Saturday, 10 March 2018

More coping strategies

It's all about survival! This is what I used to say to my wife when our twins were babies. Just get through! It's important but sometimes treacherous terrain to occupy. You can justify a silly wine bill and more biscuits than are strictly good for you with reasoning like that.

Yet if the survival mandate is important, it's not the be-all-and-end-all. Charles Péguy once wondered how many betrayals had arisen from the fear of not looking progressive enough; we might equally wonder how many compromises have arisen from making survival an absolute. Survival as an absolute sometimes involves us in uncompromising flight, and sometimes flight is a lesser expression of fear than having to stay and withstand the spectacle of whatever threatens us. For example, I've no doubt the rate of converts from Catholicism to Orthodoxy is on the rise currently. At a distance, it seems like a sanctuary of mystery in the context of moral therapeutic deism that afflicts so many of our co-religionists. It is a flight, however, and the sanctuary is not as safe as we might suppose. 

In this context I came across a passage of Georges Bernanos's novel La Joie. It needs little commentary and the characters' names hardly matter. I'll just leave it here (as they say these days)...

I have mocked fear too much, he admitted one day. I was young and way too hot blooded.

What? she replied, I cannot believe you are saying that to me. Are you now going to give fear entry into Paradise?

He raised his red, swollen hand as if to calm her down, laughing silently as he did.

Not so fast, not so fast! In a way, even fear is a daughter of God, redeemed on the night of Good Friday. She is not beautiful to look at - no! - sometimes ridiculed, sometimes cursed, abandoned by everyone...however, make no mistake about it: she is at the bedside of every dying person where she intercedes for man.

The courageous man is not the one who feels no fear; he's the one who holds fast, even when he is fearful. That surely is the meaning of "Do not be afraid". It is not a call for severing ourselves from the desire to flee, as if Jesus were inviting us to a condition of nursery-teatime security; it is a command not to flee when the fear comes. And it surely will.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Monday, 5 March 2018

The technology crutch

Our water pressure has gone very low. It's not hard to fathom why. Our week of Siberian temperatures has led to frozen pipes, water leaks and a wave of emergency call-outs across the county. The shortage is creeping closer and closer to us. Tonight by 6pm the other side of the street had no water at all. My young daughter thought it would be clever to flush the toilet for no reason and was surprised that the cistern then refused to fill up again (at least at anything other than a senile snail's pace). So, here we are, in one of Britain's largest cities, and across the suburbs the water pressure is going down to a trickle or stopping completely.

The shelves of the local supermarket were already cleared of the cheaper bottled water by the time I arrived after 7pm this evening. Bowed figures could be seen struggling through the doors, laden with lires and litres of water. I'd never realised how heavy the stuff is! In point of fact, without a well-oiled trolley or some other means of portage, you cannot actually carry that much without incurring injury.

Back at home I headed into the garden to find to my dismay that the children's snowmen had already melted with all of today's rain. There goes my water flush supply, I thought! Then I remembered how much was still stockpiled in the front garden and so out I headed with the wheelbarrow to collect it all for flushing purposes!

Over reaction, you say? Well, we want to be careful, especially with three small children in the house. But bobbling about tonight, making my logistical preparations for a small water shortage, made me think how brilliant our water system is and, equally, how patently vulnerable we are when it breaks down. Here we are in our gloriously complicated civilisation but how close in fact to a state of incipient chaos. Miss a beat or two and the structure begins to sag beneath the strain. We only occasionally have flashes of how close we are to social breakdown. The petrol lorry drivers strike a few years ago was one such moment.

Henri Bergson believed that every technological progress required an equally profound spiritual progress in order to counterbalance it. We might say in a different sense that every technological progress comes at the cost of some skill or practice. Most of us are rubbish at letter writing now. Mind you, conversational skills are probably on the wane also. Invent the phonograph/record player/CD player/mp3 file and while you will not kill musical skills altogether, you will encourage above all their vicarious enjoyment: let others play while we sit back and listen. And soon enough there will be hardly any parlour pianos and youths will even privatise their own vicariously performed music with earplugs.

So what did the water system destroy for us? Well, probably quite a bit of death and disease, and that is no bad thing! The problem, however, is our infrastructures are now organised on the basis of water being piped clean and fresh into our own homes. We don't have wells (and their loss was probably another killer of social cohesion). At least we know we have to boil water if it comes from a standing pipe in the street (if things get that bad), but our whole lifestyle supposes this is not the way of things. Before I had a mobile phone, I kept probably a dozen phone numbers in my head. Now, I don't even remember my wife's!

So, you say, in that case, why even learn to write? Well, quite. In Greek mythology Theuth presents Thamus with the gift of writing and the latter complains precisely that it will destroy memory. That's the cost of the technological crutch. Use a tool of some description and you risk losing something else. I make no argument in favour of grass-skirted, native-level, Luddite obscurantism, but I do argue in defence of the ethical gate to technological progress. In the war of all against all, you cannot not pursue a technology when your neighbour has it. Such a decision would leave you tactically, not to say strategically, weaker. In a world under ethical guidance, however, there are other calculations to be made beside that of how to reign supreme. How to be good, for a start.

Our water will probably come back to normal pressure by the morning (I say with trepidation). Other crises no doubt await when different technologies break down. In this context I cannot help ticking off my privileges and admitting to all the advantages that they provide me with.

Nevertheless, just a small flirtation with a breakdown of the system is enough to remind one of how thin civilisation's technological skin is. We look orderly, we might even have reasonably clean streets and normally functioning cities. But beneath it all we bleed with the vulnerability of humans. Were we not to protect ourselves so well with our tools, we might live a more human life without even trying very much.  

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The joy of disconnection

Well, a near miss! Debacle postponed until further notice. I've read the letter from the CDF which was what was published on Thursday and, frankly, wondered what on earth had prompted it. Here we are in the middle of a nasty doctrinal storm and we get what looks like an interesting sideshow. Sure, pelagianism in anything but name is always relevant. There has probably been a kind of pelagianism attested in every period of the Church, even before Pelagius! Human agency is a universal phenomenon arising from our status as moral beings. It's always relevant to talk about it, except when perhaps there are more important things to talk about. Just saying.

Meanwhile, we're snowed in where we live in the UK. After days of inaccurate weather forecasts, they finally got it right, and when the Beast from the East met Storm Emma - which sounds like a mixed wrestling match -  the snow came down in relentless flurries.  I love this kind of moment. I'm not moving the car because the handbrake freezes in sub-zero weather. The roads are treacherous in any case because, as far as I know, they have not been gritted. At least I don't have to go to work. I've told my children that all we have to do this weekend is snuggle for warmth and make it to Mass. They have responded by going into a fit of cabin fever and are now taking it in turns to sing loudly down opposite ends of a physiotherapy roller. The joys of childhood!

There is something therapeutic when the natural elements reduce our freedom and squeeze us into some creative corner. The contemporary instinct is to reach for a device and enter it (damn it, much as I have done now). Albert Borgmann, the German-American philosopher, talks about the device paradigm: the network of options and actions that flow from and to a device, organising our activity (and, let it be said, reorganising our spiritual palettes). Normally, when people use the word 'paradigm' these days, it makes me want to reach for my copy of Thomas Kuhn and whack them with it. Borgmann isn't a pretentious theologian, however, so we'll let him off. We'll let him off also because the contrary of the device paradigm is no kind of paradigm at all but what he labels a 'focal practice': an action creative or otherwise that serves as a focus of attention individually or collectively. Watching a TV talent show locks us in a device paradigm; singing together would be a focal practice. Surfing my neighbours' Facebook page would encase us both in a device paradigm; inviting them in for a cup of tea and a chat around the fire would be a focal practice.

You see, one of the problems with seeing pelagianism everywhere - and I'm not saying there is not quite a bit of it about - is that one risks being insensitive to what technology does to human agency. What I mean is that the more we force our actions through a technological instrument, somehow the more we are exposed to a phenomenon of vicarious substitution where our agency is transferred to some artifice. Google will save our passwords for us; electronic diaries will remind us of appointments; we bank online (well, I don't but the rotten banks are making things increasingly difficult for people like me). That is all well and good but the same kind of transfer in other areas of life can only be an impoverishment. I have letters written to me twenty-five years ago that I treasure but oddly enough no texts from even twenty-five months ago. Friendships forged around a dinner table and bottles of wine somehow (mostly) go deeper than their electronic equivalents. Worse still, people you thought were electronic friends sometimes disappear like a fart in the wind when pressed into real life.

This last phenomenon could be indicative. One of the troubles with technology is that the more complicated the instrument the more we are capable of divorcing ourselves from engagement with its outcomes. Technology allows us to colonise spaces that are a thousand miles away but also to hold those that occupy them at a distance. I have no doubt this appeals perversely to certain personalities and even cultures, the British in particular. Yet I cannot help but reflect not on the gains but on the losses. If there is more rejoicing in heaven over the return of the one lost sheep than over the ninety-nine faithful ones, I wonder if there is also more rejoicing at one real human connection than over ninety-nine digital ones. Sometimes even the most digitally connected of us longs for that digital connection to elicit a truly human response.

And so we arrive at these curious paradoxes: first, that in the age of connectivity we are often less connected, and second, that humanly connecting more might mean digitally connecting less. I was reading yesterday a text written in the late 1920s that was lamenting the domination of technology. "Men are now the slaves of machines, to the point of even becoming one body with them," the writer lamented. Perhaps this is yet another paradox of the technological culture: that as we distance ourselves more from our bodies through our technologies, we become the vicarious bodies of artificial intelligences. After all, we are all unwittingly working for the big internet companies who process our data trails, repackage and sell them on for profit. Oh, glory of the age of Zuckerberg! We are the living, breathing beasts of digital burden, investing our time by chomping our way through clickbait, and leaving a surprisingly exploitable slurry behind us in our wake. Behold the digital man!

At this point, there is only one thing left for me to do, which is to disconnect and intervene in my children's game which has now reached some extraordinary flight of fancy, based somewhat disturbingly on the abduction of Persephone...I wish my reader a snow-free, and more especially a technology-free, weekend (when you're finished here of course!)!

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...

... another papal document is announced! Since I'm blogging from a new tablet and have not yet cracked all its intricacies, I cannot provide the link that is circulating online to the announcement by the Vatican press office. You'll find it. If you want to, that is. My betting is that by Friday we will not be able to avoid it very much. Or will we? Prepare for a two-paragraph tangent on my favoured hobby horse...

See, that's the problem with the information age. It always assumes you are ready to hear the news and that you will want to know the news. Indeed, it always assumes you need to know the news and that any news out there is good for you.

One of the major problems with all those assumptions is that the information age is absolutely indifferent to whether news is true or not. Notice the language used about false news: it is not called false but 'fake' news. Could it be that this is no misnomer?  If they called it false news, then the news consumer could rightly demand true news. But the opposite of fake is not true; the opposite of fake is authentic/original. And the problem with that Greek looking word is that it is full of German subjectivist guff about the supremacy of sincerity (not meaning to knock sincerity obviously). No, the information age does not offer true news! It offers authentic news, sincerely meant, honestly fabricated from sources verified by no lesser moral authorities than journalists, many of whom are even honest souls. But none of this produces true news; only authentic news, quality sourced and - ooh err, feel the love! - responsibly reported.  But I digress...

Assuming this announcement about a new papal encyclical is both true and authentic, my simple question is: why read the story? Why get drawn into the whole sorry storm of fawning idolisation and incoherent rage that will no doubt attend the letter's publication? We all know what will happen. Spadaro et al. will gather around to talk about a new parallel theology or a quantum interpretation of the moral law or perhaps a bio-evolutionary rereading of theandric hermeneutics or some such. They will hold the largest levers of the information pump. Meanwhile, the Christians,

...a declining band
Will point with monitory hand,

 and say what we are now accustomed to saying repeatedly, desperately, fruitlessly about Pope Francis's utterances (I here abstract from all carefully made distinctions about magisterial authority about which I profess my incompetence). Need I go on?

 I'm not advocating incidentally that the best response is one of blythe indifference - the response that no doubt 97% of the world's population will have - or a well-studied yawn. Heaven forfend.

I'm not quite sure what to label my strategy, if I can stick to it (which I doubt). But I'm minded to call it the "post-coenam" strategy. Don't panic. This is the kind of moment lived by the disciples while Christ was in prison overnight. We sometimes think - I know I'm tempted to think - that the wheels have finally come off the Catholic Church and that this papacy is proof that whatever is true, it's not what we thought. That is not a wholly unfaithful thought but it is a dangerous one without tethering it to the gospel.

In which case, in my view our patrons now are the disciples after the arrest of Jesus. Jesus is in prison; Peter has betrayed him; everything is in disarray; the glory of Palm Sunday is long gone and the sense of power from Jesus' miracles is a thing of the past, a mere dream. We've never been in such a sorry mess, you say? Well, we haven't but the disciples have. Those special friends of Jesus with hardly two acts of courage to rub together in the early hours of Good Friday. Is that over dramatising things? Maybe. But I've known people give up on the Church seemingly for less.

So, friends, that's my advice (not that you were asking). Walk this mile with the disciples. Perhaps it's better to call it the post-Gethsemane hour. The only question now is whether you are going to stick with him.

We keep looking for light in the wrong places; that's human. But if you want to face the probable debacle of this Thursday with some peace, don't follow the news trails.  Read the gospel. The age of innocence is long gone.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Prayer request

Please pray for the 9 month old nephew of a friend of mine who must have an emergency heart operation on Wednesday morning. His name is Gioele.

Sawing off the branch on which I'm sitting

Anyone who has read this blog before will know I have a downer on digital culture. I am of course thereby thrust unwillingly, albeit not unconsciously, into the classic position of the man who is sawing off the branch on which he is sitting. So be it, say I. If it is so, it will not be the least absurd of all the contradictions that circulate the globe in a digital format.

Better that than other vices which existed prior to the internet and will always attend those who try to communicate in any way imaginable (which is all the human race!): the vices I refer to are a failure to be conscious of one's tools of communication; a failure to be aware that they shape what we say and even what we think; and the failure to admit that humans always have an ambiguous relationship with their tools. Errors or vices, say you? The former very often lead to the latter.

I know what you're thinking, so stop it! A bad workman always blames his tools. That may be true but its truth is not nearly so close to home as that of the lesser used adage: we make our tools and our tools make us. What kind of man does the internet make? That is the question. That is all the more the question if, as today, we spend so much of our time thinking, feeling and operating through its channels.

None of this would matter perhaps until we get to the question of whether the man made by the internet conforms to the man planned in the mind of God. Here the question is not whether the internet can be a good source of information or even a weapon of leverage in the information age. The question is whether immersion in it is compatible with our call to wisdom, the greatest of the gifts of the Holy Ghost and the one that makes us most like God.

Saw-saw-saw.  I know. Some questions are best left to simmer on their own.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

And another thing...

My wife tells me I often pause during conversation, even during sentences, for an unnervingly long period. Perhaps never so long as eleven months, however! I did promise at the end of my last post (16 April 2017) that I might not be blogging very much but nearly a whole year is perhaps an exaggeration. Is there anybody there? said the blogger, knocking at the moonlight screen.

Several years ago I published a long extract from Georges Bernanos on the topic of the differences between Martin Luther and St Francis. The burden of the extract was all about how one reacts to corruption in the Church and how one kind of reaction - the obvious kind - threatens to lead us down the same path as Luther. Luther had a point about Church corruption; not that that was his only preoccupation. But his answer to it was a damaging as St Francis's was beneficial. St Francis's response was not to go around the place scourging the evil doers. It was, to paraphrase Bernanos, to return to the fountains of sanctity.

Bernanos could afford to be wild in his rhetoric. He didn't have a Church to run. The Franciscans were split in the early years - not to say more recently - by the competing interpretations of just how far one can take the demands of evangelical poverty: fountains of sanctity then or sources of dispute? I suppose what Bernanos might have said to those arguing for the utter necessity of competent administration is that it can only ever be one small element in what is the wider, deeper and more challenging vocation of being called to follow the Lord.

But I digress. I only wanted to say that I decided out of the blue this morning to start blogging again. Anyone who has read me over the years will know what I think of the Church's current administration. Indeed, my strap line beneath the blog's title refers to it. But if I come back here now, it is only in the spirit of Bernanos's St Francis. I said some time ago we are living in a post-dubia Church. Indeed, we still are. But why should it also belong to the dubia-refusers?

One of the many insights of French cultural anthropologist René Girard - among some silly things - is that if we allow our actions to be shaped by reaction to our aggressors, we unconsciously risk imitating them. Much better, therefore, to adopt the St Francis's agenda. Dip into the sources of sanctity and share them with others. As I come back to blogging, I would much rather adopt that strategy than any other.

The waves crashing around us have sunk many a small ship in the last couple of years. The going has been hard. The questions many and complex.  Not a few people have taken as their gospel point of reference the story of Jesus asleep in the boat in a storm while the apostles, hardened fishermen though some of them are, get increasingly desperate. It is the Lord himself who tells us not to be afraid, although I have to say my feeling is less fear and more like nausea.

Still, the solutions are now what they have always been. Love, duty, joy .. and no panicking. Easier said than done.

Still, for what it's worth, 'Ahoy there, shipmates.' I'm back, at least for a while.