Archives for posts with tag: Culture

What truth will raise you
above bigots, beyond hate;
apart and superior
to all with a different take?

Might you find it in a sacred book,
or some mystic’s secret locker;
your own personal dragon slayer
and conversation stopper?

Or

imagine rights and justice,
deliverence for the poor,
and imagine others never stood
on a pedestal as sure?

Or

join the righteous and enlightened,
freed from superstition.
Deify science, misrepresent it
and fight all opposition?

And

blind to your arrogance;
oblivious to your prejudice;
jump to condemn
the truth quest in others.

Start a truth collection.
Grasp and shape your prize.
Gaze at its reflection;
watch the ugliness rise.

img_0864-1More thoughts about stuff that doesn’t seem to matter all that much, except to me. This is really two posts, but they are sort of, more or less, related.

If you’ve been around a while you might recall a book and subsequent TV series by Jacob Bronowski (pictured below). Then again, you might not. Either way, it’s not really central to the topic, but it’s a handy place for me to start.

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At the time (early 1970s) I was quite taken with its grand story of how human kind had emerged from caves, lifted itself out of ignorance, cast off superstition, and scaled the heights of science to reach enlightenment. Heady stuff, and I was on the brink of adulthood. The future stretched out, assured, onwards and upwards, to ever greater achievements until all the questions worth asking had been answered, with the help of science of course, and of the human intellect. And I would be part of all that.

Or so I assumed. Looking back, I think I was sold a pup.

How’s it all gone in the years since then? Have we stuck to the script? Answered all questions have we? Especially those that gnaw at the human soul? Have hopelessness, loneliness and meaninglessness been given their marching orders? Eliminated poverty have we? Banished violence and warfare? Created a completely just, equitable and safe society anywhere yet?

On the other hand, I guess I should concede that in many matters science has taken central position and assumes it can speak with authority on what is ethical and good for us. Religion, tradition and superstition have lost a lot of ground in western culture, if not elsewhere. “Scientifically proven” is still a well used phrase in knock down arguments by people everywhere who should know better. I don’t have time or space to explain or debate that here, except to say that “scientifically supported” is a much more accurate phrase. Science does not, in general, prove anything. It is a very good method for establishing whether certain propositions are consistent with starting assumptions but, unfortunately, shiny instruments, miracle cures and wonder materials aside, that is all it can ever be. You may not agree with me on this, and may think science has, or can find, all the answers worth finding, and if so I know I cannot convert you and I wish you well in your belief.

I no longer buy it myself however.

To summarise. There is a popular way of viewing the world that elevates science and the human intellect to the pinnacle of all existence. It is not my world view.

That popular world view can be represented, admittedly in a fairly simplistic way, as follows:

Ignorance and superstition, epitomised by religious belief, is a primitive state for people to occupy until they discover more advanced ways of thinking. These advanced ways have grown out of scientific study of nature . . . With this telescope for example . . .

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(Photo taken in the Science Museum, Munich)

which has been followed by ever more advanced contraptions such as this early mechanical clock . . .

 

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(Science Museum, Munich)

and this early digital computer:

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(Science Museum, Munich)

I could (and maybe should) continue with examples of the advancement of science bringing with it the advancement of human civilization. I don’t have the space however, and I suspect you may not have the patience.

Suffice to say that, while I believe in the value of science, have studied it, and appreciate the things it produces, I do not have any faith that it can answer questions that are important to me, or serve as a guide to my ethical decision making, or tell me who I am, or where I fit into the scheme of things.

Anyhow, I sense myself drifting off topic a little.

Back on topic.

The reason I began to write this is I read a commentary article in a national newspaper on the weekend. The article argued that the fabric of western societies was crumbling, disintegrating, weakening, whatever, and that the cause of this was the declining interest of western people in Christian faith.

Naturally, it elicited a host of feedback comments from defenders of Christian faith and attackers of that faith. Nothing new there. Ho hum . . . I prepared to move on, but then I began to think. I did not agree with one of the article’s central propositions.

The decline of western civilization may indeed be underway (I don’t want to get involved in any arguments on this) or it may not be. It depends on what you use to measure whether civilization is declining. I would, however, take issue with the assumption that the level of Christian faith in the population is the same thing as the level of influence of the established Christian church. I think that’s nonsense! They are two very different things.

Where I part company with the newspaper article bemoaning the loss of faith and its effect on society is that I just don’t believe that the level of individual faith is lower these days than it ever has been in the past. My reasoning is this:

The Christian church took a wrong turn and transformed itself into a great edifice of power when it allowed itself to be aligned with the civil government of the Roman emporer Constantine, 1700 years ago. It never looked back from there, gaining influence, wealth, power and adherents who basically had no choice but to join up. In the years since, the church institution has kept itself closely associated with the powerful and successful end of town in all countries where it established itself. This necessarily compromised its role as messenger of Christ’s gospel.

In my view, the Christian church as an institution compromised its authenticity as Christ’s followers and representatives by embracing worldly success, amassing wealth, and legitimating the rule of the powerful. The Christian gospel is, and always was, the complete antithesis and repudiation of the seeking of worldly power and wealth.

 

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(Photo taken in the cathedral choir, Toledo, Spain)

Recently, of course, the moral authority of the church has all but collapsed in western countries as a result of reveations of sexual abuse of children and the protection of offenders by church heirarchies. The church has been exposed as caring more about appearances than the children in its care.

I grant and admit that the Church ( with a capital ‘C’) is doing it tough in western countries these days. So it should be! There are very good reasons for where it finds itself at present.

On the other hand Christian faith exists both in the church and outside its established structures. As the church loses legitimacy and influence, it is my belief that individuals with Christian faith find new and different ways to live their faith.

In the past, it was not nearly so easy for people to live outside the structure of the church. It would be a mistake to interpret this as evidence of higher levels of faith in the past. There has always been probably a majority of people at all times in the history of the Church, especially since the time of Emporer Constantine when it became more or less compulsory to be a ‘Christian’, whose ‘faith’ was little more than a matter of convenience. The declining numbers of people who list Christian adherence on census forms is, in my view, simply a result of a decline in social pressure to declare Christian status. It is not evidence of a general decline in Christian faith among the population. Put more simply, there has never been a time when the majority of people had any more than a passing interest in faith, still less an active personal faith in the Christ of the gospels.

The doomsaying in the weekend newspaper article may well have been justified. There is evidence enough of societal decline around us. Whether or not our civilization is decaying has little to do, however, with a general decline in personal faith as the article argued. The declining power and influence of the Christian church may indeed be related to the general decline of the west, but that decline is more likely due to the church having long since backed the wrong horse and forgotten its reason for being.

Those of us who have faith in the Christ of the gospels will continue regardless.

 

 

This might seem like two posts in one. When I began to write the second one, the first suggested itself. They share a theme but in a way maybe only I can understand. See what you think.

​​
I am growing old. 
That should be no surprise to me. It certainly doesn’t bother me much. After all, I’m on the same train as everyone who ever was, is, or will be.

Every one of us grows older with each passing hour and each receding day, as years blur into memory. Of course I didn’t always admit that. Neither does our culture which is obsessed with youth and denies the reality of ageing. It’s easy to go along with that narrative when you are in your early decades. I was immortal. If I thought about it at all, the idea of ageing was an academic one, and in my case was so far in the future it didn’t seem real. Old people I came across had surely always been that way. I could not imagine them as once having been my age, with passions, uncertainties and dreams not too different from my own. To do that would have confronted me with my own mortality. That simply would not have done. 

I don’t think I am too different from anyone else. A little strange maybe, a trifle eccentric, but essentially human. And so I can be charitable and smile inside when young people look through me now as if I were not there; some silly old bugger with white hair who has nothing of interest for them. I did the same thing once you see.

Would it surprise you to know I am happier in myself now that at any other time in my life?

In my working life I was always climb ladders to impress people who knew me. Every time I achieved more status though, it seemed to have little effect impressing others. I was performing but there was no applause. No one was looking. I undertook a series of projects through the years in the hope that people would admire me when I was successful. Once again, I discovered no one was looking. I realise now, a degree is a piece of paper. Credentials and titles look good in a c.v. Neither compensates for inner emptiness.
I have been receptive to spiritual themes since my late teens. This interest has expressed itself in different ways here and there. My childhood, teens and young adulthood were not the happiest of times in my life. It was not all bad of course, but I write in generalities. My Christian faith reignited in my early forties after my second marriage when I began to attend church again. I remember tears flowing down my cheeks during worship. The awfulness of where I had been and what had happened in my life was all too apparent, but so too was the love and acceptance that was beginning to heal me.
I empathise with people who suffer and struggle. Sadness and melancholy have been enduring states of mind throughout my life, but less so in later years. Now it’s a more gentle acceptance of what is. I am not so wrapped up in myself and the things I missed out on . . . and so on. I no longer wallow in self pity.
These days I am much more content within myself. I am happy to be just me; nobody special. I don’t need recognition, and am happy to saunter along out of the spotlight. When I was younger anxiety and emptiness drove me. Now I don’t feel I need to prove anything. People can take me or leave me as they find me.

I look to my wife, daughters and grandchildren, and can smile inside. What a lovely (undeserved) legacy they are. God has been kind to me.

I am ageing, but I am living, and life, well some of it, makes sense.

Now, for what I started to write about . . . 
See if you can see the link.

I have been learning to play classical guitar for two and a half years now. It’s the sort of thing some people do when they retire and have loads of leisure time. Well, no one else I know has done it, but bear with me.
I love playing. It is the most deeply satisfying activity I can remember. Intellectually and physically demanding, and more often than not frustratingly difficult, it engages me spiritually and aesthetically. I soar when I get a piece ‘right’ and rage when I think I should be able to do stuff I can’t. Who says the passion of youth has been spent? With me it’s found in vibrating nylon strings and a resonating wood lined cavity.

Which brings me to something I have noticed about myself; a trend I have noticed more than once. You see, when I began to study the guitar I approached it like everything else so far in my life. I was determined to master it! I was prepared to put in the hours and the work and I expected the returns. As my wife says to me no one works harder or practices longer on guitar than I do. She also comments on my lack of motivation for other household tasks, but that’s another story.

For two years I worked to bend the guitar to my will. I found an exacting and very competent teacher, swallowed my pride (I thought) and got to work. Sure, I began to play reasonably well, but I did not listen to my teacher when he advised me repeatedly to slow down. I was always wanting to go further, tackle more demanding pieces, and tick more boxes. What he was saying, and what I was not listening to, was that I needed time to master skills as well as effort. Frustratingly he insisted that I marked time spending weeks and months on the same piece, long after I thought I had mastered it. Except that I had not mastered it. I was continually stumbling here and there and never getting anything completely correct. It frustrated me of course (the mistakes) but I did not listen. I kept forging ahead, playing ever more complex music, but playing it in a way that no one, apart from myself, would ever want to listen to.

My teacher was kind but brutal. He observed that I was doing very well and had much potential, but essentially I was playing nothing at performance standard. Ouch! 

An epiphany (look it up if you don’t know) of sorts followed. I have changed the way I look at the guitar and I’m much the happier for it. I have spent the last two months on the same three pieces, noticing things I hadn’t previously. I’ve resisted the temptation to play ahead of my ability (well, alright, mostly resisted). The guitar is no longer something to be bent to my will. I am learning slowly to work with it, and I am playing more gently.

I have begun to see playing and learning music as a process rather than a destination. I am learning to live in the moment and enjoy the music as it is rather than powering on to some illusory goal. Old habits die hard though. Grades, standards and levels have always seduced me, but their allure is waning.

I am growing older. I know I will never be a concert guitarist. Time is against me (and so is talent if I am brutally honest). I will most likely never perform for anyone other than family and friends. That does not concern me. 

What does engage me is what happens when I pick up my guitar and play. Sometimes something magical. Most times not. Always reminding me of the wonder of being alive.
Note to self: There are no prizes, stupid. Life is not a competition. It’s a gift. Enjoy it and smell the roses while you can.

I’ll try and remember that as the years pass ever more quickly and the joints and muscles grow ever less cooperative.

A Guitar Progression
Adventures in Guitar Consciousness
 
I posted the image below on this blog one year ago. It shows the old Yamaha guitar I used to strum and sing along with before life got in the way and it was left in a cupboard for 40 years. When I posted this I was feeling pretty pleased with myself, making music with my old instrument again. I was so pleased that after months of ploughing through all the teach yourself books on Kindle, I could play stuff. Well, I could play easy stuff, sort of, after lots of practice, and never without mistakes. The music in my head was beautiful. The sounds coming from the guitar were a little less so.
 
 
 
 
Listening to the former, and ignoring the latter, I began to tell myself I wasn't all that bad at it. My own opinion of course, untainted by contact with anyone who could actually play notes, chords and arpeggios without having their audience looking around for the exit.
 
Emboldened, I turned up at the door of a classical guitar teacher. You know! Someone who knew their way around a guitar; had a Masters degree in guitar performance and another one in composition. He combines private tuition with live performances on the national stage solo and in ensembles. If I had been looking for someone to massage my ego I should have looked elsewhere.
 
Luckily, I swallowed enough pride and humility to let him teach me things about technique and practice I had no idea even existed. He was polite, but he left no doubt that what I had been doing by myself had been largely a waste of time if I wanted to learn to play beautiful music. That he was in his early twenties was inconsequential of course, but it did not really make things easy for an old codger more used to giving instructions than accepting them.
 
I began again, from square one. Concentrating on correct fingering, posture, hand and finger dynamics, fingernails, breathing and paying respect to quavers and crochets as they were written on the page, saw me progress – far too slowly for my liking – through the book he recommended for preliminary students (pre-schoolers and the like). All the while, I was straining. Impatient to play real music, I often became angry with myself and with him, frustrated by how long it was taking to learn simple skills. As he reminded me though, ever so gently, the skills were not simple skills. They were complex fine motor skills. The process was not unlike a child learning to use a pencil for the first time. It would take practice and time. No shortcuts, was his repeated advice.
 
He was right of course.
 
So, another year has passed. I've purchased a more expensive guitar (below). I've learned much about playing the classical guitar and am playing pieces from the AMEB grade 3 level. Big deal I guess. Hundreds of school kids do that too, and better than I do. But I am beginning to realise that I do not care about that at all. I just love learning and playing.
 
 
I love the music I can coax from my guitar. On a good day I can almost slide into a trance while brain and fingers work together in a way impossible just twelve months ago. I can play a piece like Lágrima (Francesco Tarrega) imperfectly, but just as its name (teardrops) suggests, I hope one day to play it well enough to moisten the eyes of any listener. Another piece by Tarrega, Adelita, is more difficult, and could take me longer to get my fingers (and brain) around. So be it. The journey is what matters. The destination can be left to itself.
 
Other things I have learned at the feet of my young teacher this past year:
 
Getting angry with myself at mistakes or mastering a technique more slowly than I would like is pointless. It achieves nothing. A mistake is a mistake; nothing more; nothing less. Shrug it off and continue playing. Which reminds me of another of his maxims:
 
 
Do not stop when you have made a mistake. Continue to play as if nothing happened. Most probably your listeners will not have noticed (even though it is a clanging, jarring event for you). (Great advice, I guess, for future concert performers).
 
You cannot practice correct technique enough. Nothing short of perfection is sufficient. (Near enough is not good enough in this game).
 
Practise slowly; very slowly. In this way you can identify flaws in your technique and deal with them before they become ingrained. This is also the best (only?) way to learn a new piece. Practice a few bars at a time, very slowly. If you can play it perfectly, slowly, you can also then play it fast. (So he says anyway, and I am starting to believe he is right).
 
Caress the guitar as you play. Become one with it. Be part of the music. Use it as a meditation technique if you like. (I am trying this).
 
Do not interpret the music your way until you can first play it the way the composer wrote it. (I rankle at this).
 
The metronome is your friend. (Yes, well, maybe).
 
 
There is, however, one particular aspect of the guitar I continue to struggle with. Just one, I hear you think. Well there are many to be honest. For instance I always want to progress more quickly than my technique allows. I continue to become frustrated and grumpy when I can't play something right, although I am getting better at going with the flow. I detest the metronome but I suffer it because I know it is doing me good. No, the one aspect that is providing a big challenge to me – still – is overcoming anxiety and nervousness when playing in front of other people.
 
My teacher has no specific advice for me on how to remain calm and how to still jittery, disobedient fingers and thumbs when playing in public. No advice that is, apart from his observation that I need to work on it. Maybe he is not too worried as I am unlikely to be playing in front of a concert audience ever. That is so, but I really would love to be confident of playing for friends, even if I am a silly old man who needs to understand he is past performing age.
 
 
Well there you have it: A synopsis of a year of classical guitar lessons. Learned heaps. Feel good about myself. As my teacher tells me . . . God bless him . . . “a couple more years and we will have you playing beautiful music”.
 
 
 
Rebirth of Passion

(I kind of liked the sound of the title.)

(My 'studio')
 
It's been almost a year now since I started trying to play classical guitar. On a whim I dusted off the mass produced Taiwanese guitar I bought in my teens that had stood unloved in the wardrobe for decades. Back then I strummed chords and sang with abandon, modelling myself on Cat Stevens, the Bee Gees, Don McLean and other long forgotten icons. Unfortunately loads of enthusiasm could not quite make up for reluctance to work hard, and my musical dalliance fizzled. My guitar was picked up less and less often, until it was stored away during the first of many house and life moves.
 
Years passed.
 
My old el cheapo Yamaha G55a (entry level) instrument caught my gaze now and then when I was poking around. It brought back a memory or two. I couldn't ever throw it away. Nor the sheet music that accumulated in those passionate times. I knew strumming a guitar and singing along with a wistful expression was behind me, and mercifully so, but there was something in guitar music that always held magic.
 
I heard the beauty of plucked strings, intervals and chords, now and then. It was calling me, but I never made the time. Competing priorities. One day, but never now. To be honest, I would have been embarassed to be seen (not to mention heard) plucking away, brow creased, tongue poking out with concentration. There is a necessary humility in beginning (again) to learn to play a musical instrument and I struggled with that; being a mature and responsible adult who liked to hide behind his straightness and respectability. No way was I going to put myself in a position where people would patronise me, or smile behind their hands at my folly.
 
So, for some reason, maybe it's that I am now retired, one day last February I took my old guitar out of its case and set about restringing it. Walking into a music shop was not something I had done for years and the task of asking for the correct strings confirmed I was going to need to learn some humility, and learn it I did.
 
Having taken the first steps, the next few weren't nearly as hard. The internet is a wonderful resource. Kindle has many classical guitar tutorial books in e-format. I downloaded one, and behind closed doors and closed windows, I begun to learn some theory of music and the playing of classical guitar properly for the first time, by myself, without a human tutor.
 
Impossibly hard it seemed at first. I plugged away. There was a correct way to sit, to hold the guitar, to use my hands. No shortcuts or adaptations acceptable. Naturally I struggled with these limitations. I am me, after all; the king of corner cutters! I didn't want to waste time playing scales. Just let me at the music!
 
For the first couple of months I wanted everything to happen more quickly. Discouragingly, I found pieces were not getting easier to play. The old habits of wanting results without hard work were very hard to lose. Eventually I purchased a hard copy of a spiral bound “Complete Guitar Method” by Matteo Carcassi (a pioneer of the classical guitar), and decided to follow it as best I could.
 
The book is well organised, or maybe it matched my preferred learning style. It was set out in a way I could understand. Scales, intervals, chords and arpeggios for each key were practised thoroughly before it moved to some related short pieces. This clicked with me. I got it! I began to play stuff that sounded good and that I could manage, but only after quite a lot of repetition.
 
Bliss!
 
Mind you, I suspect that the music I heard in my heard was not quite the standard of the music I played. No matter. I was in love. If you have slid up and down arpeggios, and marvelled at the richness of intervals and chords, you will know what I mean. Sublime beauty on tap. 'Heaven on a stick' is a phrase that comes to mind.
 
Understanding some of the structure of beautiful music and playing it, admittedly the simpler stuff so far, is one of the most awe inspiring things I have experienced in my life.
 
I know all this might sound nerdy. Classical music and stuff like that. Frankly I don't give a damn my dear. I reckon my ability to appreciate all music styles has improved after studying classical music. It's the glue that holds it all together, don't you know?
 
I look forward to practice. I devour it. I am transported by the melodies and harmonies, and frustrated when I can't quite get them right. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to contort your left hand across a fretboard with speed? Maybe you do.
 
They say a talented person needs around 10000 hours of practice to master the classical guitar and perform at concert level. A quick calculation tells me I have now logged almost 250 hours. Just a tad more to go then. I won't be performing before family and friends any time soon.
 
I am so happy with my new found passion. It's a lonely thing to learn by yourself though. I would love to find somebody else to play alongside. The world does not seem to be overrun with classical guitar enthusiasts however; at least not near where I live.
 
YouTube will just have to fill the gap.
 
A guitar teacher would be nice too. As much as I would like to have a teacher, I can't justify the expense. Some great players have taught themselves. It seems I will need to rely on my own determination and perserverence. Anyway, as long as no one else hears me, what does it matter?
 
The old fellow is enjoying himself. So what if he follows one of his passions in his own time and in his own way?
 
Oh, and while I think of it . . . my old Yamaha, mass produced in Taiwan decades ago, has mellowed and developed a fine quality sound with age. Perhaps its owner might be so lucky.
 
 
(Available on Kindle)
 
What a delight it was to read this short book. I couldn't put it down. Partly an autobiography; partly a critique of contemporary western society and culture: and partly a manifesto of belief and wisdom gathered over a lifetime as a philosopher; Roger Scruton has distilled insights that speak to my heart and soul.
 
In the twenty first century Roger Scruton is very much a counter cultural subversive, although quite a different type from some of the self congratulating 'progressive' thinkers who have graced the stage over past decades. When the spirit of our age is everywhere 'setting us free' from our traditional values, it has been a welcome surprise to find there is at least one voice uncomfortable with that trend.
 
His ideas confront and contradict much of what is assumed as wisdom in contemporary culture. I have reproduced parts of some of them here. Mostly, I have prefered to let his words speak for themselves. Partly because they are so richly pregnant with wisdom that anything I could add would be trivial in comparison but also, I think, because the more I add, the less likely I expect anyone will bother to read any of this. Which would be a pity. There is wisdom worth reading here. I do not expect everyone will agree with everything Scruton writes, but it is nonetheless worth reading, even if only to clarify what it is you believe.
 
I have selected, edited and rearranged the order of what follows and used my own headings but I haven't altered anything that would change the thrust of what Scruton is saying. Apart from the headings, my words are in italics. The photographs, apart from the title page, are mine.
 
 
On Growing Up
“To grow up aged 54 is not a great achievement. But it is better than not growing up at all.”
 
Well Roger, I think I may have beaten you by a few years, but not that many. Still, I know exactly what you mean. Growing up has nothing at all to do with reaching voting age, or driving a car, or being able to drink alcohol legally.


On Progress and Human Rights
“We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights. The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. . . . But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame.”
 
What more can I say?


On Religious Faith and the Rise of Secularism
“My years as a voyeur of holiness (have) brought me, nevertheless, into contact with true believers, and taught me that faith transfigures everything it touches, and raises the world to God. To believe as much is not yet to believe; but it is to know your insufficiency.”
 
Yes, I know very well my own insufficiency. That seems to me to be a start. I have also come into contact with people here and there whose holiness has inspired me. I'm not talking about the hypocrites who are a dime a dozen in our churches (and outside them too). I am talking about people who are genuinely humble and draw others to them.

 
“Those brought up in our post religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment . . . without being crippled by guilt.
(But we still) have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess . . . of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.”
 
And we still have secular sins that by and large will lead to excommunication from progressive society: Being judgemental; a racist, a homophobe, or a climate change denier. But it's not only wrong thinking that will see you excluded. Pedophilia, never acceptable, has been elevated to be the most detestable and unforgiveable sin; a long way above drug trafficking and murder. Who says 'sin' is an outdated concept? It is alive and well in our secular world.


On the need for the Church to be “relevant” and to align its teachings with modern thinking.
“What an absurd demand – to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it.”
 
Absolutely!
Nothing wrong with the Church going to where people are, as long as, in the process, you do not forget who you are and why you are Church. Democracy is fine as a political system, but it is a lousy way to decide theology. If a majority of people believe black is white, it doesn't make it so.

 
On Vows versus Contracts
“In modern society there is a growing tendency to construe marriage as a kind of contract. This tendency is familiar to us from the sordid divorces of tycoons and pop stars, and is made explicit in the ‘pre- nuptial agreement’, under the terms of which an attractive woman sells her body at an inflated price, and a man secures his remaining assets from her future predations. Under such an agreement marriage becomes a preparation for divorce, a contract between two people for their short- term mutual exploitation. This contractual view of marriage is deeply confused.
 
 
Marriage is surrounded by moral, legal and religious prohibitions precisely because it is not a contract but a vow. Vows do not have terms, nor can they be legitimately broken. They are ‘forever’, and in making a vow you are placing yourself outside time and change, in a state of spiritual union, which can be translated into actions in the here and now, but which always lies in some way above and beyond the world of decaying things.
That we can make vows is one part of the great miracle of human freedom; and when we cease to make them our lives are impoverished, since they involve no lasting commitment, no attempt to cross the frontier between self and other.
Contracts have terms, and come to an end when the terms are fulfilled or when the parties agree to renounce them. They bind us to the temporal world, and have the transience of human appetite. To reduce marriage to a contract is to demote marriage to a tie of self interest, to trivialize the erotic bond, and to jeopardize the emotions on which your children depend for their security.
We become fully human when we aim to be more than human; it is by living in the light of an ideal that we live with our imperfections. That is the deep reason why a vow can never be reduced to a contract: the vow is a pledge to the ideal light in you; a contract is signed by your self interested shadow.”
 
This discussion of vow versus contract goes to the heart of life. I say this as one who has broken a marriage vow and has seen what darkness results. What I learned will stay with me for the rest of my life. When we define relationships and dealings with contract clauses instead of vows we lose something we cannot afford to lose: our own sanctity.
 
 
On Ethics and Decision making
“Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia – subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny – proceed in once Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure- seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.”
 
And for those who have swallowed the line that science is the highest truth?
 
“No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. . . . The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why.
However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom . . . Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God.”
 
 
On the Hypocrisy of some Animal Activist Campaigners
“The argument (against fox hunting) is serious and challenging, especially if expressed (as it rarely is) by someone who knows what hunting actually involves. However, a moral argument must be consistent if it is to be sincere.
The pleasure taken by cat lovers in their pets (who cause 200 million painful deaths each year in Britain alone) is also a pleasure bought at the expense of animal suffering. The RSPCA, which moralizes volubly against hunting, shooting and fishing, keeps quiet about cat keeping, for fear of offending its principal donors.”
 
Those who know me know my thoughts on cats.
 
On Politics
“. . . societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal . . there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress.”
 
That may make you sit up with a start. Really? Have we been hoodwinked into thinking history marches ever onward and upward? Scruton thinks we (humans) will always get in the way of our own grand narratives of progress and so do I.

“The strange superstition has arisen in the Western world that we can start all over again, remaking human nature, human society and the possibilities of happiness, as though the knowledge and experience of our ancestors were now entirely irrelevant. But on what fund of knowledge are we to draw when framing our alternative? The utopias have proved to be illusions, and the most evident result of our ‘liberation’ from traditional constraints has been widespread discontent with the human condition.”
 
Do we have nothing to learn from our heritage, our traditions and our past? Scruton thinks we have a lot to learn and that we ignore it to our peril.
 
“There is no way in which people can collectively pursue liberty, equality and fraternity . . . because collective reason doesn’t work that way. People reason collectively towards a common goal only in times of emergency – when there is a threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved. Even then, they need organization, hierarchy and a structure of command if they are to pursue their goal effectively. . . . Moreover – and here is the corollary that came home to me with a shock of recognition – any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve . . . the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy. Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature – the hate- filled, purpose- filled, bourgeois-baiting prose.”
 
Perhaps this is why politics can be so nasty and adversial? Maybe that is why when we aim at building a new society we feel the need to demonise our opponents? E.g. Climate change deniers? Religious nutters? Bogans? Rabid Right Wing Reactionaries? Left Wing Loonies?
 
“Real freedom, concrete freedom, the freedom that can actually be defined, claimed and granted, (is) not the opposite of obedience but its other side. The abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellect (is) really nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.”
 
Ouch! . . . But pure gold to this old conservative.
 
 
On Education and Schooling
“(A) vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture nor the religion to resist it.
(My school) had not been infected by the modern heresy that tells us that knowledge must be adapted to the interests of the child. On the contrary: our ‘beaks’ believed that the interests of the child should be adapted to knowledge. The purpose of the school was not to flatter the pupils but to rescue the curriculum, by pouring it into heads that might pass it on.
Even the most rebellious among us shared the assumption on which our education was based, which is that there are real distinctions between knowledge and opinion, culture and philistinism, wit and stupidity, art and kitsch.”
 
Today, in schools, it seems we mostly try to train students to be good employees and faithful consumers. By and large we have given up trying to educate them in the sense that Scruton is using. Schools in western countries are funded and run as agents of economic development, rather than institions where education is pursued for its own sake. This has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen happen in my career as an educator. My regret is that I have felt powerless to do anything about it.
 
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Well. That was a small taste of Scruton's ideas and thoughts on what is worthwhile. Maybe you will seek his work out. I think he is worth listening to. Maybe you see the world differently. I'm not so arrogant as to think people who disagree with me must be wrong.

If you are a seeker of knowledge and wisdom I recommend Scruton's book to you.
 
 
 
 

Ok. make that Eight Photographs.

My recent short visit to Japan was a rich experience on a number of levels. It left me marvelling at a country that has adapted so well to western culture while keeping its own traditions and heritage intact. Not many countries have managed to do that anywhere near as well.

It seems to me as if the Japanese might have beaten us at our own game. They have borrowed what they want from us, adapted it, turned it on its head, pushed it to the limits, and sent it back to us sometimes only barely recognisable. Manga culture is a case in point.
 
The neon garishness and hi-tech extravaganza of Tokyo and other larger cities is part of modern Japan, but it is not its soul. There is a much more subtle and noble spirit in Japanese culture that has nothing at all to do with brashness and materialism. It is that spirit which continues to pervade Japanese culture; a spirit the West has largely lost, and is now sadly utterly alien to mainstream western minds. It is that spirit that has left a deep impression on me and, I hope, a life changing one.
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Unlike the culture of most western countries, especially my own, Japanese culture is a deeply religious one. Shinto-Buddhism and its variants remains very much part of life in modern Japan. Family ties seem to be stronger than they are in the West. I haven't consulted any research on that but it seems obviously true to me, even after a short visit. From what I saw, older people are shown respect and children are nurtured lovingly while being trained in courtesy and responsibility.
 
In my country, we worship youth and have thrown away our traditions. Older people are not looked to for advice, but are treated as nuisances. We think it is a regretful, even shameful, thing to be growing old, and we try all manner of strategies to avoid the reality of ageing, not to mention the inevitability of death.
 
The denialism we cling to in such matters is sad, even pathetic when looked at from the outside. We have middle aged and older men dressing like boys on skateboards, and middle aged and older women dressing as if they were in the bloom of maidenhood. Neither group fools anyone except themselves. Both groups embrace the lie that tells them their value is tied up with their appearance and diminishes with age. Wrinkles and saggy muscles are the ultimate taboo in western culture.
 
I sensed a very different attitude and outlook among Japanese people. I am not sure I've got this absolutely correct but it seemed to me their value was tied in to their family, traditions and religious beliefs. These things do not change with the ageing process. An old person has just as valid a place in Japanese society as a young person. It might be a different place, because biology dictates what we can and cannot do physically, but it is nevertheless a place of honour.
 
I found myself thinking about death as a Japanese might. Or perhaps I should say, I found myself thinking about ageing and death from a very different perspective from that which surrounds me in my own country. Here, we avoid mentioning death. When we can no longer avoid it, we talk about 'passing away' or some such ridiculous euphemism.
 
I read somewhere that someone described people in western culture as 'living as if we will never die, and when we come to the point of dying, dying as if we have never lived'. Not an edifying image? Maybe I should google that to check its source, but I can't be bothered. You get the point I hope. The contrast between our western attitudes to ageing and death and those in Japanese culture, cannot be starker.
 
 
Theirs is a gentler accepting approach, knowing they are in the bosom of family, in synch with ancestors, and in harmony with nature. Ours is an adolescent approach out of synch with our companions and with nature, where it's all about us and we are never going to die; except of course, we do.
 
The superficial materialistic way we live our lives in the West seems to me beneath contempt. It is just sad. My visit to Japan confirmed this for me, if I needed reminding.
 
The Japanese way of dealing with grief also left a strong impression on me. My visit to the Hiroshima atomic bomb site and Peace Park taught me a lasting lesson in the space of an hour or so. Initially I felt anger and sadness at what had happened here seventy years ago. As I've said earlier in another blog entry, I understand why the bomb needed to be dropped. I am just so relieved I wasn't in the position of having to decide to do it. I do not think I could have carried that responsibility.
 
 
I'm not sure where I read it, but apparently people who were in Hiroshima on that day said the explosion sounded like the low, deep, resonant gong of a temple bell. Ever since then I have not been able to hear one rung without imagining myself on the ground in Hirishima in 1945, hearing that sound and looking up.
 
Anyway, the sense of peace and acceptance together with undaunted optism for the future that was evident everywhere in and around the Peace Park in Hirishima will, I hope remain with me as long as I live. Not for Hiroshima a grief that is held close and left unresolved to simmer. I did not sense any residual resentment. Yes, there was sadness, but I saw serenity and a preparedness to go forward in hope. Surely this is a lesson to all of us, if we want to hear it.
 
I left Japan with a profound sense of well being and calm. I am not a Buddhist and have no plan to change to become one, but I have learned some things from that tradition. If anything, the Japan experience is working within me to help me become a gentler, more accepting Christian; a Christian more aware of, and at ease with the transitory nature of life and the inevitability of death.
 
For that I am grateful.