Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: October 2012

Can We Be Enchanted by God?

Why did not the Risen One reveal himself to his enemies in his full glory in order to show that it is God who is victorious? Why did he only manifest himself to his disciples? Jesus’ answer is mysterious and profound. The lords says: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

This means that the Risen One must be seen, must also be perceived by the heart, in a way that God may take up his abode within us. The Lord does not appear as a thing. He desires to enter our lives, and therefore his manifestation is a manifestation that implies and presupposes an open heart. Only in this way do we see the Risen One.

Benedict XVI from The Apostles

The natural question for any sceptic is ‘Why does God not reveal himself?’ It is a clear and logical question – put another way ‘Why all the mystery?’

Part of the answer can be found simply by imagining what such a revelation would mean. At some level it would simply be the end of everything we know, nothing would be the same. Our freedom, our will, our personality, everything we think has value would fade to nothing. Whatever the absence of God means it certainly allows for a certain kind of being which his presence would end.

Part of that being, as Pope Benedict suggests, is being open to having God be present within us. The very opposite of his being present before us. This is a different kind of submission, not cowed or awed, but enchanted by God.

There is Humility in Us

We do not have to acquire humility. There is humility in us – only we humiliate ourselves before false gods.

 Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

How well this point is put. We worship what we lower ourselves to obtain:

  • Money – doing a job we dislike, but which pays well.
  • Power – pandering to our political bosses, even when they ask us to do things that are dishonest.
  • Fame – drinking in the successes and failures of celebrities, even when we know its all empty.

We are creatures who pride ourselves on our autonomy, our creativity and our many gifts. We resent the thought that all those gifts are simply gifts from God and that they can only be respected by being returned to God in service.

What’s Wrong with Welfare Dependency?

Discussions about dependency and welfare dependency are full of illogicality and moral confusion.

Within the political system the term ‘welfare dependency’ has become code for a bad thing which is damaging the social fabric and the moral character of the poor. Everyone seems to be against welfare dependency. But what is wrong with dependency?

A dependency – in this context – is a need for help, from another person. Its opposite would be independence. But is dependency bad and independence good? Obviously not. If we do not need each other then we do not belong. If we could live without love, support, education and assistance we would be living in a bubble. As Aristotle puts it:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be a beast or a god. He is no part of a state.  (Politics 1.2)

So need for others – dependency in this first sense – is not bad, it is good.

Of course there are many ways in which we can get help. It is not the needing of help that is the problem, it is the threat of powerlessness, slavery or abuse which can make dependency risky.

Some dependencies are secured by love. Children need parents, and their shared love acts to keep that need safe. Loving parents protect, nurture and support their child to develop. Although, as we know, even something as beautiful and as important as family love can become damaged or twisted.

Some dependencies are secured by justice. Our rights, private property and the law, act to ensure that we are not taken advantage of in our dealings with others. Civil society is full of institutions that, at their best, enable us to get what we need, without being harmed or abused.

However injustice, inequality and poverty always seem to develop in every society. It is poverty that creates the most toxic dependencies. If I cannot secure what I need then I become dependent on others in a way that seems to guarantee abuse – begging, slavery, exploitation and oppression.

It is for this reason that modern societies have developed welfare systems. Their purpose is to create systems of mutual assistance that enable people to avoid toxic dependency on others and to replace it with a healthy welfare dependency. Welfare systems create healthy dependencies when:

  • People are enabled to get enough to meet their needs – not too little, not too much
  • People get what they need as a matter of right – not by charity
  • People are treated with dignity and respect at every stage – not stigmatised or treated as less worthy

The problem with welfare in the UK, therefore, is not that it creates dependency. Dependency is good and inevitable. The problem is that the system is badly designed. It is certainly less toxic than a system with no welfare provision – which creates abject poverty and corrosive dependencies and beggary. But it is more toxic than an effective system of universal, guaranteed income security – ideally provided through an integrated tax and benefit system with no visible stigma.

If we are to avoid further savage attacks on the poor – in the name of reduced welfare dependency – we need to move to a universal system to which we would then all feel connected.

Our Gifts Are Just Loans

The Pharisees were people who relied on their own strength to be virtuous.

Humility consists in knowing that in what we call ‘I’ there is no source of energy by which we can rise.

Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed. Everything without exception which is in me is absolutely valueless; and, among the gifts which have come to me from elsewhere, everything which I appropriate becomes valueless immediately I do so.

Simone Weil from Gravity and Grace

Weil is always profound and challenging. Here she is challenging the very notion that the self – in any respect – can even take its own qualities for granted. When I say ‘this is me’ or ‘this is mine’ I kill the very thing I try to hold on to.

This thought has both political and spiritual consequences.

If I accept that what I might take to me mine was in fact given to me, then I realise I can only use it by also giving it away. I cannot hold on to anything and I cannot look within me to find more. Everything comes to me from outside, and it can only be properly valued when we give it back again.

This is also relevant to our social thinking. Some people claim that I am entitled to keep what I earn, what I own or what I am given. But of course I am entitled to nothing; we are given everything: our characters, our opportunities, our energies, our judgement. To claim, for instance, that I am entitled to more than some one else because I am cleverer than them is – from this perspective – perverse. We wrongly try to claim ownership of our intelligence as if that wasn’t in fact also a gift, and then we also want the further gift of more money and power than someone else.

This is what Weil means – by appropriating our gifts we make them valueless – they are just loans and they die if we do not give them back.

This thought is also found in the Georgian, Shota Rustaveli’s words:

What you’ve given away is yours.

Telling Truth and Fighting Slander

…for slander is a most grievous thing: in it the wrongdoers are two, and the person who suffers wrong is one. The slanderer does a wrong in that he speaks against one who is not present, the other in that he is persuaded of the thing before he gets certain knowledge of it, and he who is not present when the words are spoken suffers wrong in the matter thus – both because he has been slandered by the one and because he has been believed to be bad by the other. 

Herodotus

One of the earliest childhood rhymes we learn is:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. 

But as we know this only part of the truth. Sometimes sticks and stones may hurt much less than the words that we use to hurt others.

Kant observed that lying, telling untruths was wrong not just because we hurt another person, but also because it is an attack on the possibility of truth for all of us. Each lie blinds us, both the lier himself, the person he lies to and everyone then drawn into an understanding that has been viciously twisted.

Slander is even worse because it mixes lying with malice and, as we know, there is no guarantee that a lie will be discovered.

The lies of the powerful write our history and drive the greatest crimes. Joseph Goebbel’s assertion that you simply need to repeat the lie enough for it to be believed is all too credible.

How do we react to the power of the lie and the evil of slander?

It is difficult to judge. St James wisely observes:

But the human tongue can be tamed by no man. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

We know he’s right and the temptation to gossip, blame and deceive ourselves as much as others can be overwhelming. We must begin by learning self-discipline in this regard.

But is there not also a danger that waiting simply for justice to arise, staying quiet, is also rooted less in a sense of justice and more in a lack of courage?

I was in Adelaide for the last two weeks and outside my bedroom window was a great piece of graffiti:

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will always save me

Words too must be used in the cause of justice, truth and love. Finding the right words is difficult, finding the right time to speak even more so.

As I look back at my own life so far I think I have learned one thing: speak truth to power. It is often those who are most powerful who need to hear the truth, and often those around them will do everything to disguise the truth from them. Five truthful words to a politician may be more effective than five thousand words to a civil servant. And the five thousand words to civil servants may suck the life out of you.

When you find (as I have done) that you are repeatedly banging your head against a wall – just stop –  then find another way.

Christ instructed us:

Be as innocent as doves, but as wise as serpents

Sometimes the silence of listening, waiting and understanding must be matched by an ability to say the right thing, at the right time to the right person.

The Star Within Us

When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
At the grocers’ all slipping and pushing.
Where a tin of halvah, coffee-flavoured,
is the cause of a human assault wave
by a crowd heavy laden with parcels:
each one his own king, his own camel.

Nylon bags, carrier bags, paper cones,
caps and neckties all twisted up sideways.
Reek of vodka and resin and cod,
orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples.
Floods of faces, no sign of pathway
toward Bethlehem, shut off by blizzard.

And the bearers of moderate gifts
leap on buses and jam all the doorways,
disappear into courtyards that gape,
though they know that there’s nothing inside there:
not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her,
round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold.

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas.

That’s what they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires.

Snow is falling: not smoking but sounding
chimney pots on the roof, every face like a stain.
Herod drinks. Every wife hides her child.
He who comes is a mystery: features
are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may
not be quick to distinguish the stranger.

But when drafts through the doorway disperse
the thick mist of the hours of darkness
and a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that’s Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it’s right there:
                                               a star.

December 24, 1971 by Joseph Brodsky from A Part of Speech


Internal Institutions

The individual and groupings of people, have to learn that they cannot reform society in reality, nor deal with others as reasonable people, unless the individual has learned to locate and allow for the various patterns of coercive institutions, formal and also informal, which rule him. No matter what his reason says, he will always relapse into obedience to the coercive agency while its pattern is within him.

Idries Shah from The Caravan of Dreams

Idries Shah is an interesting Islamic scholar whose book I found in a second-hand book store recently. This passage stood out for me partly because of his interesting and unusual use of the word institution.

I tend to use the term ‘institution’ in one of two senses. I talk about institutions in a wholly negative sense when I refer to those campuses, asylums and hospitals that began as efforts to segregate the poor and needy and then accelerated during the period of eugenic panic when the objective was to remove people from humanity by effective sterilisation or murder.

However the word institution also has a second, much more positive sense, meaning any kind of human or social creation that has been established and which has stood the test of time. For example, the monarchy is an institution; Bolton Wanderers is an institution.

So what does Idries Shah mean by the patterns of coercive institutions which we find within us? What relevance has this to the challenge of reforming society?

One pattern, that we find in many revolutionaries, is the double-edged belief that power is all about unjust rulership. The revolutionary identifies the ruler as unjust, and may manage to overthrow that ruler; but they then end up living out exactly the same pattern of injustice. Is it that the revolutionary secretly knows no other way to rule than by cruelty and injustice? The dominant pattern which inspired his revolt ends up ruling him and dictating his actions.

Do we see an institutional pattern in those who seek to reform systems of welfare. They may believe the system is unjust, patronising and disempowering. So they seek to shift power – reorganising funding, organising new supports, reforming structures. But all the time their actions seem to suggest that people themselves are not really capable of solving any problems for themselves. We have to do it all for them; they are not good enough or strong enough. The battle to defeat paternalism can quickly become very patronising.

Idries Shah is not suggesting reform is impossible, nor that these patterns can be eradicated. Rather it seems to me that he is suggesting that these are temptations that we need to watch for and overcome. Revolutionaries must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing the tyrant with greater tyranny. Welfare reformers must ask themselves how they will avoid replacing one type of control with another.

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