3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Author: Justin Lewis-Anthony (page 1 of 41)

On Returning to England

Let me sing of thee, my Lionheart,
O England, of my dreams
Where sodium lights from oil-slicked roads
On factory walls doth gleam.

Where mardy proles speak scabrous prose
In snugs and pub saloons;
Cathedral towns selling tea-towel views
On shuttered afternoons.

Shared spaces and clipped public hedges,
On bus, tube, morning train
Friday evening home for DIY
And washing in the rain.

Thermos flasks, twisted salt, boiled egg,
Picnics in the car park
Union flags salute from lamp-post jacks
Football’s national mark.

What know ye now of England’s story
If only England knows?
Less than half a sixpenny paper,
Less than the sickly rows

Of suburban villas clutched on cliffs,
Double-glazed, aerialled trance,
Corry and Talent, TOWIE, Bake Off,
Lost now in Strictly’s dance.

England’s Dreaming—Kipling, Blake and Rotten,
Modest indifference.
Our Empire’s wealth and expectations,
Understate arrogance.

The ribbons of the Empire poured out
Darlo’s mills, Redcar’s forge,
Rich, black money washed from Rhondda’s vales
To the big house disgorged.

We used to build the world from this place,
Coppered, tinned and steeled votives,
The prayers of navvies, squaddies, joiners,
Firebox locomotives.

The foundry is a shopping outlet,
The pit a flattened park,
Garden centres in the railway works,
Naval-yard a landmark.

England’s Dreaming—Shakespeare, Caedmon, Bede
In moorland, wood and dale,
We buy the postcards of scenic views,
Rustic pubs sell bitter ale.

England! England! Blue remembered hills!
Home of my parents’ choice.
Allow my return to your faithless breast—
Homecoming now rejoice.

Without silence there is no theology; with silence there is no popularity

James Alison on why silence is unpopular:

Here I  fear that I  will have to say something rather unpopular, for we are inclined to become tireless parrots of chatty theological verborrhea. But this process of letting go of being the bearers of group values and desires so as to become a theologian, is a process bathed in silence, the silence of one who does not know how to speak. The silence of those who have been caught out in an act of false witness, and who know that their only way out is to go back over their story so as to learn to articulate the non- official version, the inconvenient one in which the wrinkles haven’t been ironed out, nor the shortcuts painted over. And for this I need a good chunk of time in which I don’t say anything, and in which I pray hard to receive the light of the truth concerning what was really going on in my life. Where I have to learn to prefer the truth that comes from the Other to every lure from a more comfortable truth.

The problem is this:  No one rewards silence. Rapid response is prized; the one with sure-footed opinions or ready answers in a stormy situation is respected. There is no reward for the months and years of silence necessary for us to give up lying and make headway in telling the truth. However, that silence, and the non-reactive capacity to tell the truth with no concern for convenience, is worth much, much more than what any of us could earn by saying a lot with very little background silence. And this means that an essential part of the shape of how we receive a theologian’s vocation is learning to survive without immediate recognition. In other words, without a capacity for deferred recognition, there is no theology. And that means that without the poverty that goes along with being someone who doesn’t have anything immediately useful to offer, there is no theology.

James Alison, ‘Oracles, Prophets, and Dwellers in Silence’, in The Practice of the Presence of God?: Theology As a Way of Life, ed. Martin S. Laird and Sheelah Treflé Hidden (New York: Routledge, 2016), 1–7.

The delights of group working

In its search for a leader the [small therapeutic] group finds a paranoid schizophrenic or malignant hysteric if possible; failing either of these, a psychopathic personality with delinquent trends will do; failing a psychopathic personality it will pick on the verbally facile high-grade defective. I have at no time experienced a group of more than five people that could not provide a good specimen of one of these.

W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups and Other Papers (London: Tavistock Publications, 1961), p. 123

Change and the Brigadier Belt

How do we experience change, in society and its groupings? Wilfred Bion, with his experience as an officer in the First World War, and his training as a psychoanalyst, had some ideas:

Change can take place, but society needs to defend itself from change that takes place too rapidly, the catastrophic rate of change. The new ideas have to be appropriately contained and represented so that they can become accessible to the non-geniuses who represent the vast majority of any society. They have to pass the test of what Bion called the Establishment, persons whose established rôle it is to preserve the existing status but at the same time to allow for the slow incursion of new ideas. In the church this would represent the assembly of bishops, in the army what has been called the brigadier belt, that is, those persons whose ability does not fit them to rise above this relatively high rank but whose experience and capacity for testing new ideas is relied on to protect the army from wild ideas but at the same time foster steady change.

Malcolm Pines, ‘Bion: A Group-Analytic Appreciation’, Group Analysis 20, no. 3 (September 1987): 251–62,. p. 253

Trammelled by the otherness of the others

My last post was Gregory of Nazianzus’s advice to avoid assemblies of bishops. Carl Jung was even more pessimistic. He thought we should avoid all assemblies of any kind:

When a hundred clever heads join in a group, one big nincompoop is the result, because every individual is trammelled by the otherness of the others. There used to be a funny question: Which are the three largest organizations, the morale of which is the lowest? Answer: Standard Oil, the Catholic Church, and the German Army. Especially in a Christian organization one should expect the highest morality, but the necessity to bring into harmony various factions requires compromises of the most questionable kind. (Jesuitic casuistry and distortion of the truth in the interest of the institution!)…

Real virtues are relatively rare and constitute usually the achievements of individuals. Mental and moral laziness, cowardice, prejudice, and unconsciousness are dominant. I have behind me fifty years of pioneer work and, therefore, could tell a few things about these: there is, perhaps, scientific and technical progress. However, one has not heard yet that people in general have become more intelligent or morally better.

Individuals can be improved because they let themselves be treated. Societies, however, let themselves be seduced and deceived, temporarily even for the good.

Hans A. Illing, ‘C. G. Jung on the Present Trends in Group Psychotherapy’, Human Relations 10, no. 1 (1957): 77–83.

Avoid all assemblies of bishops…

For my part, if I am to write the truth, my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen any council come to a good end, nor turn out to be a solution of evils. On the contrary, it usually increases them. You always find there love of contention and love of power (I hope you will not think me a bore, for writing like this), which beggar description; and, while sitting in judgement on others, a man might well be convicted of ill-doing himself long before he should put down the ill-doings of his opponents. So I retired into myself; and came to the conclusion that the only security for one’s soul lies in keeping quiet.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 130 (to  Procopius), cAD 382, in Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church Ad 337-461, ed. James Stevenson and W. H. C. Frend, Rev. ed. (London: S. P. C. K, 1989).

Bullets and Dancing

This is lovely.

Clive James, the poet, critic, novelist, was diagnosed with terminal cancer (leukaemia) in 2010. In 2015 he published what was advertised as his final book, a collection of poems called Sentenced to Life. It was very well received.

Unaccountably, he is still alive, and it has just been announced that he will publish another book of poems in May. In an interview with The Guardian today he said, about the slow progress of his cancer:

“I felt like I’d dodged a bullet, and when you’re dodging a bullet the best thing you can do is turn it into a dance.”

Isn’t that great?

Best ever reason for not writing

Who would’ve thought that John of the Cross could’ve turned neglect in communication into a spiritual lesson?

To the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Beas, from Granada, November 22, 1587

…My failure to write to you was not due to any unwillingness, for indeed I desire your great good, but to my belief that enough has already been said and written for doing that which is important; and that what is wanting, if anything is wanting, is not writing or speaking—rather these usually superabound—but silence and work. Furthermore, speaking distracts one, while silence and work recollects and strengthens the spirit. Once a person knows what has been told him for his benefit, he no longer needs to hear or speak, but to put it into practice, silently and carefully and in humility and charity and contempt of self. He must not then go in search of new things that serve only to satisfy the appetite outwardly—although they are not able to satisfy it—and leave the spirit weak and empty without interior virtue.

My silence was so that you might learn wisdom (<= my new Twitter strapline!)

Letter 7, Saint John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ed. Kieran Kavanaugh, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1973), pp. 688-689

The immense parlez-vous of American government

In the early summer of 1941, John Maynard Keynes was sent by Churchill to negotiate with the American government the developing terms of the Lend-Lease agreement between Britain and the USA. The war was not going well for Britain at the time, and money was short. It wasn’t helped by American insistence on Britain selling UK-owned assets held in America, to American businesses, at knock-down prices. The American government, especially under the suspicious leadership of Henry Morgenthau, secretary to the Treasury, wanted Britain to continue fighting the war, but not be in any position to use American aid or money to rebuild economic capacity for after the war.

 

Morgenthau and Keynes at the later Bretton Woods Conference, 1994 (Morgenthau uncharacteristically using a bit of paper)

With this unstated aim, the Washington system of government proved to be an absolute asset. Keynes, bewildered by his need to negotiate simultaneously with three different officials, four different departments, and 23 separate political players, spent much, much longer in Washington that he expected (he said in a letter to a friend after his return to England “I always regard a visit [to the USA] as in the nature of a serious illness to be followed by convalescence.”1. Keynes wanted to brief his employers, so on 2 June 1941 he wrote a long letter to Kingsley Wood, Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the middle of advising Wood about the status and content of negotiations, he warned that the American way of doing things would hamper his efforts:

The other main criticism which must strike one’s attention here relates to the organs of government. To the outsider it looks almost incredibly inefficient. One wonders how decisions are ever reached at all. There is no clear hierarchy of authority. The different departments of the Government criticise one another in public and produce rival programmes. There is perpetual internecine warfare between prominent personalities. Individuals rise and fall in general esteem with bewildering rapidity. New groupings of administrative power and influence spring up every day. Members of the so-called Cabinet make public speeches containing urgent proposals which are not agreed as part of the Government policy. In the higher ranges of government no work ever seems to be done on paper; no decisions are recorded on paper; no-one seems to read a document and no-one ever answers a communication in writing. Nothing is ever settled in principle. There is just endless debate and sitting around. But this, I suppose, is their characteristic method. Suddenly some drastic, clear-cut decision is reached, by what process one cannot understand, and all the talk seems to have gone for nothing, being the fifth wheel to the coach, the ultimate decision appearing to be largely independent of the immense parlez-vous, responsible and irresponsible, which has preceded it.

…I have already stayed here longer than I intended. But things move very slowly owing to the dissipation of authority, the reluctance to settle anything in principle and the fact that all important matters are conducted orally. But I am still hoping that another fortnight will see me through—for better or worse.2

Any further comment necessary?

  1. Keynes Papers (Personal Papers/80/9): letter to P. A. S. Hadley, 10 September 1941 []
  2. John Maynard Keynes, ‘Letter to Sir Kingsley Wood, 2 June 1941’, in The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, ed by. D. E. Moggridge, vol. 23: Activities 1940-1943, External War Finance, 30 vols. (London; New York: Macmillan; Cambridge University Press, 1979), 103–113. Emphasis added. []

Alternative Facts and the “Reality-Based” Community

The Unreality-Based Community

The Unreality-Based Community

Trump is inaugurated and the sparsity of the crowds, in comparison with recent inaugurations, is noted. The next day, Trump’s Press Secretary delivers a 5 minute angry vituperation to the assembled press corps in the White House Briefing Room, in which he asserts both that no one can know the true numbers that were present and also that “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” The day after, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway tells NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday that Spicer had merely been offering “alternative facts.” The Guardian reports that this phrase “was received with widespread astonishment.”1 Why astonishment? It’s not as if this is anything new?

In 2004 Ron Suskind of The New York Times was told by an aide for the Bush White House:

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

The disdain that the Bush staffer felt for the “all of you” is shown in the way he referred to the “reality-based community,” as if that were indicative of some moral failing.2

Again, why the surprise?

Siegfried Kracauer noted in 1947, that Totalitarianism meant what the description said: it was a totalizing approach to life. Nothing, nothing, was exempt from its desire and ability to rewrite what was not part of the narrative. Rather German Totalitarianism:

…endeavoured to supplant a reality based upon the acknowledgement of individual values. Since the Nazis aimed at totality, they could not be content with simply superseding this reality—the only reality deserving the name—by institutions of their own. If they had done so, the image of reality would not have been destroyed but merely banished; it might have continued to work in the sub-conscious mind, imperilling the principle of absolute leadership.3

As Chico Marx asks, in that classic movie of political suspicion, Duck Soup, “Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?”4

The answer that Kracauer and Conway both give us is that in this unreality-based brave new world, there is no real choice.

 


 

  1. Jon Swaine, ‘Donald Trump’s team defends ‘alternative facts’ after widespread protests,’ The Guardian, Monday 23 January 2017. []
  2. Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” The New York Times (New York, October 17, 2004), sec. Magazine. []
  3. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), p. 298. []
  4. Chico, and not Groucho as Jonathan Freedland mistakenly remembered in his comment piece in The Guardian this morning, before it was amended with a subclause correction. Perhaps it is an alternative fact that Groucho said it first? Jonathan Freedland, ‘Sean Spicer is a Groucho Marxist, asking us not to believe our own eyes‘ The Guardian, 23 January 2017 []
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