Sunday, 11 January 2015

Responding to Paris: I am not Charlie but I shall Pray for Him

Like many people, I have been musing on events in Paris since they occurred and whilst it easy to condemn the actions of the terrorists involved, lament the tragic loss of human life and pray for all those affected, I have found it very difficult to formulate a coherent response to what the attacks represent. This may be partly due to the fact that I am not entirely convinced that the attacks have the meaning that most sections of the media claim they do.

I cannot in good conscience for example demonstrate my solidarity with the victims with the hash tag #jesuischarlie because, to my mind, Charlie Hebdo was a repulsive publication which went well beyond satire into the realms of disdain and perhaps even hatred. Many have pointed out that Charlie Hebdo is at least consistent in its approach as it has published cartoons which have invoked the ire of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Homosexuals, Politicians, Businessmen etc but diversity in hurtful polemic does not negate or excuse it. It is for this reason that I cannot the endorse the prevailing narrative, feverishly supported by the media, that the attacks were first and foremost an attack on freedom of expression and therefore an attack on the ideals of "liberté égalité fraternité". Indeed, much of what I have read in the media response appears to be filled with irony and hypocrisy.

Here are just a few examples:

Charlie Hebdo supposedly represents the summit of freedom of expression yet France's National Front were excluded from the multi-party response arranged by the French government. The National Front may make a a vile contribution to the French political climate but doesn't it's exclusion constitute a denial of expression? [1]   

One million people were expected to join the #jesuischarlie march in Paris and the world media ensured a global audience yet on March 25, 2013, the one million people who joined the Manif Pour Tous in support of the traditional family, also in Paris, were completely ignored. They were however met by baton baring members of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité. [2]

Some of the same media outlets expressing solidarity via #jesuicharlie continue to "self censor", refusing to show audiences the images which had provoked the terrorist response. Many claim to be doing so out of respect for Muslims yet the same policies do not seem to apply to Christians or Jews. The Associated Press for example said that it did not want to to publish "deliberately provocative images," yet it had no problem selling (until the aftermath of events in Paris) copies of "Piss Christ," an artwork that was deliberately designed to provoke Christians. [3] The hypocrisy of the New York Daily News was juxtaposed on the same page as it printed a Charlie Hebdo image, pixilating out the offensive image of Mohammed, but leaving the offensive image of a Jewish rabbi in place.      

What therefore are we to make of the events in Paris? 

Firstly, I think that it is time that we had a serious debate on the nature of Islamic terrorism. Spouting platitudes which claim that events in Paris, Iraq, Syria or Nigeria have nothing to do with Islam are futile and will do nothing to address the escalating loss of life. Part of this examination must necessarily include the secular West's relationship with and understanding of Islam because none of the events since September 11th 2001 have occurred in a vacuum or have happened without a history. Like it or not, the West has inherited all the complexities of Christendom's relationship with Islam and Judaism. Perhaps it is time to critically re-asses Pope Benedict's address at Regensburg, an address for which he was lambasted at the time but which seems to grow in relevance with every passing minute [4].

Secondly, the media has far too much influence over society. To my mind, the balance between reporting public opinion and forming it has long since tipped in favour of the latter. On the same day that 12 people were killed in Paris, Boko Haram carried out their deadliest attack murdering two thousand in Nigeria. The Paris events have dominated the news as they have been framed as an attack on the very soul of Western Liberalism but the massacre in Nigeria has been reduced to an "other news" item. I see similar parallels with ISIS in Syria - it was only when a journalist was beheaded that a vociferous response was made by Western leaders, spurred on by outrage in the media. Why did the those prisoners who did not work for the press yet were gruesomely and summarily beheaded not deserve the same publicity and response? I appreciate that it's only human nature to respond more passionately to events which effect our own social or interest circles but should journalists be regarded as a special class of people because they represent the great ideals of liberal democracy? In 2007, Andrew Marr criticised the BBC for its "innate liberal bias" stating that it was "a publicly-funded urban organisation with an abnormally large proportion of younger people, of people in ethnic minorities and almost certainly of gay people, compared with the population at large". The Times reported that this bias had "extended across drama, comedy and entertainment, with the corporation pandering to politically motivated celebrities and trendy causes". [5] I don't think much has changed amongst the general media since then but this is not to say that the profession is devoid of members with great integrity and heroism.

Thirdly, I'm not so sure that complete freedom of expression is an ideal to which every civil society should subscribe. Thankfully, there are very few people who agree that child pornographers should be afforded the kind of platform given to Charlie Hebdo. Nick Cohen in the Guardian laments the refusal of the BBC or Channel 4 to run with images of Mohammed, lamenting what he calls western liberalism's cowardice. He warns us that "unless we overcome fear, self-censorship will spread". To my mind, a virtuous society is one which does "self censor", it accepts that freedom comes with responsibility and that it can sometimes be most generously expressed by choosing what not to say. I disagree with many philosophies, behaviours and ideas which are prevalent in western society and I am grateful for the freedom so say so and to try and explain why. I would never however want to resort to hateful, crude or vile language or to express my opinions by drawing cartoons specifically designed to be offensive to my opponents. The source of this "self-censorship" cannot however be the media or the government - it has to come from the hearts and minds of society itself. Yes, we should have freedom of expression but that freedom must not be expressed responsibly and never wielded like a weapon. Unfortunately, one would only have to spend 10 minutes on Twitter to see how uncommon this attitude is.

Finally, the debate around what constitutes legitimate freedom of expression has perhaps revealed a poorly understood consequence of greater degrees of pluralism in Western society. Multi-cultural societies are necessarily contain more diverse opinions and beliefs and this creates a greater potential for causing offence. Conversely, community "policing" of offensive behaviour and comments is diluted because there is a lack of consensus what should be deemed offensive. In this, western liberalism is perhaps hoist by its own petard as its instance of the triumph of individual rights over the collective has undermined the common good and society's ability to deal with intolerable words and behaviour. Take fore example the fact that Scottish Police are said to be looking into Katie Hopkin's comments on "Sweaty Jocks" bringing "Ebola to England" [7] Have we really got to the point where the police need to treat such language as a hate crime or should it be enough for the rest of us to tell her, politely, that her opinions are nonsense and that she won't find any support for them amongst civilised folk. Without a strong appreciation of collective rights, we are forced to look to the government for redress to personal grievances and it simply isn't equipped to maintain such order without resort to restriction in the freedoms we take for granted. 

So, I've come to the end of my incoherent dump of thoughts on Paris. I cannot say #jesuischarlie but I can appreciate the sentiment of the millions of people who took to the streets in Paris to express solidarity against the terrible events there. Tonight I will pray for all those effected by terror and for an end to such atrocities.  
[1] http://www.france24.com/en/20150108-paris-attack-charlie-hebdo-french-unity-far-right-national-front-lepen-hollande-republic/
[2] https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/1.4-million-march-against-gay-marriage-in-france-police-tear-gas-crowd-chil
[3] http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/associated-press-censored-muhammad-cartoons-while-selling-piss-christ-prints/article/2558314
[4] E.g. See http://blog.acton.org/archives/71814-dear-pope-benedict-sorry.html or http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2015/01/08/benedict-xvi-showed-the-way-forward-for-the-muslim-world/ 
[5] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6764779.stm
[6] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/11/paris-attacks-we-must-overcome-fear-or-selfcensorship-will-spread
[7] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11319054/Katie-Hopkins-investigated-by-police-over-little-sweaty-jocks-Ebola-outburst-on-Twitter.html

Thursday, 1 January 2015

For Zion’s sake we have fallen silent

This year, my family and I attended the Vigil Mass for Christmas Day so that we could get to the hospital straight afterwards to visit my grandfather, John, who was entering into his last hours. Our parish priest, Fr Cyril, who has always been an excellent homilist, never relying on written notes and speaking from heart, gave a fantastic reflection on the first reading and applied it to our generation.


The first reading for the vigil was Isiah 62: 1 - 5, in which the prophet declares he will proclaim the Kingdom and then goes on to describe it's greatness and favour with God. The whole passage prefigures the Church as established as a covenant in Christ, a Church which has life through earthly and heavenly members but is chiefly maintained by the unfailing love of Christ who pleads for it through all it's trials and difficulties. Thus, the Church, through grace, shall become His his own delight. 

Father Cyril's homily largely took inspiration from the first part of the reading which he linked to John the Baptist's "Voice in the Wilderness":


For Zion’s sake I will not be silent,


for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her vindication shines forth like the dawn
and her victory like a burning torch.


Listing the social evils of the day, he laid the accusation against western Christianity that we have in fact fallen silent. We have failed to give voice to Christ's church in the public sphere and as a result, other voices have been heard, voices which have no regard for the sanctity of life, the central importance of marriage to society and which regard the Church with contempt.

Isiah made his prophecies during dark times for Israel in the the second half of the eighth century B.C. when the Northern Kingdom had collapsed and was subjugated to Assyria and Jerusalem had been besieged by the armies of Sennacharib. I feel that we find ourselves in similarly dark times; not only have we lost our voice, we appear to be on a path which will deny us the opportunity to use it should we ever find it again. Religious freedom and conscience seem to be increasingly intolerable to the modern liberal mindset. I truly believe that the loss of an authentic Christian voice from the public sphere will be cataclysmic for Western Society which will slide further into distopia as a myopic focus on individual rights, driven by a selfish egoism ignorant of responsibility, continues to undermine social cohesion and its bedrock, the family. 

If the worst does come to pass, who will be held accountable? I suspect that the greater responsibility will fall upon those privileged enough to be born into the Kingdom yet deigned to keep silent and I count myself among those ranks. To be silent about so great a gift, "a glorious crown in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem held by your God", is tantamount to denial and we would do well to remember Christ's own words: 

whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven [1]

The landscape may appear bleak but the Christmas message is primarily one of hope. We cannot change the situation in which we find ourselves though our own will - it can only be achieved by uniting our will to Christ. If we do so, we will find that He gives us our voice through the power of the Holy Spirit and that we may once again take possession of a Church capable of making a much needed contribution to society.

[1] Mt 10:33

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Advent: Frustration and Regression

Since my last post, all my advent resolutions and intentions have completely failed. Though I have managed not to use Twitter and Facebook, I have found that I have replaced the time I believed I was wasting on social media on other forms of digital distraction such as Reddit. I have actually begun to get up later than I was before advent and my poor excuse for a prayer life has deteriorated even further.

Though my schedule was slightly put out by time I spent time in London last weekend, it does not explain why things have gone so poorly. I very much enjoyed my time in London as I was able to stay with some good Catholic friends with whom I was able to discuss some of my issues and benefit from some down time during which I was able to forget my difficulties. Unfortunately, the solace I received from the visit soon dissipated and I was soon thrust back into the maelstrom of my thoughts.

As the week has progressed, I have felt increasingly tired, irritable, stressed and introspective and things reached a head today when I over slept and was late and rushing for a dentists appointment. For most of the day, I felt positively grumpy and angry and was unable to stop thinking of things which tax my emotions - anything from Christmas shopping to extensional musings. Even my tried and tested method of pummelling emotional and psychological distress in the gym failed to help as I became frustrated by not being able to reach my goals.

So, here I am at square one. I came home from the gym, ate some beans and cheese on toast and indulged in my mother's home-made peanut butter fudge. After a warm bath, I watched a bit of Stargate Atlantis with a five year old port as company. Hopefully, my anger and stress will dissipate a little through the night. Tomorrow, I will go to confession and hope to start again - as the Rule of St Benedict says "Always We Begin Again".

Monday, 1 December 2014

Advent: Day 2

Besides giving up social media, I have also resolved to try and get up earlier during Advent. I've been a poor sleeper since my late teens and it often takes me several hours to finally doze off at night. I have tried every possible recommendation to try and improve my sleep patterns but nothing (other than a little to much alcohol) seems to work. I never wake up refreshed and ready to face the day and would much prefer to stay in bed most mornings. As a result, I usually get into work around 10am and the rest of the day seems rushed as I try to compress the gym, relaxation and prayer into the remainder of the evening.

With that said however, I know that with the right motivation I am capable of getting up at a reasonable hour (I even had a job in Marks and Spencer once which required me to get up at 5:30am). Today I managed to get up at 8am and take the dog for a walk before going to work. I felt shattered for most of the morning but I managed to get the gym at 5pm and was therefore home by 7pm rather than 9pm. After having dinner and watching a little Stargate Atlantis, I said some prayers, did a bit of spiritual reading and am now settling down to a Patrick O'Brien novel. I intend to have lights by 10:30pm and hope to get up at 7:30 am tomorrow. Maybe one day this Advent, I may even make it to the gym before work!

Advent

Today is the start of Advent and to help me prepare to make the most of Christmas, I have decided to give up all forms of social media. Twitter and Facebook offer many benefits; Facebook keeps me in touch with close friends and family (and help me keep track of birthdays and important events) whilst Twitter has enabled me to make new friends. It has also been a good source of information in a professional and personal sense and a source of light relief. Social media has been particularly useful for keeping in touch with fellow Catholics, something which is quite important given that I have no Catholic friends who live in close proximity.

The downside of social media however is that it is very easy to waste time using it, sometimes on issues and topics which as Bruvver Eccles (@BrotherEccles) might say are "not spiritually nourishing". One must also consider if one's real world friendships are suffering as the result of maintaining virtual friendships. I often find myself trawling Twitter, waiting to be entertained, when I know that my time would be better spent elsewhere. It therefore tends to feed a general lethargy which I feel has crept into my life.

Through my phone, I am constantly linked to Twitter and Facebook and I have begun to consider that social media may be doing me more harm than good. I hope to use my time way from it in a constructive manner, reflecting on spiritual and personal matters and taking the chance to read more. During Advent, I will also decide if I want to return to social media after Christmas. In such matters, I'm very much an "all or nothing" kind of person - I think I would find it very difficult to regulate my usage of social media to what I may consider as acceptable levels.

As a precursor to Advent, I stayed for a few days at Belmont Abbey. I spent my time there in prayer and spiritual reading (with good Patrick O'Brien novels for entertainment in the evening) as I had come to feel a little stretched and jaded in recent months. The two topics I focused on while I was there were spirituality and living the single life. 

I have long felt frustrated with my spiritual life. I find it difficult to pray beyond reciting the basic words of prayer and like many things in my life, I don't take enough care in making adequate preparation for it. In doing so, I do not feel that I am engaging in a full relationship with God. To explore and address this issue, I took the advice of Mark Lambert (@sitsio) and read "Forming Intentional Disciples" by Sherry A. Weddell [1], a fascinating book which explores the state of Catholicism in America (with implications for Western Christendom). In doing so, Weddell also provides a template for truly engaging with a personal God, something which I have come to realise I must make a priority in my life.

The second book I read on the topic of the spiritual life at Belmont was "The Spiritual Combat" by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli [2]. Though it is widely considered to be a classics in ascetic theology, I only really connected with it on an intellectual level and I didn't feel that it afforded me any important insights into my own spiritual difficulties. I will however return to it - one can't afford not to look for wisdom in any book which was a favourite of Saint Francis de Sales.

As I am getting older, being resolved to the single life, I have found that I am beginning to contemplate the importance of friendships, especially as friends and family get engaged, married and have children. To help me explore this increasingly difficult aspect of my life, I read "Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul IIs 'Love and Responsibility'" by Edward Siri [3] and "The Courage to Be Chaste" by Benedict Groeschel. I can highly recommend both books as they offer practical advice from spiritual, emotional and psychological perspectives, many of which I was unaware.

So, my two topics for this Advent are spirituality and living the single life. Please pray that I may make some progress in understanding God's plan for me in each.

[1] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Forming-Intentional-Disciples-Knowing-Following/dp/1612785905
[2] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Spiritual-Combat-Treatise-Peace-Classics/dp/0895551527
[3] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Men-Women-Mystery-Love-Responsibility/dp/0867168404
[4] http://www.amazon.co.uk/Courage-Chaste-CFR-Benedict-Groeschel/dp/0809127059

Monday, 13 October 2014

The synod on the family discovers a new law

The synod on the family has produced its first momentous result, the discover of the "law of graduality". In what is surely the theological equivalent of the discovery Higgs Bosun, a new era of doctrinal discovery and innovation dawns upon us.

The thing that strikes me about an appeal to graduality in Old Testament is yes, God stoops to conquer but he does so in ways which ensured that His people never lost sight of what was expected of them and the glory to which they had been called. God never lowered His expectations for His people, he simply used different means to raise them to the required standard, by carrot and stick. For their transgressions, the Israelites were required to sojourn in the desert for 40 years whilst Moses never got to see the promised land over what some lawyers might claim was a technicality and yet both chastisements were a lesson which brought His people into a more loving relationship with their creator.

God's graduality is not a watering down of his requirements for His people - it is rather an intimate knowledge of the gap between between His expectations for His people (both collectively and as individuals) and their capacity for responding to these expectations. God uses this knowledge to formulate his blueprint for our Salvation at the heart of which is His Son. Yes, God will never tire of going back to the drawing board whenever we fail to follow his blueprints (and they all begin with repentance, confession and penance) but human nature suggests that the longer we fail to follow his them, the more likely we are to give up reading them altogether.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

On Graduality and the Synod

Today is the fourth day of the extraordinary general session of the Synod of Bishops on pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelisation and the buzz word doing the rounds in the liberal press is "graduality".

Graduality is, according to the Catholic Herald, "a way of thinking about morality that allows for human imperfection without compromising ideals" [1], recognising that individuals are unlikely to make the immediate jump from antipathy or agnosticism to acceptance of a moral truth. On the outset, this makes sense; given the acceptance, prevalence and promotion of contraception in western society, it is unlikely that an individual confronted by Catholic teaching on the subject is going to immediately put it into practice. A number of other related concepts are usually explored (e.g the effects of contraception on health) before the plunge is taken into the waters of the Tiber.

The prevalence of graduality in our moral development has been recogised by many a thinker, including Pope Benedict XVI. In his oft misquoted comments on male prostitutes, he stated that using a condom to reduce the risk of HIV infection "can be a first step in the direction of moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility". [2]

Here's the thing however: graduality may make a lot of sense in academic learning (a student can't possibly go from knowing nothing about the basic laws of physics to understanding the theory of relativity) but if it is taken as a starting point for teaching a moral truth, it will eventually undermine it because it gravitates towards relativism. No-one is hurt by only being taught complex scientific laws a step at a time, even if for the sake of simplification at a particular period, appropriate to one's age or comprehension, one is taught something which isn't entirely accurate (I remember being told that the shell particle theory we were taught at GCSE was factually incorrect by smug A-level students for example). By contrast however, one can be hurt if one is taught incomplete or false moral principles because the consequence of that is sin. Furthermore, if the behaviour becomes entrenched or habitual as we call it, the ultimate moral endpoint may be lost forever. Incomplete moral principles are also apt to be misunderstood or wantonly abused - this can be seen in the Guardian's report on Pope Benedict's comments regarding a male prostitute's use of a condom which held the headline "Pope Benedict says that condoms can be used to stop the spread of HIV"; he said nothing of the sort! Graduality also appeals to our wounded nature - why strive for moral perfection when one can appeal to a more relativistic measure of our moral progress?

So, graduality is useful to explain how a moral sense might awaken and can be used as a guide for compassion but as a starting point for teaching with authority, it is bankrupt.

[1] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2014/10/08/family-synod-participants-emphasise-importance-of-graduality-in-discussion-of-moral-issues/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/21/pope-benedict-condoms-hiv-infection