02 Sep

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned

Pope Francis has announced that he will allow priests to absolve women who have had abortions if they seek forgiveness during the forthcoming Holy Year of Mercy. The Pope said he will permit priests “the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” during the special year which will begin on 8th December – the Feast of the immaculate Conception.

He added, “I am well aware of the pressure that has led women to this decision and I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal.”

I find this confusing. The Pope seems to be saying that the pronouncement of the forgiveness of a particular sin – abortion – has not always been in the capacity of every priest. The Bible says that Jesus ordained his disciples. “Then said he unto them again, Peace be unto you; as the Father hath sent me, even so send I you. Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, the are retained.” (St John 20:23)

And ever since Our Lord’s commission, every priest has the authority to forgive all sins, mortal as well as venial, including the sin of procuring an abortion. Except one: the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. (St Mark 3:29). And the only reason why that sin cannot be forgiven is because it is not possible sincerely to confess it: for blasphemy against the Holy Ghost effectually involves a person in praying, “Evil, be thou my good.”

Surely the Pope, of all people, understands that all his priests have the authority to forgive sins?

So what’s going on?

The Pope’s announcement is a political gesture by which he has fired a salvo across the bows of his traditional bishops.

This is the back story…

Last October the Pope inaugurated part one of a Vatican Synod in which he hoped his bishops would agree with his proposals for a relaxation of the rules concerning sexual ethics in such matters as homosexuality, abortion, divorce and remarriage. But he met considerable opposition and so next month, when the bishops reconvene for part two of the Synod, the Pope is going to have another try to institute his “reforms.”

All the signs are that he will once again face strong opposition from traditionalists: that is from the authentic Catholics

15 Jun

What causes stuff?

“Britain’s youngest suicide bomber” – some appellation, eh? – Talha Asmal was described as “loving, caring, naive, innocent kind and affable.” I think those who thus praised him perhaps forgot to add “fanatical and murderous.” Now there is an investigation to discover what “caused” him to decide to become a murderer in the employ of Islamic State. There is a great industry in this business of looking for causes and I’m reminded of the case of Andreas Lubitz who committed mass murder by crashing a Germanwings aeroplane into the Alps. There has been a meticulous search for causes in his case too.

How about, in both cases, we were to say that they perpetrated those atrocities because they wanted to? Or have we suddenly become determinists and deny that there is such a faculty as freewill?

Determinism, looking for causes, is a very popular sport among those of a secular, positivistic, scientific disposition. This doctrine allows them to avoid having to take into account entities which they find problematic such as mind and will, moral qualities – or the lack of them.

The trouble with the deterministic view is that it logically entails the conclusion that, if no one is to be blamed for the wrong that they do, then no one can be praised when they do what is right. In short, ethics is abolished. There’s nothing either good or bad, but “causes” make things so.

So what of the Catholic nun who takes the place of a Jewish woman in the queue for the gas chamber? Or the policeman who dives for a second time into the freezing lake to save a child?

If all our actions are caused, then no villain is ever guilty and no hero deserves praise.

The deterministic world is one in which everything that we mean by a human being has been removed.

I have just enjoyed a duck egg on fried bread. I shall now spend the rest of the day trying to work out what “caused” me to eat my breakfast.

12 Dec

Free to do what you’re told

I am ceaselessly impressed by the ability of the human mind to shoot itself in the foot, so to speak. Consider this…

The concepts of freedom and liberty have never been so bandied about. Those words are our contemporary shibboleths. Taken together with the word democracy, they form a modern, and of course secular, trinity, so we should always give them their initial capitals: Democracy, Liberty and Freedom. Whosoever will be politically-correct, before all things it is necessary that he hold this Secular Faith.

Even when it is easy to demonstrate that this Secular Faith amounts to a pile of gibberish and that it is immediately undermined by its own internal contradictions.

The chief contradiction is in this: never so much jabber about Freedom, yet the three most powerful and influential dogmas over the last century and more are all deterministic. I refer to Marxism, Darwinism and Freudianism.

Marx turned Hegel on his head, accepting the Hegelian dialectic but re-interpreting this as dialectical materialism. Under this, all our choices are illusory, for everything that happens – and this means absolutely everything that happens in our personal lives, our politics and our history – is determined by economic forces. How odd then that Marx should promote his version  of determinism and then urge us all to choose communism. Nice trick if we could do it, Karl!

Freud’s version of the deterministic contradiction famously took the form of a psychological dialectic in which the human mind consists of three sections: the Ego, the Superego and the Id. The Ego is our waking consciousness – the place where we would exercise our freedoms if these freedoms were real. But Freud goes on to say that the Ego is governed and directed by the other two sections, the Superego and the Id which are unconscious and over which the Ego has no control. So Ziggy, what’s free about free-association in the snake oil of psychoanalysis?

Darwin told us that our lives are determined by natural selection. Darwinism has evolved since Charlie’s days and now tells us – through such luminaries as Richard Dawkins – that we are the slaves of our genes. The contradiction again. So when Richard tells his wife how much he loves her, what should she think? My advice: “Don’t trust him, Lalla, it’s only his genes talking!”

This is all barmy enough already, but there is confusion the worse confounded. For many Darwinists claim also to be communists, and there are Freudians who are Darwinians too. (Choose – I use the word ironically, of course – any combination of these three deterministic ideologies that appeals to you).

What then follows is that you have set yourself not merely at the mercy of an internal contradiction in any one of the three, but the compounded contradiction involved in believing two or three  ideologies which are also the contradictories of one another.

Specifically, if unconscious forces are the basis of all that happens, then both economic forces and genetic forces are relegated to a place of only secondary consideration. Work your way through the whole unholy trinity. Perm any two from three…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll

03 Dec

Perfectibility: are we there yet?

On every visit to the National Gallery, I’m always drawn to the early Italian paintings. They are in room 51 in the Sainsbury Wing. I was in there for an hour and a half yesterday.

As the 14th century ends and we come into the 15th, it is hard not to notice a change in the style of these paintings. Whereas Giotto and his contemporaries express theology in their creations, the later masters begin to be interested in something like personality. In one of the earlier paintings, we see the crucifix growing out of Mary’s womb. This is neither surrealism nor pornography, but the doctrines of the Incarnation and the means of our redemption in one vision. This is typical of these earlier paintings. They express dogmas by means of pictorial analogies in much the same way as the contemporary Dante expressed dogmas by means of poetic analogies in The Divine Comedy.

Of course, there is theology in the later paintings too but, over a period of about a hundred years, there is much less symbolism and much more naturalism and the beginnings of humanism. And so the dogma of Original Sin comes to be replaced by something approaching the idea of man’s perfectibility: not the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but the human form divine. T.E. Hulme put the matter exactly:

“You get the first hint of it in the beginnings of the Renaissance itself, in a person like Pico Della Mirandola. You get there the hint of an idea of something which finally culminates in a doctrine which is the opposite of the doctrine of Original Sin: the belief that man as a part of nature was after all something satisfactory. You get a change from a certain profundity and intensity to that flat and insipid optimism which, passing through its first stage of decay in Rousseau, has finally culminated in the state of slush in which we now have the misfortune to live.”

09 Nov

The cloud of witnesses

I have never been much  of a one for praying to the saints. Not that anyone should pray to the saints anyhow, but instead ask for their intercession. I do say the Marian prayers, such as the Ave Maria gratia plena. And I take much encouragement from the verse in the Epistle to the Hebrews which says, Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses.

And when I seek help from this cloud of witnesses, I don’t confine my search to the saints who occupy the Red Letter days. I talk to a great variety of dead people and I believe they talk to me and that:

The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

I have talked to Mozart since I first heard one of his piano sonatas when I was thirteen. And the music answers. I feel certain that Mozart is always close by and that he has been very close on many occasions in my life, for example at my Ordination in 1970. This took place in my own parish church of St Bartholomew, Armley, Leeds with 800 people in the congregation including many of my family and friends, people I had grown up with. It was, to say the least, an affecting occasion. All the more so then when I was handed a chalice brimful and told to administer it to a section of that vast congregation. I had to walk from the altar, down through the chancel and into the nave. I was doing pretty well until the choir began Mozart’s Ave Verum K.618 – the motet he composed in Baden, where his wife was taking the waters, in the afternoon of 5th July 1791. Fear and trembling. I managed somehow not to spill the sacramental wine.

I talk to St Augustine and he answers in the words of his Civitas Dei which are as pertinent to our age as they were in his for, as C.H.Sisson wrote, Augustine  attracts us because he lived through times which were very much like our times – and rejected them.

Dr Johnson tells me about the fear and love of God. R.G. Collingwood taught me metaphysics. Coleridge reassures me regularly that I am not alone in feeling frail. Schopenhauer comes along now and then and shows me how to make philosophical jokes. Shakespeare for terror and pity. Giotto for making visible what otherwise would have remained invisible: Christ on the cross. Eliot for holy dread in the rhythms of the English language: Come with me under the shadow of this red rock… 

Eliot for pretty much everything actually.

By the way, the original Greek word translated as witnesses in that Epistle to the Hebrews is marturwn – martyrs.

And not one of them a suicide bomber.

05 Nov

Credo quia absurdum

Every newspaper and magazine should follow the example of the Spectator and appoint its own in-house surreal comedian.

Although Matthew Parris begins a recent article by misquoting Lewis Carroll – the White Queen said she could believe six impossible things before breakfast – he proceeds to outdo Carroll in the production of things bizarre and fantastic. His article is titled Why I intend to become an addict. That Spectator piece should be made compulsory reading in all our state secondary schools. You’ll see why in a minute. But enough preamble, let the great man speak for himself…

“Heroin, by all accounts, is the big one and for decades I’ve wanted to experience addiction to that drug…

“I did have one wholly abortive attempt at getting hooked on nicotine patches. My mistake was to attempt a shortcut and apply patches that were classified as the equivalent of 30 cigarettes a day. I put one of these patches onto (sic) my lower back, forgot all about it, went out to dinner – and ended up literally crawling to my host’s sofa, unable to stand, lying there with my heart thumping, ripping off the patch, passing out, and not waking until dawn…

“A friend tells me he knows a non-smoker who…tried e-cigarettes and has become seriously addicted to them. Sounds promising…”

“And how often would I need to vape in order to let myself effectively but gently into a possible addiction?

“People who are not addicts should try it and report. Sooner or later, and one way or another, I intend to.”

Parris’ virtuosic feel for narcissistic farce is beyond all comment or criticism. Give him the Spike Milligan Award for Surpassing Daftness.

18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.

15 Oct

Private parts and the private language

I was in Skinners’ Hall in the City of London to say Grace for the Worshipful Company of Fuellers and sitting next to the Clerk to the Worshipful Company of Distillers, He asked me, “Have you ever had any doubts about the existence of God?”

Well, yes. There was a time when I was in the first flush of teenage omniscience, round about 1958, when for a few weeks after the end of the cricket season I actually declared myself an atheist. These religious hot flushes can’t last. And, prompted by my first look at Rene Descartes, I soon returned to my senses. It was the “I think, therefore I am” bit. I read it and I thought, “You arrogant bugger!”

And it struck me: how could he think his own existence more certain than the existence of God?

A few years later I read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – paragraphs 245-315 in which he demonstrates the impossibility of a private language. How could I ever know that I was using my private language correctly? Memory is only unreliable, and relying on it as a check would be, said Wittgenstein, “…like buying two copies of the morning paper to see if what said was true.” The Cogito is a tautology which merely repeats in the predicate what it articulates in its subject. The fact that I speak a language shows that there must be other speakers from whom I learnt it. In truth, I use the word “I” to distinguish myself from these others.

Years later I read C.H. Sisson’s wonderful remark: “The only word that gives any difficulty in the Creed is ‘I’.”

Descartes (1596-1650) effected a sort of Copernican revolution in which the theocentric metaphysics of the Middle Ages was replaced by the anthropocentric epistemology of the Renaissance.

It was all downhill from then on. Once man puts himself at the privileged centre, he begins to think more highly of himself than he ought to think. Catastrophically, he thinks he can make up morality on the hoof. Deontological ethics – God’s commandments – go out of the window and are replaced by a relativistic utilitarianism in which nothing is good in itself but only in consideration of its consequences.

Jam tomorrow. The notion of the good forever postponed, like a whole series of penultimate climaxes in a Rossini overture.

In the 21st century we have reached the extremes of Cartesian self-centredness in which everyone, however unintelligent and unschooled “has a right to their (sic) own opinion. And, of course, every opinion is to be regarded as as valid as every other opinion. Our technology reflects this mood. Solipsistic babble on the i-phone. Selfies. The dissemination of pictures of one’s private parts in case, pace Descartes, there is anyone out there who might have even the vaguest interest in such pictures.

In short, atheism institutes narcissism. The creation story is reversed and man creates god in his own image – which image is himself.    

10 Oct

Fantastic philosophers

In a drowsy moment, I came across one of those weekend supplement articles in which the reporter is obviously trying hard to get off the beaten track – celebs, pop music, bread and circuses shows on TV – and talk about something which at least has some subject matter. It was all still rather golly-gosh, of course, as the supplements always are. This writer was clearly setting out to talk to us about philosophy, while avoiding taxing our brains. He certainly didn’t seem to be taxing his own much. Anyhow, the gist of the piece was to tell us that Bertrand Russell and Peter Strawson were the two “most fantastic” – golly-gosh, you see – British philosophers of the 20th century. I should have thought that being “fantastic” is not what an aspiring philosopher wants to be. Try “plausible.” There was not a word about the substance of Russell’s or Strawson’s work. Well then, let’s see…

Russell wrote a book in 1909 called The Problems of Philosophy and in it was a chapter on induction – that is, how do we know that the future will resemble the past? He said, “Although the sun has risen every day previously, we have no reason (my italics) to expect the sun to rise tomorrow.” Now how does that strike you as a piece of “fantastic” philosophising? You might think that such consistency on the part of the sun over millions of years – or even only over the long years of Bertie’s lifetime – would afford us at least a little reason for thinking that tomorrow morning the sun will give us a repeat performance. The fact is that the sun has never failed to rise, not once. I grant you this is no proof that the sun will rise tomorrow. Russell wasn’t taking about proof, but reason. Surely, on the evidence, we can claim to have good reason to think the sun will rise tomorrow? If the sun’s record over all these millennia is no reason, then it is difficult to imagine what could possibly count as a reason, and the word “reason” itself becomes meaningless. There is a technical expression to describe Russell’s performance here: it is called ignoratio elenchi by high redefinition of reason. That simply means the old boy missed the point.

Russell spent ten years over his work Principia Mathematica trying to prove that maths is based on logic. He confesses he wore himself out in the process. No wonder: arguing the toss with the likes of Wittgenstein, Whitehead and G.E. Moore must have been a bit testing. Russell soon found that the task was more difficult even than trying to pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time – because you’re bound to run up against the paradoxes: eg “The set of all sets that are not members of themselves – is it a member of itself or not?” Or, more domestically, “All Cretans are liars – and it was a Cretan who said so.”

So what did Bertie do next? He got tired. Then he declared that the problem cannot be resolved in the ordinary logical language. We need, he said, a meta-language. But he soon found that in the meta-language he ran into the same problem that he’d found in the ordinary language. So you need a meta-meta-language. And on you go into an infinite regress. Like the Robertson’s jam with the picture of the golliwog on the jar. And on that jar there is a picture of a golliwog holding a jar and on that jar….” So how to stop it? Russell said we need “a theory of types.” But he found the same problem with the types as he’d found with the language and the meta-languages. To avoid going barmy, you have to find a device. Russell said he’d found such a device and he called it an “axiom of reducibility.” In other words, there comes a point when you have to say, “OK, it’s time to chuck it.”

Russell did other things. He fell in and out of love with that great Garsington carthorse Lady Ottoline Morrell, seduced Eliot’s wife Vivien, preached “free love,” campaigned for unilateral nuclear disarmament and failed conspicuously to understand Immanuel Pussyfoot Kant (1724-1804).

Fantastic eh?

Strawson’s big book was Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics (1959). In this he solemnly addressed the question of how we tell the difference between lumps of inanimate matter and the people we see walking about. He concluded that we call inanimate matter “material” and that we call the people we see walking about “persons.” Naturally, being an academic philosopher, he invented a technical formula in which to express his astonishing discovery: he said material objects take “m-predicates” while persons take “p-predicates.” And that explains why you’ve never seen a dish of rice pudding trying to buy a first class rail ticket.


Who might we regard as the finest British philosopher of the 20th century? I suggest, by a country mile, R.G. Collingwood for his demonstration in An Essay on Metaphysics that science needs absolute presuppositions which are not themselves derived from observation. And for his notion – explained in The Idea of History – that historical study is not something which should rely on “authorities” but consists in asking appropriate questions. That history is not “the past.” For the past does not exist. History is thoughts about the past in the minds of historians in the present.

Better than fantastic, that’s, as the supplement’s showbiz columnist would say, “Reelly, reelly good.”

18 Sep

The non-existent Archbishop

Justin Welby, Arch of Cant, says, “I sometimes wonder whether God exists.” He added, ”There are moments when you think, ‘Is there a God? Where is God?’” He – Welby, I mean, not God – gives us a brief autobiographical sketch, a vignette from his fascinating life which he wishes – as modern churchmen love to say – to share with us: “The other day i was praying as I was running and I ended up saying to God, ‘Look, this is all very well, but isn’t it time you did something – if you’re there?’”

I imagine God out on his morning run – just a gentle million parsecs jog around the Andromeda galaxy – and thinking to himself, “Well, Welby, this is all very well, but isn’t time you did something about the parlous state of the Church of England?”

Welby looks at the suffering and tribulation in the world and wonders if there is a God. I look at the condition of the Church of England and wonder if there is an Archbishop of Canterbury. Surely an Archbishop who had good intentions would not allow the church, under his stewardship, to degenerate into such a dung heap? But degenerate it has, and that’s what makes me wonder whether the Archbishop really exists.

I’m afraid it’s the old story: Archbishop knows no theology; Archbishop fails to read the Bible. He’s worried about the so called problem of evil and human suffering and so, with an arrogance bordering on the Luciferian, he thinks to try to justify the ways of God to man. Wrong from the start: it is we who are under the judgement of God and not God who must conform to our ideas about what is good and what is evil and from whence these concepts originate.

If the Arch of Cant had ever bothered to read the Bible – only the first few chapters mind, I’m not requiring him to make a greater intellectual effort than to get past Genesis III – he would learn that the Bible says clearly and firmly near its very beginning that evil is a mystery into which we are commanded not to pry – on pain of death:

And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

However, since Adam took Eve’s apple and lost the paradisal look, God has not left us clueless as to this forbidden mystery. For alongside the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is the Tree of Life. And the Tree of Life is the Cross of Christ. Whatever else all this might mean, it declares firmly that in the matter of suffering God does not exempt himself. The Creator, in his Son, by whom the worlds were made, suffers alongside His impudent creatures. The Enlightenment philosopher would say that, given such a shocking case, it had been better for God never to have brought the universe into being in the first place. But what does he know?

We are not left entirely in the dark about evil. St Augustine tells us that, for all its terrible appearances, evil is finally insubstantial – in Augustine’s phrase it is privation boni, the mere absence of good. As St Thomas Aquinas said, evil is banal and a mere parody of good – as Satan is the uncreative Ape of God.

To presume in that Humean playground to give an explanation of evil necessarily involves us in the even greater presumption of being able to explain God. If the word “God” is allowed to mean anything beyond what is weighed in the false balances of the Enlightenment philosophers, the very concept is absurd. For the origin of evil lies in the unsearchable counsels of God, and it is as inexplicable as the being of God himself. We cannot go beyond Augustine’s privatio boni, for the fruit of this tree we are not allowed to eat. All we know, according to St Augustine, is that despite the appearances, love is the only reality; and evil and suffering, along with death, are among those things which shall be swallowed up in victory.

The final absurdity of the Enlightenment project is in its rejection of absolute moral values while persisting in the folly of continuing to ask absolute moral questions.

Welby should be careful he isn’t overdoing it and he reminds me of the American President Gerald Ford who, it was claimed, could not walk and chew gum at the same time.

Don’t try to pray when you’re jogging, Justin: it clearly puts too much strain on your mental faculties.