Tuesday, January 28, 2014

This Just In From Kiev

Among the pictures coming out of the protests in Kiev and other parts of the Ukraine, ones of Orthodox priests interposing themselves between the crowds and the riot police have gone slightly viral.
In light of a graduate seminar on secularism that I am about to head off to, it’s curious to see these pictures and ask whether they are evidence of how churches with ethnic linkages to particular countries and nationalities have deeper roots than may sometimes be assumed by those who assume that Europe’s trajectory is increasingly towards the secular.  it would be interesting to know how strong the Orthodox church is in the Ukraine, and whether it sees its role as neutral, popular, or allied with the regime, as it is sometimes accused of being in Russia.   I confess I know none of the answers to these questions, and also confess that I admire these men of faith, out in the chaos with their crosses and icons.   I hope they are a force for moderation and reconciliation, though the news from Ukraine seems to be getting steadily worse.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Theology: Rowan Williams On Secularism

Two posts here in two days?  Don’t get your hopes up that great things are happening, but here is a return to my idea of posting an excerpt of a theologian I’ve been reading on Friday.   This would be the third time I’ve followed this plan, which by most measures in the church is enough frequency to be considered a tradition.

Rowan Williams was until recently the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Communion, and is perhaps the preeminent living Anglican theological.  His essay, “Seculalrism, Faith, and Freedom”, was first given in 2006, and the text quoted below appears in a volume of essays, The New Visibility of Religion: Studies In Religion and Cultural Hermeneutics (Continuum Books, 2008).   

I can across this piece while starting a graduate seminar on secularism this term here at Laurier.  In this essay, Williams argues that if we as a society allow our public discourse to be governed by purely secular principles, ruling out of bounds any religious or ideological arguments  as to what constitutes human good other than those arguments which offer “a minimal account of material security and relative social stability”, then our social life will be greatly impoverished and we will be unable to discuss anything of significance.

“…I am arguing that the sphere of public and political negotiation flourishes only in the context of larger commitments and visions, and that if this is forgotten or repressed by a supposedly neutral ideology of the public sphere, immense damage is done to the moral energy of a liberal society.  For that ideal of liberal society, if it is to be any more than a charter for the carefully brokered competition of individuals, requires not a narrowing but a broadening of the moral sources from which the motivation for social action and political self-determination can be drawn.

… There is indeed, deplorably, a kind of appeal to ‘liberal’ ideals that effectively reduces the human self to an economic unit, a solitary accumulator of rights, comforts, and securities.  But, it is an odd sort of liberalism that so dismisses the significance of a freedom learned by social processes of formation and exercised consciously and intelligently for goals that are not exclusively self-interested.

If the three terms of my title do indeed belong together; if a proper secularism requires faith; if it is to guarantee freedom, this is because a civilized politics must be a politics attuned to the real capacities and dignities of the person - not the individual consumer, but the self-learning over time to exercise liberty in the framework of intelligible communication and the self-scrutiny that grows from this.  Such a concept of the person is, I would maintain, unavoidably religious in character; it assumes that we ‘answer’ not only to circumstance or instinct or even to each other but to a Creator who addresses us and engages us before ever we embark on social negotiation.  That, after all, is why we regard the child - or the mentally challenged adult or the dying man or woman who has passed beyond ordinary human communication - as a person, whose dignities and liberties are inalienable.  The struggle for a right balance of secular process and public religious debate is part of a wider struggle for a concept of the personal that is appropriately robust and able to withstand the pressures of a functionalist and reductionist climate.  This is a larger matter than we can explore here; but without this dimension, the liberal ideal becomes deeply anti-humanist.  And, like it or not, we need a theology to arrest this degeneration."

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Reassessing The First World War: Max Hastings' Catastrophe 1914

It’s been a long time since a blog post here, so how about a book review I’ve been meaning to post for a few months, which I revisited in light of some current events.

I’ve only just started tracking the controversy in Great Britain, now several weeks old, that has followed from comments made by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, on the legacy of the First World War, or as it is sometimes called, The Great War.  As I understand it, Gove attacked images of that war in Britain’s popular culture, from the 1969 play and film, Oh What A Lovely War, to Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), which portrayed the war as a pointless slaughter managed by imbeciles.  He is also not fond of certain academics, such as Richard Evans, for saying that those who died in that war died in vain.
Here are some of Mr. Gove’s remarks, as carried on The Daily Mail’s website:
“… it is important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders. 

Instead, they help us to understand that, for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage. 

Indeed, the more we reflect on every aspect of the war, the more cause there is for us to appreciate what we owe to our forebears and their traditions.

But whatever each of us takes from these acts of remembrance and hours of debate it is always worth remembering that the freedom to draw our own conclusions about this conflict is a direct consequence of the bravery of men and women who fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty.”

Based on my reading of Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by the British journalist and popular historian, Max Hastings (Alfred A Knopf, 2013), I’m inclined to be somewhat more sympathetic to Mr. Gove than I might otherwise have been had my knowledge of the war been confined to Blackadder.  A thorough review of Hastings can be found here, so I will simply make a few comments.

First, I would suggest that if you want to do some thinking of the importance of 2014 as the centenary of World War One, or don’t know much about the subject, this is a good place to start.  Some dismiss writers like Hastings as journalistic hacks rather than serious historians, unfairly, I think.  Hastings’ virtue as a writer is that he is a synthesist, allowing the reader a way in to the many historiographic debates about the cause of the war and the wisdoms of its conduct.  Hastings disputes the view that the war was an accident, a mistake of the architecture of treaties and alliances that were set up by the European powers.   In fact, he argues, there were plenty of agents, from psychopathic Serbian officers to vengeful Austrian aristocrats to a simple-minded German leader surrounded by delusional and vainglorious generals, who wanted a war and wanted it badly.   Once they deliberately put the machine into motion, there was little that other powers, like Britain, could do to stay out.

Hastings gives a lot of attention to the diaries and letters of people across Europe whose lives were shattered by the events that unfolded in the summer of 1914.  Some of them are quite memorable.   Lt. Edward Louis Spears, a British liaison officer attached to the French army, wrote of the start of the war that it engulfed Europe like a disaster:  “When an ocean liner goes down, all on board, great and small alike, struggle with equal futility and for about the same time, against elements so overwhelming that any difference there may be in the strength or ability of the swimmers is insignificant compared to the forces against which they are pitted, and which will engulf them all within a few minutes of each other.”  The recent memory of the Titanic sinking obviously seemed to Spears to be an apt metaphor for what was happening.

Hastings himself has many a fine turn of phrase.   In describing the technological changes that slowly became apparent to the generals, he writes that “It was realized that barbed wire could be used to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts.”  The aequation of “soldiers” with “beasts” is a clever and antiheroic pairing that calls to mind the first line of Wilfred Owen’s "Anthem for Doomed Youth”, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"

Owen and the other war-poets created a legacy view of the war as the butchery of the young by stupid old generals.  There are times when Hastings comes close to this view, particularly in his treatment of the early British generals like Sir John French (his leadership of the BEF and his conduct in the Mons campaign loses much of its lustre in Hastings’ account), or of the Austrian and Russian incompetents who poured out the lives of their men like water.  There were many times when I had to put the book down because I was too angry and sad to read on, emotions that I suspect Hastings wants to provoke in his readers.

However, in his last chapter Hastings is more nuanced, arguing that once a war this vast was set in motion, requiring a military outcome to force a political conclusion, then there was no easy or cheap route to that outcome.   In his conclusion, Hastings argues that the outcome of that war did indeed matter.  While it was a war between rival empires, shared imperial ambition should not allow a morally relative view that all the players were equally heinous.  German ambitions for Europe were particularly broad and oppressive, Hastings argues, meaning that it mattered who won the war.

“Once the struggle had begun, it would be entirely mistaken to suppose, as do so many people in the twenty-first century, that it did not matter which side won.   The Allies imposed a clumsy peace settlement at Versailles in 1919, but if the Germans instead had been dictating the terms as victors, European freedom, justice and democracy would have paid a dreadful forfeit.  Germany adopted territorial war aims in the course of the First World War which were not much less ambitious than those favoured by its ruler in the Second.   It this seems quite wrong to describe the undoubted European tragedy of 1914-18 as also futile, a view overwhelmingly driven in the eyes of posterity by the human cost of the military experience.  If the Kaiserreich did not deserve to triumph, those who fought and died in the ultimately successful struggle to prevent such an outcome did not perish for nothing, save insofar as all sacrifice in all wars is just cause for lamentation."

It may well be that the slaughter of a generation is a collective moral failing so vast that it denies all attempts to find any merit or justification in its outcome.  The catastrophe of the peace which followed, and which lead to the rise of Hitler, is ably described by Margaret McMillan and others.  However, Hastings delivers a strong argument that World War One was consequential, and not simply a horrid and futile accident.   

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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