a moving story from Sub-Saharan Africa
This week I watched a lovely episode of the BBC documentary series, Ingenious Animals (Oxford Scientific Films), presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The episode was about examples of animal intelligence, and the most beautiful example concerned a great big rat.
[image from https://www.instapainting.com/requests/56455ed390f1f8204b8b45c7]
In this post I want to offer a short definition of the word ‘Theism’. I think I am some sort of theist, but I find that most of what is written on the wikipedia page for this word is quite alien to me. It says there that theism is “the belief in the existence of …” where for the dots you can put some sort of entity called a ‘deity’. But that is not how it works in my experience, and that is not how a lot of careful thinkers and writers have expressed it. The thoughtful theist does not consider that there is another ‘thing’ to be added to the set of all things, after one has exhausted what there is in the physical universe. It might seem like that, but I find it to be more subtle and hard to describe. The one Whom we learn to encounter is not ‘another thing’ but that which makes all things possible. As I say, it is rather subtle and quite open-ended.
[image: text from 1984 by George Orwell]
The most effective way to gag an opponent is to refuse to listen to him/her, and then, within your own community, to redefine the words he/she uses. George Orwell illustrated this with great perception and power in his book, 1984, shown above.
No one is currently trying to say things like “freedom is slavery”, but a contemporary example of an attempt to change the meaning of an important word is the attempt to redefine the word “faith” to mean “belief without reasonable evidential basis”. In other words to define it as delusion or wishful thinking. I mention this here because I have now seen that nasty redefinition taken for granted not just in populist rhetoric but even in some academic philosophy. This is a clear example of a word with a perfectly good etymological basis in trust and loyalty, and which certainly does not and never did mean assent without a reasonable case based in evidence, now being forced into a very different meaning. I say very different, because it makes the difference between sense and nonsense.
In its early days, the movement called National Socialism in Germany did not look like a horror story about to happen. It looked ok to most people. You had to be discerning to smell a rat. Here are some of the features that fascism was showing before it swelled into outright violence and totalitarianism.
We all know that asking questions is important. Asking the right questions is at the heart of most intellectual activity. Questions must be encouraged. We all know this. But are there any questions which may not be asked? Questions which should not be asked? Although many a young undergraduate might initially say “no: never! All questions must be encouraged!” I think most thoughtful people will realise there is a little more to it than that.
This is a short post to announce that I have added a further page to the “talks” section of this blog. This is a sermon that I gave two weeks ago at Lady Margaret Hall college, Oxford, at the kind invitation of the chaplain Dr Doig. The sermon is an approximately twenty minute talk which looks at cosmology, and briefly discusses the structure of scientific explanation in general, with a view to showing that these things point towards further layers of meaning in the world, without being able to provide them. It can be found here.
I included in the sermon a brief reaction to something that I know bothers many people, and I decided to display that part here as a “thought for the day” for anyone who does not want to read the sermon. The thought is about whether we matter to God.
The word “secular” refers to an important principle, but it is one that is widely misunderstood, and the word is used in two very different (almost opposite) ways, which leads to confusion. This touches mostly on politics and governance, but it connects also to science and many other human endeavours.
In the following I will first outline two ideas which I will call simply P and x. Then I will discuss the meaning of the word “secular”, and the fact that we need to develop better ways of speaking clearly.
On a branch
a cricket, singing.
Issa (Japan, 1763-1827)
[translated by Jane Hirshfield]
From the web site From Spiritual Poetry – 22 poems about spirituality and enlightenment, selected and with comments by Jane Hirshfield [http://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/68606].
I am posting a thought on Darwinian evolution. There is already quite a lot of material on this subject on this site. This week I am sharing a thought which might help as a way in for teachers or pastors who wish to gain, and hence offer to others, a brief impression of the big picture.
Last term I was privileged to be invited to give a sermon in Exeter College chapel here in Oxford. Here I am posting an extract from that sermon, with minor modifications to fit it to the blog format.
I began by talking about the fact that we all find it hard to know how to talk about God. Two ways which don’t work are as follows. First there is a rather obviously muddled way, in which people talk about something that has the appearance of being like other entities, only bigger and more powerful, located somewhere called ‘heaven’. Secondly there is an attempt to be more careful, but which often fails to carry real weight. This is when people speak in a more philosophical way, bringing in terms such as ‘omniscience’ and ‘omnipotence’, but all held at arm’s length, so that it all seems a bit artificial, like a word-game.
(the extract begins here)