Covid Diary Day 8 (Sat 28th March 2020)

A stream running through the fens near the Fen Causeway

An enjoyable day of rest. Walked to Grantchester, completed some house work, read ahead and finished Hebrews and caught up in Exodus, continued to make headway with other reading on the list (Crime and Punishment, Scruton and Lewis) and enjoyed both the finale to Stephen Fry in America and 1940s classic Whisky Galore!

CovidDiary Day 6 (Thurs March 26th 2020)

LockdownTV from Unherd (Elizabeth Oldfield b-right)

A brief post to flag up the stimulating conversations happening over at Unherd on #LockdownTV. Today’s episode focussed on the virus and the environment. The climate is a fraught enough topic in normal circumstances without needing to throw in a global pandemic. In the anxious times we’re living in at the moment, it has been sad and frustrating to sometimes see the issues of the climate be handled so badly by some environmentalists. Take for instance the recent XR posters stating that “humans are the problem and Corona is the cure”. This is deeply disturbing, anti-human and frankly eugenicist stuff.

This was why I was encouraged by Elizabeth Oldfield’s strong contribution to the debate (see the video below). Oldfield rejected the approach outlined above but wisely cautioned against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We can still use this moment to think about our personal individual decisions as well as the need for governments to re-think global capital’s reliance on fossil fuels.

On the point about individuals taking responsibility, I was encouraged and challenged by Liz’s bridge-building instincts (around 8:50) as she made reference to conservative doyen Roger Scruton’s writings on the environment (Liz makes reference to working transgenerationally and in local contexts that we call home). I also greatly appreciated her refusal to decide between the local and the global by making reference to the interdependence that has arisen so clearly in recent weeks between individuals within communities and between communities across borders.

Check out the video below and have a read of Liz’s most recent post on the issue here. It rightly avoids what she calls the “triumphalist crowing” from some in environmentalist circles just now, while still remaining faithfully and positively committed to the care of creation.

CovidDiary Day 5 (Weds March 25th 2020)

Today’s post is slightly more political so if you’re not into that kind of thing…then be sure to read it!

In the wake of Covid-19, libertarianism appears to be on the back foot. From tacitly enforced government social distancing and isolation, to top-down regulation and intervention in markets and business, it looks in many ways like we are witnessing the limits of the libertarian creed…

From my perspective, this marks a positive development. Before I go on, I want to state some of my premises and define my terms: I am wary of those who place unfailing trust either in the market or in the state—these two poles seem to have the common fatal flaw of misplaced trust and a poorly worked out anthropology. What usually functions as a spectrum moving from more statist solutions to more market-centric ones, on closer inspection appears to bend and meet where these two positions are concerned. And yet this is a broken world. The markets are broken, and the state is broken. Because people are broken. When all is said and done, that’s the baseline, the undercurrent of my thinking on the matter.

What sparked my thinking on libertarianism was seeing this piece from James Kirkup (of The Social Market Foundation) on Unherd today. Kirkup tackles the social elements of libertarianism and argues that it places too much faith in the human individual and, more particularly, errs by attributing too much rationality and kindness to the human agent. We have only to see the response of individuals, pre-lockdown, piling into pubs and ignoring government advice to remain socially distant and save lives. The cracks immediately begin to appear in the rational actor theory underpinning social libertarianism .

Libertarianism also reared its head in today’s first episode of Unherd’s new #LockdownTV, with Timandra Harkness and Tom Chivers discussing whether or not the government’s lockdown strategy is utilitarian (more on that another time…).

The other thing that got me thinking was an interesting virtual discussion I had today with a couple of friends today over the government’s handling of the crisis, particularly as it relates to economics and markets. Few topics make my blood run colder than economics (the maxim “man shall not live on spreadsheets alone” just about sums up my attitude on the matter at the moment). But I felt compelled to weigh in…

In the course of the discussion, my friends argued that the market operates as a super intelligence that should regulate itself. Why, they argued, is the government (particularly a Conservative one) intervening with high spending and borrowing when this will only lead to economic decline in the medium to long term? And surely this intervention will result in ineffective, bad businesses being kept alive through government aid when, if the markets were left to run their course, they would naturally and rightly die a death.

I want to engage in a bit of bridge-building here, first.

To begin with, I can agree and acknowledge that free markets have a way of showing up ineffectively run business. There might be some valid concerns here about who is being supported…should the whiskey shop or the boutique sunglasses store on my street receive the 80% government funding to cover wages, we might ask?

Then and again, these businesses (and many like them) are already facing difficulty as a result of being deemed non-essential. They might be able to pay their staffs salaries through the Job Retention Scheme, but the result of being shut for weeks, and probably months, will probably spell the end for them already. Are they to be punished for events outside of their control?

More gravely, Libertarian economics assumes that the market will unfailingly tell us what businesses should survive. But there are clearly some businesses that through no fault of their own have fallen into difficult times and require state intervention. The airline business is just one such example (though there are many). A halt on flights due to lockdown means that no one can fly; with no passengers due to the virus, airlines face severe losses. The UK government has unveiled £330bn of loans to airlines and has recently been considering buying equity stakes. The economic situation of airlines like BA is not the result of poor management but a freak virus.

So I have some practical doubts around the ability of the market to decide which businesses should survive.

But what about moral arguments that often circulate and have to do with liberty from state intervention? To be sure, I value liberty highly. We must remember, I think, that to place absolute faith in the state causes all sorts of problems, ranging from a loss of personal responsibility to more extreme forms of collectivisation that remove the dignity and individuality of the human person by apportioning to everyone the same product (usually having the quality of being equally substandard). I have family who grew up in the Soviet Union and believe me when they say they would rather not return to such a state of political economy.

But, as ever, there are two ways to fall off the horse. If we can place too much faith in the state, then we can also do the same with markets. The credo of economic libertarianism is the freedom of markets guided by the invisible hand. This is, of course, an overt reference to Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

And yet, as Jesse Norman has powerfully argued, Smith is radically misunderstood when he is claimed as the father of laissez-faire economics (moreover, the invisible hand appears only once in The Wealth of Nations).

Smith, Norman argues, was a proponent of government regulation under certain conditions. In his thought (and in his time), markets operated differently, were embedded and embodied with a set of social norms rather than some calculating “super-intelligence”. As Norman puts it,

markets for Smith are very different to those of economists today. They are not the disembodied mathematical constructs of modern economics and policymaking, and his view of individuals is not that of a desiccated economic atomism. Rather — recalling his insights about language and ethics — markets are living institutions embedded in specific cultures and mediated by social norms and trust. They shape and are shaped by their participants, in a dynamic and evolving way. They often have common features, but they are as different from one another as individual humans are: markets for land and labour and capital, asset markets from product markets and all the innumerable rest of them. Yes, markets typically generate economic value, and they are unmatched in their ability to allocate goods and services and encourage innovation and technological improvement. But…what matters is not the largely empty rhetoric of “free markets”, but the reality of effective competition. And effective competition requires mechanisms that force companies to internalise their own costs and not push them on to others, that bear down on crony capitalism, rent extraction, “insider” vs “outsider” asymmetries of information and power, and political lobbying.

One of the biggest problems I have with libertarian absolute faith in the market, then, is that it’s lost what markets are for. To coin a phrase, markets are for people and people are not for markets.

Pre-Covid, I would have said that I am in favour of capitalism with safety nets (of course we need to define what we mean by capitalism—this article is a good place to start). I did, and still do, advocate greater regulation of companies like Amazon, Uber and Facebook.

But if governments should regulate free markets in “peace time” then a fortiori should they do so in extreme times such as ours, where perfectly good businesses are rent asunder by circumstances beyond their control.

Rather than placing all my faith in the state or in the market, I would want to espouse a realism that acknowledges the inadequacies of both, precisely because both are ultimately human, which is to say socially embedded, institutions. There is much to say here about a constructive view of the relation between market and state. I have already discussed one example above, but here and here are other, albeit different, attempts that are worth engaging with.

If I was to go one step further, and venture beyond economics and into theology, I would want to say that absolute faith is best placed in One who does not fail us. Even when market and state forsake us, He will take us up.

CovidDiary Day 4 (Tues 24th March 2020)

Remembering…

I have a hard time remembering the past.

Which is a pretty embarrassing thing to confess for someone who loves history.

And I’m not talking about the voyages of St Paul, or the life of Perpetua and Felicitas or the intrigue of the Elizabethan court.

I mean the things that happened today. And not even the things that happened around the globe on this day…but the events in my own life.

I have a hard time remembering.

Remembering is one of those virtues that could just make a comeback in these times.

The push and pull of the daily grind, or routine as we may call it, seem at one level to work against the practice of remembering. I so easily attend to, long for, have my gaze turned by novel things because, well, my attention is naturally drawn to new and interesting things.

And don’t get me wrong. We’ll need novelty in the days, weeks, months ahead. To keep us going. New friendships forged in the fires of the plague. New talents and skills we never thought we had, exercised for the common good. Even new cultural experiences—new music, poetry, literature, art, opera, TV, film—that will inspire and move us and draw us together as a nation.

But I also hope to remember. And remember to hope.

I hope to remember the gifts in my life: of family, a roof over my head, of friends, of good food and drink, of faith. Some, admittedly not all of us, will become more intimately aware of these ordinary, everyday things. The French use the word quotidian which often has connotations of mundanity, what North American priest Eugene Peterson called the “unglamorous ordinary“.

Yes, the weeks ahead will, for some, be the most stressful and busy on record. I feel a duty to try and contribute to efforts to ease this burden. At the same time, for those of us working from home, we can’t duck the fact that there will simply be more time to reacquaint ourselves with the unglamorous ordinary once more.

Again: novelty is good. But, dare I say it, novelty can quickly turn stale. The novelty of the current situation will wear off (if it hasn’t already). Which I admit is hardly a helpful way to look at a global pandemic, and betrays a good deal of privilege; but it is one I’ve entertained in all honesty. We only have to contemplate being indoors for long periods to realise that this will get tiresome, stuffy and stale.

Novelty has us focus on the next thing. It’s inherently future-oriented in that respect. Technology (and social media in particular) has us positively hooked on the novel. I focus on the next big thing. The new episode. The new game. The new Twitter post. And so on.

Remembering is different. The practice of remembering will root us in the present by helping us call to mind the past. If it isn’t greedily craving the next thing on the horizon, it also isn’t over-sentimentally longing for an ephemeral golden age. Remembrance, I am glad to say, is realistic. It’s tangible. Unlike sentimentality—where the object in view is distorted into something it never was—with remembering we can point to a specific act at a specific time.

At the root of any good practice of remembrance is attentiveness and gratitude; attending to what has happened this day and giving thanks to God for his gifts and, where needed, repenting of my failure to use them or to appreciate them.

And when I attend to these experiences, when I call to mind the beautiful flower bed, the struggles of a friend, the conversations with loved ones, the impatient word I spoke, the forgiveness offered to me by a close one, then I am able to give thanks, say sorry and grow.

A verse from the Psalms in the lectionary has imprinted itself on my memory this week, and fittingly, it has to do with memory. I quote it in the KJV as I find the novelty (that word again) of the old language causes me to read more slowly and attentively; it’s just more memorable:

I will remember the works of the Lord: and call to mind thy wonders of old time. I will think also of all thy works: and my talking shall be of thy doings. Psalm 77:11-12

[EDIT: I have only now seen that Exodus 2 was part of this day’s liturgy; this evocative passage, which tells of Moses’s rescue and ends with God’s concern for his people, adds a new dimension to remembering: we remember God’s acts and give thanks but God also remembers his covenant to us. Ex 2:23-24 reads The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. We remember God because God first graciously remembers us]

God’s wonders of old time are a ballast for the present. The Psalmist talks of them continually. In such a way, I hope to remember.

I also remember to hope.

For remembrance stirs up hope. Because as we remember God’s faithfulness in the past, the way he has delivered us from trouble, death and all manner of circumstances and trials, we are reminded that we have a firm hope for the future. If remembrance is refreshingly realistic, it is also hugely hopeful. Hopeful in the sense of instilling a firm and reasonable confidence that God will continue to be faithful in his love to us, even in the midst of situations that test us to the limit.

How does this look practically? I am trying to develop some kind of routines to help memory (to function, that is, as aide-mémoires). At the moment, these consist of:

  1. Daily prayer: allowing the routine of the lectionary (of readings, prayers and responses) to form the desires of my heart and the words of my prayers as I remember God’s goodness and call on his mercy.
  2. Attending: going for a walk in the courts of the student village near where I live and enjoying the flowers and old buildings, taking the time to really soak these in.
  3. Working: work is a real source of comfort and satisfaction at this time and I don’t say that lightly as many struggle in the current climate. The structure of having set working hours is something I am also very grateful for.
  4. Sitting still: allowing myself moments (just brief seconds even) of holy distraction away from the news cycle and social media.
  5. Writing: constructing a piece of writing is a good way for me to pour my energies into one thing, one idea and hone it. It’s also satisfying to be putting something out there that hopefully benefits someone, even if that is just me. By doing so, I hope to remember the lessons I might have learned.

So yes, I find remembering hard. But I’m working on it…

CovidDiary Day 3 (Mon 23rd March 2020)

A brief, isolated walk today was interrupted by this view…

A short post tonight. This evening marks the beginning of the lockdown. My mind is still reeling from the news and what all of this means…for family members, vulnerable friends and loved ones, those facing economic hardship and social isolation, all of whom will struggle immensely in the weeks and months ahead. Tough times await but I do believe this is for the greater good.

To be honest, it’s late and the best use of my time just now is to say my prayers and get to bed.

CovidDiary Day 2 (Sun 22nd March)

I have begun to record my thoughts each day in a sort of virtual diary. The hope is to encourage and inspire reflection in the midst of the unsettling “time of the virus”.

A sunny walk along the path to Grantchester

Read Day 1’s Entry here.

It was a strange and unsettling feeling to wake up this morning and remember that churches across the nation are shut (in fact, a good number of churches are open for prayer–it is the services that aren’t happening). I honestly can sympathise with the sentiments of some who want these services to continue. Even for someone like me, who for now thinks that the sacrament is highly significant but not the sum total of Christian life and worship, I have to admit that I sorely missed taking communion with my brothers and sisters in person. And I can understand those who say that by cancelling services, the church look “no different” to the world around it.

On the other hand, if all major gatherings have been banned and we imagine a scenario where it was only church-goers that were meeting, we would be forgiven for thinking that this was irresponsible in the extreme. To flout governmental ruling in this way would appear damaging to the public witness of the church. Then there’s the fact that in keeping our distance physically, we are saving lives. As James KA Smith puts it, “How strange: this time in which we love our neighbours by keeping our distance”.

So it was that this morning, with some inner conflict, I followed the Church of England regulations (in turn following public health advice) and tuned in virtually for Sunday morning worship. The service, hosted by the Archbishop at Lambeth Palace, was on the whole uplifting and hopeful.

Today is of course Mothering Sunday. I appreciate deeply the love and care of my mother, the sacrifices she has made and the compassion and quiet inner strength she embodies to me.

For reasons I’ll come on to, I am conflicted, however, by the notion that mothers as a category of people, should be celebrated in church. (I feel the same way about father’s day as well, I hasten to add). Lest I be misunderstood and seem an ingrate, I want to celebrate my mother and father everyday of the year! I’m just not sure about the church being the context for that.

I therefore appreciated +Justin’s focus, in his sermon, on the ancient roots of Mothering Sunday.

Mothering Sunday is about place – about knowing where we are rooted, what gives us life, how we are related to others. It’s a place for starting from and returning to. In ancient tradition we return to the church where we were baptised, where we grew in faith.

This emphasis on the ecclesial mother makes more sense to me in a church context as it reminds us that our core identity is found in Christ. We are called to cherish and value tremendously our earthly families, mothers and fathers. At the same time, women are not somehow incomplete if they do not have children. Their core identity is found in Christ, rather than in biological motherhood. Sometimes this can get lost in the messaging of Mothers’ day even, or sometimes especially, in the Church.

I have just this evening read a brilliant article from an old colleague, Abbie Allison, at Theos who bravely and boldly shares her own concerns with the modern church and its view of the family, and of mothers–the oft-imagined paragon of womanhood in the church is the mother with children in her arms and at her side. But, as Abbie explores, what of those women whose mothers have died? What of those for whom the word mother conjures up memories of motherly failure or even betrayal? Or what of those who are unable to conceive children because of infertility? Abbie writes,

But there’s another side to the Church, which emphasises a different take on identity and family. A core Christian belief is that we are whole in Christ and Christ alone. This means that our fundamental identity is not found in being a biological mother, or in anything else, but in being a beloved child of God.

When churches move beyond preaching this message to modelling it through the way they talk about family, they can be a healing balm for the grief and identity crisis of infertility.

I’ve long wondered if we could remove fathers’ and mothers’ day as individual dates from the church (again, I’m speaking about the church) calendar and replace them with men’s and women’s days. Again, not out of spite for our dads and mums, but because all of us are, after all, men and women. This way, we could choose to celebrate the women and men in our lives in a more rounded and inclusive way. Incidentally, Russia, for instance, does this with Men’s day falling in February (initially for soldiers but now for all men) and Women’s Day falling on what is now our International Woman’s Day, 8th March. The realist in me tells me that we’ll never remove Mothering Sunday or Fathers’ Day completely from our church calendars. And so if we do end up doing fathers’/mothers’ day at church, there’s lots of scope for thinking how this might be done sensitively and creatively. Today’s service at Lambeth was a decent example of this, I thought.

*******

Throughout the whole day, I’ve been reflecting on a sentence I wrote in yesterday’s post: “In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently”.

I began asking myself:

  1. Why do we behave differently in abnormal times? What specifically about this time and circumstance causes me to make conversation with the cashier I would normally ignore…even go so far as to ask her how her and her team were dealing with the stress of the moment? Or what about the present moment makes me think of an old friend or colleague who might be lonely or isolated when normally I would expend my efforts and energies elsewhere (usually, let’s be honest, on myself)?

Then I began to define my terms a bit more.

2. What do I mean by abnormal times? A moment of doubt followed: Are these, in fact, abnormal times? What specifically about these times makes them different from “ordinary”, “pre-Covid” life?

These are certainly unusual (if not unique) times. There’s social distancing and self-isolation, just to name two of the obvious changes (for those used to it, Mother’s Day without a family meal is very strange indeed). As I mentioned yesterday, this moment will be a (and perhaps it’s too early to say but perhaps the) defining moment of our generation.

But in my moment of doubt, the penny dropped.

3. What if our Covid-19 moment is, in some way, the “normal” time?

Of course these are unusual times. But when it comes to what really matters, is this time really different from any other?

Not to be too morbid, but think about death, for instance. CS Lewis, in reflecting upon the effect of the Second World War on death had the following to say:

What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier; but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering; and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy- five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.

They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realise it. Now the stupidest of us know. We see unmistakable the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. 

Learning in War-Time (A Sermon preached at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939)

War, or plague or any kind of straitened circumstance does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death. That will always stand at 100%. Rather, these scenarios make death more real to us. They remind us more sharply of our mortality. War, or any “abnormal” circumstance “disillusions” us, in the sense that it removes the illusion of invulnerability that we might have held to in “peace time”. Lewis again: “The war [read Covid-19] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it”. This it seems to me, is an uncomfortable truth of which to be reminded. And, as with all uncomfortable truths, it is a gift and mercy to us.

Above all else, it might aid us, as the Psalmist puts it, to re-consider our days aright that we might gain a heart of wisdom. If the virus does not in absolute terms increase our likelihood of death, then what will we occupy our hours and days with? The question should not be, “how should I live differently in these strange times?” but “as in all times, how should I live before God so as to glorify him and love my neighbour?”

When asked by an imaginary interlocutor, “how are we to live in an atomic age?”, Lewis gave the following response:

I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Will the habits we develop in the time of the virus stay with us in peace time? If they are habits, practices, liturgies, attitudes and inclinations of the heart worth forming, then they are for all times.

[EDIT 28/3/20: The lockdown now makes the kinds of activities Lewis mentioned impossible. But we can still learn to have our fears perfected, as Matt Lee Anderson argues here]

****************

In a lighter moment today, I read the following family’s rule, which I took to be pretty sound advice for keeping sanity.

The entire above post notwithstanding (!), I have tried to take this to heart and have had a pretty productive day walking to Grantchester, cleaning, doing laundry, shopping for food and seeing my Mum for Mothers’ day (from across the garden hedge for obvious reasons!) which was very special. I also tried out our new hoover which was a lot of fun.

Me and the Dyson V7 (it came with the house!)

…the final bit of laundry beckons.

CovidDiary Day 1 (Sat 21st March)

I wanted to begin to record some of my thoughts on the fly in the hope of offering some encouragement and reflection at this unsettling time. I don’t know how long it will last for or how consistent I will be but here goes…

Morning prayer an encouragement this am: Ps 31:27—be strong, take courage in your heart, all of you whose hope is in the Lord. Immediately I was taken back to the version of Church of Scotland minister/musician Ian White which my parents used to blast out of the tape player of the family’s Ford Mondeo. As kids, my brother and I used to chuckle at how repetitive the lyrics were. Funny how they are now lodged deep in my memory.

A friend told me today that this is the defining moment of our generation. Years from now people will ask us what it was like to have lived during the Coronavirus. Hopefully part of our answer will be that we lived well and formed good habits…much like my parents did in playing Ian White to my brother and I those many years ago. Be strong, take courage in your heart.

Enjoyed a sunny walk with Olga to Waterbeach in the afternoon which was a mercy. Savoured the sunshine rays, all the more given I’m not sure how much longer we’ll be able to do this.

Fen Ditton from the riverside

Seeing the chapel where CH Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, started his ministry was also a treat. I wonder what he would have made of Covid-19 and how we should respond.

In the afternoon I ventured to the nearby Sainsbury’s on Sidney St and spoke with an employee there at the self-check out. I was struck by how normally I would have completely ignored this lady but here I was, in these extraordinary times, asking her how she was doing and how the store was coping with the stress and strains of panic buying.

This got me thinking. Make no mistake about it: Covid-19 has revealed to us the fragility of our human existence. It is unsettling, devastating and tragic.

It is also an opportunity. In abnormal times, we find ourselves behaving differently. A conversation with a good friend an hour or so ago reminded me of this, as he spoke about reaching out to friends on their own with a phone call or visiting elderly colleagues who had no one to look after them with a container of soup. In his Times column today, Graham Tomlin wrote about how this period is an opportunity for us as a nation:

Self-isolation, with no sport to watch, no colleagues to chat to, nothing to fill the long hours, can mean we start phoning or writing to friends we haven’t spoken to for ages, learn to play an instrument, try out longer and deeper conversations with family or flatmates. It can give us urgency to find new ways to reach out to friends and neighbours. It could teach us habits of quiet prayer or mindfulness, gratitude for what we do have but temporarily miss, reflection on our lives and what really matters, appreciation for the simple things of life. After a few months it could even teach us a whole new way of life…

For many this will seem indulgent. What new habits are there to cultivate when my job is at risk? When I have to teach my three children following school closures on top of my day job and being a parent and spouse? When there is the stress of obtaining medication or arranging an appointment when the health service is already so stretched? When my elderly parent is ill with the virus?

I don’t presume to hold any answers here, except to say that in these circumstances, sometimes it is enough just to get through the day. And I feel keenly the need to help those in such circumstances. I still haven’t quite figured out how beyond offerings to food banks and looking out for my parents. I still wonder what I might do for my neighbour—the one I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out?

While it might seem indulgent, there is still an opportunity for deeper reflection in this “fallow period” (and yes, I realise fallow can seem privileged for those with the responsibilities I listed above—so how about a period with different rhythms and routines?). It’s a chance to think about our habits, our values, an opportunity to spend time with loved ones, have deeper conversations, grow closer to those from whom we might have grown distant. “We have gifts to give one another in this time”, as theologian James KA Smith reminds us.

We must be realistic. Of course this is and will be difficult. It will stretch us to the limit. But in uncertain times, there is an opportunity for growth and for new, life-giving habits and sacrificial ways of life to emerge.

What I’m Reading—March 2020

What’s on my desk/bedside table, book-wise
  1. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Translated by Constance Garnett; Heinemann, 1914)
  2. Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories (Faber and Faber, 2009)
  3. Andrew Byers, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP, 2011)
  4. James Mumford, Vexed: Ethics Beyond Political Tribes (Bloomsbury, 2020)
  5. Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (Little, Brown: 2019).

I’m still working my way through most of the books from December’s list (this includes Dominion which I recently had signed by the author at the Cambridge Union, where he was delivering a speech in favour of Sparta over Athens. He apologised for signing the book in red pen, but what could be more appropriate for a book on the cross-shaped mind of the West?). I did manage to finish a couple of books though. Among these was JKA Smith’s On the Road With Augustine which, among many things, serves as a thought-provoking, moving and inspiring primer to the Christian life for the interested, cynical and sceptical.

I’m not yet disciplined enough to only buy and starting reading a book after I’ve finished another. On the plus side, I’m happy with my resolution to adopt more fiction into my literary diet. My selections on this count have, admittedly, been on the darker side. I recently completed Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters and have now selected two masterpieces which are highly appropriate for the Lenten season—O’Connor’s collection of short stories and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was introduced to O’Connor through an episode of the Onscript podcast in Lent last year with Michael Bruner. Immediately attracted by what Bruner describes as O’Connor’s fascination with the piercing beauty and unyielding grotesqueness of human existence, I picked up a copy of the shockingly brilliant A Good Man Is Hard to Find before selecting her volume of short stories.

In the world of non-fiction, I’ve been enjoying the bridge-building nature of Mumford’s Vexed so far which speaks to some of my Red Tory/Blue Labour instincts. On the theological side of things, I can’t wait to make some time for Byers’ Faith Without Illusions, not least because he speaks about hopeful realism in a way that resonates with my desires when starting this blog (more on that here and hopefully more anon). His take on disillusionment in the opening chapter reminds of Jonathan Merrit’s wonderful piece on the Gift of Disillusionment, which directly inspired my Palm Sunday sermon last year. I’m finding Byers’ book a generous, orthodox and thoughtful read so far and a healing balm for the cynicism (read: “contemptuous distrust”) which I find so easy entangles.

Lenten Reflections Through Literature, Music, Art and Film

The season of Lent is the season of the realist.

Lent marks the forty days that lead of up to Easter in which Christians remember the brokenness and mortality of the human condition and the miracle of Christ who knows our weakness and lovingly offered himself for all.

The term Christians use to describe the human brokenness we reflect on with intensity at Lent is “sin”. Now, I realise that sin isn’t a terribly fashionable word. It can seem morbid, introspective and negative. But if sin simply refers to what Francis Spufford calls “our human propensity to f*ck things up“, then what could be more realistic than recognising and owning up to one’s shortcomings?

After all, the season of Lent is the season of the realist.

For it recognises our brokenness but it does not leave us without hope. If confession is where we begin on the Christian journey, it is not where we end up. Like woebegone Isaiah, we are not completely left to the devices and desires of our own hearts. If we commit ourselves to God, we can receive the cleansing we need and that only he can provide.

The confronting realism of Lent can be seen and heard in the following pieces, taken from literature, art, music and film.

Cosmic Winter or Cosmic Summer?

Our first passage comes from CS Lewis’s essay the ‘Grand Miracle’, in which Lewis spiritedly advances his argument for belief in the resurrection. This is, in one way, an odd choice of reading for Lent as it appears to skip over the season entirely and deals squarely with the miracle of Easter. But in some ways, this passage nicely frames the season of Lent by forcing us to confront the subject of repentance and its necessity to the Christian life. To this end, Lewis uses the example of the seasons. The Christian lives in Spring following the resurrection. Yes Winter in some sense remains present. We feel it “baith snell an’ keen”. And yet the signs of spring begin to manifest themselves. The crocus shoots up, a sign that spring is on its way. Above all, Lewis alights upon the theme of choice and powerof decision. At Lent, the choice is ours. Will we stay in dark winter, or move forward into the glorious cosmic summer?

The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise. St Peter for a few seconds walked on the water; and the day will come when there will be a re-made universe, infinitely obedient to the will of glorified and obedient men, when we can do all things, when we shall be those gods that we are described as being in Scripture. To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that. Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale. A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’ in the same spirit in which he says, ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’ Because we know what is coming behind the crocus. The spring comes slowly down this way; but the great thing is that the corner has been turned. There is, of course, this difference, that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not. We can. We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on into those ‘high mid-summer pomps’ in which our Leader, the Son of man, already dwells, and to which He is calling us. It remains with us to follow or not, to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.

‘The Grand Miracle’, in God in the Dock (Eerdmans: 1970) 87-88.

Miserere Mei Deus

Lent wouldn’t be Lent without Allegri’s Miserere. Along with Psalm 22, Psalm 51 forms one of the great Lenten psalms. Whereas in Psalm 22, the Psalmist plumbs the depths of despair and lament, in Psalm 51 he bares his soul in confession to God.

The setting of the Psalm couldn’t be any darker. Israel’s hero-king lustfully claims as his wife Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, whom he has killed by placing him in the front lines of battle. The child he then has with Bathsheba dies at a young age. The stark realism captures the universal human experience of despair over personal human failings. For I know my iniquities And my sins are always before me. The Psalmist is desperate for rescue and re-creation. Create in me a pure heart, oh, God. The Miserere sets this achingly warts-and-all confession in the searing beauty of a nine-part choral piece. It is a masterpiece of art and devotion.

Finding Life In the Desert

Jesus’s 40 day testing in the desert is the centre-piece of the Lenten Season. Driven by the spirit into the wilderness, Jesus triumphantly endures three tests set by the Adversary.

In the painting above, Briton Riviere‘s Christ in the Wilderness (1898), the artist strikingly, but perhaps misleadingly, presents Jesus alone, bereft of all comfort or company. As Ian Paul remarks,

The temptations might not have been a bag of laughs, but Jesus is not depicted as ‘lone and dreary’; in Mark he is ministered to by angels and the wild beasts, and Luke is clear that he goes ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and with the words of his Father’s blessing ringing in his ears, and returns for ministry ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Luke 4.14)

Yes, there is the weariness and hunger of Jesus—captured in one of scripture’s greatest understatements, “he was hungry”.

Yes it was hard. And that’s precisely the point of Lent.

But there is a strange fullness, a mysterious blessing in the desert. By this I do not mean to trivialise or over-spiritualise hardship. I simply mean that such hardships can bring into focus our deep need for God.

Sometimes it is in the desert that we find life. Or more to the point, sometimes it is in the desert that we find Christ. It is in the desert that we are confronted with the emptiness and thirst we can pretend is not there in the oasis. Sometimes it is in the dryness of the desert, where there seems no breath left in our lungs, sometimes it is here “where the breath begins”.

Dry
and dry
and dry
in each direction.

Dust dry.
Desert dry.
Bone dry.

And here
in your own heart:
dry,
the center of your chest
a bare valley
stretching out
every way you turn.

Did you think
this was where
you had come to die?

It’s true that
you may need
to do some crumbling,
yes.
That some things
you have protected
may want to be
laid bare,
yes.
That you will be asked
to let go
and let go,
yes.

But listen.
This is what
a desert is for.

If you have come here
desolate,
if you have come here
deflated,
then thank your lucky stars
the desert is where
you have landed—
here where it is hard
to hide,
here where it is unwise
to rely on your own devices,
here where you will
have to look
and look again
and look close
to find what refreshment waits
to reveal itself to you.

I tell you,
though it may be hard
to see it now,
this is where
your greatest blessing
will find you.

I tell you,
this is where
you will receive
your life again.

I tell you,
this is where
the breath begins.

Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace

A Lenten Film Triptych

  1. Realisation: Growing Suspicious

Realization refers to the point at which we recognise that something is wrong or amiss. We might call this the moment when we realize we are ‘on to something’. The clip from the Truman Show captures something of this ‘dawning realization’—when it ‘dawns’ upon us that the reality we are living in or out is somehow not what it should be. This relates well to the idea of repentance as a change of heart and mind—the Greek for repentance is ‘metanoia’, referring to the mind or driving seat of the person which requires change. The premise of the film, of course, is that from the moment of Truman’s birth, his entire life has been make-belief. He lives in a constructed town in an all too real ‘reality’ TV programme watched by viewers outside of the city. Everyone is in on the act…everyone, that is, except for Truman. This clip (a deleted scene) humorously shows his realization that something is afoot. 

2. Confession: I’m Drunk Right Now

Although knowing the truth of a situation, it is all to possible for us to stubbornly resist it. The ‘dawning realization’ discussed above almost always reveals some ugly truth about our inner selves which we inevitably wish to fight tooth and nail against. In the film Flight, William Whittaker (played by Denzel Washington) skilfully lands a plane caught in a terrible storm. Although several people on the flight die, the feat is widely acclaimed as an act of miraculous bravery by Whittaker. But then the horrible truth eventually comes out that Whittaker was drunk while flying the plane. In the final scene (spoilers!)Denzel Washington’s character has the choice to live a lie about his alcoholism or to ‘fess up to his dreadful secret. It is one of the most moving and satisfying resolutions to a film I have ever seen. 

3. Action: Is This Not the Fast I Choose?

It is one thing to admit you are ‘driving in the wrong direction’, another to begin to turn the car around and begin going in the right way. This can be a deeply humbling process. Another word for this is repentance, which refers to the changing of mind and heart in light of our own wrong-doing. We are reminded of repentance at Lent but also at the beginning of the Church calendar in the season of Advent. In one Advent reading, John the Baptist admonishes the crowds to ‘bear fruits in keeping with your repentance’. This ‘bearing of fruits’ takes on a highly practical nature. Among other things, it looks like giving to those in need, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, turning away from bribery and extortion, living justly.

In The Pianist, Nazi Officer Wilm Hosenfield is racked with guilt and vows to house Jewish pianist Władysław Szpilman. In the scene above, he is shown feeding Szpilman and, eventually, giving him his coat. I am reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” True repentance looks like giving your coat to the one who has none. Not as a way of earning anything, but as the fruits of a life restored by God’s mercy.

Who is My Neighbour? A Foreign Policy Plea for Post-Brexit Britain

As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we would do well to consider our alliances, especially as other more malignant Empires loom on the horizon.

We need to talk about empires.

As today we begin the complex process of untangling ourselves from the European Union, this is more important than ever.

Integral to the movement for leaving the EU has been the strong desire for national sovereignty and the rejection of a perceived European empire. Britain’s laws and borders remain, in the final analysis, under the control of the British people.

At the same time, I think we might be losing sight of the foreign-policy implications of Brexit. An important part of striking out on this new path is the relationships we will have with other nations. And I’m not sure we’re talking about this nearly enough as much as we should.

Even in the month of January, as we prepare to leave the EU, we have already seen the importance of Britain’s cultural and military alliances emerge twice.

First of all, there was the US killing of Gen Soleimani in Iran. Amid rumours that the UK wasn’t consulted prior to the attack, serious questions were asked of the state of the Special Relationship.

Then just this week, the government voted to accept the limited use of equipment from Chinese state-backed company Huawei, in the UK’s 5G network. The decision was taken in the face of US warnings and the threat of changes to the existing networks of intelligence sharing. Real cracks are beginning to show in the Anglo-American alliance.

Even as post-Brexit Britain celebrates its freedom, then, it cannot escape the urgency of its global relationships.

Because while the nation-state rises, empires aren’t going anywhere.

Who, in the end, will we call our neighbours? Countries that share our values or countries that do not?

The Rise of the Nation-State

Since the referendum result, there has been a fairly understandable focus in the UK on our relationship to ourselves.

We’ve begun to consider how the different parts of the UK relate to one another. And this is no bad thing.

This internal focus is largely the result of the fact that the nation-state has risen once more to the fore of Western politics.

2016, with the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, was a cataclysmic year for national sovereignty. Of course, there have been a wave of national populist movements both preceding and following Brexit and Trump. But these two moments constitute a watershed which signalled that a profound change in the geopolitical landscape was afoot.

Among other things, the Brexit vote heralded a victory for the Somewheres. The Brexit vote was a revolt of those who benefited the least from globalisation against those who have benefited the most.

Brexit was also, in many cases, a repudiation of a perceived European empire. As Ed West puts it,

Rather than longing for imperial greatness, a majority of English Leave voters don’t even care if the Union breaks up. Leavers are not generally keen on foreign intervention, either; if anything, as Tom Holland put it, they’d just like to go back to the Shire and smoke pipe-weed.

While it is the Brexiteers that are frequently accused of being pro-empire, imperial ambitions are more often to be found among some of the liberal elite in Brussels.

There are legitimate fears that an empire without borders has already overrode national sovereignty and the freedom of nation states to determine their own course. The Brexit project is the rejection of a new world order and the full embrace of the free nation-state.

A World of Empires

At the same time, I’m wary of the fact that we might be ignoring the rise of other empires that are far more dangerous.

For all that the nation-state has been making a come-back, we still live in a world of empires.

The 2010s saw China become a major geopolitical player. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative has already connected China with parts of Europe and Africa. Judging from the first month of 2020, James Kirkup’s prediction that the Western response to the rise of China will define the 2020s seems entirely reasonable.

With the Huawei case, the UK has already found itself caught in the new Cold War between the US and China. Will we choose the Pax Americana or the Pax Sinica?

Even more worryingly, imperial powers are joining forces. Russia and China frequently vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to deliver aid to Syrian civilians. Around Christmastime, I was shocked to read that China, Russia and Iran were involved in join naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman.

Assuming that we are never going to get rid of empires, shouldn’t we seek to ally with like-minded powers against the rise of such dangerous regimes? My fear here is that in focussing purely on freeing ourselves from the European project (or, as some would see it, empire), we are naively blindfolding ourselves to other empires with extremely malignant and despotic designs.

A Modest Proposal

Very few Leavers are talking about this, however. British parliamentary sovereignty appears to trump any concerns over the rise of the Chinese empire.

And this does make sense. After all, Brexit is about focussing on levelling up all of Britain. On reaching out to those left-behind places. In post Brexit-Britain, the national takes prominence. As Danny Kruger put it so well in his maiden speech this week, “our first loyalties are to the people we live among”.

But we can’t forget our global ties, particularly to other long-standing allies who share our values.

Ultimately, I happen to think that these two points are not mutually exclusive—we can uphold national sovereignty by exiting the EU while still actively seeking out partnership with those states who stand for democracy and freedom.

There are two important questions here, though, that must be faced with open-eyed realism:

1) First, will other like-minded nations always want to interact with us?

The Huawei debacle has imperilled our relationship with an important ally. In Global Britain, we must not risk losing friends over the need for short-term, pragmatic, economic and technological gains.

2) In the wake of rancorous debate over our state as a nation, will our government give enough consideration to issues of foreign policy and our alliances with other nations around the world?

I welcome the swift actions taken by the government to level up all parts of the UK. At the same time, if we are to become Small Britannia, with a strong commitment to building a better Britain, we risk overlooking the part we can play in having a positive global influence.

I am not primarily talking here about being an economic powerhouse, as important as that is. Sadly, in those instances when politicians do consider “Global Britain”, it is invariably in economic terms. To only think about our role in global markets is short-sighted. After all, man cannot live on spreadsheets alone.

Nor, when I mention global influence, am I talking about intervening militarily at every possible juncture, as necessary as that is in certain scenarios.

I am speaking rather of the role of persuasion. In reducing our global influence to the military or markets, we lose sight of the various forms of soft-power that we possess. What of the cultural heritage which we can humbly but firmly offer to those willing to engage with us? I believe that when invited, we have a duty to convince others of the virtue of the values we have tried and tested over hundreds of years and which now form the bedrock of our constitutional democracy—the rule of law, the universality of human rights and the accountability of parliament. While we far from perfectly embody these values, we have a lot to offer.

Something good and important will be lost if we do not consider how we support those (for instance, in Hong Kong), who seek similar freedoms under totalitarian imperial regimes.

Roger Scruton, who died last month, was a passionate proponent of national sovereignty. Yet he was also globally-minded, supporting dissidents in areas under the Iron Curtain and setting up an underground university in Prague.

National interest and global influence often represent competing priorities but they need not always be mutually exclusive alternatives. While the balance is rightly shifting towards the national, in post-Brexit Britain we must not lose sight of our role in the world, and those in it that we would call our neighbours.