Ordinary is back

I’m writing this in the second week in March, just after the schools in the UK have returned. And so my wife has returned to school, for the first time this term, so a 6:15 wakeup, an early start on the newly rebuilt A14, a covid test, then an actual lesson with actual children. Ordinary is back.

The book ‘Bread’ that I am working on talks about the rediscovery of ordinary as a great gift. It is in the context of losing it through illness and then regaining it. But as our lockdown rachets down, we hope, everyone I speak to is looking forward to the return of the ordinary. Here’s a passage from Bread that might even make it into the final version:

When I was a student, my friends and I pushed against the ordinariness from which we had come. We wanted to make a splash. We wanted to live radical lives and change the world. ‘We want to run a totally open home’ one said, everyone welcome, everyone fed, anyone can stay the night. I remember one of my friends saying she didn’t want ever to have a mortgage. She wanted to rent all her life so that she was flexible and free, not tied down and conventional.

My friends are living striking and distinctive lives, but I have observed that they, like me, also came to embrace the ordinary. When it is focused on spending time with people you love, work you love, locations you love, day after day, ordinary life can be very good. It is wealth. It is treasure.  When you are denied it, you learn the deep loss from not having it. Both the working for and the attaining of the ordinary brings meaning and contentment into our lives.

Wealth and success can rob you of ordinariness, which is quite a surprise, since wealth and success are supposed to bring happiness.  But just as there are burglars who are greatly relieved to be caught, so there are successful people who are greatly relieved to pass out of the limelight. In both cases, a weight is lifted.

Those who lose the ordinary see its value and the wise ones among them devote themselves to making ordinary life again. Those of us who have attained or discovered ordinary life can treasure it, by savouring it for the gift and blessing it is.

Toxic populism

and its cure

Toxic populism has muscled in on the news since 2016, filling our headlines in the way that radical Islam did for a few years before it. The roll-call of men (mostly men) who feel the need to take control, maintain order, and get on with repressing, is familiar across too many countries– just read the news.

It’s a (by now) familiar playbook

  1. Give out jobs on loyalty, not merit
  2. Erode all the things that stand in the way of an almighty state: laws, judges, newspapers, NGOs,anywhere where independent thought and criticism can thrive.

It isn’t, as we are seeing by now, a recipe for success. Cronies aren’t as good at running things as people who get jobs via merit and they pilfer the national good rather than fostering it. Some things, think Covid-19, can’t be insulted away or imprisoned. The flawed mental model of the autocrat cannot bear much reality, nor, for that matter, much wit.

How do you make societies resilient against this kind of thing? I struggle so much with this but I love the 37th Psalm, an extended meditation on the slow, resilient way:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
    or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
    like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Be still before the Lord
    and wait patiently for him;
do not fret when people succeed in their ways,
    when they carry out their wicked schemes.

10 A little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look for them, they will not be found.
11 But the meek will inherit the land
    and enjoy peace and prosperity.

35 I have seen a wicked and ruthless man
    flourishing like a luxuriant native tree,
36 but he soon passed away and was no more;
    though I looked for him, he could not be found.

Peace lily Image by Adriano Gadini from Pixabay

37 Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
    a future awaits those who seek peace.
[d]

The war between science and faith is exaggerated

Tell ’em it ain’t so.

Fascinating, longish quote. Perhaps this article will help lift a finger or two off the weighing scale and bring things back to balance.

Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay

Most historians of science [do not] support the idea of an enduring conflict between science and religion. Renowned collisions, such as the Galileo affair, turned on politics and personalities, not just science and religion. Darwin had significant religious supporters and scientific detractors, as well as vice versa. Many other alleged instances of science-religion conflict have now been exposed as pure inventions. In fact, contrary to conflict, the historical norm has more often been one of mutual support between science and religion. In its formative years in the 17th century, modern science relied on religious legitimation. During the 18th and 19th centuries, natural theology helped to popularise science.

The conflict model of science and religion offered a mistaken view of the past and, when combined with expectations of secularisation, led to a flawed vision of the future. Secularisation theory failed at both description and prediction. The real question is why we continue to encounter proponents of science-religion conflict. Many are prominent scientists. It would be superfluous to rehearse Richard Dawkins’s musings on this topic, but he is by no means a solitary voice. Stephen Hawking thinks that ‘science will win because it works’; Sam Harris has declared that ‘science must destroy religion’; Stephen Weinberg thinks that science has weakened religious certitude; Colin Blakemore predicts that science will eventually make religion unnecessary. Historical evidence simply does not support such contentions. Indeed, it suggests that they are misguided.

So why do they persist? The answers are political. Leaving aside any lingering fondness for quaint 19th-century understandings of history, we must look to the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, exasperation with creationism, an aversion to alliances between the religious Right and climate-change denial, and worries about the erosion of scientific authority. While we might be sympathetic to these concerns, there is no disguising the fact that they arise out of an unhelpful intrusion of normative commitments into the discussion. Wishful thinking – hoping that science will vanquish religion – is no substitute for a sober assessment of present realities. Continuing with this advocacy is likely to have an effect opposite to that intended.

Religion is not going away any time soon, and science will not destroy it. If anything, it is science that is subject to increasing threats to its authority and social legitimacy. Given this, science needs all the friends it can get. Its advocates would be well advised to stop fabricating an enemy out of religion, or insisting that the only path to a secure future lies in a marriage of science and secularism.

Peter Harrison is an Australian Laureate Fellow and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), and the editor of Narratives of Secularization (2017). His latest book is Science without God: Rethinking the History of Scientific Naturalism (2019), co-edited with Jon Roberts. This article first appeared in aeon the free online magazine of ideas, and was published September 7,2017

Covid and the rawness of life

The skin gets scraped off

Interesting to see how Covid is scratching the surface off us and revealing the rawness underneath. I read a lovely article in the Grauniad which I wanted to share in case you hadn’t seen it.

Rachel Clarke (journalist turned physician, apparently, and drafted into intensive care) wrote eloquently and superbly about the stress, the exhaustion, the despair, the abuse on Twitter and elsewhere. She incidentally writes about how ‘Sometimes, in the darkness, a patient pleads to die. They cannot take the claustrophobic roar of their CPAP mask any longer.’ (I recognize that emotion, though I didn’t want to die, just not fight any more, when I was attached to a CPAP in 2013.)

But then this:

All across the hospital, you see it. In the tiny crocheted crimson hearts, made by locals for patients and delivered in their scores so that no one feels alone. In the piles of donated pizzas, devoured at night by ravenous staff. In the homemade scrubs, whipped up by an unstoppable army of self-isolating grandmothers whose choice in fabrics is fearlessly floral. In the nurses and carers and porters and cleaners who keep on, despite everything, smiling. I may be tired and angry and sometimes mad with grief, but every single day at work, I see more kindness, more sweetness, more compassion, more courage, more resilience, more steel, more diamond-plated love than you could ever, ever imagine. And this means more and lasts more than anything else, and it cannot be stolen by Covid.

Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic by Dr Rachel Clarke is published by Little, Brown

Why scary stories are good for you

We live in a world of wounds and partial wins

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I enjoyed a recent blog on Hallowe’en from the Bible society, which quoted C S Lewis as follows:

In a famous essay, C S Lewis spoke about how ‘fairy stories’ could educate children: we mustn’t keep out of a boy’s mind, he said, ‘the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, and adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil’. He goes on, ‘I think it is possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones …’ In other words, he says, it’s not that we shouldn’t think about terrible enemies at all: we should know they can be beaten. 1

The basics of good health

‘The one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.’

I am one of those who has enjoyed the pandemic journalism of Private Eye’s ‘MD’ who being both a practising doctor and a human being can understand and communicate stuff that journos (who often lack the right number of degrees) and politicians (who might be a bit detached from the truth) may not be so hot on. In pandemic-world, I think, journos and politicians are both talking about face-covering while actually attempting to cover something else, and I don’t mean the story.

So. MD (real name Phil Hammond apparently) on health in this week’s Eye (I mean the week I am writing this blog, which is about two weeks behind you reading it. I don’t blame you for this. It’s hard to ask readers to read stuff that hasn’t been published yet.)

The basic ingredients of health are well-known, well-evidenced and fairly easily remembered using the mnemonic CLANGERS, as in: Connect; Learn; (be) Active; Notice; Give back; Eat well; Relax; Sleep.

Friendship and a feeling of belonging; an ability and curiousity to learn and adapt; purposeful physical and mental activity; observation and appreciation of the environment; compassion for others; food that is both delicious and nutritious; an ability to switch off and relax and regular, restorative sleep — collectively these daily joys of health are more powerful than any drug. The privileged can do them every day, even in lockdown. If we all managed them, we would barely need the NHS. But if you’re living with debt, discrimination, depression, domestic abuse, drug addiction, dementia, etc, they are much harder to achieve.

The focus on prevention, helping others and lifestyle medicine is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than medicating for diabetes and depression. Indeed it’s the one thing that can keep communities alive and health services viable.

MD has put some of his wisdom into a cheery YouTube video just here:

And if you are a regular reader of MD you can parenthetically notice that writers are often different in person than they are on paper, often gentler, as here.

Not quite the sixth place of decimals

There are surprises in store

Image by (Joenomias) Menno de Jong from Pixabay

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.”

Albert Michelson, Light Waves and Their Uses (1903), 23-4. 1

It was probably a shame that Michelson, first American winner of the Nobel Prize, came up with this quote, since it was his careful experiments on the way the speed of light never varied that provided the initial information behind Einstein’s 1904 theory of relativity.2.

It was a further shame that he wrote in 1903, just at the edge of quarter -century of discovery and theory that would turn physics upside down – the most exciting twenty-five years physics has ever known. Physicists since (arguably) have just been adding footnotes

What do we learn from this? Arguably, beware certainty in scientists. Think of this. Over here (I won’t draw it but you can imagine it) is the totality of reality. Over here (I won’t draw it either) is Science, a tool for exploring this reality. This is all very fine, except for the problem that since we do not know what the totality of reality is, we have no way of judging how good our tool is. It might be, for example, like a torch that only lights up the shiny things in a vast cave. Or it might be like an optical telescope, blind to X-ray sources that light up the sky. Or it might be like a child’s understanding, or like a fly’s, relying (in the case of the child) in a badly incomplete model or (in the case of a fly) on a deep cognitive lack.

Scientists generally, in my observation, are not good at looking at the acts of faith that underlie their discipline. What part does prejudice play? Or confirmation bias? How limited is our ability to perceive? How observable is the Universe? Science proceeds on assumptions that the Universe is generally observable, that human failings are ironed out by the need to replicate results, and, more broadly that it ‘works’. By which they/we mean: ‘when we shine a light into the cave, we can see shiny things.’

We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know if we can know what we don’t know. And we don’t know, if we can know what we don’t know, how we will know it.

Apart from that, everything is absolutely fine.

Perichoresis for beginners

A lesson on self-isolation from the Cappadocian Fathers

I am reading a book called Trinity by Roger Forster. Forster, bearded, successful early, kinda trendy, around forever, is the evangelical equivalent of Richard Branson. A little bit anyway.

Forster points out so helpfully that the classical Greek view of God–thanks Aristotle–was that because he was perfect, he couldn’t change.1 Being the Uncaused Cause, on that analysis, made you like a classic sculpture: a perfect 10, but made of marble.

Forster–whose learning is impressive even if he veers around a little like a car with a puncture–compares this cold Greek slab with the God of the Cappadocian Fathers. They joined a fourth-century theological ruck alongside Athanasius, pushing back the Arian heresy and making sure a trinitarian God was a mark of orthodox Christianity. Forster writes: ‘The doctrine of the the trinity is truly important because God is personal, He is communal, He is loving, He is altruistic – and He is all of those things forever and ever.’2

It so happens the Cappadocian Fathers were themselves a trinity: Basil of Cesarea; his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa; and their big friend Gregory Nazianzus.

They were an example of inspired and super-smart Christians fighting the mighty Greeks on their home ground–a battle which, a thousand years later, people we now know as scientists had also to do: people like the devout Johannes Kepler, who freed natural science from its Grecian obsession with the perfectly circular.

The Cappadocian Fathers saw the Trinity as a kind of dance: as Forster says, ‘where the partners move around one another, each giving way to the other and then changing the direction, or changing the lead, but each one always in perfect symphony and synchrony.’3. Their word for this was perichoresis, which is a word I look forward to you using when you next see a dance routine.

It is a lovely picture though: God interdependent in his self-sufficiency. No wonder, then, that the creation that sprang out of the divine bosom, if we believe it, was itself a perichoresis of mutual service and supply. We breathe out; plants breathe in. Male and female he created them. We are one body, with many members. Perichoresis is everywhere. Which is why human thriving is not centred on achieving alone but on belonging and contributing.

Life in the old dog yet

Even though pubs and high streets are still declining.

Image by Carla Burke from Pixabay

My childhood landscape included church buildings being sold and other church buildings displaying painted thermometers outside as they looked for donations for a new roof. Media portrayals of vicars portrayed them as nice but useless. The tone, back in the 1970s, was that churches were like other sunset British industries, poorly managed, needing government aid , ripe for selling off.

I wonder if it will change. Last year legendary researcher Peter Brierley counted 40,100 church buildings in use in the UK — more than than all the pubs. He noted that new builds and old buildings repurposed for new congregations were at least matching sell-offs, at trend that surprised him:

Although some Anglican, Roman Catholic and Methodist church buildings have closed in recent years, this loss has been outweighed by the growth of new Evangelical and Pentecostal church congregations.

Migration to the UK is another factor behind the buoyancy in the number of church congregations. One of the first things that new communities do when arriving in the UK is to set up a place of worship. These new congregations often gather in non-traditional spaces such as converted cinemas, warehouses or shops.

Although much has been written about the decline in church going in recent years, the number of Christian congregations and church buildings in the UK has remained remarkably stable.

Peter Brierley

I wonder if the aftermath of Covid-19 will change things more. Surely things have moved on from the 1970s. In all the long recession, churches have been the backbone of the foodbank provision. Many times they are providers of youth work or family care when councils have cut provision. Some (like our own church) run day care for the elderly. Street pastors help those youngsters experimenting with too much alcohol on Friday nights. Churches and Christians are at the core of the community help in Covid-19 in my very limited observation. Churches have not gone the way of British Leyland, the National Coal Board, or British Steel, or British shipbuilding.

I have the idea that in this country people may stumble across the Christian church like finding an old coin, brushing off the dirt, and realizing it’s still worth something. We’ll see.

Savouring

Lingering longer than you need to

Take a Creme Egg and pull off most of the foil. Keep some of the foil so you can still hold the egg without getting your fingers chocolatey. Using your front teeth, gently bite into the pointy end and roll the detached piece down your tongue. Keep the chocolate piece in your mouth . With your tongue, scoop up a little of the fondant cream. Mush and swirl the chocolate and fondant together in your mouth for a while, until they’re gone. Well done. You did some savouring. And you didn’t even need to buy a Creme Egg.

Savouring is part of Slow and it is also perhaps part of thanksgiving and worship. Perhaps it is also a proper response to the era of abundance that we find ourselves in: so much music to hear, so many books to read, so many box-sets to watch, so many choices in the shops, so many sights to see. How sad if in all this we gorge ourselves on one thing after another, without stopping to savour (and I guess then to thank). Perhaps savouring is an antidote to greed.

Perhaps it is also a good practice for the lean times. One horrible night once in hospital, with alarms going off, alarms that were attached to me, I listened to some classical music in my little earpiece, and I also walked in my mind around Buttermere in the English Lake District, a walk I knew then very well. Savouring was all I had then.

Image by Obsidain Photography from Pixabay

My wife emailed me this, saying I’d probably like it. I did. I’m very sorry that I don’t have the source: