Giles Fraser talks about the Empire…

Good discussion on Start the Week this morning on the radio- a kind of ‘anti Xmas’ antidote.

The discussion was kicked off by Giles Fraser, former Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral (remember Occupy-London-Gate?) who suggested that the Christian Christmas was invented by the Emperor Constantine for political, not religious, reasons. It was Constantine that started to raise buildings in celebration of the holy sites such as the supposed place of Christ’s birth.

Constantine has a mixed reputation to say the least. He is regarded by some as a Saint, whose conversion to Christianity resulted in the inherited culture of faith that we in the west still stand upon. He was a saint, however, who also boiled his wife alive in her bath, and ruled by the sword and the dagger.

And there is another way to understand the influence of Constantine- which is to see his combination of church and state as the beginning of the time when the followers of Jesus were swallowed by Empire.

A time which gave us the Nicene Creed– which takes us straight from his birth to his death, with no mention of the messy teaching in between. Jesus fulfils a function of state- making way for Empire.

And a millennia and a half later, we still try to disentangle it all.

How it is that we came to believe that followers of Jesus can live so comfortably within an Empire that encapsulates everything that he encouraged us to move away from? An Empire that promotes wealth, power and conquest above all else? That defends the strong against the weak? That exists to ensure that some people remain poor, whilst others have far too much.

It is a paradox never more obvious than around Christmas time…


Left brain/right brain theology…

Great discussion today on Radio 4’s ‘Start the week’– a debate between scientist (Dawkins and Lisa Randall) and the Chief Rabbi, Johnathan Sachs. You can listen again here if you missed it.

The debate was predictable in subject material- Dawkins expressing his logic-first model, and exorting us all to let go of our superstitious addiction to the supernatural and Sachs talking about the why questions rather than the how, and the truth and beauty we humans experience that is not understandable in a scientific way.

However, there was a respectfulness about the debate that I really enjoyed.

Sachs at one point talked about the wonder of a creator who creates a creative universe- I liked that.

He also said something about the Greek filter that many biblical texts have been through- a familiar theme to anyone who has read any Brian McLaren (the ‘Greco-Roman narrative’ that he describes so well in ‘A New Kind of Christianity’.) However Sachs approached this from a different angle.

He suggested that the Greek Language was the first one to be written left to right, and to contain vowels. Previously, writing was mostly right to left (apart from Chinese which went down.)

This is significant not just because of the left brain (analytical) right brain (instinctive/feelings) split that tends to characterise how we understand the hemispherical nature of our brains. It also asks questions about our theological lens.

Because the older languages lacked vowels, they could only be understood in context- their meaning was only understandable in the paragraph as opposed to the individual words.

So what? Well, when these earlier understandings were translated into the Greek, and then onwards into our modern languages, they were forced to take on a more concrete form- one in which every word is individual in meaning and application. Words that defined and legalised. Sacred words.

Words that try to contain God.

Kind of reminds me of this post– and this picture.


Losing small wars, but not learning lessons…

Britain has been engaged in some small war or other for much of the last couple of decades. Small that is as they are not here- the public are not particularly involved, and most of the time are not even very interested.

The last couple- Iraq and Afghanistan- will probably come to define our age- along with the ‘credit crisis’, and the death of Princess Di.

When these wars are spoken about at all in the media, a strange kind of mythological language is used. We start from a position of ‘our brave boys’ (no argument there- mostly we send boys, and they are incredibly brave) who are part of the most professional, humane and most highly respected army in the whole world.

Criticism of the war is possible- in terms of the political decisions that have been made- but criticism of the actual way the war is being waged by our Generals is not countenanced.

If you are interested in an alternative perspective, then I would recommend listening to Start the Week on the i-player, here.

Frank Ledwidge was devastating in his analysis. He described how we lost the war in Iraq- including the humiliation in Basra, where our forces were rescued by an exasperated US army. We then went on the lose the war in Afghanistan, where we sent our troops to a place where they were only ever going to be seen as an invading unwelcome army- given our history in the region.

The scary thing about this is how little we are prepared to hear these critical voices. We have been brought up to view our own military misadventures as essentially good versus bad- the plucky resourceful Brit against the Hun/Jap/Red. We always triumph in the end- true character always does.

This ignores all the evidence to the contrary- the mounting body bags, the torture of prisoners, the resounding “NO!” echoing from the population of all these countries that we are supposedly liberating.

Them there is the stench of post imperialist self-interest, and the feeling of being manipulated by murky spinners of media messages- all of that gung ho ‘smart’ bombing and ‘shock and awe’-ing.

The discussion mentioned above identified some key myths that we really should watch out for (along with a few of my own suggestions)-

  • “Failure is not an option”- we will win. We. Will. Win. Or at least give it the appearance of victory.
  • “This year is the pivotal year”- as each one seems to be.
  • More money will win ‘hearts and minds’.
  • You can’t trust the locals.
  • The hero myth- glorious death. Dulce et decorum est.
  • War will solve our problems.
  • You can fight a war on terrorists by terrorising their communities in return.
There is a different path of course- to see these things from the perspective of the individual. This is a luxury that governments, particular superpowers, appear not to have. The voices that emerge from war that are the most powerful in retrospect are ALWAYS the stories of individuals faced with the awfulness of war.
Our TV’s are full of the soldiers stories- amputees and medal winners, returners to family. We have so few stories of ordinary Afghans.
Let us create space for honest debate, and for the sharing of stories of small ordinary people in extra ordinary situations.

Are we more than just the sum of our biochemistry?

I have been thinking a little about a radio programme I listened to in the car yesterday- a discussion about the nature of our humanity on Start the Week on Radio 4.

The thrust of the argument came from Raymond Tallis– scientist, poet, philosopher, doctor and novelist (I wonder if he has time for origami too?) He is the author of this book

Tallis’s argument goes something like this-

“To seek the fabric of contemporary humanity inside the brain is as mistaken as to try to detect the sound of a gust passing through a billion-leaved wood by applying a stethoscope to isolated seeds.” So argues the philosopher and clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis. He condemns the growing use of brain science to try to explain every aspect of human life. In his new book, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Tallis attacks the idea that we can understand humanity through ‘biologism’ – the belief that humans are essentially animals and can be explained in biological terms. Although our existence was brought about by evolution, Tallis asserts that humans are profoundly different from animals. Moreover, he claims that biologism and ‘neuromania’ are dangerous for society, fuelling a belief that there is no hope of moral progress for humans.

Tallis is an atheist, who has no interest in the supernatural- but does appear to be driven by an deep interest in the nature of humanity- and of an appreciation of art. He also seems to like a bit of controversy.

In thinking about the discussion the other day (but not through reading his book) I was thinking about this thing called ‘humanity’- who we are, and what we are capable of.

Are we special?

Because we can reason and emote and deceive- does this make us different from the other animals?

And is the greatest evidence for the superior nature of humanity to be found in our libraries or our great galleries, or in our nuclear warheads?

Did God make us a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, or is this just arrogance and self delusion?

And because we are able to even ask questions like this- does this make it so?

I believe in the possibility of humanity to rise- to become agents of truth mediated by grace. Our biochemistry seems to both confirm this and to conspire against it. We were made this way.

So although I want to agree with Doctor Tallis, I wonder whether it really matters- even if the ultimate human reality is biological, painted by electro-chemical dots and dashes, then is this all that we might ever hope for?

Or do we believe in the incarnation of spirit in body?