Wednesday, 27 November 2013

You're my person

I have been watching "Grays Anatomy" - the TV series, not a film of the medical book (that would be so boring). One of the comments that the characters often make is that someone is "my person", by which they mean the person they go to tell everything to, that they go to in times of difficulty, and who offers them advice. This is their "person".

I wonder if we all need a "person". Someone who can help us in difficult times. They are not our partner, because sometimes we need to talk about our partner. It cannot be your pastor, because you might need to talk about church. It needs to be someone who understands all that we do and go through, but is not in charge, is not intimately involved in any of it.

That is difficult - someone who has enough involvement, but not too much. but in truth, I think very few of us do have people who we can talk to like this, which is sad. I also think there are very few of us who are prepared to do this -- listen without judgement, being prepared to offer our advice without fuss, to support people whatever their decisions. To be there for people whatever their route in life. To be someones person.

And yet, the more I hear and see, the more I think this is very needed. A place to be, to talk unreservedly. A place to say ""I think my marriage is breaking up", or "I don't know if I believe anymore", or "I don't want to go on living". And a person who can offer thoughts and insights - not patronising drivel, but an honest consideration of your problems. Who will help you work through your problems and decide what to do. Who can make suggestions, tell you to stop being ridiculous - yes sometimes aggressive responses are needed - and most of all, someone who will say "Do what you have to do, and I am here for you, whatever."

My experience has largely been that most people who will say "We will help you through your problems" tend to include an "as long as ...." with this. So "We will help you work out your faith issues, as long as you stay in the church," or "I will talk to you, but you need to see a doctor, or I can do nothing." But we need people who will say "I think you should stay in the church, but I am here for you whatever," and "You should try and work our your relationships issues, and stop sleeping with your mistress, but I am with you however it turns out."

Non-judgemental friends. People who will talk and listen and suggest and cajole, but never leave you. That would be exceptional. That would be special. that would be Christian.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Are we all psychotic?

I have been watchign the excellent series "Bedlam" on Channel 4, which has proved a very interesting and challenging series. Some people have raised some (very valid) questions about consent issues, but I do think it has provided some very important insight into the reality of mental illness and treatment. The consent issues are significant because most of those filmed are seriously ill.

I think my response to the consent issues are that many of them are controlled well at some point usually at the end, and one presumes they are then able to give informed consent. However I do accept that for some, informed consent cannot really be clarified.

However, one aspect that is covered especially in the final episode is that of the elderly suffering significantly, in some cases because of some trauma. What struck me is that they often express a fear of some unreasonable issue, that they do not quite believe what is around them. One believed that the hospital and doctors were all fake - actors, stage sets - and that something terrible was going to happen to them.

Not unlike some of the entertainment shows we see. The Truman Show comes to mind, but there are others. There have been all sorts of shows like "Beadles About" (I would have said Candid Camera, but that is really before my time), where precisely this situation happens. We watch programs like "I'm A Celebrity" where people have horrible things happen to them. Then I used to watch Fort Boyard, where volunteers take on all sorts of challenges, usually drawing on their worst fears.

All of this makes me wonder if these sorts of entertainments actually drive the psychosis we see in these people (and others too). If you don't know a hospital, it might be a set-up. A cruel one, but them so much entertainment is cruel. The presence of the TV cameras might not have helped this problem.

So what did people do before the television? Well, I think the problems were the same, it is just that the fears were different. Thirty years ago, it might have been the possibility of nuclear war. A hundred years ago - and for centuries before that - the fear of hellfire and damnation, or the other similar images from the religious teaching. This was the language in which fear was instilled.

All of which makes me wonder if some important aspect of psychosis in the population is the instilling of fear in people. We spend so long making people dread something, that when the brain has a challenge, it latches onto these fears. We might dismiss them, but they stay there, in our subconscious.

Religion that works primarily on fear is, I suggest, damaging to people, leading some of them into serious mental problems. Entertainment that works primarily on fear is damaging. As the bible says "Love drives out all fear" - true faith, true Christianity is about love, not fear. If you cannot explore your faith to me without using fear, then I want nothing to do with your faith.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Women and feminism

Would I call myself a feminist?

There has been quite a bit of discussion over this of late, with some people rejecting it, and others trying to redefine it. So where do I stand?

Well I would call myself a feminist. I accept that, as with so many other labels that I would take for myself, that others would not agree with my assignation - others might consider that I am not really a feminist. So what do I mean by the term?

I think it means - for me - someone who has respect for women, who does not discriminate against women by virtue of their gender, someone who believes that women have been badly treated throughout a lot of history, and there is a time to change this.

That is a somewhat philosophical approach to feminism, so what does it mean in practice - this is where some may disagree? I should point out that it does not mean treating women with kid gloves, refusing to engage with them in case I offend them. I think that is demeaning to women, and demeaning to myself.

I am a person who makes jokes. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes not. Sometimes I will make comments about people - to people - humourously, and sometimes jokes relating to their gender, but never demeaning, never dismissing. Actually, I will make similar remarks to men, relating to their gender too. You might not like it, but I do make these comments to the people, not behind their back.

I think that is important. I accept that a joking, humourous atmosphere has its risks, but I will make comments to everyone, not based on gender, and not behind their backs. And, when a comment is made that someone does find offensive, I apologise - because offense is never meant.

So feel free to dismiss me if you want.

I believe that for me to be a feminist means that I do not take into account a persons gender. I believe in taking into account their skills and talents, what they say, what they do. If someone is being stupid in what they say and do, I might be dismissive of them. But it is not related to their gender.

What is more, I believe that I have to acknowledge that women have historically been demeaned, oppressed, refused the opportunities that they deserve based purely on their gender. There is a need to make some changed to the system to counter this. There are times when women have to be given extra opportunities to make up for this, but not in terms of tokenism, but that women of appropriate ability need to be given chances. I am not in favour of explicit positive discrimination, I am in favour of women being treated equally, which may mean a little bias to counter a natural negative bias.

That might be all too subtle. You might want to dismiss me as a feminist if you want. That doesn't bother me.

So let me get less subtle. You can challenge me on my feminism, when we have no more page 3. You can challenge me on my feminism when the Church of England makes women equal, rather than having parishes where women priests cannot exercise their ministry, and where women can rise to the highest levels of the church. You can challenge me on my feminism when the institutionalisation of far more explicit sexism in the business world, in politics, in so many areas of life.

I am not a perfect feminist. I am not a perfect person, in many ways. But I do believe that people should be treated as human beings, irrespective of their gender. That means that don't treat them any worse, or any better than anyone else.

And I will continue to call myself a feminist.

--it also means that he demeaning page 3 stuff is broken.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

loneliness and faith

There was a report recently that indicated that people are more lonely than before, and that people who are members of a faith community are more lonely than others. I suspect that there are actually three reasons for this:

1. Lonely people will be attracted to faith communities. They present themselves as friendly, open groups, and so will attract people looking for friends.

2. People who become involved in church are likely to experience the problems of such a community, and therefore find that the surface community is not reflected right through. This means that many people within churches are still lonely, because they become alienated from others within the community.

3. There is a related aspect, that within most faith communities, the surface sense of community is so important, that from within admitting to being lonely is considered a failure, and so something that cannot be admitted to. So people don't admit within the community that they are struggling, so the community does nothing about it.

The truth is, I believe, that loneliness is a very serious problem in the West today (I cannot speak for other cultures), and yet one that is not talked about. I suspect that it is even more of a problem than this survey indicated - that people are, in truth, far more lonely than they are prepared to admit, even within communities, relationships, families.

So what is loneliness? It is not about having no friends. It is not about having no-one around you - it is quite possible to be lonely with a lot of people around, and with friends. There is something deeper than that. It is about not having people - someone - who accepts you, who can tease you and challenge you, but will accept your decisions whatever, and support you. It is about acceptance, not people. And acceptance is something that is, I think, less and less available. We all want to fit in, to be able to define ourselves by something.

Some people find the definition in a faith organisation, a church or similar. To be accepted in such places, it is necessary to conform to the standards and norms of that organisation. For some, this is fine, but for many people - maybe most people - fitting in is the contrary to true acceptance. If I want to fit in, I have to be the person that I am expected to be. Challenging the conformity means I do not get accepted.

Most critically, I have found, within any community, challenging the perception they have of themselves is always a way of putting yourself on the outside. Telling a community they they are not as accepting as they like to think they are is likely to be a good way to prove it. Telling a community that many people within it are still lonely is probably not going to win you friends.

Loneliness is at almost epidemic proportions. The faith communities, who are in a good place to address this issue, seem not to be. The disruption of other communities that we have experienced in the West over the last few decades does not give much hope for anything else to replace this. I cannot see an end to this epidemic. I cannot, therefore, see an end to the 14 people a day who take their own lives. This is a crisis, and we are not really addressing it.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Holy Machine

I recently finished a book The Holy Machine, by Chris Becket. It is a superb read, but raises some very interesting questions about faith, belief, religion.

In particular, what it showed was something I have argued for a while, that the scientific method has a core set of beliefs underneath it, just like religion. More, it is about the nature of relationship, the way that interaction can be programmed.

The real challenge it makes is to blur - or, in fact, cross - the lines of distinction between humans and machines. Critically, it makes the idea that our responses are "human" and that the responses from a computer are "non-human", and that these are fundamentally different. the truth is that they are not so different, that, in theory at least, a computer could interact in specific situations, provide human-like interactions.

This is not suggesting that the famous Turing test is no longer relevant - it is not suggesting that we can build a computer that could pass this today. In the 1970s there was a system called ELIZA, which was doing this for the very limited interaction of a psychological discussion. Within those parameters, it worked remarkably well.

The real challenge it provides, though, is to the idea of science as something concrete, something purely rational, purely intellectual, without any concept of "faith" or "belief". It isn't, its just that the beliefs are far harder to see, to identify as "belief" rather than "just how things are". It is a little like the Newbigin idea of a pair of glasses that everyone is wearing. The problem is that we all see the world through glasses - through the perspectives that we have learnt and grown up with. It is impossible to see our own glasses, but we can see others' glasses. His experience was that he saw his own glasses when he was in a different culture, a different society, where people had different glasses on. When he returned to the UK, he saw much more clearly that those around him were also wearing glasses - by leaving his culture, he saw the glasses. It is far harder to leave the rational, scientific society, and realise that they too are wearing glasses.

The truth is, they are - we are. the scientific culture is as much a culture, with it's own beliefs and principles, as any other culture. One of the problems today is that our societies have lost a lot of their differentiation - it is becoming hard to identify a particular culture because it has largely been influenced by other - western - cultures.

One of the messages - to me - of The Holy Machine is that a scientific worldview, a scientific set of beliefs and understanding is not enough. Nor is a religious one. Both are needed, and, they are not incompatible. In fact, without both, without the interaction between both, we are diminished, lessened.

But we should not assume that either is everything, or that they are that different. Not in reality. They are not.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Financial stimulus?

In all of the argument about the HS2 project, there is one argument - and only one - that I think has some virtue to it. I should point out that I still think the whole idea is a ridiculous waste of money. Interestingly, as I am writing this, some of these ideas are being ridiculed on HIGNFY - so I want to explore them in a little more depth.

The cost at this point is estimated at around £42Bn. Undoubtedly this figure will increase as time goes on - if it goes ahead, we should expect the figure to at least double. The argument that I do have some sympathy with is that this would be a massive injection of money into the economy.

Now this is true, it would be a major financial stimulus. However a significant single project like this will funnel a large portion of the money to rich financiers, businessmen and other friends of the Tories. In terms of wider financial incentive, I do not think that most of this money would boost the wider economy. I realise that this is partly my cynicism of the current government.

So what should we do instead? Well, on HIGNFY, Ian Hislop suggested "reversing all of Beechings rail cuts." I am not suggesting quite such a radical proposal, but if this £40Bn was invested in the railway infrastructure generally, and not just in one line, then I think it would prove a far better financial incentive.

So rather than one new line, provide overhauls to some of the existing lines. Possibly, where appropriate, bring lines back where they have been removed or allowed to fall into disuse. Maybe connect then up a little better, and provide good services on them.

It could be that in some areas, the existing lines just need some replacement work or repair, to reduce delays and holdups. That would improve the service, and - hopefully - encourage more people to use them. There are places where the money could be productively used to replace the existing train operator, and ensure a better and more cost-effective service.

Of course, these ideas are not big, flashy, high-profile glamour projects. They will not, if done properly, provide financial stimulus to the already-rich. They would provide real financial stimulus across the country, provide a lot of work to people, and give us a lasting legacy of an improved rail system.

Which, I suspect, is why this government will not do it.

Because I try to bring some theological insight into these musings, I think there is a church-related analogy. I know of churches that will focus on big glamour projects - buildings or youth workers or such like - and the congregation will be excited about these projects. But, in some cases at least, putting the same effort into the boring practicalities would produce better long-term results. Of course, when you focus on yourselves, to see what needs fixing, it can be very enlightening, and very disturbing.

Which, I suspect, is why so many churches do not do it.