Augustine and education

According to Alain de Botton the two great contributions of Augustine were:

1. His framing of the phrase ‘original sin’ to describe what happened in the Garden of Eden, and
2. His description of two great cities – the City of God and the City of Men.

The former is important, according to de Botton, because it recognises and allows for failure. We all need to know that we can and do fail. The latter is important because it recognises human limitations. We are not in Heaven but on a fraught earth.

de Botton is an atheist who holds great stead in the Christian doctrine of human sinfulness because it enables people to tell the truth about themselves. I don’t know how he justifies these contrasting positions except that he sees the collecting of wisdom as of value.

At our Speech Day at PLC Sydney our captain spoke of the pressures on young women to be perfect, and encouraged girls to be brave. It was an inspiring speech. The notion of accepting failure was her own choice of subject.

I am reading two books on Augustine at present and Blaise Pascal’s Pensees.
In our desire to assist our children to go well we can easily stymie them. Augustine and Pascal had a great knack for telling the truth about themselves. Augustine is a very confessional writer – noting his own failings candidly. Pascal draws attention to the tough things in his life – in all of our lives. It is freeing to read them.

Those of us who have spent quite a lot of time in schools know that not only do students sometimes lie, but their parents can even lie for them. We should not be surprised because it is easy for any of us all to: exaggerate our strengths, seek to protect those we love by altering stories, or organise understandings according to our view of things. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

One of the primary self-disciplines in life is to learn to tell the truth. Yes. Tell it in love rather than in a manner that exaggerates one’s own feeling of influence or power; and tell it gently – but tell it all the same. And it is so freeing.

This program isn’t working as well as I would have hoped…
I can see I was wrong here…
I actually think this worked…
Wow! this looks like it is going great…

In Simon Conway Morris’ (Professor of Paleobiology at Cambridge) book, The Runes of Evolution, he provides evidence that evolution is not random, and he postulates that there are mathematical frameworks, patterns, inevitabilites behind the universe. Perhaps this deep desire for truth-telling has the same source as Conway Morris’s postulates. Perhaps the same something that, to quote Frost, doesn’t love a wall.

We educate young persons, not just young utilities. We educate souls. And they need an underlying grace and honesty to develop a good sense of self.

Approaching Easter

In schools we need to be aware of the big ideas that underpin all that we do. At our intellectual core is a discussion about the relationship between knowledge and belief.

It is wonderful that the word ‘hope’ exists – that it is extant. The fact that it is extant itself is, I believe, significant. ‘Hope’ suggests that there is a link between our lived experiences and meaning and purpose in our lives. As educators, we wish to build purpose in students. We often have it quite strongly in ourselves.

As Easter approaches I note a few words about Nihilism: the notion that all academic work leads inevitably towards an absolute loss of meaning and hope.

I write it because I suspect that Nihilism plays a bigger part in our society that is presented popularly. In my office I speak with parents who have lost some hope after a messy divorce, or who have just received bad news from the doctor or who are impacted by suicide or a personal tragedy. You no doubt have contact with people in similar circumstances. There are temptations to despair. Nihilistic thoughts run through our culture. Intellectual frameworks that state that we are ultimately nothing support this despair.

There was a call this weak from a Queensland Rationalist that schools should focus only on ‘the rational’, being his definition of what is rational. Religion should be removed from education.

I note that the rationality of Nihilism is quite strong: if we are simply an evolved species with no Transcendent Being or Entity, no God, no ‘Other’ behind and beyond the Universe, then there is no reason to expect that anything we do is necessarily in line with what we might call the truth about the Universe. Just as we would not expect a blind worm or a fly with an arthropod eye to be able to form a theory of the Universe that is accurate (their senses and cognivity have not evolved to a degree whereby they could be considered to have formed a view of the Universe that corresponds to its complexities), we cannot also validly argue that our senses have reached the point where we can validly perceive all that is, to describe the truth. It is a conceit to think that our evolution of senses is complete. We have no externally reliable means of knowing the extent to which our senses detect all that is. Like the blind worm, we might not be able to sense important data. Further, because there are feasibly improved creatures in the future that could have evolved senses that identify things that we can’t currently identify, we can’t reasonably declare ourselves to have reached the evolutionary state where there are not more senses to develop. A physicalist evolutionary framework assumes we could develop further senses. This leads some philosophers (e.g., Vardy) to write about having views of truth that are coherent rather than correspondent: he thinks we can only work out a theory that coheres with elements of reality, not one that corresponds with reality.

Aristotle divided thinking into ‘knowledge’ and ‘belief’ and, despite the work of Barthes and Derrida, the popular frameworks of our western civilisations still rest on these categorical distinctives. The thought described in the paragraph above indicates everything may in fact be belief – that we can’t rely on empiricism to determine knowledge. Knowledge, by this reading, is a tentative thing. Why? Because we can’t guarantee that we have the capacities required to enact the empiricism accurately. Kuhn has outlined his theory of paradigms based on this. We develop a paradigm about how to establish the truth until we realise that our current theory is inadequate (thus we have moved from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein and beyond).

Dawkins’ picture of religious belief is that belief in God is a means of filling in the gaps. Knowledge is ever increasing and ultimately we will fill in the spaces and no longer need religion. Yet Dawkins could be critiqued as not taking into account adequately the problem of knowledge. There is no way to externally measure what is not known because we don’t have the capacity to ascertain the things that we can’t perceive. Yet what we don’t know could be critical: we now count Einstein’s contributions as critical whereas characters in the Newtonian world weren’t even aware of them. Knowledge might indeed be tiny slithers and the gaps could be enormous.

It is at this point that the Progress Myth becomes very important to those who call themselves Rationalists. If we accept that our knowledge is partial, but have complete faith in empiricism as the superior methodology for uncovering knowledge, we will believe in progress. According to this view, knowledge grows like a pyramid of stones. Each new validated theory trumps that which is prior. It seems reasonable that Einstein trumps Newton who trumps Aristotle.

In taking this route we assume that our theoretical frameworks themselves are valid. Yet it would appear that our lines of thought aren’t as clear as we might have hoped. Einstein still leaves us with unanswered questions, and to answer them we might divert from some of his theories one day. We often return to theories that were once discarded and reexamine them. Anselm was once held in esteem, then dismissed. Yet there are academics who are again exploring his philosophy. Similarly Kierkegaard and Hegel and …

For example, Benjamin Libet once argued that science has disproven free will. Yet, in line with Wittgenstein’s claim that ‘in science there are conceptual methods and philosophical confusion’, Mele argues in his book ‘Free’ that the experiments which claim to refute free will don’t do so at all.

The problem with the popular conception of progress is that it assumes that debates get settled, that knowledge is formed unequivocally such that it becomes the bedrock for further knowledge.

And those who wish to import that knowledge into schools in the category of uncontested fact are actually anti-education. The contested nature of ‘knowledge’ and its connection to ‘belief’ becomes a very important aspect of education. Students need to engage with this uncertainty and recognise the role that faith plays in developing understanding.

STEM, for example, is a very important aspect of education. As the principal of a school that had students finish first last year out of all NSW schools (public, selective, independent, Catholic) in student research awards in Biology, Physics and Chemistry; a school that employs specialist science and technology teachers in our Junior School and a Mathematician-in-Residence in our senior school; a school that had a student come first in Chemistry in the NSW Higher School Certificate in 2014, I wish to note also the importance of theology and philosophy and the arts to ‘knowledge’ in science. Reliance on science alone to determine truth is reliant on ‘a science of the fragments’. Our experience of such a science would be of a constant shifting in trends (to refer to a recent news article: at one time our ‘knowledge’ is that we use paracetamol to reduce fever in children; at another point it is that we don’t). Empiricism is an important ‘subset epistemology’ in knowledge formation: it doesn’t provide a bulwark of established knowledge but a series of apparent collations of knowledge in different disciplines – often contradictory of one another.

This is fine by me. And saying this doesn’t, in my view, diminish the importance of the scientific method. It just means that it should not be elevated to be the only way to establish knowledge.

The father of Analytical Philosophy, Wittgenstein, changed his position over the course of his life. Whereas early on he said: ‘About that which we do not know we should be silent’ (thus supporting only an empirical framework and perhaps warning against religious knowledge), in the second part of his life he moved more and more into consideration of the role of language in creating meaning and he began to reconsider religious ideas.

In life we can’t sit back and wait to gather all knowledge before we make a decision about what is. ‘No net is large enough to catch the world’ said Judith Wright. We live with a deep interaction between the personal and the so-called objective. We live between the transcendent and the immanent.

It was Augustine who flipped Aristotelian ideas. Aristotle supported the notion that we should believe things based on our knowledge: Gradual accrual before commitment. Augustine said: ‘I believe that I might understand.’ It was an Augustine who developed the role of faith in knowledge formation. Many centuries later Soren Kierkegaard based his theology/philosophy on this idea that an individual’s understanding of the Universe is grounded in faith. Faith is indispensable to knowledge. More recently Alvin Plantinga has argued that belief and knowledge can come together around the idea of ‘warrant’.

Final ‘knowledge’ about all things is not possible. Doubt is an indispensable tool but alone it leads to despair. Faith is actually impossible to avoid and is essential to the development of the person as someone who considers the role of integrity and love and hope in life. We should not be afraid of the consideration of theological questions. And we should not be so conceited as to think that we can dismiss them.

Interestingly Plantinga argues that one can believe a finding about physics because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it. And one can have religious faith because the evidence and what we understand about ourselves as investigators warrants it.

Some readers will feel nervous about these two sentences being included in one paragraph with the same grammatical structure – as if they are two sentences carrying equal epistemological weight. Basing knowledge on scientific process appears to give a greater chance of security than does faith. Or are they both necessary? We have faith that we as humans are sufficiently ‘formed’ (have adequate senses) to be able to reach some sort of conclusion about knowledge – and we have faith that our assumptions in undertaking the investigation are valid. In short, we each have presuppositions that often rely on religious views of the significance of the human being and their purposes in being.

What is this to do with Easter? Easter could be viewed as a claim that in science there are conceptual methods but theological confusion. I teach a Theology and Philosophy class that covers the history of Western thought (and some Eastern) to middle years high school students. We cover Athens (e.g., Thales and Parmenides and Plato and Aristotle) and Jerusalem (e.g., Moses and David and Jesus). We cover Augustine and Kant and Hegel and Kierkegaard.In the course we don’t exclude someone because, in our conceit, we believe we have ‘progressed’ beyond his or her theory. We believe that Faith and Science have actually interacted through history. We don’t fall for the propaganda generated by one side or the other that indicates that to be religious is to be bigoted and dogmatic, or to be irreligious is to be immoral. Christianity, for example, has always held that our knowledge is partial. It was St Paul who said ‘we see but through a glass darkly’.

None of us stands on the top of the Tower of Babel and sees the world aright from the point of view of all languages combined. None of us have ever seen God, says the apostle John (1:18). Yet it is also valid that the Gospels hold a claim, because of their basis in a belief in a sovereign God, that one day ‘we shall see face to face’. This claim is worthy of consideration in an education. Why should it not be?

Easter is a claim that the human being is of eternal value: our persons, our hopes, our inclinations, our thinking, our relations, and our search for knowledge. Just like the view the vast majority of us form about the babes in our arms when we have children. Isaac Newton based his inquiries into Mathematics on the foundation that he was searching after knowledge that rested ultimately in God.

The Christian hope at Easter underpins learning – it is a basis for believing that knowledge is possible. And it is also, I add as a coda, a statement that there are more lasting things than surety about matter and anti-matter: ‘and now these three things remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.’ 1 Corinthians 13:13

Upon finishing ‘The Secret Chord’

‘Faith seeking understanding’?; ‘Cynicism seeking justification’? Something else altogether?

When part way through Brooks’ book I wondered what its purpose was. Why retell a biblical story? I knew and applauded that she would find the feminine voices in the narrative. I hoped that she would at least in some small way be seeking to explore her faith in an honest and public manner. I could thus reflect upon my own. The gift she would give me would be that her private confession could be my private consolation. I could think perhaps ‘with’ her, perhaps ‘against’ her, but the subject matter would be shared.

Having completed the book I wish to really applaud her. To condemn a theocracy is a common pastime – but not often to seek to understand it. Yet I think she earnestly does seek this. She sees the manipulations and graft, she relates the connections with physical beauty, the quest for both personal and political power, and the duplicity of the characters. Yet, significantly, Brooks does not trivialize or reject theology. She honours it. She respects it.

I can only think of Augustine’s words that she has faith that seeks understanding. In my view this is such a redemptive and positive approach.

On the BBC recently the news reader relayed a story about Filipinos seeking to touch a Christian cross that was being paraded through one of the cities in The Philippines. Hundreds were leaping to touch it. His final comment and sneer indicated clearly his contempt for their practice.

My Christian faith is not the kind that seeks to touch amulets or icons. A discussion between different people about how their faith works I would find interesting. I disrespect some in the media who push an agenda of religious cynicism as a habit: any chance to have a dig. I yearn for proper explorations, for texts that are respectful and thorough.

Brooks’ book is the complete opposite of the media commentator. It would be possible to read it as a critique of theocracy, and yet I don’t believe it is this at all. It is an exploration of her faith, even an explanation as to why Solomon’s wisdom trumps David’s brawn.

Finally, I am very interested in her theology. God (The Name), as a character in the book, does arguably act with an overall purpose – to end violence and to bring in wisdom – but so often acts by not acting. Whilst God’s voice is very powerful at key points, there is also a theology of quietness in the book. I enjoyed this.

She has given me much to ponder.

I thank her.

Whilst reading ‘The Secret Chord’

When I think about why I am enjoying Geraldine Brooks’ ‘The Secret Chord’ I sense that it is because it is an honest attempt to understand a story that is powerful in Jewish and Christian traditions. Much o it resonates with me.

I have decided to write this response whilst only a third of the way through the book. Reading is a responsive activity: I find that I am both alert to a text’s narrative and ideas at the same time as I am evaluating it, synthesizing it into my understanding of reality or leaving it aside. And even the things I ‘leave aside’ impact me. Thus, the process of responding whilst I read is critical in the formation of how the book affects me. I find it to be an iterative process.

‘The Secret Chord’ appears to try to capture both the visceral and the exalted nature of David and his People – and to ask the reader to consider the violence, the hubris and the humility of this community. I enjoy it also because of the respect for elements of faith: the inability of the believer to utter God’s name, the notion of fidelity to God and People, and the credibility she gives early in the book to ‘Natan’ as a prophet. The narrative of Goliath and David carries both the notions that God is so exalted as to be beyond the power of humans, as well as that humans are fragile and flawed. And it appears an act of honesty to see in print the troubling aspects of the story: for example, the brutal suppression of weaker village populations, and the self-deceit of David when it involves lust for power over women. Is God’s will done when violence or lust are in attendance?

It is interesting for me to ask myself as a Christian which are the aspects of the story that I don’t want to confront. I enjoy the challenge she gives me. It is good for my soul. It is a re-editing of scripture – something that is not required. And yet, the revisions have a point. I abhor, for example, the idea that God would in any form sanction brutal killing, especially of ‘innocents’- and Brooks seems to share what I understand to be the Christian (and Jewish – perhaps for her it is in some unstated form universal) value of human life. Both the notion that every human is made in God’s image, and the opposing idea that humans reference a god as their own powerful totem to justify their actions, appear in the text. She seems to foster faith and doubt simultaneously. This is central to my understanding of the book’s power.

I hear also the feminine voices being amplified in a manner that is not obvious in the Chronicles. These are voices I think many of us long to here.

There is a line in another book I read this Summer, John Ortberg’s book ‘Soul Keeping’, that has had me thinking deeply. He writes about the way that he has found it regretfully easy over the course of his marriage to hurt his wife: “My face and the tone of my voice could create the effect on her that I ‘wanted’ without ever being totally open about the deeper recesses of my mind and will.” He writes that his actions could be therefore feasible as acts against her but still ‘deniable’.

I think Ortberg works hard in his book to be honest about himself. And this particular sentence highlights how he has the capacity to deceive himself with his acts of hurt. I think he makes a powerful point – I want to present myself as noble but sometimes I am acting quite ignobly as I pretend to be righteous.

As in private, so in public. Even in he writing of great literature one can use guile – and perhaps not even be aware of it. Brooks’ David, indeed the biblical David, deceives himself. Ortberg notes that even in marriage we can conceal ourselves from the ones we love the most. Are writers immune? Is the editing process a fire that burns away pretense?

Brooks appears to be pursuing an honest approach to the synthesis of her faith and her politics. Her writing is reflective and non-polemical. Why do I then remain suspicious when I read ‘The Secret Chord’? Does she have a dogma that guides the text? Is it not so much an exploration as a beautiful apology?

So I look for signs of doubt – places where she challenges all of her readers. In this case the secular as well as the religious.

I can see many places where she might unsettle the religious reader.

Good.

The book in this way does my faith a great service.

I am yet to find in the text an exploration of ideas that might make her secular readership uncomfortable. Where does she make uncomfortable the person who regards themselves as an ‘enlightened’ reader?

It is likewise powerful in the same style of story-casting that she can provide a homoerotic theme between David and Jonathan. I don’t know if the etymology of the Hebrew variation of ‘love’ in the Old Testament verse ‘Jonathon loved David’ gives enough surety that it means friendship, not ‘amour’. I note though that this is a theme that has been undertaken by others. It is a good example of an area that I would have liked her to challenge not only the religious reader but other presuppositions. It easy for her to play to a strong current theme in literature. The story of Jonathan and David is one of a limited number of well-attested tales in history that could also be read as a close and abiding friendship between brutal men. This also deserves exploration – perhaps she will pick up on the theme of friendship between brutal men later in the book.

At present it appears that she is following a predictable plot – that aspects of David’s life are best understood not because of his faith, but because of his love for Jonathon.

If I am allowed to ask anything of a leading author it would be this. I accept the challenging questions you ask of me. Can you write a book also in which you challenge not only your religious but also your secular self? Can you disrupt not only the presuppositions of religious thinkers but the readers who wish to reimagine faith stories only as having material or social causes? If you can you will convince me that your story is a genuine inquiry and not just a beautifully crafted carrier of the themes of your age.

I hope to comment again when I have finished reading the whole book.

Is she a prophet like Natan?

The Narrow History Project

In the early 1990s I had the great joy of teaching history in Zimbabwe.

At that time the Zimbabwe dollar was still worth 25 Australian cents, there was optimism about ZANU PF and the leadership of Robert Mugabe, and the land was breathtakingly beautiful.

In the store room of my school were piles of decrepit history books, the remnants of an earlier period. They were written during the time when the nation was called Rhodesia, and a minority white population had announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence. Within these books the Shona and Ndebele people were largely referred to as ‘labour’ and the history was constructed to tell the story of the success of the nation under white economic leadership. White rule equated to ‘stable government’, and thus to ‘the best outcome for all’.

On the desks in my classroom were the official ZANU PF histories of Zimbabwe. Within the pages of these texts were details of the rise of local African populations such as the Rozvi. They told the story of the struggle of the Shona and Ndebele peoples against ‘oppressive colonial rule’ and the final chapter of the second book was totally dedicated to ‘Mugabe the hero’, the ‘saviour’ of Zimbabwe.

It would be clear to any outsider that both sets of texts were terribly flawed. We thus had interesting classes comparing the descriptions of events and movements in both texts. In these comparisons we uncovered the many challenges that exist in the teaching of history.

Something within me loves The Big History Project. It is an attempt to put the whole story together, to tell the narrative of the history of our planet. Context is a very important thing for the historian. We can better understand events by developing a grasp of the cultures and decisions that preceded them.

But The Big History Project is like the Rhodesian and ZANU PF texts in my history classroom.

It is history told from one perspective.

I can hear the immediate rebuttal. No, that’s not true. The project purposefully allows for a variety of voices.

And that is accurate. There are many voices allowed.

But the overarching categories are established for the student. The basic metaphor for history, for example, is development. It is thus a socially progressive history and students are not alerted up front that not all historians see history this way. Religious and cultural traditions are reduced in importance whilst empiricism is promoted as a methodology. Philosophical positions such as Idealism, Monism and Dualism barely rate a mention. Physicalism is King.

This might not matter to the average Australian, but it should.

We swallow given categories in history all too easily. The current debate that the European Dark Ages were not really so dark, and that the Enlightenment was a not really so illuminating, is an interesting example of why categories matter. Terms carry assumptions. Accepted truths. Generations in Africa – and Australia -were taught that indigenous people were primitive. It is essential that students are taught to not simply accept categories.

The Big History Project is backed by the finances of Bill Gates. He has partnered with David Christian to create a brave new world of historiography for our classrooms. Now the Board of Studies in NSW is establishing a new subject based on this investment. Suddenly we wonder if the investor is writing the way we think.

Financial investment is quite enamouring. Well created websites are beautiful. They make the job of the educator easy.

Be trained by us. Just deliver the course this way.

I am all in favour of assisting students to think about the big picture. I am not in favour of Mr Gates or his academic favourites setting our curriculum.

‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ as conceit

In schools we are trying to help young people to to develop the skills and desire to serve their communities. We hope they will avoid simple caricatures, and seek to develop a deep understanding of people’s histories, beliefs and motivations. We hope they will enjoy learning and take on the challenge of improving things in a sustained fashion. We hope they will be creative, and not conceited.

Ugly.

Matthew Vaughn’s latest film Kingsman: The Secret Service carries within it all that is ugly about the edges of Epicurean thought.

As I exited the cinema I had the overwhelming impression that the response I was supposed to have was that the director is really brave and clever. Violence used as a comic art form. Violence for the connoisseur. A redemptive Pygmalion of violence.

And the purpose of the film? Repeat after me: All admire Matthew Vaughn.

Perhaps in a world where we can now view real Isis violence online, or can conceive, oh too easily, that it might come from someone else’s ideology to our city, Vaughn might think that we need some violent catharsis in in our cinemas. Perhaps to help us cope. To relieve the stress.

Yet this film is a Hamlet of violence. There are so many people that the viewer is supposed to hate that the film just ends up equivocating about the value of being human altogether. Consider the various groups upon which one is permitted to lump one’s scorn:

  • Students of prominent British universities
  • Working class men
  • Middle American church goers
  • Politicians
  • Scandinavian social progressives

And, in the end, when the prodigal son saves the world by mass murder, his reward is (spoiler alert) anal sex with a princess. Well done Matthew! As the Principal of a school dedicated to building agency and equality: ‘thanks’ for depicting sexual power over young women’s bodies as the prize. Oh, and yes, she is blonde after all.

Yes there is a code of treating each other with dignity among the kingsmen. They are knights of the Round Table. In the first half of the film this notion shows lots of promise. But in my cinema the audience was silent during the carnage in the church. I felt like Vaughn wanted me to be entertained by Rwanda in the 1990s, like he was saying maybe the Hutu broadcasters of hatred had a point.

Contrast the actual approach of forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda with the visceral ugliness of Kingsman.

I believe Kingsman is on the cultic edge of Epicureanism. In the West now a significant proportion of our television shows are about us living the good life: eating for flavour and pleasure, building for status and style, the pursuit of our happiness now.

We want to depict our little dramas over food choices and house building as worthy of large emotive responses. Let’s all cry when someone is voted out. These things are within our control. Our televisions show little of the world’s actual issues. Who has heard of the Assyrian Genocide? Who has heard of the Justice Mission? Poverty and exploitation are for occasional consideration on SBS.

Even with China’s growth, we know that only a relatively small portion of the world shares the possibility of this ‘good’ life. Thus we have huge issues world wide with immigration, violence and political instability. Vaughn’s answer: make a new art form that enables us to cope with the violence. Make the violence a form of entertainment.

And have the people the Director doesn’t like getting it in the neck. Don’t try to understand the huge variety of thought and contribution of religious people: just have them smash each other. Don’t appreciate the research coming out of Cambridge and Oxford – just vote them out of The House.

Yes, I know, I am reading it too literally. It is a farce. It makes fun of itself. The joke is on the person who watches it too seriously. The joke is on me.

That’s OK. Then I say I would love to see us creating art that firstly seeks to understand the bigger issues we face, and secondly, seeks to assist us to serve each other to address them.

Oh yes, and I recognise escapism has a place. But  Kingsman is a perverse escapism.

And finally, if there are ‘A’ List actors, doesn’t that mean that a chief purpose of the film is so that we can admire them? Doesn’t the choice to have them mean that the film is ‘OK’? Its values are mainstream. They are beyond the hatred ascribed to other groups. Where is the film where the ‘A’ list actors all slaughter each other for being greedy?

I confess to being angry about this film. Perhaps my response is what Vaughn wants. Better to get a response than to get boredom.

Well I won’t be rushing back to one of his films.

I have to conclude that Kingsman is really a form of filmic conceit. It creates us as a chattering class. Its purpose is to make us smug that we can be so clever as to create such art.

In that way it is the opposite of a good education. It creates caricatures, it has little to no nuance. It is its own admirer.

 

Thinking about Scep

At Sydney Technical High School in the 1970s there was a group of boys who were particularly ascerbic when it came to matters of faith.

Well before I came to my own Christian conviction, a now deceased friend with the surprising name of Ian Leake (think of the potential – I.Leake) taught me a few things about scepticism. His nickname was ‘Scep’. He was clearly a Christian, but was known to all by his capacity to make insightful comments and jokes about all aspects of life. Tellingly, he was sceptical about the ways that sceptics were sceptical.

This morning I listened to two members of the Sceptics Association speak on the ABC and I remembered Ian with great warmth.

Scepticism from the official group is now quite an art form. The two scientists today made a number of very reasonable statements. All educators would say ‘Hear! hear!’ They said that we need to be critical thinkers, that we need to know our methodology in our search for truth, that we need to ask questions. We need to differentiate between fact and belief.

But then came the subtle rhetoric. They created a clear dichotomy between two types of thinking: thinking based on beliefs and thinking based on Reason. And they positioned sceptics as in the minority, fighting nobly against all of the odd-ball thinking generated by religiosity and conspiracy theorists in the USA. Theirs is the good fight. Religious faith is on the dark side.

It was the questions that they didn’t ask that caused me difficulty. I note one.

Is it possible to hold a theory about the Universe that doesn’t rely upon beliefs?

Rightly or wrongly, I have reached the conclusion that it is impossible to comprehend the universe without an element of faith. And I am still to hear a person who relies only on Reason. I hold the position that a valid understanding of the universe must be able to describe both the observed universe and the qualities of the person doing the observing. The observer is ‘in the system’ so the theory that is purported has to have an explanation of how s/he came to be able to make her/his observations. This means that there must be a theory of Mind as well as a theory about the universe’s origins or sustenance or make-up. Philosophy and/or Theology must inform the debate – not just Science.

If I take the view that is most regularly presented by the Sceptics Association- that one should preclude from the outset that the Universe was caused by an Intending Being (or God) – I am left with an entirely physical universe. These ‘words’ are therefore the result of electrical impulses. Personal pronouns I use to describe myself emanate from the eternal chain of cause and effect. There is no teleology. My ‘me-ness’ is just a characteristic like the colour of a butterfly’s wing, or the size of a shark’s tooth. Therefore there is no reason to believe that what my eyes perceive, or ears hear, or mind reads, corresponds to actual reality. This is why some theorists speak of holding a cohesive, rather than a correspondent, view of truth.

Professor Karl this morning was black and white. He is on a pathway to a correspondent view of truth. Therefore, he must have snuck in the back of his mind somewhere an element of faith. For reasons that he hasn’t outlined, he believes the universe is fundamentally intelligible. He has faith that his brain’s electrical pathways, and there connectedness to his senses, can deliver truth to him. Even though the process that created each an every element of his genetics was constructed randomly.

One could say that scientific evidence builds collectively to give us assurance of truth. But Science changes in its sureties. Before Einstein we were confident in Newton. Before the Big Bang Theory many held to an Aristotelian universe without beginning.

Do not misunderstand my intent. The onward search and investigation of science is critical. I am pleased that materialist scientists challenge philosophers and theologians. But myriads of people, including theistic scientists, Platonic philosophers, post-structuralists and other will offer a reasoned and logical reply that has different categories to those on the ABC. They are not precluded from being logical or reasoned because they don’t share the Sceptics’ Association’s epistemology. Like my friend Scep what I object to is the lack of reference to the problematic nature of knowledge in statements like the one on the ABC today.

Scientism, whilst drawing on much excellent science, is a faith position.

On making deliberate choices

There are a billion ways to parent. I don’t presume to be able to say much to any parent. But I can note a few brief observations. As a principal I do meet many thousands of parents. And I admire much of their ‘work’.

My wife Susan reminded me today of a book we read together when our first daughter was born.

It was called ‘Raising Kids on Purpose’.

She said: ‘I can’t remember too much of what was in the book, but I think all I really needed to know was in the title.’

Both as a father and a principal I agree wholeheartedly with her. Parenting and educating are both deliberate acts. Thousands and thousands of deliberate acts. It is my experience that effective parents and teachers are those that have the capacity to continually make considered choices.

From age zero to age I don’t know what.

One of the privileges of being a principal is that I get to meet many very effective parents. I meet people who choose to enjoy their children’s company, who invest in discussions about life’s big questions with them, and who savour time introducing their children to this astonishing world.

And they are parents who aren’t driven by anxiety. ‘Fear,’ said the members of the religious order in the Herbert novel, DUNE, ‘is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that causes total obliteration.’ Or, in the words of Peter, Jesus’ disciple, ‘Perfect love will cast out fear.’ In my experience, fear pushes people to make poorly thought through decisions. It was fear of electoral loss that drove the power brokers of the Labor Party to ungraciously remove Kevin Rudd. It was more fear that put him back in power. Commentator Paul Kelly notes the panic in the ranks. He describes the Party as ‘weak, panicked and faithless.’

In my experience the effective parent is habitually not ‘weak, panicked and faithless’. She or he is considered and purposeful. Yes, they are reflective, willing to apologise for errors and to change a poor decision. Yet they have thought about what they are trying to do in their parenting and they trust in their long-term approach to parenting even as they experience difficult choices. And they remain faithful to their child and their values. They resist the temptation to depict themselves as a victim of either their child’s choices or the wider environment. They are always looking for options. The child’s choices belong to the child: their choices belong to them.

Parenting is a long term commitment. Errors are redeemable. There is always an option.

And they choose their words carefully.

And they are not slaves to things that are less than themselves: alcohol, money…

I write this short note as a recognition of the wonderful skills that many parents have. Our society is all the richer because of their investment of time and care.

 

 

 

Visit of Simon Conway Morris

Professor Conway-Morris visited PLC Sydney this week.

He described the evolutionary process: natural selection, survival of the fittest…

And he described convergence: the theory that the same characteristics have evolved again and again in species. Thus, the octopus and the human both have have camera eyes, though one is not the predecessor of the other.

The range of options is narrower than those who promote the randomness as the basis of everything suggest. Predictable.

And he said that the mind is not explained by the chemistry or actions of the brain. In one of his books he calls the brain an antenna: a link to The Other. Science, he states, cannot prove God. But there are hints that there is an underlying order and intent behind the curtain: Fibonacci numbers in the organic world, for example, in the shell of the Nautilus.

He actually gave our students permission to wonder. To have faith and reason. To see that reason does not emerge from Nothing. There was a spark ignited in the playground.

Rather than the dull oppression that results from reading Dawkins, there was a real spirit of enquiry. A hegemony was dispelled.

It helped that his science is superb. Rigorous. Exemplified with numerous cases and telling images. Challenging to my interpretation of my faith. Challenging to all of us.

Yet he helped us see that science needs theology and philosophy. No discipline is an island, so to speak.

He showed an image of a man bending over and dragging up a curtain-like visage of the landscape in front of him. In quite a Platonic fashion there was another landscape underneath. ‘God,’ said Les Murray, ‘is the poetry caught in religion. Caught. Not imprisoned.’ ‘Christ,’ said the apostle Paul, ‘is the sum of all spiritual things.’

He will travel to a remote site soon to find fossils. And will seek to further develop the taxonomy of the history of life.

Yet our students will be left with an understanding that the taxonomy has value – that, to use a title of the professor’s, evolution in some strange way might sing the song of creation.

He spoke of a time in the future when there might be a different metaphysics to the study of evolution. One not so tied to the old doctrine that God is dead, but one that seeks God again.

It made me realise that so many materialist answers describe extant human qualities inadequately. Forgiveness, grace, kindness, generosity and altruism are all extant qualities. Describing them only as the result of blind forces connected to survival alters them beyond recognition. The explanations alter these things utterly in order to explain them using a materialist paradigm.

I hope this short comment does justice to the professor.

‘Inventing the Individual’

I remember asking my history teacher at school why the Board of Studies created syllabuses in Ancient and Modern European History but not the period in between.

As an adult I came to understand that the Renaissance was supposed to mark the start of a new era of anti-clericalism, personal freedom and, ultimately, empirical science. Thus the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were a period when Christian theology ‘butted-in’ to the progress in thinking that had shown every sign of flourishing under the Greeks and Romans but wasn’t ‘resumed fully’ until the days of Hume and Kant and Bentham.

In my own home my father held both a high view of the importance of studying the natural world in a systematic manner, but also, of the Christian Church. I was brought up surrounded by aviaries of finches – my father had every species of Australian finch – and looking through books that described in detail the importance of observation and hypothesis making. Whilst my family were members of no church, there was an assumption that there were positive connections between faith, learning and personal freedom . My father spoke of a Bishop of Salisbury in the family tree and of the importance of the Magna Carta.

My own Christian commitment in my teenage years led me to read the Bible voraciously. In Jesus’ direct teachings, in the parables, and in the letters of Paul I found underlying assumptions about the dignity of humanity (we are made in God’s image), our shared humanity (God has gifted us all and He will judge us all justly) and our shared need for God’s grace as found in Jesus. Much that we value in the West regarding personal freedom and moral responsibility seemed to me clearly connected to the New Testament.

My own experience of Church was as a place of great freedom and community. The secondary state school I attended had many students who spoke in derogatory ways about refugees and immigrants, but not my church. There people were looking for ways to be hospitable to the recently arrived from Vietnam.

And yet, both my classmates at school and many peers in my adult life, viewed belief in God with suspicion or skepticism.

In my latter teenage years I read a lot of C S Lewis, including books that provided a much greater insight into the diversity and complexity of the medieval mind. Further reading in my adulthood on the periods of the plagues, witch-hunts and the Spanish Inquisition did not quash a growing belief that the view that the Renaissance marked a clear break with the past did not tell the whole story.

These many years later I have at last read a book that articulates the relationship between Christian faith, the Ancient World, the medieval and Middle Ages extremely effectively. Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual is a remarkable piece of scholarship. It links clearly the teachings of the apostle Paul with the modern Western understanding that each of us is individual. My own ‘intuition’ that Christianity has profoundly impacted a great deal of what we value now has a well articulated history to link some of our assumptions to the epistles and gospels. Augustine is given a proper place. Whilst he barely touches on the Reformation, I see how the Reformation itself ties in to earlier attempts at change. And his arguments that secularism is an outworking of the voluntarism that is the basis of Christian faith is very powerful.

Of course there are still questions. I have a higher view of the historicity of the gospels than Siedentop. Yet this is a far more nuanced and reasonable history than that provided by those who wish to depict Christian faith as an interruption to ‘progress’.

I recommend it to you.