Whenever Natalie reads something in a magazine that she thinks I’ll find interesting, she leaves it out somewhere obvious for me to find. And so I stumbled this morning upon a review in the Guardian of Swedish philosopher Martin Hagglund’s book ‘Why mortality makes us free‘. It’s “a sweepingly ambitious synthesis of philosophy, spirituality and politics”, apparently (the book, not the review), which argues that it is not believing in the glorious afterlife promised by many religions that makes our lives on Earth so full of meaning. To be honest, though, this benefit of what Hagglund calls “secular faith” is far from news to me. Or to my fellow humanists around the world. Continue reading
There have been a slew of books in the past few years promoting what I would tentatively term a kind of ‘militant atheism’. The sensitively titled ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins is a prime example, though authors such as the late Christopher Hitchens and others have also contributed heavily to the genre. In fact, Hitchens termed himself an ‘anti-theist’, which is perhaps a more appropriate description of the message that these writers – and organisations such as the British Humanist Association – espouse.
While not an overly religious person myself, I have no objection to those of faith. And even as a physicist I am tending towards the view that science cannot explain everything and should perhaps stop pretending that it can. But I am highly dubious of any individuals or organisations, faith-based or otherwise, that try tell people what they should think, what they should do and how they should behave.
So it was with great delight that I stumbled upon Francis Spufford’s book ‘Unapologetic’. Short enough to be read over the course of a couple of lazy afternoons, it is a very personal – and well-written – account of the author’s relationship with Christianity. While it does not seek to defend Christian ideas, it does – as Spufford points out – spring to the defence of ‘Christian emotions – of their intelligibility, of their grown-up dignity’. And it does so with style, wit and grace.
At the heart of the author’s narrative is the ‘Human Propensity to F**k Things Up’ (HPtFtU).* We all, he argues, screw things up from time to time. Usually, we can recover from these calamities fairly quickly, but sometimes they have more profound or far-reaching consequences. This doesn’t make us ‘bad’ or ‘evil’. It just makes us human. We’re bombarded constantly with images and ideas of how we ‘should’ be, which inevitably make us feel like pathetic excuses for human beings**, but we need to accept that we are who we are. We need, in short, to embrace our HPtFtU.
From here, Spufford takes us on an almost ‘stream of consciousness’*** exploration through his own spiritual and religious experience. It’s not really an argument ‘for’ or ‘against’ religion or the existence of God, but rather the author’s own personal voyage of discovery into what he himself describes as not ‘the kind of thing you can know’. I’ll resist the temptation to go into more detail or to quote my favourite bits, though, because (a) the narrative – and, indeed, the topic – doesn’t lend itself to being summarised, (b) there’s no index and I can’t find the bits I want to quote, and (c) you really should read it for yourself.
I suspect that this book will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yes, it does meander a little. And yes, it does resort to pop culture references a little more frequently than is perhaps necessary. But it is an intensely personal account of something that clearly makes up a large part of who the author is, so I think we can allow him to write it how he wants. And while Spufford doesn’t try to get us to share his beliefs, merely to understand them, I can’t help but feel that his conclusions resonate for all of us, theists, atheists, agnostics and anti-theists alike. We are all going to f**k things up from time to time. But that shouldn’t mean that we approach life tentatively or with trepidation. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he says. ‘Far more can be mended than you know.’
* If you’re looking for a nice cuddly book to read aloud to elderly relatives, don’t choose this one. It’s a bit sweary. Or rather, it’s written how most of us speak most of the time…
** Or this might just be me.
*** Most of the book, the author mentions in the notes at the end, was written without much in the way of research in a Cambridge branch of a well-know chain of coffee shops. (Don’t we all want to write like that?)
This will be the last Dublin-related post, I promise. It’s just that I don’t get out as much as I would like, so a weekend away gives me plenty to write about. Well, I guess I always have plenty to write about, so perhaps what I should have said is that a weekend away gives me something interesting to write about.
Anyway, I wanted to tell you a little bit about our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland (part of the Anglican communion, if you’re interested). There’s also a catholic cathedral, Christ Church, up the road. I did mean to visit that, too, in the interests of balance and general comparison, but got distracted by the opportunity for some last minute book shopping. Sorry.
I won’t go into the history of the cathedral, as you can read about that on its official website or on Wikipedia. What I wanted to tell you about, though, is the thing that I love about all churches and cathedrals. And that is how they make me feel. Because while I’m not a particularly religious person, places of worship like St. Patrick’s fill me with a deep sense of serenity that stays with me for days afterwards.
I don’t know whether it’s the cavernous size of the building, or the striking architecture or the sheer mass of stone that makes up the place. It might be the profound silence. Or perhaps it’s the sense of history, a reflection of all those who have gone before. Whatever it is, it gives me the ability to shut out my everyday worries and to think more clearly about the things that matter.
Before I risk sliding into some kind of spiritual epiphany, lets look at some photos. I only had a little camera with me, I’m afraid, and no tripod, so the pictures are a little grainy. But hopefully they’ll help you to get some sense of the place. Here’s the nave leading towards the altar.
And here’s the altar itself. The seats to either side are where the choir sits. I guess it’s deliberate, but I really liked the way the altar was lit up so brightly while the rest of the cathedral was in comparative darkness. Like a beacon on a distant hill top or a lighthouse shining out over stormy seas. (OK, that’s perhaps too much, now…)
The choir stalls used to serve as a chapel for the ‘Most Illustrious Order of the Knights of Saint Patrick’. Now that’s what I call a name. The flags are those of the families of the Knights of the Order. Apparently, the order still exists, though the last surviving Knight died in 1974.
(This lack of new members might be because they’d have to swear an oath to the Queen of England, which – for entirely understandable reasons – Irish people tend to be a bit funny about. The other question, of course, is why my family doesn’t have a flag. I don’t have an answer for that, though, I’m afraid.)
Here’s one of the smaller transepts. I think that’s the right name, but don’t quote me on it. I loved the window, but what especially caught my attention was the vacuum cleaner in the corner. I really wouldn’t want to be the one who has to do the dusting here.
And here’s the view back down the nave. You can’t really see the colours very well on the photo, but it was like standing under a multicoloured tree with the late autumn sun shining through the leaves. Which is, again, no doubt entirely deliberate.
There were a great many memorials around the edge of the cathedral and I nearly wandered straight past this one. But I stopped to read it for some reason and it instantly made me very sad.
Over a hundred and fifty years ago and we still haven’t learned the lesson. Perhaps we could all do with thinking a little more clearly about the things that really matter.