The gift of curiosity

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

I have realized that I hide from people who have too much certainty.

This is largely confined to people with a Christian faith, probably because I hang around with them a lot of the time.

But I have learned to dread them. Like Russian battle tanks, they approach, waving their whatsit, ready to turn their turret on anything that departs from the Doctrines of Grace, ‘the faith once-for-all delivered to the saints’. They’re good at it too, and I feel myself shrivel as they gun for my theological loose thinking.

I think I’ve always felt this dread, so it is unlikely to be a virtue. When I was a young Christian I remember the pastor of my then-church say during a sermon, ‘I was reading C S Lewis recently and I’ve found the error in him.’ Given that their relative intellectual attainments were as different from each other as a sideboard is from a lunch-box, I did not feel this was an especially wise thing to say.

Where is the curiosity? Where is the head-in-shower joy in discovering that you are completely wrong? Where is the zest for learning, and growth, and change? Where — we might add– is the humility, the poverty of spirit? It is not that there isn’t certainty in the Christian faith — there is — it is that people can get carried away and have too much of it, in too many areas, and it isn’t pleasant to see; gracelessly and proudly defending grace.

While all the while, shafts of truth can flash from completely outside the Christian space, or from theologically-dubious people within it, and do us the world of good.

I think of Isaac Newton’s famous quote:

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

That was Isaac Newton. Meanwhile Russian tanks are proving a bit vulnerable, much better parading around the place than seeing real action.

The beautiful light touch

Photo by Andraz Lazic on Unsplash

I wonder if the light touch is what makes genius. So many areas: the penalty taker in soccer: does he (or she) just thump into the top corner, English centre-forward style? Or do they send the keeper the wrong with a little shimmy–a light touch–then side-foot the ball into the net? Does the music, or the writing, or the engineering, tend towards the sound and thunder, the power, or the elegant, effective, quiet, light touch?

I see it in my own field. When faced with a scandal, it’s easy to over-write, loading up the text with adjectives. But as good journalists everywhere appear to know, it’s more forceful to focus on one human story, telling it simply, letting it gnaw at the reader’s psyche. Sure, you can follow your story with your substantial evidence and research, but it’s the light touch that gets under the skin.

At the heart of ‘light touch’ is a virtue that I do not hear routinely praised in my neighbourhood: creativity, originality, looking at things in a fresh way.

We who claim to be Christians are of all people those with the least excuse for not seeking creative solutions. We are not chained to a rule book or a procedure manual, we serve a living and creative Christ. We herald and anticipate a new heavens and new earth that is preparing to burst out of this maggoty old one like a butterfly from its sleeping bag. If we resort to old, traditional, heavy-duty, heavy-weather approaches we are of all people most to be pitied or perhaps even despised.

Was Jesus ‘light touch’? Not when denouncing pharisees, one feels, calling them out as snakes. Nor when ordering demons around. But in his stories, in his dealings with the vulnerable, in his meek suffering, there was such a gentle hand and such an open hand. There was also such creative genius and novel approaches. He taught, then walked, rather than making the sale. The light touch and the creativity did much of the rest.

I like that.

Conservation v the common good

Looking beyonder

I think we can do better than Conservation. Conservation, as perhaps exemplified by the conservation movement, looks backwards, restoring things (habitats, rainforest, species). It wants to wind back our atmospheric carbon dioxide to the level at, or ultimately before, the level at the start of the Industrial Revolution. (This latter idea, is, of course, hard to disagree with given that wreckage that a sudden increase is causing. )

But on that perspective Conservation starts to look like other programmes that thrive on grievance and nostalgia. There’s even an undercurrent that Planet Earth would be a lot better better without nature-munching humans. Greens, on this view (and I mean political greens rather than the members of the brassica family), could start to look regressive and repressive, just like the populist right.

This is sub-optimal and sub-Christian. I really like and definitely prefer the alternate messages that spill out of the gospel.

  1. Seek the common good. This is tons better than ‘preserve the environment’. Because it (a) embraces both humans and the rest of creation together, (b) gives a coherent framework for reponsible decision-making (c) is open-ended, creative and replete with possibility, and (d) is centred around love. It’s a million times better than just winding back the clock, and it enables us to consider all our actions (flying across the Atlantic for example) in the light of the best loving options, rather than simply the tedious and ill-defined business of minimising our feelings of guilt or indulging in self-justification.
  2. The future is brighter than the past. This is a deep Christian assumption. Creation–according to the apostles– groans, waiting for God’s people to be unveiled. In the meantime, we humans are to foreshadow and pre-echo and anticipate that future by how we live and what we do now. This also makes us look at Conservation in a different light. The nature that Conservationists are wanting to return to is in large part cruel and bloody. A lot of animals (if you watch the BBC nature programmes anyway) seem to spend their days fearing for or fleeing for their lives, while chasing down and eating other animals along the way. Consider a puffin with a mouthful of sand-eels, trying to stop a gull from stealing the eels out of its beak. Which animal is doing well here? The gull? The puffin? The sand-eels? Creation appears to be subject to frustration, which idea crops up now and then in the Bible. What’s the better way? Humans and nature thriving together. What’s the future? The trees clap their hands, the mountains sing together, the sea-monsters praise God, the lion lies down with the lamb and eats hay like the ox. The whole creation thrives and flourishes, people and nature singing along together. Obviously, as with all things eschatological, we can neither foreknow the details nor make them happen, but we can witness to them by the way we live now. And it opens up a world.

Tom Holland on Marx

I may have mentioned how much I enjoyed Tom Holland’s book Dominion, which explains the Western mindset as something that emerged, like lentils, made edible after a good soaking – in this case a soaking in two milliennia of Christian thought. Here’s his take on Karl Marx.

[Marx claimed] All his evaluations, all his predictions, derived from observable laws, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.’ Here was a slogan with the clarity of a scientific formula.

Except, of course, that was no such thing. Its line of descent was evident to anyone familiar with the Acts of the Apostles. ‘Selling their possessions and goods , they gave to everyone as he had need.’ Repeatedly, throughout Christian history, the communism practised by the earliest Church had served radicals as their inspiration … [ p441]Marx’s interpretion of the world appeared fuelled by certainties that had no obvious source is his model of economics. They rose instead from profounder depths. Again and again, the magma flow of his indignation would force itself through the crust of his scientific-sounding prose. For a self-professed materialist, he was oddly prone to seeing the world as the Church Fathers had once done: as a battleground between cosmic forces of good and evil … The very words used by Marx to construct his model of class struggle – ‘exploitation’, ‘enslavement’,’avarice’ – owed less to the chill formulations of economists than to something far older: the claims to divine inspiration of the biblical prophets. If, as he insisted, he offered his followers a liberation from Christianity, then it was one that seemed eerily like a recalibration of it. (pp440-441)

The pre-soaked Western mind

See the world differently

I’ve just finished a remarkable book. I know I spend a lot of time (and have lots of my adventures) within the pages of a good book, but this one was special, making me see the world a different way.

The argument of Tom Holland’s bestseller Dominion is that the Western mind has been so deeply tinted by the Christian faith that we can’t wash it off, and everything we touch carries the stain. Some examples:

  • Atheism is a child of Christendom. The battle against superstition, against gods being everywhere, and gods for everything, goes back to the book of Genesis, was refuelled by the book of Isaiah, was clear in Paul, and emerged again in the Reformation, with the frightening statue-smashing of the reformers. (I visit my nearby Ely Cathedral and still am shocked by the damage, and this rowdy lot are evidently my spiritual ancestors.) What was the French Revolution? Christian-inspired iconoclasm clad in the garments of rationalism. It’s not that ‘pure reason’ had existed forever, bubbling under the surface somewhere, waiting to be let out. What did for the idols, what did for superstition was Christianity, and the revolutionaries just grabbed its clothes.
  • Humanism is a child of Christendom. As Tom Holland points out, ‘The wellspring of humanist values lay not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in history’ (p522). And in this case, the history of Christendom. The World Humanist Congress (an almost entirely Western affair) affirming in 2002, ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual’ is itself a statement of pure dogma, proven neither by science nor reason, but grounded in a Christian perspective on the world. The peoples of antiquity didn’t believe it. The idea that the weak are just as valuable as the strong is a Christian idea and ideal.
  • The American Constitution, for those who are interested, is a child of Christendom. Listen to this fun quote: ‘That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths … The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic – no matter what some of those who had composed its founding documents might have cared to think – was the book of Genesis’ and ‘The genius of the authors of the United States constitution was to garb in the robes of the Enlightenment the radical Protestantism that as the prime religious inheritance of their fledging nation.’ (p384).

I could go on. In future blogs, I probably will.

Overcome evil with good (and slow)

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

In Erzin county in Turkey, despite the two earthquakes, not a single building collapsed. The Economist reported that ‘the local mayor and his predecessor told local media that they did not allow any illegal construction. Both used the same phrase: “My conscience is clear.”‘1. Another theory is that the geology of that area is different from more damaged places. Perhaps the answer is a complex mix of factors; or perhaps integrity was enough.

Lots of press commentary implies that, though Turkey has strict building codes, a little informal negotiation with local officials usually meant you could reinforce your steel with less iron or add another floor or two. These were the buildings that fell like concrete Jenga blocks on their sleeping tenants.

Was that evil? And is ‘evil’ (if it exists) the reason lots of hopeful optimism about the benefits of reason and technology are overstated or misplaced? If people were reasonable, and if we got the tech right, perhaps we could build buildings on earthquake zones that didn’t fall down. But as soon as developers suck their teeth, and bend a bit, and hand over some cash, and ease down on what are very restrictive and expensive rules, which shut out ordinary people from buying homes at reasonable prices…

We are all of us suspects in these crimes. What do any of us do when (as we think) an overfussy law stands inconveniently in our way? When does a little flexing and bending, or even a little transgressing, become ‘evil’? Food for thought.

The perils of music

Especially if you’re trying to avoid invisible beings

It can bite. Photo by Raúl Cacho Oses on Unsplash

I had to write an article recently about what happens to people who leave God and God-stuff alone 1.

I wrote about my suspicion that God doesn’t leave them alone.

One culprit was music:

Perhaps this is a stretch for some of us. But theology teaches us that music is a shared feature of heaven and earth. Both realms ring with song, heaven more so than earth, and for a reason. Think of an orchestral or choral performance: unity, diversity, individual gifts, some performers with a great range and others just bashing triangles at appropriate moments, all blended into a completeness that is not static or boring, but fluid and dynamic; at its best, an ever-flowing perfection of fulfilled performers harmonizing together. Isn’t it, can’t it be, a heavy hint of what God and his people are destined finally to be? When you hear or perform music, are you distantly echoing what the divine is and does? Are your expressing a desire for something greater than what you have now? Are you reaching for transcendence? If I may say so, I think you may be. Even some of the most hard-boiled atheists I know seek transcendence in music.  

Food for thought.

‘To no-one sell, to no-one deny justice’

Eight hundred and eight years ago, they got it right.

I was at King’s Cross Station and I had some time so I popped over to the British Library to see its treasures. (I’ve done this, and blogged about this, before.) It’s rich.

  • The Codex Siniaticus, in its fading capital Greek letters, mother lode of all the Bibles in the world:
  • A Gutenburg Bible, all beautifully neat and Germanic.
  • Some decorated gospels, astonishingly intricate, every page a painting.
  • St Cuthbert’s pocket Bible, the oldest bound book in Europe, c. ad 700, handwritten, carried by the saint in his travels and placed with him in his grave.

There’s a folio from Mozart, hand-scribbled, his crochets little dots:

You can run your eye over Jane Austen’s portable writing desk…

or a letter from Gandhi from prison or a suffragette appeal to the Prime Minister. All in one place…

Just to be greedy, the British Library has two copies of the Magna Carta, one illegible. It also displays its full text, and tells about its chequered history, revoked, altered, reissued, but still a foundation stone because it anchored in English law the Biblical idea: not rex lex (the king is the law) but lex rex (the law is king).

One historian (I think it was Neall Ferguson) has discussed what he calls ‘apps’ that when set to run in a nation, make it prosper and its peoples thrive. Here’s one that has survived down the years in English law from the Magna Carta, enshrined there still despite all the revocations and revisions:

To no-one will we sell, to no-one will we delay or deny right or justice.

Plenty of people in the UK could perhaps argue that justice for them has been delayed or denied. Nevertheless. I’ve had the privilege of knowing many justice workers over the years and, articulated or not, attributed to the Magna Carta or not, I think the fire still burns and is the motive force behind those who serve.

Slow, inconvenient, annoying to some in power. May it be so always.

Sneaky transcendence

It keeps slipping in

Photo by John Baker on Unsplash

I wrote last week how the great classic science fiction of the 1950s and 1960s was really modernism in the clothes of fiction. (This is a discovery for me. Sorry if it was obvious to you.) It argued, throw enough Reason and Technology at the world, and its problems will be solved. In a way it was a continuation of the 19th century idea of ‘Progress’ where with enough steam and civilisation, all the ‘savages’ would be tamed. ‘Space,’ said James T Kirk, representing both 1960s SF, and a Victorian mindset: ‘the final frontier.’

I mentioned Arthur C Clarke, science and science fiction writer, my writing hero when I was younger. I have read everything I can find that he wrote, a compliment I’ve paid to no other writer. I studied at the same college as him, and much the same subject. (He did a joint honours in maths and physics at King’s College London, I did physics only, and not so well.) I’ve read about him, his work with the British Interplanetary Society, his meeting at the Eastgate pub in Oxford with Val Kilner, C S Lewis, and J R R Tolkien, his admission of not being exactly ‘gay’ (though he surely was) but ‘merely mildly cheerful’.

He said religion was mumbo jumbo and implied science was the surer answer. (Lewis and Tolkien, both Christians, were technophobes and I’m not sure they possessed a fridge between them. Clarke, at the same time, was calculating orbital mechanics to get his short stories right. So their pub meeting failed, shall we say, to find consensus.)

Clarke’s worlds, set a century or so from the his 1950s present, were places where reason and technology had continued to fuel the upward march of progress. So Clarke was, in worldview, an old-fashioned 19th century liberal, albeit working into the 21st.

Clarke insisted on ‘absolutely no religious rites of any kind’ for his funeral. And yet. The transcendant kept sneaking in to his work. It’s there in Childhood’s End and it’s powerfully present in the Nine Billion Names of God, where a computer successfully prints out all God’s (apparently) nine billion names, thus fulfilling the purpose for which humans were created. Then the programmers, who are on their way home, look up, and in one of the most striking ends to any short story, ever, they see, ‘overhead, without any fuss, the stars were all going out.’

Transcendence. Hard to stamp out.

Crazy evil and crazy good and the limits of science fiction

AI-generated image of Keziah Mordant, anti-heroine of my three novels, who is both crazy evil and crazy good

I have just now realized that the science fiction I loved as a youngster was all modernist propaganda.

Sourced in the 1950s and 1960s, the work of one of my childhood heroes, Arthur C Clarke, and others (including the original Star Trek), described a near-future world where Reason and Technology had solved most of our problems. And they promoted the assumption therefore that the key to the human problem was Education and Science. This is modernist propaganda, and it has happily been blown apart by later writers of SF and fantasy, both comic and serious.

Crazy evil gets in the way. As has been pointed out, a good education and a fine grounding in science can enable, rather than prevent, crazy evil. You need a good education and a fine grounding in science to create gas chambers (for example). And however we try to solve human problems, some human bias against the good and right, a bias we all have, gets us tangled in our shoelaces. Reasoning beings, we aren’t always ruled by reason; and science increases our capacities, rather than our moral sense. Malnutrition declines; obesity becomes a leading cause of death. Childhood illnesses are cured, thanks to medical advances; but one in four late-teen females in the UK report mental health problems. A society awash in reason and technology is a place of ill-health in new ways.

Our happy ending will never arrive by reason and technology alone. There’s too much crazy evil –in us, in society– for that. Yet the desire for a happy ending is so deep in us. Surely it can only be finally attained by crazy good, by grace, by the unearned. ‘I am creating a new heavens and a new earth’ says the book of Isaiah1. ‘If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come 2.’ It has to come from outside ourselves.

This helpful book got me thinking about this stuff (though I found a cheaper version):

And this wonderful book by Mary Doria Russell, about a Jesuit mission to alpha centauri, brilliantly shows as inadequate the modernist worldview in SF. (Russell won the Arthur C Clarke award with it, a tribute to both writers I think.) A pity the author, having written a classic, moved away to other genres.

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