Friday, 29 April 2016

Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love

Elizabeth A. Johnson: Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (Bloomsbury 2014) is a work by a Catholic feminist theologian and was recommended to me by a member of a prayer group I go to.  The book explores the question of the theological meaning of the natural world by examining The Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed, taking its title from Job 12:7-10.

For millennia the natural world of plants and animals has received little attention as a subject of Christian theology and ethics in its own right. Focused on the human dilemma of sin and redemptive grace, theology has considered the doctrine of Creation an overture to the main drama of human beings’ relationship to God. Theology needs to look out of the window as well as in the mirror. Johnson concludes that love of the natural world is an intrinsic element of faith in God and that far from being an add-on, ecological care is at the centre of moral life. She refers to the Holy Spirit, the third element in the Trinity, as calling us to attend to the presence of the Giver of life within and around the evolving circle of life. Johnson quotes the elegant question from the arch-atheist Stephen Hawking, what is it that breaths fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? Johnson’s answer is that the Spirit of God awakens and enlivens all things. She would have us re sacralize the natural world through our modern understanding of it and our inter-connectedness with it. Johnson’s book is a hymn to science as worship.

It is good to see a Christian feminist writer upholding the positive connection between theology and science but, while I admire Johnson’s book, I actually would not recommend it to the general reader, because it is largely aimed at the student of Catholic theology. Far more to be recommended is the book to which it is, to an extent, an homage. I picked up a copy of Origin of Species in a local Oxfam shop and, following my predilection for counter-counter-cultural practices, browsed it in the nearby McDonalds over a quarter-pounder meal with coffee. I immediately grasped Johnson’s enthusiasm for this book. Far from being a cold assault on religious passion, Darwin’s work prompts in the reader two strong feelings. The first is astonishment at the complexity of Creation. The second, even stronger feeling, is astonishment at the power of the human mind to engage with this complexity and make some sense of it. There are political and philosophical lessons in his theory and method: diversity and variety are strengths, in societies as much as in species; change is the only constant and is necessary for survival; you can’t buck the system; you’ve got to keep an open mind. I particularly like Darwin’s discussion of the old Latin phrase Natura non facit saltum, which means that nature does not proceed by jumps. The necessity and wisdom of gradual rather than revolutionary change is something that should not be lost on politicians 

Monday, 18 April 2016

Give Refuge to the Stranger

In March 2016, Linda Rabben gave a talk at the Kingston Quaker Centre on her book, Give Refuge to the Stranger: the Past, Present and Future of Sanctuary (Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek California, 2011). 

Sanctuary is the giving of refuge to the threatened, vulnerable stranger.  It is universal and older than human society. From its origins in primate populations to its elaboration in ancient religious traditions and the modern legal institution of asylum, Rabben tells the story of sanctuary as it evolved over thousands of years.  She then examines asylum today, analyzing policy in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia and linking them to the experiences of courageous individuals to show how immigration and asylum are under attack around the world.  Her book is both an academic study of sanctuary and an impassioned call for the humane treatment of asylum seekers.

An important point she makes, which is often overlooked in the current heated debate about the migration crisis in Europe, is about the advantages, and indeed the delight, of rescue.  Human beings, and indeed other animals, naturally move about in order to flourish, migrating from one feeding ground to another.  Furthermore, we have in common with other species a tendency to act altruistically.  Rabben refers to the concept of reciprocal altruism, helpful acts that are costly in the short term but may produce long-term benefits if the recipients, or other members of the society, return the favour.  As much as there may be a tendency to emnity amongst humans and primates, there is also a tendency to develop social norms and enforce them, to develop the capacity for empathy and sympathy, mutual aid and a sense of fairness, mechanism of conflict resolution and so on.  In other words, welcoming the stranger is not only a natural thing to do but is also helpful.  It is at the heart of how societies grow and flourish, morally and economically. 

It goes beyond Rabben's subject to deal with trade and its history, but there are economic as well as moral advantages in migration and in welcoming the stranger, because of the gains in skills and knowledge as well as cultural enrichment.  Intermarriage and the strengthening of the gene pool is another benefit from movement of peoples.  Sadly, many opponents of migration just perceive the negative side, such as pressure on local services and infrastructure, without seeing that the vital ingredient of economic and moral growth is people.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Peace Tax

Conscience, http://www.conscienceonline.org.uk/ is an organisation promoting the idea of taxes for peace not war. It campaigns for a progressive increase in the amount of UK tax spent on peacebuilding, and a corresponding decrease in the amount spent on war and preparation for war. It also campaigns for the legal right of those with a conscientious objection to war to have the entire military part of their taxes spent on peacebuilding. This latter idea is known, rather misleadingly, as the Peace Tax.

There seem to me three arguments against the Peace Tax. Firstly, there is the slippery slope argument. To allow a legal right for those with a deep personal or religious objection to some aspect of government expenditure is to open the door to any number of single-interest enthusiasts, most obviously the anti-abortionist. Medical staff are already able to decline to participate in abortion procedures on grounds of conscience. If the right of conscientious objection is granted in respect of taxes going towards military expenditure, a Pro-Lifer could reasonably argue for the right on grounds of conscience to disallow any of their tax payments going to fund abortions on the National Health, insisting instead the money going on life-sustaining medical activity.

Secondly, in the UK donating through the Gift Aid scheme means charities can claim an extra 25p for every £1 given, so if it is open to a peace campaigner to donate to the organisation of her choice, which then gets back public money which would otherwise go on defence. In effect, there is already a means for a tax-payer to divert public funds to a peace charity and accordingly away from objectionable military expenditure.  No doubt Conscience itself uses the Gift Aid scheme, which would be slightly ironic.

Thirdly, administering a Peace Tax would be burdensome for the government and of little benefit to tax-payers as a whole. There is an excellent video on the history of Quaker war tax resistance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W658HYZGgPY. The speaker makes the point that life these days is too complicated to permit of simplistic measures like the Peace Tax.

Conscience are sponsoring a Peace Tax Bill in Parliament.  It is a good way of drawing attention to the organisation's correct and commendable principle that spending money on peace-building rather than on defence is much better value for money, if one may put the issue just in economic terms.  However, I expect the Bill itself will make little progress.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Faith in the Public Square


Yesterday I went to a lunchtime talk given by Rowan Williams at St Mary-le-Strand in central London on the subject of 'Faith in the Public Square', which is the title of one of his books.  I had pre-booked, which was just as well as St Mary's - a fine Baroque building - was packed.

I'm absolutely a fan of Bishop Rowan Williams.  (He has stepped down from being Archbishop of Canterbury but was being billed as a Bishop; I wonder if this was a mistake for his now being a Baron).  He's an impressive physical presence, a humble and engaging speaker and expresses a deep spirituality.  I also like him because he's known to be an admirer of Quakers, and indeed he made favourable mention of us in his talk.  His subject was the familiar one of the secular/sacred divide but he took a refreshingly positive approach, avoiding the wearisome denunciations of secular immorality and materialism usually to be found in the mouths of churchmen.

For Williams, the sacred is a sense that the person and the environment are not fully under our control, that there is more to reality than me and the totality of other me's.   The spiritual life is to look through 'a window into the inexhaustible depth'.  The Church - and Williams would include Quakers in this, as would I - is a hospitable space where stuff goes on which doesn't go on elsewhere.  This can include creative doubt (and also the expression of existential and emotional pain, though Williams didn't mention this).  The sacred space is for those for whom the ordinary world of things and busyness is not enough.  This means that the Church speaks for those for whom others do not speak. 

The church asks whose depths are not being attended to, who has been forgotten?  By this Williams was making the familiar point about the need for the churches to speak out on social justice and for minorities but I felt more to his words than this.  The church is also for those who may have power and a voice in the secular domain but whose spiritual needs must be identified in, and served by, the spiritual domain. I have in mind people like me, middle-class, well-to-do, white, heterosexual men who may operate well enough in the secular domain but who struggle to express themselves satisfactorily between persons and within a faith community.  One of the issues which concerns me and which I was able to talk about to people on at a recent residential I attended at Woodbrooke is the role of men in the Society, who are prominent and apparently powerful but seem to contribute less to, and get less from, fellowship than women Friends. Williams talked of the church has conveying a sense of something that doesn't go elsewhere.  He could have used the phrase 'a gathered meeting'.  Perhaps this is the point I'm trying to reach for; a church is about fellowship between all.

Williams said the role of secular power is to act positively to hold the ring between faith communities, which should have an unembarrassed voice but must accept that they may sometimes lose the argument with the secular.  In so saying, Williams mentioned the argument over assisted dying but he might equally as well have mentioned same-sex marriage.  (I get the impression that Williams is uncomfortable with the conservative position of the mainstream churches on these issues but his standing as an ecclesiastical prince makes it impossible for him to say so publicly.) He is optimistic about the prospects for communities of faith working under the protection of benign secularism.  He ended his talk by a message of hope for the mended life, rather than the fractured one, which is expressed in Christianity by St Paul's words about a new creation through Christ (2 Cor 5:17).