Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Depressing News

There is no longer a majority of self-described Christians in England and Wales.

I think this is something to mourn, for several reasons.

One reason is that I'm a lifelong and fervent anglophile. I particularly have a soft-spot for the Church of England, as I wrote about here.

Another reason is that I think cultural Christianity is important. Christianity obviously has an elevating and ennobling influence on culture-- for instance, the Christian doctrine of the sanctity of life, or the importance of humility.

Cultural Christianity is also important for individual salvation. It spreads the net wider for potential converts. It makes any given person more likely to encounter Christianity.

Is there anything to be said on the other side? Now that Christianity has become a minority religion, might that be of benefit in some way? For instance, might it give the Christian faith the appeal of an "alternative lifestyle", something that is counter-cultural?

Probably. But I think this is outweighed by what has been lost.

Do some Christians get too hung up on the idea of "Christian cultures", to the extent that they seem to forget that Christ's kingdom is not of this world?

Yes, I think so. But that doesn't mean cultural Christianity isn't important.

It's a dark day. God grant that the tide turns soon.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Another Dip into Facebook

I post on Facebook a lot. Is this good or bad? Sometimes I feel it's bad, thinking I've been swept up in a terribly modern habit, despite all my pretensions to fogeydom.

Other times I think it might be a good thing. I have a lot of thoughts in the course of the day and Facebook is a good outlet for them. It's very user-friendly-- more so than this blog, which really requires a desktop computer to write. I tap out my Facebook posts on my phone, in a matter of minutes.

Anyway, here are some of my latest ones. They may be of interest. Buckle up...


Here's a possibly odd question. How important is atmosphere to you? I mean it in the colloquial rather than the scientific sense.
I'm so preoccupied with atmosphere that it often strikes me as abnormal. I attach atmospheres to times, places, people, activities etc. and have to remind myself that these atmospheres are (most often) private constructions of my own and not "out there". I get as upset about this (repeated) realization as a kid might get in learning the secret of Santa. I don't know how normal or abnormal that is. I have to remind myself, for instance, when I look at an inky, granulated photo from the seventies, that it wasn't actually inky and granulated in reality. In the same way, perhaps, that historians remind us that the milky white statues we associate with ancient Greece were actually painted.
My fear is that reality is, after all, just a grid of points in time and space, none of which are really any different from each other. That this is the awakening that awaits; "the desolation of reality", as Yeats said. It feels like sitting in a bath and slowly feeling the bathwater go cold. Except in this case you only ever imagined it was warm.
I went to an Irish language primary and secondary school. There's lots to be said about that and I'm grateful for it, otherwise my poor grasp of Irish would be no grasp at all.
But recently I've been musing on it from another perspective. English-speaking was forbidden in these schools. Although widely flouted, the mere existence of such a ban gave a certain flavour to my school days. Watching films and shows about school life on TV, where the kids openly spoke English, always seemed very weird, bare and somehow primitive.
I think taboos are good in themselves, within reason. They create an atmosphere, an environment. One of the many reasons I could never be a libertarian though I am often in agreement with them.
I used to watch Open University programmes a lot. For my American friends, they were educational programmes which were shown in the early hours on British TV. The idea was that you could video-tape them and watch them at your leisure. They were a part of a distance learning initiative which could lead to actual qualifications.
Anyway, one such programme was a whole documentary on the short poem The Tyger by William Blake, which went into great detail on its meaning and possible associations. I was very excited by this.
That's what I mean when I lament poetry's place in modern culture. The lack of that sort of thing. As opposed to the very occasional mention of poetry in general on some arts show.
If the coverage of the arts (in the media but also in general social intercourse) were to be compared to sports coverage, poetry would be equivalent to badminton or volleyball or fencing. I think it should be equivalent to rugby or soccer or cricket instead.

I've often found myself thinking about how many of my values and beliefs were absorbed from what I THOUGHT were the values and beliefs of my background and environment, even though I have subsequently realized I was quite mistaken about this.

I've sometimes considered writing a short story which would be a kind of allegory of this experience. It could be a story about a guy who is hugely inspired by a schoolteacher and goes out and lives the beliefs and ideals this teacher instilled in him. He seeks the teacher out thirty or forty years later, only to find that the teacher is puzzled and unimpressed by everything the pupil has done, and tells him he had the wrong idea about him (the teacher) all along.

Anyway, this is definitely my own experience with Irish nationalism. I had an ideal of Irish nationalism which I absorbed in my childhood, and which I sometimes embraced and sometimes consciously reacted against. But the extraordinary thing is that it seems to have been my own ideal even when I was reacting against it.

Essentially it was a belief that there had been some kind of collective decision, made about the end of the nineteenth century, that an independent Ireland was going to go in a very different direction from Britain, America, and the other developed countries. Instead of commerce, cities, technology, modernity etc. it was going to embrace tradition, folklore, myth, culture, rural life, handicrafts, "the things of the spirit."

I took it as read that all the office-blocks named Setanta House and the monuments to the Children of Lir etc. were only the BEGINNING of this collective adventure. I think I really expected we were going to go back to thatched cottages and stone-walls eventually.
Obviously, this idea didn't come from nowhere. There's a little bit of Pearse, Yeats, De Valera, and others in it. I didn't realize that this ideal was abandoned (insofar as it had ever been embraced) way before my birth, and often by people who had fought in 1916, devoted their lives to the Irish language, etc.

It's been a long and painful loss of this illusion. My nationalism has been cauterized. But the ideal is still sublimated into other things.
Chesterton wrote a lot of indifferent poetry, but he wrote some great poems and this is one of them. Although, personally, I would rather the theme of decrepitude wasn't in it. It would have been just as good if it was simply about the burgeoning sense of wonder.
Anyway, the line "the first surprises stay" definitely speaks to me. I can never get over "the first surprises" and have indeed found that "things grow new" and seem "too solid to be true,".
The things Chesterton mentions in this poem have this effect on me, certainly, but other things too,: time and place, which seem endlessly strange and wonderful to me; consciousness; stories, even of the simplest kind; history; masculinity and femininity; the human body, and the beauty of the human form in itself; accents; work; memory; every form of collective identity, from a family to a club to a nation; everything that people get excited about. I take pleasure simply contemplating such things and feeling gratitude for their existence, and indeed astonishment.
I loved the line from the TV series John Adams: "I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure added to all the glitter of her jewels did not impress me as much as that little shrub right there."
Anyway, here's Chesterton. (Sometimes I feel like appealing to people to forget that a Chesterton quotation is Chesterton and to come to him without the baggage of the Chesterton passage, of the hearty polemicist. It's so hard to read him "fresh".)
A Second Childhood
When all my days are ending
And I have no song to sing,
I think that I shall not be too old
To stare at everything;
As I stared once at a nursery door
Or a tall tree and a swing.
Wherein God’s ponderous mercy hangs
On all my sins and me,
Because He does not take away
The terror from the tree
And stones still shine along the road
That are and cannot be.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for wine,
But I shall not grow too old to see
Unearthly daylight shine,
Changing my chamber’s dust to snow
Till I doubt if it be mine.
Behold, the crowning mercies melt,
The first surprises stay;
And in my dross is dropped a gift
For which I dare not pray:
That a man grow used to grief and joy
But not to night and day.
Men grow too old for love, my love,
Men grow too old for lies;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Enormous night arise,
A cloud that is larger than the world
And a monster made of eyes.
Nor am I worthy to unloose
The latchet of my shoe;
Or shake the dust from off my feet
Or the staff that bears me through
On ground that is too good to last,
Too solid to be true.
Men grow too old to woo, my love,
Men grow too old to wed;
But I shall not grow too old to see
Hung crazily overhead
Incredible rafters when I wake
And I find that I am not dead.
A thrill of thunder in my hair:
Though blackening clouds be plain,
Still I am stung and startled
By the first drop of the rain:
Romance and pride and passion pass
And these are what remain.
Strange crawling carpets of the grass,
Wide windows of the sky;
So in this perilous grace of God
With all my sins go I:
And things grow new though I grow old,
Though I grow old and die.
In a previous post, which drew a gratifying amount of responses, I pondered on the ideal of Irish nationalism that I internalized as I grew up, and how-- in retrospect-- it seems to have been as much my own invention as it was something I took from my environment.
Someone asked me some good questions in the comments. I thought my reply might be worth a new post. I said (I'll only use one set of quotation marks, at beginning and end):

"I don't have time to give a proper reply to your questions. Indeed, I could easily write a long essay about them. Thanks for showing such interest.
Was the ideal of Irish nationalism I absorbed/invented wholly illusion? No, because it did indeed draw on aspects of Irish nationalism that really existed. However, I think I was badly mistaken in assuming that the PARTICULAR aspects of Irish nationalism I seized upon were shared by a great many people. By the particular aspects I mean my romantic, poetic, agrarian, "folkish" interpretation of Irish nationalism, the sort of Irish nationalism expressed in the poetry of Pearse and the famous St. Patrick's Day speech of De Valera.
What gave me this illusion? Lots of different things. My father was the biggest influence on me and he very much tended towards the romantic, the poetic, the culturally conservative. When I grew up a bit and noted that even his Irish republican friends were much cruder, crasser, and more modern, I was shocked. Their nationalism didn't really seem to boil down to more than "Brits out". It was Brendan Behan nationalism, Shane MacGowan nationalism-- urban, anarchic, taboo-smashing, even vulgar. Things like the Irish language, cultural Catholicism, Irish mythology etc. were really just used as tribal badges, two fingers to the Brits. Kathleen Ni Houlihan was ridiculous and sexist, etc. etc.
I think Lord of the Rings, strangely enough, also had an influence on me. I transposed the high fantasy, refinement, and elven dignity of LOTR onto Irish nationalism.
Then there was my Irish language school, which put an emphasis on mythology, Irish sports, the Irish language (obviously), Irish music and dance, and all those "cultural" things. I didn't realize that most Irish people only had a very abstract interest in reviving Irish culture.
Why do I come to the conclusion that I was deluded in thinking this ideal was ever widely held? So many reasons. For instance, I have access to the Irish Newspapers Archive, an online portal of most national and regional Irish newspapers from the early twentieth century onwards. From browsing editions from the thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties, it has become obvious to me that, from very soon after Irish independence, Irish people lost much interest in national or cultural ideals and became absorbed in the bread-and-butter issues of everyday life, entertainment, consumerism, etc. This is plain not only in the articles but in the letters pages.
How has my romantic nationalism been sublimated? In my approach to the Catholic faith, and also in my approach towards other causes I care deeply about, such as poetry-- the revival of traditional poetry."

Reading a book about the Church of England from 1945 to 1980, because I have a real soft spot for the C of E. 
The chapter about the sixties is interesting. When social conservatives look back at the sixties we tend to deplore them for their liberalism. However, contemporary church spokesman of all denominations seemed to put more emphasis on the rise of materialism, though they certainly deplored liberalism too. It's interesting that the hippies were also reacting against materialism.
Has materialism become invisible to us by now?

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

It's That Time Again

Do you have World Cup fever? Then you'll want to read my four-year-old blog post on the subject.

Do you detest everything to do with the World Cup and want to go into hiding until it's over? Then you'll want to read my four-year-old blog post on the subject.

And while you're out at it, check out Baddiel, Skinner, and Brodie's impish updating of their now-traditional classic. (The Lightning Seeds are one of my favourite bands.) It could have been awful, but I think they pulled it off.

A Laudable Inititative

I was contacted by someone who has set up a new online encyclopedia called The Saint John Chrysostom Encyclopedia.

He explains his reason for the venture thus: "If one really looks on the Internet for information, one ultimately ends up with the conclusion that there really is no unbiased, realistic, and true, encyclopedia on the internet, that all (or at least the vast majority) websites promising such a thing are either clearly deceptive (that is, are clearly hateful of the truth or are run/managed by those who are against it), or detail only a few subjects.

"The Saint John Chrysostom Encyclopedia was created as a response to that, so that one may truly have an unbiased and true source in all knowledge of life, whether it be religious, mathematical, scientific, historical, etc. One might already say, "how could an encyclopedia that already has a religious nature be unbiased?", yet that is an ignorant proposition as all men are religious, whether they acknowledge it or not, and all men are biased, simply for the truth or against it.

"Simply put, the goal of this encyclopedia is to learn the truths of life, so that we may follow it to wherever it may lead to, without looking back."

You can access it here. He is also seeking volunteers to help build it up.

I wish all the best to this new venture. 

(I'll be a bit curmudgeonly for a moment and admit that sometimes I'm irritated at how the word "truth" is often brandished in Catholic circles. I was having this debate with a Catholic friend just yesterday. Yes, I believe in the truth of the Catholic faith. But Catholics don't have a monopoly on truth (the Pope is not an authority on philately, for instance), and truth-seekers of good faith exist in every religion, and also among non-believers. But there, that's me being a grump.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Thoughts on an Open Day

On Saturday I spent three hours manning the library stand at the UCD Open Day in the O'Reilly Hall. I enjoyed it greatly. That kind of event appeals to me in a way that's hard to explain. I decided that trying to explain it might make a good blog post.

First and most obviously, the sound of an open day is my favourite sound in the entire world: the hum of voices in the air, blended into each other so that individual voices and words can hardly be heard.

What can I say about this sound? To me it has always been the sound of excitement, of life, of hustle and bustle and activity.

But it goes deeper than that. It seems evocative of so many things of the things I love; tradition, folklore, legend, proverb, collective memory, community, and so forth.

Vox populi, vox Dei. "The voice of the people is the voice of God". This proverb might not be literally true, but I like its grandeur. I like everything that has been hallowed by multitudes over generations; sayings, nursery rhymes, fairy stories, customs, and so forth.

I love the television coverage of general elections precisely because it so often features this sound, especially when it comes to reports from election centres. It's also an example of what makes this sound so exciting. It's the sound of humanity making history, making stories, working out its destiny. It's the sound of the battle of ideas, the dance of ideas.

Another reason I enjoy open days and conventions is because of their free-form, "buffet" format. I like how people can move from stand to stand, stall to stall, exhibition to exhibition according to their own preference. I savour the atmosphere of many things happening at once.

Like most conservatives, I spend a lot of time lamenting things we have lost, looking backwards. But one thing I do like about modern society is its sheer variety and diversity. Yes, modern urban and suburban life can be very alienating and lonely. Like many people, I'm nostalgic for a time of close-knit communities where everybody knew everybody and shared a common culture.

But the flip side of this is the richness of modern life, especially in the era of the internet. There is a bewildering number of interest groups, sub-cultures, activities, ideological currents, and so forth. Pluralism is a good thing in itself. How to get back to tight-knit communities without losing this benign pluralism is a challenge for the future.

I'm rather lucky in my own job, since UCD is a sort of tight-knit, self-contained community of its own, one that also reflects almost every aspect of human life. I'm vey grateful for it.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Sky and the Ground

Sometimes I think the greatest pleasure in life, after chocolate, is contemplation. I think some distinguished people have suggested this before me.

In recent months, or perhaps recent years (it's hard to tell), I've been taking tremendous pleasure in contemplating one aspect of life. I think the best way I can describe it is the contrast between the almost-infinite freedom of the human soul and the intractability of circumstances. I take pleasure in both these things, and also in their collision, or marriage, or whatever you want to call it.

First of all, the freedom of the soul. Lots of people have rhapsodised about this. "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage". "I could be bound in a nutshell, and consider myself king of infinite space." Or the line from the Shawshack Redemption: "You get busy living or you get busy dying". There are so many stories of how people have transcended imprisonment, concentration camp, paralysis, etc. etc. to achieve something great or just affirm life. Stories like those of Helen Keller, Christy Brown, etc. Every moment offers infinite possibilities, even in the realm of consciousness and imagination. Louis MacNeice wrote about how Rembrandt made "the little world he knew world without end."

But then, there is just the opposite; the objectivity and reality of the world, all of the circumstances that we can't change no matter how much we want or how much we try. True, these are often simply tragic: tumours, mental illness. But mostly it strikes me as a very joyous and bracing reality. No matter how smart or rich or charismatic or dreamy you are, whether you are Napoleon or Leonardo Da Vinci or William Blake or anyone else, you can't remake the world in your image. We all live in history, time, place, background, etc.

The idea I'm trying to describe is very hard to articulate, but I think Chesterton put it best in "Wonder and the Wooden Post": "I am interested in wooden posts, which do startle me like miracles. I am interested in the post that stands waiting outside my door, to hit me over the head, like a giant's club in a fairy tale. All my mental doors open outwards into a world I have not made. My last door of liberty opens upon a world of sun and solid things, of objective adventures. The post in the garden; the thing I could neither create nor expect: strong plain daylight on stiff upstanding wood: it is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes."

I remember feeling this joy when I was a kid visiting my aunt's farm and I had to walk about a mile to get to the nearest shop. 

The image that always comes into my mind is a merry-go-round, history and life as a merry-go-round and all of us, great and small, going up and down on the horses of circumstances. I also think of the title of the Anthony Powell novel sequence I found so disappointing: A Dance to the Music of Time.

But, again, it's the combination of these things that brings me the most joy. The sky meeting the ground.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

All Souls' Day

The days grow short. The dead seem very near.
Today we pray for the souls that we hold dear.
And whatever love we lacked, in the days of old,
We can show them now, increased a thousandfold.