Archive for Spirituality/Philosophy

­Who I am

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whoareyou

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The following article first appeared as the ‘Foreword’ for:

Who Are You: Philosophy, Physics, and Eastern Mysticism (Paperback – January 5, 2018): Chandran Tattvaraj

It is re-published here with the author’s consent. The original title was ‘Who I am’ and we have reverted to that here.

Who I Am

How long have we been questioning who and what we are; where we’ve come from and where we’re going? Perhaps throughout our existence we have questioned the very notion of ‘self’. Ideas of this self are there to read in Eastern religious and philosophical writing, and in the West, was philosophically enshrined with Descartes: I think therefore I am. But long, long before Descartes, religious philosophers had contemplated the nature of the ‘self’ and within the self – the ‘soul’…that there was (is) something intrinsic to us that also seems to be apart from ‘us’ – a part and apart simultaneously.

When I was a child I was fascinated by two mirrors placed near opposite each other in the family’s bathroom. The reflected images disappeared into infinity and thus timelessness. Maybe this triggered in my developing mind an idea of eternity…and an idea of an alternative reality – for I could see many ‘me’s seemingly projected into the future and into a kind of reflected past. As I recall now I can see/feel myself wishing to step into those multiple ‘other worlds’. Ten years later or so, on one of the few occasions I took LSD, I was aware of passages within the space, the air, surrounding me…Had I the wherewithal, I could have turned into these passages, or corridors and entered a world normally hidden from (or by) my ‘normal’ perception.

In medieval time in England it was thought there was a powerful connection between things and the names of those things. That everything naturally had a name that was somehow bestowed and fixed. The bond between this name and the thing was irrevocable. Now we think: a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But we live in and are trapped by our language and thought. The self and our idea of who we are comes to fruition along with understanding both the concept of self-hood and our gradual understanding of our-selves – a paradox from birth that develops and changes through time. We physically and mentally grow into ‘being’. We slowly join the unfolding narrative of the world. As unfolding selves we receive and are affected by the scientific, cultural, religious, fairy-tale narratives of the ‘main characters’. They tell us who we are, what to do, how to behave and what to think. We are seeds scattered into the ground…healthy or rocky.

We are born into a world that seems locked into time and space…a concrete world of ‘reality’. And we are given the ability to perceive this world through our senses in a consensual manner. But is there an ‘out there’ a ‘world’ that exists extraneously to our mind’s perception? Our brain collapses the ‘out there’ (the waves and particles of light photons) into the world we live in and deem ‘real’. Of course in one sense it is so very real…run a blade across your skin and you’ll feel pain and see blood flowing. But the mind that perceives and ‘holds’ our thoughts…the thoughts that perceive the world we grow into has no definite location (there are areas of the brain that correspond to certain elements of the mind…but under given circumstances these can be changed and/or re-routed) – and further, the thoughts themselves have no location or indeed space. You cannot grasp a thought and though it may re-appear as a memory in the ‘future’ its existence feels completely ‘out of time’. Yes we seem to experience the passing of time (and we can look into a mirror or view old photographs to verify this) but that too is seemingly an illusion. But. Let me state, this illusion and all that the brain creates is a necessity for us to exist in this illusory world. No wonder we have constantly asked those enduring questions and the shortest and the most effective and relevant being: Why?

What kind of trick has been played upon us frail humans…and even beyond this trick there being dealt a false trump card – a card that has given us the desire and need to discover who and what we are and where we are, where we are going and ultimately if we were created by some unknown supreme being. We frail humans given cards of nobility and poetry but also fear and violence. Each is dealt his hand…by chance, by providence, through DNA?

I think therefore I am – yet I am aware that I am thinking – therefore I am ‘we’ – both the thinker and the observer. And because I think in English: I think therefore I am English and all that I am aware of through this inherited language. And everything I think comes from where? I think therefore it is I that think. Or: I think unbidden thoughts therefore I am me and something ‘other’? We seem to be a paradox. That’s the nature of the trick.

When we dream – who is it that dreams? Who is it in the dreams? Who creates the dreams and sets the play in motion?

For many people it is enough to live and die – to work and play…some struggle some seem gifted by ‘fate’. Some folk give their lives to ideas and some are tortured and killed for having these, or indeed contrary, ideas. That is how strongly we are caught in our language, in our being. O I truly admire those who have died and suffered in the name of beauty or truth or spirit. But how odd it all seems too. That some men should dictate to others how they might feel, think, believe, say, write and act. When nothing is, indeed, quite how we think it is. The ancient Eastern religions understood this and now modern ‘cutting-edge’ science seems to be verifying these ancient beliefs. There’s more to us perhaps than even we thought.

If this life is a trick, a game…whose rules are we playing to? Is there a reason for us to be here. What is our true nature. There is the argument that we are ‘one’ (non-dual) and that we exist without time and matter. An idea that we are drops of the ocean or fragments of a hologram – all belonging and connected to the whole. In this sense we have been tricked into an earthly state of division and unique personality. When I talk with people about this there comes the idea of ‘re-birth’ (reincarnation) and that our mission, if you will, is to ‘escape’ from captivity of the flesh. That our essence is something beyond and eventually apart from who we are (or who we think we are). On the one hand I see the logic and even justice to this and on the other hand I see cruelty and lack of justice. Most of us are destined to relate as the ‘I’ – and we create our life story correspondingly. The idea of re-birth seems to be the loss of each personality (but maintenance of the ‘spirit’). Who we are is annihilated – and yet some part of ‘us’ carries on. Is this the ‘divine spark’ the droplet of the divine ocean. But if there is no connection between that droplet and my perception of ‘me’ – why would/should I care? Are ‘we’ but fading dreams of another?

How cruel to birth us into this material world with senses to experience it – and to feel its love, hate, warmth, cold, benevolence and cruelty and yet also be locked within a ‘secret’. This secret being that we are NOT truly part of this earth and that we must – through lifetimes of repeated existence – find a way off and out of this material plane! Were I the playwright of such a play I might congratulate myself on its playful and clever conceit. But discovering one is but a fictional character with no life beyond the page…well…I might feel somewhat misused. Especially as my appearance on the stage is so brief and apparently futile.

My father used to say to me: There is only one thing worse than dying for ever and that is living for ever. Here is the great conundrum. This conundrum seems rarely to be challenged. Is there any connection between this earthly existence (the test) and the existence ‘as one’ (connected to all and everything and perhaps The Godhead) beyond time, space and matter? There certainly seems much credible (and incredible!) evidence for existence beyond this life but the nature of that also seems poorly transmitted. It maybe that we enter a lighter consensual reality, amidst others we relate to…a more spiritual place (for some) but dark and heavy for others…who perhaps maintain much of their earthly existence. Maybe we’re being given spurious information as but yet a further test?

The nearest I get to understanding another life beyond the mystical glances sometimes obtained in the beauty of nature…or through music or a piece of sublime literature or art is within my dreamscapes. In dreams it seems as if there is a natural narrative…everything ‘makes sense’…it is us and we comprehend our seemingly natural environment. It’s only on waking that our dreams might seem very strange. And then they begin to fade despite our best efforts to resurrect them or keep the narrative going. It’s like reading a story and the last few pages have been ripped out. Dreams make sense even when nonsense. It really is another reality. It is REAL or as real as this reality. Only waking from a dream does it seem odd or different. Of course there are those who can hop in and out of dream-states and even travel beyond into the astral realms. Or somewhere. Another avenue of reality? A place where our conscious mind (and/or spirit) goes on death? Do dreams offer an insight into the connection between this world and the ‘other’?

These days we can slip into virtual reality. A time seems fast approaching when being in virtual reality might be as common as falling asleep and dreaming. Though we might become masters of our movement in VR land it is not a ‘consensual reality’ but rather a reality created by both humans and machines. I can imagine all sorts of wonderful experiences and the most frightening too. In a future world, grossly over-populated we might enter VR to see, smell and experience nature. But who knows what might have been designed to roam through those lands too. VR certainly can but make us consider what THIS reality is. Like self-induced other realities it will be ‘real’ at the time of experiencing. The mind can be fooled and sometimes quite easily. And the mind can be manipulated too. If we create a VR that transforms the human experience are we creating a VR within a VR. If we can create effective virtual reality who’s to say THIS life isn’t a ‘virtual reality’!

Were we created in God’s (or The Great Creator’s) image? If so – what a disappointment we must have been and still are. I immediately think of us the ‘sons and daughters of God’ creating our own reflections – ‘Artificial Intelligence’ and Robots. Here again the whole notion of consciousness might be forced vehemently into our collective consciousness. The idea – say – that consciousness is received by humans (and not self-created) seems interesting in that the future might see robots obtain their own consciousness. If the reaction to this is – never!…well, that would mean that only the human organic brain (or an animal’s?) can tune into radiating, and yet personal, consciousness. Consciousness is also said to be whole (oneness) but if we receive consciousness we do so in personalised packages. Are we bundled up and packaged pre-birth? If it is the will of the sender that determines who and/or what receives consciousness then why not robots? At the moment robots are fairly ‘primitive’ and yet there has already been a case of robots creating their own language. If humans did come from apes and were subsequently to receive the consciousness we have now – then why not highly sophisticated robots? Of course all this is but scratching the surface. But as an aside there have been experiments with humans where simple choices have been offered (left/right on/off) and their brain reactions monitored. These experiments seem to show quite large gaps between the brain deciding what to do and consciousness deciding what to do! In other words our consciousness (decisions seemingly made in the ‘present’) lagged behind the actual brain decision by seconds. This would mean our ‘present’ is in an eternal ‘past’. Not only that of course but it would suggest all is mapped out and we’re here just for the ride…though we have been tricked (once again) into thinking we are masters of our own fate. Maybe robots of the future though highly evolved will always lag behind their programming? Maybe robots will feel tricked.

If we are beyond time, space and matter (the soul nature) then again we have been tricked into believing we have a beginning and an end. And yet the beginning is hazy and comes together through our perception of time and self and unfolds in retrospection. Most of our perception of ourselves is retrospective. There is also the sense of deja vu (or deja vecu) that haunts us…Do we re-live our life over and over – and if so for what purpose? The world we live in seems to have constant birth and rebirth – as in Nature. Yet we and our surroundings SEEM to be eternal. Others may die (like a leaf/flower/cow/dog or even fellow human) but surely not us. The Sun will one day burn out but can we (do we) perceive of Earth’s ending? And the universe in which we live perhaps has no boundaries and ‘just is’. Like puppets we gaze up into the sky at night, our strings lost into the blackness…Our helplessness and lack of understanding is full of pathos. Why were we tricked so?

What is the antidote to our existence in this world that both is and isn’t? For me it is the art and act of creation. If all was created by The Great Creator – the original creative act – then being creative is truly a spark of godliness. Life can be cold, hard and cruel but we have shown throughout our time on this earth that we can rise above hardship and persecution, above torture and even walk to the gallows with our heads held high. There is something in us that is greater than ourselves.
My own philosophy of life and death draws on the ideas and communications of others (both alive, dead and perhaps beyond the ‘veil’). At death our consciousness/spirit travels on and alights at another place of consensual reality. In this place we flock together with like minds – some others are drawn to the heavy earthly states – some are light and finely tuned. Thus we begin the next stage of our journey. Perhaps this journey involves the ‘release of ourselves’ – the ‘release of attachments’…though we continue to learn we also learn to give up. Gradually we will indeed become ‘one’ – leaving the unique self behind. By becoming ‘one’ we will no longer be aware of time, space or matter…we will no longer fear the loss of ourselves and loved ones…as we will be melded into a greater and all-encompassing love. As I write these words I feel panic…I am attached to the poetic in this life and the connection to others. But being melded with love and being ‘one’ will not – I trust – mean the loss of anyone or anything but rather the gaining of a higher connection and higher ‘love’. Poets, mystics, philosophers, religious thinkers and perhaps even each one of us has at rare times had an in-sight into the greater-ness that we are normally so unaware of. Maybe we’ll get to comprehend the ‘Great Trick’ that has been played on us – maybe we’ll laugh out loud and understand the very true nature of who we are and what we are for. In the meantime we can but dream…we’ll continue viewing the stars above and continue making enquiry. And we’ll continue asking: Who am I?

I hope and trust you will enjoy the essays that follow…and that you might step back from this stage for a while and view from the wings…view the actors so caught up emotionally in the play. Maybe you’ll catch a glance of the playwright him/her/it self viewing from the balcony and maybe you’ll catch a wry smile on that playwright’s face. After all, the playwright knows the trick that’s been played all along. And we are but the stuff that dreams are made on.

Tim Bragg (copyright 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Onion of Bigotry: a History of Hatred

The Onion of Bigotry: a History of Hatred

Black Dingo Productions.
Running time 60 minutes

blackdingoJust at St John’s, St John’s Church, Princes St, EH2 4BJ (Venue 127)
1 – 25 Aug 2014

Production: Kielty Brothers
Performers: John Kielty, Gerry Kielty, Jordanna O’Neill, Stanley Pattison

This lively light-hearted rattle through Scottish history might fall flat on non-Scots or anyone not familiar with some of the highlights and lowlights of the country’s past. There are some great songs; how else could you manage to rhyme Reformation, Protestation and Excommunication? We learn that past kings called James had a rough time of it and we have to endure some excrutiating puns; Orthodox Sea, bloody big Hanover and ninety-five faeces anyone?

That said, this story does remind us that dreadful things were done in the past but offers a simple solution is a rousing chorus at the end. Your people did some dreadful things to mine. My people did awful thing to yours. But instead of indulging in more whataboutery let’s just get over it. Simple, eh?

**** Four Stars

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Body, Mind, Spirit and Time. Part Three: The Stuff of Dreams

Body, Mind, Spirit & Time

Part Three: The Stuff of Dreams

Trust in dreams, for in them is the hidden gate to eternity.” Khalil Gibran

“Are you sure/That we are awake? It seems to me/That yet we sleep, we dream.”

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.”

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

THERE is often the ‘new’ analogy of the brain being like a TV – picking up signals and turning them into sight and sound – or ‘reality’. The brain not creating consciousness but rather making consciousness manifest. So, the argument goes, when we die the TV might get turned off but the signal is still being beamed…with the idea of what we are and have been remaining intact. But initial thought: when you turn off the TV its ‘reality’ DOES disappear and this is the only reality by which we know and love ‘the box’. Those signals of Coronation Street or whatever is currently popular (I DON’T watch British TV!) – might still be floating through the ether – but…well…as far as we’re concerned they might as well be non-existent. Is ‘reality’ for us only viewed on a screen (our manifest consciousness)?

There are tiny tubes in the brain – microtubules of the brain cell – where quantum consciousness might exist (see the ORCH-OR model)…and might escape at death but are there other little brain tubes somewhere else they can migrate to? Does consciousness dissipate into the GREAT WIDE UNIVERSE – O it sounds so poetic but that’s surely not much solace to I, ME, YOU. We only seem to come alive when the TV is turned on. And interestingly – the TV takes time to ‘tune in’ too…in the old days it was called ‘warming up’…or in human terms, learning to understand, speak and develop language and thought.

What if we had a whole bank of TVs – like those in electrical appliance shops? Only not just say twenty or thirty screens all playing the same soap but an infinite number and each with a unique picture! The idea being that when we die (blank screen) we ‘migrate’ to another television. Not so much jumping ships as switching screens…but in this parallel universe there is also another ‘us’ too – isn’t there? Do we jump just as another TV is turned on…do we inhabit the same consciousness (in some form)…as a looker-in (Anthony Peake’s idea of The Daemon perhaps)? Do we jump in at a moment that the TV ‘loses its signal’ and we take the place of another ‘us’ – an ‘us’ that, presumably, will in an ‘infinity of opportunity’ also jump into another TV? Synchronised (and perhaps infinite) swapping of screens! And why aren’t we aware of our close, close other ‘us’s – or are we, indeed, subtly aware?

During a near-death experience we might argue that the quantum information held in the microtubules dissipates…when the person is revived they recall their ‘experience’. Now here’s an interesting dichotomy: if the dissipation is extreme then can the information subsequently coalesce? Even if it isn’t extreme what bonds it together. Can it dissipate as a ‘body’ of information – and therefore would that be dissipation at all? There are maybe two possible outcomes here: at death we dissipate into the UNIVERSAL CONSCIOUSNESS for want of a better name and effectively cease to exist – or we maintain a sense of ourselves – though God knows what that existence would be! Would space and time cease to exist for us, or would we enter an infinite dream-state? After all in dreams where there is no space or time except in the ‘reality’ of those dreams – we perceive that state to be, well, ‘real’. Consciousness has created a second reality. We are lying asleep hardly moving – and yet we are alive in our dreams…and only when waking do we acknowledge the previous ‘reality’ as dream state.

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Is this dream state another beamed consciousness or is it a created ‘reality’ from the first beamed consciousness – rather like many imagine (along with current mainstream scientific thought) that our brain creates consciousness. If the first beamed consciousness can create a second consciousness then that would put it on a level with the initial creative force – whatever it is that does the ‘beaming’. If the second consciousness (dream state) is also beamed – then what is stopping the brain having multiple consciousnesses (as in multiple personalities), which can exist in some folk? And if our mind – which is a beamed consciousness – can create a second consciousness…then why can’t that reflected ‘reality’ create further ‘realities’ too – dreams within dreams within dreams?

And we carry dreams (this other ‘reality’) with us, within us, don’t we…I can recall last night’s dream and a dream from last week (which seemed to be predictive); so one reality has a memory of another reality. In dream-state do we also share this reflective quality? Are we the stuff of dreams – are we the expression of some greater power, intelligence? When we die will we fall awake and pass through the ‘hidden’ gate to eternity? We shall see. We can only dream.

 

  • By Tim Bragg

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THE ROAD TO CANTERBURY

The Road to Canterbury

The Road to Canterbury

Andrew Atherstone. Darton, Longman + Todd. ISBN:978 0 232 52994 4. £7.99

When Rowan Williams announced last year that he was retiring the media was abuzz with speculation over who would succeed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. The eventual choice – Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham – came as a big surprise to most observers, not least because Welby had only been a bishop for four months when Williams announced his intention to step down.

Who is Justin Welby? Where did he come from? What makes him tick? Will he be up to the job of holding the fractious Anglican communion together? Oxford don Andrew Atherstone makes a fine attempt to answer the first three questions. The jury’s out on the last one as he will need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job and a lot more besides to sort out that mess. However, his reconciliation work in Nigeria, his background in business and his ministry in several parishes to date do allow for a certain cautious optimism.

Welby grew up in a family that had been long a part of the Establishment. One of his great uncles had been a leading post-war Tory, R A B Butler. Butler had been Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary in the 1950s and 60s. His mother, Jane Portal, was a secretary to Winston Churchill and in that role typed up the drafts of his six-volume history of the Second World War. His father, Gavin Welby, was a bit of a rake, once competing with Errol Flynn for the attentions of a millionaire heiress. Gavin and Jane eloped to America.

Justin was a honeymoon baby who parents’ marriage soon failed. Justin stayed with his father and was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. He attended Eton from1969 to 1973 when the school was at a low ebb and headed off to east Africa for a short gap year before beginning his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. In Kenya he spent six mont hs teaching in a secondary school under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society. He had previously shown little interest in spiritual matters, but in Kenya he met and talked with Christians and began to read the Bible and think about questions of faith.

In the months before Welby’s arrival at Cambridge in 1974, there had been a flurry of conversions to Christianity among the students. The local Christian Union was very lively, hosting visits from leading preachers, notably Rev David Watson from St Michael le Belfrey in York who led 12 people to make professions of faith in a single evening. Welby held out for over a year despite the efforts of many of his Christian friends until ‘the penny dropped’ for him and he ‘asked Jesus to be Lord of my life’. Shortly afterwards, he received a real sense of the deep love of God and began to sense a calling to ministry.

As a young Christian, Welby attended the Round Church in Cambridge which plugged him into a network of leading evangelicals in the Anglican church, notably John Stott and David Sheppard. While at home away from university, he began to worship at Holy Trinity Brompton which had become a mainstay of the growing charismatic movement. Here he was introduce to a Cambridge student who was another new Christian, Caroline Eaton, who was to become his wife.

After graduation and marriage Welby took a job with an oil company in Paris. During the holidays he became involved with a Christian group that smuggled Bibles to persecuted Christians in Hungary and East Germany using a campervan with secret compartments underneath a false floor.

The Welbys know the pain and grief of losing a child. On the way back to England, their seven-month-old daughter was fatally injured in a road accident near Amiens.

During his time as group treasurer of the recently privatised Enterprise Oil, Welby honed his management and leadership skills and began to think deeply about the ethics of finance and responsibility in business. He argued that companies are moral agents and are just as prone to sin as individuals. Biblical justice must include a sense of corporate accountability.

Although well settled in a very well paid job which he enjoyed, Welby had a growing sense of call to the ministry. In 1988 he attended three days of interviews at a Derbyshire retreat house. He was asked by a bishop why he wanted to be ordained and replied that he didn’t as he was enjoying the job he was doing. Well, why was he there, then? Because he had been called by God. What would he do if he was turned down for ordination by the C of E? He’d go back to London and take the wife out for the most expensive meal he could afford to celebrate! He was accepted. His annual salary dropped from around £100,000 to less than a tenth of that; £9500 in 1989.

He studied for the ministry in Cranmer College, part of the University of Durham. Here he became open to a wider variety of theology, worshipping and finding placements with churches that were mixed in theology, Anglo-Catholic or Charismatic in outlook.

After ordination at Coventry Cathedral in 1992, his first parish was in a working class suburb of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Here he launched youth work, children’s holiday clubs and pioneered the use of the Alpha Course, a basic introduction to Christianity that began in Holy Trinity Brompton and went nationwide in 1993 as a way to reach the unchurched. This trend of turning declining congregations around continued in his next charge, Southam, a rural market town in the same diocese. He restored the 700-year-old building, and introduced more modern forms of worship in the morning service in tandem with traditional Book of Common Prayer early morning communion services and evensong services. Part of this church growth strategy was also due to a revival of children’s and youth outreach and rolling Alpha Course programmes for adults.

An interesting insight to Welby’s worldview can be gleaned from his regular ‘thoughts for the month’ published in the Southam Parish Church News. In this Welby expounded the line that, ‘The church is not a home for saints; Christians do not claim to be better than other folk, but they do claim that God has touched their lives and given new meaning to them.’ He had a high view of God’s grace and the necessity of forgiveness and the power of redemption and ‘a fresh start’ in the gospel message. Welby was orthodox in his view of Christ’s resurrection and made it clear that it was the job of the church to speak out on issues of social justice and in opposition to moral relativism.

Welby was in great demand for his expertise in financial matters. He had been involved with the Association of Corporate Treasurers as its personal and ethics advisor and was invited to join the finance ethics group of the Von Hügel Institute. This Cambridge-based Catholic research organisation sought to apply the principles of social justice, human dignity and ideas of the ‘common good’ in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (published in English as The Workers’ Charter) to everyday life. This brought him into contact with Catholic economists and theologians in Europe and give him a higher view of the power of the sacraments than he had hitherto been familiar.

In 2002 he moved to Coventry Cathedral in order to direct the cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation. This brought him to conflict zones in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria and Burundi. Welby focused on reconciliation work in Nigeria which he already knew from his time as an executive with an oil company. At times his life was in real danger from AK47-toting gunmen. Welby argued that the church ought to be ‘the body of reconciled reconcilers’ and Christians should not just receive reconciliation but become sources of ‘rivers of reconciliation’ to places of conflict and trauma.

By 2005, the funding ran out for Coventry’s ICR and it collapsed. The international ministry was drastically cut and a new focus was sought. This was one of the greatest disappointments of Welby’s ministry to date. He began to work out a means of reconciling differences between Christians and conducting arguments and disagreements in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2: 24-25, ‘the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone… correcting opponents with gentleness…'(Welby’s emphasis).

In 2007, Welby was appointed as the Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. Welby’s task was to overcome financial shortfalls and division and disharmony in the cathedral’s Chapter. Sorting this out was a challenge to his background in finance and his ministry of reconciliation. Some of his ideas were controversial but he did raise the cathedral’s profile in the city, reach new people and introduce a variety of forms of worship, m anage to start a theological school and envisage an ecumenical religious community. During this time he acted as an envoy to Kenya in the aftermath of violence during the 2008 election campaign and he became involved with Anglican Communion affairs in an attempt to deal with its own deep divisions and conflict. He became Archbishop Rowan Williams’ special envoy to American Episcopalians, Nigerian Christians facing persecution and murder and he facilitated a meeting of primates in Dublin in order to tackle some of the serious issues threatening to tear worldwide Anglicanism apart most notably the ordination of woman bishops and attitudes to sexuality.

After just three and a half years in Liverpool, Welby was appointed as Bishop of Durham in October 2011. He used his maiden speech in the House of Lords to call for economic regeneration in the north-east of England and for Christians to build alliances with politicians, financiers and businesses in order to bring about justice and community renewal. He made many contributions to the debate on the Financial Services Bill in which he favoured the establishment of credit unions and limits on directors’ pay and bonuses. In July 2012 he was appointed to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he gained a reputation as a formidable operator who took no obfuscation, waffle nor double-talk from the former ‘masters of the universe’ who ran the banking system like a Las Vegas casino. He wasn’t against banking and bankers as such, however, as he made cleare in a lecture in Zurich last October when he called for the European banking sector to be re-imagined in such a manner as to resurrect it from, ‘the wreckage of a hubris-induced disaster, to retrieving its basic purpose of enabling human society to flourish effectively.’

Welby’s time at Durham was too brief for him to have made his mark as a newly-minted bishop. He seems to have a realistic view of the parlous state of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, ‘We are divided, often savagely. We are battered. We are weak… The church is not a rest home for saints, it is a lifeboat for sinners. And when you stick loads of sinners together, perhaps especially Anglican sinners, you don’t get a saintly church…’ He was quite impressed by the American Episcopal Church after attending its July 2012 gathering of its House of Bishops. He thought that they managed disagreement better and were closer to his own motto of ‘diversity without enmity’.

The thorny issues that plagued his predecessor haven’t gone away. Welby might be able to sort things out. He might not. Time will tell whether or not Welby will be a reconciling Archbishop of Canterbury or the man who presides over the final fracturing and schism of worldwide Anglicanism.

DAVID KERR

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Unapologetic

UNAPOLOGETIC: Why, despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense

by Francis Spufford

Faber and Faber £12.99 ISBN 978-0-571-22521-7

Book cover of Unapologetic

Click on image to buy this book!

The author of Unapologetic isn’t a bit sorry for offering this entertaining polemic. He makes an impassioned case for Christianity making emotional sense, ‘despite everything’. He is withering in his criticism of vapid nonsense like John Lennon’s Imagine – ‘the My Little Pony of philosophical statements’ – and similar offerings that assume that peace and harmony would be the spontaneously arising natural order of things between all human beings if there was no such thing as religion. As the author opines; ‘Yeah, Right!’

Don’t expect to read one of those Josh McDowell-type Evidence that Requires a Verdict tomes that try to defend traditional Christian teachings in the face of modern criticism. Curious outsiders wondering what makes believers tick are much more likely to find an answer here than in a whole stack of theological books and strident critiques from Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling. Those readers who are stumbling along the pilgrim path are very likely to find a mirror into their souls, (or maybe that’s just me).

Spufford was inspired to write Unapologetic when he realised that his six-year-old daughter is soon going to discover that her parents are weird. Every Sunday morning the go out to church. As she grows up she will hear that Christians are a pretty bizarre bunch. According to those who care enough to object, these churchgoers are weird followers of some imaginary sky fairy, but for most people in Britain, church goers are just embarrassing. We’re ‘not weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable.’

In their eyes, ‘Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too…’ We just can’t allow things to be what they are; ‘They always have to be translated, moralised – given an unnecessary and rather sentimental extra meaning.’  We just can’t tell the difference between stuff that exists and stuff that is made up; ‘Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world’.

Yet, in fact; ‘It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires, continual, fluffy pretending.’ In examining this, he turns to the famous atheist bus slogan that raised a lot of controversy recently, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Does the implication stand that enjoyment would be the natural state of anyone who wasn’t being ‘worried by believers and their preaching’? ‘Take away the malignant threat of God talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? It buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing’ – the world of advertising and beautiful Gold Blend coffee-sipping people with good looks and plenty of cash – who can get all they want by going shopping.

Spufford argues persuasively that peace is not the norm, ‘the default state of human beings’, but that it is rare. So the atheist bus slogan might be fine for such improbable people but it is totally inappropriate for those many folk who don’t fit that definition. If the slogan is true then you’re on your own if for some reason you’re not enjoying yourself. ‘What the atheist bus slogan says is: There’s no help coming.’ There’s no hope, no consolation in this ‘cruel optimism’.

To Spufford, the notion is false that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from all other kinds of imagining, hoping and dreaming that we do; they are ‘deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.’  Spufford seeks in this work to decode the technical jargon and theological in-talk into plain (and often profane) basic English. Sin, for example is not a list of prohibited actions you can avoid or self-indulgence in sexual conduct or doing vaguely ‘wrong’ things like eating too much chocolate. To Spufford it’s simply the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up – the HPtFtU.

This distils in a short phrase the root of the problem with people; a problem ignored by humanists, atheists and sadly, many religious liberals too who have too rosy a view of human nature. Bad things don’t just happen to guaranteed 100% bad people. Christianity recognises the real truth; human beings are neither perfect nor perfectable, we’re all prone to fuck things up. We’re all bad people who need mercy. Spufford argues that this is a much more realistic starting points for us than awe at the stars and sunsets. You can’t live in a constant State of Awe. Recognition of the HPtFtU is the start of the way back, an admission of self-discovery that you really are guilty and in need of Grace and Mercy. Everyone fails. Nobody only means well. Nobody means well all the time.

For this reason, Spufford argues, the Church is not a cosy club of really good, holy people, or weird followers of a mythical sky-pixie but a ‘league of the guilty’. The International League of the Guilty has littered the landscape with useful buildings where people can find help to strip away self-delusion and comforting illusions; we call them churches.

This book gets off to a roaring start, so it’s slightly disappointing that it loses a bit of steam towards the last couple of chapters. Still, it really picks up again near the finish. That said, it’s still a cracking good read with a great message of hope from our ‘awkward sky fairy’ who says, ‘Don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid, for more can be mended that you can know.’ If you only read one ‘religious’ book this year, make it this one.

Reviewed By David Kerr

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Always Look on the Bright Side of Life?

ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE?

Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the WorldSmile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World

I HAVE often wondered what it is about dictators that cause them to misread their situation so completely.  The late Romanian dictator Nicholai Ceaucescu and the Libyan leader Colonel Qathafi were both surprised at the hatred they inspired in a large number of their people.  The answer seems to be that they had both become isolated in their own little bubbles and had become ‘Masters of the Universe’ in their own eyes.  They thought that they could reshape reality by the force of their own will.

This delusion was reinforced by a coterie of fawning hangers-on who either would not or could not tell them unwelcome truths.  In such societies optimism was compulsory; to point out otherwise was considered unpatriotic, defeatist or counter-revolutionary. Naturally people told their leaders what they thought they wanted to hear.  We hear similar rhetoric from the coalition government; when those posh boys David Cameron and George Osborne – despite mounting evidence to the contrary – insist that their austerity policies are doing us good, really and that we should all knuckle down, get with the programme and like it.

This delusional thinking, though, is not restricted to dictators and out-of-touch prime ministers and chancellors of the exchequer. A glossy best-selling book, The Secret, has convinced many people that getting the things you want is primarily a question of ‘the law of attraction’, visualising what it will be like when they are yours, whether it’s a new partner, that dream job, a fancy car or a lovely necklace or handbag. You will ‘draw’ these things to you. Just ‘name it and claim it’.

In Smile or Die; How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World, Barbara Ehrenreich examines the roots and the effects of the cult of blind optimism known as ‘Positive Thinking’.  This notion has gained a large foothold in American popular, religious and corporate culture.  Positive Thinking sounds attractive for a number of obvious reasons; nobody likes to be a misery or to be thought of as a misery. People are generally happier to be around individuals who light up a room by their presence than those who are constantly moaning, complaining and cursing their rotten lot in life. That’s fair enough. So far, so good.

However, basic cheery natural optimism is not what Ehrenreich is targeting in her wittily written polemic. ‘Positive Thinking’ the ideology is much more pernicious. It’s positively delusional.  The reckless optimistic bias involved undermines preparedness and invites disaster.  Its deep penetration of American popular culture, especially in the corporate world, may well have helped to precipitate the financial disaster that began to hit the world in 2007.  After all, why would you bother about debts and ruinous exposure to defaults when all good things come to those who are optimistic enough to visualise success and to expect it?

The truth is, things don’t get better by wishing them so. Positive Thinking of The Secret kind encourages its practitioners to treat other people as if they don’t matter, mere ciphers and bit players in their own ever so important life, rather that independent, thinking, breathing beings with a will, hopes and fears of their own.

Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the cynicism, delusion and greed of those who sell this stuff at society’s most vulnerable sections, some of whom are seriously ill with cancer, or who have lost their jobs owing to corporate ‘downsizing’.

Ehrenreich opens with a frank account of her own diagnosis with breast cancer, and her dismay at being almost buried in an avalanche of pink ribbons, pink teddy bears and sugar-coated therapy sessions in which there was no room for anger or sadness. Although it’s a popular theory, there is no scientific link between having a ‘positive’ outlook in the face of illness and rates of cancer survival.  As she says, ‘We really should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the mistaken belief that this will afford survival benefits.’

The undercurrent of always having to look on the bright side, so that your recovery may be undermined by your own poor ‘negative’ attitude if you don’t do so, is pernicious. It is disturbing to discover that some American cancer survivor groups have hounded out those whose cancer recurs in case any association with this ‘negativity’ might prove contagious. Such groups can properly help people come to terms with the consequences of their illness.  This may offer the patient social and emotional benefits but it will do nothing to overcome cancer or extend his or her life.

Ehrenreich traces the origins of positive thinking to reaction against traditional Calvinist doctrine in the nineteenth century.  She analyses the development of Positive Thinking through early self-help books to the slicker, more persuasive motivational speakers and their books and DVDs around today. She exposes the dangers to business of reckless optimism as all too often anyone who doesn’t fully sign up to the mantra is dismissed as ‘negative’ or having a bad attitude when they may just be more realistic. This notion also conveniently shifts the burden of responsibility for illness and unemployment on to the individual.

The author cites one self-help classic Who Moved My Cheese? when a worker wakes up to find that his “cheese”, or job, has disappeared, he should immediately “paint a picture . . . in great realistic detail, [of] sitting in the middle of a pile of all his favourite cheeses – from Cheddar to Brie”. And magically, a delicious new employment opportunity will arise. Don’t blame the system. Don’t’ blame the bosses. It’s your own fault if you don’t land another job. It’s no wonder that American corporations are buying this book in bulk and handing it out to the workers they are paying off.

Ehrenreich’s alternative to Positive Thinking’s bastardised mixture of personal insecurity, narcissistic self-absorption and blind acceptance of the status quo isn’t that we all become curmudgeonly Victor Meldrews; grumpy old men or women. All she suggests is that we look at how things really are, not how we would wish them to be and that we use a little critical thinking. To put it another way, don’t moan, organise to put things right. That’s true positivity for you.

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Revamped 1

Revamped 1 by Tim Bragg

This revamped compilation of songs comes from a number of previous albums that are no longer available, although listeners are rewarded with one new song, The Fighting’s Over, and a pleasant slow cover of the Thin Lizzy classic, The Boys are Back in Town.

Tim Bragg offers a number of memorable melodies and catchy guitar riffs, notably in the opening song, Rise Above It and in Of Doubts and God. This album explores love and loss, whether it’s looking for an elusive girl in a white dress or a dad’s pride in his son.  My Boy contrasts completely with Harry Chapin’s estranged son in the bittersweet The Cat’s in the Cradle.  This dad takes time out for walks by the river with his boy, perfect walks where he can take pride that his boy is growing into a man.

Not every song has to talk about love, however. Common Courage suggests something else is needed.

The re-release of Fields of England is timely, given the Con-Dem government’s recently announced scheme to wipe out planning laws in order to allow a property developer’s free-for-all. This would make an excellent soundtrack for a YouTube video protested at George Osborne’s scheme to bulldoze the fields of England into oblivion.

This album is permeated by a sense of spirituality, reminiscent of Van Morrison’s Avalon Sunset, especially in the track, Holy Spirit with its commendation of quiet meditation.  The catchy Heaven on Earth suggests that you can find heaven on earth, working the land. In Of Doubts and God though, Bragg declares with frank honesty that, ‘I’ve got doubts about everything’ and that ‘I don’t know anything about anything’.  This questioning attitude is the mark of true faith in which the Way is a Journey rather than ‘The Answer’ to everything. Like much of Bragg’s work, this song provokes deeper thought that is not dispelled by its infectious melody.

The production values on this album are high, given that it is self-published, but it’s a shame that no lyrics were included on the CD booklet. That’s only a minor criticism.  It’s superb. Let’s hope that we won’t have to wait too long for Revamped 2.

Available for download from Amazon.co.uk or ITunes

The striking cover of Revamped 1.

Revamped 1 is available for download on Amazon.co.uk for £7.49 or £0.89 per track or from ITunes for £7.99 or £0.79 per track. Find out more from tahbragg[at]googlemail.com if you want to buy a physical CD.

David Kerr

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