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?