Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Responding to a Comment on "Rather than forward it on..."

Nick, a friend of mine from Warwick University, was kind enough to post his objections to the previous post below. They are good objections, and I thought it would be best to answer them in the main blog rather than squirrel them away in the com boxes.

Here's his comment:

Some thoughts, which ended up being a little more vehement than I'd intended, the further I got through Stein's rant:

* Atheists don't like getting pushed around for being atheists either. Is it right to force atheist or agnostic children to swear allegiance to 'one nation under God', to pray, or to read the Bible? It seems to me that this would be about as reasonable as forcing Jewish children to attend Holy Communion, or forcing Christian children to pray to Allah five times a day.

* The terrible human disaster (the deaths, the homelessness, the disease, the poverty) of Hurricane Katrina could have been largely averted, or at least greatly reduced if the politicians had listened to the experts, strengthening the flood defences and starting the evacuations sooner, rather than pretending the whole thing wasn't going to happen, and then leaving everyone to fend for themselves when it did. To paint the disaster as a judgement from God, rather than the result of gross governmental incompetence, is to demonstrate the same level of almost criminal wrongheadedness that was responsible for the disaster in the first place.

* To judge all atheists on the example of Madalyn Murray O'Hair is roughly analogous to judging all Christians on the example of the Spanish Inquisition. She happened to have a valid point that children should not be subjected to religious indoctrination in publicly-funded schools, but her methods and rhetoric went so far beyond what
mainstream atheists and agnostics believe and consider reasonable that she made Richard Dawkins look like a new-age, tree-hugging, crystal-therapist. At the time of her murder, her American Atheists organisation consisted of a handful of people - she'd been deserted and disowned by everyone else who doesn't believe in God, not to mention most of her family and former friends.

* To lay the blame for terrorist attacks and school shootings at the door of atheism is so ridiculous that it's almost not worthy of response. Does the writer of this screed honestly believe in a God who would kill innocent people in a fit of pique at a number of other people who don't happen to believe in Him? The dreadful terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were a response to decades of US
foreign policy, not the removal of mandatory prayer from primary schools. The terrible spate of school shootings, similarly, can be far more rationally explained by non-supernatural means.

* I'm not sure what relevance Dr Benjamin Spock's son's suicide has to the rest of the argument, so I won't comment any further on that except to note that it's not actually true: Spock had two sons,
Michael and John, both of whom are still alive. His grandson Peter did commit suicide, but I think we can probably attribute that to the severe schizophrenia he suffered from (and was hospitalised for), rather than God being angry at America.

* This article, full as it is of logical fallacies, shoddy reasoning, and biased and inaccurate reporting, is exactly why these people, George W Bush's 'faith-based community', should be kept away from government (and, for that matter, scissors and other sharp implements). I've got nothing against rational, intelligent Christians, indeed I'm pleased to say that I'm friends with many such people (yourself included), I just have a problem with credulous idiots.

* I'd not heard of Stein before, but it turns out he's a leading light of
the creationist movement. He recently cowrote an 'intelligent design' propaganda film (which has the rather apt title of 'Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed') which amongst other things attempts (with some extremely shaky reasoning) to draw links between the theory of evolution and the rise of Nazism.

Summary: To borrow Jeremy Bentham's excellent phrase, it's not just nonsense, it's nonsense upon stilts.

I posted this article because it does make folk think. It will certainly generate some reaction - that's good! However, we do need to think about these issues with due care and scrutiny, and perhaps on some level, that is what Stein is trying to make us do.

To reply to each of Nick's points:

  • I don't want anyone to be pushed around by anyone. Both Judaism and Christianity are founded on the issue that true love generates freedom from oppression. If the gospel is that of a proper love for all human beings, then the beloved must be free to make their own choice.

  • This all depends on what is meant by "judgment from God". If I say, "don't put your hand in the fire" and you do and get burned then I am allowed to make the judgement that a) you don't trust me and b) you have no understanding of fire. As Stein says (quoting the Bible), we reap what we sow, and that is the judgement of God - a predetermined law on which God has established the universe. In some sense, that very judgement has always been there.

    We do things and we have no idea what the consequences will be. If God says no, and we fail to listen and come a cropper, then perhaps we ought to look and see if that was the very reason why God said no in the first place.

  • Synecdoche is a brilliant poetic device, but a very dangerous method of argument, so I cannot rwally defend Stein’s methods. Remember, he is going for effect in the short amount of time allotted to him in his broadcast. The point he is raising is that people are confusing secularism and humanism. I live a secular life in that I am not always in Church, or in the company of my fellow believers. While I do have aspirations to the monastery, I am at the moment called to live a life outside the cloister. That’s good, and I have to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs without being forced to adopt them.

    However, the false assumption peddled by the atheists is that secular society must also be humanist, i.e. cannot reference belief in any religious system for fear of upsetting others. I am not in the least bit offended by Stein’s Judaism (and Creationism), by a Moslem’s following of Islam, or an Evangelical’s following of Christianity. Being a Catholic, I believe that they are wrong, some being more wrong than others. I also believe in another’s right to make a mistake, and if different faiths are to live together then they too must respect this right.

    A humanist society says that my faith cannot be used to make important decisions, such as how I am to raise my children or how I am to vote, and gives no worth to what I say because it is religious in its nature despite the fact that it has practical value. If there were no organised religion, then the question of abortion would still be raised because of the question: is a foetus a human being? Yet if I object to abortion on religious grounds (and I am not sure that it is possible to remove the religious argument from the abortion issue), the humanist society fails to hear me because I am a Catholic. See also the furore over adoption by homosexual couples.

    Where Stein and I agree is that our religious belief should not disqualify our remarks, nor should it absolve us of the duty to speak out on issues of moral concern. We speak out because our faith bids us do so, and too many "religious" people do not do so on the grounds that they will look like idiots rather than stand up for something that they believe in.

  • I don't think that Stein is actually saying that Atheism is responsible for terrorist attacks. If he is, then he's wrong. As G.K. Chesterton said in a short letter to a newspaper : "Dear Sir: Regarding your article 'What's Wrong with the World?' I am. Yours truly, G. K. Chesterton."

    What does appear to be a contributing factor to those attacks is the complacency of the West to what was happening in the Middle East. I do not even blame Islam for the terrorist attacks. I blame whatever power is putting the idea into people's heads that terrorism is a good mathod of political statement and negotiation.

  • With regard to Dr Spock’s grandson’s suicide, I think we are agreed. Authors ought to check facts first before publishing. Clearly as a blogger, it seems that I am not free from stain in that one.

  • Whatever we read, we should ask, “what is the text doing?” This was a broadcast message, designed for people to hear in an age when they are bombarded with lots of information, most of which is more appealing to listen to, so I have sympathy for Stein’s case. Shortly, I shall have 10 minutes to speak to 120 sixth-formers on how Evolution does not prevent me from being a Christian. I doubt if my arguments will be any better than Stein’s.

    The fact is that I am biased and prejudiced: I have a religious faith and a personal relationship with God, so naturally my argument will mention Him a lot and in support of my belief. We all have a bias somewhere, and it's important that we realise that. It’s difficult to be accurate about the application of theory to reality, since by nature of theory there already inaccuracies, and I am far from perfect. You may have noticed that.

    What does concern me more are Governments who seek some form of purity in their composition. There are princes, presidents, popes and patriarchs that have tried to force people around to their belief system with disastrous results. The ideal for this country always used to be that Parliament, Church and Crown would regulate each other. Now of course, we appear to be regulated by a parliament who cannot be held to account. There is no perfect system of government, though some forms are clearly better than others.

    A major reality of this World is: "people disagree with us." Each government has to deal with the issue: “how do we deal with the folk who have voted against us?” Suppression, dismissal, restrictive practice and “squeezing out” are not acceptable, yet occur in each governmental system to some level.

  • I suppose, technically, Nick has made an ad hominem argument here. I know that in debate, one ought to refrain from these, and rather concentrate on what is being said. However, they do bring an extra dimension into the debate if (and only if) the ad hominem statements are accurate and factual.

    As a Christian I believe that God created the Earth – that’s one of the tenets of the creed to which I subscribe. However, the Bible doesn’t answer the question “how?”, it rather gives an explanation for why we exist. For me, answering the “how?” question is the fun bit of science that God allows us to do. However, Creationism goes further than just believing that God created the universe. I don’t object to people holding Creationist beliefs, after all, Bertrand Russell did demonstrate that it was philosophically coherent to believe that the universe came into existence five minutes ago together with the appearance of having the past of millions of years. Yet, given the circumstances and the laws that nature appears to follow and I observe, both Russell’s hypothesis and, subsequently, Creationist belief seem contrary to what I observe, though I cannot prove that it is false.

To comment on Nick's summary: much of what Stein has written may be nonsense, but I cannot dismiss all of what Stein says as nonsense. Perhaps what is more dangerous than the “credulous idiots” are the intelligent Christians who prefer to live their lives without thinking about the consequences of their actions and what they are affirming, and not putting their intelligence to good use. Now there are plenty of those about particularly in the Episcopal Church of the USA and the C of E.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rather than forward it on...

My friend, Jim Ryland, sent this to me. I think the idea is that I should forward it to as many people as I know. Unfortunately, I'm not the most sociable of people and my address book isn't brimming over with names. I thought that this piece deserved to be viewed by more people than I actually know, so I publish it here, well aware that others have done the same, in the hope that my countrymen will read it and realise where this country is going.

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don't feel threatened. I don't feel discriminated against. That's what they are: Christmas trees.

It doesn't bother me a bit when people say, 'Merry Christmas' to me. I don't think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu.

I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren't allowed to worship God as we understand Him? I guess that's a sign that I'm getting old, too... But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.

In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it's not funny, it's intended to get you thinking. Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this happen?' (regarding Katrina) Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'

In light of recent events... terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O'Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn't want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn't spank our children when they misbehave because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr Spock's son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he's talking about. And we said OK.

Now we're asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don't know right from wrong, and why it doesn't bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with 'WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.'

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world's going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send 'jokes' through e-mail and they spread like wildfire but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how when you forward this message, you will not send it to many on your address list because you're not sure what they believe, or what they will think of you for sending it.

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit. If not then just discard it... no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don't sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards,

Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

Dare you email this post to your friends, or are you really as unsociable as I am?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Does it really matter?

Let's face it, proper Anglo-Catholics (i.e. not Aff-Caths, who are High Church in their ritual and nothing more) get a bad press for holding onto their "outdated and restrictive beliefs". The World and the liberal churches view us as splitting the Church over things that do not matter. Does it really matter who waves their hands over bread and wine and says "Hocus Pocus"?

This same issue was raised in the BBC television series The Vicar of Dibley when the female "vicar" when addressing opponents to the ordination of women states that people who worry about women's ordination ought to be worrying about bigger things. This is what the British public have seen broadcast about the issue, and seems to be a sentiment that is shared, not only with the secular society, but also the C of E as well. I heard in a sermon yesterday that the roles of women in the Church, or of the ordination of practising homosexuals are not issues that would only bother the Lord because they damage "inclusivity".

Essentially, we have to look at what the secular world (and an increasingly secular denomination) regards as an issue that it considers more important than what is splitting the Church. A quick straw poll among the folk around me reveals that battling injustice, poverty, global warming, needless suffering and disease are more important.

Of course they are important.

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah lviii.6-7)

Clearly we are to work for a society that is free from the powers of darkness, to show love to all human beings. Yet,

[God] has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah vi.8)

Both passages are in complete agreement: a human being cannot truly be called a follower of God if he does not act in a way that is fair, loving, merciful and humble. Indeed, St John says that we can never have known God if we fail to love. As Christians, it is imperative that we work at doing something to bring the freedom and light of God into the world, so the "big issues" are very much at the heart of what Christians ought to do.

However, if we look at the "big issues" carefully, we see that they have always been with us as the Lord Himself predicted they would be. Is this solely the fault of the Church concentrating on God? Well, no.

Certainly, it is the fault of some elements of the Church for choosing to seek power and to exercise their power through oppression, but other elements have been steadfast in doing just as God commands, with some success but not reaching all the people. Oppression still exists, and why? Because humanity is fallen - utterly so. Altruistic efforts on the part of the secular society, nor on the part of the Church will not be enough to end this oppression because somewhere, somehow, someone just starts it all up again. There is nothing new under the Sun.

If we truly walk humbly with God, then this means not only recognising, but also accepting our limitations and failures as well as our capabilities and successes. Humility is an honest appraisal of ourselves as individuals and or ourselves as a Church in the light of God. We cannot operate without God. None of our altruistic schemes have any relevance - indeed cannot even be truly altruistic - without God.

So God comes first, because He points to a way in which suffering is ended like the travails of childbirth. The relief from suffering is eschatological. We do not understand why now such suffering exists save for a vague notion of what it means to have free-will. We certainly know that much human suffering is caused by humanity itself which only heightens our need for God.

If then we put God first, then there must be a process where we act as if we put God first. Is there such a process? Yes, it's called worship.

So how are we to worship? We could just do our own thing, but it is clear from scripture that there has to be an element of coming together, of commonality as the Jews and Christians gather together. In the twelfth chapter of Acts we read that the Christian community worshipped God together in an act referred to as leitourgia whence the word "liturgy". From its earliest beginnings, the Church has used liturgy to worship God so that we follow the way that God Himself wants to be worshipped. The relationship between God and Humanity hasn't changed, and neither has the pattern of worship.

Two thousand years have elapsed since the first Eucharist, and, in creating the Eucharist, the Lord Himself has instituted a pattern and a priesthood for the Universal (i.e. Catholic) Church to follow throughout history. This guarantees that we receive the same Communion with God, as did the first disciples, and worship Him in the way that He considers to be worship, and are fed by Him with food that truly sustains and equips us for serving God and our brethren. The Eucharist is not a little issue. It is not some trivial issue, but has a significance beyond the visible scientific world.

So, yes, the Eucharist does matter and matters more than the problems of this world because it points to Godly ways in which the problems of this world are to be relieved if we receive it properly, meditate on its effects and engage with God in a Communion that He desires to have with us. The problems of this world, though severe, are nonetheless fleeting, and if we see these issues only as important then we are forgetting about the spiritual welfare of those around us.

The West languishes in a spiritual famine, the like of which has not been seen for some time because it has systematically rejected its spiritual existence in favour of the material. In making ourselves fat on food and possessions, we have become spiritually thin and emaciated. Our relationship with God is feeble, the worship in the C of E becoming mere lip-service, and indeed mere ritualistic "Hocus pocus" (where of course ritual is being observed). We do not take our Opus Dei seriously and as a consequence we are in danger of losing our very selves.

The "big issues" and the Mass are inextricably linked in Communion with God, and only He can put us on the path to see His Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

New blog

I've just found Alana's blog. She's always been kind enough to read this bloglet and make comments, and I've always found her Orthodox beliefs very refreshing. So, in the best tradition of reciprocation, do check out what she has to say - it really is worth hearing.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Soul Music: aspiration versus affectation

Striggio's Ecce Beatam Lucem.

Tallis' Spem in Alium

I have just spent a very pleasant half an hour listening to, in my opinion, three of the most uplifting pieces of music written: Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Ecce Beatam Lucem by Alessandro Striggio and O Bone Jesu by Robert Carver which I'm yet to find on YouTube, but I thoroughly recommend that you purchase the recordings properly as they sound much more glorious than these rather grainy videos.

I'll readily admit that I am a big fan of polychoral motets - pieces of music which involve more than one choir of voices. On a much feebler scale I write my own which come nowhere near to the sheer genius of these highly talented and gifted musicians. I find that writing such pieces puts an enormous strain on my grasp of music, trying to get the noises in my head into some sensible and orderly form to express some form of my worship of God. It is a vast effort on my part, but then I am not a trained composer and have very little knowledge of form, structure or texture. I also doubt that I will ever hear my compositions performed other than by the munchkin chorus that inhabits my computer. That doesn't worry me too much - I don't write for performance because I worry that I might become conceited from any adulation and dispirited by any criticism.

However, the point is that I try to do something that pushes against the everyday tendency to ignore God. Music requires effort if it is to be done well and inspire people and worship God. The blood of the composer must be spilt into the manuscript page, and likewise the blood of the performer must be drawn if the music has any chance of lifting the soul from this veil of suffering and to touch the Divine who in His great act of humility permits us to touch Him.

Tomorrow, I shall go into Church and I shall hear songs half-sung, words half-read and prayers barely prayed. The angelic voices to which I have recently just listened will be replaced by songs that are easy to sing, that speak of the comfort of our position and how nice that chap Jesus is. There will be no aspirations, there will be no desire to move forward, there will be no wish to upset the status quo. All will be done to maintain a nice atmosphere while we watch the Rector putting on his performance at the altar, and it will mean absolutely nothing. And then we shall all get up and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, ignorant in our bloodless existence of the sheer and titanic effort that He made in order that we might receive that Communion.

It doesn't matter which parish I'm talking about - it's the face of Sunday worship in the C of E, with its modern take on things and its desire to make it easy for people to come through the door. to understand what's going on, to enjoy oneself.

Church Music is one single aspect and barometer of the spiritual state of the Church. I am not saying that every church needs to sing Striggio's 40/60 part Missa sopra Ecco beato giorno as its weekly Mass setting. The dear monks at Elmore Abbey do their level best at singing the simple chants in their hard Office. I don't think they are trained singers, but their simple effort and hard work make that music special even though it's a single unison line of music. If they can do it, then we should be thus able. We just need to get rid of the gimmicks, the affectations such as tambourines, guitars, drums and Clavinovas with their helicopter sound effects and put some effort into singing hymns of worship that are directed God-ward and not "Here am I Lord, look at me, Lord" which the majority of these ridiculous and offensive worship songs are, both from a theological and aesthetic point of view.

Sing to the Lord a new song? Yes, but one that we've actually made an effort to compose well.