Saturday, August 22, 2020

Lost in Thought Again

Why, the question should be raised, seek truth? Why not just go with the flow, as many people do and as most of us do much of the time? Truth, we have established, is hard to find, often ambiguous or less definitive than we hope when we do. All in all, the question might arise ‘why bother?’ after all, in a post-truth world, finding truth is harder than ever.

Zena Hitz has a reason, and the reason is that there is no particular reason. Intellectual activity is usually focussed on finding some truth, although it is often not focussed on finding a truth. The activity is more general than that. But the point of intellectual activity, the hidden pleasure of it, is not to discover something, or to make oneself seem cleverer than others, or to gain qualifications, get onto news magazine programs or become a public guru, but to pursue objects of thought for their own sake.

Hitz argues eloquently that this is where the academic world has lost its way. Academia has drifted, under the influence of ‘neo-liberal’ policies, into bean-counting and making ourselves feel good by our achievements, often obtained by belittling or ignoring others. Teaching barely gets a look in the world of the university; while most universities pay some sort of lip service to teaching and lecturers as teachers, it is notable, for instance, that contractors, who form a large part of most university teaching staff, are rarely pursuing academic research as part of their contract. In spite of the rhetoric, these actions speak loudly.

Intellectual life, according to Hitz, is a mode of resistance. This resistance comes in various guises, depending on the individual and their circumstances. For example, Hitz quotes Irina Ratushinskaya, a Soviet dissident, who used poetry during her imprisonment as a form of resistance (p. 97). When denied writing materials she scratched poems onto soap bars until she had memorised them and then smuggled them out of prison on cigarette papers. You might argue that there is no point in doing that, but it was resistance to the system that would have broken her.

Ratushinskaya’s experience might be considered to be extreme. Not everyone is unfortunate enough to be incarcerated simply for disagreeing with their government, although Ratushinskaya is slightly disconcertingly enthusiastic for having a turbulent life. Her defiance of her captors, of the system which imprisoned her, gave her the will to continue. But we do not have to be in an extreme situation to pursue escape. Hitz quotes the film The Hedgehog, where an ugly middle-aged lady, Renée, the concierge of a building whose residents are the wealthy, professional and neurotic, turns out to resist the world through reading philosophy in private. That is what attracts a new Japanese resident; that is what attracts a twelve-year-old daughter of a government minister and a psychotherapist and ‘professional neurotic’ (p. 54). While the residents indulge in meaningless chatter, posturing, consumption and dinner parties, Renée has an inner life, fed by reading and intellectual pursuit.

Hitz suggests that this inner life has four features: it is a place of retreat and reflection; it is withdrawn from the world (where the world means competition and struggle for wealth, power, prestige and status); it is a source of dignity ( Renée is a more whole human being that the residents); it allows profound communion between human beings. Such an inner life requires, of course, some time of leisure, something beyond work and the needs of the necessities of life. The inner life for Renée, for Socrates and other examples, is what defines them. Renée is defined by her defiance of the situation imposed on her by society. Hitz suggests that poverty is only one way of being dehumanised by our social status. Being wealthy diminishes us as well: the wealthy are not fast cars, apartments in high rise high-status sky-scrapers, or fine dining. If we start to believe that we are defined by these things, we are consumed by the system which we have helped to create.

The inner life (in Hitz’ case the life of the intellect, although it does not have to be) is, therefore, what makes us human. It may well be that it is what makes us attractive to others. A life spent only on surfaces, on chatter and fine wines, makes people boring. A life spent in search of wealth or power does not bring happiness. Of course, a certain degree of wealth is required. A person who has to spend every waking moment scraping a living is diminished. But then so are people who spent every waking moment seeking high public office and who turn out to be entirely vacuous when they get there. A life spent only on surfaces will be discovered, as hidden depths will be perceived in unexpected places.

Hitz fled from the university system as it is practised in the United States. She found it unsatisfying, unrewarding, in spite of the money and status it gave her. There are tensions and ambiguities aplenty in academic life. Hitz’ move to Baltimore brought her face to face with massive urban problems. Her solution to the tension was not to go and set up teaching Latin in a slum but to return to her own original college and try to teach, in small groups, what makes us human, the inner life, the way of life that makes us interesting as people, rather than as functions in a neo-liberal capitalist regime.

That return can be seen as an act of resistance to the system, be that Western capitalism the neo-liberal university or simply the view that the inner life is not worth-while. However we put it, there is something beyond the material which is not a commodity. There is something which is not just knowledge, not just about how stuff works but is about what makes us human. That something may not be identifiable; it is something to do with finding truth, something to do with being human and something to do with the processes of both.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Lost in ‘Lost in Thought’

I have thought for a while that the modern university, often characterised by the term ‘neo-liberal’ is not the place where the most interesting scholarship is being done. The neo-liberal university is one which is managed by managers, bureaucrats, rather than academics. Those who have suffered under the management of academics might, of course, suggest that this is no bad thing, but the problem is that often neo-liberal managers have little idea of what a university is for, and how it works.

Practically, this means that the modern university and its staff and students are monitored by measurables. These metrics have to be things which can easily be collected and understood by a non-specialist in any given subject. Thus the number of papers published by a given academic staff member is established in a given time frame. Academics who fall short of this (or of some combination of number and impact factor of journals published in) are offered support in their writing. Similarly, there are reports that an academic is required (not contractually, of course, but who worries about that) to obtain a certain quantity of money per year, preferably in high profile big lumps of grants. Those who do not are again offered help in writing and submitting proposals and bringing in the big bucks.

When this is added to teaching loads, which are still high even though increasing numbers of undergraduates are taught by term time only contractors (zero-hours workers, if you will) and administration, and you can perhaps see why the core university is not producing the scholarship that might be expected. That is not to say that universities produce nothing, far from it. There is a bewildering and growing number of journals to publish in, even discounting the predatory ones who are after money. The demand for publication is as great, if not greater than ever. But where is the real time for reflection, for reading, for coming to insights and understandings about the human condition in the rough and tumble of grant applications, impact factors and student surveys?

The answer seems to be that thinking and reflection are often squeezed out. I am not suggesting that there really was a golden age of the university when there was not some rough and tumble, but that it is getting harder to find the time to think properly. Thus, it seems to me, scholarship which counts is more being done around the edges, in academic sabbaticals (that, after all, is the purpose of such) and by staff and research students who are not part of the machine.

One response to the neo-liberal university is a form of resistance, slow scholarship (for example Mountz, A., Bonds, A., Mansfield, B., Loyd, J., Hyman, J., Walton-Roberts, M., Basu, R., Whitson, R., Hawkins, R., Hamilton, T., Curran, T., 'For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University', ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14, no. 4 (2015), 1235-59.) a problem is that such resistance is only available to those who already have substantive positions in the university. While the idea of taking ones time in research and scholarship appeals to most people if you are trying to get a post and move out of being a contractor then slow scholarship is not going to help.

Another option is to opt-out of the neo-liberal university rat race, more or less. I have been reading

Hitz, Z., Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).

Zena Hitz has more or less followed a line of resistance which started with a PhD and professorial post in a prestigious US university and then rejecting the ‘brutal competition for status and prestige’ that the position entailed. After a period in a community she returned to her alma mater, a liberal arts college in the US which specialises in small group teaching, rather than the huge lectures and conveyor belt shovelling of knowledge into young minds of the conventional neo-liberal establishment. Her argument is that the activities of learning, knowing, studying and contemplating are what make us human, and that the ways of these activities can and should be taught aside from the endless round of content.

The point here is that human flourishing depends on reflection. Not everyone is a bookworm, but everyone reflects, or should be afforded to opportunity and tools to reflect on their experience. Hobbies, works, life and love are all common human experiences, and all have, or should have, the opportunity to reflect and to learn from them. How we do it is up to us – it might be intellectual activity, or music, the natural world, prayer or caring for the vulnerable. All of these need time for reflection.

Hitz’s argument is that for many this is achieved through hidden intellectual activity. This intellectual activity is not determined to an end, and it may well be declared to be useless. But our inner life is what matters in making us human, not the results of our learning and pondering. The journey is what is worthwhile.

Naturally, this has to exist alongside the provision of the basics of life. Justice has to be administered, food grown, processed, bought and eaten. These are things which necessarily frame our existence. But they are not the ends in themselves of human life. The accumulation of stuff, material goods (and many are good, not just pointless stuff) is not the aim of human existence, even though often it would seem to be the case. Making us wealthier does not necessarily make us happier. Making us wiser might just do so.

The problem is that learning is almost inextricably entwined with politics and technical and professional achievement, which brings us back to the problem of the neoliberal academy. To extract the habit of learning from the output-oriented goals of the university is no mean feat, and many academics cannot achieve it. Hence my initial suggestion, that the place for real scholarship to be achieved is outside, or on the fringes of the modern university.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Conditions for Truth

The truth, we hear, is in trouble. The world, particularly ‘social media’, the medium whereby increasing numbers of people obtain their news is becoming saturated with ‘fake news’, that is information formed mainly from the opinions and prejudices of some commentator, often with an agenda of their own, which feeds into the belief systems of an already receptive audience.

While the problem might be more widespread or less hidden than in earlier eras, it is not unique to our own. Totalitarian regimes have usually manipulated the news for their own purposes: to convince the population of the paradise they live in, or that one disgraced faction was really treasonous, and so on. George Orwell wrote a book about it, after all.

I read recently that Primo Levi, when in a concentration camp, thought about chemistry. Chemistry, he considered, was not something that the authorities could distort. Granted, they could use the results of chemistry to their own ends, but the truths of chemistry – that potassium explodes on contact with water, for example – were fixed truths. No amount of spin of fake news could alter that.

Similarly, in the investigation of the Challenger space shuttle tragedy, Richard Feynman remarked that nature could not be fooled. The launch occurred in spite of warnings about the temperature being too low because managers needed a successful launch. The cold caused the O-rings which sealed the fuel tanks to become brittle and one snapped, leading to an explosion of the fuel. The world view constructed by the managers overrode the reality of the situation as known by the engineers, and the result was a disaster.

Science, and the scientific method we have been discussing are, therefore, aimed at finding some sort of truth. While science might be complex, uncertain (in a technical sense anyway) and often unclear and unknown, it is so in a determinate way. We spend a lot of time determining exactly how uncertain our results are. Error assessment is the bane of every science undergraduate’s life, but it is necessary and essential for understanding what we know.

The alternative view is that reality is a human construct. We have certain perceptual inputs and we make of them what we will. I can, therefore, construct my world, especially my world view, and it is as good as anyone else’s world view. Therefore, I can conclude from what I see around me that immigrants come to my country and take all the jobs and that immigrants must, therefore, be a bad thing. I might only discover that the immigrants do jobs no-one else will when I have achieved their removal and discovered that no-one is willing to pick the lettuces in the local farms. My world view has run into a bit of harsh reality and come off worse, but that does not mean I will particularly change my views. I will probably invent some additional story to do with profiteering farmers or work-shy youngsters to cover my embarrassment.

It takes an awful lot to persuade someone to change a world view. The world is a complex place and we have to invent stories to get through it. The question is how closely those stories have to relate to reality to enable us to get through the day. Often, the answer is not very much, but then every once in a while, reality really does bite us.

On these occasions we need to rethink our positions. We might have thought, for example, that a famine in Ethiopia is simply a result of the normal increase and decrease in population, the cycle of life and death, of plenty and dearth. If, however, we put on different spectacles and see the suffering of ordinary people trying to live their lives and raise their children, we might think again. If we hear the stories of civil war and displacement which have disrupted food supply and the farming year, we might think about human wrongdoing and evil. Taking another look at a situation, carefully, using reliable sources not just rhetoric and spin, leads us to another view of the world.

How do we get there, however? Rethinking is hard work. Finding out something new is hard enough, but redoing our own views, changing the ones we find untenable, is not only hard but uncomfortable. We can feel that we have to question everything, that in the barrel of our thoughts every apple is bad. This is not usually the case, but we do have to find the bad ones and remove them.

The conditions of finding the truth, then, involve a willingness for hard thinking and for change. They also require sources of good information or at least information that we can assess for reliability from the world around us. Simply listening to the sources that agree with our prejudices already established will not do. We need to listen to the dissenters, the questioners and the marginalised. We need to ask why they dissent, question and are othered. And we need to assess whether they have a point, not just whether they agree with us or not.

This is really hard. No human has access to total truth, even on a limited subject. We all have our biases and our blind spots. We can all, no matter how expert, learn something new. Nature is full of surprises for the scientist open to them. So too is the human world for those who are not so blinkered as to ignore everything that does not conform to their own opinions.

In short, the conditions for truth rely on a degree of authenticity in ourselves and in the world around us. We need the results of reliable information presented in as unbiased a manner as possible. Without that, we cannot make a judgment about the world and it human activities. But we also need to be authentic within ourselves, to be prepared to listen to and engage with others, especially if we feel that we are unlikely to agree with them, at least initially. And that is hard.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Thoughts on Queer Prophets

One of the things which is rending the church (or churches) asunder at the moment is a long, slow crisis over human sexuality. I am sure that the basic issues are widely known, so I do not intend to rehearse them now. Let it just be said whether you regard some Biblical texts as authoritative in banning any sort of sexual activity except that between a married man and woman, or whether you regard these verses (there are usually counted to be about five of them, apparently) as ‘texts of terror’ used to oppress anyone who seems a little different is hopefully not the issue here.

The problem is that the two sides, and anyone caught in the middle, have tended to talk past each other. Or rather, perhaps, the problem is that there has simply been too much talking and not enough listening. The stories told in this book:

Hunt, R., ed. The Book of Queer Prophets (London: Collins, 2020)

are as painful as they are depressingly familiar. People brought up, many of them in Christian households feeling that they cannot or do not belong in church or churches. In some cases church communities have made it clear that they do not wish for the ministry of LGBTAI+ clergy, or at least that some elements of congregations are prepared to go to some lengths to drive such clergy away. In other cases people, often quite young, have felt themselves to be different and have felt unable to reconcile that with their faith (in the book, that is mostly Christian, but Muslim, Mormon and Jew do get looks in). The result, in too many cases, has been mental breakdown, loss of faith, or a gritty determination to carry on regardless of the hate expressed towards them by some, and the apathy, or at best neutral benevolence, expressed by others.

There are two things I want to say here. Firstly, I am a happily married white middle-class man, who happens to be a Reader in the Church of England. My understanding of a black lesbian’s experience of church has to be limited. Many people’s, including mine, reactions to homosexual sex acts is probably ‘yuck’. Mind you, I have a similar reaction to observing sexual activity (or whatever gender the participants happen to be) in films or on television a bit difficult to watch, and I tend to avoid such programs. But I do think we have to get past the Yuck factor. Homosexual sex exists, people participate in it and enjoy it, and are in love with their partners. Rather than wringing our hands and attempting to ignore the existence of such sex, we do need to accept that it does happen and there are people in the church engaging in it.

Secondly, going back to the point of people talking past each other, we have to engage with what people we disagree with actually say. It is, I think, far too easy to ignore, for example, books such as Queer Prophets and fail to engage with the pain that many of the authors express. Human pain is pain we can all understand; we have all suffered from it.

On the other hand it is also easy to ignore the other side. There are deep-seated cultural, political, ecclesiastical and exegetical beliefs which do need engaging with. How did the texts of terror become texts of terror? How come some of them have become less so? How, historically, has the church overcome some of its prejudices, without necessarily simply lying down and agreeing with the zeitgeist?

It does strike me that, having read a bit (not, I admit, extensively) of writing from both sides on the matter, I think the general level of theological discourse across the board is rather poor. There are honourable exceptions. Bohache, T., Christology from the Margins (London: SCM, 2008) is rather good, as I recall, at least covering the ground of Christology and sexuality. I cannot say I agree or even understand all the Christologies described in the book, but at least it engages. Similarly, again as I recall, Guest, D., When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics (London: SCM, 2005) does what it says on the tin.

On the other hand, the statement of the more Biblical Evangelical camp are rather poor. The worst offender that I have read is Davie, M., Glorify God in Your Body (London: Lost Coin, 2018), which is an embarrassing shambles of a book, apparently commended by the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC) as a resource for the ‘Living in Love and Faith’ project. In common with some books on the ‘other’ side of the debate, it simply should be hurled forcibly across the room and ignored by anyone with half a brain and access to a decent commentary. They can’t even do the referencing right.

I suppose that, as with education, everyone has a view of human sexuality. Most adults, from time to time in whatever way, indulge in sexual activity. Some, of course, have fantasies, and that can become a problem (often known as pornography), some people’s activities are not to their own or other people’s advantage. But most of us know something about it and therefore have something to say. The problem there, of course, is that the marketplace gets rather crowded, the voices become too many and too loud to be heard.

This seems to be where the churches are found at present. The hierarchies might line up on one side or the other over issues of sexuality, whether women can be priests, or whether gay men should be permitted in church if they have a partner. In the Church of England, we have indulged in creative fudges, from ‘don’t ask’ when people offer for ministry to arguments that the clergy can be homosexual as long as they are celibate, while it is all right for laypeople. Creative fudges, of course, have their place, but sooner or later the fudge becomes hard to maintain. Perhaps we are moving towards that point.

Contemporary Theology

What, you might well ask, is contemporary theology and why does it matter? I have been reading MacGregor, K. R., Contemporary Theology: A ...