Cosmopolitanism Revisited

I often meet people whose experience is restricted to their immediate community, their homes, families, places of work, everything that is familiar. They might go on a package tour or a cruise to an exotic place, but strictly as a tourist observing life from outside. I travel a lot less these days than when I was a young student, but the experience has marked me. I also remember my pain as a child feeling locked into a system of family life and school. In the end, I have only been to the USA four times for brief visits and to a few European countries, spending extended times in France, Italy and Switzerland. Am I qualified to discuss cosmopolitanism? I was born in a fairly small northern market town at the gateway to the Lake District. What a beautiful part of the country, and how privileged I was! On the other hand I was dismayed at the closed attitude of many people, concerned as they were only with the immediate and familiar.

A part of our current divided mind is the question of the European Union. From the 1970’s when we joined the Common Market, I was intrigued that we were beginning to open up to other parts of the world, not just to buy and sell, do business, but also to open ourselves to new experiences. My family began to venture out to summer holidays of the Continent, at least every two years. Each time we travelled, passport control and customs checks became increasingly relaxed – except when we returned to England. When I went to France for the first time on my own in 1982, I noticed that we didn’t even have our passports checked, and I was as much at home in France as in England. Of course, I had to learn the language. It was the beginning of a complete transformation of my life, certainly at the cost of feeling increasingly rootless.

This Sehnsucht for lands and experiences beyond our own was a characteristic of the English Romantics as they ventured beyond our shores. Shelley perished at sea off the Italian coast. Keats died from consumption in Rome and Byron passed away from illness as he stood with the Greeks against Turkish barbarity. On the other hand, Friedrich von Hardenberg was born and died in the same area of Saxony, and was one of the most outspoken of the Romantics for cosmopolitanism.

As we see the resurgence of nationalism and populism, we can appeal to Kant and the notion of human rights together with the urgent task of uniting nations. The Enlightenment gave us a notion of the universal, being better off united than divided and in conflict. Cosmopolitanism would go a step further and give us citizenship of the world rather than restrict us to our nation or tribe. Pauline Kleingeld, who wrote about Christenheit oder Europa by Novalis[1], also wrote an important article on cosmopolitanism in late eighteenth-century Germany[2]. The subject is quite complex as it spans political, philosophical and human / spiritual considerations. I recognise all the themes – moral, reform in the political and legal order, cultural pluralism, economics and a free market for all and the Romantic notion of humanity united by faith and love – in the present founding ideas of the European Union.

It is fairly accurate to describe Romanticism as a re-humanising and re-spiritualising of the Enlightenment. We are brought to think of John Keats and his early days as a medical student, and how he forsook the notion of the human body as a mere machine and gave priority to the notion of imagination. This is what we today would call consciousness. To be fully human, we need love, emotional bonds, beauty, faith and hope in humanity. The Romantics embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment: the individual person, freedom, limitations to authority and equality. However, these ideas had been reduced to an extremely intellectual and legalistic dimension. There needed to be a generous and human interpretation of these ideals.

Much of the Romantic reaction to the collapse of the old order and the Enlightenment led to a nationalistic aspiration, but not universally. The famous Christenheit oder Europa by Novalis Friedrich von Hardenberg (1772-1801) appeared to be a naïve apologia for integralist Roman Catholicism, but contains a subtle cosmopolitan message. The central theme was Romantic to the core, an emphasis on emotion, spirit and imagination in the place of pure rationality and materialism. For this reason, the image of the European medieval period is a kind of parable to convey a longing for a cosmopolitan, global, spiritual community. Before Schlegel and Novalis, Kant saw a role in cosmopolitanism for preventing war, the very founding notion of the European Union. He mentioned the “principle of universal hospitality”, the earth and its resources belonging to the entire human race. Here I would object to such a notion because nature has rights and is not intrinsically property. We will find a strong emphasis on nature in English Romanticism.

Romanticism sought to promote the idea of a new world, a new utopia without too much thought for “reality”. In Novalis’ mind, the cosmopolitan utopia could not be separated from Christian eschatology and the spiritual dimension. It is not something we can “push” on other people, but one that can guide our own innermost vision. This is the kind of cosmopolitanism I would like to discuss in this essay. Philosophically, cosmopolitanism goes back much further than Romanticism or the Enlightenment, among the Stoics of ancient Greece. We find a “circle” model of identity by which we understand ourselves, our families, our local community, our country and finally the world of humanity as a whole. Saint Paul in the Christian tradition affirmed that we are brothers, sons of God, not foreigners. We are citizens of one world. This is a vital consideration in the Christian understanding of a universal Church.

Like in Romanticism in general, there was always in cosmopolitanism a spiritual and Christian notion and the revolt of men like Keats, Shelley and Byron. Could cosmopolitanism be a kind of “secular eschatology”? Maybe cosmopolitanism fulfils a part of the role played by religion and nationalism. We search for meaning in flawed and tragic humanity. Cosmopolitanism is often associated with secularism, the idea that religion declines as society modernises. One study that leans on this idea is M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism[3]. Does religion depend on nationalism and parochialism, or inversely, does cosmopolitanism depend on the absence of religion or at least a critical distance? Abrams sought to read a kind of spiritualised humanism into Romanticism, a reaction against modernity and the excesses of the Enlightenment. Could Romanticism be something marked by difference, tension and contestation at the level of ideology? He saw modernity as alienating and sought a way to restore culture without resorting to the particularism of religion. This aspiration would take the form of an earthly apocalypse, an eschatological view of a new age.

The subject of cosmopolitanism as with any other social structuring of humanity in nationalism, parochialism, tribalism and others is vast, but one to which I am strongly attracted through my own experience of life. It is partly motivated by the current emergence and mainstreaming of nationalism and populism as a reaction against mainstream party politics in Europe and other parts of the world. Perhaps I am writing from the “wrong side” of history as we face a very different world than what we have known since the end of World War II.

The idea is simple to express in that some people think or feel that they belong to a single “world city”, κοσμοπολίτης in Greek rather than a nation, tribe or more local kind of society. The difference becomes more pronounced in the rise of populism and accusations levelled against globalism portrayed as a kind of Orwellian dystopia and the world owned by a few billionaires. It is for this reason that I felt the need to reduce the extent of my work and limit myself to a more philosophical and theological dimension rather than attempt to penetrate into the world of politics and economics.

One thing I have discovered in life is that anything taken to its extreme consequences or logical limit loses credibility and validity. This caricaturing of positions is usually at the root of political polemics and debate, and little progress can be made. Each of us will certainly contain elements of both an aspiration to universality and loyalty to the local society of our origins. When that local society begins to stifle us through parochialism and bigotry, we feel driven to escape. When we find ourselves rootless, we become nostalgic for our origins.

Cosmopolitanism is also found in modern French Deconstructionalism and the foundation of ethics being our response to the Other. That sounds very abstract, but philosophers like Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida might be alluding to empathy and our capacity of feeling the needs and sufferings of another human being. On the surface, that seems to be a good foundation. Derrida like Kant emphasised hospitality, welcoming another person into our home. We immediately recoil from the risk of accepting someone who would rob us, kill us, cause harm to our families. At the same time, isolation is no solution. How do we accept the other and prudently determine conditions to protect ourselves from evil? The most fundamental conditions would seem to be that the person is a citizen of his own country and that he is being allowed to stay as a guest or a visitor.

As mentioned, the European ideal came out of the Romantic and Idealist reaction to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and was strengthened by the victory over Nazi barbarianism and crimes against humanity. The first concern of the cosmopolitan is to end war and bring about peace between us all. Cosmopolitanism must be essentially philosophical before it branches off into politics and economics. Otherwise its meaning becomes distorted and incomprehensible and self-contradicting. I have the impression that the philosophical dimension was largely lacking in the communal and anarchist movements of the 1960’s. It can also be a question of individual philosophy and social theory, and it become complex and opaque.

The Romantics were among the first to begin travelling the world in search of other cultures and ways of life. It was a preserve of the wealthy in those days. There was always a difference between going to live abroad and visiting places as a tourist. Modern mass tourism isolates the tourists from the local culture that earns its living from entertaining them. What happens when “they” come and live in Europe and we find ourselves in a multi-cultural world? Was ancient Israel not cosmopolitan when many people gathered for the Pascha at the Temple? Does not the same thing happen at Christian places of pilgrimage?

It is my hope that this short piece will revive something of our aspirations in the 1960’s and a vision of something greater than ourselves. I fear that a revival of nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and fanaticism will win out. The future is uncertain as Christianity and other religions are assimilated by such ideologies.

[1] Pauline Kleingeld, Romantic Cosmopolitanism: Novalis’s “Christianity or Europe” in: Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol. 46, no. 2 (2008), pp 269–84.

[2] Pauline Kleingeld, Six varieties of Cosmopolitanism in Late Eighteenth-Century Germany in: Journal of the History of Ideas, 60 (1999), pp 505-524.

[3] M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism, New York 1971.

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Transcendence, Truth and Reality: A Mathematician’s Fumble

This article was intended for the Christmas issue of the Blue Flower which never appeared. Fr Munn has been invited to be an Author on this blog which will take the place of the review. I’m not a mathematician myself, but appreciate the philosophical value of numbers and this kind of strict logic. I probably started him off by my enthusiasm for Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis) who was also a mathematician and a mining engineer as well as a philosopher and poet.

* * *

It is available here in pdf format because it contains images and symbols which are not reproducible in the blog itself.

Rev’d Fr Jonathan Munn, Transcendence, Truth and Reality: A Mathematician’s Fumble

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Christian Romanticism for the 2020’s

I have several times mentioned an important distinction between the Romantic movement per se which extended from the mid eighteenth century to about the same point in the nineteenth. Its causes are found in the Enlightenment and man’s quest for a mind above materialism and intellectualism, a strong desire to express the imagination.

Romanticism had a dramatic effect on Christianity, which was more or less moribund by the end of the eighteenth century, discredited and abandoned, a relic of state moralism and control of the population. It did not introduce any new beliefs nor did it contest old ones. It was to Christianity what a vehicle is to its load: it influenced the way ideals were thought and expressed. A part of this expression was medievalism and the quest for the pre-Enlightenment was at the same time as maintaining a high intellectual foundation. Another emphasis was on the spiritual and not the ecclesial support of temporal authority. Romanticism was profoundly humanist and optimistic, even in its darker moments, laying out an aspiration of hope and a poetic / allegorical way of seeing God. It is light years away from the fundamentalism of the Reformation.

In the Romantic world view, which is perfectly relevant in our own early twenty-first century, the individual person can experience, be moved, blur the distinction between myth and reality. Thus we find another notion of truth in the German school of Jena, for the foundation of truth is transcendent and as beyond us as God himself. This has been a blinding revelation to me after my experience of authoritarian and Aristotelian Catholicism.

One of the most powerful experiences of my childhood was standing on a pier facing the sea in northern Portugal and watching the arrival of a very black thunderstorm, strong winds and a rising sea. My mother was very anxious that I should not be in any danger and wanted me away from that vantage point. I would later identify with that feeling of anger, of Sturm und Drang, sometimes of dark and irrational fantasies seen in horror films. At last, I understood these currents in me, why I was fascinated by Africa and jungles (though I have never been there). This force of nature is an icon of God, and it is a mistake to blame God for anger if we become angry ourselves. We participate in this universal consciousness.

What Romanticism will do for Christianity is to engage the whole human person, particularly in its liturgical action and notion of tradition. Some of the Germans, like Schleiermacher, emphasised our human experience over the reality of God. Liberalism was in some ways related to Romanticism, but was more far-reaching in its criticism of Christian doctrines and traditions. Perhaps theological liberalism took more influence from the rationalism of the Enlightenment than from Romanticism. This idea of personal and emotional experience would also be expressed in various forms of Protestant and Catholic pietism, seeking miracles and experience of the sacred. The trend for the occult and mediums at the end of the nineteenth century was another expression as it is today in the New Age movement.

The Romantic is attracted by beauty, fine art, music and sympathy for his world view. If the Bible is appreciated, it is for its beauty and poetry. I believe that a resurgence of this world view would bring renewal to a Christianity that is addicted to oppressive political authority and a system of apologetics that has failed to convince anyone for more than two hundred years. I am not inventing anything new, but rather bringing an old idea into our own times and experience.

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A New Purpose

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about this blog, and wondered (I was not alone) whether I was just going through a bout of winter blues and writer’s block. Should I begin a new blog, concentrate on the pdf reviews under the new title of this blog? I have just spent nearly a week in England dismantling the organ from Newington Green Unitarian Church. About the only pew I didn’t use for bits and pieces of organ was the one occupied by Mary Wollstonecraft, the radical feminist of the end of the eighteenth century and mother of the young girl who wrote Frankenstein. I soaked up the spirit of the building as I worked, the smell of the dry rot and the old pews. I imagined the bowed heads as they would listen intensely to the long sermons at a time long before computers and television. The church is to be restored to its old glory as a listed building and a landmark of non-conformity and the freedom of the human mind. Rest assured, I did not become a Unitarian! I loaded up the organ last Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, and I was away on the Friday afternoon to catch my boat at Dover back to France. I am now back home, and hope to start reassembling the organ in its new home in the parish church of Vermenton in the Burgundy area from mid February.

This posting is intended to mark a new beginning for this blog. I wondered about the future of the Blue Flower review, and had to take stock of my inability to write an article for the Christmas edition. I have decided not to produce a second edition in pdf, but rather to dedicate this blog to that purpose. Articles may be less formal than I had intended for the review, but the future tone of this blog should be serious and well prepared. Like the blog up to now, it allows dialogue and an input of ideas by way of the comments. These postings will appear more frequently than every six months, and I hope to have guest writers producing work as they are inclined to do so.

What would be my role as a Christian priest in all this? This blog goes back to my time in the TAC and the end of the besieged English Catholic blog, my time almost identifying with the Goliards of the middle-ages, those rebellious priests and monks who made such a mockery of the corrupt institutional Church, itself mocking the origins of Christianity in the Gospel teachings of Christ. I still promote the use of the Sarum liturgy through the Facebook group I set up to replace the old moribund Yahoo e-mail group. I went through an emotionally unstable time in the second half of last year with a considerable amount of anxiety linked to my condition of high-functioning autism. I had to think more profoundly about the meaning of my priestly vocation (I have no parish and I don’t peddle wares as a religious snake-oil salesman) and my finding inspiration in the Romantic movement.

With the political and constitutional situation in the UK, I have had to reflect on the changes on the horizon, the death of democracy and liberalism – and the resurgence of authoritarianism and man’s lust for power and wealth. Since more or less the Peace of Constantine in 313, the Church has been addicted to secular power, the more totalitarian the better. My mind has been concerned with this question and a totally different evaluation of the upheaval of the 1790’s than I had held as a traditionalist Roman Catholic cleric. Christian fundamentalism, theocracy and integralism are a betrayal of the plain words of Christ when answering Pilate’s question Art thou a king? What helped me out of the reactionary Catholic world was reading Berdyaev and that short chapter of Dostoyevsky (The Inquisitor), and then other authors and philosophers. Man’s greatest gift and right is freedom – even when evil may be committed.

I will need to write on freedom as time goes on. It is part of our nobility of spirit as redeemed humans. Many things need to be re-thought without descending into another form of authoritarianism and ideology of hatred. I will end here. I intend this blog to become a multi-author effort, like the pdf Blue Flower, and above all a place of peace and freedom.

Therefore, I change the name and masthead of this blog, hoping to bring new life and inspiration to all of good will.

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Stoicism, Competitiveness, Dominance and Aggression

I have just been reading Red Dreher’s Manhood As Mental Disorder. When I started reading it, my first thought was “more of the same” from the growing swing back to Hitler’s Ubermensch and the New Soviet Man away from the liberalism that followed the 1960’s into our own times. All the same, it seemed a good idea to read the article all the same. The American perspective is different from ours in Europe (the UK is going off at a tangent with our language in common with the Americans).

Something coming from the left is always answered with the same with interest from the right. Every allusion to abolishing gender and promoting so-called transgenderism is answered by this idea of the masculine stereotype – taken to its extreme in American criminals gangs still at liberty and serving long sentences in those awful prisons over there. I have always been repelled by both extremes. I suppose I had a normal time as a small boy, doing boyish things but hating competitive sports. I don’t look back with relish at having been sanctioned by corporal punishment, though it occasionally happened to me. I was at school in the 1960’s and 70’s, the end of the “old days” typified by the idea some have of the idolised 1950’s.

The subject is a somewhat outrageous idea of something normal and natural being stigmatised by psychologists as a pathology. We should be neutral human beings and preferably becoming the opposite sex from how we were born. What seems to be meant, however, is the stereotyped notion of the man, the characteristics of stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression. This seems to put a new slant of things in spite of the usual ideological language used by the “liberal” “politically correct” scene. I have always been wary of that intolerant frame of mind that judged me at school for preferring more individual pursuits like reading, walking and music to football and talk in the dormitory about fictitious conquests of pretty girls during the school holidays.

Dreher seems quite fair in recognising that the old pressures on boys to make them define themselves by someone else’s stereotype has caused a lot of problems. It is very interesting to note that women have been researched a lot less, and issues like autism and learning disorders are much more difficult to identify in girls. For a long time, I have contended that questions of gender and role have been exaggerated and continue to put men and women into aggressive opposition. The real problems are those of forcing generations of children through an education system in which one size fits all. I still remember Stella, the black girl at my primary school in about 1967, and our being told to be nice with her. It never occurred to me to treat Stella badly because of the colour of her skin, because I came from a family in which tolerance and inclusion are values. Many boys I knew at school were brought up with other values, and they are now the louts harassing MP’s outside the House of Commons over questions of Brexit and immigration.

Indeed this article is timely. The hot button issues like same-sex marriage and transgenderism are addressed – they serve to create an even more radical rift between men and women as either sex became a caricature of the opposite. We also need to beware of the toxic spin of the mass media, given the effect it is also having in the current Brexit debate – creating a highly toxic and polarised society. Whilst it is timely, it is also very partial in its continuing to stereotype categories of human beings according to gender, race, social class, etc.

I have always maintained the idea of being ourselves and not what we think other people expect. What is “traditional masculinity”? I went to a school in York where the emphasis was on sport and competition, the quest for the best, for excellence. That is something noble, boys being told that they are to be self-reliant and resilient, the stuff of Baden-Powell’s scouting. The problem is what happens to those who are not the best and strongest. One ideology would eliminate them from their right to life. The opposite would lower the lowest common denominator. The solution is within ourselves – be really careful whom we trust. Rely on our own moral strength both to survive and do what we believe is right. We are not strong with everything, so we have to come to terms with our own weaknesses and not let the bullies exploit them.

Also, we have to beware of those who tell us that we are only of any worth if we are leaders. We are not all leaders, and the usual qualification for leadership these days is to be a bully, a criminal who has stolen the money and livelihoods from others, the kind of person that suffers no anxiety, fear or qualms of conscience. That is the perfect recipe of a modern politician – in it for what he or she can get. Forget traditional masculinity (or femininity for that matter) but the Mensch within us, what is human and constructive according to the other ideals we find in the teaching of Christ.

We are all different as persons, and our strengths and weaknesses are complementary rather than opposed. My education taught me to do the best possible with what I’ve got. I also have a high degree of empathy for others – and could not in conscience compete against others, because it is improving my own life at the expense of others. Mors tua vita mea, the very opposite of Christ’s teaching on self-sacrifice. That is the paradox of Christianity that makes it so useless and bereft of credibility in a world where human beings behave like ravenous dogs.

Post-modern political correctness has pushed us to the opposite extreme in which elites are either abolished or reversed. We are expected to be what we are not. Feminism becomes as toxic as masculinism, because much of it is reversed sexism. My experience of marriage has shown me how much women sometimes want to be more powerful and aggressive than men, but their entire way of thinking and feeling is different. My experience of what psychologists call Aspergers has for me broken down those walls and enabled me to empathise with the feminine without becoming a caricature of it.

I have had to reflect a lot about politics and the differences between conservatism and liberalism. Some comments I have had on this blog have represented the extreme of one or the other and have been quite painful to read. My understanding of the meanings of these words is different from that of most people. I do believe that a father of a family should be able to defend his wife and children from enemies and criminals, even with the use of weapons when no other way is possible. I think many non-dominant men would be capable of such action under the degree of provocation.

Stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression? We all have to live with adversity in differing degrees, and I find it difficult to deal with people who are always complaining of their aches and pains – unless I can do something about it. The English stiff upper lip is not a bad philosophy, but we can’t keep things bottled up forever. If we have no one to trust, then there is nothing shameful about closing the door of a bedroom to have a good cry – and then pick ourselves up again. No one else cares. Why should they? Sometimes, friendships can be lights in the cold and hostile darkness of our world. Competitiveness? I’m not interested. We can do our own best without taking it away from other people. Dominance? It was not Christ’s way, since more was achieved through self-sacrifice than the brutal Kampf of the Waffen-SS goon. As for aggression, I was once fishing as a boy and a bully decided for some reason to break my fishing rod. I lost my temper and beat him up quite badly. That experience has made its mark on me. Aggression like anger is something we have to master and keep under control. This stereotype of masculinity is indeed toxic, even if we have sometimes to be stoical. We have to learn to be ourselves, comparing ourselves with ourselves yesterday to check for progress in learning, becoming stronger, more human – and not comparing ourselves with other people whose lives were totally different from our own. The grass seems greener on the other side of the fence, but it isn’t. There’s no reason to be jealous of other people. Think how unhappy a given billionaire might be with all that money, but far from the Kingdom of God.

We don’t always come up to our own mark, and that is our combat in life. Don’t let others judge you for cowardice if you know that it wasn’t cowardice but just not having the means to fight. It is reasonable not to fight unless you have a reasonable chance of winning or at least of defending yourself and your loved ones. The answer isn’t clear in all circumstances. Beware of fashions and stereotypes! They are illusory and seek to steal the image of God from our own spirit.

What is being bandied about by conservatives (or the caricature because conservatism also represents noble values) these days is the old perversion of Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. The Nazis sought every corner of the earth for the old Aryan race, believing it descended from the super-race of Atlantis or the Hyperborean regions. Their notion was materialistic and illusory. I believe that Nietzsche sought a nobility of spirit that would enhance humanity, and not merely physical strength. The Ubermensch has his own values and is independent, seeking to influence others for the good and provide meaning and purpose to life. Unfortunately Christ ceased to be the incarnation of that Ubermensch, and another idea had to be sought.

I have not addressed homosexuality and transgenderism here. For the former, I know what the Church teaches and have read the harsh words of St Paul. We either have to have a totalitarian system like Nazism or American Fundamentalist theocracy, or attempt a pastoral approach. It’s a hot button issue and gets people excited and angry. It doesn’t make same-sex sexuality right objectively, but we need to deal with persons rather than ideologies. Like with abortion, those who cry the loudest have no care for those concerned and seeking a solution. Abortion is murder and sinful, but sometimes the lesser of two evils. See the persons concerned and seek God’s will in that situation…

I have already written on transgenderism. But what can I say? It is outside my own experience of life. I have only once in my life met a woman who had “become” a man. That was in something like 1976, and people had to be careful what they said in those days, especially in the north of England. The person seemed pleasant enough and living her / his own life. It’s beyond me, but not beyond that person. Either we are going to set up the dystopian vision of Christian totalitarianism with lots of hangings and burnings, or we have to overcome our depravity that leads the self-righteous to their own hell.

I wrote Conservatives and Liberals a few days ago, and now I find myself turning over the same concepts in my mind. I think we need to read or watch The Great Inquisitor:

I’m glad to see that the film is still there on YouTube – things tend to get pulled very quickly because of copyright issues. It is all about our soul, our freedom, our nobility against the machine of conformity. It may seem to be a sell-out and a compromise with evil. Sometimes a greater evil is committed by trying to combat against evil. Let us think profoundly about these things and decide whether we have any self-esteem and belief in ourselves as human beings – and then do to others as we would have done to ourselves.

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For, lo, the winter is past

But the winter is still with us. It is nearly three weeks since the Solstice, but the weather is mild and damp rather than freezing cold like in some parts of the world. The spring of 2019 will bring us other worries. If winter is past, it is in another way of understanding these words. The first coming of Christ and his manifestation to the world brought an end to another kind of winter.

As an adolescent, I grew weary of hearing about the moods of the Old Testament God who was quick in his anger to kill people by opening up the earth so that they would go straight to hell. At that stage in my life, I discovered there was another Bible, that of love and hope, of knowledge and light. I heard an anthem in York Minster, a setting by Patrick Hadley of the text of the Song of Solomon:

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.

What are such writing doing in the Bible? I knew nothing of allegory or the various other keys to interpreting the Scriptures. The images in the text are striking, and even more if it were simply a man’s romantic infatuation for a beautiful woman. Looking deeper, this is the Redemption of fallen mankind and the message of hope from a “God above gods”, a love letter to us all who languished in the prison house. The greatest allegory, at least for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, is that of spring, a new creation heralding the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the next step in a single Mystery from this manifestation or Epiphany of the incarnate Word of God. The flowers appear on the earth, and the birds begin to sing. For the moment, at least they come and chirp under the eaves of my house and around the bird feeder. The “turtle” is the turtle dove, and not the reptile with a big shell that swims in the sea! The smells of spring are particularly magical, especially the earthy smell of a forest in May, something like the odour of freshly picked thyme ready in the kitchen to go into a meal. The senses are awakened as we become more aware of the beauty of our human existence, and these are images of God’s love.

I hope this year that this spring and new hope will give us courage as we face a world that has been unknown to us in England or continental Europe since the end of World War II. The decades of building and “had it so good” happiness are being thrown away, because such a “happy time” brought us complacency and a care-free attitude. The generations following us “baby boomers” began to blame it on us as their financial strength began to be whittled away. Where’s the money all going? No one would tell us. We lost interest in philosophy and the notion of God. We took the Soma pill that figured in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World. The churches emptied as we took pleasure in pleasure itself, and forgot that the pleasure of the senses was only to be an image of a higher reality.

We had the strikes without end in the 1970’s and began to hear about financial slumps. My father had to keep telling us that times had changed and that we had to be careful with money. The coal mines and steel works of northern England closed down, and then the people in those towns no longer had jobs. The pinch was hard, but the Trente Glorieuses were over by 1975, when I was at school and not doing very well. To this day, the consumer society and our electronic gadgets have softened the blow as they become more sophisticated and cheaper. As technology improved our life and Soviet Communism collapsed, we grew to expect more and more from the Welfare State and consumer goods. We discovered that people from other parts in the world wanted the same thing and were prepared to forsake their origins and families to get their share. It all had to crack somewhere as people began to realise that we were living in what amounted to a feudal society of billionaires and millionaires, a cash-strapped middle class and a working class that no longer had jobs. Something was to blame for all this.

As we approach the 2020’s, we realise that nothing could be different from the 1920’s: the aftermath of World War I, the Roaring Twenties – perhaps with its parallel with the 1950’s. Lurking underneath all that was a mal du siècle that emerged from the back end of the nineteenth century. The Belle Epoque looked nice enough with beautifully dressed people in the boulevards of Paris and Berlin, but it hid the causes of the Great War and the end of a world. These periods come and go in cycles as different aspects of human nature dominate. The Roaring Twenties brought the discontent from the way World War I was ended and Germany was made to pay. They ended with one of the most catastrophic economic crashes of history and the Great Depression. Poverty breeds bitterness and hatred. Someone is to blame, and getting that one right has always been the most difficult thing. It is happening again, but in a different way. The wars that have just been fought have devastated other parts of the world, and their refugees came to our world. They need our Welfare State, and we don’t have the money for them as well as ourselves. It’s their fault! In that way, our “roaring twenties” may yet reflect those of when my father was born. I don’t think our twenties will roar, however!

We are brought to face a wall of hatred that is rearing its ugly head in England, France and elsewhere. The writing on the wall was already there in the late 1940’s as Orwell reversed the digits of the year in which he wrote his dystopian novel. The Cold War reminded us that the second world war was not over, even though Hitler and his cronies were dead by their own hand or the hangman’s noose. The “post-truth” culture of our politics is nothing new from the time of Göbbels, and back to Rasputin, Machievelli and the entire history of humanity. Our British foul-up is nothing new, nor is the situation in France as Macron struggles to keep his presidency and prevent a real revolution. Interestingly, Brexit has nothing to do with populism, though populism has exploited this experiment conducted by England’s political and business elite.

The demons have been unleashed after having been contained by the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini. We are yet in very early days, something like the run-up to the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Having been fascinated by the history of the twentieth century for much of my life, even having the courage to read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I feel oppressed by this remaining demon in our human nature and the way that evil becomes banal and a matter of course. One word to describe it is inevitable, because it absolves everyone of responsibility and makes it all so faceless. I now understand how Vaughan Williams lost his faith and Elgar stopped composing until nearly the end of his life. If such barbarity is inevitable, it takes away the will to live.

Reading authors like Rob Riemen, Thomas Mann and Berdyaev gave me a tremendous amount of insight into the roots of human resilience and our capacity for facing adversity. If I am still in time to make New Year’s Resolutions, one I will make is to read more and focus on the nobility of the human spirit illuminated by divine grace. Letting ourselves die is not an option, any more than suicide – we are called to fight the enemy. This can be though actual warfare, or through politics, or through reading and writing truth and aspiration to transcendent truth. As St Paul put it, we are fighting against principalities, against the Archons of the darkness of this world.

We talk of an end to winter before the end of autumn! Perhaps the moment of grief will be when people are shot in the streets or sent to death factories. Our instinct is to learn from history and prevent it from happening. When I go to England, I am aware that the only thing that matters is money. Money and power. I keep reading about it and I see the abolition of all sacredness, the abolition of man as C.S. Lewis put it. There is plenty of that here in France too, with a president who is a cynical banker and a billionaire. The difference is that the population is boiling with anger at a regime that cares about money and power for the few and not the people. Even the feudal lords in the middle-ages had obligations to their serfs. What makes things more complicated is when the opposite mean and intend the same thing – Tweedledum and Tweedledee – like the varieties of socialism – and now populism. Someone like Rees Mogg or Boris Johnson is no different from the class of billionaires trying to corrupt the EU and destroy it from within. Populist billionaires? Yes, that’s what I said and meant. Human capacity for deceit and manipulation is without limit, the psychopath’s pathocracy.

We can fight without violence by thinking, reading and writing. This seems to be my calling in life, even without getting reluctant bums on the pews of my chapel! True, I could do it without being a priest – but I am a priest. This is something positive. We have to be positive. Demons don’t exorcise themselves! They have to be evicted as light dispels darkness. We have also to live for the moment. We are in the early stages. There are no concentration camps and no war is being fought. Our battlefield is philosophical and concerned with human life against The Machine. Romanticism formed my thought since I found that pre-Enlightenment religion and philosophy have so little power to convince. Scholasticism is great at the Angelicum and at seminary, but not much use in the real world where real wars have to be fought.

Another important thing is not to give too much credence to other people’s opinions. Read or hear them out, and think about it. Beware of what we read in the press. For example, the right-wing American rags are suggesting that France is up in flames. I don’t see much sign of that. Even if I were in Paris, at a safe distance, I would see yellow-vested thugs fighting with the police, property being damaged and destroyed, frightened people staying away – but it is nothing compared with the 1870 Commune in Paris when the troops were using live ammunition. We might get a revolution if that happens! When reading stuff about Brexit, consider the source. By all means, read the Telegraph, the Guardian and the Daily Express – but read blogs and analyses. Above all, read books. Develop a critical spirit. Get rid of your television set and learn to use the Internet. Self reliance, something we can learn from the American Transcendentalists.

Another aspect I cannot emphasise enough is our spiritual condition. Prayer takes different forms. Some people can look the part in a church, kneeling and rapt in contemplation. We had Oraison at seminary, the period following Lauds in the morning and before breakfast. Some managed to hold themselves immobile for half an hour, developing their inner thoughts to enter into communion with God. Others, myself included, would quietly read something spiritual. My prayer comes in the form of music, both listening to it and playing it. Harmony, melody and rhythm focus the spirit and exclude distractions and parasite thought. It is the purest form of prayer I know. The other important thing is a sense of wonder, being in a cathedral like York Minster, or being on the sea in a very small boat. A lot of sailing is the mechanics of pulling this rope, releasing that one and holding the tiller steady in the conditions you find yourself in. There are also flashes, moments of illumination as a ray of the sun hits a high chalk cliff. That too is prayer and an expression of God’s voice and response to us. This is one way we can seek truth when others tell us lies.

If we can remain faithful, I am sure the call will return, ever more light-filled. I feel strongly the need to aim for Easter for the next Blue Flower, making Lent a time for working both on myself and an essay. That would seem reasonable with the organ removal job and my translating work that has been particularly intense since last November (I’m not complaining because it’s paid work). By that time Brexit may be a done deed through the incompetence of our governing institutions – time for a regime change, perhaps the irreversible loss of all we have held to be dear – and for our country to learn a little humility! We should know after next Tuesday’s Meaningful Vote – that is if it has any meaning.

We have to be ourselves, not compared with other people. We might get somewhere.

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This Blog’s Future

I began this blog six years ago, in January 2012 at a time when The Anglo-Catholic blog had no more use for me and I deleted The English Catholic. I think many of us remember the turmoil and the clash of truths as we speculated about Anglicanorum coetibus, the Ordinariates, the TAC and the “wooden leg” of Archbishop Hepworth. It was an endgame that caused me a considerable amount of burnout and discouragement. The real issues were obfuscated by both Archbishop Hepworth and by those working for Rome and Pope Benedict XVI. I had done my best to be committed to collaborating towards what seemed to be a positive and practical step towards Catholic unity and a more credible witness in the modern world. Several narratives about the movement lacked veracity or realism, and I became frustrated and burned out by the whole thing. From that point, I resolved to wait a good year before joining a continuing Anglican Church that had never been a part of this botched and bungled movement. The Ordinariates were founded and staffed by former Church of England clergy, and a number of TAC clergy who had never been Roman Catholics were allowed in and were re-ordained. I met several of the Ordinariate bishops and priests in Oxford last April and found them very cordial and courteous. But, they have never been my world and never will be.

The political crisis that has overcome my country has followed the TAC débâcle in many ways by analogy. Instead of joining a large “church”, the UK wants to consummate an act of “schism” and assert its independence and perhaps even its power over other countries like in the old days of the Empire. Lies have been told and criminals acts of corruption and fraud have been committed. The country is polarised into right-wing conservative nationalists on one hand and socialists and social democrats on the other with a more progressive attitude towards cosmopolitanism and globalism. English people come to a point of hating each other over this issue that goes on and on and on without any answer or resolution. Who is the Benedict XVI, the Archbishop Hepworth, the Forward-in-Faith bishops and the various TAC clergy in all this? Is Theresa May a kind of “secular Primate of the TAC” with Junker and the European Commission as a secular Pope and Holy See. The TAC College of Bishops would parallel the British Government and Parliament, and will need to get rid of the “wooden leg” to clean up its own act. My country seems to be at the same level as we were dealing with in churchmen of little credibility. It’s almost a bad dream, but we are real people who in some cases face poverty and ruined lives.

The fiddlers are still churning out melodies amidst the flames of Rome and the clock is ticking. Lie after lie, blunder after blunder – oh, yes, we sought understanding and reason in the pea soup fog from Adelaide in 2012. We approach a day that seems inevitable, one that will bring untold wealth to some but misery to most of us. The European Union is trying to make arrangements to preserve the rights of established immigrants and expatriates. Some are going to get the short end of the stick, and it is not difficult to imagine Theresa May and her Government growing their own “wooden legs” and having a different answer for everyone they talk with.

In spite of all the distance I try to keep from it all and I have put in my application for “incardination” in France as a legal immigrant and then as a citizen. What is happening to England is breaking my heart. It brings me anxiety and pain. I find the subject difficult to wave away and entrust to God’s Providence. It has taken away my desire to write timely articles for the Blue Flower, and I am afraid for the quality of postings here in this blog. Even Facebook is turning me off. It is the dead of winter, and I trod on eggshells so as not to see Christmas disintegrate in more conjugal hissy fits as usually happens here. When I get one of those “hammer blows” it takes several months for me to recover.

I begin to think in terms of concluding that everything is said on this blog, but that it should remain available to be read and enjoyed for the more creative posts I used to write. I have made no hard and fast decision to declare a hiatus or anything like that. I just need to rest and think things over, and prepare for a new Blue Flower perhaps towards Easter. Going to do that organ job will do me a lot of good, as will having long conversations with highly unorthodox Unitarians and time alone. I plan on just under a week for the dismantling and transport, and a couple of weeks in February installing the organ in the church at Vermenton and making it play. I may find more inspiration for my Blue Flower. If Thomas Mann could write about the nobility of spirit in the face of the rise of Nazism in the 1930’s, then surely I can do it in la France profonde.

I may write a blog posting from time to time, but I feel they should be less frequent as I mourn for my country (barring some miracle) and prepare for a future of not being able to travel as much as I used to do. Perhaps I need to go to new pastures, of course remaining a priest and serving my Church, and perhaps relying less on computers, internet and social media. Some change needs to happen for the better.

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