Thursday, January 17, 2008

Objective vs subjective morality

Does objective right exist? I remember debating my professor that there is no such thing, because we can never divest ourselves of our human mind. Everything that we conceive of is framed in human terms, relevant to our own experiences. For example, is it wrong to eat one's father? Our society, and that of the ancient Greeks recoiled in revulsion at such a notion, but Aristotle informs his audience that there was a tribe who ritually ate the bodies of their dead fathers, and concluded that for them it was right to do so. Thus we see that it can be both wrong (according to our norms and that of the Athenian Greeks) and at the same time right (according to the mores of Aristotle's quoted tribe). It all depends on our frame of reference. So where does this leave society and moral philosophy? If we cannot guarantee moral objectivity how can we make laws that can properly govern mankind? The answer is: act as if there are objective moral rights in order to halt the descent into brutishness and morally subjective chaos. Say that IT IS always wrong to kill. Full stop. Always wrong to injure, maim, torture; always wrong to oppress the weak; always wrong to defraud, lie, cheat, commit adultery. Always wrong to eat one's father. As humans we are too prone to slide about on the comforting grounds of acceptable attendant circumstance - he was in so much pain; the torture helped us find out where the terrorists were; they can't govern themselves; the banks have too much power and money; my wife doesn't understand me.....
Act as if there are moral certainties, although we can always justify the exceptions to our weak human selves, because that is the only way that society can function properly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

St Stephen the Great

I have been a sporadic customer of SPCK over the past ten years, so it registered slightly on my consciousness when my daughter informed me that their shops were to close. I soon forgot about that and it was only recently that I really noticed that the shops seemed to be stocking many more icons than they have done in the past. Now, I LOVE icons (I know that that is a phrase that irks the Orthodox believer, but I do). I love their still prayerfulness, their link to eternity, their history and their beauty. I have an icon of Christ the Teacher on my desk that has stood there since the birth of my third daughter ten years ago, the contemplation of which I am firmly convinced prevented a descent into pretty severe post-natal depression. The feeling of peace that it imparts is beyond price. I still go into the local SPCK shop fairly regularly, especially around Christmas, and felt vaguely cheered by their campaign to save and restore redundant churches. However the number of icons in the shop now seem to overwhelm the rest of the displays and I noted a large number of Eastern Rite prayer books prominently displayed. Somewhat intrigued by this turn towards the eastern tradition, I did an internet search and hit upon a video that describes the mission statement of the Trust of St Stephen the Great , who have taken over SPCK's shops in the UK.
All very laudable - saving Britain's Christian heritage etc. by reconverting derelict places of worship into Orthodox churches.
But hold on a minute.....since when was Orthodoxy part of the religious heritage of Britain? Does it not make more sense to revitalise the Catholic or Anglican communities? Surely there are more Western Rite Christians who might appreciate seeing a renewed church in their area? Who are the target congregations? Does St Stephen the Great advocate conversion to Orthodoxy?
The clue is in the name: St Stephen the Great fought against Islam, and when he was triumphant in battle he established a church at the site of his victory, on Muslim land. It is less surprising, then, that one of the rejuvenated churches funded by this charitable organisation is no great distance away from the second largest mosque in Britain; in Bradford, which has a population of 16,000 Muslims. Get it?
That Britain is becoming an inceasingly secular and morally floundering country is beyond doubt and any increase in moral and spiritual direction is to be welcomed wholeheartedly, but I am extremely dubious whether this neo-crusader mentality is either helpful or healthy. The leaders of this country's religions must work harder at establishing inter-faith dialogue in order to halt the descent into multi-cultural isolationism and insidious recruitment to mutually hostile cells.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Prodigal Son

Many modern scripture critics protest that the parable of the Prodigal Son is meaningless because the father in the story risked nothing by his actions. In his book 'The Cross and the Prodigal' Dr Kenneth Bailey counters this charge, stating that the humiliation of having a runaway and dissolute son would have been obvious to the parable's original audience, and that the father's spontaneous and undignified scramble to greet his arrival home would have been deemed most unbecoming to a man of his mature years and apparent social standing.
So what do we learn from this insight? That parental love overcomes all? Partly yes.....but more to the point that the father felt his family to be incomplete without the younger son. The older son, who had faithfully worked for his father for years without reward, did not compensate the old man for the absence of his other son. The relationship between the three, which should have been mutually supportive and beneficial was thrown out of kilter by the runaway, whose selfishness eventually led to his own abasement and despair. It was only when the prodigal realised his dependence on his father - love, interestingly enough is not mentioned - that he decided to return home and thus restore the status quo.
Families are fragile and inherently unstable things. When things go well, everything seems easy. When something unforeseen occurs, the whole structure is prone to collapse unless the parties involved make a concerted effort to pull together.
Many people today live in a family situation where some lack is felt - dissatisfaction with other members, work, education, leisure time, diet, emotional or psychological needs - and feel helpless to do anything to ameliorate the situation. This is because a lot of people refuse to do anything that does not let them experience immediate feelings of gratification and pleasure. They seem oblivious to the notion (recognised by earlier generations) that many things to not have an instant pay-off, that we may have to do something that isn't pleasant, or is indeed unpleasant, in order to achieve a distant goal. But the important thing is to keep this goal in sight, however far off it seems to be (see my earlier post 'The Season of Self-Loathing').
The father in the parable surely must have kept the hope that his younger son would eventually return to him, and meanwhile endured the uncomfortable feelings of society's pity and disapproval and his longing for the youth.
The older son selfishly did not seem to recognise his father's distress and yearning for the younger man, nor the instability of a home that was incomplete.
The younger son had to plumb the depths of depravity before he realised that he lacked what he once posessed.
Once reunited, the family unit was once again stable and, whether the less experienced of its members recognised it or not, were able to function again to survive life's storms.
We could, if we so desired, extrapolate this into a Trinitarian reflection....but that would be (and indeed might become) a different post.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Season of Self-Loathing

The season of self-loathing is with us again. Emerging bleary-eyed and corpulent from the tarnished tinsel, I am seized with the need for renewal: spiritual, physical, psychological and intellectual. But where to start? It is all too easy to be overly zealous in the first few days of the New Year and over-commit to regimes that are soon abandoned because of the impingement of the daily round, leading to further feelings of inadequacy and self-disgust. As we shed our New Year resolutions like so much sloughed skin, our weak and feeble bodies and intentions are laid bare before us and, in examining our failure, we justify our own self-loathing. Far better then, to set very modest targets....and then half them.... and then half them again. This way we can be clear-eyed and realistic about what we can actually achieve, achieve it consistently, feel pleased with our achievement and pride in ourselves, and be renewed and refreshed as we intended.