sitting at the bottom of the buckets and rising to the top now and then, ready to break your teeth. It’s a sad moment when you relax back into your cinema seat and the purple jelly baby is as hard as a gobstopper and the foam shrimp snaps in your mouth like melba toast. Never again! Well, that’s a bit too hopeful. What I mean is, we’ve got a few months now before the new stock starts to deteriorate again.

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