Friday, March 07, 2008


BBC Radio 4's Thought for the Day is a good idea that involves stopping to think about life and ethics in the midst of busyness - one which varies considerably in quality. They also seem to have covertly dropped my colleague Jonathan Bartley for daring to suggest that non-religious people might occasionally get a go, but that's another matter. This morning, Vishvapani (pictured), a member of the Western Buddhist Order, gave a very interesting 3 minutes on the House of Lords' recent vote, endorsed by six bishops (though the Church of England has been equivocal about the matter), to initiate the final burial of our 300 year-old blasphemy laws. Not before time.

Vishvapani made the point that the relative lack of fuss about this shows just how little "religious authority" counts for, with most people in Britain, these days. He also correctly pointed out that legally punishable blasphemy came about as a means of protecting the state at a time when God, king and country were inseparably woven. We no longer live in such times, thankfully.

The editor of Dharma Life magazine drew on thinkers like William Blake as embodying a much more hopeful tradition of dissent. His view that this approach is automatically opposed to the idea of "a creator God" and to "Christian orthodoxy" depends upon understandings of those concepts that I'd also contest; but I would want to point out (and indeed I am doing so, right now!) that these are not the only or best ways of comprehending them. The creativity of God and the grammar of truthfulness in traditional Christian thought are deeply linked to the nonconformity that goes right back to Jesus and the Gospels.

Anyway, Vishvapani concluded that for Blake, practicing blasphemy (as defined by the state) "meant more than cocking a snook at authority. It was a way to shatter the 'mind-forged manacles' that bind the imagination, and open up new mental and spiritual possibilities. From his perspective, and from that of Buddhism, our culture's dominant understanding of human life, which is shaped by secular materialism, is also limiting. Blake regarded materialism as another false idol; and perhaps if he lived in our day, that would be the target of his blaspheming fury."

Not all secularists are materialists in that way, of course, any more than religious people are automatically non-materialists (think of the so-called 'prosperity Gospel'), or all Christian dissidents are non-orthodox, but the overall point is well made.

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