Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

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Quote For The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent interview of writer and professor David Hillel Gelernter:

Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.

Think of the extraordinary blaze-up of art in America in the postwar years, especially the 1950s and first half of the ‘60s: painting above all; choreography in New York (Balanchine, Robbins, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and other regional companies); serious music, led by Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts broadcast  nationwide by CBS; intense interest in new American novelists; Frost; the Americanized Auden, Eliot and Delmore Schwartz; the great quartet of European masters as seen from the US: Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Chagall; the European film as an art form (Swedish, Italian and French––Hitchcock’s Birds, for that matter, opened in the early ‘60s at MOMA); in the architecture of the Americans Wright and Kahn and Eero Saarinen, and the Europeans Mies and Corbu and Gropius; in the design of the Eames studio, in the museum show as an event, in drama and the Actor’s Studio; art-books, magazines, posters, high-fidelity audio, Lincoln Center, the Dick van Dyke show; a situation comedy with frequent episodes about the theater, galleries, art films–and on and on.

An astonishing era.

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

My emphasis in bold.

There is a bucketload of truth in this statement. As anyone who has tried to engage your average pro or anti-Trump or Brexit activist in conversation or debate about politics will attest, reasoned discussion is hard to come by, precisely because faith is now vested in political tribes rather than God. In fact, the politically neutral (or those who refuse to see Donald Trump as either Saint Ronald Reagan 2.0 or Hitler Reborn, Brexit as an unadulterated good or an unprecedented disaster) tend to have the hardest time of all – the new atheists and agnostics.

Partisans on either side are increasingly being defriended, blocked or ignored in the real world by those incapable of making the leap of empathy required to understand or forgive a vote for the opposing side. But agnostics and those in the middle face the ire of both sides, incredulous that they can neither see the self-evident worth of the “right” side or the existential danger of the “wrong” side.

It is worse now than it was a decade ago under the George W. Bush administration, and by all accounts it was worse then than it was before under Clinton, Bush senior or Reagan.

Most analysis of this phenomenon of polarisation and mutual incomprehension had focused on the impact that the internet and social media have had on our political discourse, and many of these discussions are valid. But Gelernter takes a different approach and reveals another, more sociological explanation for the current toxic atmosphere – one made all the more profound because of what it says about humanity rather than the technology we now use.

And who can deny Gelernter’s point? As religion and faith have receded, something has indeed taken its place. But it is no longer art, or that wonderful flourishing of high culture that the West saw in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is often decidedly low culture and politics which we elevate above all else – and particularly, for many people, the divisive and grievance-laden politics of identity and victimhood.

But I would add that science also helped to cushion what Gelernter calls the “collapse of religion”. Humanity was inspired by the space race and the Apollo Program – “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – and great shared human endeavours such as these. But humanity has not lifted its gaze above low earth orbit since 1972, and while other technological breakthroughs such as the mobile computing and the internet have revolutionised our lives, they have on balance tended to fuel the individualist and consumerist aspects of our society rather than the collective and the communal, let alone the spiritual.*

What is becoming manifestly clear is that we need something – be it a new flourishing of art (as Gelernter desires) or a great scientific or technological challenge – to help us once again lift our eyes above our own selves, circumstances and identity groups. More than a few political activists together in a room tend to quickly become insufferable. A whole society comprised entirely of such activists would be so much worse, as we are now starting to discover.

We need a common challenge or faith – whether it is a rekindling of the gentle patriotism spoken of by Andrew Sullivan or a tangible project of some kind – to remind us that we are more than the sum of our political opinions. And this means we need political leaders who dare to demand something of us rather than flatter us and promise us bountiful riches for no effort.

And so this blog asks again: set us a challenge.

 

*In Britain, mindless worship of the National Health Service – as exhibited today by more than 200,000 people who marched through central London in support of the NHS, demanding that more taxpayer money be shovelled into a healthcare system they venerate and claim to be the “envy of the world” despite the awkward fact that no other country has tried to replicate the NHS and many succeed in delivering better healthcare outcomes – has become the closest we have to a national religion. And while this might certainly count as blind faith or religious fervour, it does nothing meaningful to bring us together as a society.

 

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Church Of England Parliamentary Team Revel In Their Antidemocratic Role

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The Church of England’s Parliamentary Team have taken to joking on Twitter about the various ways in which they subvert British democracy. But there’s nothing funny about these modern-day theocrats

Imagine if a private sector firm had twenty six seats in the upper house of the British Parliament and possessed the ability to debate bills, lobby government ministers and even vote on Acts of Parliament – all without receiving a single vote from anyone in the United Kingdom. That organisation would be counting its undeserved blessings, and doing its best to keep a low profile and avoid drawing attention to their wildly over-privileged position.

If the RMT possessed nearly thirty votes in Parliament and used them to thwart key transport bills or trade union legislation, there would rightly be an uproar. If Tesco had their own parliamentary caucus who voted against minimum wage increases and greater employee protection rights, people would march on Westminster with burning torches to evict the voice of the Evil Corporations. And yet when the Church of England enjoys the exact same privilege – twenty six Lords Spiritual who sit in the House of Lords and exert influence over our democracy in the name of the established church – there is a deafening silence.

Well not quite. The one group of people making any kind of noise about this state of affairs are the Church of England’s own Parliamentary Team, who thought that it would be in great taste to post this cartoon on their official Twitter feed today:

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When Is The Islamic State Not The Islamic State?

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Rather than tackle an intractable issue and mortal enemy, our superficial politicians are quibbling over the language we use in describing it

When is the Islamic State in Syria – ISIS – not the Islamic State in Syria?

Apparently the answer to this question is: since a couple of days ago, when the hive mind of lazy politician groupthink decided that we must bend and warp journalistic practice – and the English language itself – in order to make it clearer that the majority of us do not condone the activities of that brutal, backward-looking group of primitive fundamentalists.

My attention has been elsewhere lately – freshly returned from a relaxing and eventful trip to Greece but otherwise more focused on domestic than foreign affairs. So it was surprising to find my attention drawn back by the furious row between the government and the BBC over exactly how the public service broadcaster should refer to the nascent medieval kingdom seeking to establish itself in the middle east.

The Spectator is – quite rightly – having none of it:

‘Isis’ is an acronym of Islamic State in Syria. ‘Isil’ – an acronym of Islamic State in the Levant. Isil is the better translation of the group’s Arabic name al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – where ‘Sham’ represents greater Syria or ‘the Levant’ as we would say in English.

As for ‘Daesh’, it has the small propaganda advantage of reminding Arabic speakers of Daes (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) and Dahes (‘one who sows discord’). But beyond that childish word association it is no help at all, for ‘Daesh’ is just the Arabic abbreviation of al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham – or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

All the euphemisms politicians demand we must use to avoid calling Islamic State ‘Islamic State’ therefore call Islamic State ‘Islamic State’. How can they not, for that is its name? And it is no more up to outsiders to change a group’s name than it is up to you to change the names of your acquaintances. Assuming the politicians know what they are doing, they must believe that many voters will not know what ‘Isil’ and ‘Isis’ stand for, or only Arabic speakers will understand the meaning of ‘Daesh’. In other words, they are relying on ignorance and hoping to foster ignorance too.

Never mind the obvious undesirability of government telling the state-owned broadcaster what to report and how to report it – thus proving the central argument against government ownership of the media. Of far more concern is the fact that politicians – specifically our current generation of uncharismatic, uninspiring, superficial leaders – seem to believe that expending time and energy arguing about what to call the Islamic State is more important than doing anything about ISIS in the real world.

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Headline London Debate: Should Britain Make Eid And Diwali Public Holidays?

Samuel Hooper London Live Headline London Eid Diwali Public Holiday 2

 

Yesterday, London Live TV’s Headline London lunchtime news programme covered the Eid celebrations taking place in the capital, and asked whether the UK government should make Eid (and the Hindu festival of Diwali) nationwide public holidays.

The idea was first raised in Parliament last week by Conservative MP Bob Blackman, in response to an online petition signed by more than 120,000 people. I vehemently disagreed with the proposal at the time, for the reasons set out here.

Semi-Partisan Sam was pleased to be invited to debate the issue with poet Mohamed “Mo Rhymes” Mohamed and political activist Peymana Assad on the Headline London panel. The debate was courteous and good-natured, which cannot often be said of debates on religion – but I believe my argument, founded on national unity, church/state separation and the rights of the individual won the day.

London Live’s website only shows the first part of the panel discussion, but the full segment is embedded here, via Semi-Partisan Sam’s YouTube channel:

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