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Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

I stole the title of my previous post from Fergus Kerr’s book Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity. It’s a collection of essays about twentieth-century philosophers whose thought, often indirectly, has touched on the human encounter with the transcendent. Kerr is interested in what lies at the very edge of human experience, in those ill-defined questions about origins and meaning and ends that don’t always get asked. It’s the border between philosophy and theology, between reason and faith.

Kerr was a great help to me when I was trying to find a title for my PhD dissertation eleven years ago. I knew I wanted to study in the general area of ‘philosophical anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person. I had some initial ideas about focussing on the notion of the self and second nature in contemporary philosophers like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. But more and more I was drawn to the subject of human freedom, not as a particular capacity or skill, but as a reflection of the extraordinary fact that human nature is open-ended and only incompletely defined; and that some of the defining is – strangely – up to us. We are, to some extent at least, self-creating creatures. The rest, in turns of my academic journey, is history. Or more simply, the rest is Aquinas and Sartre

Here is the publisher’s blurb about Kerr’s book.

Daringly extending the agenda of what is usually considered as ‘philosophy of religion,’ Fergus Kerr argues that more religion exists in modern secular philosophy than many philosophers admit.

Examining much-discussed contemporary philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum, Martin Heidegger, Iris Murdoch, Luce Irigaray, Stanley Cavell, and Charles Taylor, Kerr reads their respective stories in the light of Karl Barth’s notion that “transcending our humanity only makes us more human than ever.”

In Kerr’s view, transcendence-the “immortal longings” of his title-plays a central role in many of these philosophers’ systems of beliefs.

Kerr’s brilliant and long-awaited study shows that the theological content of modern philosophy deserves much more attention than it has received in the past.

And here are some comments from the review in the International Philosophical Quarterly.

What does one carry away from this learned and engaging book? Many specifics: insights, aperçus, and good readings of Nussbaum, Barth, and the rest. This alone would justify a close reading by anyone interested in philosophy of religion or in the religious elements in philosophy.

But there is more. One of the delights of this book is Kerr’s humane presence in the text. Through the text shines a person in a certain attunement toward these issues: an attunement which we can admire and learn from.

But finally Kerr does more than catalog a set of concerns and exemplify an orientation toward them. He has named, and lifted up for our attention, the philosophical career of the central theme of religion: what lies beyond us humans, and how do we stand with regard to it? The two conflicting intuitions-that we are at once somehow intrinsically tied to it and yet alienated from it, that we know it and yet do not-seem perennially present in human self-understanding.

To Kerr we owe thanks not only for showing us some fascinating patterns of commonality in surprising places but also for disclosing the problematic unity underlying those patterns.

It’s well worth a read.

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I’d forgotten what a beautiful collection of paintings there is at the Courtauld Gallery. The tag-line on its website reads ‘one of the finest small museums in the world’; and I can vouch that in my small experience of small museums it comes pretty near the top. Do pay a visit if you have never been (information here). It’s housed in Somerset House on the Strand in central London.

It was the Mondrian-Nicholson exhibition that took me there on Friday. I’ve always enjoyed the Mondrian grid paintings, but I came away with a much greater admiration for Ben Nicholson.

The Mondrian paintings feel like studies, ideas, or speculative essays. They make you think about balance, harmony, relation and discord; how a particular colour and shape relates to another; and there is certainly an aesthetic response. But it feels more like thinking than seeing, as if you are somehow detached from your own experience.

[The two pictures here are not from the current exhibition.]

I think it’s the thickness of the black grid lines. It’s as if Mondrian is saying, ‘I’m telling you how the colours relate’, instead of just letting the relationships speak for themselves. I’m not criticising the project – I’m sure he knew what he was doing. I’m just responding to it.

Nicholson’s geometric abstractions, as well using a greater variety of colours, and daring to incorporate the odd circle here and there, are without the black grid lines; so the patches of colour and space touch each other and seem to grow out of each other. The paintings seem more alive, more organic. They seem to have greater presence.

There is an incredible beauty about two or three of the canvases here, and it helps you to understand the significance of the whole abstract movement in art. The relationship between abstraction and realism is like that between metaphysics and the world. In Nicholson’s geometric paintings you can see what it is for something to be there and not here, to be what it is and not what something else is, to support or oppose or surround or frustrate or liberate or oppress – but all of this now without content. It’s like a dance without the dancers.

It’s not just the art itself that becomes abstract; it’s a means of contemplating in abstraction so much that takes place within human experience and so much that is experienced of the world. One painting took my breath away, and held me there almost in suspension – Painting, Version I, 1938 – heartbroken that it is from an anonymous private collection and I may never see it again in my life. I wish I could find an image to show, but it wouldn’t capture it. You will have to go yourself.

It’s wonderful that the two rooms of this temporary exhibition lead into the small but exquisite selection of early German expressionist paintings in the Courtauld collection. You see artists like Jawlensky and Kandinsky around 1910/11 almost slipping into abstraction, seeing the possibilities of actually breaking free from representation and leaving themselves with form alone – the formality of colour, shape and space. And seeing how much could still be ‘said’ and expressed solely with the formal elements.

It’s just a short step from Kandinsky’s Improvisation on Mohogany, 1910, to the Mondrian-Nicholson paintings of the 1930s next door.

This is the wall commentary from that painting:

By 1910 Kandinsky has developed his art to the brink of abstraction… emphasising the sensation of colour, line and form, freed from their descriptive functions. Here, isolated details can be identified, such as the figure of a woman and the outlines of a walled city to the right. However, the textured patches of brilliant colour generate their own energy and harmony.

So I am now a huge Ben Nicholson fan. Does anyone know where I can see some of his other paintings?

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With London Fashion Week in all the papers last week, it reminded me of these photos I took a few weeks ago in Oxford Street. I passed a shop called Forever 21, and saw these two sleeveless T-shirts, with religious themes blazoned across them, but without any explanation.

What’s going on here? Is it just kitsch – like the pink glitter statues of the Sacred Heart in Paperchase? Is it some kind of irony? Is it a political statement – the meaning of which is lost on me? Is it a non-ironic outreach to Christian believers, recognising that there is a vast and largely untapped market here (probably not)? Is it a Banksy-style stunt by a radical Christian group that snuck past the CCTV and re-dressed the manequins before anyone could notice (apart from me)? Does it mean anything that the cross in the second picture is upside down?

Do comment below, especially if you know something I don’t know about this peculiar campaign. – or if you have one of the T-shirts yourself.

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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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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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There is a long interview in last week’s Observer with Woody Allen by Carole Cadwalladr. The reviews of his latest film are so bad that I don’t think I’ll bother seeing it (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). [Warning: Minor plot spoilers follow]


One of the themes that comes up in the interview, yet again, is Allen’s atheism. I’ve always admired his honesty, and the way he won’t sidestep the starkness implicit in a Godless universe, he won’t offer any facile consolations. Here are his latest reflections, framed by Cadwalladr’s comments:

They are all here [in the film], the familiar subjects of Allen-esque despair. The feeling, as Alvy Singer explains at the beginning of Annie Hall, that life is nasty, brutish and cruel. But also too short. That death dominates life. And that nothing works out, ever. It’s not a film a young man could have made. “No. I wouldn’t have thought of it when I was young. It requires years of disillusionment, this is true,” he says. The only happy characters in the film are the deluded ones, and the more powerfully deluded they are, the happier they seem. Helena, who takes up with a fortune teller and dabbles with the occult, is grinning like a loon by the end of the film.

“But then I’ve always felt that if the delusion works, it’s great. I always think that people who have religious faith are always happier than people who do not. The problem is that it’s not something you can adopt. It has to come naturally.”

There’s a brilliant sequence, which afterwards I think is the possibly the least romantic moment in any film ever, in which Sally, played by Naomi Watts, young, beautiful and trapped in an unhappy marriage, has a moment with her sexy, Spanish boss, Antonio Banderas. He obviously has feelings for her, as she does for him, and if she were a character in any other film, they’d eventually be together. Or maybe apart, but in a doomed, romantic way. Not here, though. It just doesn’t happen, and they end up not together in the most banal of ways: the timing’s off. She hesitates, and he falls in love with her friend instead. She takes consolation in her career but then that’s thwarted too. It’s a level of realism, the everyday realism of everyday life, that rarely reaches the screen.

In Woody Allen’s universe there is no reason why some things happen and others not. His atheism allows no delusions of that kind, but what about age, I ask him? Do you, like Alfie, resist hearing that you’re old?

“I do, I resist. I feel the only way you can get through life is distraction. And you can distract yourself in a million different ways, from turning on the television set and seeing who wins the meaningless soccer game, to going to the movies or listening to music. They’re tricks that I’ve done and that many people do. You create problems in your life and it seems to the outside observer that you are self-destructive and it’s foolish. But you’re creating them because they’re not mortal problems. They are problems that can be solved, or they can’t be solved, and they’re a little painful, perhaps, but they are not going to take your life away.”

“Life is so much luck. And people are so frightened to admit that. They want to think that they control their life. They think ‘I make my luck’. And you want to keep telling yourself that you’re in control, but you’re not in control. Ninety-nine per cent of it is luck, the luck of the genes, the luck of the draw, what happens during the day, the bomb that goes off on the other guy’s bus.”

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Some of our seminarians at a recent ordination

We are now two weeks into the new academic year at the seminary. Westminster Diocese has just put out a press release about the rise in priestly vocations at Allen Hall over the last few years: 

Eleven men have started studying for the Catholic priesthood at the start of the 2010–2011 academic year at Allen Hall, the Diocese of Westminster’s seminary in London. The new intake of eleven new seminarians brings the number of men preparing for the priesthood at Allen Hall to 46. This number includes men who are preparing to become priests in Westminster diocese and other English and overseas dioceses, including Lancaster, Nottingham and Helsinki, as well as religious orders, including the Salvatorians, Passionists and Norbertines. 

There are now 33 men preparing for the priesthood for the Diocese of Westminster. Eight men started this September with three studying at Allen Hall, three at Vallodolid, Spain, one at the Beda College in Rome and one at the Venerable English College in Rome. 

The statistics for the last few years for Allen Hall are given in a footnote (I’ve added this year’s figure): 

Number of men studying at Allen Hall seminary at the start of academic years since 2002: 2010 – 46, 2009 – 45, 2008 – 43, 2007 – 40, 2006 – 37, 2005 – 31, 2004 – 32, 2003 – 34, 2002 – 33. 

It’s interesting to compare this with figures from the National Office for Vocations of men entering seminary in England and Wales over the last three decades (although I’m not sure if this means ‘in England and Wales’ or ‘for the dioceses of England and Wales’ – which would include those studying in Spain and Rome). You can see a graph here (scroll down), which shows how from a peak in 1985 (156 entrants), to a trough in 2000 (only 22 entrants), things have been slowly picking up (the average over the last four years has been about 40).

And the global picture is also healthy. The most recent reliable Vatican statistics are from the end of 2008:

The Vatican said the number of Catholics reached 1.166 billion, an increase of 19 million, or 1.7 percent, from the end of 2007. During the same period, Catholics as a percentage of the global population grew from 17.33 percent to 17.4 percent, it said.

The number of priests stood at 409,166, an increase of 1,142 from the end of 2007. Since the year 2000, the Vatican said, the number of priests has increased by nearly 4,000, or about 1 percent.

Looking at the way priests are distributed around the world, it said: 47.1 percent were in Europe, 30 percent in the Americas, 13.2 percent in Asia, 8.7 percent in Africa and 1.2 percent in Oceania.

The number of seminarians around the world rose from 115,919 at the end of 2007 to 117,024 at the end of 2008, an increase of more than 1 percent, it said.

The increase in seminarians varied geographically: Africa showed an increase of 3.6 percent, Asia an increase of 4.4 percent, and Oceania an increase of 6.5 percent, while Europe had a decrease of 4.3 percent and the Americas remained about the same.

There is a good article on the BBC website with interviews with seminarians and former-seminarians, and these comments from Fr Stephen Langridge giving some historical perspective. 

Father Stephen Langridge, chairman of England and Wales’ vocations directors, says there was a boom in the number of vocations in the aftermath of World War II compared with the 1920s. He says there was another rise in men entering seminaries following the visit of Pope John Paul in 1982. Figures from the National Office for Vocations show this peaking at 156 in 1985 before falling to a low of 22 in 2001. But over the past five years numbers have steadied at about 40 per year.

Fr Langridge says England has been used to a relatively high concentration of priests compared to other countries – about one for every 350 parishioners. But the fall in vocations since the 1980s means a priest in a parish may now be responsible for two or three smaller churches.

In an attempt to address the shortfall, in recent years the Church has changed its recruitment strategy. Instead of simply asking people to become priests, they now encourage Catholics to pray and discern what God wants them to do. Marriage is also viewed as a vocation, which helps keep people’s minds open to hear a call to the priesthood instead.

Fr Langridge explains: “That means a youngster who’d always thought about marriage, perhaps in the stillness of their prayer suddenly thinks, ‘perhaps there’s something else.’ So the seed of a priestly vocation is sown in that way.”

However you look at it, there was some kind of bottoming out around 2000; and now, both nationally and internationally, the numbers of those in formation for the priesthood is on the rise. 

These are long term trends. I wonder if there will be a short term ‘Benedict bounce’ in our own country.

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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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Yes, it’s just an advert for John Lewis. Yes, it’s just an audacious example of product placement. Yes, it’s a particularly unreconstructed fantasy of middle-class domestic life. But it’s beautiful.

To see a human life glide past you in less than two minutes – from the baby being lifted out of the cot, right through to the grandmother walking through the park with her elderly husband and grandchildren. With so many significant moments in between, choreographed and edited so that it seems to be a single movement, a single breath. (I just think they lost their nerve at the end by not showing one final scene in the hospital ward.)

It makes you realise how astonishing and beautiful and fleeting life is. It makes you wonder what it all adds up to, what it means, when the very things that seem to give it meaning race past so quickly and soon become lost in the past.

And of course none of this would work without that soundtrack…

If you haven’t seen it, do take a look. Don’t miss the first three seconds in the struggle to adjust the screen:

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Andrew Marr examines three recent sci-fi films (Avatar, District 9, and Surrogates) and draws some conclusions about how people understand themselves in the West.

avatar 阿凡達 阿凡达 by 邪恶的正太.

Avatar image by Juehuayin

He detects a lack of confidence in the whole human project emerging from these films. It’s not just that we face particular problems and are not sure how to overcome them. It’s that we are wondering whether there is any point at all in trying to overcome them. So it’s not the present situation of humankind that is in question, but the very meaning and purpose of being human. “Where there is no vision, the people perish…”

[Plot spoiler coming] It’s interesting that the only way of ‘redemption’ for human beings at the end of Avatar is to renounce being human.

See if you agree with Marr’s assessment:

They are all anxiety films, even hysteria films, but they have a special edge. The bad guys seem to be human beings in general, and our corporate-capitalist system in particular. Avatar self-doubt pits a humanity that has ravaged their home planet against the indigenous blue pixies of the lush Pandora. There are “good humans” of course, a minority of geeky biologists and a disabled man, but we are left in no doubt about the insanely greedy and aggressive tendencies of most of the bipedal inhabitants of grey and battered Earth…

Though they are dark films, they are in a different category from the familiar cheery genre of apocalypse- soon movies, such as the recent (and hilariously awful) 2012. Nor are they like the earlier aliens-are-coming films, from Independence Day to Mars Attacks, in which it’s up to humanity to repel boarders. Indeed, that’s the point; recent film-making has switched the good guys and bad guys around. These films say that humans are greedy, stupid, rapacious and often lazy. They say we are infinitely suggestible, prone to being moulded by corporate interests, and at risk of being captured by our own technology.

They are, in short, films with a strong dose of human self-hatred running through them. This is anger and satire, directed against the main forward thrust of Western life, as mass entertainment…

But I do think the historians of a century ahead, writing about our times, will use the films in our cinemas right now to discuss the decline of the West. They will talk about a radical lack of self-confidence in the project of enlightenment-science-plus-corporate- capitalism, a spectacular loss of nerve. They will observe how fear about the coming “singularity” in computing power, remorse about wars in Asia and environmentalist horror about rainforest destruction and species extinction combined to shake the West’s belief in its destiny. And then they will contrast all that with the brash confidence, even triumphalism, of the Chinese film industry as a set piece contrast in how art imitates life.

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