Saturday, 26 December 2015

Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Buon Natale, Frohe Weihnachten - It's all the same!

Last year I spent Christmas in Berlin with my German wife at her mother’s together with my English mother, Italian step-father and French brother-in-law. At one point during dinner all four languages were being spoken around the table with only my mother able to speak them all. Fortunately all was harmony and peace without any of the myriad family tensions that can turn a merry Christmas into a merry hell. But that didn’t stop me from marvelling at my mother’s linguistic dexterity. 

When your own family is the EU in microcosm it is hard not to look anxiously at the elephant trap that the ignorant and the foolish seem so intent on dragging Britain into. The world has become a very complicated place and as its complexity grows so too does the danger from clownish demagogues like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage quick to appeal to fear and a basic belief that life is and can be binary: good or bad. 

A former general wrote recently about the fall of Sangin back into the clutches of the Taliban. The futility of British military endeavour and loss there was writ large. There are many reasons that underlay Britain’s Afghan ‘adventure’, very few of them commendable. One of them was the apparently unending desire of Britain’s politicians to assert global importance through the projection of military power. Instead British military exploits of the last decade have served only to highlight how powerless Britain has become. This mania for interfering in the affairs of far off countries belies an intense ambivalence and anxiety about engagement with our nearest neighbours. 

Throughout this period expenditure on the Foreign Office has withered while in schools the number of children studying foreign languages has plummeted. This cultural and linguistic isolation is anything but splendid. When all outside is sturm und drang of course it is tempting to bolt the door shut and pull the covers over your head but then your world, inevitably, becomes the four walls around you. As someone who is in the midst of trying to remember when possessive pronouns take the accusative or dative case I feel the appeal of saying what is mine is mine and what is yours is dein, deine or deinem. 

There are of course competing economic arguments about the benefit to Britain of European Union membership and I cannot profess a great grasp of them but the symbolic and emotional arguments do resonate with me. For as long as we treat the EU like those weird cousins we visit once a year at Christmas only to condescend to them with our big city ways we will never truly benefit from membership nor play the leading role that is required and expected of us. As with the Scottish referendum this is not, anyway, just about money. 

It is so embarrassing watching David Cameron come back from European visits claiming to have obtained some hard won ‘concession’ to further the pantomime of the EU earning his support for continued membership. This is a referendum that should not be happening and it is a question that does not need asking. What is the serious thoughtful alternative to EU membership? The answer is that there isn’t one but a little Englander’s fantasy of turning the clock back. 

Britain is a great country but only when it is inclusive and looking to be included not when it shrinks into itself like a snail into its shell. Of course being European is difficult how could it be otherwise with that much shared history and that little shared language but only simpletons think the world is a simple place.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Wonder + Existence = Life

When was the last time that you truly marvelled at something? Have that in mind while I tell you something about the beautiful Mömpelgarder Altar that can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one of the world’s greatest treasure-houses. It is a three part creation dating from 1540, containing the most panels of any altarpiece in the world it was intended to be a pictorial guide to the most important parts of Christian scripture. Most significantly the writing is in German not Latin so that the words and not just the pictures could be understood by anyone who could read. 

Martin Luther would have been horrified to learn that what he instigated, namely making scripture intelligible to the masses, set in train a very slow rise in secularism. Much of religion’s power lies in its mystery. This is something the Orthodox churches have maintained by having their priests officiate from behind an iconostasis so that the priest is completely hidden from the congregation. Once you know and understand what the priest is reading from the big book you start to question and challenge. If the priest gives an unconvincing answer to your queries your faith is shaken and eventually you form the view that maybe religion doesn’t have all, or even any, answers. 

The Enlightenment in the 18th century took a huge intellectual broom to the cobwebs of unquestioned religious belief leaving us with an inheritance of, largely healthy, scepticism. Events like the Hajj or the Kumbh Mela or indeed the Sistine Chapel are still capable of inspiring wonder but perhaps more by virtue of the extraordinary spectacle of countless humans engaged in the same endeavour in the same place at the same time or as an example of the zenith of man’s artistic capacity.

Richard Dawkins is in many respects the 21st century’s secular answer to Martin Luther. Someone intent on promulgating to the masses as accessibly as possible the rational supremacy of atheism over the superstition ridden mumbo jumbo of religion and cult. However Dawkins’ naked contempt for the faithful reveals a remarkable blind spot in his understanding and appreciation of human nature. Man longs for wonder and a sense of the numinous. Religion has since the beginning codified, structured and mediated this longing. But despite this longing organised religion has, certainly in Britain at least, increasingly losing its grip on the public’s imagination, Dawkins or not. 

But it would be a terrible mistake to determine that because we do not go to church that we have lost our capacity, still more our need, for wonder. The modern world with its screens and its flashy distractions very often obscures rather than reveals what is wonderful about existence. One of the real blessings that children confer is that they can reinvigorate our capacity for wonder. The wide eyes of a baby remind us of a time in our lives when every sight and sound was new and surprising. 

What we feel when we wonder is a sense that we are not the centre of the universe and that there are things that we do not understand but that this can be a source of joy not a reason to fear. Think of the pleasure inherent in a good magic trick, that simple pleasure is a momentary transportation back to the wonder of childhood. When we wonder we are taken outside of ourselves and this is a necessary to antidote to harmful introspection. 

That money does not buy happiness is one of the most familiar truisms of all but it is also the case that there is no wonder in a £50 note. Taking time for wonder costs nothing and paying attention to the wonderful requires no money. We don’t know it all but what a terrible world it would be if we did.