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Posts Tagged ‘conversion’

I was really disturbed by some of the reactions to the recent report into the 2009 Air France crash, which suggested that it would be far better for someone if they had no warning at all about their impending death.

You probably remember hearing about the tragedy: all 228 people aboard were killed when an Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic in June 2009. A preliminary report has been written two years after on the basis of information from the aircraft’s black boxes, which were only recovered last month. There is no clear conclusion about what caused the crash – it was partly to do with faulty instrumental readings. The fall took three and a half minutes.

This is the bit that disturbed me, as reported by Elaine Ganley and Jill Lawless:

Some families of victims who said they were given information in a meeting with the agency said it was possible their loved ones went to their deaths unaware of what was happening because there was apparently no contact between the cockpit and cabin crew in the 3 1 / minutes.

“It seems they did not feel more movements and turbulence than you generally feel in storms,” said Jean-Baptiste Audousset, president of a victims’ solidarity association. “So, we think that until impact they did not realize the situation, which for the family is what they want to hear — they did not suffer.”

It’s true that they may not have had to live through the horror of knowing they were falling to their deaths; and I do understand how a relative can find some consolation in knowing this. But surely there are other considerations involved here as well? It must be frightening to know that you are about to die, and I have sat with many people as they face this knowledge and try to come to terms with it – but would you really prefer not to know?

I’m not just writing as a Christian believer now. Yes, as a person of faith, I would rather have a few minutes to pray, to thank God for my life, to say sorry for anything I have done wrong, to offer my life to the Lord, and generally to prepare for my death. But even if I had no faith in God or in a life after death, my impending death would still be a hugely significant horizon, and those last few minutes of life would surely take on an unimaginable significance. I wouldn’t wish for myself that I were left in ignorance. I’d want to know, in order to try to make sense of it, or simply to make the most of it, or at least not to waste it. And I wouldn’t wish for my loved ones to be denied the possibility of knowing that their end was near.

I’m not romanticising death. I’m certainly not pretending that the fear isn’t very real, especially if the knowledge comes quickly and unexpectedly. I’d just rather know. Fear, sometimes, is what helps us to appreciate the significance of some great truth that lies before us; and there aren’t many truths as significant as death.

A film that played with these themes very creatively was Last Night from 1998 (not the new film with Keira Knightley).

Everyone knows that the world is going to end this evening at midnight, and we see how various characters in Toronto react. Their decisions about how to spend the last few hours of their life generally reflect the concerns and priorities of the life they have already lived, the life they have made. Their fundamental intentions are clarified and crystalised in these last moments.

On the other hand, knowing that time is so short, it gives them a chance to make something different of their life. Not so much a moral conversion (although that is also possible), but a reorientation, a new level of authenticity, a sort of redemption – even if the choices some of them made were thoroughly depressing. It’s well worth seeing.

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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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I went on a Cardinal Newman pilgrimage at the weekend. We took a coach from London and spent most of the day in Oxford.

The first stop, just outside Oxford itself, was the site of Newman’s reception into full communion with the Catholic Church. This is how Roderick Strange describes it in his John Henry Newman: A Mind Alive.

When people speak of Newman’s conversion, they are usually referring to the events of 8 and 9 October 1845, that windswept night when Father Dominic Barberi, drenched by rain from his journey exposed to the weather, arrived in Littlemore, the village where Newman had made his home after resigning as Vicar of the University Church and retiring to lay communion as an Anglican. He began to hear Newman’s confession that evening and it continued the following morning. Then he received him into the Roman Catholic Church.

You can see the room where he slept and thought and wrote so many letters; the chapel where he prayed; the library where he and his friends studied and talked.

But what moved me most? His stand-up desk! I’ve used one for the last year, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone else’s. I felt an immediate bond. Mine is an improvised affair, consisting of four metal waste paper baskets from Rymans placed on my normal office desk, with a piece of wood I found in the attic balanced on top. I put the computer on the raised table, and it is just the right height for me to type standing up. I get some funny looks when people walk into my office, but they are getting used to it.

Why do I risk the humiliation? I was getting some back-ache from sitting in the same position for so long; I went to an orthopedic furniture shop to get a fancy chair, and they suggested I try standing up to vary the posture. It has worked like a dream. You can move and stretch and relax without getting stuck in some awkward position for hours; then sit down for a change when you are tired. I highly recommend it to anyone. And the bins (£2.99 each) were cheaper than the chairs (which started at about £400). Apparently, you can get electric desks that go up and down, so you can move from sitting to standing at the flick of a switch; but I think they are out of my league.

Newman’s is a fine wooden desk: The top slopes down towards you so you get a nice angle. The height is adjustable. There is a length of wood at the bottom of the slope to stop the paper sliding off. What more could you want? I’m sure this was the secret of his success.

There is a nice religious note to add as well. When Fr Barberi wanted to celebrate Mass the next day there was no suitable altar (the chapel they used was simply an oratory, and the eucharist would not have been celebrated there). So they brought in this stand-up desk, flattened it and lowered the top as far as it would go, and used it for the altar. So it was from this extraordinary piece of Victorian furniture that he received his first Holy Communion as a Catholic. Out of reverence for this sacred moment, he never used it as a desk again.

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the absent presence by rummenigge.

Tilda Swinton in The Absent Present

We had a good discussion in class this week about human identity. I was pushing Sartre’s line that identity is fluid and open-ended. He accepts that there is a great deal of ‘facticity’ about every life, that in once sense we have an ‘essence’. But he emphasises our ability to go beyond this and re-make ourselves, often in ways that can’t be predicted. We always make these life-choices in the context of who we have become, but this context does not completely determine us.

Some of the students disagreed. They thought I was downplaying the elements of continuity: the fact that a human being is always the same person, that there is an underlying core of human identity that can’t be changed at a whim.

I half-agreed. There is a physiological continuity, and (usually, but not always) some continuity of memory and experience. And from a Christian philosophical perspective I’d want to talk about the spiritual unity of the person constituted by the soul. But it is striking how many of the elements that in ordinary conversation we use as markers of identity can be changed: name, job, vocation, marital status, nationality, etc. I wasn’t arguing that it is always good to reshape your present identity rather than making a renewed commitment to it, simply that it is often possible. Another word for all this is ‘conversion’.

I came across these words this afternoon from a recent interview with Tilda Swinton:

I think that the simple question of identity is probably the subject that interests me most often when looking for stories about people’s experiences. It always intrigues me that there could be any doubt about the inevitable mutability of human identity: that people encourage themselves to pick a shape of existence and stick to it, come what may, ad infinitum. It’s always occurred to me since I was very young that change is inevitable and that evolution depends upon it. I think that being resistant to one’s inexorable mutations, let alone one’s ability to live simultaneously multifaceted lines, is a serious and sad mistake. [Curzon No.19, p28]

Sartre wouldn’t agree that these mutations are ‘inexorable’, because this suggests that even the changes are in fact pre-determined.

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I had an article published this weekend about the faith of Jean-Paul Sartre — his nominally Catholic upbringing, his atheistic philosophy, and the subtle shifts that took place in his thinking towards the end of his life.

Jean Paul Sartre y Simone de Beauvoir (lomo) by OscarDC.

The tomb of Sartre and de Beauvoir at the Cimetière du Montparnasse

I can’t copy it all here, but here are a few lines about his early life:

Sartre was a Catholic. His mother didn’t have a strong faith, but she had him baptised. When his father died – Sartre was only 15 months old – he and his mother went to live with her parents. Sartre’s maternal grandmother was more involved with her faith, so there was some rhythm of church attendance and Mass-going for the young boy. He remembered the feeling that God was watching him all the time, especially when he was naughty; and the pain in his knees when he was forced to kneel in church.

But God gradually drifted out of his consciousness, and religious indifferentism became the background to his growing up. By the time of his famous lecture at the Club Maintenant in 1945 he could say ‘existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position’. Much of this was posturing: he softens this statement in the lines that follow. Yet there is no doubt about the powerful and largely negative influence he had on the faith of many young Catholics in this period. I admire much of Sartre’s philosophy, but I am not naïve enough to think that his words or his lifestyle were simply a force for good in post-war European society.

Sartre was a notorious atheist, attacking a particular conception of God. It’s a shame that he didn’t go deeper in his exploration of how God was understood in the tradition of Christian philosophy and theology:

He had plenty of opportunities for discussion over the years. Catholic heavy-weights like Marcel, Maritain and Gilson were in dialogue with existentialism. Stalag XIID, his prisoner of war camp, was full of French priests, some of them serious thinkers. He gravitated to them as fellow intellectuals. They taught him Gregorian chant, and he gave them talks on Heidegger. If only it had been the other way round, and he had had a few existentialist drinking songs up his sleeve, to sing in exchange for some lectures on Aquinas’s understanding of God as Pure Act.

There were nevertheless some shifts that took place later in his life:

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.

In these final philosophical reflections Sartre seems to repudiate much of his life’s work and embrace ideas such as the need for an objective morality, the transcendent end of the human person, and a quasi-messianic notion of how society can find perfection. When pressed, he insisted that these conversations did indeed express his opinions, and that they were not foisted upon him by Lévy.

I stayed in Paris for a French course a few years ago and went to visit his grave. He’s buried, now joined by Simone de Beauvoir, in the Montparnasse cemetery. I prayed for them both. I knew the story of a death-bed conversion was just a myth, but I also knew about the intellectual movement that went on in those later years. It gave me enough grounds to hope that he might, just possibly, have been open to the Lord’s mercy at the very end of his life, as he went to meet the One he had denied so many times. [The Tablet, 20 Feb 2010]

stalag xii d by duesentrieb.

Stalag XIID - the prisoner of war camp where Sartre conversed with many French priests

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Bullying by aeneastudio.I’d heard about these schemes that bring criminals face to face with their victims. I’d never given them much thought.

Gavin Knight writes about the work of David Kennedy, an academic at Harvard who helped to develop Operation Ceasefire in the US. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Boston was gripped by an epidemic of gang-related violence. The instinct of the police and courts was to come down as heavy as possible on those who were caught.

Kennedy suggested a different approach: talk to them; make them think about the reasons for their actions; show them the consequences of their behaviour — for their own lives and for the lives of those they had harmed; and help them to see that deep down they wanted something else, something better.

It’s an Aristotelian approach to moral reasoning: look at the ‘end’, the consequences — above all the consequences for you as a person — and reflect on whether this is what you really want. In the hard-edged context of gang violence it sounds idealistic and even naive. But apparently it worked:

He summoned gang members to face-to-face forums—“call-ins”—which they could be compelled to attend as a condition of parole. The first was in Boston in May 1996, with a second in September that year. In the call-ins, gang members were not treated like psychopaths but rational adults. It was businesslike and civil. The object was explicit moral engagement. They were told what they were doing was causing huge damage to their families and communities and that the violence must stop. The police said that any further violence would result in the whole group being punished. In emotional appeals, members of the community, victims’ relatives and ex-offenders spoke about the consequences of gang violence. And youth workers said that if they wanted out of the gang life they would be given help with jobs, housing, training and addiction problems…

In the call-ins Kennedy aimed to show that the street-code was nonsense. Gang members were challenged about using violence to avenge disrespect. They were told about a drive-by shooting where a 13-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet. “Who thinks it is OK to kill 13-year-old girls?” they were asked. To counter the belief in loyalty they were given examples of gang members fighting among themselves. They were asked: “Will your friends visit you in prison? How long will it take your friends to sleep with your girlfriend when you’re in jail?” One gang member called out: “Two days. And it was my cousin.” One by one, the rules of the street were dismantled…

Ceasefire challenged the orthodoxy of traditional enforcement. It questioned whether enforcement and criminal justice were effective deterrents. Old-school cops were stunned that a group of drugged-out killers could be influenced by moral reasoning. Criminologists were confounded that homicide, a personal crime often committed on impulse, could be stopped simply by asking. It sparked a vigorous discussion amongst academics who could not believe the results.

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map — nov 28 by theogeo.

Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.

First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:

One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.

Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.

Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”

Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.

The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.

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