29 July 2006

The Postmodern Vicar

On Thursday 20th we had a Vicar come to Secular Hall to speak on Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism. Tony Windross, Vicar of St Peter's Sheringham and author of The Thoughtful Guide to Faith. The following is a summary of some responses by people present at the meeting.

George Jelliss (editor of this blog) tried to make a few notes, but found it increasingly frustrating to understand anything the speaker was saying!

Mr Windross suggested that our LSS should stand for "Lifelong Seeking Significance". He spoke much about "religion" without defining what this meant, although it was in some way like art and literature and music and dealt with the most profound questions, though he didn't say what those were. According to him "truth" is the slippiest of all philosophical concepts. He seemed to distinguish between scientific and religious truth.

He seemed to think that religious truth was to be found in "christian stories", though when I asked him, after the meeting, if the story of "the fall" was one of these he said not. So which ones he decides to believe and which to reject and on what criteria I know not.

I also asked him what the last line of the blurb of his book meant: "... what we may or may not believe must never be allowed to get in the way of faith", which to me makes no sense. He responded that it meant one didn't have to believe in such things as the virgin birth to call yourself a christian and attend his church. (If I've got this all wrong perhaps he will enlighten us further, but it's not my understanding of "faith".) I ended up as one of those who received what he had to say with what he himself described as "puzzled bemusement".

Allan Hayes, who invited Mr Windross to speak to us writes: "The significance of Tony Windross, is that he is representative of many questioning C of E Vicars." In the discussion of the WWII holocaust he said, in effect, "that it was wrong because it was inhuman, not because God said it was wrong nor because of any other supernatural reason. This is the secular/humanist position."

Allan maintains: "We need to engage with people who are searching and put forward our own contributions." He cites: Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh, in the preface to his book Looking in the Distance who says: "In short, there is a rich and diverse range of human spiritualities in the world, and countless people follow them without references to religion or any necessary sense of God. I have written this book for that great company, because I now find myself within it."

Allan also says: "Many of us will know personally clergymen who do not believe in God or life after death." He cites statistics from a 2002 Christian Research Survey: 18% of clergy do not believe 'without question' in God the Father, and 34% do not believe without question the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also cites: Lloyd Geering author of Christianity without God, and the recent report: Making Sense of Generation Y: the world view of 15-25 year olds, by Sara Savage et al. In the foreword John Sentamu, Archbishop of York writes "The research described in this book suggests that young people are happy with life as it is, that they have no felt need for a 'transcendant something else', and that they regard the Church as boring and irrelevant."

Oliver Killingback, a non-member and former priest, wrote that he'd like to
take up some of Tony Windross's ideas with him. He writes:

"Tony conceded that he was using the 1662 liturgy as a form of mantra.
That's maybe alright for him, but I'd strongly suspect that others
present were using the words to mean what they think they mean, as a
confirmation and restatement of their beliefs about the world."

"For myself, when I was a priest I found the Eucharist deeply meaningful.
I have sought for and failed to find an adequate ritual ever since. But
I found that I could not keep saying, even as a mantra, words I believed
to be untrue. I'd love to know how he copes with that. If I wanted a
mantra I'd sooner use OM PANI MANI SUM (or whatever it is) which serves
the purpose while being, to me at least, meaningless. How do you say
the creed, and lead other people to say the creed knowing that at least
some of them take it at face value, when you consider yourself that the
plain meaning of the words is untrue?"

Oliver also points out that "... the Norwich Diocese web site ... has a 'What we believe' section. What the diocese to which he owes canonical obedience says it
believes is about as far as you can get from what Tony believes. He, as
a member of the clergy, is included in the diocesan 'We' - but he
repudiates it. As a member of the diocesan clergy he took certain oaths
which include references to mission. There is no doubt about what is
meant by the church by 'Preaching the Gospel'. He clearly cannot
fulfill the obligations the church believes he has accepted. Claiming
to do so by reinterpreting the oaths to suit himself (which may not be
what he is doing, but in that case, what is he doing?) is at least
casuistry of a poor kind and in my view it is dishonest. Anglicanism is
founded on beliefs, even if historically it has tolerated and embraced a
fairly wide range of beliefs. Tony's beliefs are not those the church
proclaims. I know I could not accept the church's pay in that
circumstance. It seemed to me to be dishonest. I'd like to know how he
deals with that."

"One member present objected quite strongly (I felt aggressively) to
Tony's offering. For myself I wondered what the real content and
purpose were. It is self-evident that thinking people are losing ground
to the thoughtless, and that something needs to be done about it. It
did not need a long lecture to show that, only a glance at the papers or
the Internet. Only this morning there was on the radio an item about
Texan believers ... trying to exercise influence over US policy towards Israel because they imagine that it is a sign of the dawn of Armageddon. It is frightening that the former Senate Majority Leader should be associated with such a cult."

"The equivalent is happening (only worse and more so) in Iran. Religion may
be about to lead us into a nuclear holocaust and some Christians think
this is a good thing because God will then remake heaven and earth. How
can anyone want to bear the same label as these people? Yes, thoughtful
people must do something, but it seems to me that this involves a lot of
education and a lot of forceful opposition to what is going on. Pretending that one has a version of religion that avoids all these problems if only everyone would convert to it is not the answer."

"Lastly I wondered how Bertrand Russell would have felt about being quoted at length in such a context."

Lyn Hurst, LSS President, writes:

"I think Tony Windross did care about a person's right of free thought, since
he mentioned it so often. But as he is in an organisation that requires blind
faith of its followers, he has put himself in a catch 22, something I think he is
struggling to come to terms with in his own head. As I said at the meeting,
he wasn't trying to convince the audience, he was trying to convince himself !!."

19 July 2006

A Summer Idyll

While the sun beams down benevolently on my very small, rather neglected and overgrown, garden I've been spending an idyllic time watching the Bees and the Butterflies on the Buddleia.

So far I've observed five different varieties of butterfly: small white, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock and comma. I don't think I'd seen a comma before, though apparently they are common in the midlands. When closed up it looks just like a dead leaf. All things are bright and beautiful in Darwin's domain.

Meanwhile in the civised world of men of faith we find nature red in tooth and claw. The centre of God's world, according to the Mappa Mundi, has erupted in its worst exchanges of violence for some time.

Massimo Pigliucci offers a trite solution: the US should threaten to withdraw its financial support from Israel. But didn't this little spat of trouble all begin just when the US (and Europe) withdrew their financial support from the newly democratically elected Hamas in Palestine?

OK, so they wouldn't, overnight, change their stance and recognise the right of existence of Israel, but wouldn't a little support for their good social programme have helped to put them in a better frame of mind?

The domino theory of international politics comes to mind. Which will be the next domino to fall? Syria, then Iran? Back to the garden for a bit of peace I think.

12 July 2006

Purposeless Violence?

More pointless bombings killing ordinary people going about their everyday business. This time in Mumbai. How do the people who do this think their actions are going to promote their cause, whatever it is? Can it just be mindless nihilism? Certainly there can be no justification of such acts in moral terms. Nor in any sensible religious terms. Nor even in purely pragmatic terms.

A report in Progressive.Org magazine leads:

Mumbai bomb blasts sickening. A basic rule for any insurgent movement worth its name: Do not kill civilians by the dozen with bombs set to maximize pain and destruction. ... Not only does this violate every norm of human decency, it also takes you much further away from your political goals. ... What do the perpetrators hope to achieve by this? (Here, one has to assume that the bomb manufacturers had goals other than a nihilistic orgy of violence or to set off religious rioting.)

The same article suggests that there is "alienation" of the Muslims in Kashmnir who seek its independence or union with Pakistan, due to the past actions of the Indian police and forces. But can this just lead to such blind despair that it leads people to strike back by dealing out death at random?

The purpose of life, from a non-religious point of view, is to try to do something constructive with your life, and not something purely destructive. It is only justifiable to destroy something if you have something better ready to take its place. And there can seldom be any justification for destroying living beings still full of potential life unless they threaten your own survival.

Does anyone yet really understand the mind-set of the people who carry out these acts? Shouldn't such understanding be one of our society's priority aims? There must be a solution.