Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reflections II

One of the unanswered theological questions is why God has so regularly been depicted as opposed to the sexual instincts.

Shedding presuppositions about God, one could, after all, just as readily imagine the character of a deity to be in favour of people having sex for reasons of love and joy – not merely for procreation – as one can presently imagine that he is a stern puritanical killjoy, passionately poised in opposition to ‘meaningless’ sexual delight.

An interesting thing to know would be how many atheists would not be atheists; how many in fact would at least be agnostics, if they were to be informed that, actually, God rather likes sex, and likes humans having it too.

Not, of course, that I wish to speak for God (presuming he exists, of course) regarding what he actually thinks about sex, and what we should do regarding it. But I am aware that at least a certain degree of anti-theism is motivated by contempt for received understandings of God’s anti-sexual stance. And one doesn’t have to be particularly intelligent, I hope, to realize that you cannot with much success argue the non-existence of something just because you dislike certain of its purported characteristics.

Not that this in-itself means that God exists, of course.

Personally, in my Universe, there’d be both God and Sex, and everything would be joyful. While I have time for the dialectic, I prefer it to operate within an ambience of love.

Reflections I

Without the background of eternity as anchor and hope
Conversations will necessarily restrict themselves to the concrete and the superficial.

Even if God does not exist, our dismissal of a useful illusion has nevertheless deprived our lives of an irreplaceable quality of richness aand depth.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A White House

This unChinese-looking building is where I work. Not quite the white house that removal vans will shortly be servicing but a white house nonetheless. Except that I don’t sleep here. I sleep in the small pinkish building off to the left which, believe it or not, is a hotel.

You can’t see the window of my office. I’m on the other side of the building. You can’t swim in the lake, or even take boats out upon it. Or perhaps you can, but it might be thought odd if you did. Anyway, it’s now getting rather chilly for that kind of thing.

Actually, a few more buildings have emerged since this photo was taken. Suffice it to say they are not of fascinating design.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The New World

According to many the future is Chinese. If this is the case we have the following idiosyncracies to look forward to:

Warm drinking water. The failure of mineral water machines to cool drinking water to beneath room temperature is apparently not a lazy oversight. It is deliberate policy reflecting medicinal folk wisdom.

No bars, except for western outposts. Alcohol is available and presumably drunk by the locals. But don’t expect much evidence. One or two beers might be stretched to.

Cinemas without schedules. You can find out what’s showing, and at what time, only on the day in question, so you won’t be able to plan ahead. If you don't have the phonenumber or can't speak Chinese you might just have to turn up and hope for the best. It worked out alright for Bond, but luckily I had the whole afternoon off. Oh, and there's no salted popcorn.

Doting waitresses. In restaurants, waitresses stand to attention beside you waiting for you to make up your mind. Try not to feel pressurized. They would think it rude to leave. That said, more than once I felt their impatience and wondered if they might have better things to do.

Paranoid taxi drivers. Some companies must have had some very bad experiences. Their drivers sit behind fortified barriers, insulating them even from the front passenger seat. Taxis are also more expensive in China if you call for them than if you risk death trying to hail them down.

Ultra keen builders. Thankfully, they don’t work through the night, but fear not; the onward march of culturally destructive, growth fuelled construction will wake you up if your alarm clock fails.

Ebikes. No doubt these will take off in the West but they’re already raging here, albeit silently. According to a female Chinese friend, however, they are not for men and would make me look ‘unattractive’. I might consider getting a car only none of the other expats drive, which perhaps says something. You have to pass a written test too (in English?)

No salt. I’m told this lack of the vital table condiment is a regional variation not reflected in all provinces. Anyway, it’s best to learn what the word for salt is (yan, but not pronounced like that ). If you mime the action of salt sprinkling or shaking over your dish, which you might reasonably think would do the trick, don’t hold your breath. It may bring you only giggles, bewilderment, or possibly panic from the waiting staff; and no salt.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Sweep Down

Sweep down gentle force to free us
Sweep down the kindling fire

Voices again speak to voices of substance
Ears hearing sounds of depth

Flesh singing to flesh of flesh restored in vividness
Eyes mingling with eyes at rest.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


More about China soon, but in the meantime a reflection that occured to me. That:

Writing about sex can be a perilous business. For centuries, sex occupied only subversive and maligned positions in human discourse. As a result, forms of thought about it and the language used to express them are today only uncomfortably deployed, with uncertainty and self-consciousness. Not having a mainstream literary canon going back to antiquity, focused on this subject, to lean on in our thinking, we cannot draw upon generations and generations, centuries upon centuries of unashamed, analytically serious thought and reflection about this vital, central aspect of our lives. Stranded by history, word is placed against word with little precedent, with few voices to guide. Meanwhile, many, often with guitar in hand, think this is just how things should be – that we should remain silent, shun our mind forged manacles, yield up the logos to Venus’ ineffable, oceanic vastnesses.

It is not that sex, as Larkin suggests, did not exist before 1963. It’s that beforehand, or thereabouts, it was not spoken of in public in the open, unselfconscious ways it has been since. Its subterranean nature was a fixed feature of its place in society. Obviously, sex was something you could do - provided you did it in the right way, with the right person. Indeed, even if you didn’t like it, it was something you had to do, provided you were not an ascetic, so the human race wouldn’t die out or at least so you wouldn’t scandalise your parents. But in any case, if you spoke about it at all you did so with reluctance. Or if, on the contrary, you spoke about it enthusiastically, with the concerted desire to shock, you rested on the laurels of a goldmine, knowing that to shock couldn’t be easier. Generally, you knew fields were explored not fit for Grandmother; fields banished from innocence and ease.

To an extent, this sheepishness endures, remaining a potential source for embarrassment and humour amongst the more reserved. But today the chuckles gurgling around prudishness, so easily aroused even into the 70s, grow ever more diminished, harder to generate, increasingly anachronistic, as the prudish themselves decrease, or retire to the pavilion.

Given this liberation, one would have thought writing about sex couldn’t be easier. Yet I wonder whether this supposition rests on the assumption that all that one might have to say about it is that that we should not be shy about our instinctive desires. If one wants to say anything else, new forms of restriction arise, forms of inhibition emanating not from the forces of reaction, but ironically from the forces of liberation that had supposed it was only traditional perspectives that could put a muzzle on proceedings.

Today, the effort to gaze too deeply into the enigma that is sex can raise suspicions. Indeed, the very notion that it is an enigma at all might be very strenuously rejected. It might be supposed that nothing is more natural, familiar and straightforward; moreover, that anyone claiming that sex is enigmatic necessarily must hail from the reactionary camp. That he must be wanting to re-impose a veneer of mystery and lofty spirituality over its friendly simplicity in order to put it back behind its walls, so as to refortify or resuscitate some traditional morality perceived to depend upon it’s exile from public discourse.

Being caught between the rock of traditional moral perspectives on the one hand and the hard place of modernity’s often mindless celebration of its achieved sexual liberations on the other, is not a comfortable place to be. Not if one wants just to think for oneself and approach the subject as one sees fit. Each side may put you down as dangerously close to the enemy encampment. The liberal camp might eye you with suspicion for the reasons mentioned above. It might also, patronizingly, think that while, curiously, not a conventional ‘sex denier’, you are actually a repressed person who just can’t face up to the fact. Someone who needs to get out more, see more action, realize the clear lesson that the only sex talk that really needs to happen is about how much you enjoy doing this or that with him or her. While the traditionalist camp might sniff in the aura of your words, particularly your lack of moral certainties and judgementalism, suggestions of that same old permissive drift of doom that justified Sodom and Gomorrah.

In this then, as in so many other fields, the game of discourse has been rigged beforehand. The pitch has been queered, as I like to say. The compartmentalizing knives of dualism and dichotomy, of the duty to be oppositional, to take sides in accustomed battle orders, to nail your colours to the mast, have been sharpened.

Which is why I say that writing about sex can be a perilous business. As co-opted as it has become by what are essentially politicized, grand interpretations of existence, it is a likely thing that you too will be co-opted and denied your space, denied your voice, eaten up as cattle fodder by the imperatives of somebody else’s narrative.

I am supposing that some may imagine that behind these words lurks an unspoken desire to confide something personal. If this is so, this confirms in-itself the tendency to co-optation and misinterpretation in these matters.

Although sex is not the weather, and means more to us than it, it remains interesting that we cannot easily talk about it as if it is were like the weather, and as innocent and unassuming; that we are often so aware that around it gather grand forces and energies of consequence that hook it into matrices of signification that belong elsewhere, and speak of our more general, fundamental orientations.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some people I'd like to see again

Facebook, Myspace and Friends Reunited have been good ways of finding, and being found by, people from my past. I’m glad I’ve reconnected with the shadows and ghosts that I have, restoring them to life. Moreover, there is no doubt that, in the wake of these new technologies, keeping in touch with them now will be easier than it used to be. The entropic forces tending to the dissolution of ties in the face of the demands of present and future are givens. They are not going to weaken. But against these, the possibilities for holding together, in however small a way, the shape of one’s narrative as it passes through the souls that one meets, have never been stronger.

That said, there a still several people I have not rediscovered, for whatever reason, and have lost touch with entirely. People who meant a great deal to me at the time that I knew them, who impressed themselves upon me with depth and vigour and resonance; and who, if I might be frank, I ‘miss’. I won't bore you with too long an inventory, but here are three. Obviously, I’d have included Jessica but I should only see her if she wants to see me, and I suspect she may be indifferent or opposed to the idea.

I have changed their names, but they will presumably recognize themselves in the unlikely event of their reading this. I met them all in my late teens and lost touch with them in my early 20s.

Joseph Brightman: We travelled across South America together in an Encounter Overland truck in 1990. Highly ebullient and bright – he was always keen to dispatch rapier words against transcendence and have a go at Christians (including my brother, the Reverend). If he hasn’t changed, I can imagine him salivating with glee over every shard of Dawkinsana. I believe he is some kind of barrister in London now. Though I can imagine him in one of those wigs, I would still like to actually see him in one. I wonder if he still talks really fast and laughs a lot. Despite his atheism, he had an epic sense of life as something intrinsically grand, which appealed to me greatly.

Frederick Davidson: ‘Best Friend’, if that’s not too childish a term for the sixth form and for the ‘gap year’. He had a crappy Ford Fiesta which we called the ‘Tin Machine’, and which he’d unsuccessfully push to destruction point on the M11 between Kentish Town and Cambridge. He wrote me supportive, witty letters when I was in South America, which I was grateful for. At school his ability to equal or beat me at essays despite doing next to no homework baffled and infuriated me in equal measure. Beyond his flagrant acuity, I have never met anyone whom I felt had such natural existential strength, and such a powerful will. I imagine him to be absurdly rich and thriving in the City, presumably unlevelled by recent events. The last I heard he and his brother were going to buy a yacht.

Andrea Stewart: Gorgeous, fiery, red-headed maiden I met on an Outward Bound Course in the Lake District in 1989. She liked my blue eyes, which I appreciated. She liked my letters too and once said I was ‘priceless’. Nothing ‘happened’ between us, as the vacuous cliché has it. I think she may, however, have been one of those whom I alienated in my mid twenties when I suddenly exploded into my ‘write your friends impossibly long and intense letters, why don’t you’ phase. The last I knew she was getting into head hunting. I wonder what her innate zeal and brilliance is getting her up to these days.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The World Financial System

It would be interesting to know the percentage of the British population over the age of 15 that actually understands the media discourse raining down about the prevailing financial crisis.

One would have thought that if people do not understand it, that that in-itself is pretty strange. After all, what's happening threatens their real standards of living, as well as whatever policies they've devised to safeguard their futures.

Not, however, that I blame anyone for their ignorance, in so far as it exists. I only vaguely understand grand finance myself. Ok, I grasp the superficial elements, about what's been going on with greedy, blindly optimistic bankers and Governments encouraging debt; but beyond that, beneath that, it’s a bit of a shady blur.

The exact relationship between things like the availability of Credit, Inflation, Interest rates, Unemployment, House Prices, the Governmental budgetary status – in surplus or deficit, the Exchange Rate and the Balance of Payments, taken together, I’ve sometimes tricked myself into believing I might understand. But too often I realise, in awkward shudders of honesty, that I don’t, not really. That professional men of finance can themselves display divergent views on the macroeconomic shape of things, persuades me I might not be alone, that even they may be grasping at a few more straws than they realise.

When I listen to economists explain - businessmen, bankers, academics, or economic journalists - I thank them for their efforts; but I still wonder if I’m being lured towards a labyrinth, their labyrinth; a maze, a gated castle, festooned with lanes leading me from myself towards abstraction, towering above me in baroque inscrutability.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help finding economics more abstract, more shadowy, and less easily grasped than philosophy, than literature, than spirituality. The connections between the domain spoken of in economics and direct human experience have always seemed circuitous and tentative. Is this only because the arched persuasion of the mind intrinsic to business has never been mine? Or does my uncertainty partake of a larger, collective confusion?

Today, we hear much about the World Financial System. Surely the problem lies here. We speak of the dominant force in the world as a thing, a system, a matrix. What happened to the world as a concrete, physical place, where human and animals live together and share their experiences and productions in the brief time they have before they die?

It used to be thought a hostile and oppressive God, with a capacious beard, fiery eyes and an appalling sense of humour, stood between us and reality as a grim alienating phantom, dividing us from ourselves and from one another. But now, in our supposed wisdom, we have decided this God doesn’t exist and never did. While the theological significances of this discovery are dubious, since God’s true nature might be very different from this caricature, the irony that we have exchanged one form of alienation, one veil, one wall, for another, should not be missed.

The new phantom of the age is money, or rather the forms of divisive organization it exhibits, namely this World Financial system that we hear so much about, even over our cornflakes.

Regrettably, this time, for something better to replace it, simply denying its existence might not be enough. We might actually have to come up with an alternative.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hushabye Mountain

When I was young Christmas was delightful. A period of enchantment and mystic rapture. This was no less real just because I couldn’t conceptualise my luscious intimations.

Who needs words to access certain experiences? We need them only to communicate them, if we need to communicate them; and when we try we deal in shadows, not substance. Knowing this, that our words might sully, we can choose to remain silent in honour of the experience.

You may remember, but it seemed that every year at Christmas in the early seventies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring the magical Dick van Dyke, was shown on TV. Watching it again now, I have become entranced by ‘Hushabye Mountain’ by Robert and Richard Sherman. The transcendent delicacy of emotion disorders my world in very agreeable ways. And I am moved to note that what we find here, despite the emotional richness, is the opposite of sentimentality. While some may baulk at the ‘sweetness’ on display, there is no forced or affected posturing, no mere simulation of feelings indulged in because one thinks one should, as it were, at one step removed from the real thing. Instead, the artistry is not artifice, but skillful mastery of evocation, technique deployed successfully in the generation of authentic response.

Well, in me anyway.

Alas, I can’t find an extract of the actual scene (except in Italian!?), but here Van Dyke sings it, against a series of portraits. While, as with all art, I can neither expect nor ask that you like it, there is a chance that you may, even as much as I; or that you might never even have heard it before.

Take note of the lyrics, as much as the music and the voice. Sometimes, with songs I love I find it sufficient to get carried away by the melody. I can find words superfluous, or even a distraction. But here they add to the experience, being exquisitely chosen.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Unexpected Nostalgia

An extract from an email recently written to a friend in Kuwait:

'Despite the various frustrations of life in Kuwait: the shady employer, the bureaucratic sloth and irrationality, the lack of 'things to do', the Islamic rigour, the intense awareness of inequality, the prevalence of basic racism and social injustice, I already feel I miss the place. Not only the people and the friends I made but a certain buzz and energy that I think is a feature throughout the Middle East. I'm not sure I know how to explain it, but it was certainly there in Kuwait, as it was in other Middle Eastern countries I've visited.'

This does not mean, however, that I regret leaving Kuwait, far less that I regret coming to China, which as a venture is far too young to evaluate.

It's a pity, though, that the campus is 60s gloom, not the Durhamic majesty that surrounded me when I was last attached to a University, or the gracious delicacy of the Cambridge that embraced me as a child.

And that the campus is 30 minutes out of town in an insulated western cocoon.

Still, these are not significant complaints.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Reflections on Purpose

Some thoughts on the results of my questionnaire, to the left. I base them on the results given by twenty seven people (none of them me) that had answered the questionnaire by Friday.

Although we’re told we live in a materialistic age, you wouldn’t guess it from the zero approval rating given to making as much money as possible as life’s primary purpose. I suppose there’d be more enthusiasm if I’d suggested life is about making enough money; enough for your needs, or even your desires. Are all people, at least those not in control of major league financial institutions, similarly unmotivated by unbounded greed? Or is greed a minority concern only for the type of people who read my blog? Personally, I’ve only wanted enough – enough, that is, to be free of the system. For this reason, I do not have enough, nor, presumably, ever will, if I’m to be ‘realistic’. Enough that I can roam and soar through the world, the free spirit I’m prevented from being. Still, since ultimately money doesn’t exist – being as it is a mere social contrivance, a convention for organising the production and ownership of material and abstract objects that do exist - I’m glad heresy and dissension from the God of this World are alive.

It’s interesting that nobody is primarily motivated by the quest for the perfect career. Did the question routinely asked as a child – what are you going to be when you grow up –mean nothing to you? Maybe at the end of the day, you just don’t really want to work, such that even if you love your job, there are still better things you'd rather be doing. Or is it that you know that since people are not their jobs, but rather people that have jobs, we cannot define our essence in terms of the ways we fit into the system of the world.

Somebody out there just wants to cope, to keep things together. And why not? It’s what we do anyway, or fail to.

The perfect orgasm. I hope you find it. I shudder to think what it will involve, and how you’ll know it couldn’t be bettered. Were you joking? I was when I suggested it. Still, we’re noticeably keen on exploring the possibilities for fleshly rapture, so presumably it’s a viable concern.

It is said that Zeus, fearing our primordial androgynous potency, cut us into our two genders. So we pine and hunt for our severed other half. Does the same dynamic exist for homosexuals? Hmmmmm. Anyway- alas, I have grown cynical about the mythology of romantic love. Bitter experience has exacted its toll. If she’s out there somewhere, the clock is ticking. My grey hair proves my point. I wish you luck, the two who seek ‘The One’. You don’t have to listen to my doubts. You might be justified in your hopes. But in the meantime, if you ask me, you might want to seek completeness in yourself. It will take the pressure off them ‘to be your saviour’ when they arrive.

If reproduction is the purpose of life, the purpose of life is to keep life going so that life can continue to be life. But doesn’t that mean reproduction IS life, since it is obviously essential for life. How then can reproduction be a purpose of life? Doesn’t a purpose of life suggest something that life is for, something, then, that is more than life, more than its mere biological basis?

Three of you think the primary purpose of life is to worship your creator, which in non-Gnostic cosmologies means God, as opposed to the Demiurge. I shall presume, to be brief, you meant God, not the Demiurge. In this world, worshipping your creator can be a noble purpose. I salute you. In many ways this is indeed my purpose. In any case, I join you in spurning the anti-theistic trends of our rootless, rudderless world, in which worship is not absent but directed to lesser lights (or even lights that are not lights) that do not deserve our worship; and which, on account of our worshipping them, bring us down to less than we could be, and less than we are. But it is not, ultimately, my choice for life’s purpose. Why? Because of the meaning of worship: namely that as an emotion and stance it is a one way street. We are expected to worship God. Does God worship us in return? I think not. And if, ultimately, our destiny is to be intimately united with God, sharing his reality in a world permeated with his presence, then the preconditions for worship will have broken down - namely that God is distant from us and, essentially, both different from and superior to us, a different order of being on the other side of the abyss. In such a fraternal, equal relationship: the one depicted in Genesis 3 before the fall, the one strikingly, unmistakably desired by God in Jesus, worship has given way to love: humanity’s voluntary love for God, and humanity’s love for itself and the creation, energized, made possible, by God’s indwelling love in us for us and his creation. To absolutise God’s desire for worship is to deny God’s desire to draw ever closer to us. While it is necessary, now, as a means to focus on God in the midst of a palpably Godless, loveless world, to say that life’s purpose, in and of itself, is to worship God, implies, surely, that God is a narcissist, that he created us so that we could praise him, presumably because he was insecure in some way. Or that’s how I see it.

Your second choice for life’s purpose is that life has no purpose. I refer you to my previous post, in which I explore how having a purpose can have two different meanings and applications. After that, what can be said? If life has no purpose for you, I wonder how you get up in the morning. If you are depressed, your lack of purpose might be the cause. If you are not depressed, are you sure your life has no purpose? But if you mean, rather, that life in the grand scheme of things has no purpose, nothing given to it from the outside, by God for example, then it’s interesting to explore what this might mean. I imagine this cosmic purposelessness could be reflected upon in either a gloomy, limiting and pessimistic, or cheery, liberating and optimistic, light – depending on who you are. Maybe God’s grand, finely worked out, detailed scheme of things was your life’s best hope. Now you’ve come to reject it as a lie and are bitter and morose, if not resentful. Alternatively, for whatever reason, maybe you’ve always seen God and his metaphysical system as oppressive, both in and outside of the bedroom. Now you are overjoyed that neither he nor his system exists, except as a human fantasy. Or maybe you are indifferent to whether life has a grand purpose or not. But in that case, I’m curious why you chose the purposelessness of life as your primary understanding of life’s purpose. Why care so much?

The Gold medal of purpose is a Socratic one. While not most of you, at least the largest group amongst you, seek ‘knowledge, wisdom and understanding’. I also believe this would be nice. But, to me, far better than to know reality as a mental scheme, as a map or set of propositions, or ethical principles, placed against reality in an exact fit, would be to be united to reality in a more thorough, holistic sense than is suggested by these mediated qualities. Meanwhile, we must wonder: whose knowledge, whose wisdom, whose understanding? That which is known, acted wisely towards and understood may very well be reality as it is in-itself. But even if it is, even if our knowledge is accurate and truthful it is still knowledge seen and understood from our perspective, by way of the limited, contingent conditions and potentialities of our minds. A ‘pure’ knowledge uninfluenced by the fact that we are the knowers of it: a knowledge science supposes exists and seeks, is impossible. And a good thing too! Only by factoring out our humanity, by knowing the world as a void, could such a knowledge even theoretically be possible. But since such a knowledge is impossible we needn’t worry about such a humanity-excluding knowledge. So why bother with it even as a dream? Knowledge will always be our knowledge. This is why knowledge changes, because we change – in ourselves, and in our abilities to discover. This is not to attack science as a means to manipulate matter, to allow this virtual communication between us to happen, and to achieve its other accomplishments. It is only to criticise science's epistemological ambitions, especially with regard to what we derisorily call ‘metaphysics’ (which is only metaphysical because we can’t see it yet ). Seeing through a glass darkly is better than not seeing at all – and this is our knowledge. But when the glass is removed, the knower and known become one – we transcend the limitations of our condition and are reconciled with the infinite and the eternal. Humanity has often been a story of presumptive, premature, disastrously abortive self-apotheoses. But this does not imply we shall never merge with the Godhead, or that our desire to become God is misconceived. After all, these things go both ways. God wants to become human too. Why else do you think he created us? How else can the incarnation be explained?

Which brings me to my own choice. Number Ten. Ok, I phrased it eccentrically, but in this I agree with the great nemesis of gloomy metaphysicians, Friedrich Nietzsche: the only fundamental purpose that life can ultimately possess is joy. Presuming that God exists –and yes, you may have guessed, I presume this – and presuming again, as I do, that God is not so insecure and vain a narcissist that he felt a need to create an army of worshippers to help him feel better about himself, what other purpose could our existence have? Why else bring particularity into existence from the abundant ocean of the one? That something went wrong in the creative process, somewhere along the way, seems to be the case. While orthodox Christians accusingly heap the blame for this exclusively on our shoulders; and while Gnostics attribute the problem of life’s joylessness to the fact that our world was created by a lesser divine emanation, if not the Devil himself, they both agree that something went wrong. The question of life’s cure, of course, is a whole other issue; but without knowing what life should be: a non-suffering field of not boring delight, it’s impossible to know where we are headed, or should be.

Of course I could be wrong. There could be no God, and life could have no grand purpose. It could all be random strangeness, from the bottom up and sideways. But I have no reason to think so that convinces me and plenty of reasons, subjectively experienced, scientifically non-verifiable, I accept, for thinking otherwise.

By the way I'm composing this in a youth hostel in Shanghai. The humidity has beat a welcome retreat, along with the heat. A very welcome event. More from the Orient anon.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Thank You

Thanks very much to the twenty-five people who have so far answered my questionnaire - about life's purpose. As I reflected on the questions and the answers people gave, however, it struck me that I hadn't been as clear as I might have been about my meaning. This was confirmed recently in Northampton when Lee and Nicola revealed that they weren't sure how to answer. Their uncertainty concerned the question of whether they were supposed to consider the 'objective' purpose of life, according to some consideration of a grand design (or lack thereof); or whether they were supposed to consider the question of their personal, subjective purpose, whether or not this was reflected in the Universe in-itself.

To answer that life has no purpose is all well and good if one thinks objectively - if one supposes that there is no God, that life, the universe and everything in it, is the consequence of random chance; that life, on this planet at least, assumed the shape it did according to an unguided process of rigorous selection and advancement of forms of life most capable of surviving an essentially hostile environment. But if one thinks subjectively, how is the objective non-existence of purpose relevant to our lives; to the needs we face, as individuals, to find direction and aim? Subjective purpose: having wants, having plans, hoping and if possible striving to make life better for oneself and one's environment. These are all normal features of normal humanity. This means that to those feeling these emotions life does have purpose, whatever be the nature of any attendant cogitations that are, or are not, experiencd about the bigger picture.

I'm not denying that, subjectively, people's lives can be pointless and purposeless, especially in the West, and at least in their own perception. But that is so, if it is so, for personal reasons that have little to do with the status of life in general. In addition, many who deny life's deeper telos, can still, very happily - or so it appears - find purpose in their lives, that sense of a direction that can generate a sense of meaning, even in the midst of the void.

So anyway, it struck me that my whole slew of questions could be construed as ambiguous. Yet, then I reflected - does this matter? Perhaps for some people objective and subjective purpose are identical. In any case, people answered according to how they interpreted the question. How they interpreted it, at least to them, is intriguing and revealing in-itself. A point may be, however: would they have chosen differently if I had spelt it out that they had to think about things only subjectively and personally or only objectively and impersonally?

Monday, September 22, 2008


The first major impression is the humidity. Although much cooler than Kuwait, it's much more uncomfortable. In addition, there is far less sun, while the air conditioning, less desperately required, is inferior in its performance and range. I want to suppose not all of the mist is caused by pollution.

Waiting around in Shanghai for my flight to Ningbo was helped by taking a trip to the centre of town. Strangers, as well as friendly, were helpful, giving directions, writing out the destinations in Chinese, showing me which buses to take, and how to use the Underground. One guy paid for my ticket because I didn't have the correct change. Another carried my bag as he showed me the way through an alternate turnstile after the first one wouldn't budge. A fellow teacher thinks they were like this because I gave off a 'new guy aura'.

It was good to see the 'Bund', the heart of the largely European 'International city', a non-Chinese association reflected in the architecture.

I'm still jet lagged. I haven't taught yet. This begins tomorrow but next week I have a holiday which I wasn't expecting and which is nice. Unfortunately, however, I cannot leave the country since I have a temporary single entry work visa. So I may go to Beijing instead, or just explore Zhejiang province.

My flat is in a staff hotel. It comes with a kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom. It's fine, but I may move on soon. Alas no bath, but I got used to that in Kuwait. There is also no oven, oddly enough, but apparently this is normal, given this is the land of the Wok. I live on campus, so am surrounded by other teachers and loads of students, who also live here. I have yet to explore Ningbo or any of its unknown attractions. Nearby, there is a sacred mountain and an island of some repute, so I hear.

My friend, whom I know from Slovakia and who's also here, tells me to avoid talking about the 'three T's'. From his look he expected me to know what they were, which shows he's been here too long. They mean (of course!) Tiannemen, Tibet and Taiwan, the latter being the most touchy. I must remember that Taiwan is not a separate country. Curiously, the Taiwanese agree, so explain the problem to a five year old! Happily, most websites I like are unblocked, but I haven't been able to surf much yet. We shall have to see.

I don't seem to have any significant troubles with my chopsticks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

My News

My news was expressed in a recent email I sent to a dear Slovak friend:

'My news is that I decided just to stick to 10 months in Kuwait, and am now moving on to China to work in a University near Shanghai. So that's a step up in the world of TEFL in any case, into something called EAP (English for Academic Purposes). More my line, for sure, than that kind of elementary scouring of the barrel that I did in Kuwait with students who, as far as I could tell, just looked upon the lessons as a joke and an opportunity not to have to work (in many cases anyway).

To summarise Kuwait in a nutshell would be to refer to oil, starbucks, the neon glossiness, the oppressive, omnipresent Islam (but it's not that bad, not like Saudi), and the extreme heat of the sun that really makes little sense that far north of the equator. Scenically, the camels roaming free on the sides of desert roads were the highlight. Actually, I loved my time there, met some amazing ex pats, and had a lot of opportunity not to be distracted by western commercialism, since there really is so little to do (unless you like to shop, as I don't). I got out at the very last minute. I was meant to start my new job in Kuwait on August 23rd, but got the China offer on the 19th. A close run thing!'

Once again I surprise myself - by how my writing style changes according to whom it is I think I'm addressing. When I write to my readers on this blog I don't know who I'm dealing with. In one sense this is liberating. It allows for an open vista, because I haven't needed to mould and adjust myself to any particular known and understood personality. In another sense, however, that blanket sense of the void left lingering before my mind; that sense of not really writing to anybody in particular, induces an impersonability into my blogging voice. While such an impersonability might well be considered tasteful, and a noble safeguard against the embarrassment of overfamiliarity, it must nevertheless have some drawbacks...if for no other reason than that, surprise surprise, I am a person, just as all of my readers are persons.

Who knows, maybe you can't see any differences in the prose styles. Maybe it's just me. But it seems commonsensical that not just what you say but how you say it is intimately influenced by whom it is you suppose yourself (accurately or otherwise) to be addressing.

Does this harmonise with what Wittgenstein meant in his latter, post-Tractatus days, when he said that language is a tool, an implement to get things done, namely to communicate - and essentially little more mysterious than that? If I understand Ludwig aright.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Class War and the Hope of Utopia

'It is now no utopian fantasy to suggest we can live in a world without waste or want or war, in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilisation. That much is assured. We certainly have the science, the technology and the know-how. All that is missing is the will – the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible; a belief in ourselves as masters of our own destiny; a belief that it is possible to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to fashion a world in our own interests. And how soon this happens depends upon us all – each and every one of us.'

I read the above over at Class War. What am I to think of it?

Well, I'm very sympathetic, to be frank. That said, I don't understand myself primarily in the political terms the writer does. So I don't feel comfortable sensing his or her desire that I interpret my positive response to his words as a signal that I ought to become a 'Socialist'. Moreover, I suspect my interest in the transcendent may leave him more than a little cold. Presumably, I am up to my eyes on opium and high as a kite in earnestly irrelevant ways...?

It seems often in life that people can agree about diagnoses, but then part company over prescription; when it come to the recommended courses of action, to suggested modes of alleviation, to routes out of the abyss.

The author is totally right that there is no material cause for anybody any longer to be starving to death on the blue planet. As I see it, that they do so is only because humanity, the collective, does not care about all of its parts, about all of its particulars. The negligence of holism at the collective level is evident and manifest.

Medicinally, we also now have the power to both improve and save many more lives than we do.

As for the so-called population problem. Firstly, this is a problem only in certain parts of the world. That in-itself means that through demographic mobility, it need not be a problem, as vast areas of emptiness can receive the excess. Secondly, where it is a problem, action through birth control, abstinence and education can drastically reduce the rapidity of growth. Thirdly, integral to the understanding that there is a problem with an an excessive demographic is an understanding of how human beings must live - that is, as exploitative consumers and destroyers of the ecosystem. And yet they need not live like that at all. That much is obvious.

'All that is missing is the will – the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible'

Indeed, this is the case - in one sense. And in that sense it's certainly the case that many, many people do not care, for whatever reason, either about the present or the future of the human race - except insofar as it relates to their immediate environment, be that, at a stretch, their particular nation or tribe or local community, and more commonly, their friends and families only; if not, in the more extreme cases of narcissistic self-enclosure, nothing but their own egos.

But are we sure that the will is enough? Personally, I am not. Through a programme of State sanctioned coercion, for example, we could always brainwash the multitudes into having the appropriate and required, 'virtuous' will. Such has been tried before, in Russia, in China and elsewhere. Would we like to repeat the experiment? Are we sure?

Call me a pathetic dreamer if you like; but I'd say that what has to change more fundamentally than the will is the heart, that stony lump of unresponsive insularity within. That deathly heart, that makes us care so very much about our personal particular statuses and triumphs, and what we have to lose; or is it, what we only perceive we have to lose. That heart of ungenerous, defensive prickliness, that thorn in the rose garden of the possible.

With an illuminated and transfigured heart, however, with a will animated and restrained by its counsels, we might indeed then, and successfully, harness the resources of our practical knowledge to make this planet less of the disaster zone that it is.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On Money and God

It's a bit of a cliche to say that in today's world Money is God. But this does not stop it being true.

What else can be said, however, in elaboration on this theme?

I was just today struck by the thought that people now want to 'get into' money in the same way that in the past they wanted to 'get into' God. And by 'get into' I'm not talking about becoming fascinated by or being a besotted fan of, but literally storming and conquering the surrounding walls of -whatever it is that you want to 'get into'; in this case money.

I was thinking this because I was thinking of the banking system and how incredibly defensive and frenetically vigilant it has to be, on and off line, because of what it's in possession of - vast amounts of money; and because getting their hands on vast amounts of money is precisely the sort of thing most people want to do.

God, when he mattered more to people than he now does was also somewhat extravagantly defended. A flaming sword held by Cherubims blocking the way to the Garden was just the start of it. God, so it seems, has never much liked people presuming, in all their mortal ordinariness, that they had automatic rights of ownership over what he/she/it is; or liked it when they claimed or even sought an existential equivalence to him.

And yet, in Jesus, all this is overthrown. The abyss between humanity and God is abridged and filled in. The veil in the Temple is torn. Not only does the uncreated I AM become a human being like us, but he dies, nay, is murdered by us, an act which he then forgives us for. In Jesus' resurrection he prefigures our own future freedom from the shackles of damnation and death, the liberation of the universe, it might be said, from its intense disappointment with its own obvious flaws.

I wonder, will there be a similar removal of that veil standing between the multitudes and the untapped, unharnessed material abundance of the earth? Of a type as restorative of, as ameliorative towards, our physical and material condition, as has been the tearing asunder of the veil in the Temple to our spiritual condition. Might we come to walk with God in the abundance of a transfigured Earth as readily as we can now walk with God, through Jesus, in the exalted, yet bodiless, domains of the spirit? That would be nice. Thy Kingdom come, after all, On Earth.

Is this what Paul is referring to, moreover, when he writes that we wait for the redemption of our bodies?

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Stars of Order

Recently I've been rifling through my old stuff stored in one of Mum's sheds in Suffolk. Most of this is books and old VHS cassettes destined for little future in the DVD and post-DVD world.

Some of the detritus is going to jumble, some will be thrown out. My Mum needs more space. My dear little niece presumed today that the shed was mine. Yes, in a manner of speaking I replied. Bemused, I elaborated. Most of what's in it is mine but the room itself is Granny's.

Hidden away in a carrier bag in an old gramophone cupboard I found some of my old notebooks. I would say about 60% of these scribblings have been typed up at some point over the past twelve years in fits of little better to do. Much of the rest had been forgotten about. This from the mid 90s, for example, found in an A5 notebook manufactured by 'Europa':

Where have the galaxies of light, the enfolded, woven
threads of the beauty gone.

I wish again to know you
out past bounded fields of pain
taste again your smile
feel and hold in hands
warmths of flesh.

When you're gone
the framework in the head is shaken
spears and daggers of the abyss within
shed blood from the stars of order.

On the opposite page is an (unsent!) letter to a girl I got rather involved with (not her real name).

Dear Michaela,

I have nothing to say to you except:





Saturday, August 23, 2008

Aphrodite's Divided Heart

“Oh, but don’t mention love. I’d hate the pain of the strain all over again”

One of the inherent disassociations in modern, western culture, is that between our erotic and our emotional lives.

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said: “Sex is not Love. Love is not sex”. It’s not a small number. It’s one of the many mantras of our times. It reveals much about our contemporary condition, namely the Wasteland.

As it happens, on the other hand, I don't deny that some people can veer wildly to the other extreme, saying that sex is love and that nothing but sex is love. But that may be for another post.

To my knowledge, the perspective which says that sex is not love and that love is not sex is often held by people interested in ‘progressive’ or ‘emancipationist’ views of sexuality, whatever they are understood to be. The underlying understanding, as I see it, is that if I want to get love I don’t need to have sex to get it. And that, on the other hand, if I want to have sex, I don’t need to feel a pre-existing love for my sexual partner first. I can use his or her body as I might a motorcycle, upon which I might be taken to my sunset of sensual joy. Presuming that they had consented to play the role of motorcycle, of course.

Actually, when I look at the first of these understandings, that one can get love without sex, I don’t have any difficulties at all. On the contrary, I entirely agree. I can give and receive love without sex being involved. After all, I myself love and have loved many people whom I have not even kissed, let alone exchanged bodily fluids with. This is just as well, given my low score rate with the ladies. If I had only loved people I had had sex with, I wouldn’t have had much love in my life.

It is only the second understanding, that sex can be had lovelessly, that causes me to ponder and reflect.

Call me a wild-winged hypothesist. I can’t help wonder about the roots of this understanding. Why should someone want to set themselves up to think of the interrelationship between sex and love in such a divided way. It seems unnatural to me; forced, strenuous, a ‘disconnect’, to polarise these aspects of life in this way. This essentialist understanding, which asserts that sex and love are distinct, not to be confused: it wants to see the sexual-emotional life of humanity as something divided. I wonder why.

I see three reasons. The first relates to a reaction amongst secular progressives to what has been understood, with fair justification, to be the ancient sex-hostility on the part of the Church towards consensual sexual acts between adults. The Church logic rebelled against, I think, has been something like this: If you want to have sex, you will need to get married first. If you want to get married, you should first love someone such that you will want to spend the rest of your life with them*. To look at it algebraically then: Love (Horse) + Marriage (Carriage) = Sex (Joyful journeys hither and thither).To break out of this necessity, weakening the causal nexus between Love and Sex, naturally becomes a cunning strategy to get more sex, or to get sex at all.

The second reason motivating the sexual-emotion split, relates to a felt need amongst those engaged in casual sexual relations, so I speculate, to defend themselves from the unwanted emotional consequences they feel and fear might arise from their intimate, compromising actions with relative strangers. Even though I’ll be coming inside of her; even though I’ll be penetrated by his phallus, none of this will hurt me. After all, it’s only physical. My heart I defend behind a wall of confident disassociation. Until such time, of course, as I choose to open it to someone, or more adventurously to those, I share my bed with. In this regard, I am reminded, as an extreme example of this split, I grant, of how many prostitutes (or so I hear?), while they will happily have all and every orifice phallically serviced to procure money, will not allow their clients to kiss them on the lips. The irony that this defensiveness implies, on the contrary, - that a link between sex and love is unwittingly acknowledged by the very people who might deny it - should not go unnoted, I feel.

The third reason relates to a recognition that, given the relatively loveless nature of our contemporay, highly disappointing world, feelings of love in general between the people that one meets are seldom experienced. If one is only to have sex with people you meet whom you also happen to love, so it might be thought, you would not have very much sex with anyone.

People can, and perhaps will, believe that sex and love are separate. Perhaps for them they really are. Ultimately, I can only speak for myself.

Speaking personally (yawn, cringe, shudder), and maybe it’s just me, what can I say? That I cannot imagine not feeling an emotional bond, at least of some kind, with a woman I might come to sleep with; just as I know that I do feel emotional connections, at least of some kind, and always a special kind, with the relatively few women that I have slept with. I can see how I might want to deny this in order to cope with certain unfortunate realities, but this wouldn’t make the denial true, would it?

This does not mean, as it happens, that I am angling after imitating or recycling Paul’s threatening implications regarding the iniquities of extra marital sex, in case you were wondering. It just means that I was saying what I said: that I do not believe that sex and love are separate.

* I realise that feelings of love have not always been considered a prerequisite for matrimony, and that considerations of family status and connections, the right religion and good health, have often been far more important, whenever arranged marriages were the rule, at least, and especially in the higher classes. In any case, I speak of marriage in relation to sex as it is understood in Occidental Christendom today.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Socratic Readers

It seems so far, from the questionnaire, that 'acquiring knowledge, wisdom and understanding' is the most popular purpose in life amongst my readers.

I'll leave it a bit longer before commenting on the results and revealing and explaining my choice. I'll wait and see if I can get 20 voters. Hmmmmm.

Meanwhile I'll continue to enjoy the countryside. This enjoyment, and other diversions besides, explains my recent less than fulsome commitment to this blog, as may have been guessed.

All this golden success in the Olympics reminds me very much of the early 80s, when the likes of Coe, Ovett, Cram, Capes, Goodhew and Thompson gave the Union Jack a similarly vibrant outing. Of course, we were helped in Moscow in 1980 by the absence of the Americans.

But that just makes our current success all the more significant.

Will Boris be playing Vangelis' theme tune from 'Chariots of Fire' over loudspeakers in Trafalgar Square, I wonder, when we have the day of celebration that he has planned for our team? Or for that will there first need to be more success on the track?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

One Week On

I have had a wondrous time in the past week. Leaving the Ishmaelite realm has yet again instilled in me feelings of levity and freedom. How this is to be explained, and what this means, is another matter, but that is the feeling.

I am supposing that according to the so called law of diminishing returns, the luscious delight I feel in wandering my homeland, and sensing its richness, both cultural and natural, will diminish if I move back and settle and become an established part of the system. Sigh.

Must one always be elsewhere in order to be here, to be abroad to appreciate home?

The Brits grumble about the weather. I understand why the farmers do - because it interferes with the harvest, but the rest of us? Rain is lovely, just ask the grass and the trees.

Ok, maybe that's not such a good idea:).

Monday, August 11, 2008


Speaking of Slovakia, on my way to the pub I had a brief chat with a Hungarian at North Greenwich tube station:

Jonathan: So you’ll just need to change at Bank. Where are you from?

Hungarian: Hungary.

Jonathan: Budapest?

H: Yes

J: Nice. I used to live in Slovakia, in Bratislava.


J: Or Poszony, as you’d say..

H: Yes, exactly! (he joyfully exhorted with great vigour), that’s right! (big smile).

J: Ah…(I sighed internally, while smiling).

J: You know, in 2002 it said “Pozsony” not Bratilava on railway station timetables in Gyor. I wonder why it now says Bratislava. I suppose the EU put pressure on the Hungarians, what do you think? You know, to recognise Slovakia's rights.

H: Pozsony is Hungarian, it was built by Hungarians.

He obviously wasn’t that interested in the finer details of why Hungarian claims on the soul of Bratislava/Pressburg (the pre 1918 German name) had been symbolically knocked back. I felt tempted to ask if he was a Hungarian nationalist but desisted, sensing the question might be taken as a rousing provocation to a tension I didn't want to experience as I looked forward to my first pint.

So I hear, many Hungarian families have maps of the old Hungarian pre-WWI Empire. At opportune, heart swelling moments they might bring them out and show them to guests, waxing misty eyed over the "true" size of their country. While I’m sympathetic to the pains relating to the decline in status and self-respect the loss of an Empire can bring –after all it happened to we British– are we sure that coveting the formerly possessed lands of foreign peoples, in order to compensate for a perceived diminution in ones own ethnic-national prowess, is entirely called for. Can't we see through all this?

Or to put it differently, if it’s ok for Hungarians to want Slovakia back, as well as large tracts of Romania and Northern Serbia to boot, is it also ok for the British to want India back, or our African former colonies, or indeed Canada, Australia and the states of New England?

Personally I'd say no, surprisingly enough, perhaps; for all kinds of reasons to do with stepping beyond outworn paradigms of domination and coercion. And if it's not ok for us to recycle our old dominating ways, I presume it is also not ok for others to do the same –or is that me being naive?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The George and Dragon

A perhaps unforeseen advantage of the smoking ban is that interiors of pubs can be less crowded, as smokers sit or stand outside.

So it was at The George and Dragon near Gt Portland Street. This charming, real ale hostelry, on its own admission is the 'best kept secret in London'. Here, on Thursday night, as many people were standing outside, spilling over the curb and onto the road, as were seated inside, enjoying the wooden tables and the old world decor. A welcome, wondrous consequence of which was that on a Friday evening in central London I had an entire table to myself, as I waited for my friends, former colleagues from Slovakia, to arrive.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Initial Reflections on Returning to England

The emphasis on customer service. The implied belief in the power of the consumer.

Seeing 'Tel Aviv' next to 'Kuwait' on a Baggage collection screen. The unmentionable land casually, unselfconsciously mentioned.

Seeing more Afro-Carribean people. In Kuwait there are few. Filipinos, Indians and other Arabs comprising most of the ex-pats.

The omnipresence of advertising and the marketing mythos -rendered in a language I can understand and so not escape from. Alas.

The security announcements and warnings -instructing me to be loyal to my bag. Will these ever end?

That you can't smile and wave at strangers and get welcoming, or at least unfreaked out, responses.

A certain levity and liberation in the air, in the spirit, in the general atmosphere.

A greater quiet - even in London.

Beautiful English women with radiant eyes and flowing blonde hair.

The vivid, fresh colours of my homeland. In the brick, the trees, the telephone boxes, the terraced houses.

A sense that it is very different, and makes me feel different.

A happiness to be here.

A certain reluctance to return.

The thought to stay.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008


I wonder who will do my questionnaire. It's on the left and might be there awhile. I had it on a purple background before but it was garish.

I ask what the 'purpose' of life is, as opposed to the 'meaning' of life. I do this because to me 'meaning' implies definition. Things are defined in relation to what they are not. We are not aware of that which is not life (ok, except death), so I do not see how we can define life in terms of something we know nothing about. I am supposing here that life encompasses God, if only with regard to our relationships to God.

Purpose relates to our motivations, be they ones we find ourselves necessarily driven by or those we consciously choose.

Obviously, there may be other options you might want to fill out but can't. But I tried to be as comprehensive as possible, without giving too many options.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Out of the Desert

I’m traveling back to England on Friday. I wonder what I will think of it, what I’ll get up to when I’m there. It will mean so much more to me, I suppose, than it does to people who are there all the time. Especially since I’m crossing a boundary between civilizations and returning out of the desert.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Be Thou My Vision

"Be Thou my Vision" is one of my favourite folk songs. It’s Irish and its words were written by one Dalln Forgaill in the 8th century, but were translated into English and versified in the early Twentieth Century by Mary E.Byrne and Eleanor Hull. As for its music (a tinny version of which can be heard here), it is of unknown ancient folkish provenance, or so I believe.

I have to confess to a dastardly terrible vice. I am moved on occasions (though not often) to playfully interfere with the lyrical integrity of songs not my own (I have no songs of my own). I am presuming, perhaps incorrectly, that as long as I do not make any money out of such violence, I am not going to have my ass sued to hell and back? Especially if a certain sufficient number of decades have passed since the composition, or the death of the author, in any case? Anyway, I would always in no way presume that any alterations I made had been attempts to either supplant or claim an objective superiority over the original. Only, rather, that they were different songs. Ok, relying on the same music, but not as such an attack on the original, if this lawyerly wind-baggery makes sense and persuades.

Anyway, here are the first two stanzas of the famous
“Be Thou my Vision”:

"Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one."

Good lyrics. And for a hymn, acceptably rid of grovelling sanctimoniousness and sentimental effeteness. Still, it is nothing if not ‘old fashioned’ (shock horror! I sense my traditionalist readers, Griff and Reynard, reacting?). I should make myself clear that what I sometimes react to with hesitation about the ‘old fashioned’ in general, is not that it is rooted in the past or that it fails to be enthusiastic about our modernist obsessions with the Brave New World of the 21st century; but rather that it can be merely inaccessible. For what, pray, is the purpose of communication, if it is to be stifled by inaccessibility?

Beyond the form, I am also less keen on the content than I could be.

For example “Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.”

This particular line seems to express very unambiguously something which I consider - in all my boundlessly unauthorized subjectivity - to be an erroneous understanding of the desired effects of Christian devotion upon the life of the Self. The life of the Self, that is, in the context of the world, and most especially, of other people. It is stating, after all, that nothing should be important to the Christian believer except God.

Hmmmmmmm…? Are we sure that this is what the Christian life is about? I had thought that the point and purpose of being a Christian was to be a light in the world, to love and serve your fellow men, be they your friends or your enemies? While I would never deny that such a love, being essentially unnatural, is impossible to achieve with much efficacy, without the transfiguring effects of God’s indwelling love active and shining within you, I would also suggest that maintaining that God alone is important to the Christian could tend to undermine, if not potentially contradict, such an understanding?

Secondly, in the second verse, we see a beautiful expression of the intimate relationship that exists between God the Father and the Christian believer as that believer partakes of the Sonship through his identification with Christ. I have no objections to this at all. I only wonder if a rhapsodic Hymn such as this is, is the best place for the expression of an esoteric theological truth that may in no way be accessible or believable to a non-Christian, who might indeed even be alienated by the expression of such an abstract strangeness. “What on Earth are they talking about”, is a thought that might arise, I’m thinking, when they sing or hear this song.

So what, you may think. So what if they don't understand? But is such a question really one to ask when the effective celebration of the transcendent is at stake? Or are you advancing the cause of a kind of Christian hermeticism, a Christian isolation from worldly relevance?

And so with trepidation and a robust desire not to rouse the spirit of Diall Forghill in acts of haunting vengeance against me, or that of his accomplished translator Mary Byrne and versifier Eleanor Hull, I humbly offer up an alternative version of the first two stanzas, which I myself, nevertheless, shamelessly prefer. Isn’t it weird the way we are not supposed to like our creative, or should I say in this case re-creative, acts?.

Be assured, I make no claims as regards its objective quality or worth. It is if nothing else simpler and more repetitious in its use of 'Be thou' as a refrain. While I can sense that some might feel it to be ‘wet’ (especially non-Christians) this is not what I intend it to be.

"Be thou my vision, be thou my true light
Be thou ever with me, and keep me at night
Be thou my saviour, be thou my delight
Be thou my energy, in the midst of the fight.

Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true light
Be thou revelation, in the darkness of night
Be thou my splendour, be thou my delight
Be thou my happiness, and the love in my life."

NB..see comments

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Higher Light

Does not find peace boring
Does not see evil in people

only sickness and ignorance
Does not condemn

but only grieves and is wounded
Delights in innocence

and is bored by conflict and hatred
Is never angry

And laughs a lot of golden laughter.

An Interesting Lyric

You know your problem
You keep it all in
You know your problem
You keep it all in.

From "You keep it all in" by The Beautiful South.

The rest of the song's conceptual content appeals far less, but this line swarmed pleasantly through my head while travelling as a youth in South America, although I'm not sure I credited its meaning with the significance it deserved at the time. It is normal for me to find the lyrics of modern songs far less attractive than the underlying music and timbre of the singer's voice in-itself. But sometimes, the splendour of the actual conceptual meaning will break through and charm. While this has happened most reliably with the work of Jim Morrison and Steven Morrissey, it sometimes happens with other lyricists too.

Usually, though, I'm just lost in my own reveries, not attending to the meaning of the sung words, using the music as mere fuel to delight my imaginative, restorative adventurings.

But the line above is a good one, and deep, even if it doesn't particularly mean to be.

I should collect together all my favourite lyrics from the world of popular music one day.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

On The Lambeth Conference

Last week my brother, a Vicar in The Church of England, met Bishop Gene Robinson for a twenty five minute chat. He won’t, slightly irritatingly, tell me what they said to each other, but fair enough. I even assured him I wouldn’t publish what they said on this blog, and I wouldn’t have. But it didn’t fly. Anyway, my brother typically prefers to discuss theological issues face to face, despite the fact that we usually have far more substantial and detailed exchanges by letter or email. No matter.

Gene Robinson, in case you didn’t know (why should you if you are not an Anglican Christian) is the ordained Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in the Episcopalian Church in the United States Of America. The US Episcopalian Church is one of the thirty-eight provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which at the moment is holding its once a decade Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, England.

Recently, here in Kuwait, I’ve taken to watching BBC World. I used, more commonly, to watch Al-Jazeera. But these days I become increasingly interested in what’s going on at home.

A short while ago, in amidst all the preoccupation with Radovan Karadzic, I saw Gene Robinson speaking.

Afterwards, an African Conservative Bishop was interviewed about homosexuality and Christianity. He referred to the sense (with which I agree- regrettably to you, perhaps, if you disagree) that the Bible is clear that homosexuality is not what God wants for human beings. Then, as if this was relevant, the journalist ran past him the following idea.


“One Bishop’s sin is another Bishops love and tolerance”.

What to think about that? I am supposing that this is intended to convey the idea that if a Christian believes that a particular action is a sin, that is wrong, that he might also therefore not be loving or tolerant towards those who commit the sin. And that, in other words, the erstwhile, noble principle, that one should ‘love the sinner and hate the sin’ is not valid. That to love the wrongdoer one must deny that there is a wrongdoing in question. While I would absolutely maintain that homosexual deeds are far less sinful than murder or rape, does this mean, I wonder, that if we are to love murderers and rapists, as indeed is our Christian duty, we need also to deny that murder and rape are wrong? Only asking.

The following thoughts also came to mind. They express the core of my feelings on this, relatively speaking, irrelevant issue, which currently faces the Worldwide Anglican Communion (though try telling that to the media).

Regarding the quote that “One Bishop’s sin is another Bishops love and tolerance”:

Is this supposed to be imply that Bishops who don’t sin are not loving and not tolerant. What does tolerance mean, anyway?

Is love and tolerance the defining essence of the Gospel? No, it isn’t. Aah…that was a line asking to be taken out of context now, wasn’t it? Love and tolerance are, indeed, fundamental and central to the Gospel, but they are not its core essence, which, surprisingly enough, is God’s incarnation and self-sacrificial love on the part of the world.

Besides, the meaning of love and tolerance are not stable, not clear. Whose love and tolerance? What is meant by love and tolerance? They are just words. Also relevant to the question of what love and tolerance is, is the love and tolerance of liberal fascism, for example, or the love and tolerance of the restrictive, banalising nihilism of political correctness? Or to put it simply: is the value of all forms of love and tolerance absolute?

The absolute, objective love and power that resides in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not linguistically dependent. It exists prior to and independently of the words used to refer to and describe it. For this reason, words do not merely arbitrarily concoct or devise that Gospel to be whatever someone, using words, might want it to be – through words. Rather words may, or may not, refer to and capture the Gospel accurately.

And some other more general thoughts arose:

The idea that opposing the institution of actively homosexual clergy for the Anglican Communion is ‘homophobic’ is strange. This idea is, I would suggest, often inaccurate and also, when it is inaccurate, insulting. Yes, some straight men, including Christians, do fear homosexuals for irrational reasons. But most, I would suggest, do not. I, for one, would never deny that gay men are very often pleasant and agreeable. Indeed, I have often, beyond that, admired the manner by which they have moved beyond our typically hideous macho male, competitive templates regarding their general approach to life. To me, certainly, they are not frightening, unless they choose to be. Why else would they be my friends, as they are? But not thinking, as a Christian, that they are frightening - and so therefore not being homophobic towards them - doesn’t, surely, necessarily imply that the Christian not feeling such a fear, should then necessarily believe that active, practi
cing homosexuals should lead congregations in their worship of God. And that, and that alone, or so it seems to me, is the issue in question.

The separate question of granting and maintaining liberty and protection for homosexuals in society in general (which I certainly support and defend) is, of course, entirely separate -but so for that reason not relevant to an internal debate regarding the Christian religion.

And if anyone out there thinks that because I am not blandly, blindly swallowing the liberal consensus on this matter, I am therefore something along the lines of a homophobic intolerant bastard, well, they can go right ahead and eat my shorts. Though I'll have to find them first.

Be with Me

Be with me my Lady
Be with me tonight
Be with me with the rising sun
Be with me at night

Be with me in strength my Lady
Be with me in truth
Be with me in your heart my lady
Be with me tonight.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Poignant Question

Recently, my dear Slovak friend Miroslava spent some time in the UK on holiday with her boyfriend. She spent a lot of time around Windsor, but also went to London.

When she wrote to me about her time there, she asked a poignant question. It reminded me of the still enduring old school innocence and charm of the Slavic sphere, the moral integrity of which has not (yet?) been as corroded as has ours.

“I’m wondering how many possibilities for having fun young people have in London.”

(How endlessly sweet)

This was how I replied:

"Young children having fun in London? Well, I think there are two things to note. First, that for some kids, ignored and cast adrift by their parents, having fun means roaming around in wild packs, pissing about, being a menace and possibly stabbing people (have you heard about the recent 'Knife Crime' anxiety?). Secondly, another type of child has parents who worry about: a) the other wild and dangerous children and the safety of the streets, generally, and b) Paedophiles. In consequence, they keep their kids locked up at home all the time, and so consign them to the virtual worlds only of the computer and the games console.

I was lucky. When I grew up there was still a relatively low level of public fear about the safety of kids. Yes, I was told not to 'talk to strangers', but other than that I could do pretty much what I wanted after about the age of nine, within reason. I walked to school and back every day alone, and would go into Cambridge town centre on my own. Nowadays, 'respectable' parents increasingly won't let their kids have this kind of freedom. While the ones who will are those who, as it were, dont care about them.

Sad, but I do see this as a reversible trend. But it will require the return of moral values, something which is impossible without a spiritual awakening (and I don't mean an Islamic spiritual awakening, mind, just to be clear).

Good luck in your exams, my dear


By the way, 'Jonny' is the name my family and some friends call me. I don't mind anyone calling me it, as it happens (as did Mutley on a recent comment), but I can see that it might seem a bit 'wet' (though not as wet as 'Timmy', I would wager?). It is also far too familiar, I think, to use as an official moniker, as May from Italy led me to see.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On Money and Power

This evening on my way to work I had the following conversation with a Bangladeshi taxi driver.

Taxi Driver: Where are you from, Boss?

Jonathan: England. You?

Taxi Driver: Bangladesh…

Jonathan: Ah, Dhaka.

Taxi Driver: You know Dhaka?

Jonathan: No.

Taxi Driver: Bangladesh is a beautiful country. Very nice weather. Bangladeshi people are poor. We are a poor people. Very poor.

Jonathan: Yeah, I’m sorry about that.

Taxi Driver: We are poor. And so we are happy.

Jonathan: Ahhhh….?

Taxi Driver: Poor people are happy. Rich people are not happy.

Jonathan: Interesting.

Taxi Driver: Poor people eat and have a roof and work. Everything is simple…everything is good. Rich people are not happy, Kuwaitis are not happy. Rich people always problems, not simple - with food, with life.

I suspect he wasn’t trying to state in some kind of categorical, definitive way that it’s always good to be poor, however poor poor is; or implying that all rich people must inevitably be unhappy. All kinds of questions might also want to be asked, about what he meant by happiness. As a Bangladeshi earning perhaps 800 dollars a month here in Kuwait (so about twenty five times the average Bangadeshi income), it might also be pointed out that in relative terms he’s pretty rich.

In any case, a noteworthy exchange – summoning all kinds of cliché-questions and cliché answers about what the ‘really important things in life’ are. Yet clichés are not invalid just because they’re dull, or places we’ve been before.

It put me in mind, moreover, of something I’ve often wondered. Something I specifically ask myself when I encounter vitriol fuelled invectives against the ornately wealthy, denunciations diabolising them as callously evil, selfish swine. In an attempt at their defence, seeking understanding, I don’t want to join the deafening chorus of leftbeam opprobrium. I suspect too much that this scorn is motivated, too much of the time, by mere covetous envy, and not much else. It is not the wealth that they hate, but that the wealth is not theirs. Instead I want to ask – why do the rich want to be quite that rich, quite as rich as they are? Why must there always be, as it might be put ‘yet another yacht, yet another penthouse’. Or why is enough not enough? These are not questions, mind, motivated by a Socialist’s passion for redistribution (though it’s true I do want everyone to have enough). They are reflections of a certain vertiginous curiosity about how such an indigestion can be stomached. How it can be lived with. Doesn’t it lead to a heady bloatedness? Isn’t it self-alienating? Is it really quite that important, all that wealth? Are you sure? Don’t you lose yourself, scatter yourself, fragment yourself in your attachment of such an incrustation of material wealth onto the carapace that is your ego, beneath which you hide your soul? Only asking, Guvnor.

A related question regards power. Why do people want power? Or why do people who have power, want even more of it; or, at the very least, want very desperately not to lose the power that they have. This is the question that comes to mind when I hear about the conspiratorial cabals that, so we’re told, control and oppress the world in the name of power. Ok, though I question (though do not dismiss) the truth of what’s alleged, I also wonder: ok, supposing you’re correct – so what? Again, are you as incensed as you are because you’re envious? If not, well, I can agree: power lusts are unrighteous, unbecoming to the dignity of man. But isn’t pity as appropriate as condemnation, if not more so? The slave owner, after all, is not less enslaved to his role than the slave is to his. He’s just another kind of slave, as enslaved as the slave, only differently. Ok, I grant, he sleeps on more comfortable sheets.

Are these curious individuals who covet wealth and power; are they evil, or are they just, well, boring, a bit or a lot limited in their interiority; shallow, lacking in imaginative, metaphysical flair?

It is time for me to make some honest statements:

Firstly, that I myself don’t know, as friends or relatives, any of these seriously wealthy, seriously powerful people. I could indeed, therefore, be barking up a host of erroneous trees. Secondly, that I myself, yes, would definitely like to be richer than I am (though power, understood as ‘coercive potentiality’, will always, I hope, leave me cold). And thirdly, that, yes, I could well imagine that, on achieving a degree of wealth significantly greater than that which I currently possess (I could probably keep myself going, sans income, for about two to three years, at a stretch), I myself might very well be persuaded to feel partial to a little bit more….? I am indeed ‘only human’, or so it’s said.

But what I yet want to ask myself, in soul interrogatory mode, is this: what would I do with such wealth? Speaking now, as one not yet (presuming I ever would be? Ha!) put in a position to be open to the temptations of soul-corruption that wealth presumably carries, I know only what I would want to do. Which is:

First, be free of ‘the system’. We all know what I mean by this, do we not? Suffice it to say, the phrase ‘wage slavery’ sums it up nicely. The condition of being free of the need to work, as opposed to the condition of desiring to work, which, in the face of the limited joy attaching to ‘lounging around’ in the Roman manner, would, I trust, endure.

Second, do with my wealth all kinds of fine and dandy things for the betterment of my fellow man (and woman). No, not with the caveat that I myself would derive no self-gratifying frissons of meaningfulness, self-respect or delight from my largesse (why, oh why, do we think that giving has to be self-denying?) but with, nevertheless, the defining characteristic that what I did with my wealth would in fact, and not in merely spinned out appearance, actually have to be for their betterment. Not, mind you, with all my wealth – I’d need to keep some back for myself (shit, this man is so human). After all, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be free of the system now would I?

As to what I would do exactly – that’s another story, though the thought of the University I wrote about continues to interest me. Another might be a genuinely independent, self-funded if necessary, source of media revelation, in a manner reminiscent of Citizen Kane’s undertaking. People need to be fed and clothed and housed, too, and healed from all manner of nastiness.

Yeah, you’re right, it’s a pipe dream. You’re right, I’d get corrupted. Yachts and penthouses and decadence would prevail – a thoroughgoing kneeling at the foot of Moloch ensue.

Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Hmmmmm.

If anyone out there with ‘an awful lot of wonga’ wants to put me to the test, they should feel assured that they should go right ahead. We could even work some sweet little disclaimers into the deal, such that you’d get your money back if yachts were witnessed!

And if you don’t (don’t worry – I do understand, I’m not that mad), could I maybe just ask you a favour?

Could you consider spending a little less of your money on yachts and penthouses, and persuade your friends to consider this too?

Don’t worry, I’m joking.

Are you?