Thinking about God: the work of Oliver Quick

Longstanding readers of this blog will remember that I used to take Oliver Quickon aspects of religious faith sometimes, from my agnostic Christian standpoint. I have not attempted this recently as it rather distracts from my main mission of tracking the evolution of liberal politics. But it’s Christmas time, and I have recently finished reading this book about the work of the early 20th Century Anglican theologian Oliver Quick (1885-1944). He is my grandfather. Those only interested in my political musings should read no further.

Oliver Chase Quick, to give him his full name, was the son of a priest, Hebert Quick, who made a name for himself in the development of liberal education, but who died in 1891, when Oliver was but 6. His mother, Bertha, daughter of Indian Army officer Chase Parr, lived until 1934. She became an important family figure, holding together the extended family of Quicks, Parrs and Hills (the Shropshire family into which Oliver’s sister, Theodora, married), developing a family bond which has continued until my generation. Oliver went to Harrow school and then Corpus Christi Oxford, where he surprised everybody by only obtaining a third. That put an end to prospects of an immediate academic career, and he was ordained into the Church. He became curate at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in 1914, “then a very dead and empty church,” according to my grandmother; the new vicar, who invited Quick in, was the charismatic Dick Sheppard, who started the church’s now famous outreach to the poor. In 1915 Quick became Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, based mainly at Lambeth Palace. There he met Freda Pearson, secretary to the Archbishop’s wife. They were married at St Martin’s-in-the-Fields in 1917, with the Archbishop, Randall Davidson, presiding. Quick became Canon at Newcastle in 1920, followed by Carlisle (where my mother, Julian, was born), St Paul’s, Durham and finally Christ Church Oxford, where he became Regius Professor of Divinity. He died in 1944 of a progressive heart disease – a condition that would almost certainly be readily treatable these days.

Notwithstanding the setback at the start of his academic career, Quick became probably the foremost Anglican theologian of his day. But his work is now largely forgotten. Understanding why this is the case is a central theme of the book, Oliver Quick and the Quest for a Christian Metaphysic, by Alexander Hughes, Archdeacon of Cambridge. This book is directed at an academic audience, and I do not recommend it to a general readership. Sample chapter head: Theological Prolegomena to Christology. I struggled through it from grandfilial loyalty, but I would not like to suggest that I managed to digest it properly. Still, I found it of enormous interest, and it made more sense as I progressed through it. Quick was a man of his times; his work is now of marginal interest because times have changed.

Those times, of course, where the aftershock of the scientific revolution of the 19th Century, of which Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was only the most spectacular part. The world had previously been understood to be a divine act of will with Man at its centre. Scientific thought transformed it into an incidental speck of dust in a nearly infinite universe, coming about through the action of immutable laws of nature rather than divine caprice. What on earth was orthodox religion to do about this transformation? One important response is referred to as “liberal theology”. This accepted the basic premises of scientific materialism, and interpreted scripture to be of essentially symbolic meaning, offering a deeper understanding of the world. The historical truth of biblical stories was treated with a high degree of scepticism. To this line of reasoning there was a counter-reaction, of whom the most famous figure was the German theologian Karl Barth. He injected modern energy in to traditional ideas of divine will in a sinful world, often referred to as “dialectical theology”, because of its confrontation of paradox.

Quick’s work can be understood as plotting a middle way, by constructing a modern philosophical underpinning to orthodox belief. He accepted the “threefold cord” of scripture, tradition and reason. His aim was not to change orthodoxy, but to present it in a new light which the modern mind, with its emphasis on reasoning, could accept. A central aspect of this was framing theology in terms of classical metaphysics – the first principles of philosophy.

Quick was fascinated by the duality that runs through Christian thought from its origins. He characterised this as being between the “Hellenic” and “Hebraic” traditions. The Hellenic tradition is based on classical Greek thought, and in particular the idea of Logos. This has been translated into Latin Verbum, and English “Word”, which means much the same as the Latin. This has led to some perplexity, such as the mysterious opening of John’s Gospel (originally written in Greek): “In the beginning was the Word”. Logos actually means something much bigger than “word” – it refers to rationality and orderliness. We get some of the meaning the idea from its English derivative “logic”. Greeks believed in a pantheon of divine entities interfering with the human world. But these gods operated within a divine framework, the Logos, that lay beyond. It is an essentially passive idea. Liberal theologians equated God with this Logos, who did not therefore become a personal actor in our world. Christian doctrine was essentially symbolic in their eyes. This may be a long way from most people’s understanding of the religion, but the idea has always been there. It is associated with Christian mystics, such as the Spanish 16th Century St John of the Cross, and the 14th Century Julian of Norwich, after whom Quick named my mother. It is not that the mystics were theological liberals, but they developed a vision of divine revelation and universal divine love that is the beating heart of theological liberalism; they downplayed ideas of divine retribution and sin.

Contrast this mystical, symbolic, aesthetic and revelatory path to the Hebraic tradition. This emphasises divine will over revelation, instrumentalism (that is, concrete action) over symbolism, and ethics over aesthetics. This is, perhaps, a more familiar version of religion. It conjures up pictures of fire and brimstone, and the division of mankind between those that follow the Lord (often referred to as the “Chosen”) and those that don’t. It is the idea of religion that the liberal theologians sought to excise as no longer compatible with modern thought. But Quick could not accept this. Christianity without the Hebraic tradition would not be Christianity. But, unlike Barth, he could not reject, or demote, the Hellenic tradition either. He sought to effect a reconciliation.

The details of this need not concern us, and not just because I, without a classical philosophical training, have been unable to grasp them properly. Ultimately the project failed in the sense that there was no satisfactory reconciliation to be found – which, as Mr Hughes points out, is not to say that the effort was not worthwhile. Often the journey means more than the destination. And Quick leads our thoughts to many interesting places. His struggles help us to understand what Christianity is about, beyond the perpetuation of ancient traditions.

The bigger problem with Quick’s work, though, is not his failure to resolve the tension between Hellenic and Hebraic thought, but the way that, in the later half of the 20th Century, idealistic, classical metaphysics has fallen out of fashion. We set our sights lower these days. We feel that a single Truth is unattainable, and we are content to examine rival versions in an unresolved pluralism – we make our own choices but without the expectation that the rest of the world must follow.

Reading about Quick throws light on my own faith, or lack of it. After an Anglo-Catholic Church upbringing, and extensive engagement with Evangelical traditions at university, I came to reject anything that looks like Quick’s “Hebraic” tradition. But without it, what do you have? Scientific materialists believe in the Logos, but that leaves them a long way away from anything like a religious faith. You can layer on top the poetry of love from such mystics as Simone Weil, Quick’s contemporary, or the philosophical exploration of the I-Thou relationship from Martin Buber, another contemporary of Quick’s, of the Jewish faith. That gives you depth. But it was Barth’s highly Hebraic vision that challenged Hitler, and somehow moved things into the concrete world of action and counter action from that of mystic contemplation. I cannot resolve that tension in my soul, so I call myself an agnostic. Quick’s philosophical apparatus may be dated, but the challenge he confronted is at the heart of any attempt to reconcile a modern understanding of the world with religious faith.


Big ideas divide us. The path to progress lies through small ones.

For me it is the great turning point in modern thought. In the 1930s Ludwig_Wittgenstein_by_Ben_Richardsthe philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (pictured in a 1947 photo by Ben Richards I picked up off Wikipedia) rejected his early, grand philosophical work on the fundamental questions of logic and mathematics. Instead he developed an entirely new approach using the slogan “Don’t ask for the meaning, ask for the use”. While I am only dimly aware of Wittgenstein’s philosophy it is one my life’s chief inspirations.

Perhaps it is natural for people to search for big ideas. Systems that allow us to make sense of our world in simple terms, and which can guide us into big sweeping changes. We look for these ideas everywhere: in religion, in politics, in science, perhaps even in art. But there is only one big idea: there are no big ideas.

This is reasonably commonplace in the field of religion, amongst those of modern, western sensibilities. Many religions aspire to be big ideas, or have done so. They claim their messages are for everybody, and that the only way ahead for the world is if everybody follows them. They are based on sacred insights, often inspired by the direct word of God, which are preserved in sacred texts and traditions.  But there is no way of resolving which of these sacred ways is the right one. Their reach simply cannot be universal. So it is necessary to scale back their ambitions. What is the use of religion? It helps us make peace with the world in which we live; it inspires more ethical and socially useful behaviour; it encourages us to be kind to strangers. All the world’s major religions can do this. To the extent that they fail at these small things, religion does harm.

Another big idea should be looked at in the cold light of day: what might be called modern scientific Enlightenment thinking; it remains persistent. This was of direct concern of Wittgenstein, whose earlier thinking was taken up by logical positivists – people who seek to exclude the unverifiable from human discourse. How often do I hear pleas for things to be “evidence-based”? Or people sneer at alternative medical therapies because they are “unverified”? And yet the system of scientific verification is no absolute (what do we actually mean by “verification”), and has many weaknesses. It can only deal with relatively simple propositions, and in situations that are repeatable. But the world is complex and every situation is in some way new and unique. Our understanding of our world needs more humility. Homeopathy, for example, is nonsense as a big idea. But can it be useful? Because it is holistic in its approach, unlike conventional medicine, the surprising answer to that is: “Sometimes”.

And politics? It should be obvious that the day of big ideas is over. Communism was a big idea; Nazism was a big idea. These both led to the systematic destruction of lives for nothing. Even the more modest ambitions of social democracy and free market liberalism have been shown as flawed, offering incomplete answers at best. And they generate conflict.

And that, at bottom, is the problem with big ideas (or, perhaps, why they are not useful). We will never agree on them. Because of their scope that leads to conflict. And yet a great diversity of people can agree on little things: helping the needy; preserving the peace; civilised dialogue; and even ethical behaviour. But if we try and turn these small ideas into grander ones (for example a universal code of ethics) they will fail. It is through everyday, small-scale negotiations over practical and worthwhile things that progress will be made, where harmony will emerge from discord.

Wittgenstein’s later work focused on language (as did his earlier work, but in a different direction), and rightly so. It is here that philosophers can be of most help. Everywhere we see the abuse of language creating problems. “Islam” means different things to different people, and yet we talk across each other is if its meaning was universal. Recently I blogged about the problems that arise from the use of words like “economic growth”, “inflation” and “deflation”, that are taking even professional economists into silly places. And political activists tilt at words like “neoliberalism” or “socialism” or, even, “Europe” as if they meant something real and useful that people understood – and then wonder why nobody is listening.

So: don’t ask for meaning, ask for the use. And a small step at a time we can make this world a better place.

Paul Klee: vision, craft and art

firefullmoon_KleeToday we went to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Paul Klee. It closes on 9 March. If you haven’t seen it, and you enjoy art, I would urge you to go soon. I was surprised how much it moved me. It made me reflect on what art should be.

Paul Klee was born in 1879 in Switzerland, but took German citizenship from his father. His career took off when he joined the Bauhaus group in 1920. He was condemned by the Nazis as a degenerate in 1933, refused to cooperate with the Nazi government, and retreated to Switzerland. He died there in 1940 of an incurable wasting disease.

The exhibition starts in 1912 and works through Klee’s life chronologically. I am not an artist; I have no artistic training; symbolism usually passes me by. My enjoyment of art is entirely intuitive.The first few rooms didn’t get through to me at all, except some quotations from the artist in the commentary – which bespoke wonderful insight. Then, as it reached his Bauhaus period, it all came alive. From then on, I was entranced. It was at the Bauhaus that Klee started to teach. Perhaps the act of teaching brought clarity to his work. I certainly found the simpler colour compositions more striking (or at least, those with fewer colours!).

There is an astonishing variety to Klee’s work. It is all painting and drawing; the pictures are quite small; it has a hand crafted appearance. Apart from that, his range was huge. Flicking through the exhibition’s catalogue, I found the reproductions very disappointing. Perhaps his use of colour is so subtle than even modern reproduction technology can’t convey it properly. The right contrasts don’t come through. And he is very textural – which does not come over on a flat reproduction. That’s why it has to be seen in a gallery. Some of my favourites are from private collections – yet another reason I’m very glad I made it.

One thing struck me, beyond the beauty and power of the images: the trouble Klee took with the craft itself. He was forever developing new techniques, and he was able to produce a delightful variety of effects. In this era, the artist was seen as a craftsman. That has always been so historically, of course, but I fear we have lost this insight in the post-modern era. Modern artists seem to think that vision and creativity are the thing – and technique secondary, and even a distraction. I hope I’m wrong. My opinion is perhaps unduly influenced by a television series a few years ago, which was a sort of Masterchef for artists. A group of young artists were given a series of challenges, with the overall aim of attracting the interest of the collector Charles Saatchi. One of the early challenges was to draw a model from life. The young artists couldn’t see the point of this, and their results were awful. And they were right: it was most piss-taking of the contestants who won – because she had a creative idea which she was able to realise in a gallery with the use of no technique at all (it was part of a tree impaled on some railings). Have a bright idea; get noticed; you’re made. The rest is a distraction; that seems to be the attitude.

What a contrast with the great artists, including modern ones like Paul Klee! Of course none of Klee’s mastery of technique would have meant anything if he had not also had creativity and vision. But you have to be very lucky to be able to realise your insight without a mastery and love of technique and hard work. Or perhaps more strongly, surely all that hard work to render your vision in a work of art develops and deepens the insight. Klee exemplifies that idea.

Vienna 1900 – parellels with Europe today










Today we went to see the last day of the National Gallery’s exhibition of portraiture from Vienna at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. The art was interesting in its own right, but the main impact for me was learning about the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which lasted from 1867 to 1916, and its implications for our time.

Austria-Hungary came into being after the Habsburg Austria Empire’s disastrous war with Prussia in 1866. This put to an end idea that the Habsburgs would lead a united Germany. It also put paid to the Austrian Empire’s possessions in Italy, which joined the new Kingdom of Italy. Austria’s rulers had to consolidate what they had, and they took a distinctly liberal approach. The Kingdom of Hungary was established as a parallel entity to Austria, rather than simply being part of Austria’s extensive possessions, and it took perhaps about half of the total land area. Hungary included what is now Slovakia, Croatia and the Transylvanian region of Rumania. In each part of the dual monarchy, democratic reforms were enacted, with elections and citizenship open to all (I think these were more advanced in Austria than Hungary).

Many people of different backgrounds migrated to Vienna, which became a liberal, multicultural place. Jews, in particular, were offered a route into the higher echelons of society, and many assimilated into the Austrian culture. But by 1900 all this liberalism was creating a backlash, and tensions started to mount. There was political stalemate, broken by the First World War in 1914 – which Austria-Hungary itself started, by attacking Serbia. This brought catastrophe down on the Empire, which broke up after Emperor Franz Joseph’s death in 1916, with complete dismemberment when the war finally ended in 1918. Things got worse after that, with anti-Semitism growing into the horror of the Holocaust. Hitler was an Austrian and part of the Vienna scene before 1914. The betrayal of Jews, in Austria especially, has left a stain on Europe’s history that will never be expunged, to rank alongside exploitative, racist colonialism, which Austria at least did not take part in.

Austria-Hungary was widely disparaged at the time – “the sick man of Europe”. Its attempt to forge a multicultural national entity was thought to be undemocratic and illiberal. The right way was to form nation states from largely one language and culture. Nowadays we have much more sympathy with the Austria-Hungary project. National identity is a complicated business, and the idea of creating states based on linguistic and cultural heritage proved to be romantic fiction at best, and licence for oppression, murder and war at worst. All European nations wrestle with the issues of being home to multiple cultures, and we have created a vast, multi-national entity in the EU, which shares many features with Austria-Hungary.

What the Exhibition showed, however, was that for all the tension and ultimate political failure, Vienna in particular produced a flowering of creativity. Many of the period’s greatest artists worked there (we can think of Gustav Klimt and Gustav Mahler, and the highly innovative Arnold Schoenberg). This creativity was not confined to the arts: there was Sigmund Freud, and in the discipline of economics, Joseph Schumpeter, each responsible for ground-breaking ideas that we now take for granted.

But there is a discomforting parallel with Europe today. The European liberal and multicultural project is under fire. Nationalist groups, promoting intolerance, seem to have the political momentum. This is creating a tension, and causing liberals to doubt. In Britain it is disheartening to see that both Labour and Conservative parties have decided to pander to the anti-liberal momentum, rather than stand up to it. And meanwhile, just as in the 1900s, economic advance seems to create inequality, creating yet more tension.

Are we heading for disaster? I don’t think so. The horrific events of the first half of the 20th Century still cast a strong shadow. But liberalism does need to reinvent itself. I dedicate myself to that cause.

They Came to a City: what happened to wartime Utopianism?

they_came_to_a_city_01Last week we we saw the film of J.B. Priestley’s They Came to a City shown by the BFI as part of their season of Ealing Studios films.  As entertainment the film lacked a certain something, but as a political and historical document it is of real interest.  It reflects the wartime desire of many Britons to build a better society once the war was over – as a sort of quid pro quo for pulling together as part of the war effort.  Does this have anything to say to us now?

The film, made in 1944 from a play produced in 1942, transports nine people drawn from across British society to a Utopian city, where life follows the Priestley’s distinctly socialist vision of the way life should be.  We don’t see the city itself, merely the reactions of these individuals to it: they are offered the choice of staying or returning to current society.

The film only offers hints of what this ideal society is.  Back in the 1940s people probably had a better idea about it than we do now.  It is an egalitarian society where people are focused on well-being rather than possessions, cooperate rather than compete and “do an honest job for the community for what the community thinks we’re worth,” to quote a later Priestley work.  People are happy, and capitalism, or its prewar incarnation, is banished.

The three working class characters, including the two principals, all like this vision and want to stay – or promote its ideals in the real world.  The capitalist plutocrat hates it: he is told that what he does for a living is criminal there.  Two of the three aristocrats also reject the city, for similarly predictable reasons: the male character giving a little speech about how he didn’t really like to have to deal with people at all.  The middle class couple is split.  The bank manager husband is keen to throw off the oppressive stupidity of his organisation; his rather neurotic wife is horrified: she wants a garden and children of her own, and doesn’t want to mix with “common” people.

The film is making two distinct points here.  First is that many people want this ideal society but are convinced that it is impossible or impractical to achieve, and so do not strive for it.  It is important to inspire such people with the hope that it is possible: which is what the thought experiment of the city does, and gives rise to film’s messianic conclusion.  The second is that the ideal society will be disliked by many people, and not just those at the top of society.  At all levels people pin their hopes on a vision based on the way society is: material possessions, status and so forth, and so resist changes to the way society works.  The opposite is also true, of course: some of the upper echelons of society will be as anxious for liberation as anybody else, represented in this film by the upper class daughter who breaks from her mother to stay in the city.

How does this look now?  The first reaction is to think that all the hopes have come to nothing, and that we are reduced to the cynicism that Priestley was so anxious to combat.  Putocrats flaunt their wealth; capitalist competition drives most of the economy; people remain obsessed with possessions and status.  Utopianism is dismissed as impractical.  You can imagine Priestley preaching to us today with the same fervour.

But that’s a glass half empty view.  Since 1945 much of the socialist vision has come to pass.  Social security, the National Health Service and free education are now all accepted foundations of modern society.  The proportion of economic activity not driven by competition: government administration and services mainly, is much higher than the pre-war level.  Even a shadowy idea of competition within the NHS is bitterly contested, with most people instinctively against.  Class distinctions may be persistent, but they are a faint shadow of what they were.  The overwhelming majority of Britons would identify with the (rather articulate) working class characters in this film, who seem distinctly middle class to us.  The aristocracy is an irrelevance.  The middle class characters look hopelessly outdated.  Apart from the working class characters only the plutocrat remains of our time – and he is a figure of humble origins made good.  And poverty of the sort taken for granted before the war has been largely banished – and people are much happier in all sorts of ways.

But it is not our way to reflect on these gains.  However close we get to utopia it always seems an infinite distance away.

Two sides of the Church

It has been a big week in my ongoing spiritual odyssey, as I wrestle with my agnostic contradictions.  My anti-Church  hackles were raised, all too predictably, by the Church of England’s response to the Government’s consultation on gay marriage.  But I was was  disarmed by the response of a priest to a blog on the subject.  And then I chanced into hearing an episode of Richard Holloway’s radio series Honest Doubt.

First that Church response on gay marriage.  To start with I relied on news reports, mainly from the BBC.  And these were (predictably) provocative – saying that the Church felt the issue to be one of the gravest in its 500 year history, and implying that the Church still considered marriage to be about having children.  I could not but feel this was a calculated insult to my own, childless, marriage.

But rather than sounding off in that vein, I thought I had bet read it (summary here, with link to the full response).  It was of course, much more measured.  But it also cut no ice.  Indeed it seemed to be just begging the question (in the proper sense of being circular rather than the common usage of “inviting the question”).  Two problems preoccupy the drafters: first that it changes the meaning of marriage.  To which the liberal response is, “Well spotted.  So?”  The second worry follows: it means that the Church’s definition of marriage will no longer follow the state’s.  They say that there should be no difference between “religious” and “state” marriage; there should be just marriage.  The natural response from liberals is, “Well, that’s entirely up to you.  Why should that bother us?”  The Church marriage would be fully recognised by the state; it would be a subset of state marriage.  Actually, the reason for the Church to worry about this distinction was spotted by many commentators.  It is part of that wedge with is slowly separating the Church of England from the state and may one day force its disestablishment.  But to most people the establishment status of the Church is just an ornament with nostalgic value, rather like the monarchy.  Few are against it, unless it tries to flex its muscles.  Trying to prevent overdue change to civil customs is just such a muscle flexing: and if it leads to disestablishment, so be it.

On reflection it is difficult to be angered by the Church’s position.  It is just demonstrates all the disappointment I have in it and other Christian institutions.  It just cannot reinterpret ancient principles in light of its more fundamental principles and our changing understanding of the world.  It is just heading for the dustbin of history.

Meanwhile atheistic Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack challenged the Church on the grounds of historical inconsistency.  One of his posts was entitled Could a theologian please help…?  The point at issue was divorce rather than the single sex bit – if the Bible says that marriage was to be for ever, why did they change their view on remarrying the divorced?  Typical smart Alick stuff from an outside commentator.  But it drew a long and wonderful response from a Methodist minister, Philip Wren.  He took time to start with the biblical quote from the Gospel of St Mark that defines the basis of marriage (“…what God has made let no man cast asunder.”)  But he explained it  in terms of the tension between forgiveness and sin.  It’s the sort of stuff that reminds me why I’m agnostic rather than atheist – Christianity is not about neat, cut and dried rules.  It’s about love and redemption.

This was enough to throw the Christian religion back into a more favourable light.  And then, by accident, I caught one of the BBC Radio 4 talks on “Honest Doubt” on Friday, tackling the issue of morality – if we throw out God and religion, on what basis do we found and enforce morality?  The honesty with which it confronted the question made me stop in my tracks.  I immediately went find other talks in the series from the BBC website.  Unfortunately the it isn’t available in podcast, and they apply a strict 7 day rule – so I could only backtrack a week on iPlayer, and missed the first 10 episodes (it extremely irritating when BBC do this, for no good reason that I can see).  I wasn’t disappointed as the series went through the various Victorian thinkers’ reactions as the faith was shaken to its foundations by a series of shocks.  I was particularly taken with Keats’s idea that truth comes from the process of doubt itself.

The talks are given by Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh and professor of theology.  I was hugely struck by the way a religious person could have the courage to confront deep questions that few dare to (amongst atheists as well as churchmen).  If they could do this, I thought, there was hope for the church yet.  I could be a member of a church that contained Richard Holloway.  As I researched Dr Holloway (my practice of using people’s titles as a mark of respect causes difficulties here – his not a bishop or a professor; I assume he is a doctor though!) I was not reassured, though.  He resigned from being a bishop, and now describes himself as an agnostic – his views taking him beyond the pale so far as the official church is concerned.  My struggle continues, but it is good to know that I am not alone.

The talks are given by

Football: after optimism fails, England fans try low expectations.

I’m not a football fan, in any of its forms.  I don’t follow a football (soccer) club.  But I do get swept into the excitement of the big international championships that take place every two years: the European Cup and the World Cup.  The European Cup for 2012 has started but there’s almost no visible excitement in this football-mad nation (England – here not the other British nations) – so there’s nothing to be swept by.  The Jubilee Union Jacks are slowly coming down – but few George Crosses are replacing them.  What is happening?

I think that what we are seeing is the playing out of two competing theories of motivation amongst pop-psychologists and sports coaches.  First: nothing succeeds like optimism.  Second: excessive expectations only bring disappointment.

The first theory has become very fashionable.  Various statistical studies, at least in the myth, have shown that high expectations improve performance.  So it helps to think that you are going to win.  This type of thinking is now deep in the popular culture – as you can see from the silly boasting by contestants in reality TV contests, replacing the formerly very British (or anyway English) modesty.  But England football fans have tested this idea to destruction – going into contests with high expectations, and much talk of how we can win.  The results (especially the 2010 World Cup) have been dismal.

So the alternative theory gains ground.  Teams can be paralysed by the weight of high expectations; they often peform better when they have less to prove.  And indeed some of the most memorable England football performances have been when the team has been written off (I still remember beating Germany 5-1 in a qualifying match a decade or so ago).  It seems that the county’s fans have taken this idea seriously; keeping mum about the side’s chances, in the hope that this will improve the performance.

Meanwhile I may well miss England’s first match tomorrow – consciousness is so low that somebody is try to arrange a meeting that conflicts with it!

When is evangelism intolerance? A dilemma for some Christians

I have a great deal of sympathy with the article by Deborah Orr in the weekend’s Guardian: Whether you are religious or secular imposing your views on others is foolish.  Ms Orr complains about strident campaigning from Christians against abortion and gay rights, as well as secularists complaining about the mention of God in the Boy Scouts’ oath.  I disapprove of these strident attitudes too, and it doesn’t make me feel better about those who advance them.  But I fear the distinction between free speech and imposing views isn’t as sharp as she implies.

Ms Orr praises the “live and let live” Christians she knows, who don’t seek to impose their views on others.  This sounds perilously close to not wishing to convert others to their faith.   I don’t think that is necessarily wrong, but many Christians feel that it is their duty to spread the faith – to evangelise.  Now I have enough of a Christian education to enjoy picking holes in what many practising Christians say, in spite of my having lapsed from the faith.  But in this case I find the duty to evangelise a difficult idea to challenge – it’s solidly grounded in scripture both in  letter and spirit (unlike, I would argue, many Christians’ views on gays, and, indeed, abortion).  The Christian and Islamic faiths differ from others, like Judaism and Hinduism, in this.  You are not meant to keep your light under bushel.

So I quite understand the Christian need to proselytise – and probably that is what many Christians think they are doing when advancing their views militantly on gay rights and abortion.  It mystifies me why so many Christians think these things are so central to their faith – but clearly many do.  Ms Orr, of course, is quite happy about the idea of free speech.  she is happy enough for Christians to publicise their views, provided they show equivalent tolerance when people who disagree with them publicise theirs.  She is objecting to two things.  First the idea that conflicting views should be suppressed because they are insulting to those of faith – part of a process of secular persecution.  I have almost no sympathy for Christians (or Muslims) on that score – surely the duty to bear insults with good grace is the flipside of the duty to evangelise?  But she also objects to attempts to “impose” their views on others, by, for example, Christian registrars refusing to conduct civil partnerships between gays – or the Christian landlord refusing to accommodate a gay couple in a bed and breakfast.  Also, of course, the use of violence to stop people using abortion services – and the attempt to advertise “gay cures” on London’s buses.

Ms Orr doesn’t talk about Christian surgeons refusing to conduct abortions – but isn’t that similar?  I don’t think many people would object to that, though this clearly creates problems and may restrict freedom of choice.  This at least shows that there is some grey amid the black and white.

But, to be fair, Ms Orr uses the word “foolish” rather than “wrong” to describe this behaviour – and this is much nearer to the mark.  This behaviour seems to be much more about a rather modern habit of wallowing in victimhood to attract attention from others.  Christians should have the teaching and spiritual resources to rise above that kind of behaviour, even if atheists do not.  Many do of course, so it is does the churches no good when leading figures like George Carey and Cardinal O’Brien pander to the victim culture rather than showing spiritual leadership.


Rowan Williams’s legacy

Rowan Williams is stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury. For all his faults he is one the world’s great intellectuals. Can the Church of England sustain its establishment status without him?

Archbishop Williams’s departure has drawn a lot of comment.  I’ve seen references in Twitter and such to some very negative views, but I must admit I haven’t given these much time.  I have read one of his books (Lost Icons, published in 2000); rereading the review of this book I wrote at the time reminds me of just how profound and disturbing (in a positive sense) I found it.  His language is over intellectual; he seems to idolise a past that never existed – but he poses challenging questions that modern agnostic liberals like me that I have no ready answers to.  He makes most commentators on religious and spiritual subjects seem utterly superficial – and I have feeling that if I was left alone in a room with him my comfortable agnosticism would end up in tatters and I would be going to my local (CofE) church the next Sunday.  I know of no other person that could have that power.  I have total respect for everything he says, even though I disagree with much of it, especially when it comes to politics.

As for his stewardship of the Church of England and the Anglian Communion, I don’t have much to say.  In spite of my tendency to lecture practising Christians on their own faith, I feel completely out of my depth when commenting on the ins and outs of Church affairs.  This post which I picked up via Twitter has the ring of truth though.

But though Church politics are not something I am part of, they do impact on general politics, of which I am.  And the Church of England has a special role, as it is an established part of the state.  This is much discussed, and generally thought to be a positive.  Apart from adding a decorous component to official ceremonies, it forms a link to the country’s past heritage.  Much good can come of ambiguity.  But it is under threat for two reasons.

The first is because the Church could fragment into a number of pieces, none of which is able to sustain its state role.  Tensions abound over the status of women and gays.  I find it impossible to understand why, of all the issues that the Church has to deal with, these are the ones that threaten schism.  Can’t they just agree to differ, as they do with so much else? But it is clearly a big problem.

And the second, related, threat is that the Church is losing its moral authority over the general, agnostic populace.  Most people in this country describe themselves as Christian at some level, and have customarily looked to the Church for moral leadership.  This is what prevents the Church’s establishment status from being just a sham.  But the population’s general sense of moral values has been changing.  So far the Church of England has skilfully adapted its own practices (on divorce, contraception and women priests, for example) to stay within touching distance.  On occasions it has even led the change from the front – such as on racism and inclusion.  But with the growing acceptance of gays in civil society, the Church has mostly lost the plot, not helped by its need to stay in touch with values of the flourishing African church.

Churches must be led by their spiritual calling, and not by the fashions of the society they inhabit.  But to preserve the Church’s special status as part of the political establishment it has to stay within a broad moral consensus.  If the Church, or strong elements of it, persist in teaching things that we, the rest of society consider to be morally wrong then it is up to us to exclude them from that special status.

Crimes and Misdemeanors: Woody Allen at the BFI

Last Friday we went to seen Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors in the BFI’s  Woody Allen season.  There are two more showings to go (including this evening), and I would recommend this dark comedy.

I am quite familiar with Allen’s earlier comedies (Sleeper, Annie Hall, etc), with Allen playing an engaging but ineffectual intellectual who manages to get the girl in the end.  In this film Allen plays that same character, as a New York maker of documentary films, but this time his life moves from failure to abject failure, as he competes with his shallow but successful brother-in-law, played by Alan Alda, and ends up with no girl at all.  Altogether a darker and more realistic observation of the nature of success in society – I nearly wrote “modern society” but this story is surely as old as civilisation itself.

But it is not the main plot of the film, just a counterpoint to another, even darker story about a successful ophthalmologist (played by Martin Landau), who decides that his unstable ex-mistress (Anjelica Huston) has to be bumped off before she spills the beans and destroys the rest of his life.  He succeeds, is wracked by his conscience, but comes through.  Amidst all this there is a lot of dialogue about the nature of God and morality – in a very Jewish setting.  This plays to a modern rather pessimistic view of reality, where just deserts can be avoided with a bit of care and luck.

The very Jewish nature of the discussion, with the trauma of the Holocaust very much part of the picture, put me in mind of the state of Israel – though there no references at all to it in the film.  There people also  ruthlessly resort to force majeure, including the loss of life of varying degrees of innocence, amid much talk of morality, which, in the end, seems to count for very little.  Life goes on.

PS If you go at the BFI, don’t bother with the programme notes except to look at the credits.  It consists of a dense review written 1990, a truly appalling examplar bad art criticism.  Hard to read, trying to be clever, and (almost) devoid of genuine insight.