Friday, 26 October 2018

How To Transform Catholic Education

Recommended reading for Catholic educators, this book is very much in the vein of Stratford Caldecott's excellent books such as Beauty in the Word. The emphasis is on *how* to transform Catholic education, so the books have suggestions on how to implement the Catholic vision. I think Peachey is especially strong here when he talks about work, using people like Josef Pieper and E. F. Schumacher to argue for the Catholic school as oasis of leisure in the middle of a desert of utilitarian and positivist ideology!

Saturday, 26 May 2018

The Serpent Returns

“In the war of ideas, it's the crudest & most simplified ideology that wins. During our own lifetimes we have seen great & highly civilized countries becoming infected by epidemics of ideological insanity, & whole populations being destroyed for the sake of some irrational slogan.” Christopher Dawson

1500 years ago St Patrick drove the serpent out of Ireland. The country was the warm beating heart of Christendom. Its people generous and devout and kind. Many might wonder if the serpent has returned now that Ireland has voted to repeal the 8th amendment. In ‘Goodbye to Catholic Ireland’ Mary Kenny explains how the vote to protect the unborn in 1983 was seen as part of the natural pro-natalist character of the Irish people. If anyone wondered how you change the fundamental character of a people within a generation the answer is now obvious. You help the economy to enjoy all the benefits of full consumer capitalism a la the Celtic Tiger, and you flood the media with liberal globalist propaganda. It helps also to have a Church utterly bereft of moral authority both because of historical child sexual abuse by members of the priesthood, and because it has itself embraced a relativist pluralism that no longer has the courage to proclaim the truth of Christ.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Tempest Part One

“The Watchman he lay dreaming

Of all things that can be

He dreamed the Titanic was sinking

Into the deep blue sea”

I recently heard the new releases of Bob Dylan’s ‘Born-Again’ era output (roughly 79-83), and realised in what should perhaps be a bit of a ‘duh’ moment, that whilst the overtly confessional Christianity of those records has faded, his output certainly from the early 90s onwards, has been more or less informed in its more transcendent moments by the Christian mythos, which does not mean that every good thing he’s written since then shows signs of this, but a close listening to the best of it certainly confirms the thesis.

I realise this is actually against a lot of the received wisdom - a recent Guardian article about the film of the Born-again years ‘Trouble No More’ basically says he had 3 years of going weird then forgot about all that Christian stuff. That suits the Guardian narrative. It’s also nonsense.

I would argue that a work like ‘Tempest’ from the 2012 album of the same name is a powerful meditation on the last judgement, revelation, faith and the creative act which itself is entirely incomprehensible outside of the Biblical tradition which informs it through and through.

In this song Dylan references perhaps a key figure from his own song mythos, the Watchman. The song All Along the Watchtower, which Dylan plays at the end of every live show, is itself a Biblically inspired fragment whose sudden abrupt ending and haunting wordplay present us with an apocalyptic scenario. “The hour is getting late” reminds us that the end is approaching. The two riders approaching and the Lords on the Watchtower echo a passage from Isaiah 21:5-9:

“Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”

But whilst the earlier work clearly uses Biblical imagery to create an imaginative environment which acts as a foil to the ‘false talk’ of the joker and the thief, the perspective is still very much a negative one - a rejection of the falsity of modernity in line with ‘Gates of Eden’, but unable to envision an alternative. ‘The wind began to howl’, and in the face of this approaching tempest they remain mute.

On the other hand, in ‘Tempest’ 44 years later, Dylan fleshes out this skeletal narrative with straightforwardly Christian imagery and he does it masterfully. I believe it’s his best work of the last 20 years. I have to add a caveat here: he does reweave an older song to make this one - it is of course a traditional folk standard - The Titanic, a version was recorded by the Carter Family. But that version is more straightforwardly moralistic, less mysterious, than Bob’s, even though there is a moral core to Bob’s version.

Before we get to the repetition of the Watchman imagery, I want to mention a few key themes. First, we’ve already seen that All Along the Watchtower envisions an apocalyptic scenario. Here we are taken deeper into the meaning of apocalypse - a Greek word meaning ‘unveiling’. This is evident in the way the veils are lifted and truth is seen in all sorts of ways in this song. But most directly:

The veil was torn asunder

'Tween the hours of twelve and one

No change, no sudden wonder

Could undo what had been done

Or the Captain reading the Book of Revelation in the gloom, his cup filling with tears. Or take this passage:

Brother rose up 'gainst brother

In every circumstance

They fought and slaughtered each other

In a deadly dance

We can see from these passages why Dylan is interested in the Titanic story: it provides a narrative universe within which to explore the question of imminent doom, judgement and the meaning of one’s actions in the light of eternity. In Matthew 10 we find:

The brother also shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the son: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and shall put them to death. And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.

And when they shall persecute you in this city, flee into another. Amen I say to you, you shall not finish all the cities of Israel, till the Son of man come.

Therefore fear them not. For nothing is covered that shall not be revealed: nor hid, that shall not be known. That which I tell you in the dark, speak ye in the light: and that which you hear in the ear, preach ye upon the housetops. “

Dylan alludes to the end times throughout the song, but those times are not considered from a distance but rather seem suddenly all about us - who can deny that part of the horror of the imagery of brother slaughtering brother derives from its familiarity to us from the events of the last century?

Nothing is covered that shall not be revealed

In Tempest, the Watchman is asleep. This is a delightfully comic image which helps to drive the tragedy. The Watchman had one job, and failed. But also the Watchman stands for all those who are appointed, either through their official position, or through their own work, guardians of culture, morality and reason, those whose job is to ‘stay awake and watch’:

(Matt 24:42: “Watch therefore: for ye know not on what day your Lord cometh. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what watch the thief was coming, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken through. Therefore be ye also ready: for in an hour that ye think not the Son of man cometh.”).

They have succumbed to the forces of the unconscious. And as a result the people are also dragged down into the dark depths. What are the consequences for an age when those whose mission is to be guardians and prophets have failed in their duty? The agony of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane also contains warnings. Discovering his disciples asleep when he returns he says to them “Could you not stay awake and watch with me for even one hour?” The chief mark of the modern age is the choice to anaesthetise and to numb, to fall asleep rather than bear the burden of being awake in the spirit.

As Deacon Lawrence tells us in this post on 'Leaf by Niggle' "Throughout His ministry Jesus reminds us of the importance of preparing for the Kingdom that is to come." So, like Tolkien in Leaf by Niggle, Dylan also takes on this task - he becomes the Watchman, and in his dreamlike vision of the sinking Titanic he alerts us to the truth.

Which is partly the reason why the Watchman's dreams are telling him the truth - he dreams the Titanic is sinking! Normally our dreams are odd fantasies. This inversion of normality adds to the sense of doom and foreboding. The Watchman is trying to tell people in his dream but can’t get the message across.

Some of the most moving moments of the song derive from the actions of the people on the ship. In part 2 I will look at them in more detail.

Thursday, 11 January 2018


“We’re all really worried about you” an old friend recently told me in a message. What had happened? Had I contracted a nasty disease? No. Had I developed mental health issues and become depressed? Not as far as I’m aware. Had I suddenly expressed a desire to give up everything and run off to Rio with some woman of easy virtue I’d met in Ipswich or somewhere? Definitely not.

What had happened was that since I’d become a father and returned to the Church I had started to try and live and witness to my faith in a more solid way. I had started to openly express the view on social media that abortion was wrong. For simply asking for arguments on Facebook to support the view that abortion was wrong, for an A Level revision guide I was writing, I was told by one old friend they were going to ‘stage an intervention’ (presumably akin to the drug addict ones where they gather round and confront you with your addiction) on me. Another person (not someone I’ve ever liked to be honest) called me a nasty bigot and said that my revision guide was probably shit. Others (Australians so we’ll cut them some slack) started commenting about the sex abuse scandal in the Church and essentially said I had no right to an opinion on such matters as I had never been pregnant. “Don’t like it, don’t do it” she said, like that was an argument. A lot of people got very inflamed.

Which is odd. If you have no right to an opinion about something unless you’ve actually undergone it, then most people have no right to an opinion on anything. Or perhaps they meant it in the soft sense that you are not allowed to have an opinion on something unless you can potentially experience it. Now it seems fair that I am very ill-qualified to talk about the experience of racism against black people in England. I would hesitate to pay much attention to something I said on that. But I could still extrapolate from that to make a general moral point about racism. Equally, I am never going to actually experience having a baby within me which I don’t want, but it is absurd to think that because of this I cannot discuss the morality of abortion. In fact, I would have even more claim than this anyway, as I someday may have contributed 50% of the genetic make up of the being whose life is in question.

I’m actually still smiling at the absurdity of “don’t like it, don’t do it” as an argument for anything other than not going on a scary rollercoaster, or eating a particularly hot chilli. It amply illustrates the emotivism which underlies most of what passes for moral discussion now. Either there are some things which we believe it is possible to say ‘you should do this’ or ‘you shouldn’t do this’, or we just cannot talk about what ‘should’ happen at all, in which case, my Australian friend needs to quit telling me I shouldn’t be allowed to have an opinion on abortion.

So if you say “we’re all really worried about you”, what you should really say is “we’re sorry you appear to have gone backward and rejected the only sane position on this issue - there is nothing to discuss until you fall back into line with our view - and until then I will express my arrogance and disdain for your bigotry as concern for you”. That would be much more honest.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, 2 November 2017

The Philokalia

"If our intellect is inexperienced in the art of watchfulness it at once begins to entertain whatever impassioned fantasy appears in it, and plies it with illicit questions and responds to it illicitly. Then our own thoughts are conjoined to the demonic fantasy, which waxes and burgeons until it appears lovely and delectable to the welcoming and despoiled intellect. The intellect then is deceived in much the same way as lambs when a stray dog comes into the field in which they happen to be: in their innocence they often run towards the dog as though it were their mother, and their only profit in coming near it is that they pick up something of its stench and foulness. In the same way our thoughts run ignorantly after demonic fantasies that appear in our intellect and, as I said, the two join together and one can see them plotting to destroy the city of Troy like Agamemnon and Menelaus. For they plot together the course of action they must take in order to bring about, in practice and by means of the body, that purpose which the demons have persuaded them is sweet and delectable. In this Way sins are produced in the soul: and hence the need to bring out into the open what is in our hearts. "

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Knowing What We Don't Know

There is a phrase often attributed to Socrates in which he says
"I know that I know nothing"
Usually this is interpreted as having the wisdom to realise one's own lack of knowledge. It is not necessarily a quality teachers are known for - after all, we are meant to be masters of our subject, but I want to argue that the best teachers exemplify this attitude in the practice of their craft.

Let's call the above-mentioned wisdom 'epistemic humility'. It is surely a very good quality for a teacher to cultivate. Keats called for the poet to be in a state of 'negative capability' - "that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”. I think the teacher can learn a bit from the poet.

Take for instance the way in which a little knowledge can bewitch you and stop you asking some fundamental questions which might impact on the learning in a lesson. You may then think 'all I have to do is impart this knowledge and the job is done'. This Gradgrindian approach can destroy and disenchant the learning process for the student. I have been astonished at how much teaching the EPQ has put me out of my comfort zone - I cannot 'spoon feed' the student the information they need; I cannot suggest or lead them at all - and yet I have seen the genuine excitement in them when they realise they really can explore their chosen topic how they like.

We need to get some of this enchantment and wonder in the learning process back. A target-driven culture is not best suited to generating this kind of attitude towards learning.
Do targets act as that totalising force mentioned earlier? How might we cultivate an epistemic humility about students? Clearly, having expectations and goals for students is important, but what kind of goals, and how central to the education process do we make them? Some consider that target-setting in the way it is currently done is counter-productive - there are so many factors which influence these results that they are a blunt tool when it comes to measuring learning.

Abraham Maslow said "It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." Reductive philosophies generate reductive methods - and these in turn produce students unlikely to be fulfilling their true potential as human beings. If we ask the question of what is knowledge for, or what is learning for, then we find that there have been traditional answers much richer and fuller than we are currently used to seeing.

A Catholic perspective on education takes into account the spiritual realities and forces that come into play when the parent and other educators seek to help the student flourish in the best way possible. If this responsibility is taken seriously, it puts the Catholic school entirely at odds with most of the rest of modern schooling in the West. The thoroughgoing utilitarian and atomistic spirit of modern education needs to be viewed with suspicion by the Catholic school. In The Way of Beauty, Stratford Caldecott argues that Catholic institutions can draw on the Classical tradition of the Trivium, in which Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were studied.

Caldecott argues that when the ultimate goal of the human being is to grow towards the True, the Beautiful and the Good,  this produces an educational vision rooted in a profound wonder and humility, a sense that we are on a journey together in which no-one has all the answers, but in which all are seekers after a common good, a pearl of great price. That sounds like wisdom to me.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Why I Am Not A Liberal (and why that does not necessarily mean I am a bigot)

In response to previous conversations both on and offline I've decided to write up what I see as some of the key problems with liberalism. As the dominant political and moral ideology of modernity, liberalism underlies most of the things we take for granted in the West, such as individualism, freedom of speech, the concept of rights and duties, and even colours the way we view such things as freedom itself. Therefore, in criticising liberalism I am not aligning myself with a viewpoint either left or right on the political spectrum: it should be obvious to even the most casual observer of modern politics that liberalism, and neo-liberal economics, has been the underlying assumption of parties across the political spectrum for the last 30 years.

By criticising liberalism it should be obvious some of the things I am not doing. Firstly, I am not making judgements on individuals - that should go without saying. We have to be able to evaluate and compare different world views and say what we think their shortcomings are without fear of hurting people's feelings. If you personally feel uncomfortable because your worldview is under scrutiny - and as a theist in a predominantly atheistic society, I am very familiar with this - then you need to find out what underpins your view and try to defend it rationally, or at least point out where you view the criticism of liberalism to fail.

As it turns out, in modern discourse we are used to having mutually clashing but ultimately unresolvable differences of opinions on political and ethical issues, and this is actually one of the ways in which the liberal assumption of relativism actually undermines such discourse.

Secondly, and again it should go without saying, I am not aligning myself with 'alt-right' or nationalist views - such views may share with mine a fundamental suspicion of modern liberalism, but in their obsessions with race and identity and their hope in demotic solutions to societal problems they are actually the mirror of the far left they claim to despise. As a Catholic Integralist (explanation later), I am as incapable of subscribing to such views as I would be to a Marxist philosophy.

Finally, in doing this critique I am well aware of the problems with talking about a general 'liberalism' without being more specific. There is of course a big difference between classical liberalism in the tradition of Locke, and more modern forms of liberalism. But here's the thing. When you take the starting point of the Enlightenment project out of which liberalism grew you are accepting a narrative whereby the older forms of religious and ethical decision-making were 'rolled back' to create a 'neutral' public space within which rational discourse was the sole arbiter. Religious and ethical issues are then relegated to the private sphere, and could make no public claim on others. Inevitably, earlier forms of liberalism which were still strongly grounded in Christian ethical frameworks had more robust defences of things like virtue etc., but as time went on these key elements eroded away - liberalism got 'thinner'. This development was inevitable in the light of the founding assumptions of the Enlightenment project. Today it leads to absurdities like Japanese sex robots.

So what are the key problems with modern liberalism? Three:
1. The key value of tolerance
2. The myth of Progress
3. The idea of freedom as 'freedom-from'

1. In conversation with liberals and in my own research I can find no higher liberal value than tolerance. I guess it goes with equality, but I would argue it is more fundamental than equality. If you are astute you will notice that tolerance is actually a key Christian principle. Jesus said 'judge not, lest ye be judged', the emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in parables like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son is clear. Whether Christians have always lived up to these principles in practice is a different matter. But tolerance here is tolerance of the person, not tolerance of sin. Christians have always recognised the importance of 'love the sinner, hate the sin'. In other words the Christian principle of tolerance only makes sense within the wider framework of Christian ethics in which humans are fundamentally flawed, and can do nothing without God's grace. In which God is a just but merciful judge.

What liberalism has done is strip away this framework and keep the bare principle of tolerance. 'Do what you will, as long as it harms no-one'. This is nowhere more keenly felt than in the area of sexual ethics. On this simple principle, the use of child sex robots is incapable of condemnation. Liberalism alone cannot tell you what to think about such cases, other than - 'hey man, what he does in the privacy of his own bedroom is up to him'.

So my main reason tolerance is a problematic value is that it is too negative to have any real moral force, and it relies on profoundly flawed utilitarian principles. What we need is a much more robust 'thicker' moral framework which doesn't view morality simply in terms of whether people have maximised pleasure and minimised pain.

Ok then, you might say, liberal traditions don't just go on bare principles of tolerance but also compassion, equality, etc. My problem here is that these are essentially imports from the religious background out of which liberalism grew, shorn of all their transcendent trappings. Why treat people compassionately? Because humans are fundamentally valuable. Why are humans fundamentally valuable? Because they're human. Hang on, you've just begged the question. That's not a reason, simply an assertion. It's not even wrong.

Ok, so there's a deeper problem going on here. Someone more eloquent than me will have to uncover it; here is a passage from a modern classic which explores this question called After Virtue, by Alasdair MacIntyre:

"My own critique of liberalism derives from a judgement that the best type of human life, that in which the tradition of the virtues is most adequately embodied, is lived by those engaged in constructing and sustaining forms of community directed towards the shared achievement of those common goods without which the ultimate human good cannot be achieved. Liberal political societies are characteristically committed to denying any place for a determinate conception of the human good in their public discourse, let alone allowing that their common life should be grounded in such a conception. On the dominant liberal view, government is to be neutral as between rival conceptions of the human good, yet in fact what liberalism promotes is a kind of institutional order that is inimical to the construction and sustaining of the types of communal relationship required for the best kind of human life.

This critique of liberalism should not be interpreted as a sign of any sympathy on my part for contemporary conservatism. That conservatism is in too many ways a mirror image of the liberalism that it professedly opposes. Its commitment to a way of life structured by a free market economy is a commitment to an individualism as corrosive as that of liberalism. And where liberalism by permissive legal enactments has tried to use the power of the modern state to transform social relationships, conservatism by prohibitive legal enactments now tries to use that same power for its own coercive purposes."

2. I guess it might be possible to be a liberal without being a progressive, but I'm not quite sure how that would work. Modern liberalism is profoundly wedded to the ideal of progressivism. We are moving away from a dark, superstitious past, to a bright, rational future. Yes, we may have blips like Trump, but we will triumph in the end. This is the liberal myth of progress. It's not too hard to see how the Enlightenment project gave birth to this myth. In rejecting religious golden ages in the past, they projected their golden age into the future, thus modernity was born. I know of no better pin prick to the absurd balloon of this optimism than the words of Theodor Adorno: "Progress, seen clearly, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb."

3. The third problem with liberalism is perhaps the deepest. It is where it makes a decisive break from its Christian background. This is the view of freedom as 'freedom-from' things, as opposed to the traditional and Christian view of freedom as 'freedom to effortlessly choose the good'. On the liberal view freedom is merely the absence of external coercion - liberation from the chains of whatever happens to be the oppressor.

Reverend Jacques Philippe wrote in his phenomenal work Interior Freedom, “To achieve true interior freedom we must train ourselves to accept, peacefully and willingly, plenty of things that seem to contradict our freedom. This means consenting to our personal limitations, our weaknesses, our powerlessness, this or that situation that life imposes on us, and so on… the situations that really make us grow are precisely those that we do not control.”

It is by training ourselves to accept these limitations, external and internal, that we achieve freedom - when we do this, our inner peace and calm cannot be affected by whatever situation we are in - we can freely choose to do the good. Mere absence of coercion is never going to be enough to guarantee that someone can do this.

An analogy for this is when we learn a skill such as riding a bike, or drawing, or playing a musical instrument. We don't just pick up the flute and start playing it like a maestro first lesson, we have to discipline ourselves over time, and subject ourselves to the authority of another to learn it. Then one day we pick it up, and we are truly free in our playing.

So, I hope to have shown why I cannot embrace liberalism. Not because I'm some nasty bigot or just like Donald Trump Jr (!), but because I find it philosophically incoherent and thin. A Catholic Integralist believes that ethical and political decisions cannot be based on an individualist, relativist world view, and that they must appeal to notions of virtue, robust definitions of the common good defended in the public square, and a view of the world that is sacramental, in which the inherent worth of the individual is down to their creation in the imago dei, the free and loving gift of a creator God.

Two excellent books which explore these questions are After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre and The Politics of Virtue by Adrian Pabst and John Milbank.