Tuesday 6 May 2008

Archbishop to be Building Bridges

The Archbishop of Canterbury attended the 7th Building Bridges seminar in Rome. This session was aqueducts and viaducts. Here we see him being shown how to hold a trowel.

Apparently the Archbishop is keen to learn a trade. I wonder why?

Meanwhile, before this, on 1 May 2008, the Archbishop gave a lecture (London School of Economics) entitled Religious Faith and Human Rights - rights being a theme he comes back to on several occasions.

He finds that the secular basis of human rights is inadequate in terms of philosophical grounding. The first response to this (for me) would be, 'Why should it be well grounded?' The point about secular reasoning is that it is always ongoing, evolving, changing, and recognises this - the condition of the running argument. This is why it is inevitably hybrid, and it is like how law is ideally formed (a consensus of views, rather than an expression of interests).

In that torture has been allowed back is not necessarily a criticism of the running argument either, in that this language of rights against torture has been used to attack a supposedly law abiding liberal democratic regime (the United States) that has descended to the use of torture, for reasons of interests, and even its denial of what it is doing.

It seems, sometimes, that Rowan Williams wants to live in an internal religious world, and thus he draws on biblical texts and slavery. This is hardly foundational either, for slavery is accepted as a norm within the New Testament. It seems to be adequate that both slaves and slaveowners were to be baptised and treated as under God and to be saved; the slave meanwhile had to obey a harsh master as much as a kind one. Yet the foundation Rowan Williams seeks is in the complication baptism adds to the slave owning relationship, in that the slave also belongs to the divine Master, so that now the model for even the free slaveowner is slavery itself (well this is to see it the other way around, rather than offering the slave a liberation through complication). Of course the divine slavemaster offers a form of freedom through death and rising as in the baptismal ritual.

A stoic (Seneca) said a slavemaster cannot govern the mind of a slave:

...but no philosopher attempts to limit what ownership of the body might entail. The Christian attempt to think through the implications of slave and slaveowner as equal members of the same community inevitably qualified what could be said about absolute ownership, and offered minimal but real protection to the body of the slave.

The assumption here of course is that the slave was an equal member of the same community: well, only in the divine relationship of equal subservience, according to the Pauline text. There are, of course, other texts purporting to be from Paul about hierarchy and authority. One wonders what earthly use is this divine equality. A suggestion is made:

A slave cannot be commanded – for example – to starve to death; nor can he or she be prohibited from deciding on marriage or celibacy.

This is a reference to the Middle Ages theologian Thomas Aquinas, who combined classical thought seen to be a threat to Christianity with Christian inheritance at the time. Aquinas offers then minimal protection for the body, and here Rowan Williams finds a 'within the tradition' foundation for a theology of the body to be a theology of protection (as opposed to human rights). The soul is inseperable from the body (Is it, in such thinking? Does the soul never become released?). The body cannot be changed, and the mind and the soul are part of the body. So:

The ultimate form of slavery would be a situation in which your body was made to carry the meanings or messages of another subject and never permitted to say in word or gesture what was distinctive for itself as the embodiment of a sense-making consciousness.

Well of course this is the notion of hegemony as a product of ideological power. A pure totalitarian state is achieved when the minds of people are operating as the state would wish without any resistance: was this not what Mao tried to achieve when vast numbers were being killed and others waved the Little Red Book?

Fascinating that it comes down to a:

...means of communication, it cannot be simply instrumental to another's will or purpose.

This is less to do with Aquinas and more to do with Rowan Williams and his narrative, story, even religious version of Habermas's Communicative Reason. Here, then, is the pure function of the human, the communication with others, and the symbol system no doubt, and that this is the invioble heart of it all.

The trouble comes when we get to people very limited in communication. Rowan Williams maintains no harm to them by reverting back to the body as a whole, but it all seems to be rather more about the communication. Still, we might accept that body, mind and communication are locked together: a theology of body and culture intermingles (as it does even in a/theological nihilism).

So we don't violate any body. Here we have, also then, a theology of sex: against rape. But of course a common feature of slavery, including by Christian owners, was rape, and repeated rape. This is all very theoretical in terms of whether this reasoning has any history behind it.

This is what it takes to get away from human rights as problematic. It is simply to trade one problematic for a rather larger one, the inviobility of the body.

Surely it is simpler than this; surely all that is needed is the ethical command seen throughout faiths and empathetic philosophies: don't do to others that you would not have done to you. Realise that that person suffers like you do. More than this, people with mental handicap, or forms of dementia, feel pain magnified in the confusion. Do it less to the least; the least have the roughest deal.

Why the need for the tortured reasoning of Aquinas and some very dodgy biblical texts about slavery? Is it in order to rescue and use the Bible on every occasion? Why not say, on this subject, that the Bible is duff, wrong-headed, at best utterly inadequate: wrong as revelation, wrong as culture, at least set against other ethical statements in the Bible (and elsewhere) advising compassion as you would want - as well as being positive about yourself too.

The quest for liberty has come about because the Bible was important but inadequate; there had to be support through Enlightenment. That is what the Enlightenment was about. Of course suddenly ethics was seen to have a life of its own, and began as a running argument, and ever since som have made an effort to establish foundation (indeed as by Habermas and Communicative Reason).

I have first hand experience of someone with, as best as I can tell, multi infarct dementia, that is a result of months and months of transient ischaemic attacks. Life is ever more miserable and out of control. There are language powers as before, but conceptualising is slower and sometimes even near blank. This is painful. There is no concept of time passing that spaces out, and this leads to endless confusion - not just days but hours. Memory is there, but what you said about something becomes something a little different about something else, and about another time. There is spatial loss, so that routes and places are not where they are. Night is day and day could be any day. Accusations fly and argument is a way of going on. With this person, as with any dependent person, the need is to try and imagine what it is like from the inside, and try a strategy of communication that at least might be compassionate and empathetic - and done to sometimes a barrage of word searching criticism that bears little relationship to the real environment. This is the test of empathy and of rights, rights to an as comfortable experience as possible in amongst the confusion.

Young children, who also cannot conceptualise as they might, also need empathy and compassion, even though they have a joyful experience and acquire all the time.

So it is that ethics are driven by empathy, practicality, yes - some religious insights, but let's not try to ditch the secular as the constant opposition. This religious Christian tradition had 1600 years to be ethical and it never quite managed it, and neither did sharp humanist related ideologies too. Let's not get into grand schemes and ideologies, but rather simple, ethical, practical, approaches - and learn from the running argument.

By the way, the Archbishop is keen to teach some brickies how to lecture.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your comment about the Building Bridges seminar (and drawing) was quite funny in what has not exactly been a funny week. Thanks.