Monday, September 23, 2013

Afflicting the Comfortable

Rembrandt's Rich Man
I’m going to bang on a bit about religion, if that’s OK. If it’s not, go watch ‘Top Gear’ or something. Now, I don’t normally write blog posts about sermons since most of the time they pass me by like Brutus’ idle wind, which all too often I regard not. I was late for church yesterday, which is not unusual and arrived halfway through the sermon, which meant that I was really, really late and the man in the front was well into his stride.
The great thing about using lectionaries is that you know where you’re supposed to be going and this week the preacher was talking about that curious, impenetrable parable about the 'unjust steward', a canny little tale from Luke 16. It took me a while to figure out where we were, having found just about the last seat in the house right at the back of the gallery. A few minutes in, I was almost regretting coming, because I've never really got the point of the story before and it looked as if all we were going to get was the usual ‘box clever, wily as serpents’ routine. This little story begins with the fact that the steward had wasted resources which didn't belong to him. It then goes on to condone dishonesty, sharp business practice worthy of Alan Sugar, a measure of duplicitousness and a seasoning of forgiveness. Who gave the man authority to forgive debts? Er, nobody. Great public relations - he looked good, the master looked good. But the steward still got fired - a kind of reverse performance related bonus.
But, what outrageous behaviour, but how joyously characteristic. Jesus turns the whole notion of good order and sound practice on its head by even telling the story in the first place. It’s almost as if he really quite enjoyed afflicting the comfortable, taking a poke at the Pharisees, instead of as was more usual, comforting the afflicted.
God's arithmetic isn't like mine. Many religious have a kind of 'weighed-in-the-balance' view about debt - or sin, if you prefer - if we do more good stuff than bad stuff, we'll tip the scales in our favour as if  God is no more than a cosmic bean-counter, with due deference to some of my friends who earn a fat crust from accountancy.
Reading stories like this would suggest that God is more likely to throw the scales across the room and come dancing forward to embrace us. Grace is unfair, profligate, and ridiculous which is why the scribes and Pharisees were almost permanently ticked off. It's lavished on us, whether we deserve it or not. Mostly, we don't.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Fairy Tales

This week marked the opening of a film about Stephen Hawking, premiered at the Cambridge Film Festival. It's a journey through his remarkable life and a testament to what can be achieved in the face of handicaps so profound that most would have collapsed under the weight of them.
I did rather wonder where the swearing-in-church questions were, which were conspicuously absent, according to one reviewer. Hawking's status as a scientist is often spoken of in oracular terms, like Einstein's and Isaac Newton's but one rather wonders if his scientific achievements have been somewhat inflated because of his disability. Others do cosmology equally well - not very many, it has to be said, since the mathematics are impenetrably dense and I have to confess is as far away to me as the edge of the Universe. The idea of n-dimensional spaces with fancifully named abstractions such as M-Theory - the M stands for 'membrane', 'mystery', 'magic'- even 'mother' since it attempts to unite five different string theory proposals, is known to few and understood by even fewer.
A Calabi-Yau membrane. Is this what the Universe looks like?
Some suggest that if completed, the Holy Grail of physics, a theory of everything might emerge with a formula small enough to fit on a T-shirt. Hawking's astonishing achievements lie in the fact that he has the ability to hold phenomenally complex ideas in his short term memory for extended periods since it takes him anything up to half an hour to 'write down' a couple of sentences.
Eight million people bought "A Brief History Of Time". Probably a couple of hundred got further than page twenty-six and almost everybody read the last sentence...

"However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason - for then we should know the mind of God."

Which, of course, is the saving grace of the whole book. We all want to know the mind of God. This from Isaiah 40, 12-15:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
 Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
 Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?

The "who" is rabbinical rhetoric, almost ironic, since the answer is enshrouded in the unknown, the "mind of God".

"I'll be back."
What else, therefore, do we, like the citizens of Nineveh, not know as we do not know our right hand from our left? We do not know about the afterlife, the Hereafter, the journey across the Styx, the tunnels of light, the shouts of welcome on Jordan's further bank as the processor shuts down like the winking, blinking red light of the Terminator's eye as it fades and darkens, and without power, fails to reboot.
A land far away

Most cultures have developed a mythology of continuance after bodily functions cease. Some suggest that it is a fear of oblivion, the darkness and the cold that causes mankind to construct elaborate fantasies, delusional states, predisposed and woven into the fabric of consciousness and reinforced by religious adherence and indoctrination. Others have a sense of transience. It is here that one waits, perhaps. Here is C S Lewis' bus station in a forgotten, rainy, 'grey town', the train terminus or the airport lounge. Later, the arrival of 'here' is somewhere or somewhen else. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov's  suggestion that 'our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness' should be stood on its head. Here is the dark, the light was before it and will be after it. I am therefore guilty of the heresy of not believing that my brain deludes itself into believing instead in the eternality of its owner.

Professor Hawking concluded his biopic with a Q and A, making remark about the afterlife which misses the point, rather:

"It's theoretically possible to copy a brain on to a computer to provide a form of life after death. However, this is way beyond our present capabilities. I think the afterlife is a fairytale for people who are afraid of the dark."

Perhaps he might consider that life in the here and now is a fairytale for those afraid of the light.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Twelve Years

Neglect builds up a debt which ultimately must be repaid. This summer in Paris has been particularly wet and this, together with Gipsy's predisposition for wild horticultural experimentation, plus time spent in the South has turned the garden into a menacing wilderness. Where orderly grass quietly grew, tufts of wild vegetation have rudely sprouted, impenetrably beyond the help of a small manicurist of a mower. To make things worse, my lawnmower has a corroded carburettor and broken fuel pump.  Matters could no longer be delayed and a borrowed, suitably muscular, industrially sized mower has to some extent turned back the tide. 
Which made me think.
Twelve years ago today, everyone remembers where they were, just like when JFK was shot (I was in hospital, having my appendix out) and the night Princess Diana's Mercedes hit a bridge pillar on the Périphérique. I wrote about it, two years ago. Nineteen men hijacked four US passenger planes and flew them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A fourth plane allegedly heading for either Capitol Hill or the White House crashed in a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing all on board. An estimated 3,000 were killed, sixty-seven of them from Britain, and thousands of people were injured. One company lost two-thirds of its workforce and the fires raged for almost one hundred days.
Subsequently, the world has witnessed with a mixture of powerlessness, horror and awe, the endless smaller brush fires which were ignited, from Bali to London , Benghazi and Mali and most recently, Syria, whose only real hope now may be some kind of mandated partition, geographical separation being a last resort alternative to another bloodbath. All in the Name of God. And, to those who suggest that the Syrian conflict is not ideologically based, my response would be that I am astonished by their naiveté. All of this provides compelling evidence to assert that Islam the religion cannot be turned into  the handmaiden of politics. When it does, as we have seen many times since 9/11 with regrettably predictable frequency, it turns into an ugly, violent monster, Islamism, whose defining characteristics are intolerance of others, including fellow-believers, and glorifying violence against all opponents. The strategically right thing to do is to offer help to moderate, rational Muslims who want no part of a theology which defines jihad in terms of bloodshed and conquest.
Islamists are pathologically obsessed with power and are ready to seize it at almost any cost, as Mohammed Morsi's luminously brief career demonstrated. Such power is completely unrelated to Western notions of democracy; its political and legal systems sprang, fully formed, coherent and mature from the pages of the Qu'ran and grandly described as 'the Kingdom of God'. The popular slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood is:  "Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qu'ran is our law. Jihad is our way." The program, the activism and the goal, all packaged in a soundbite that the most slow of wit can learn and follow. Albert Camus once wrote "Politics is not religion but if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition."
The world's political rectitude is on the one hand admirable and on the other, wilfully short-sighted, since it has a tendency to downplay, ignore, neglect or rewrite the lessons of history, much as I myself was guilty of doing as the lawns burgeoned until they were almost out of control. Providing democratic frameworks where Islamists can find refuge is naive at best and suicidal at worst. The very nature of a democracy is to include and give a platform to those whose opinions diverge, sometimes diametrically, from our own. However, if our systems allow and indeed encourage the empowerment of ideologues whose objective is our destruction then we have little alternative but to set in place appropriate mechanisms which ensure our survival. I for one am becoming tired of the pandering, soft-shoe approach which masquerades as tolerance, but our enemies perceive as flabby, decadent weakness. Genuine tolerance implies equality of esteem and Churchill had no such scruples, either. Long before 9/11, he wrote the following:
Winston S Churchill
"Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities – but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome."