Two top thinkers in the world discuss this in NYU. This is a treat.
I have a problem.
Ireland. Ireland is an island.
I mean, it’s not so much my problem as it’s a fact. Something that isn’t likely to change soon. But it effects my moral decisions no end. It’s part of the reason that one set of ethical applications just can’t be forced on everyone in set ways worldwide. Because some of you reading this, won’t be on an island.
Why does this affect me morally? Well it means all sorts of things but I’ll start with two.
- Nearly everything I buy has travelled more miles than I have in the last year (and that’s saying something). From my tomatoes (from Morocco) to my laptop (from America) and my car (from Japan), not to mention most of my worldly goods that have “made in China” stamped on them. And miles mean shipping, or more often than not with perishable food, flying. Every week I pay for some perishable food to be flown for me to my house (well, my local shop). And that affects the environment.
- To visit uni friends, I must fly. To visit family, I must fly. To better work at my job, I must fly. Being on an island involves airports. And that affects the environment.
So for every shop purchase, and every flight, I am affecting the environment and must decide whether my convenience is worth that cost. And it’s hard, because the cost is unknown to some degree. It doesn’t wave at me in the face. And when it does (in the form of rising sea levels, melting ice caps, shifts in weather patterns etc), it is so easily challenged or justified. “I’m only me. What about the big corporations? What about the countries ignoring the environment? What about those who fly every day?”
It’s so easy to see corporate responsibility, point fingers, and never look at my own life. Which is where I find this book, brilliant. It challenges without overwhelming. It inspires and amuses, whilst still making a point. It has helped shape my life in recent years, alongside other things. I urge you traveller, take this world and its environment seriously! At the very least, look into carbon off-setting and sign up to someone like Tearfund’s updates to keep you thinking. And for your church, find something to keep you accountable like Eco Congregation Ireland.
But as the book rightly points out, we’re working on this one together, so please don’t get on your high horse about every minor thing you think you’re doing that others aren’t. Some of the most environmentally friendly people I know in Cork (nearly zero waste, their own well etc), I’ve never heard them mention it. Beautiful living.
What worldview gives unfettered freedom to travel and enjoy the world (in the present)?
What worldview frees you from being controlled by such desires and travels?
These are the two questions in which I would sum up Alain de Botton’s riveting book. He’d probably shoot me for saying it. But let me explain.
This book is a treat. With art and culture scattered throughout the book, Alain finds some obscure tour guides of past culture and history to introduce us to aspects of travel. When he’s not doing this, he’s inserting tales of his own, but never in a way that leaves you feeling like that awkward person at the party who has to listen to everyone never shutting up about their travels to far flung lands. His use of the English language, his way of portraying even bland scenes, and his command of imagery is stunning, and is worth the read even for that.
But like all post-modern writers, they strike a grave difficulty as they attempt to lead you on a joyful, purposeless wander through (in this case) travel. Because at some point, free-ing as it seems to be offered unfettered, chaotic travel, a big, bad “BUT” comes in.
In this case with Alain, his BUT is an understanding that we can live in chaos. He gets to a third of the way through a book with random tales, but then he insists on preaching his ordered, secular message to us through the words of another, that “any attempts to create order imply a censorious and prudish denial of our condition” (p. 783 Kindle). In other words, “if you try to tell me how to travel and insert some order into travel, you can get lost, because that’s not how we are” [or how I want to be]. I mean it’s a nuanced attempt (and far more nuanced than some art that derides a word-centred worldview and then has to describe what the art means, in words) to tell us that we don’t live in an ordered world…..with ordered words, in a book that doubtless has order and intentionality.
And with this, he fails to convince me on the first question, that the secular worldview can give us unfettered freedom to travel with no order or law to how you go about it. Apart from his secular law which he’ll now proclaim.
However to the second question, he gives a far more interesting answer that no matter what worldview you adhere to, you would do well to listen. He never says it outright, but he insinuates that we’ll never be able to remain chasing big travel moments and be happy. The reality lies beyond the travel brochure pictures which painted for us the idyllic, and set our expectations so high that we couldn’t help but be disappointed.
And in realising things like this, De Botton concludes that happiness is primarily psychological, not material (p. 273 Kindle). Happiness cannot be decided by how many places we visit, or the state of the places we find (for we would always fall short or be disappointed). So happiness must involve expectations and imagination and being content like the Stoics. The traveller is not merely chasing the present experience, but potentially also the memory and the dream, and being content in the present (where we are, what we have deemed ourselves to be). In his documentary, he goes nearly further into Eastern thought, and suggests that we should try to lose ourselves and our feelings, in order to gain happiness.
But another sad thing for the stoic, is that he deems that he’s unable to change messy reality, and therefore, he must create a new one (p. 926 Kindle). He thinks that this is free-ing because it doesn’t nail his colours to one thing, and leave him standing against others. For example, in creating his identity as a Chinese-Arab person, he doesn’t force himself to forever be either one, and against the other (p. 941 Kindle). But surely this is a false dichotomy? What if the Christian traveller could be fully Chinese (what he truly was born), yet delight in all nations, and have a passion for all peoples? He could learn from all cultures, all genders, all occupations, all languages, and yet realise he is a limited creature, and cannot delude himself into thinking he will be all things to all men perfectly. Surely in realising his limitations, it would free him to enjoy adventuring to expand his horizons?
In several brief and borrowed moments of sanity, the author (through Nietzsche) borrows from Christian belief, in seeing that what you believe changes how you act, and therefore changes stuff (p. 1059 Kindle). Or so it should. It shouldn’t remain a dry construct on a page. Other things follow on, that the majesty of nature brings out good in us (p. 1447) and that it makes us feel small (p. 1552). The the sublime is really sublime in the world, because we feel weak (p. 1562). Turning Pascal around (p.1904 Kindle), he instead says that in painting an image, we point to something we can create, more beautiful than the original, perhaps. But Pascal’s point was that we point to a creator, in the things we paint. They are mere shadows, not because we could imagine better, but because there is better, in another place – a new Heavens and a new Earth. And so it’s on those dispersed notes that I finish.
Can the secular worldview give unfettered freedom to travel the world?
Well, not while it continues to be a preached, wordy message, telling us exclusively what to think about reality. That’s no more freeing than the Christian exclusive message.
Can such a secular worldview free us from being controlled by such desires from travel, to enjoy the small things in life?
I’d argue not as well as the Christian message could, that has our identity firmly in other places (in Christ) and frees us to enjoy the world under His Lordship without being controlled by it. For His yoke is a light one, and His New Creation a million more times stunning than the beautiful ruin we stand in front of now. And in the meantime, He enables us to engage the messiness straight on, and not have to re-create ourselves to try and avoid it.
Will you buy the secular vision of travel? It promises so much. But will it live up to its calling? Or will it be vanity – mere soapy bubbles. All talk but no substance.
Elsewhere, for another blog, I was writing on how unity can be brought about from great diversity, and what motivates me to put my life to this cause. I wanted to respect exactly that: the diversity of ways this might be achieved, and so I didn’t explicitly state how I think the [evangelical] Christian worldview best equips people to do just that. But for those who are interested, here are some quick thoughts:
- Only the Christian worldview has its foundation as a perfectly diverse community (Father, Son, Spirit), united as One (a Triune God). If this is the core of how a worldview works, you could expect this to be mirrored in society by Christians.
- Only the Christian worldview has a founder (Jesus) who lays down His life and His rights for a disunited people (his enemies), and says He’ll give them a power within themselves (individually and as a community) to live in light of that, seeking the needs of others first, as He did.
- Only the Christian worldview gives an identity in life (in Christ) that has no link to any earthly kingdom, but still gives great reason that we ought to attempt in His strength to transform communities until a new Heaven and earth appear
- Only the Christian worldview explains our longing for something better. Why ought the world be better? Why ought we aim to cause good and not evil? The Christian account of how the world came to be (regardless of how that looks scientifically, which I’m happy to discuss) has the world as a beautiful ruin. Beautifully made, but ruined to its core. And so we should expect to see both of those present in everything: beauty and ruin. Or as Pascal said, glory and garbage.
If any other worldview does any of those things, I’ll be happy to stand corrected! Sadly, this is not to say that all 4 of these have been lived out by local Christians.
We see Christians forgetting that we are all unique and different, and trying to force a theocracy on everyone. Ultimately the “god” they force on everyone tends to look a little like themselves, and thinks that way too!
We see Christians wanting to fight for their rights first, even when that comes at the expense of others. Perhaps some who take their privileged status in the west, and never seek to constantly be looking to bless others from it.
We see Christian DUP fanatics claiming that their identity is primarily in Christ, when all they speak of is politics and vilifying the “other” side. Equally I see evangelical Sinn Fein supporters in Cork who would advocate taking up arms still against the British.
We see Christians who refuse to see good in other worldviews and political opinions. Who make straw men arguments and vilify others. They see everything as black and white, so their cause is easier to defend. They forget we’re all beautiful humans with some good and some bad. They forget we’re all ruined with some ruin in our own views/thinking.
What might this look like?
Well it looks diverse. It could mean being a left-wing councillor of Sinn Fein in west Cork (who I’ve sat next to in church), being a right wing conservative (David Quin of the Iona Institute), or being a middle of the road, centre-ground person. But whatever it looks like, it’ll mean first of all having our identity in something not of this world, but in someone who will come and re-create all things.
2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The thick arm slowly contracted around my neck, squeezing just a bit too much for my liking. The hearty laugh of the large figure who was keeping me captive once again boomed out over the countryside of west Cork “you British planting parasite, I’ll kill you one day when I come with my army!” I didn’t care to lift my Irish passport, nor scold him in Irish for his banter. My crime? Suspicion that my schooling in east Belfast, my sporting associations (playing hockey), and my mixed family backgrounds made me one of the “other” side.
That was Seamus*, my good friend, and my teacher of Irish history from a different perspective. Driving home from the heart of west Cork to my home in Cork city, I’m in a contemplative mood. Putting Seamus’ jokes aside, there are still many deep divisions on this island. We don’t need to point fingers at Trump’s sweeping generalisations about certain demographics of the world population, to see fingers pointing back to us, asking us what we’re doing about the division we’re part of. The division that remains far longer that it should, because we consider our only political action is voting. And then we sit in despair for four years and wait. We mock those “other”s who we voted into power and pretend they’re very different to us. Horrible people, those politicians out there!
But it doesn’t need to be politicians, or for that matter the paramilitaries who bombed my Dad’s shop twice, or the lads who held me up at knife point at the local pitches when asking me what Scottish team I supported (Aberdeen FC, for the record). We’re quick to cause division regardless of the topic.
So how can we get on together as a society?
Some of it I suggest comes in understanding each other. Perhaps sitting side by side in education and seeing each other as normal human beings might be a start. But more than shared experiences, Jonathan Haidt, a democrat and social psychologist in the US, has written a book that has address this very topic. In his book he makes the case that we first understand we’re not as rational as we’d like to think. We often make gut instinct decisions and then rationalise them afterwards. Like a tiny rider (our reason) on a lumbering elephant (our emotions) walking along a tricky path (circumstances of life), we often struggle to end up bringing about the change we desire and get where we want to go.
He also suggests that as those on the left and right of the political spectrum we have different values that mean we talk past each other a lot of the time, as if the “other side” are just stupid and morally deficient. It’s easier to throw metaphorical (or in our case physical) bricks at the opposite side, than it is to sit beside them, put our arms around each other as humans, and help each other move towards a shared future of unity amidst diversity.
Grasp these two things, and a lot of what will be “successful” in election campaigning will make sense to you, and you’ll be better equipped to sit down and work out what would be persuasive to those of diverse opinions.
I help to lead a team of people, running various community spaces in universities and cities across Munster. Each week, hundreds of people from various countries, counties, social backgrounds, races, political views and worldviews all pile in to events. And when I say events, I mean more communities. Communities that aim to break down walls and integrate everyone into a society that will help everyone stay in a learning posture.
My one problem is that it’s hard. Loving people who are different to me is difficult. I’d rather find people of like mind, and enjoy a whale of a night out with them. To find ourselves in a place where we’re naturally rubbing shoulders with every type of person regularly is a rare opportunity that I’ve been blessed with, that is not realistically achievable for everyone.
Why do I have this desire, and what ought to motivate us to get on and do this?
I’m sure there are various answers to this, and so I won’t bore you with mine (you can find it here, if you are interested). But I’d challenge you to ask yourself whether your worldview that you hold to, will give you the motivation to spend an other-person-centred life, serving the needs of society in its full diversity (and not just forcing a uniformity of thought on them all)? As the university I work in says:
Working in a university has its advantages, and Friday night was one of them. Public lectures on relevant topics, by those with suitable qualifications. UCC had me excited with this one. And so too were many of the university staff, with most in attendance being from the related fields of study within UCC (those lecturers chatting behind me were lecturers in middle eastern art history, and history of gender studies). But sadly I was left walking out of the majestic Aula Maxima into the darkness, even more confused than I had been before. Where did it all go wrong?
The UCC president (Dr Murphy) opened on a fascinating note by telling us of the huge changes in Irish society and in UCC. in 1990 there was only 4% of Ireland who were non-native (not born in Ireland). By about 2011 there was 12-14% non-native living within the shores. Nods were taken from the professor who specialised in Irish migration. You couldn’t say anything wrong here, given those specialists attending. Or could you?
What followed was two fairly unrelated speeches from high profile speakers, both women who came from a Muslim background. One, Tasmina, who is MP for Ochil and South Perthshire seemed keener to tell us about her achievements in life and her passions as an SNP politician. And much as a woman who had achieved so much was fascinating to listen to, I did wonder whether I’d come to listen to an inspiring SNP politician (the inspiring part need not be linked to the SNP part) or someone speaking on the topic in hand. Brief reference was made to how SNP policy endorsed more open borders than others would.
Following on was Dr Samia Bano, from SOAS London who started by trying to tell us that she would be very academic (I’m not sure why she thought this would be a problem), and then proceeded to speak on a range of issues, some of which tried to separate Islamic culture from religion, some which tried to persuade us that we could contextualise and re-interpret the Qu’ran, and some which tried to persuade us of the forward leaning nature of many of the Muslims within Islamic communities in the UK.
But I couldn’t help but think what the Islamic Society (or the local mosque for that matter) would have thought about such attempts to separate culture and religion, to re-interpret the Qu’ran (or even reinterpret a copy of the translation of the Qu’ran, as I’m not sure what levels of Arabic were actually read by either panellist), or to persuade us that the Islam could be up-to-date with the latest gender theories and feminist issues. Or to even what extent they’d want to do that. For the religion that completely bows to the theories of the day, and whatever direction the wind is blowing, ultimately gives up its right to objective truth.
Liberal academics may try and persuade us that Islam says one thing or another. But in reality, the only questions on people’s lips were:
- what is the essence of Islam (if there is one)?
- how can change be brought about?
And if one thing were fairly obvious, it was that the panellists were trying to make the Qu’ran say what they wanted to hear. And that because of that, change will only occur in the outer echelons of liberal or nominal Islamic communities.
To know what is actually believed in Islam, or to bring about change, I would suggest one may need to be side-by-side at the heart of such communities. And so I find myself in a local mosque again tomorrow, as well as reading some academic works. The disconnect is huge.
The main point I took away from the evening? How much travel is impacting Irish society, both in immigration and otherwise. Thanks Dr Murphy!
It’s the heartbeat of modern culture.
“Do not harm”
It’s the moral standard of the day. Unfettered freedom until harm is caused. We can get drunk (normally seen to be no harm to others) as long as we don’t get violent or harm anyone. We can have sex galore (supposedly no harm), until there is not consent (harm). We can have gay marriage (which culture would say is no harm) but not paedophilia (which does harm minors).
But how did we arrive here and why does our utopia involve as much freedom as possible, until harm is involved?
Although some point to documents like the Hippocratic Oath as things that had this principle in, it would appear that such principles read this into the oath more than it actually says.
I think current versions of age-old principles stem from influential political philosophers like John Stuart Mills and John Rawls who, although coming from supposedly different philosophical frameworks (one Kantian and the other utilitarian), have both spoken into
the common mindset of how most of us think on this topic. Without reading them, I doubt we’ll understand how our moral compass is wired today and how we’ve largely bought them, hook, line and sinker.
One increasingly frequent push-back on this take on “harm” is summed up in this Guardian video which asks whether sitting back and not harming people is enough. Should we not be campaigning on behalf of the harmed and shaping our lives round that? Understandingly, given the implications for each of our lives, there’s quite some reaction to it in the comment section. It reminds me of Edmund Burke’s famous saying (see left), that certainly comes closer to a Biblical definition of harm (that includes things we don’t do [sins of omission] as well as things we do [sins of commission]).
Is harm the be all and end all? Well, in my mind it depends what you mean by harm.
“Don’t trust a thought discovered while sitting in your chair”
Or so said Friedrich Nietzsche. And like much of what Nietzsche writes, it appeals to my heart to agree. For what can we learn while we sit unchallenged by other cultures, languages, gender, classes, centuries and much more? Even in reading some of the classic texts of all time we are confronted by these and rest our whole thinking on their shoulders. Not to say this justifies constant flights away to far flung places by necessity. We could perceivably fulfil these very words in our modern day world by simply mixing with those different to us – something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us.
It’s one of the main reasons I ended up reading Nietzsche and others like him (and loving him). To challenge me in my bubble of Christianity that can so easily rise up in life. I think quite a few are shocked when I say he’s one of my favourite philosophers. But he’s someone who tried to take his philosophical thoughts to their logical outworkings in life, and for that I respect him a lot. His nihilistic leanings make sense to me and were I not to think logic and life points more towards Biblical Christianity, Nietzsche grabs my heart in a depressing hold as the next most reasonable option. Whether I’d ever be able to live it out, is another question.
For those wanting a starting place, his “Beyond Good and Evil” was where I started, and didn’t regret.