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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Of Kindness and Unkindness

The value of kindness is often under-rated. We all know how a small gesture of courtesy, a thoughtful remembrance of something important to us, a smile, a word, can transform our day from bleakness to sunshine. The opposite is true of unkindness. A harsh word, a contemptuous gesture, can leave us feeling diminished. One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the way in which the online world often seems to give free rein to unkindness. Even on this blog you will find a few comments that are deliberately rude and provocative, as though giving offence were somehow the measure of independence of mind (it isn’t). Yesterday I ‘listened in’ to one or two Twitter conversations prompted by Dr Meriam Ibrahim Ishaq’s case. What struck me forcibly was the number of people who used this poor woman’s plight as an opportunity to be rude and belittling about religion. There was no attempt at argument. It was like children saying, ‘ya, boo and sucks!’ — only the people doing the name-calling were not children. They were adults, many of them with university degrees and presumably some degree of intelligence.

We can rationalise such behaviour by saying that, if one believes something to be absurd, treating it with contempt simply underlines its absurdity. Possibly, though I myself would argue that to ridicule successfully one must be really witty. ‘Force without mind falls by its own weight,’ and I’m sorry to say there are many instances of that to be found online. The horrible insults and threats to which Professor Mary Beard and others have been subject are not merely examples of a particularly nasty misogyny, they are also the result of the two big dangers of the internet: its anonymity and immediacy. Some people hide behind the shield of anonymity. Others are a little too prompt to express their views. I have sometimes written things I wished I hadn’t in the heat of the moment or expressed myself clumsily when a little more thought and time might have spared both the reader and me some pain. But deliberate unkindness? No, I don’t think I have been guilty of that; so where does it come from?

This morning I read a sad little message on Facebook from a FB friend who has an advanced cancer. Yesterday he informed all of us via a status update that the tumours are still growing and unless the next round of chemotherapy can achieve something, the prognosis is poor. It was honest, brief, and to the point. But he was accused by some of ‘sympathy seeking’ and rubbished. To me, that smacks of cruelty, but I think it is a cruelty born of fear. Did my FB friend tap into a little reservoir of fear in his reader that led to that explosion? Was it his cancer, or the other’s fear of cancer that called forth the resposne?

I think those of us who are Christians have a duty to watch our behaviour online with particular care. We can build up or tear down. To be kind, to attempt to lessen the world’s pain rather than adding to it, may not attract much notice, may not make us ‘big names’ but it is surely worthwhile. Jesus in the gospel calls us his friends ‘if you do as I command you’. Loving as he loved means loving in all the little, everyday things of life, often in simple, human kindness rather than in huge, dramatic sacrifices. We may be mocked for it, but wouldn’t it be better to be mocked for being kind than condemned for its opposite?

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Vanity Twitter

If follower numbers were an index of wisdom or virtue, Twitter would produce some very strange results. I’m not sure why some people are so anxious to obtain ‘followers’. If anyone tweets a request that I should follow them, I usually ignore it on the grounds that anyone so blatantly clamouring for attention is more likely to be a ‘broadcaster’ than a ‘dialoguer’. In any case, I don’t follow as many people as currently follow me for the simple reason that it would be a physical impossibility. I try to follow people with different backgrounds, interests and opinions from my own, as well as those who are particularly knowledgeable and engaging on topics that interest me. So what is vanity Twitter, and why am I unenthusiastic about it?

Vanity Twitter is all about me, my interests, and my business (frequently, especially my business). The vain tweeter will read everything he/she can about how to build follower numbers and will ruthlessly exploit every known technique for doing so (often dreamed up by other like-minded tweeters). In addition, the vain tweeter is a master of the art(?) of the self-promotional tweet and subjects us to a never-ending stream of unwanted information about his/her wonderful achievements, ‘motivational quotes’ and so on. Dialogue, there is not. Unfortunately, religion is not exempt from this kind of vanity Twitter, although it is usually given a gloss of gratitude for graces received.  At base, however, it is as frothy and empty as any other kind of vanity Twitter, and because it does not really engage with other people*, I wonder whether it can achieve anything of substance.

Are you a vain tweeter, or do you try to use Twitter to engage with others? What have you learned from using Twitter? Have you any tips to share? Do you think religion is a difficult subject to explore on Twitter? Over to you.

• I think the @pontifex account does Twitter rather well, despite what I say above. The pope cannot engage with others on Twitter as you and I can because of the sheer numbers involved.

 

 

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Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

 

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God’s Laughter

Yesterday my friend Richard Littledale and I had a brief Twittervation (conversation on Twitter) about the Book of Jonah (Richard is writing a book on Jonah, which I’m sure will be well worth reading). I mentioned the humour in Jonah as an echo of God’s laughter, and that has inspired today’s post.

God teases Jonah from start to finish, but it is the loving, gentle teasing of one who wants to rescue Jonah from his own stupidity. Jonah’s attempt to flee God was never going to succeed, but being swallowed by a big fish then vomited on the seashore must have wounded his dignity. All the same, his preaching must have been effective, because even the animals in Nineveh don sackcloth in response to his warning! Only, the Lord does not destroy Nineveh as he has forewarned, so Jonah goes off in a huff then has a misunderstanding about the castor oil plant which gives him shade from the sun. Finally God questions him about his right to be compassionate to all those people ‘who do not know their left hand from their right’. God’s laughter is gentle, but it is very, very eloquent.

There are other passages in the Bible where we catch the sound of God laughing. When God and Moses argue about the backslidings of the Israelites, there is a distinct touch of argy bargy: ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt’; ‘your people whom you led out of Egypt.’ It sounds like two parents disowning their offspring to one another. And in the gospels we find Jesus teasing his disciples again and again, especially poor Peter who is always misunderstanding (thank God for Peter, he gives us hope!) Jesus responded to humour in others: the Syro-Phoenician woman won him over by her quick-witted rejoinder about house-dogs eating scraps from the table.

Perhaps we have made religion in England too serious and not allowed God’s laughter to prick our self-importance as we should. There is a laughter that is destructive. We need to avoid that, but as we get closer to Holy Week, it does not hurt to remember that it is the whole person who is redeemed, not just the ‘religious’ bits.  Our antics must make God smile. It may be too anthropomorphic for some, but I trust that when we reach our final destination, purified by purgatory, we shall be greeted with a huge smile and, quite possibly, a great laugh.

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O Adonai: the holiness of God

O Adonai, et Dux domus Israel, qui Moysi in igne flammæ rubi apparuisti, et ei in Sina legem dedisti: veni ad redimendum nos in brachio extento.

O Adonai, and Ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, and gave him the Law on Sinai, come to redeem us with outstretched arm.
 

I suggest we read Exodus 3; Isaiah 11:4-5; Isaiah 33:22 and spend a few moments thinking about the holiness of God.

Recently, I’ve had people ticking me off for various things. One which comes up again and again has to do with what, in the ticker-offer’s view, religion should be about. For example, a number of people took me to task yesterday for being critical of David Cameron’s ‘vaguely practising’ Christian. Quite apart from the fact that, rightly or wrongly, I suspect a political agenda was being piggy-backed onto faith and that some of the Prime Minister’s other statements are difficult to square with a Catholic understanding of Christianity (redefining marriage, for example), what really stung me was the idea that God is rather like the ‘poor relation’ who is indulged with a remembrance at Christmas and ignored at other times.

That is not the God of infinite holiness in whom I believe, the God whose presence makes the whole earth holy ground and whose glory blazes forth from all that is. Religion can, indeed, be a great comfort but it is more often, in my experience, anything but comfortable. The holiness of God sears the soul. It is no accident that God is likened in the Old Testament to refining fire, that the Letter to the Hebrews describes God as a consuming fire, to obey whom is life, to disobey whom means death. God is infinite Love and Compassion, our Saviour and Redeemer, yes, but he is also infinite Holiness: the Mystery at the heart of being whom we adore and whom we await in his coming as Man at Christmas.

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Religion and the Internet: a post conference view

Those of us who took part in the Faith 2.0 Religion and the Internet Conference at the RSA yesterday will each of us have carried away different memories of the event. I’m sure that (nearly?) everyone found it immensely worthwhile. It was great to be able to share what was happening in the auditorium with people around the world via the excellent livestream, and the organizers (Durham University and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) are to be congratulated on their meticulous planning and attention to detail to ensure that everyone was looked after with real kindness.

There was, I think, a tremendous affirmation of the importance of real, face-to-face encounter alongside online or virtual meetings. As I travelled back, I could not help thinking that the internet has unleashed a power we haven’t yet truly understood. Like printing, it enables us to communicate more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Like nuclear fission, it can generate both heat and light. It is an energy, a force, and we are privileged to be shapers of what it will become and how it will be used. Perhaps we need another conference, not about how the internet can serve religion, but how religion can serve the internet to ensure that its power is used for good and peaceful purposes.

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Standing in Another’s Shoes

Two snippets of news mentioned by the BBC almost in passing: the murderer of Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, was applauded and showered with rose petals when he appeared in court; in Egypt, people are being encouraged to attack Christian churches on the eve of the Coptic Christmas (7 January). Most people in Britain probably feel sick at the prospect: we don’t glorify violence unless it is somehow “sanitized” by being part of a war in defence of  some good or other.

Possibly both the death of Mr Taseer and the threatened attacks on Egyptian Christians are seen as a holy war in defence of Islam, but before we assume that religious extremism is the sole motivation, we should consider the highly volatile political situation in both countries. Neither Pakistan nor Egypt is a western democracy; neither functions as we would expect a western country to do. In the west religion is often ignored or treated as a figure of fun. Not so in Pakistan or Egypt.

The marginalisation of religion in the west has consequences we are only just beginning to recognize. Our assumptions about human rights and human dignity are not necessarily shared by those who view the world from a different religious perspective. Maybe our own indifference to religion makes it harder for us to understand and therefore engage with the people of Pakistan or Egypt. Standing in another’s shoes is something we all need to do more often.

Podcasts

iTunes has finally approved our podcast stream after we moved the feed to Audioboo. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sorting out our podcast collection and begin a new series. Thank you to all who offered help and advice, and especially those who tackled Apple on our behalf. To find our podcasts on iTunes, look for iBenedictines.

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