Thinking Aloud About Truth

‘”What is truth?” said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.’ Those words of Francis Bacon have always made me uncomfortable. Truth is often challenged by those who don’t want to accept its demands. Ridicule, impatience, sarcasm — they are all ways of avoiding that which unsettles us. They provide us with the illusion of power and control, but it is an illusion. Truth has a way of undermining the egotistical edifices we try to build. We cannot hide from truth for very long. When Jesus assures his followers that he will send another Advocate to be with them for ever, the Spirit of Truth whom the world cannot receive, he knows very well what he is doing. He is sending the Holy Spirit, tongued with fire, to cleanse, illumine and transform us, so that henceforth we may live in the light as truthful beings, freed from the fear that makes us hide away in darkness and subterfuges. He is promising us Truth himself, but that is not a promise many of us are very comfortable with. We actually prefer lurking in the shadows to being exposed to the light.

To many people, however, this idea of divine truth — all-powerful, transcendent, compelling — is utter nonsense. Truth is not an absolute but something that may be manipulated/adapted for other ends. We embrace just enough of it to obtain some advantage or avoid some unpleasantness. We have, in effect, privatised the concept of truth. It is not uncommon to hear someone talking about ‘my truth’ or ‘being true to myself’ when what they really mean, I think, is ‘that which I am prepared to accept as true, a highly personal and individual, possibly even individualistic, interpretation’. Granted, it is impossible for a human being to be completely objective (we still need our own brains to think with, our own senses to receive information from the world about us, no matter how hard we try to lay aside our prejudices and predilections) so, inevitably, our apprehension of truth must always be partial; but the fact that our apprehension is partial does not mean that truth itself is changed thereby.

Some of the current debate about being spiritual versus being religious and the idea that one can do what one likes provided it doesn’t hurt (or appear to hurt) anyone else is based on, or at any rate highly influenced by, this privatised idea of truth. A private truth, if such a thing can be said to exist, can make no public demands, cannot have a social consequence except in a very limited and imperfect way. The Christian understanding of truth as a moral imperative as well as a philosophical concept is, by contrast, very public and very social. We are obliged to act in certain ways. To do otherwise would be to deny not just a private conviction but God himself. It is that difference in understanding that makes it increasingly difficult for those who have no religion to understand where the religious are coming from. Sometimes it makes it difficult for the religious, too.

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Questions No One Wants to Ask

The breaking-up of a paedophile ring that live-streamed child abuse from the Philippines has been greeted with a mixture of horror and relief — horror that such wickedness can exist, relief that at least one ring has been smashed. We read of the systematic abuse of adolescents in Peterborough, including a girl with learning difficulties, and react with revulsion at the brutality and exploitation involved. Elsewhere we note the historic abuse cases being tried in our courts, the suggestion that nearly 1,000 teachers have been involved in sexual relationships with pupils during the past five years, and wonder how we could have gone so wrong. But then we turn to the popular press and read the endless speculation about François Hollande and his mistress or look at the figures for internet porn and realise it is all part of the same confused approach to life. The sexual wrongdoing of others is something we can condemn, make jokes about or vicariously ‘enjoy’. What we do is another matter entirely. Or is it?

There is often a kind of double-think involved in our attitudes. By separating love and sex, by pretending it doesn’t matter what we do provided no one gets hurt (the hurt being determined by us, not the other), by believing we can pretty much do what we like without its having any consequences, by avoiding commitment and fighting shy of words like ‘fidelity’ and ‘sacrifice’, we have made monsters of ourselves. Most people live good and decent lives, but even the best may acknowledge a few grey areas where their ideals become a little frayed. That is where we need to ask ourselves the questions no one wants to ask. What is the point of parents worrying about their children’s exposure to porn if they themselves watch porn when the children are in bed? What is the point of condemning exploitative relationships in others if we ourselves exploit people? What is the point of expecting others to be virtuous if we ourselves choose to be vicious?

You may think I have been harsh in the way I have framed these questions, but I think it must be becoming clear to everyone that we face a serious weakening of the mutuality of society.*  I myself think that our contempt for the human person, for the human body, is part and parcel of it. We have a double-standard about sex no less dangerous than the one it is fashionable to accuse our Victorian forebears of having. We seem to be keener on the right to die than the right to live, on personal ‘freedom’ than on communal solidarity. In short, we are confused, and it is taking a terrible toll on all of us.

*For me, as a Catholic, that mutuality is linked to morality. However, not everyone subscribes to the same understanding of right and wrong, although all of us, Christian or not, have an interest in society and the way in which it functions for the benefit of its members.

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Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

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Are Christians Really Too Moral?

Yesterday I caught a subliminal glimpse of a statement to the effect that Christians have reduced Christianity to morality and forgotten that it is meant to be Good News. Although I think I understand what the author was getting at, it might be fairer to turn the statement on its head and argue that Christians aren’t moral enough. Let me explain.

People sometimes complain that all one ever hears from Christians is a series of negatives: don’t do this, don’t do that, everything you want to do is wrong. Sometimes the complaint is justified. We all know people whose main joy in life seems to be curbing the joy of others. More often, however, the complaint is wide of the mark because it fails to see that the life of virtue is a necessary part of Christianity. The Good News is meant to change our conduct. The problem is that often it doesn’t change it enough.

Many a newcomer to monastic life has a harmless little fantasy about what it will be like ‘inside’. They see themselves floating down Gothic cloisters in a cloud of incense, going straight from the purgative way to the unitive way and living henceforth in a state of mystical ecstasy. Then they discover that there seems to be an awful lot of washing-up and getting on with difficult and sometimes disagreeable people which no amount of Gothic or incense can make up for. It is now that they must begin to learn what it means to be a monk or nun; that the ‘yes’ to God spoken neat in prayer must take concrete form among the pots and pipkins of everyday life.

There is no opposition between mysticism (if you must use that term) and morality: they are two expressions of the same experience of God. The deeper our knowledge and experience of God, the greater will be our love and desire to live a life pleasing to him in every detail. That inevitably involves morality, distinguishing between good and bad, right and wrong. But it also calls for charity and commonsense. Being a killjoy isn’t being moral, though some believe it is. The true mark of morality is joy; and because Christ’s joy is in us, and we are counted among his friends, we shall indeed be transformed — and that must be good news, mustn’t it?

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Envy, Jealousy and the Morality of Money

Envy is wanting what another has and being resentful one doesn’t possess whatever it is oneself; jealousy is wanting what another has and not wanting anyone else to possess it if it cannot be one’s own. That simple definition would never pass muster with a dictionary-maker, but I think it highlights an important distinction between the two: envy is not very nice; jealousy is plain nasty.

Politicians are adept at appealing to our envious tendencies. David Cameron’s latest pronouncement on tax avoidance may well backfire, but for the moment it is grabbing headlines. Jimmy Carr is richer than most of us will ever be. Stoking up public opinion against him (or more correctly, his accountant and tax lawyer, surely) is easy. Suggest a little moral outrage into the bargain, and once again you have a potential vote-winner on your hands.

The trouble is, life is not so simple. Mr Cameron is taking a calculated risk. What if envy becomes jealousy? Next in the firing-line may be political donors (again), millionaire members of the Cabinet (again), even perhaps M.P.s expenses (again). We are particularly sensitive to the ‘morality of money’. Bankers’ bonuses, chief executives’ pay and benefits, they are all under the spotlight of public examination at the moment, and, as you might expect, those who have less are not convinced that others need more, or at any rate, not so much more. One reason the doctors’ day of action hasn’t gained much popular support is that doctors’ salaries and pension schemes look very generous by most people’s standards.

Is there a knee-jerk quality to all this? Are we really thinking through the bases on which we make decisions about pay and salaries? In a monastery goods are apportioned according to need, which it is for the abbot to determine. Those who need less are not to grumble or be downcast; those who need more are not to become puffed up at the mercy shown them. That wouldn’t work in secular society, for we could never agree who should decide, still less agree the degree of need. There is one idea we could take from Benedict, however, and apply to our discussion of salaries and rewards: accepting responsibility for our own actions and the effect they have on others.

We cannot change how other people regard money; we cannot make others honest; but we can be honest ourselves; we can be generous ourselves. We sometimes lose sight of what we actually do with what we earn. The man or woman earning millions may be spending it all on self-indulgence, or they may be giving their wealth away in order to help others. Envy can easily become jealousy, almost without our being aware of it, and when it does, we lose the good along with the bad. Is that a risk worth taking?

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O Oriens: light for our darkness

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

Let us read through Isaiah 9.2; Luke 1.9; Zech 6.12-13; Heb 1.3; Malachi 4.2 and the Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14-18 (alternative for the day) and Luke 1.39-45, then listen to the antiphon:

This is the shortest day of the year, a day of darkness. All around there is a sense of political, economic and moral darkness, too. We read of the loss of lives in Syria, the effect of tropical storms in the Philippines, the fear that the work of scientists on swine ‘flu could be subverted to terrorist ends, the death of small children the world over because they don’t have clean water to drink. Beside all this our own the anxiety about the Eurozone and the economic structures of the west looks a little indecent, yet we know that for many it means the difference between a job and no job. It is into the heart of this darkness and uncertainty that the gospel comes as light and life. How often do we receive the gospel as Good News? How often do we welcome the coming of God as cause for celebration? Does the birth we look forward to at Christmas makes us want to sing and dance for joy at the nearness of our God? Are we prepared for what that birth demands, the risks we shall be called upon to take? Many of us, I suspect, prefer the dimness of the familiar and safe to the brilliance of the unexpected.

Tonight as we sing the Magnificat antiphon, hailing Christ as Splendour of Eternal Light and Sun of Justice, we shall be reminded that we are children of light, not creatures of darkness. As Christians we are, so to say, professional risk-takers, ready to be light-bearers in any and every situation. It requires effort, of course, just as it required effort on Mary’s part to be a Light-bearer to Elizabeth; but only so can our prayer embrace the whole human race, ‘Come and free those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.’

A little bit of pedantry
It may spare us a few comments from those who wish to point out that the winter solstice occurs at 5.30 a.m. on 22 December if I remind everyone that liturgically the day runs from evening to evening; so the day that begins at Vespers tonight, embracing as it does the winter solstice, is the shortest liturgical day of the year. I myself would say, let’s not get too hung up on these details: the truth of Christ’s lightening our darkness is what the liturgy celebrates and makes clear.

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Gaddafi Reconsidered

Earlier this year I blogged about tyranny and the Gaddafi regime. You can find the post here. I haven’t changed my opinion about the legitimacy of resisting tyranny, but this morning I find myself considering another problem, one that has been prompted by the expressions of glee and horrifying photos circulating on the internet. There is something not quite right about what is going on: ‘Every man’s death diminishes me.’ True, but it is more than that. As a Catholic, I believe that praying for the dead, ALL the dead, is a sacred duty because we share a common humanity and because, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all children of the one Father.

Gaddafi alive was monstrous; Gaddafi dead is pathetic. If we forget our own humanity in face of that, what hope is there for us?

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The Treasures of the Church

St Lawrence, one of the seven deacons of Rome martyred during the persecution of Valerian and whose feast we keep today, was a very modern kind of churchman. When asked for the treasures of the Church, he pointed to the poor. I was reminded of this yesterday when accosted by a fellow shopper in Sainsbury’s. Inevitably, the conversation turned to how rich the Catholic Church is (it’s either that or paedophilia these days) and how surprised she was that we are struggling to afford more permanent premises. It is perfectly true that some parts of the Church are very rich in material terms; it is also true that if one looks for examples of excess and irresponsibility, one will find them (one will not have to search very hard: a misplaced sense of entitlement bedevils certain areas); but the real wealth of the Church is always the People of God, among whom the poor hold  a very special place. St Lawrence was absolutely right about that.

Unfortunately, such sentiments can be a sop to the rich, reassuring us that we honour (and occasionally help) the poor in ways God would approve. The poor are special. We know that, we say that. Bully for us. We are the do-gooders; the poor are the done-to; and God is tremendously pleased with us for our generosity and kindness. It is, of course, the other way round. We who share material resources with the less fortunate are the people who receive a blessing from the poor. It is they who are the givers, we who are the receivers. That can make us uncomfortable, because we all like to believe that we are a little nobler than we actually are. I fear there can be no grounds for complacency, still less for pride. The treasures of the Church are indeed the poor, and comparatively few living in the west can count themselves among them.

Every evening at Vespers the Church sings Esurientes implevit bonis; et divites dimissit inanes ‘He has filled the hungry with good things, sent the rich away empty.’ They are words worth pondering. I don’t think any of us will lie on our death-beds fretting that we didn’t acquire more money, but we may be troubled about how we spent it.

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Edith Stein, Mob Violence and the Absence of a Moral Compass

Today is the feast of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, better known as Edith Stein. It is also a day when Britain is again in shock. The idea of mob violence, torching and looting in some of our major cities is hard to get one’s head round. Life in Britain is meant to be predictable and ‘safe’. The police are armed only in exceptional circumstances. We respect people; we respect property; we form orderly queues; we don’t think the death penalty has any part to play in civilized society. But our civilized society isn’t proving very civilized at present.

For an older generation, there are echoes of the 1930s. The Nazis rose to power because they had a ‘solution’ to the apparent disintegration of German society after the First World War. Violence, as we all know, was part of that ‘solution’. It meant the death of St Teresa Benedicta and her sister, Rose, and millions of others besides. No doubt, following the riots in London and elsewhere, there will be calls for ‘crackdowns’, appeals to ‘bring back flogging’ and other variations on the theme. Extremist parties will win votes because people are afraid, while others will speak of the rioters as ‘deprived’ and ‘frustrated’. Very few will have the courage to address the real problem, that of growing up without a moral compass, without a set of values that recognizes the need to observe the laws and customs by which society operates.

What we are seeing in our streets is not a protest movement, nor is it the result of poverty (to say so is to insult the poor). It is sheer criminality: violence and greed running unchecked. It is indefensible. Today our prayers are for all who have suffered as a result of the riots, which includes the rioters themselves. They are prayers for peace and the restoration of order; but let us not forget to ask the prayers of St Teresa Benedicta to preserve us from  the destruction of the tolerance and mutual concern which underlie a civilized society. She understands better than most where the violence could lead.

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Cannibal Cups and our Squeamish Sensibility

The BBC has highlighted the fact that our Cro-Magnon ancestors were not only opportunistic cannibals but apparently dab hands at turning left-over skulls into carefully crafted drinking vessels (see http://bbc.in/idMRaK). Skull cups are found in many traditions but, by and large, we thoroughly modern people find the idea of drinking from a dead person’s cranium rather repellant.

Our squeamishness does not extend to some aspects of contemporary life which, if we could think about them with the kind of distance time lends, might not be so acceptable: abortion, napalm bombs, land-mines, to name but a few. The one thing these have in common is a very ambivalent attitude to human life, with some lives being valued above others. Once we let go of the idea that all life is sacred, that my life is worth neither more nor less than yours, then I think we get into a moral quagmire with no firm footing.

Looking at those Cro-Magnon drinking cups, I can’t help feeling that there was a strange kind of reverence involved in their fashioning. Maybe our problem is that our power to kill and destroy is so great that we dare not consider what we are doing. Our squeamish sensibility protects us from facing up to the consequences of what we do. Sadly, it also deadens our sense of reverence.

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