Monday, October 31, 2005


Yup, that way round. There’s now no local situation which doesn’t generate neighbourhood-sized choices with global implications – about what we buy, what we throw away, who and what we support, and so on. Realising this is part of the genius of One World Week, the UK-wide global education programme which networks together a variety of church, faith and community groups around a galvanising theme and gives them the opportunity to let rip with the imagination on everything from festivals and services to lunches and lobbies. Of course I should have been going on about this last week, as OWW was actually 23-30 October 2005… but this year’s theme (‘Promises, promises…’) inspired by the pledges of the G8, the Africa Commission and Britain’s EU presidency has no real time-tag on it. And while One World Week thinks big (hunger, debt, peace and so on), its strength is precisely in its ability to localise the global. A good example is this practical Promise List of 40 simple actions aimed at putting our domestic choices into a wider perspective. OWW has been running for 27 years and involves tens of thousands of people. It’s one of the country’s best kept tots-to-pensioners educational secrets. But I must confess a vested interest; I worked part-time for the Week (then sponsored jointly by the World Development Movement and the churches) back in 1990-1991, when I was also on the staff of the Institute of Spirituality at Heythrop College. I should also point out that OWW has helped generate many spin-offs, including a global education month in Japan. Now there’s ambition. [Nb. OWW had a server problem today. Try later if the links don't work]

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Sunday, October 30, 2005


"The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech." Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"To become educated is to be freed to enter the conversation of all the living and the dead; to enter that conversation independently and critically, to be sure, but nonetheless to enter." ... "We know Christ Jesus because long-extinct communities and too easily forgotten generations have allowed us to hear this judging and healing Word." David Tracy

"The unreflected life is not worth living" Socrates

"The unlived life is not worth reflecting upon" Buddha (or a close associate)

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Saturday, October 29, 2005


One of the most repugnant trends in contemporary European politics is that towards victimizing migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. In a decisively unequal world where capital can move in an instant to make someone richer, people who try to move to make life sustainable and bearable (sometimes just liveable) are ironically treated as - or forced into being - criminals and pariahs. In macro terms this is neither moral nor rational, and leads to the absurdity of western governments encouraging immigration to solve their labour market problems while simultaneously detaining, jailing and deporting others at vast public expense. We want the luxury of cheap imports, but we do not want to face the consequences of a global economy which makes them possible. Something has to give, and it is our common humanity, it seems.

Part of what discourages sane political debate about alternative policy trajectories, of course, is the regular recycling of misinformation in the media, and not just the tabloids. This process is assisted by peddlers of paranoia like the distasteful MigrationWatchUK. Amusingly, the immigration minister, Tony McNulty, of all people, has now complained about the famously toothless Press Complaints Commission’s failure to get to grips with this. He declares: “If PCC guidance worked then we would not have all the rubbish we see in the media regarding refugees and asylum seekers.” For examples, go to the article by Roy Greenslade in The Guardian recently (hat tip to Pickled Politics, which highlights a few choice ones.)

The Christian and Jewish scriptural traditions, in particular, are based on exodus, exile, diaspora, sojourning and settlement. They therefore have strong ethical commitments towards ‘the stranger in the land’, as my good friend Vaughan Jones (from Praxis) pointed out earlier this year in his radical and agenda-shifting paper on immigration to the Westminster Forum. Also worth reading is Nick Sagovsky’s Faith in Asylum, the 2005 Gore Lecture at Westminster Abbey – a historic site of sanctuary. The World Council of Churches made an important recent statement on the detention aspect of the global mistreatment of migrants and asylum seekers. And the Churches’ Commission on Racial Justice (part of CTBI) has produced guidelines on sanctuary, as well as supporting the excellent Bail for Immigration Detainees / Bail Circle initiatives.

Last word to Vaughan, who is also minister at Bethnal Green Meeting House: "It seems to me that it is impossible to commit yourself to the narrative of the faith of, and in, Jesus the Christ, and not see the perversity of separating human beings along ethnic lines and of drawing lines across the map of God’s creation and calling them borders. Immigration controls are not realistic, expedient, practical, necessary, victimless or wise. It is not unreasonable to seek for morality in this aspect of public affairs and for our political leaders to demonstrate leadership, as opposed to playing on fears for electoral advantage." [The logo is Praxis's]

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Friday, October 28, 2005


Amidst all the weal and woe, this reminder about personalness and human community comes from one of the most compelling exponents of the Eastern Orthodox spiritual tradition:

The isolated individual is not a real person. A real person is one who lives in and for others. And the more personal relationships we form with others, the more we truly realize ourselves as persons. ... This idea of openness to others could be summed up under the word love. By love, I don’t mean merely an emotional feeling, but a fundamental attitude. In its deepest sense, love is the life, the energy, of God in us. We are not truly personal as long as we are turned in on ourselves, isolated from others. We only become personal if we face other persons, and relate to them.

Kallistos Ware, courtesy of the Daily Dig.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005


I'm one day late with this, but Blog quake day is an imaginative initiative to enlist the scope of the blogoverse to solicit an increasing wave of donations for the South Asian earthquake victims. As the UN general secretary and the relief agencies have been saying today, the situation is beyond critical with the cold closing in and governments way behind their aid pledges and targets. Well done to Desipundit (best of the Indian blogosphere) for getting this moving - let's make it a week. At least. Hat tip to Pickled Politics for the nod. All the major agencies are listed.

See also: British groups unite on earthquake relief appeal; Faith groups respond rapidly to South Asia quake tragedy; Kashmir quake aid crosses communal and belief boundaries; Fears for aid workers as Kashmiri violence festers. There are links in there to Christian Aid, CAFOD and Tearfund.

UK donations have been flooding in via the Disasters Emergency Committee website –, via the 24-hour automated donations phone line – 0870 60 60 900 – and by cheques to PO Box 999, London EC3A 3AA. Contributions can also be made at high street banks and post offices or through PayPoint.

The thirteen DEC member agencies are Action Aid, British Red Cross, CAFOD, CARE International UK, Christian Aid, Concern, Help the Aged, Islamic Relief, Merlin, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and World Vision. Some of these well-established groups are secular and some are rooted in religious – specifically Christian and Muslim – agencies. Together they are committed to providing assistance to all, without regard to creed, race, gender or ability.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005


The interconnected matters of religious and ethnic identity, social solidarity (or lack of it), freedom of expression and hate speech are universal. But they manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different contexts. The issues are being tested in UK public debate at the moment through a piece of legislation aimed at outlawing incitement to religious hatred. The aim is to protect vulnerable groups, but the effect may be to stifle criticism of religion and civil liberties. The quality of argument is pretty low outside (and sometimes inside) parliament, but the subject is vital. Ekklesia has just issued a response to the bill, which received a mauling in the House of Lords yesterday. At the end of the document, which is critical of the proposed legislation, are positive wider reflections on underlying - in some cases overlaying - issues.

It is now a commonplace view in liberal society that religious identity is (or ought to be) secondary and subservient to ethnicity or nationality because, unlike these, it can be changed.

But this is simplistic and unhelpful. Religion is not just about private opinion; it is also about belonging to a community of tradition and (for some) obligation. As with conscientious objection, a free choice may also be a fundamental one that exceeds other loyalties.

The inability of a secular culture to comprehend the depth of such commitment (and, correspondingly, to take seriously religion’s capacity for reason and intellectual depth) will only strengthen the trend toward fundamentalism and inhibit moves toward genuine inclusion and participation.

This does not mean that religious and ethnic communities are the same and can be treated as legally equivalent (another problem with the bill). Rather it points to an issue of social solidarity which cannot simply be reduced to statutes, but is a political and interpersonal reality.

Similarly, we would all benefit from an approach to public conversation which, while rooted in strong legal protection for liberty of expression, goes beyond an adolescent delight in causing offence – ironically, one of the sure by-products of attempts to outlaw it.

It is not true that only sticks and stones can break our bones. Words can wound and intimidate too. Flawed though it is, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill at least recognises this, in a way which its detractors sometimes fail to.

The best response to puerile, insulting, cruel or victimising talk is not censorship, however. It is the responsive language of truthfulness, honesty and compassion.

For, as the message of the Word made Flesh proposes, speech really worth having is much more than ‘free’ – it is costly, demanding, challenging and life-giving.

[See also: Afghan sentenced for blasphemy over women's rights, and humanist calls for renewed cooperation with believers]

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I woke up this morning to the sad news that Rosa Parks of US civil rights fame (the 1951 Alabama bus boycott) has died, aged 92. She was, and will remain, an incredible inspiration to Christians and to many others committed to social justice - and to those risky acts of non-violent resistance whereby the truthful power of love subverts and overcomes the oppressive love of power (and its hatred of 'the other').

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There were many fascinating moments in tonight’s Channel 4 (UK) documentary, ‘Young, Muslim and Angry’. For those who missed it, or who live elsewhere in the world, there was a good article by its writer and producer, Navid Akhtar (left), in Sunday’s Observer newspaper. He cogently illustrated how the British government’s ‘community leader’ strategy, which ignores the grassroots and fails to address the advocates of Islamic radicalism, is compounding rather than reducing the drift to extremism among an alienated minority.

At the heart of Akhtar’s own story is his wrestling with Pakistani roots and British routes, one might say. He ends on a hopeful note about the possibility of genuine convergence (rather than top-down ‘integration’). But the complexities and wounds he shines the briefest camera light on are clearly not susceptible to ready solutions. This is not least because the ‘quick fixes’ that are on offer come with a high price attached. Enter stage right the telegenic communications officer of one of the groups Tony Blair wants to ban, the none-too-savoury Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Taji Mustapha speaks proudly of reforming dealers. ‘Some of our activists got about four of the top drug dealers and got them into the study circle to think about Islam ... When these guys became in tune with Islam and changed their ways, demand has fallen, supply has fallen, so there has been a drop in the problem’.

It reminds me somewhat of the hard-line evangelical Christian groups who also have the capacity to offer certainty and vision to broken lives, including those who President Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’ has put in charge of some US penal institutions. Mustapha even had something of the born-again gleam as he spoke. Not that the film-maker made this analogy, and not that most American religious right philanthropists are quite advocating the equivalent of a global caliphate (although the ‘reconstructionists’ at their tail may be). Anyway, back to Navid Akhtar:

The terrorists who emerged from my community followed this pattern of youthful excess to radical religion. Amar Omar Saeed Sheikh, born down the road from me, got into trouble for drinking and flings with older girls before discovering radical Islam, helping the 9/11 bombers and being sentenced to death for his part in the beheading of the American journalist, Daniel Pearl. The Derby-born Hamas suicide bomber, Omar Khan Sharif, was expelled from his school for disciplinary problems; Hasib Mir Hussein was known for drinking and shoplifting before becoming the man who blew up the bus in Tavistock Square.

As an indigenous Pakistani commentator more-or-less said, head inclined to his overseas audience, “Don’t blame us, these are British lads.” Listening, Tony?

(Addendum: fine, forthright, painful coverage of the Birmingham disturbances over on Pickled Politics. And on Ekklesia we have offered this response to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill.)

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Monday, October 24, 2005


Jeanette Winterson is an extraordinary, elusive, evocative and - in the most productive sense - an infuriating writer. Perhaps most widely known for Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which unveils her own experience of a suffocating Christian fundamentalist upbringing, her new novel Weight (Canongate) weaves its unlikely web of influences from the Bible, Virginia Woolf's Orlando, TS Eliot's Four Quartets, the Moomintroll children's books by Tove Jansen and Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. In spite of all that organised religion has thrown at her, Winterson also retains a powerful un-theorised sense of transcendence. She writes: "There is a moment when you realise that the energy you're using is not your energy. When you're in that moment of absolute concentration, you feel that it's not you any more ... but something more impersonal, even spiritual, though I wouldn't call it God. All creative people recognise this. Where it comes from I don't know. But I know its there and not in the control of the individual."

See also Tim Conley on the JW muse in the The Modern Word's Scriptorium, including this full-frontal Sapphic jibe from Art and Lies (1994): "The spirit has gone out of the world. I fear the dead bodies settling around me, the corpses of humanity, fly-blown and ragged. I fear the executive zombies, the shop zombies, the Church zombies, the writerly zombies, all mouthing platitudes, the language of the dead, all mistaking hobbies for passions, the folly of the dead." [The official Winterson site is here. Image with thanks to The Modern Word]

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Sunday, October 23, 2005


A powerful reflection from Walter Brueggemann, concerning the historical imagination of two communal traditions which have both known great loss; which have been (and are) tempted to translate that into revenge; and which, in spite of this, retain the capacity for a larger, hopeful memory that neither can exhaust. At the heart of this is surely the ability to move beyond the dominating politics of victim-hood and its correlative separation of a global sense of God from a global sense of neighbour – a difficulty felt especially within the third ‘religion of the book’, Islam, right now.

“For Jews and Christians, loss evokes memory. For the society around us, loss evokes amnesia – and the outcome is a society without reference, without buoyancy, without staying power for things human. The temptation to amnesia is broad and deep and complex among us. Its great lever is the homogenization of television consumerism, in which everything is reduced to the now, to commodity, to private gain and individual comfort, to thin humanness, while all the density of communal miracles and communal particularity is lost. It is not my purpose to offer a cultural critique of society, except to note the seductive temptation that this culture of amnesia is… If we lose our vivid, concrete, nameable memories … our communities of faith are out of business. But the truth – which both Jews and Christians share in common, though they carry it out in very different ways – is this: We are communities of memory, who experience seasons of loss as seasons of passionate remembering. Bound together in loss, we are also bound together in the memory [of hope] that the loss evokes…We now live in a society that wants to separate God and neighbour, to keep something of God without the neighbour who comes with God. But that is futile. God's coming shalom, which is sure for the world, is a gift of neighbourliness. Widow, orphan, illegal immigrant, poor, homeless, disabled, homosexual – all count, all are citizens of God's shalom. Faced, then, with a crushing loss – the destruction of Jerusalem or the death of Jesus, the defeat of goodness or the defiance of decency – Jews and Christians respond by doggedly recalling the enduring evidence of God's love, compassion, and faithfulness… [as it] winds its way through the neighbourhood we call the world.”

See also my review of Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination.

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Saturday, October 22, 2005


I don’t find myself regularly in agreement with former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey (his successor, though horridly trapped by the role, is a different matter). But I was definitely grateful for his comments this week on the need to do away with Britain’s archaic blasphemy laws. Mind you, the incitement to religious hatred bill could well see them in through the back door again; though there are now signs, hopefully, of some serious legislative attenuation.

As an aperitif to this news story, The Guardian suggested, inter alia, that Lord Carey “loves” Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. To which I say a wholehearted ‘Amen’. It’s possibly the best theological satire in movie history. Unfortunately, when it was released in 1979, Mary Whitehouse and assorted church dignitaries didn’t see it that way. They wanted it banned for blasphemy – even though the whole point of the film is that Brian isn’t Jesus… he’s yet another fall guy for the easy religious delirium which has been with us throughout history, and which is as damaging of healthy religion as anything possibly could be.

There are more laugh-out-loud moments in LoB than I care to recall. Perhaps my favourite is when the anti-hero, caught like a rabbit in the headlights, tries to stop the rootless rabble from turning him into the imagined strongman they can never be. “Look”, he pleads, “you don’t have to follow me. You’re all individuals.” There is a moment of quiet. Then they shout back in shattering unanimity, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Except a solitary man, who protests, “I’m not!”

At the time, this kind of humour was lost completely on former Lord Bishop of Southwark Mervyn Stockwood and dear old Malcolm Muggeridge, as they slugged it out in an excruciating TV studio debate with the Python team, seemingly missing every point with effortless aplomb. I well recall cringing behind our metaphor of a sofa. All of which goes to show that the professionally sanctimonious make poor arbiters of taste, and (as I pointed out in relation to Jerry Springer – The Opera) the religiously offended make even worse readers of texts.

As it happens, I ended up working as an education and lay training adviser for another Bishop of Southwark twelve years after that infamous TV encounter. On the day I left the diocese, in 1996, my official 'do' was followed by an informal drink in the local. A couple of hours on, a film started on the pub screen. It was ‘Life of Brian’. The landlord knew we were from the church offices, and quickly hastened to turn it off. We begged him not to. “We adore this film!” we cried. I like to think Mervyn was grinning too.

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Friday, October 21, 2005


Well, Connecticut is a Republican state, and the official road signs are green, not blue. But it's the thought that counts. (With a hat-tip to Mike Power... although possibly not the same one who succeded me at Changes all those years ago.)

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Thursday, October 20, 2005


Given the endless stream of conflict-related headlines in the daily news, it is perhaps surprising (and hopeful) to discover that, statistically, war and violence is actually decreasing worldwide. This is the conclusion of a survey carried out by the Human Security Center at the University of British Columbia. Says its CEO, Andrew Mack: "We knew the number of wars was coming down...but particularly surprising is how the decline in wars is reflected right across the board in all forms of political conflict and violence." The Centre credits greatly increased efforts in conflict prevention and peacebuilding through United Nations missions and government-based 'contact groups.' The report is available online at Thanks to SojoNet for the link.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Though the aphorism that follows is profoundly true, I still feel an urge to change the final word to 'endurance' in order to avoid the danger of it slipping perilously into the sanctification of suffering... which was perhaps the danger its author dallied with in her own torment. A quite fascinating and rewardingly disturbing woman...

"The false god changes suffering into violence. The true God changes violence into suffering."

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace.

Stephanie Strickland observes: "Weil, our shrewdest political observer since Machiavelli, was never deceived by the glamor of power, and she committed herself to resisting force in whatever guise. More 'prophet' than 'saint,' more 'wise woman' than either, she bore a particular kind of bodily knowledge that the Western tradition cannot absorb. Simone Weil belongs to a world culture, still to be formed, where the voices of multiple classes, castes, races, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and religions, can be respected. To achieve this culture is an impossible task, but, as Weil would remind us, not on that account to be forsaken. Today we look to Weil for hope, for meditation, for the bridge a body makes. She knew that the truth had been 'taken captive,' and that we must 'seek at greater depth our own source,' because power destroys the past, the past with its treasures of alternative ideals that stand in judgment on the present."

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Sunday, October 16, 2005


A number of commentators and webloggers have reacted with understandable distress to the news about the racist abuse which greeted the appointment of Britain’s first black archbishop, Dr John Sentamu (left). As Maggi Dawn said: "not unprecedented, but still disgraceful." The UK may be a broad society, but it is also stalked by what social psychologists call heterophobia – fear of 'otherness'. That, at root, is what racism, in both its personal and institutional guises, is about.

So how can it be challenged? Back in 1997 I was co-organising an ecumenical conference in Scotland, for which the main speaker was the extraordinary Vincent Donovan, the pioneering Catholic priest and author of Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai. At that time Donovan, getting on in life and physically very vulnerable, was still working part-time as a chaplain to university students in North Carolina. As he commented, many of the whites there had imbibed the entrenched racial attitudes of the Deep South rather thoroughly.

Donovan went on to tell the story of how he passed a group of white, male youngsters cursing and bad-mouthing black people. He stopped and asked them why. “Because they're all filthy, stinkin’ thieves”, they replied. Donovan asked: “Who told you to think like that?” They looked offended. “No-one. That’s what we know for ourselves”. Evidently oblivious to his own safety (in a way that becomes quite believable if you meet him in the flesh) Donovan declared: “Nonsense! You're basically decent kids, and you're coming out with this garbage. I don’t think you came to the conclusion that 'black people are bad' all by yourselves, with no encouragement. I bet that's exactly how your families and friends think, too. What you’re doing is just following their lead and fitting in with those you hang out with. So why don’t you become real men by starting to think for yourselves? Look, there’s a group of black people… let’s go find out what they’re really like and what they think of you.” They white youngsters were, by all accounts, a bit astonished to be challenged in this way, and a robust but friendly dialogue ensued.

It’s a wonderful example of what you might call holy foolishness, and a reminder not just about the significance of having the courage of our convictions, but also about the crucial fact that racism and xenophobia, in common with all alienations, is a matter both of cultural production and of inter-personal formation. Like me you may doubt whether you have bravery to face it out in the same way as Vincent. I recall reasoning at the time (in a self-serving and not entirely rational way) that a quirky, feisty old geezer would surely be much less vulnerable to assault than those of us who might make better sport. Maybe, maybe not. But what we (I) can’t avoid is the reality that cultures of exclusion and hate (including the church's fashionable homophobia) are fed by collusion and can only be changed by hopeful realism, both personal and political.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005


Fairly recently I mentioned (and quoted) a thoughtful article by Giles Fraser which contributes constructively to the conversation opened up by Salman Rushdie about how religion gets ‘reformed’ or ‘enlightened’. Theo Hobson then added an important qualification, viz. Elsewhere the Reformation may have produced ‘theocratic fascism’, but in England it enabled the emergence of the first truly modern culture. Our tradition of political and intellectual freedom is rooted in our distinctive version of the Reformation. Today like never before we must show how our secularism comes out of our distinctive religious tradition. Our history is not irrelevant to hopes of an Islamic reformation.

But Giles’ central point still stands – which is that, as Milan Kundera also illustrates, literary imagination is a practice and a perspective which depends inherently upon the fecundity rather than the fixity of the word. Part of the vocation of the writer is to preserve this freedom. And it is with this consciousness of narrativity and intertextuality that thoughtful Christians, in dialogue with a diverse interpretative community, find their formative texts to be revelatory ... in a way which constantly thwarts those who want to ‘close the book’ (in this case the Bible) to buttress their knock-down, bullying arguments.

I remarked at the time that Giles’ piece had been misleadingly headlined by The Guardian’s features section (‘Rushdie should swap his crusading for novel writing’). And, sure enough, some duly read it as what one weblog characterised as a ‘sneaky and disguised’ attack on Rushdie, and what Jonathan Heawood of the Fabian Society – in a depressing example of satire defeating thought – laughingly called 'an Anglican fatawa’. On the contrary: Fraser was clearly affirming the central importance of what Rushdie is really effective at (in Midnight’s Children, Shalimar the Clown and elsewhere), as distinct from his recognisably less useful programmatic views on religion. The latter are made entirely understandable by the appalling threats against him, but this does not, of itself, make them adequate.

Six years ago I wrote a short response in The Guardian to an article on religion by a literary critic and novelist. It elaborates a similar point about emancipating narrative, so forgive me if I quote it here, with one editorial clarification: James Wood's brilliant article on how fiction killed faith (Beyond Belief, January 1) is mistaken in only one respect. The 'victim' is not free faith but authoritarian doctrine, and the 'perpetrator' is not the novelist but organised religion itself. Christian theologians have argued for many years that the core of Scripture is liberating narrative not totalitarian religion. [But] many churches eschew serious theological thought, and many theologians [therefore] take refuge in secularity. Meanwhile, faith of all sorts not only persists today, it flourishes. However, divorced from both spiritually nourishing narrative and intellectually cleansing critical thought it is often ugly and diseased.

Incidentally, and with reference to fictive realism, Theo Hobson’s piece on The Sound of Music (‘Hegel with Songs’) is also definitely worth reading.

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Friday, October 14, 2005


A couple of Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotations which seem pertinent to the times we live in.

"It is very easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements in comparison with what we owe others. "

"To understand reality is not the same as to know about external events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed person is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of knowledge [s]he will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of things. And so the wise person will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge. To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom."

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Thursday, October 13, 2005


Though I think it’s a poor and corrosive piece of legislation, the demonstration outside parliament against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill on Tuesday left me feeling very queasy indeed. Most of the time I was on a patch of green behind the lobby, trying to make my voice heard (along with several others) for a TV interviewer. It felt like being shouted down. And what’s more, many of the demonstrators I spoke to had little idea about what they were objecting to. I felt genuine sympathy for the dignified group from the National Secular Society who looked rather besieged by religious zeal. And I found it more than ironic that Christians who called for a ban on Jerry Springer – The Opera were now singing the praises of ‘free speech’. If this is what public debate has come to, we are all in real trouble.

Of course I recognise the twist in this. As a think-tank wonk and (aggh!) pundit, I too am in the persuasion business. I value tough thinking, honesty, intellectual imagination and self-criticism, but I recognise that there is a place in this for vigorous argument. That’s one of the things that makes for a healthy society. But when rhetoric is overwhelmed by conviction, civility is erased by scorn, and the lust for polemic silences the intractability of judgement and the reality of ambiguity, we have a right to be alarmed. The religious hatred ‘discussion’ among urbane non-religionists on More4 later in the evening was no more encouraging, with participants under no apparent constraint to back up opinion with fact or to temper caricature with subtle observation.

In its response to David Aaronovitch’s polemical (but still thoughtful) BBC2 critique of ‘God and the politicians’, Ekklesia said: “There is a need for faith communities to convince the sceptics that they want to be partners [in debate] not theocrats. And there is likewise a need for the sceptics to engage in a constructive dialogue with faith communities about how to keep the square we share public… We need a way of enabling particular communities of [competing] conviction to develop distinctive roles and perspectives within a plural society; a public space which they can affirm, shape, contest and support.”

Rowan Williams has been helpfully tackling questions related to this of late, and though I disagree with him on publicly funded faith-based schools (which he favours and I'm concerned about), his exploration of pluralist political options in his recent memorial lecture for the late David Nicholls (author of the stimulating ‘Deity and Domination : Images of God and the State in 19th and 20th Centuries’) is important stuff. It’s called Law, Power and Peace: Christian Perspectives on Sovereignty.

Dr Williams aspires to the view that the Body of Christ ought not to be “a political order on the same level as others, competing for control, but a community that signifies, that points to, a possible healed human world. Thus its effect on the political communities of its environment is bound to be, sooner or later, sceptical and demystifying.” I’d endorse something along the same lines. But it needs to be observed that for most Christian communities most of the time, this is not an accurate description – and that the impact of church engagement in politics is all-too-often corrupted by manipulation. I say that as an invitation to honesty and commitment, not as a counsel of despair. So what are we going to do about it?

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005


On a slightly more cheerful note (the world has been remoselessly gloomful and doomful recently, huh?), I note that the British section of the international Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, has proffered a nifty *.PDF file of its new icon -- depicted in mini-version on the left. The 'Icon of peace' was unveiled over the summer as part of Pax Christi's sixtieth anniversary celebrations.

Back in November 2004 PX sent journalist Paul Donovan to be an observer at the US election process in Florida, the state at the centre of bitter disputes in the 2000 elections. He was also a witness to the last Palestinian Authority poll. Pax Christ's hard-working general secretary Pat Gaffney, who I have been privileged to know and work with over the years, together with Kathy Galloway of the ecumenical Iona Community (ditto), were among one thousand women from more than 150 countries jointly nominated for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005


In a recent Guardian column, Stuart Jeffries regretted that in the wake of the summer London bombings, Tate Britain had decided against showing artist John Latham's challenging work, God is Great #2, produced in 1991. The work incorporates copies of the Qur'an, the Bible and the Talmud, cut and pierced by glass (In the wake of 7/7, London does not need art to tiptoe around the sensibilities of those who could possibly be affronted, 26 September 2005). Now Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar has responded in print, declaring that the decision was taken on security grounds alone, and does not constitute censorship. However, this is a very fine line indeed. For the risk arose directly from a belief that religiously offended vandals might attempt to deface or attack the work. Inter alia, Deuchar says: "the purpose of the work lay not in politics but in its commentary on the evolution of religious thought - represented by the books - from an original state of nothingness, represented by a large sheet of plate glass."

While one has every sympathy for both the director and the gallery in this situation, it is surely a little disingenuous not to admit that its decision is, at least, an act of self-censorship -- and, moreover, one that risks further feeding the climate of over-sensitivity we now seem to be inhabiting. Mainstream faith community leaders should be concerned about these developments. An open society is one in which people are able to explain, proclaim and live out their differing convictions. This entails being able to cope maturely with the fact that others will critique and even deride them. Healthy religion is significantly defined by its ability to tap those sources of self-awareness, pluralism and self-criticism within its own traditions which make this maturity both possible and necessary. This is not the imposition of some alien 'secular' or 'liberal' agenda (to face the accusation made by religious absolutists), but an inherent part of any rational faith's capacity for critical self-renewal. Without it there will be hell to pay for all of us.

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Monday, October 10, 2005


The fine UK-based Asian news blog Pickled Politics is a good hub of news and comment on the unfolding tragedy in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. The BBC has in-depth background, of course. Unofficial estimates now say that 40,000 people are likely to have died. With sad predictability, US 'theocrat' Pat Robertson (of Chavez assassination recent fame) has leapt in on the act. The amount of non-sense out there on God and disaster is monumental at the moment. I'm about to update and substantially revise my Is God a disaster area? piece for Ekklesia.

[Donations can be made directly to Christian Aid for Kashmiri earthquake relief and regular contributions are welcome to its emergencies and disasters fund. Tearfund donations can be made here. See Catholic Fund for Overseas Development on Asian tsunami rebuilding.]

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Not as in, "yikes! Armageddon outta here fast!" (sorry), but as in the quasi-eschatological fallout from the recently recycled bomber Bush God-shod revelations. The White House press team has spent the last 48 hours in denial mode, but the substantial circumstantial evidence doesn't look too good. Meanwhile, the first-rate Catholic journalist Paul Vallely, who writes for The Independent and The Tabet, among others, has published a typically acute piece (reproduced in Arab News, interestingly enough), which is required reading alongside Stephen Sizer's excellent Christian Zionism: Road Map to Armageddon? (IVP). The latter is a book which shows that the one-size-fits-all media caricature of evangelicals won't do. Meanwhile here's the denoument of Vallely's analysis:

Leaked minutes reveal that George W. Bush’s White House has been holding secret meetings with Christian fundamentalists who believe that the Second Coming of Christ can happen only after Israel’s re-emergence as a nation, which is why support for Israel is at the very top of the Christian right’s agenda.

They also believe that the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem must be rebuilt for a third time before the Messiah can return. That will mean knocking down the Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s holiest shrine after Makkah and Madinah. So conflict with Muslims is both necessary and desirable. One of the leaders of these End-time Christians claims he is given telephone briefings by the White House at least once a week.

This is not a fringe activity. There are estimated to be as many as eight million pre-millennial Christian fundamentalists in America for whom Armageddon is always just around the corner. The White House can deny all it likes that Bush said the words at the center of the current controversy. But there can be no doubt that the president’s religious thinking has shaped the world we now find ourselves in.

Nor is there any doubt how dangerous it is. It allows him to dwell happily with insufficient real knowledge about those he has branded as the enemy. It creates in him a delusional sense that he and his nation have been chosen by God for special responsibilities and special favors — fostering the perilous perception that his norms are absolute norms, his form of government automatically superior to all others, and his spiritual tradition the only really true religion.

And, most dangerously, it allows him to classify “the other” as evil. Demonizing our opponents is the psychological equivalent of declaring war. We cut off the possibility of dialogue.

In the process we absolve ourselves of any obligation to treat them as human beings. And we let ourselves off the hook of having to ask what part our own actions may, even in a small way, have contributed to the problem. There is plenty about that in the Bible.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005


This brief excerpt is from the poem 'How?' in the second section of Michael O'Siadhail's thought-provoking collection, A Fragile City (Bloodaxe Books, 1995). I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Michael at a conference on culture and faith held at Swanwick back in January 1997. He hails from Dublin and is a full-time writer and critic. Such words eat away at our lazy comfort in moments of genuine tragedy like this.

When the time comes, how will we have been:
giver or hoarder, sharers or sleek gringos
Children of the barrio, how can I explain? [...]

Something cries its grievance. A false coin
is spinning: heads I win, tails you lose.
When the time comes, how will we have been?

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Saturday, October 08, 2005


Humanitarian and aid organisations, including Christian and Muslim agencies, are responding rapidly to the awful earthquake centred on Islamabad and spreading throughout the region. Donations can be made via Christian Aid, among others. Some of the on-the-ground responses can be read at the Lahore metroblog and via Global Voices online. Comments Robin Greenwood: "South-east Afghanistan is a conflict zone. US forces are fighting Al Qaeda and Kashmir is an area of dispute, tension and military activity between the Pakistani and Indian forces. It is vital in both these areas that relief work takes precedence over conflict." Indeed. And while we are focussing on tragedy, let's not forget Hurricane Stan in Central America and the eruption of the Ilamatepec volcano in El Salvador. Or Malawi's hidden hunger (UNICEF appeal here), the worsening situation is Southern Africa, and the drought in Niger and the northern Sahel region. It all seems too much to bear at times...

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to caste my lot with those
who age by age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

(from 'Natural Resources' by Adrienne Rich)

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Friday, October 07, 2005


Not unknown before, but nonetheless alarming to read on the front of today's Guardian. Definitely made me gulp my tea. Ghastly stuff. You'll find a much more detailed version of the story (with background, comment and links) here on Ekklesia. To summarise from the beginning...

US President George W. Bush has been criticised for “making a mockery of Christianity” after it was revealed last night that he directly claimed he was on a 'mission from God’ when he launched the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Bush, an evangelical Christian since 1985, is alleged to have declared his conviction that the wars were God’s direct will in a meeting with the Palestinian delegation at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh in 2003. But the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia says that linking the peacemaking faith of Jesus Christ with policies responsible for death and destruction is “a political abuse of religion” which may further inflame Muslim sentiment and should be renounced by church leaders. [Continued]

I might add, by way of a footnote, that while GW is convinced that God told him to oust Saddam Hussein, God apparently made no mention to him or his president-father that there was anything wrong with arming the dictator to the teeth in the first place. Presumably this is because the Almighty, ever-concurrent with GOP policy swings, was at that stage more worried about Iran (whose bombing may or may not have divine warrant as I write). Such nonsense does, of course, merit some rather more serious theological investigation about what people of faith think they are doing when they talk of God "speaking", or use biblical claims of this kind to bolster their decisions. On that more later.

Meanwhile, by an interesting piece of synchronicity, I was clearing out some boxes the other day and came across a couple of investigative journalistic pieces I wrote for the now defunct City Limits magazine 15+ years ago. They were both about Britain's involvement in arms sales to Baghdad. One mentioned a parliamentary Early Day Motion condemning this. The copy I saved has no mention of a Mr Blair showing much interest... how times change.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005


Following on from the last post, what kind of perspective might inform a consciously post-Christendom restatement (‘re-emergence’) of Christian commitment in a plural, sceptical, indifferent and consumer-oriented culture? The seven ‘core convictions’ developed by the Anabaptist Network in the UK seem to me a really good starting point for that conversation. (Via Prodigal Kiwi, I have just noticed that they have been re-rendered in handy *.PDF form by the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand).

There is a danger, of course, that such a stance – which I believe needs also to be nurtured subversively within my own Anglican tradition, through radical Catholicism, and in Reformed perspective – might degenerate into sentimental Jesuolatry, devoid of a broader theological perspective. Incipient WWJD-ism skates too readily over the interpretative distance facing contemporary Christian engagement in its foundational texts and traditions. Seeking the company of the Jesus of the Gospels also involves tension, disruption, interrogation and pain.

But these challenges make ‘followership’ more, not less, worthwhile and necessary, as I tried to suggest not so long ago in my article Does Christianity kill or cure?

“The Christian conviction is that the Word of life has become flesh. This means that the ‘answers’ we seek are not to be found in infallible texts or unassailable propositions, but in and through the vulnerable humanity to which God is committed.

“So the only response that is adequate both to the scale of our human dilemma and to the nature of what is unveiled in the Gospel is (quite against our instincts for tidiness and convenience) the difficult truth of a person.

"In the counter-story and lived reality of Jesus of Nazareth – a narrative about being truly human, but also about a living God who is quite unlike our ideas of 'godness' – we see ‘in the flesh’ the surprising, redemptive potential of diversity in the face of division.

"Put simply, Christ's is the less-travelled Way marked by open tables, acceptance of 'outsiders', refusal of violence, challenge to the rich, forgiveness and repentance, resistance to the powers-that-be, conflict through the cross, the foretaste of risen life, and the shock of the Spirit – the one who surprises us with liberated meaning.

"What we long for in Jesus’ company, therefore, is not mere ‘tolerance’ or illusory power for ourselves. It is the impossible possibility of God’s domination-free kingdom (or ‘kin-dom’, as a South African theologian once beautifully put it).

"The Gospel is about precisely this unimaginable love. It is a love that subjugates power so as to absorb rather than inflict violence, to embrace rather than deny suffering, and to endure in (rather than escape from) death."

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Ah, the delightful ambiguity of the sign.... Anyway, Maggi Dawn commented yesterday: "One of the characteristics of the 'Emerging' mindset is to think of church travelling outwards, rather than expecting people to 'come to us'. I like this idea best when it's accompanied with a Bonhoeffer understanding of the world - not that we 'take God out' to the world, but that we engage with God 'out there' instead of having a retreat mentality."

It's also important to be reminded (as the reference to a mid-twentieth century pastor and theologian tells us) that creative thinking about the church and the vocation it seeks to embody does not automatically derive from, or depend upon, new thinking. There is much that is new and reactionary (by which I mean fearful and defensive) around at the moment, both in the Christian community and elsewhere. By the same token, it is salutary to discover just how long our in vogue diagnoses have actually been around:

"We as individuals, as a congregation of Christian people, and as members together of the Christian church, can neither enjoy faith in God nor be a means of the kindling of faith in others unless we are ready to receive the grace to live faith as an experiment and an experience. Nothing can establish God. We can hope only to be established by God and in God. We are not in a post-Christian era but we are in a post-Christendom era. Civilization and culture do not take God or Christianity for granted. This puts us back into the situation of the people of God for most of their history, certainly into the position of the New Testament church and of the church of the first creative centuries. The world does not help us to believe in God nor do we strengthen our faith through conformity... This does not mean, however, that we are to withdraw into the church and seek somehow to cultivate our faith with our backs to the world. Such church-centredness can only be the death of faith. God is to be found in what [God] makes of the world and of God's people for the world. It is abundantly clear from the Bible that God's people always lost their living faith in the living God when they supposed that they themselves were the focus both of God's activity and of God's reality."
(From David E. Jenkins, on 'Christian Faith in God', written in 1968 - from the collection Still Living With Questions, SCM Press [My emphases].)

That just about sums it up. To be grasped by who and what God might be (beyond our manipulations of 'god') is not a license for retreat, fantasy or the abrogation of reason; rather it is to exercise a traditioned trust which makes adventure, questioning and exploration essential. And it is made possible only by a church-turned-outwards.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005


The row between the Muslim Council of Britain and the BBC over John Ware's Panorama documentary 'A Question of Leadership' (on which I commented at the time, and subsequently elaborated) rumbles on. The important new weblog Pickled Politics covers the ins and outs well, with Sunny Hundal developing the thread of his analysis in AiM ("Asians need better leaders and the media is not helping"). The BBC published a detailed response yesterday by Mike Robinson, editor of Panorama. He declares: "I have found there to be no truth in your claims that this programme was dishonestly presented, maliciously motivated or Islamophobic." The MCB is, not surprisingly, dissatisfied. It says it will now go to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit. Meanwhile a verdict is also due from regulator Ofcom.

But the deeper question is 'who speaks for whom?' and how do progressive and other nonconformist Muslim voices get properly heard as part of a mix which represents the true diversity? Pickled Politics comments: "[B]ecause Muslims ... are too used to biased reporting against themselves, it was easy for the MCB to paint this as another such attack. It may have gotten the government and other organisations to think twice about the MCB (important), but for Muslims themselves it further closed that window of dissent. And unfortunately over the long term that is what is needed." [On a different tack, see also Sunny Hundal's Independent article on British Asians and media stereotyping]

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A friend from the USA writes: "Lewis Lapham, my guru du jour, made an interesting observation in his monthly Harper's editorial that the 'media (are) busily minting images of corporate executives like those of the emperor heroes on the coins of ancient Rome.' It got me to thinking that he could have carried the analogy still further, since what they are paid is more on the scale of tribute than earned salary; and in practice they are the unelected leaders of society." More than that, the emperors were (are) also demi-gods, transforming religion from grace into mortgage and founding an economy of beneficiary-oriented obeisance.

All of which calls to mind John M. Hull's sharp and revealing research article, Bargaining with God: Religious development and economic socialization. As Hull, whose fine website I will return to later, says: "[I]t seems likely that in an intense money culture the ultimate reality of God will be confused with, and even displaced by, the ultimate reality of money. Bargaining appears to be a developmental stage in both economic socialisation and in the development of relationships with God, and, therefore, a study of the similarities between economic and religious bargaining offers a starting point for considering the impact of money upon the spiritual development of both children and adults." And at the heart of that mix, lets not forget, is the exchange value of the media.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Those who thought that George W. Bush's administration had, in recent months, been tilted towards seeing 'war on terror' as the rhetoric of a road to ruin will be disappointed by his latest pronouncements, where he compares it uncomplicatedly to the second world war. Never mind the assymetry of modern terrorism, never mind the sacrifice of what is supposedly being defended, and never mind a one-dimensional anti-terror logic colluding with the past arming of Saddam, the state terror waged in the Caucuses, the resurgence of warlordism in Afghanistan, uncritical support for counterproductive Israeli policies, and a blind eye to corruption and cruelty in Saudi Arabia. "We" are justified because "they" are evil.

In the mid-80s I travelled in Central America. At that time, as part of its "national security doctrine", the USA was backing armed cells in Nicaragua and El Salvador. One victim of the terrorists in San Salvador was Archbishop Oscar Romero, from whom the quotation on the mural picture comes. Romero's nonviolent work for social justice involved moving the struggle of the disenfranchised away from insurgency and towards politics. But this was a threat to the vested interests with whom the US allied, and the archbishop was assassinated by death squads trained and backed by the American security operatives. As much as the contemporary context, the predominant lesson of the '80s is that to overcome terror is to struggle with the diffuse roots of political violence and injustice, not to collude with them. (Thanks to Ocavia Duran for the link to this mural by Renato Martin ... and do look at her extraordinary pictures.)

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Monday, October 03, 2005


Sitting through the tragic performance of Stephen Green (from the mislabelled group 'Christian Voice') on the BBC Question Time TV programme the other evening proved to be, by turns, a painful, sad and inadvertently amusing experience. There's a summary here. (And hat-tip to MediaWatchWatch for the vidcap.) Green, who is also involved in an internecine argument with those who stoked the Jerry Springer furore, littered his well-rehearsed prejudices with biblical quotes and allusions. Somewhat uncharitably, perhaps, but hardly inappropriately, the wise counsel of St Augustine (he himself not being devoid of public failings) came to mind: Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion." [1 Timothy 1.7]

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Sunday, October 02, 2005


It is now commonplace for critics of the excesses of modern religion (particularly those forms of Islam, Judaism and Christianity which spout ignorance and hatred and call them 'truth') to talk about these deformations as 'medieval belief' and 'ancient superstition'. There are two major problems with this. First, it fails to recognise that what we call fundamentalism is in fact a distinctly modern thought disease - a kind of hyper-rationalism which feeds on circular logic, modern communications and a misappropriation of sacred texts in ways which are alien to their cultural and literary fabric. Textuality, by it nature, invites engaged interpretation not blind obedience.

Second, it libels our forebears. For while no-one should doubt that intellectual and moral failings afflicted past generations every bit as much as ours, it is simply ill-informed and arrogant to believe that earlier thinkers were uniformly inferior. You don't have to agree with everything the 'medieval' Thomas Aquinas said, for example, to realise that even his most contestable utterances are glorious wisdom compared to the foolish fulminations of a Robertson, a Falwell or a Bin Laden. And as for the current resurgence of 'creationism' (and its intellectually confused cousin, 'intelligent design'), we would surely be endlessly grateful if the exponents of this modern non-sense had attained the capacities of a fourth/fifth century thinker...

"Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, ... and this knowledge he [sic] holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, lest the unbeliever see only ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn." St Augustine, De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (The Literal Meaning of Genesis: An Unfinished Work, tr. J. H. Taylor).

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Saturday, October 01, 2005


Reflecting on 'stock-taking' in a clamorous world, I was recently re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943. Inter alia, he declares: "Quantities are competitive, qualities are complementary." A tiny reflection with potentially momentous ramifications for the worlds of economics, politics, personal relations and much more.

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