Thursday, 28 January 2010

How to stop clever people being stupid

Alasdair MacIntyre is a philosopher and theologian. I always thought he was quite young, but apparently he's actually really old now: he was born in 1929. He's not as old, though, as John Henry Newman, who is so old that he died in 1890, and even then he was already 89. John Henry Newman started out as an Anglican, and was important in the Oxford Movement, which tried to make Anglicanism a bit more Catholic, until he decided he'd be better off, y'know, just being a Catholic, and converted. I feel like this makes him a bit more consistent than John Milbank, who talks a lot about why Catholicism is better than Protestantism but is, er, still an Anglican.

Anyway, Alasdair MacIntyre isn't dead, although he is a Catholic, and he recently wrote an article about John Henry Newman, who in turn wrote a book called "The Idea of a University", in which he discussed what he thought a university education should be about. No one really takes this book seriously any more, and MacIntyre thinks that this is because of three of Newman's key ideas, as follows:
  • The unity of knowledge. Modern universities tend to divide themselves into different disciplines, each studying different aspects of the world from different perspectives. Newman thinks that a good education shouldn't just teach us about one way of seeing the world - say, biology - it should teach us about lots of different ways of seeing the world and, crucially, the way these different sorts of knowledge are related. We need to understand not just what each discipline contributes, but also the limitations of each discipline. We need to know what science, geography, english and politics can't tell us as much as what they can. Newman worries about what happens when people spend so much time studying the world from one perspective that they can't see it from any other perspective: people like that may make great progress in their chosen specialty, but they will deform their minds in the process. A PhD is 'too often the mark of a miseducated mind.'
  • Theology is the most important discipline. Oooh, controversial. Newman thinks that theology is crucial to a university because if people are to be taught that knowledge is a unity, they need to have an idea of what that unity might be, and how the different subjects fit together. It used to be that most people agreed on a certain 'canon' of books that all educated people ought to read; what basic skills everyone should be taught: that's not the case anymore, and for Newman, only theology can give the unifying perspective that brings all the different ways of thinking about the world together.
  • University isn't about teaching people how to be economically productive. Increasingly, a university education is valued because it makes people more 'marketable' and gives them 'transferable skills' so that they can go out into the world and get well paid jobs and contribute to the economy. It's getting harder and harder to justify learning for the sake of it. But for Newman, the sort of things that people learn at university are valuable in themselves.
You can imagine how well these ideas go down in modern universities. The theologians would probably be pretty happy - it's always nice to think you're important. And plenty of academics would agree that learning matters for its own sake: but try persuading the government to justify the millions of pounds of taxpayers' money spent on higher education just because it's intrinsically worthwhile. And while interdisciplinarity (looking at the relationships between different subjects) is kind of trendy, I'd like to see you try to persuade a computer scientist that they really ought to be studying poetry too.

But MacIntyre thinks that Newman was right about all three things. Whatever people end up doing once they leave university, he argues, they need to be able to make good decisions. Why might people make bad decisions? Often, it's because they make wrong assumptions about the way the world is about about the way other people will react to particular things. And where an unbalanced education really screws you over is that it leaves you unable to recognise all of your assumptions. Some of the smartest people with the best educations in the world were responsible for the Vietnam War, US policy on Iran, and the global credit crunch.

Smart people do stupid things, all the time And Newman and MacIntyre think that one of the reasons for this is because universities don't educate us properly. They teach us to be really good at one thing, but they don't teach us how that one thing we know about relates to all the other things we don't know about. They don't teach us what we don't know, and so we think that we know everything, and then we do stupid things. Even (gasp!) the theologians.

Photo credit: m00by on flickr

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Active vs contemplative: Round 3

In an essay called 'Sacramental Flesh' (in Queer Theology), Elizabeth Stuart argues that, in ceasing to value monasticism, the Church has lost a valuable resource. She's mostly concerned with issues of gender and sexuality: she argues that, in being baptised, we enter into a community which is not primarily defined by categories of gender or sexuality (in Christ, there is neither male nor female...). To be a Christian is to be defined, first and foremost, not by how well we do or don't conform to social and cultural expectations of what it means to be male or female, but by our allegiance to Jesus. There's a lot that's wonderful in culture, and a lot that glorifies God; but it's all too easy to get so caught up in the cultures we belong to that we lose the ability to critique them, and start defining ourselves by our relationship to social norms rather than our relationship to God.

Stuart argues that earlier generations of Christians were better at subverting and challenging cultural norms of gender than we are. The celibacy of monks and nuns was a powerful reminder that heterosexuality, marriage, and family life are not the same as Christian discipleship, and that the deepest desires of human nature are not for other people but for God. The monastic life made space for us to imagine different models of community, family, and society.

This is, I think, the best argument for the contemplative life. It's true that you can contemplate and also have a family, a job, friends, and hobbies. But you can't do all of those things and also be radically disconnected from the culture of the place you live, and perhaps in this sense we'd do well for being a bit more culturally irrelevant. When you spend almost all of your time in prayer and contemplation, you have the opportunity to see the world around you in a radically different way to people who are busy working, socialising, raising a family or whatever else it may be. Monks and nuns aren't necessarily better people than the rest of us, but they have a very different relationship to society than we do. They're like the John the Baptist (or, as biblical scholars like to call him, JBap - rock), out in the desert, living off locusts and honey. They don't have anything to lose if they start questioning fashion, or TV, or politics. We're all tangled up in the world: we might not like the Tories, but maybe it would be nice to get their tax relief; we think celebrity culture's kind of stupid, but it's fun to read the magazines; we're influenced by adverts even if we don't realise it; we get our ideas of what's normal from the people we hang out with. Sometimes that's great: we understand the things that our friends struggle with, because we struggle with them too; we find God in the cracks of the pavements, the disposable culture, as well as in the Bible. But if we lose the weird hermits, the solitary contemplatives, the silent orders, the monastic retreat centres, the utterly unworldly types, we lose something valuable, and the Church loses some of its capacity for subversion, for seeing things differently, for grasping that we're both utterly at home in the world that God made and loves, and strangers in a strange land, longing for the return of Jesus and the transformation of all things.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP on Flickr

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Active vs contemplative: Round 2

Hopefully you've got a rough idea now of the distinction between the active and contemplative lives. We've already noted that Thomas thinks that different people are more naturally attracted to one or the other, but is one of them better than the other? According to Thomas, yes: the contemplative life basically kicks the ass of the active life (or it would if that weren't such an outwardly directed action). He uses the example of Mary and Martha: while Martha ran around in the kitchen making dinner, Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to him, and Jesus said it was Mary who had chosen the better part. Thomas gives nine reasons why the contemplative life is better. The first eight he nicks from Aristotle (who was talking about the contemplation of the Good and the Beautiful rather than of the Christian God specifically), and one he gets from Jesus:

i) For Thomas, the mind is the best part of human nature, and contemplation is all about the things of the mind, ideas, whereas the active life is all about external, physical things.
ii) The contemplative life is, apparently, more continuous, although I'm not sure why this would make it better.
iii) The contemplative life is more delightful than the active life.
iv) In the contemplative life, all you really need is yourself and God, whereas the active life involves you in the complicated worries of the world. The contemplative life is more self-sufficient, and therefore better.
v) The contemplative life is an end in itself: contemplation of God is the best thing we can do, whereas the active life is much more indirect - we do X so we can achieve Y, so that we can become more Z, and eventually so that we can flourish i.e. get to be with God and contemplate him. The contemplative life is a more direct root to what's good for us.
vi) The contemplative life is about rest in God, unlike the active life, where you're always running around and stressing.
vii) The contemplative life is about divine things, whereas the active life is about human things.
viii) The mind is what makes humans special and distinguishes us from the animals. A lot of the active life is just doing the same things the animals do, so is less uniquely human and therefore less good.
ix) The contemplative life is eternal: contemplating God is what we'll do forever, even after we die. The active life will come to an end with this life, so is more temporary, more fleeting, and therefore less valuable.

Thomas also briefly discusses the fact that sometimes mature Christians are called away from their contemplative lives to serve the Church (Church history abounds with reluctant bishops and churchmen, who are dragged out of their quiet contemplation to do church-y things). Sometimes love demands of us that we sacrifice our prayer-time for people-time. This bothers me: I can't help feeling that when spending time with people becomes an unwelcome distraction from the real business of doing prayer, something's a bit out of joint.

I think the problem here is Thomas' idea of what it means to be human. He lives in a world which arranged in a hierarchy consisting of four groups: physical things like stones at the bottom, which just exist; plants, which both exist and live; animals, which exist, live, and are conscious; and human beings, the climax of creation: we exist, live, and are conscious, but we also have reason and intellect. For humans to be at their most human, to be who God created them to be, they should do the things that only humans can do: reason, think, love. Doing the things we share with animals, or doing things which don't involve reasoning, thinking or loving, is a step down from what's best for us, a falling short.

My problem is this: Thomas ends up suggesting that what we really want to do is leave our bodies behind. In an ideal world (and in the world to come), we wouldn't need to eat, drink, sleep etc., we'd just contemplate God, intellectually. All the time. Thomas would probably be a bit offended if you suggested to him that he didn't think that our bodies were good: they are, God made them, and they point us to God. But they end up a bit like signs along a road: you reach a sign, it points you where you want it to go, and then you leave it behind, because the ultimate good doesn't have space for trees and mountains and babies and food: there's only really space for you and God.

All this ends up undermining rather badly Thomas' earlier attempts to suggest that the active and contemplative life are equally valid options, and people just happen to be more disposed to one or the other. What that ends up meaning is that some people are more disposed to God than others. Thomas wants to affirm the goodness of the world whilst also saying that God is good-er than any of the things in the world, and I don't find his attempts to do so very satisfying. I think he ends up saying that everyone who really loves God will express that by wanting the contemplative life more than anything, and I think that rather devalues, y'know, most of human life. What do you think?

Next time: some more positive thoughts about the contemplative life.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Active vs contemplative: Round 1

Christian monasticism started with the Desert Fathers who, in about the third century, started retreating into the desert to live alone and think about God. A lot. As monasticism grew and expanded, the monastic life, particularly the contemplative monastic life, came to be seen as the height of Christian discipleship: if you really love God, the thinking went, what you'll most want is to spend all your time in prayer and contemplation, ideally with only minimal contact with other people. None of your Sister Act getting-out-into-the-community-and-painting-murals, just you and God, and an awful lot of praying. You notice this model in, for example, Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, which talks a lot about how annoying it is to spend time with people, who only distract you from praying and lead you into sin. Bastards.

Another Thomas who talks about the contemplative life is our old friend Thomas Aquinas. He distinguishes between the active and the contemplative forms of life: the active life is focused on external activities, whereas the contemplative life is about the internal contemplation of truth. Some people are naturally more disposed to the active life (most people, presumably); others (some monks) to the contemplative life. We all start off at the active life, though, and to get to the contemplative life you have to first work hard at being moral in your external activities, or your sinfulness and bad habits will stop you from being able to catch sight of God in contemplation. Contemplation is more enjoyable than anything else people do: how could it not be, when it's God we're contemplating? Whatever we do in this life, we're all destined for eternal contemplation of God: that's the 'beatific vision' (happy vision), the face-to-face encounter with God for which we're all made. We get glimpses of the beatific vision every now and then in this life, if we work really hard for it, but we're all too often distracted by bodily concerns. This is the goal, though: eternal contemplation of God; and to really love God is to want that more than anything.

This model was pretty common in Thomas' time, but it's pretty rare these days (leastways, I'd never heard of it till I started studying patristics). The good thing about it is that, when this model was generally accepted, theology wasn't seen as an abstract intellectual inquiry with no real relation to faith, as is often the case these days: to do theology was to practice contemplation and prayer, and the idea that you could do theology without it being an expression of your love for God would have been totally bizarre to Thomas and his contemporaries. There are less good things, too, but I'll talk more about that later this week. Till then, contemplate this.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP on Flickr

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Žižek on violence

Slavoj Žižek isn't exactly a theologian (or is he?): he's a Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist, a Marxist, a Lacanian (Lacan was a psychoanalyst), and an atheist Christian. He recently wrote a book with John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, which was basically a big argument about whether atheism or orthodox Christianity is more, well, orthodoxly Christian. Žižek has been referred to as 'the most dangerous political philosopher in the West' and 'an academic rock star'; despite which, most people have never heard of him.

Anyway, he's written a book called Violence, about pacifism. No, not really, it's about violence. Violence is a hot topic in theology and philosophy these days, partly because of the horrendous violence of the 20th century, which rather dented people's hopes that science and enlightenment would make the world a better and more peaceful place.

Žižek argues that there are three different sorts of violence. Subjective violence is the violence we all recognise as violence: the sort of violence where Bob hits Bill. We all know who did it and who it was done to. But Žižek argues that this sort of violence all too often distracts us from two other sorts of violence which are actually more fundamental. These others are 'symbolic' violence and 'systemic' violence.

Symbolic violence is the sort of violence embedded in our language: the way we speak about other people which treats them as less important, less fully human; the sort of language which is a way of exercising power over people, of maintaining unjust relationships, of forcing our way of seeing things onto other people. Words and concepts like 'bitch', 'chav', 'Paki', 'old biddy', 'retard.'

Systemic violence is the sort of violence that's built into our social, political and economic systems, which means that simply as a result of our society functioning smoothly, people suffer. We get cheap clothes; children have to sew them for us. We get electricity, drive our cars to work, fly to Europe for a holiday; people in the Third World die when global warming causes flooding.

It's all too easy, Žižek says, to focus on the subjective violence: it's easier to spot, and is more obviously a disruption of the normal functioning of the world. But if we want to seriously engage with questions of violence, and to understand why 'irrational' acts of violence like terrorism take place, we have to engage with violence in all of its forms. We have to get political.

Photo credit: Lorcan Otway on Flickr

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

God is not a drunkard

I know, you'd only just gotten your heads around the idea that God is a drunkard. But we were talking Dionysius, and Dionysius doesn't end with that, so nor shall we. If you remember, Dionysius thinks that once you start talking about God, you have to keep talking about God until you literally can't talk any more. Once you've spent a while trying to use every word you can think of to speak about God, you start to realise that even if you could name God with every name there was, it still wouldn't be enough.

It's a bit like when you've looked at a word for so long that it stops looking like a word at all; or, perhaps better, like when you've talked and talked and talked until sudden you realise you're not saying anything anymore, and so you shut up. First of all, you think: God's not a drunkard. That's obviously a totally inadequate name for God. He's so much more than that. So you try for some more appropriate names: God is Father. But wait, that's not enough either. God is Trinity: but that's still not enough. It's like in Super Mario, where you jump on a bit of rock, only for it to collapse underneath you, so you have to keep jumping, on to the next one, back up that big pile of words you just worked your way down to get to 'God is a drunkard' in the first place. Until eventually, you realise that all of your words are inadequate. God is not a drunkard. God is not a Father. God is not infinite. God is not like anything we know, any words we have. But even that's inadequate, and you have to start denying the denials: God's not like or unlike anything we know. He's not limited or limitless. He is not any of our words, and he's not not any of our words.

It's like Moses climbing up Mount Zion to meet God: first he leaves behind all the people of Israel, the hustle and bustle, the noises, the smells, the colours. And he heads up the mountain with the elders. But eventually even they are left behind, and it's just Moses, on his own, climbing upwards. And he asks God to show his face, but all he sees is the back of God, the absence of God, darkness.

And here, in the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence, with the wreckage of our words lying shattered around us: here, beyond knowledge, beyond unknowing: here is God, when our words and our understanding falter and fail. Beyond our grasp, beyond our control: the unknowable, unnameable God.