Putting God on trial

We seem to be living in a very unsatisfactory world, and it’s not improving: the Middle East and all its problems, the refugees whose lives have been destroyed and are not really welcomed elsewhere, gross poverty in several places, the political threat of Marxism by another name, the effects of climate change notwithstanding the unbelievers, the Texan floods, several countries in various states of conflict and involving great cruelties to the innocent, a general rise of destructive nationalism rather than beneficial alliances. You can add to the list.

We would not be surprised to see someone shaking a fist at God and cursing him for the cruel creation which he has made. Do you see yourself joining in?

Probably not if you share a religious background. You would rapidly reply with the traditional apologia: God created a world and filled it with rational people called to act with love towards others and to nature. If we are in a fix it is because too many of mankind seek the evil rather than the good. But the sceptic would point out that many of our miseries come from the natural: floods, volcanoes, global warming and the rest. And need he have created so many people who are naturally ordered toward evil? This last is so inexplicable that we had to invent the bizarre, and gratuitous, story of original sin to give the Almighty a clean sheet and leave all of us inheriting a state of sin for which we cannot be held responsible.

I am sorry I wrote that last paragraph. I started it thinking God to be rather a good egg. I finished it thinking that the sceptic presents some strong points which cannot easily be disregarded. So please help me by refuting the sceptic. You might approach this by pretending that you are God and so deciding the sort of world you are going to create. Can you do a better job than the Almighty?

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Posted in Quentin queries | 38 Comments

Are you a Stoic within?

Nowadays if we use the word ‘stoic’ we do so informally. Perhaps it refers to someone who bears up despite hard times, or takes pride in bearing pain. At its worst it may be associated with the ethos of the public school when the cane was the primary instrument of education. And that’s a pity because Stoicism as a philosophy was formally active for several centuries, had a strong influence on the Roman Empire, and played an important part in the development of Christian moral law. Today it still has much to teach us.

If I had to sum up Stoicism briefly I would describe it as coming to terms with reality and learning to live with it. The fundamental assumption is that the whole cosmos consists of passive matter which is penetrated by divine reason. Thus nature is entirely rational because everything in it is organised for the best. We are also part of this nature and our human reason is a spark of the divine reason.

Once we have fully accepted this, our response to happenings, good or bad, will be rational since we recognise that they were inevitable – and that our feelings are not only irrelevant but they can interfere with our reason. So, if you crash your car and you are jumping up and down with rage, a passing Stoic would tell you that your anger is pointless – just accept the crash and think about your next rational step. Easier said than done – but you suspect that he’s right.

All this sounds a bit bloodless. We are in fact surrounded by our emotions and, very often, they are major agents in the choices we make. So perhaps our first step would be to recognise how they affect us and how they might be controlled so that we can use them to support our reasoning rather than distract it. An important principle is the need to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot. Your car crash is in the past so you can’t change it.

It is significant that modern authorities on cognitive behavioural therapy trace the methodology back to Stoicism. I simplify, of course, but both work through the client being helped to realise the truth of the situation (cognitive) as a necessary preliminary to constructive behavioural change. I used it routinely for marriage counselling. As Epictetus, an early Stoic, said: “Man is disturbed not by things but by the views he takes of them. But we can also trace Stoicism back to the Socratic tradition where the pursuit of truth leading us into the virtuous life was central.

The Romans were ready to welcome Stoicism. It fitted well with the ambition to bring civilisation under the rule of law enforced by the Empire, and its manliness suited the self-image of the citizen. Arguably it became the most popular philosophy at that time. Cicero demonstrated how our deep knowledge of human nature and of circumstances led to natural law as the necessary foundation for man to live successfully in society. And we can read Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s mature reflections on Stoicism (Penguin Classic). He died in 180 AD.

Natural law and the need to conform to it – leading to the highest ideal of virtue, is familiar to us as Christians. Not surprisingly, the Stoic approach was very influential in the moral theology of the early Church, and we have inherited that. As an elementary example, in recognising our social nature we see that lying or breaking promises are wrong because they are incompatible with nature. A Stoic would agree: care for others was cardinal in their thinking for the same reason.

At first sight, Stoicism seems to ignore the idea of a personal God. But analysis takes us closer. The principle of divine reason sounds bleak until we recall that divine reason requires a divine reasoner, and one who demands that we use our share of divine reason to participate in controlling nature, and to accept with dignity what we cannot control. Marcus Aurelius has several synonyms for divine reason – and God is one of them. Similarly the suggestion that Stoicism is pantheistic is no more than our belief that every atom of nature continues to exist from moment to moment by God’s active will that it should.

I would like to report that I am far advanced in my Stoicism but it is work in progress. It certainly helps me to reduce irrational anxieties even if I cannot always quench them. And I have fewer occasions of panic. I know that Stoic meditation helps me to get to sleep quickly, with Marcus Aurelius by my side. I work into my routine mindfulness meditation and deep relaxation. I find these are powerful aids in the control of inappropriate emotion.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy, virtue ethics | 4 Comments

Is it a boy or a girl?

LBGTQ – it’s hard to remember what each initial stands for but they add up to a cultural change which claims that gender is a matter of choice. The choice is not necessarily permanent: one may simply change it as perceived or required. I read recently of a policewo/man who it was reported could change gender day by day. The Church is unsurprisingly unhappy about all this: “Make and female he created them.” And while it insists that respect should be given in all cases, history tells us that severe persecution was once the condign answer. Other denominations, Christian or otherwise, take even stronger views. In some communities homosexual activity is a capital offence.

It has been going on for a long time. Recently I spent an afternoon with an old friend. I recall him as a cuddly five year old girl who used to leap up and hug me whenever we met, usually outside church after Mass. Now he is large, strong, and be-bristled; if he cuddled me now he might squeeze me to death by mistake – and a charming and kinder man it would be hard to meet.

We instinctively identify gender through the obvious characteristics of biology. Easy-peasy. In more difficult cases a list of comparative characteristics would, in the old days, be used for a final decision. Now it may simply be claiming so. Having said that, we should remember that in some instances the situation can be complicated. Children who have routinely been assigned gender at birth do sometimes develop psychological and physical characteristics consistent with the opposite gender, or somewhere in between. The proper diagnosis and treatment of such children, both parental and professional, is essential to help the child to cope with the situation and to develop into a confident adult according to their choice.

But the apparent ability to choose or change one’s own gender appears to run counter to what we have assumed to be permanent differences between the sexes, which have come about through evolution to ensure that the reproduction of our species can continue. The female would need to seek mating but would have built-in concern that the right mate was accepted. She would be open to sexual approaches but would only respond to males who would apparently make good fathers: capacity to provide, which might well include power, stability and care. Such qualities would maximise the chances of the children. It is significant that women tend to be most open to sexual advances when they are ovulating.

The male would ideally spread his seed as widely as possible. Maximum fertilisations is the goal. “Men only want one thing” say many women. And that’s true, and they should welcome the wide choice they get as a result of men being made that way. But he is especially drawn to the attractive because symmetry tends towards health. The ratio between waist and hips plus good breasts all indicate good physical mothers – although this may not be the man’s immediate consideration.

But the situation is changing. We now know how to separate sexual engagement from conception. Formerly the two were a function of each other but, over a few decades, we have separated sex for the sake of reproduction and sex for the sake of sex. It is a revolution. It is not my purpose here to argue a moral case on either side but just to note that something at the heart of the human race has changed. And all change has consequences. We might in our discussion try to tease out what these consequences, good or bad, may be.

People of my older generation find the new thinking very odd to understand. It is taken for granted that sexual intercourse is an appropriate expression of relationship – whether the relationship is recent or of longstanding. No doubt two people who are not averse to each other use it as a form of recreation just as we might invite someone for a meal. Marriage has by no means disappeared and for many it is seen as the right relationship for reproduction. But although it is much more stable than living together without marriage, it has a high breakdown rate. And of course gender is no longer a factor. If you feel heterosexual today and homosexual tomorrow, take your pick. Follow your feelings for there are no rules.

We have seen great changes in our lifetime – from nuclear weapons to a digital universe. But make no mistake the sexual revolution will prove the greatest of all. Hold on to the roundabout, it’s going to be quite a ride.

Posted in evolution, Moral judgment | Tagged , , | 36 Comments

Terse Verse

Tum-diddyumtum-tumtum. Yes, a simple pattern of taps. But it has a significance. Try it out with your fingers. The neurologists tell us that our brains respond to such rhythms and form corresponding patterns in our neurons. This is why marching and dancing are not only synchronised but the participants become consciously aware of the group who are sharing that rhythm in their brains. Watch a squad drilling on Horse Guards Parade and you see one unit and one purpose. The evolutionists suggest that this is how poetry started. The chants and songs used by primitive societies brought them together, built up their courage and, when necessary, created a collective force to face the enemy. Change ‘pattern’ to ‘metre’ and the connection is obvious.

Early great poetry used metre alone to raise the grandeur of the account and to support memorability. Homer’s works were probably not written down for hundreds of years. Milton provides a more recent example in Paradise Lost. I have marked the five feet (pentameter) in the second line,

“I may assert eternal providence,
And just–ify–the ways–of God–to men “

Sometimes people complain about the lack of rhyme in much modern poetry. Is it really poetry at all? But Milton would have disagreed; he referred to “The troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming” And so did Dryden. Some argue that rhyme can interfere with meaning, others claim that rhyme forces the poet’s mind to explore. Who would be without Chaucer’s 14th century poetry:

“Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote”

I have remembered much of that for 70 years. It tells me that rhyme plays a big part in memorability.

There are conventional forms for poetry. Perhaps the best known is the Shakespearean sonnet (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) with its 14 pentameter lines and rhyming pattern. Another is the villanelle: think of Dylan Thomas’s “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Or the Japanese haiku: three lines of five seven and five syllables. Such characteristics as metre, rhyme and form in effect frame poetry – presenting it to us for deeper response than we would ordinarily give to prose. Length is not relevant: think of Kipling’s World War 1 poem: “If they ask you why they died, tell them because their fathers lied.” Try and improve on that.

Poetry is allowed by convention to use higher flown language than prose. Metaphor is much used. Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” uses metaphor with power, you can read it simply as a prayer. Think of Wilfred Owens’ Anthem for Doomed Youth: “The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells”. That line challenges our imagination to grasp its impact. He also uses onomatopoeia: “the stuttering rifles rapid rattle”. Can you hear them? Alliteration also plays its part: “The weal which warned the way which once we went” That might have looked overdone in prose.

Poetry is open ended in the sense that the poet presents to us his emotions and his insights in a way which invites us to respond in terms of our own emotions and insights. Since the experience is different for every reader, each encounter is a new work of art. But be careful: Macaulay’s remark that “Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.” tells us that the sound mind – confined to the literal and rational – will get little from it. This may explain the great tradition of English Catholic poetry. Names such as Chesterton, Manley Hopkins, Francis Thompson, and many others, show us that poetry is a fitting medium for bringing us face to face with mystery.

It is an art which needs only a scrap of paper and a pencil stump. So Audre Lord (described in my source as African-American, lesbian, socialist, feminist) called it the only politically correct art form. It is always satisfying Cicero tells us: “I have never yet known a poet who did not think himself super-excellent.” But not always rewarding according to the writer de Vere Stacpoole: “A publisher of today would as soon see a burglar in his office as a poet.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Quentin queries | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

British Values

What are ‘British Values’? I read the phrase quite often nowadays; it is used to to win all sorts of arguments. But I have not come across any generally accepted list. Perhaps we could make a shot at constructing such a list – and one on which we all agree.

I suspect that in practice we appeal to the principle which suits us best. So we may strongly object to Muslim women hiding their faces. I am tempted to agree because I am made uneasy by encountering people whose facial expression I cannot see. An element here perhaps is that the woman in question probably comes from a foreign family. Then there is the argument that people must show their face in court or in official circumstances where recognition is required.

But then I wonder whether I am starting down the path which leads to the state defining what we may wear – similar to the uniforms which schools require. I understand the need to avoid immodest or threatening clothing but just how far do we go? Here’s a thought: what would we think of a woman who walked down the high street with bared breasts? That would, or once would, be perfectly acceptable in other countries. Why is the female breast unacceptable and the male breast acceptable?

How about the baker who refused to make a wedding cake because it had a homosexual message on it? Do British Values demand that the baker had no right to pick or choose, or should the customer have been prevented for setting out a view which is unacceptable to at least a large minority? How would you react to a Christian baker refusing to to decorate a cake bearing the message; “Freedom for abortion”?

I conclude that a British Value here is the acceptance that individuals and groups should have the maximum freedom to exercise their free choices. No such choice should be curtailed unless it is established that this choice causes commensurate damage to our society. Normally this will be a question of balance but in cases of uncertainty the choice of the individual should have the benefit.

With regard to those who, through age or mental capacity, are unable to make rational choices, the guiding principle is the best interests of the individual concerned. This of course includes all individual human beings, which by definition includes the child in the womb.

A final thought is that no one is entitled to condemn the choice of another unless they are prepared to accept that their own choices and actions may be similarly outlawed. Sauce for the goose.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 10 Comments

Smart as they come

There have been several key changes in our history. I think first of the arrival of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest. Then came printing, and the part it played in the Reformation and in the intellectual life of the country. Following that was the establishment of the supremacy of parliament over the sovereign in 1688. But just as important was the change in communication: the penny post and the gradual spread of the telephone. But it would seem that we are already immersed in a new and important phase. This is the smartphone.

For various reasons I have recently been in particularly close contact with the younger members of my family – mainly in their fifties and their twenties. It would seem that without such an instrument I cannot really be said to exist. I have a vivid recent memory of a great granddaughter at her first birthday party watching a telephone throughout her specially prepared meal.

We are talking not so much of a gadget as a way of life. The intensity of the efforts to persuade me to buy such a facility, so that I can be said to belong to society again, tells me that I am in some way culpable for declining my proper connection with other people. I am seen as something like a hermit in my decline to join society in its network of digital connections.

Smartphones can be expensive. I see that you can easily spend £600 on one – and very much more if it is kept in a fashionable cover. I assume that they have become a matter of social display – proclaiming the prosperity and the taste of its owner. They appear to have an infinite range of capacities, and the extent of the range is more important than their actual use. (I will confess to owning a mobile phone, that cost me £15 from Tesco’s, and I still have to ask passers by to dial a number for me. It is of course never switched on but I do occasionally remember to charge it.)

I am not a digital antediluvian. I buy on line, I tax my car on line, I use the internet for a wide range of information from obscure philosophical texts to how to cook an omelette. I use emails in preference to letters. Indeed I started using computers before many of the current enthusiasts were born. Remember Alan Sugar’s Amstrad? But all of these are conveniences: facilitating pedestrian jobs in a more convenient way. They do not threaten the social bonds which hold us together. May we expect a very different future? Perhaps all our communication will be through smartphones – even if we are in the same room. If we occasionally need old fashioned communication some descendant of Amazon Echo will provide for us. (Yes I tested Echo long before it was on the market, I have my private connections.) And, if we need a cuddle, we touch the right key and out comes our robot – prepared to meet whatever need we have. We would of course have to decide what gender we chose to be that day, and what gender we wished our robot to be. We are all hermaphrodites now.

What jolly fun!

Posted in Quentin queries | 23 Comments

The future threatens

None of us can foresee the future, yet we have to try to forecast if we need to take action now in order to ward off possible dangers. One issue here is demographics, and luckily the future here can give us a clearer view. For instance in the 1950s it was possible to forecast changes in the Japanese population which would eventually do great damage. And so it happened.

Today there is much concern about the rate of growth in Africa. Fertility rates are dropping globally but remain high in Africa. The world population is expected to grow from around 7.5 billion today to around 10 billion by 2050, and half that growth is likely to occur in Africa.

Of course we can respond to that threat by pointing out that there is plenty of physical room in the world and that our capacity for increasing resources has always flouted the doom mongers of the past. Malthus may have been right in his mathematics but always turned out to be wrong in practice.

However there is another factor. Following World War II, Japan was strongly under the influence of the US. And one important change came about: the spread of contraception to control population growth. It worked very well. But the inevitable problem was that it ensured an imbalance between the proportion of the existing population and the proportion of the younger population. The result was the costs, not only in money, of a huge elderly population which had to be met by a much smaller working population. Much of Japan’s economic problems in recent years have been brought about through this.

The current response to African growth is to provide better family planning. And indeed this summer Priti Patel, the U.K. secretary of state for international development, has undertaken to increase spending on overseas family planning services to a total of $1 billion in the next five years.

I am not concerned here with the morality of family planning, while noting that natural family planning is likely to be a very small part of this. But, if it works, our experience leads us to foresee considerable economic problems, as it did for Japan – and, perhaps at a less critical level, for other countries – including our own. (And, even as I write, I see that it is proposed to raise the age of retirement in the UK. The reason given is the increase in longevity: the real reason is to reduce the bill for the State pension.) I note, with distress, that this programme, to which we are all contributing, includes “safe abortions”. But nowadays all sorts of people of respectable goodwill regard abortion as no more than a health issue — in this case an acceptable method of controlling population. And apparently most of us are happy about this: the proportion of Catholics who agree that abortion should be allowed if a woman does not want the child has increased from 33% in 1985 to 61% in 2016 (National Statistics).

If you want to study the population situation in Africa in more detail, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/06/25/africa/africa-population-growth-un/index.html is a useful site.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 14 Comments