Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Council Housing sell-off will undermine Low Carbon drive

I've been at a GovNet conference in Westminster today : "Low Carbon Communities 2012". A couple of high-ranking civil servants were telling us about government plans for adapting existing housing stock to improve their carbon efficiency. They spoke about the need to improve the homes of those in danger of fuel poverty, and the cost advantages of large-scale programmes.

I asked how the proposed government sell-off of council properties at a discount of 50% was going to help. Oxford is tightly bounded by Green Belt and intersected by rivers and flood plain -- there is little prospect of building replacement affordable housing within the city boundary with the receipts from council house sales because (a) land is scarce and (b) what there is is being snapped up by developers for speculative student accommodation. We have an affordable housing crisis and it's a seller's market in property . . prices are high and rents astronomical. Council housing stock is offered at a genuinely affordable rent, and the council has been upgrading its properties steadily, installing exterior cladding to improve its carbon efficiency... in other words doing everything the government wants to see happen.

The housing sell-off is likely to result in the loss to private ownership of well over half our housing stock, and much of that will end up privately rented, I would guess.

The spokesperson for the Homes & Communities Agency said she was extremely glad I hadn't asked her the question from the floor during the plenary, as she'd have had trouble answering it. She clearly had concerns. The spokeswoman from the National Housing Federation said that the Federation was opposed to the proposal. They couldn't see how it could work. And the Director from the Sustainable Buildings Division of the Department for Communities and Local Government simply didn't answer the question, but blanked it.

The council housing sell-off is nothing short of a disaster. It's an idea driven by a Thatcherite ideology which failed utterly last time it was tried. You used to be able to spot the bought council houses -- they had new front doors. Now you spot them (at least in Oxford) because they're looking a bit tatty, a lot are rented, and they stand out from the well-maintained, insulation-clad council properties. I really can't understand it : in straight business terms, as what could I suppose be called a social enterprise, council housing ticks all the boxes.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Singing the Lord's song in an alien land

The day after the WIlliams/Dawkins dialogue (see previous post) I was a panellist in an 'Oxford Think Week' event, organised by the Atheist & Humanist Societies of Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University. There was free-flowing discussion in the pub afterwards, and the Dawkins/Williams dialogue inevitably featured. I was struck by the fact that the atheist/humanist people had felt that the dialogue had gone all Richard Dawkins' way, because the archbishop had seemed to agree with him on nearly everything.

In one sense, this is evidence that the days of Dawkins setting up Aunt Sallies only to knock them down are gone, and that can only be a good thing. It would seem rather unlikely that an Archbishop of Canterbury — particularly one renowned as a thinker, theologian, spiritual writer and poet — would have a feeble Christian faith; but that was the impression they had got.

Looking back on the dialogue, though, I realise that the 'God' word was not used much. And Jesus didn't get a mention.

One reason for this, I'm sure, is that for Dawkins, the 'God word' is ammunition : it's the Aunt Sally he reacts to, and it doesn't help discussion. This left me reflecting on the famous text from the 6th century BCE, Psalm 137 :

Beside the rivers of Babylon we thought about Jerusalem, and we sat down and wept. We hung our small harps on the willow trees. Our enemies had brought us here as their prisoners, and now they wanted us to sing and entertain them. They insulted us and shouted, "Sing about Zion!" Here in a foreign land, how can we sing about the LORD?

Jerusalem, if I forget you, let my right hand go limp. Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I don't think about you above all else.

Israelite intelligentsia, taken as captives into exile in the alien culture of mighty Babylon, are goaded into 'singing songs' of their faith so that they can be ridiculed. So they hang up their harps. But in their hearts, they think of nothing except God.

Our secular culture has similarly secularised the language such that Christian 'language' — by which I mean that whole network of linked concepts, stories, ideas and vocabulary originally developed in the Bible and then further developed through Christian history — words like 'grace', 'salvation', 'God', 'Holy Spirit', sanctification, 'Word'; stories like Jacob's ladder, Elijah's jar, Adam & Eve, Babel, walking on water, death and resurrection etc. etc. etc. — all of that has been rendered largely unspeakable in secular modern Britain. Some years ago I was doing a question and answer session with a class of nine-year-olds and I mentioned Adam. A boy retorted (words to the effect) "you don't believe that rubbish, do you?" I asked him whether he thought maybe there was a first human being . . .

The influence has been so pervasive (and it predates modern 'militant atheism' by decades) that even churchpeople can't use Christian language any more, and often see little point in reading the Bible. I worked once with a priest of the 'Death of God' school who refused to use any such vocabulary, believing that nothing could be spoken of in theological language that couldn't more effectively be spoken of using secular language. So 'God' became 'Values' . . .

Friday, 24 February 2012

Archbishop Williams and Prof Dawkins in public dialogue

Last night Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams shared a platform with Professor Richard Dawkins in a packed Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, for a dialogue chaired by Sir Anthony Kenny (former Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University) on the subject of "the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin".

The dialogue is available for viewing on the Archbishop's website.

It was a welcome and long-overdue event. For too long, Prof Dawkins has chosen to set up Aunt Sallies to knock down with his arguments - and there are plenty of fundamentalist Christians only too happy to play that role - some of whom are dangerous ideologues who need challenging. It's been a source of great irritation to me that some prominent anti-religionists (I think of the comedian Marcus Brigstock for example) have portrayed thinking Christians as merely watered-down fundamentalists - the velvet glove on the iron fist - when there is virtually nothing in common between the two except some of the vocabulary we use. Rowan Williams is no Aunt Sally, so this public dialogue marked a welcome departure.

It promised, as a result, to be more enlightening, and I found it so. I don't think it achieved any particular resolution, but that was not the aim. What it did for the most part do was tease out some of the key differences and similarities between atheist and Christian thinking. So often militant atheists attack Christians for believing things that I, at least, not only don't believe but find as meaningless or dangerous as they do. If there's to be a debate, let's at least deal with the real points of difference.

Clearly, evolutionary theory and the science of the 'Selfish Gene' (as Dawkins called it) is not a contentious issue. There was an interesting discussion about the emergence of homo sapiens from its evolutionary ancestors - was there a single Adam and Eve, or did creatures with homo sapiens capabilities coexist and interbreed alongside less able siblings for thousands of years? (Either way, the point of the Adam and Eve myth is not negated). Prof Dawkins thought it more likely that the evolution of a homo sapiens with full syntactic language capability was a more sudden step change. But it was clear that, though this is interesting, Christian thinking does not require belief in an interventionist, micro-managing God who tweaks the Creation as it goes along.

There was an extended section looking at the 'anthropic principle' - as I understand it, the idea that the evolution of organic life and most especially human beings is so utterly unlikely that it is evidence of 'intelligent design'. This was the least satisfactory part of the discussion and became tangled up in some rather obscure philosophical vocabulary. It didn't seem to me that this 'proof of intelligent design' was of any great importance to either of the participants.

The issue of language, however, was an important part of the debate in two ways. Firstly (as above) it was agreed that the language capability is the most significant human capacity, and for such a complex capability to evolve from primal simplicity is (as Richard Dawkins put it) ". . a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be." (To much laughter, he added that "the hymn loses the plot rather badly after those lines"). But secondly, and more importantly, we had a frustratingly short little dialogue - I think it emerged out of a discussion about the nature of the 'soul' - about the inadequacy of 'ghost in the machine' thinking. This way of thinking emerged during the Enlightenment and is still held by many atheists (as well as Christians). Prof Dawkins has deployed it vigorously against his ever-willing 'Aunt Sallies'. Following Wittgenstein and others (Anthony Kenny refers to this at 34min44sec on the video), it has long since been generally rejected. I'm no expert on Wittgenstein, but I know that his philosophy centres heavily around language.

In two ways, this leaving-behind of the Enlightenment scientific philosophy proved to be the key area of difference :

the discussion about the evolution of the human brain to the point where it has 'soul' - and whether that 'soul' is 'immortal' (which Prof Dawkins clearly can't believe) - was tantalisingly short. (The issue is discussed at the 22 minute point, and again at 36 mins.) Rowan Williams, though holding out for 'immortal soul' as part of the language of faith, was clear that humans are not material creatures that have had some immortal soul injected into them.

Prof Dawkins could not see how the concept of God could add anything to human knowledge. It's an unnecessary complication to have the base of scientific knowledge and then try to lever a supernatural agent into it. Rowan Williams tried his best to show how the concept of God is not a concept of some imaginary additional 'active ingredient' (my words) in the universe, but is to do with the whole context within which the universe sits. This really is a crunch issue. It parallels the 'soul' discussion : Is a human being a material substance with an additional 'spiritual' ingredient called 'soul'; is the Universe a material thing with a non-material ingredient called 'God'? For this Christian, at least - and for Rowan Williams it seems - the answer is clearly 'No'. Amongst the words with which I commence my funeral services are the following :

"To worship something that we have imagined into being is to worship an idol, and worshipping idols is expressly forbidden in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. No, ‘God’ is the word we use for that mystery as to why there is anything at all — if you like, we are the product of God’s imagination, not the other way round."

Where we ended up was with both participants expressing awe and wonder at the nature of the universe, the (albeit incomplete) beauty and complexity of human beings, and that we have evolved out of such pure simplicity. For one participant (Dawkins) that was enough, for the other, it leads to worship.

For myself, the primary issue is about language and vocabulary. For Richard Dawkins, the language of science - indeed, the scientific enterprise in itself - is what opens up the nature of reality, and leads us to wonder. Though wonder is not the point of it, it does motivate scientists to varying degrees. The language of theology can not only embrace that scientific enterprise, and some theologians can 'speak' scientific 'language', theology also seeks to express and communicate that wonder in music and poetry, tell stories of humanity's engagement with it, tease out the implications for human moral behaviour, channel that wonder in directions that are in harmony with that Ultimate Reality which it labels 'God'. In this sense, theology still is the "Queen of the Sciences".

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Hypocritical displays of religious devotion in the Council chamber

The deputy leader of the LibDem group on Oxford City Council tabled the following question to the Leader at Monday's meeting :
Should all local authorities follow Oxford City's example and avoid requiring councillors to participate in often hypocritical displays of religious devotion?

I couldn't hear the mumbled answer, but presumably it was affirmative because the questioner replied with a hearty "Amen".

Some weeks earlier, I'd had a conversation with a minister colleague who grew up in a Presbyterian minister's household, subsequently became a Roman Catholic and is now an Anglican priest. She had said she found my Reformed tradition (Presbyterian is 'Reformed') to be lacking in 'spirituality', and I think this is quite a common feeling. Reformed worship is, on the surface, extremely passive. The only point where the congregation 'displays' anything is in the singing of hymns.

I found myself reflecting that at its birth, the Reformed Churches were themselves reacting against the imposition of religious 'display'. They refused to kneel to pray or receive communion; out went genuflecting, lighting of candles, kissing of icons -- the value of religion was in the inward disposition not the outward display. Equally important were the rights of personal conviction and religious tolerance. England had seen enough of people being persecuted for not saying creeds or 'displaying' their religion as decreed by the State. With this went the conviction that the power of religious institutions needed to be separated from the power of government. (Not, of course, the same as saying God cannot be spoken about in the corridors of power.)

So what my Anglican colleague perceives as a 'lack of spirituality' is actually a strong statement of religious freedom, an awareness of the ever-present possibility of hypocrisy, and an awareness of how outward display can become a tool of oppression.

Next time my councillor colleague is sitting in the Council chamber saying nothing and making no gestures, should I interpret this as a display of religious devotion?