Archive for January, 2010

The Dumb Ox, Faith and Reason

January 31, 2010

Last Wednesday was the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. I like Aquinas. Superficially it is easy to see why. He was a Dominican; he was a philosopher; and he offered sound advice for living:

Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of good wine

What’s not to love?

But I think what really appeals to me about Thomas is his steadfast refusal to accept any of the stark oppositions we are often presented with in religious thought: either grace or nature, either faith or reason. The idea that human beings are faced with a choice between faith and reason, in particular, is currently widespread and does a lot of damage to people, no matter which side of the false dichotomy they choose. On the one hand we have Dawkins, Hitchens et. al. telling us that anyone who thinks seriously about the universe and the place of human beings within it is bound, on pain of intellectual dishonesty, to be an atheist. On the other hand, I’m afraid there are plenty of theists who will concede far too much to the new atheism. There are various ways religious people can hand over the stewardship of rationality to atheism. The most obvious is fideism – I have no reason to believe in God, but I will do anyway, and this believing against reason is a positively good thing. A more subtle way is pseudo-mysticism, the best example of which I have to hand is Karen Armstrong’s presentation of what she takes to be a case against Dawkins. She accuses Dawkins (correctly, as far as it goes) of misunderstanding mainstream religious belief. She then goes on to laud an apophatic tradition including pseudo-Dionysius and Maimonides, albeit with insufficient attention to the philosophical presuppositions of that tradition. So, Armstrong tells us, as though it made any sense:

We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.

This is wonderfully labour-saving. If we God-botherers aren’t actually supposed to believe that God exists, then we have no disagreement with Professor Dawkins. Game over – time for that bath and a glass of good wine. Alas, Armstrong doesn’t make any sense. I’ve no idea what a ‘limited’ concept of existence looks like. In fact I think that the above quote is just muddle; a fact which will quickly be recognised (and leapt upon gleefully) by Armstrong’s opponents. What is existence? Things exist if there are not none of them. There is nothing deep here. ‘Exists’ doesn’t mean something different when we use the word of God, as opposed to pomegranates, aardvarks, or prime numbers. That is because when I say that something exists I am not saying anything about it at all; I am stating nothing about its nature – rather I am saying that there is something (rather than nothing) to say something about. Now, the precise way I am putting this point is quite un-thomistic (it is drawing on the way existence has characteristically been thought about in analytic philosophy). But it supports what was essential to Thomas’ project at the beginning of the Summa Theologica. There are reasons to believing that God exists , but knowing that God exists is distinct from knowing what God is. In fact anything which could be the answer the questions which lead Thomas to claim the existence of ‘that which all call God’ must – so the argument goes – be completely beyond our ability to comprehend or conceptualise. Ultimately, then, there is mysticism aplenty in theistic belief. But, for Aquinas at least, it is mysticism to which we can be led by our rational faculties. And I like that.

So that was Christmas

January 10, 2010

A good proportion of London’s buses are currently sporting an advert informing us that ‘Creme Egg season is here : 1st Jan-4th April’. The fourth of April, this year, is Easter Sunday. So forty nine days of the Easter season are, apparently, out of bounds as regards Easter egg eating.
Christmas, meanwhile, ended after second vespers today. Even by the most pre-conciliar lights it ended on the 6th January. And there is in fact an English medieval custom which extends the season until Candlemas. In spite of all this, I was spotting thrown out Christmas trees from New Year’s Day onwards. My own tree went after evening prayer today, although I shall be keeping tinsel up until Candlemas, as a mini-protest against our growing cultural inability to extend celebrations. Christmas is prematurely celebrated from mid-October onwards, but you trying buying a Christmas pudding more than a couple of days after Christmas Day itself.
Now I am well aware that this might all be sounding a bit grumpy old manish. I do think, though, that this lopsided attitude towards the celebration of Christmas and Easter tells us something about the society in which we live. The reason Christmas Day is so widely pre-empted is largely economic. Christmas qua consumer capitalist buyfest is an important annual opportunity to sell things. Thus advertising, which is a more important part of our cultural life than we often realise, focuses on getting us to buy things in anticipation of the day. But once money has changed hands, there is no imperative for people to persist in a celebration which won’t make any money for anyone. Exactly the opposite: it is preferable that everyone get back to work as quickly as possible, so as not to interfere with the process of producing and consuming wealth. This is how religious festivals are kept in a world in which human beings exist for the economy, rather than the economy for human beings.

Epiphany(ish)

January 6, 2010


Depending on where one is in the world, the Feast of the Epiphany is either today, or was last Sunday. Happy Epiphany/ Happy Belated Epiphany to all my readers. Either way, an excellent opportunity for a spot of T.S. Eliot::

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.