Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Not easy on a bus

I was reflecting the other day how much more difficult simple faith (in God, mostly, on this occasion, but not exclusively) has become in the past century or so. And I think I was ruminating ruefully - do you have a vision of a sad cow? Trouble is, we know too much. All of us, in varying degrees, are equipped with more awareness of what constitutes our surroundings than were our forebears.

Start with something non-religious. Think of these medical dramas which show even the time of my own childhood, the documentaries which show doctors as white-coated invincibles, the patients as wide-eyed innocents ready to believe that all will be well as they descend into what Robert Frost called "the dark of ether". Nowadays fully-fledged hypochondriacs like me can look up procedures, statistics, symptoms, photos (God preserve us from the photos) and learn doubt. We realise when we are being soothed, and the best that can happen is that when we're actually in extremis we feel soothed. It's when normality returns that the doubt arrives.

And I think it's much the same with religion. All the old certainties - from hell to heaven and places in between - are now subject to the scrutiny of science and knowledge. We know what's up there, out there, beyond ... it's not a mystery any more. We can no longer feel sure that God's in his (note - his) heaven, which is up there in the sky. I remember wrestling at University with the teleological and ontological proofs of the existence of God, at a time when I didn't believe in anything. It was a struggle, but not a spiritual one. It changed nothing; it was easier than Formal Logic; I passed the exam.

All this conspires to make me increasingly irritated at people who assume that if you adhere to a faith you are either "throwing reason out of the window" (what my father said when I announced I was going to be confirmed at the age of 28) or are somehow sufficiently ill-informed to accept a child's version of religion. (I also become irritated at Christians who insist that that's the only way, but that's another story). Someone who thinks and challenges and argues is going to bring that attitude to what they call God - and if having done so they can find themselves happy with the language and attitudes of a faith system, that is where they will exercise their minds as well as their souls.

God - that word we use to describe the indescribable, remember? - God hasn't shrunk because we know the workings of the world that we used to consider a sacred mystery. God isn't the little shrivelled creature of some celebrated fiction. My understanding of this word, this concept, is of something at once all-encompassing and omnipresent and at the same time tiny enough to be within every mind that allows itself to wonder, every heart that allows itself to melt. God is in every moment of thankfulness; still there when the heart hardens and shuts God out.

When a faith-structure allows for this kind of vision, provides the framework of beauty and wonder and loss of the self-consciousness that inhibits, gives space for sorrow and joy and the tears of both, that is what I call Church.  When I find myself in it, I am grateful. When it is threatened - and it can so easily be threatened - it is like an impending death. When it solidifies into something else, I'm better off without it, sad though that feels.

But try explaining that over the dinner-table. Or on a bus.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Rummaging in the cyber past

I retired over 11 years ago. After all these years of teaching English I found I was missing the discipline of writing - for when I set essays, particularly to senior classes, I tended to write one myself. It was something I liked to do, to contribute to the discussion, as well as believing you shouldn't ask people to do something you weren't prepared to do yourself. At the time, blogging was pretty new - and it was really the only shared form of communication, the first step in what we learned to call Social Media. My sons were already blogging. I was seduced.

And it was in that first year of blogging that I began to meet people outwith my own circle (there - Blogger doesn't like "outwith" any more than it ever did), several of whom were (another new word at the time) edubloggers. Some of them were Scots, so that I met them physically in Glasgow ("You're Blethers, aren't you?"); some were much further away. And one of the more distant edubloggers I also met, and it's a good story.

I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but it was in November 2006 that I blogged about my input into the classroom work of Anne Davis - allowing her to use my photos as a classroom resource for creative writing, commenting on some of the pupils' work, thoroughly enjoying that little bit of teaching again. Three months later, we met - in San Francisco - thanks to Ewan's social engineering. We were on a month's tour of our American friends, one of whom had just dropped us off at our SF hotel. The cases had just appeared, when the phone rang. You don't expect anyone to phone you in a strange city - but it was Anne, also in town for a conference. Could we meet for dinner?  And we did, and you can read a short blog post about it, though it doesn't mention my recording a podcast for her pupils.

But I must tear myself away from this nostalgic wandering among the archives. The reason I'm doing it appears in the photo at the top: Anne sent me this book that she and a colleague, Ewa McGrail,  have written (and it costs a fortune to send a book from the USA) and it has the most lovely dedication on the front page and several references to me, all wonderfully flattering, scattered throughout the text. I'm delighted to get it, and to relive that time - which in many ways feels like another life. Even this blog post, full of links that take ages to find because I keep reading what I'm rummaging among, reminds me of that era.

Now, of course, it's all short-form communications. Social media rules, and the most unlikely people turn up on Facebook. Blogging is much less of a thing. And yet ... I find myself returning to blethers when I want to say something longer than a sentence, or something that I haven't got a proper photo for (because Blipfoto seems to have turned into my regular blog spot, in a strange way - maybe because of the interest of photographers). And when I was reading the book this morning, and reflecting on how I'd celebrate its arrival, I thought about children's writing and the joy of having it read by more than just the classroom teacher - to say nothing about having comments added by outsiders.

Children - and we've been talking primary school pupils throughout this - still love to have their best work displayed on the classroom wall. There is a place for this sort of controlled online interaction - on the much bigger wall, as it were, of the internet. This book, Student Blogs, seems to me to cover so many of the areas that might worry the cautious teacher - everything from accessing photos to Creative Commons and beyond - as to encourage any teacher to have a go.

Unless, of course, no-one can write more than 140 characters at a time these days. Just like The President ...

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Treaty with metaphor

I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rĂ´les as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.