Whither can we flee? For even the walls are denied us! (Trinity Oxford and #womenonwalls)

Returning recently to my old Oxford college, Trinity, I was dismayed to see that the august portraits which once adorned the hall had been replaced by photographs of recent alumnae (women); who, overall, were of rather less academic distinction than the men they had displaced, most not even being academics. Trinity, I have since learned, claims that the new portraits ‘celebrate the outstanding achievements and wide variety of careers enjoyed by female Trinity graduates and Fellows’. They constitute an exhibition, ‘Feminae Trinitatis’, which will continue ‘until further notice’ (having already lasted over a year). Trinity says that the exhibition ‘highlights Trinity’s commitment to promoting equal opportunities for all’—which is to say that it tries to foster an environment in which all feel equally valued, encouraged and inspired. Evidently, Trinity’s fellows thought that these photographs would inspire women more than the old portraits had been doing; and that people make more of their degrees if they are well inspired.

But this argument is either facile, or reprehensible, or both. If one believes that women are more inspired by women, surely one must also believe that men are more inspired by men? and hence that, if inspiration is valuable, the removal of the old portraits will impair today’s men’s degree performance? Of course, one could argue that men have enough to inspire them as it is; but, since the sources of male inspiration have never before been so systematically removed as they are being today, such an argument would be reckless and unproved. Trinity’s above-quoted statement adduces the concept of ‘equality’, which could possibly justify an equal balance of male and female portraits; but the logic of what has actually been done can only be that ‘two wrongs make a right’.

Indeed, the presence of portraits of old men was explicable by the college’s history: it was never a deliberate snub to women. The removal of them, on the other hand, tells today’s male students that their faces are now being deliberately, thoroughgoingly excluded. For men, it seems, no corner is let alone, no ‘safe space’ conceded.

One possible explanation of this act of cultural vandalism, then, is that a few—no doubt not all—of the feminist fellows who effected it just don’t care about men’s success as much as they do about women’s. They argue in terms of ‘equality’: but ‘equality’ of different groups has always been an unintelligible notion; a front-word for a brutal power grab which will never end.

But let’s take a step back. What if one drops the apparent first premise, and accepts that any human can be well inspired by another? (We do need to drop it: otherwise, it’s hard to see what would be objectionable if a predominately-white athletics club refused to put up pictures of black athletes). In that case, the only salient point in the choice of portraits is that the original ones in Trinity’s hall, which show off the cream of 424 years, are far more academically inspiring, because far more academically distinguished, than the present rather curious assortment of 49 years’ worth of ladies. True, the ladies are mostly not academics. They better represent the range of careers that Trinity students will pursue—hence Trinity’s talk of highlighting the ‘wide variety of careers’ enjoyed by female graduates. But if the portraits have any value, it is surely to suggest that those women’s academic studies, their academic inspirations, helped them to be the middle-to-high-ranking professionals that they are today. If in fact Trinitarians could do just as well in life by spending their undergraduate years thinking about businesswomen rather than scholars, then what’s the point of an academic education at all?

The entire, unwarranted experiment is absurd. Kudos, I say, to the man—or woman—who proposes reversing it.

The Church, politics, and the Cure of Souls.

Those arguing for or against the excommunication of Governor Cuomo seem largely to be missing the point. A bishop’s duty is to safeguard the souls of his flock; he must always judge any proposed ecclesiastic discipline by this question: Will the penalty make the punished more likely to make it to heaven, or less? Wider political considerations, the ‘message’ an action ‘will send’ to others, are scarcely relevant, therefore, to the grave question of whether a bishop should excommunicate someone.

Now, it is entirely clear that Cardinal Dolan is a good man who is entirely orthodox. Therefore, he surely thinks that a) abortion and the abetting thereof are gravely sinful b) hell exists c) those persisting in grave sin are at risk of going there.

           Therefore, I would humbly suggest that his Eminence’s decision as to how to proceed in the Cuomo case should be determined by just two questions. First, might penalties lesser than excommunication make Cuomo desist in his error? and, if not, might excommunication? Given the governor’s hitherto blatant contempt for the Magisterium, it seems likely that he will continue to hold it in contempt unless given the one punishment—excommunication—that gives one cause seriously to doubt the safety of one’s soul. Moreover, only excommunication would show him that the Church really means what it says about abortion; other options would be unconvincing precisely because so many American prelates have been so slow to rebuke Catholic politicians’ public declarations of heterodox views the matter. Now, it is probably true, as many say, that even excommunication is unlikely to correct Cuomo; my point is just that it surely has a greater chance of correcting him than any other.

            Second: is excommunication a canonically legitimate sanction in this case? His Eminence seems to think not; canon lawyers, he says, claim it isn’t, since it is only the having or procuring of an abortion that is canonically an excommunication offence. Now, the Cardinal has grave responsibilities, and it is not for me to criticise his decisions, which he doubtless makes on the basis of careful and prayerful thought. But, if I may offer my own feeling, I do think that the Archbishop seems here to manifest the very worst, and by no means ubiquitous, facet of the (largely admirable) American national character: that of deferring slavishly to those with qualifications in the subject at hand—who themselves can’t see the wood for the trees—to the extent of forfeiting all common sense and independent thought. Cuomo hasn’t had an abortion, but he is clearly promoting serious heresy, for which excommunication is an entirely valid sanction.

            The case for excommunication then, seems clear. Not to mention the life of St Ambrose, I would urge Cardinal Dolan to recall a letter recounted in Newman’s Apologia pro Vita Sua. As an Anglican, Newman had once complained to a Catholic friend that the Catholic Church had undermined Anglican-Catholic conferences by converting Anglican delegates thereto. But as he later seemed to realise, this only showed that the Church placed the salvation of each soul above all political considerations.

            Therefore, I would say to the archbishop: forget such considerations. Forget how it will look. Live up to that grave name ‘Bishop’. One of your sheep has stayed. Act to save him.

Priests, scientists, and thinking for oneself

James Delingpole of the Spectator often compares scientists with the priests of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. We defer to today’s scientists, he says, in the same way in that mediaeval people deferred to the Catholic clergy. Both kinds of deference undermine our capacity for independent thinking and critical thought.

       James may well be right about today’s scientists, but he’s wrong about yesterday’s priests. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of a rational, loving God, whom we are called to love, serve, and better understand. Hence, for the Church, a person’s knowledge of God, which cannot grow without his broader intellectual development, is central to his salvation. For this reason, the Church has always fostered the intellectual development of individuals. For sure, this fostering happens within a supporting framework of established truth, which is imparted to Catholics through catechesis, or indoctrination into the Faith. But the framework itself is not enough: every individual, as a rational creature of infinite value to God, needs to grow his mind for himself. This growth is what education is about—as opposed to mere indoctrination or training. It is, then, no coincidence that the mediaeval Church was by far the biggest provider of education in Europe. Priests had the intellectual seat of honour in society; and this was the result.

       As James rightly says, it is now scientists—specifically social and human scientists—that take that place of honour. And such scientists, who are largely atheists, have little reason to encourage ordinary people to develop their minds. For on a scientistic-atheist world-view, it is hard to sustain the idea that there is value in ordinary people’s thinking for themselves: on this view, if someone is incapable of contributing to science, the natural inference is that he is best off simply learning to accept established Truth as unquestioningly as possible. On such a view, some professional people will still need intellectual toolkits, to do their jobs; but nothing more than that. So whenever this view dominates, education descends into mere training—into mere indoctrination in the received methods of thought.

And this is, in fact, precisely what is happening to education today. Even Critical Thinking is now taught as a method, or set of rules: that is, as a doctrine. Indeed, nowadays academia is all about toolkits: today’s most thoughtful arts students, even of English or Classics, often suspect that their tutors give them great texts to read more because they want them to learn the techniques of critiquing those texts, than because they want their students to glean wisdom from them. This is where secularism has brought us: to a culture in which no one can remember why there are two separate words, ‘education’, and ‘training’; to a state of things in which grown men will describe themselves as—I shudder to write the phrase—‘trained philosophers’.

       All this points to a simple conclusion, which I would put to James Delingpole: if we want our society’s intellectual life to thrive, James, we need to start listening to our priests again!

A wavy cross at Ely Cathedral

I saw a very odd artwork at Ely Cathedral yesterday. It was a huge, metal cross, about thirty feet high, which hung on the wall near the West Door. The upright beam of the cross wasn’t straight, but wavy. A little board beneath explained that the curved line represented the emotional struggles of the way of faith. The viewer was, I think, supposed to imagine a pilgrim slowly shaping the wavy line as he progressed through various emotional states. In other words, this was expressive art: the wavy shape was supposed to be the sort of thing one might make as part of having an emotion, rather than reflecting on it. It was expressive in the sense in which a scream is expressive of fear.

       On problem occurred to me. Consciously produced art can never be a pure expression of emotion, because reflection upon one’s emotions compromises those very emotions: just as tears that a child deliberately uses to convey emotion are less sincere than spontaneous ones. Realising this, I tried to give the Ely artwork its due: I tried to image its maker reflecting upon the emotions of pilgrimage, and to imagine the emotions that he might have thought a pilgrim might have expressed at the time of having them by fashioning a wavy line. But I didn’t feel that I had gained anything from the exercise: no real understanding of the artist’s feelings, or pilgrims’; no better understanding of my own; no sense that he had clearly captured some moment of human experience that the world could then reflect on at leisure.

       In contrast, I feel all of these things when I look at a pre-modernist masterpiece: at art that aims to represent—to make something present again—rather than to express. Take Giotto’s Lamenti. We can tell that the women are grieving not because Giotto waved his paintbrush around in a sad way—that would not have worked—but because he had the skill to paint faces that look sad. He had, in other words, a certain emotional detachment or control, of a kind that a purely expressive (or pseudo-expressive) artist consciously rejects. For sure, his was not a full detachment; but it was enough for him to package up, in a disciplined form, the emotions he wanted to represent. His act of painting was analogous to the act of expressing one’s emotions in language. For however much one might be enthralled with emotion as one is describing it with words, the mere act of putting one’s feelings into the disciplined structure of language gives one a certain rational mastery over them. After all, to characterize a feeling, one’s brain has to be doing something more than merely feeling it. Such characterization moves one’s emotions out of the sphere of the dark, irrational and inscrutable, and into the sphere of the scrutible, the intelligible. It is a fundamentally human act; and so is non-expressive painting.

       What is not so human is the mere bawling out of shrieks and cries; of tears and rage and melodramatic gestures. But it is such pure expression that modern art both indulges and encourages; it promotes infantilism in the most literal sense—and the superstitious servility that goes with it.

       I think that the artist of Ely was sincere; I think he was simply trying to be part of current artistic discourse. But I would enjoin him to try something more human, in the Christian sense of the word. 

The cult of ‘Games’

This Commonwealth games, the BBC is once again encouraging us to worship our sporting ‘heroes’, with its presenters setting an uncomfortable (and notably inegalitarian) tone of deference. No doubt, there will be M.B.E.’s aplenty for the very best, in addition to all the T.V. adulation. The state’s message is clear: our most physically impressive citizens are to be our new national heroes.

       But isn’t this all rather pagan? Today’s games stem from those developed by the Ancient Greeks, who thought that the physically impressive were closer to the Gods than the rest of us—and who therefore wanted to sift out, and reverence, the most impressive men of all. In modern times, it was their Greek descendants—poor, humiliated, long oppressed—who first seriously reprised these ancient celebrations of raw power. (Having said that: one might also mention Revolutionary France’s short-lived Olympiade de la République, which even included a rather pagan peace-and-fertility pageant). Carried away with a rush of Byronic enthusiasm, the Greeks modelled their new games on the most prestigious ones of antiquity—those held at Olympia.

       Famously, Nazi Germany was perhaps the first powerful modern nation to make its sporting performance a matter of national prestige; later, the Soviets were crass enough to toss human material on to the Olympic altar-pyre, in an effort to make the rest of the world forget that most of its people were starving.

       Have you noticed a pattern here? Since Christ, it has always been the insecure nations, the nations with a point to prove, that have hung their hats on their Olympic performances. After all, what does it really matter, morally speaking, if one country’s men can throw further than others’, or one country’s women swim faster? What does it really tell us about what a nation can achieve, or whether it is in strong health? Nations only fixate on ‘Games’ when they have nothing else to be proud of.

       Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing that they want to be proud of. For it was undoubtedly a contempt for Britain’s past that led the Labour Government to bid for London 2012, the games at which Britain’s own sporting hero-cult really began. Labour ministers saw in it the chance of a year-zero moment: the chance to purge the nation of its regressive, redundant ‘Two World Wars and One Word Cup mentality’—for such was the mindset that they would always snobbishly impute to ordinary British patriots—and to exchange it for a new, enlightened world-view. In other words: for a ‘One World Cup’ sort of attitude. One might have thought that we, whose country has enriched the world, abolished slavery, spread the rule of law and saved Europe from several tyrannies, would have no reason to feel threatened if, say, the Kenyans could run faster than us. Not according to the Labour and Coalition Governments: suddenly, it really mattered if we weren’t putting on a good show.

       And that’s all it’s really about, isn’t it, a show? Such superficiality drains a nation morally; but it also has more immediate effects. In this case, the billions squandered on ‘elite’ sport mean that we have little to spare for things like playing field provision in state schools. (In what other sphere, by the way, would we still use the term ‘elite’ without circumspection? Especially when the ‘eliteness’ concerned can get one a knighthood?) This, ironically, gives a specious vindication to the claim that the ‘elite sports’ budget, and the televised performances of the athletes inspired by it, inspire children to become sporty: for it’s true that, nowadays, inner city comprehensive pupils are unlikely to first see a playing field, if not on a screen. But the problem with this logic—as everyone who isn’t a civil servant in the Department of Culture Media, and Sport knows—is that children will quite happily play games if they simply have some safe green space, and a ball. ‘But what’s that, Christopher Robin? You say you haven’t got a ball, or a field? Oh dear: regrettably, you see, some big men took all the money!’.

       This whole cult of Games, then, is a post-Christian neo-pagan reversion to a vicious, divisive, inherently socially unjust kind of elitism. Can we please stop it?