Saturday 11 October 2008

Where your treasure is....

There was a photograph in The Times this week of a man buying a strongbox, and the caption invited you to wonder whether this was where you should put your money in these days of financial meltdown. It set me thinking about the wisdom of that unique thinker who once reminded his listeners that it was better not to store up riches, because storehouses (or strongboxes) could be burgled, and material goods were liable to rust and decay.“Invest in the eternal,” he told them. “Because where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be.” Like most of his comments, that is not only, perhaps not even primarily, a religious formula, but an analysis of how things work for human beings. It’s been very striking these last two or three weeks to see the fear, despair and outright panic of people whose chief security was based on their investments. It was clear that the world of global finance was where their treasure and therefore their heart was; they had no “eternal treasure” to fall back on.
Some people are putting their money into bricks and mortar on the basis that in the end the housing market will revive – which is probably true, unless the whole global economic system collapses, in which case nothing can be certain: for anything that is valued in terms of its status as a commodity, as opposed to its utility, for example, as a place to dwell, is subject to the winds of economic chance when so much depends on confidence. In the end, if people do not have confidence in currency, or currencies fall sharply, money will lose its value too and people may even resort to barter as they did in the Weimar Republic in the days before Adolf Hitler took control of Germany, and as they are doing in present-day Zimbabwe. All this might happen, though I think on balance it probably won’t. But it shows up how impoverished in any non-material sense our globalised liberal existence is, and what shallow foundations it has in the eternal.
The capitalist way of thinking (based on early Protestant work ethics) trains us to store up riches in the form of luxury goods or other high-value items (e.g. antiques or paintings if you live in the West, cattle if you live in Africa), or invest in financial institutions or manufacturing or service industries on the basis of a good return in dividends or interest. That is how the global economy works, and has worked for many centuries. But of course it depends on trust, and when trust is lacking it won’t work. Financial institutions won’t lend, even when the business is a viable one; valuable investments can become worthless overnight if the stock market takes a nose-dive. Oddly enough, the same is true of the eternal treasure: Jesus’s advice was not to hold on to money but to give it away to those who were in need, and in doing so buy into the eternal values, or as he put it, “you will have treasure in heaven”. But this is also a matter of trust – that the eternal treasure is secure and “real” and will sustain us; that there will be people to help us in our turn; that “what goes around comes around”. To live simply and generously deals in non-material riches, and brings non-material rewards. But as Jesus also reminded us (a bit later in the same part of Matthew 6), you cannot serve two masters; you cannot love both God and money.
I know who I’d put my money on. But perhaps that could be better phrased....

Friday 19 September 2008

Of MBTI and "impossible religious beliefs"

Of MBTI and the “impossibility” of religious belief

Yet again it seems to be a couple of months since I have written this blog. As I discovered over the summer that one person actually had read it – hallo there, Andy, if you’ve come back again – perhaps I should make an effort to be more regular. But my thoughts don’t seem to work that way. An idea may arrive of its own volition one day, oblivious to the fact that there simply isn’t any time or energy to devote to it that week, owing to pressure of work or family disasters or exhaustion owing to lack of sleep. And the next week, when there is time and energy, no ideas of any worth present themselves. Sounds familiar? Probably – I think everyone has this experience of resources available but no time to use them, or time available but no resources – it happens in the material realm as well, in terms of having money to spend but no time to spend it, or vice versa.

Perhaps it is my Type that is to blame. I am a firm devotee of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, of which no doubt some of you may have heard. This divides humanity into 16 different types, using Jungian ideas of dominant mental function based on four different ways of taking in and processing information. MBTI was developed by a mother-and-daughter team in the United States during and after World War II, and many books and much research has been devoted to investigating it further, as it has turned out to be surprisingly powerful (and for many people, including myself, personally liberating). For those who understand about Type, I am an INTJ, an Introverted Intuitive with Thinking subordinate function. Introverted Intuition is a strange animal. My husband, who introduced me to MBTI and is qualified to administer the Type Indicator, describes it as like a coffee percolator, gently simmering away in the background and sometimes throwing up splendid bubbles with wonderful rich coffee smells. I myself think it’s more like a soup pot. You stir in all manner of ingredients, tasting all the while, and you end up with some unexpected but (sometimes at least) delicious results made out of them. The tastes cannot be predicted, though you can test them and adjust them a bit as necessary.
Thus the ‘soup’ of my experiences and the ideas I have gleaned from a fairly eclectic reading programme – currently I have an Alexander McCall No.1 Detective Agency novel on my bedside table, a book on the Black Death, a book on Islam and a book on the meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls all on the bookshelf in the sitting-room, and have recently finished reading a book on climate change in the Little Ice Age and Pope Benedict’s book on Jesus of Nazareth – can quite suddenly throw up some new idea I want to explore. The Times is also a fruitful source of ideas, often in reaction to its comment pages or some feature or other.
Indeed, there was an article a couple of days ago, somewhat tongue in cheek, I thought (though clearly some readers took it seriously, and perhaps it was intended that way) about the impossibility of intelligent modern Westernised people actually believing in religious dogmas. I found this article so completely wild that I only just managed to engage with it. Was the feature writer (Jamie Whyte) suggesting that all religious believers are liars, who pretend to believe but in their heart of hearts don’t? Does he really think that life today is so materialist that it is impossible to hold any non-materialist belief? If so, it seemed an extraordinary suggestion, reminiscient of Richard Dawkins’ apparent conviction that the fact that he himself has rejected faith of any kind (in favour of an aggressive atheism that seems to me quite as intolerant as any fundamentalist belief) must mean that anyone else who disagrees has to be lacking in basic intelligence. What is it about the over-enthusiastic embrace of ‘science’ that makes it so intolerant? – I don’t mean the real science, which depends on honest enquiry and respects all such enquiry wherever it leads, but a quasi-religious idea of science that invests it with all the trappings that would be unhestitatingly condemned in any recognised religion. Is it the fear, perhaps, in the corner of the atheist’s mind, determinedly shied away from, rigorously excluded from conscious thought, that those who hold a religious belief might just have discovered another dimension to living? Or is it simply an inability to imagine anyone having an awareness of a non-material reality?
It is fashionable these days to scoff at sincely held religious beliefs, to make out those who hold them to be stupid, old-fashioned, or unwilling to face scientific facts as we of the 21st century perceive them. This is a pity. No one would deny that religion can breed bigotry and intolerance, or that religious wars have often been the most bitter. But at the same time almost all of what we now see as enlightened human care for one another has been born of religion – from the Abrahamic faiths in particular. And where they replaced animist and naturist beliefs, those faiths, and Christianity most of all, were welcomed in earlier ages as the rescuer of people from superstition, not as its purveyor.
Some very twisted views of religious belief are being put about in the media just now in this country. I wonder who we might see as being behind that, in the heavenly realm (if you believe in one)? Who benefits – the forces of good or the forces of evil?

Friday 27 June 2008

Shrink the population or get out!

I seem to have had a long gap since I last wrote this blog, but I don’t suppose anyone has noticed, as I don’t think anyone reads it. I will continue to write it occasionally, though. It is a useful way of putting my thoughts on paper, which I suppose is the point!

It is a strange quirk of history that people, both individually and corporately or nationally, often focus on one problem and miss another, frequently more serious one. I think this is happening at present over climate change and population growth. We are galloping hotfot after controlling climate change, when it is not at all certain whether human activities are the chief culprits, nor whether we can prevent such change simply by limiting CO2 emissions. But meanwhile we are saying and doing little about population growth, which is still an enormous problem in many African and Asian countries and which seems to me the single most important issue human beings face. This is already at crisis proportions, witness the recent food shortages created so easily and quickly by a dip in the amount of grain under cultivation.

Certainly we can back away from biofuels, though these might, in other circumstances, be a useful alternative to oil; we can introduce GM crops that might give better yields (at least for a time), and take the risk that there may be other unforeseen and unwanted effects; we can try to re-educate the population to eat less meat, or to demand that it is produced on land that is unsuitable for grain. But unless we tackle the problem of population increase, “we’re doomed”, as Private Fraser was wont to say in Dad’s Army.

The Earth is a wonderful self-regulating mechanism. Left to itself it has the systems to sort out climate change, and if this takes a few millennia, as it might do (witness the many millennia of cold during the Ice Ages, and the three millennia of warmth experienced during the European Bronze Age), human beings could adjust to different climates if there were not so many of them. But tackling population increase is much more difficult than following up theories and models on climate change, and attempting to limit CO2 emissions. We know what would have to be done: lower the birth rate. Nothing else will do, because the alternative, to let death rates rise exponentially, would be inhuman and create not only swathes of human misery but vast injustices, some of which are already part way to reality in the limited availability of medical procedures and life-saving drugs to the ordinary folk in poorer countries. In the end, that would benefit no one, not even the rich countries who let it happen. Yet lowering the birth rate would demand not only economic, medical and educational resources but also political will. Interfering in the most intimate area of human life, procreation, is not something that governments are very willing to undertake – nor citizens to accept, as the experience of the Republic of China with its one-child-per-couple policy reveals.

But there is another way. We can reinstate the priority in science and technological development of the Space Race. Not a race between two antithetical cultures, like that between the US and the Soviet Union, which ultimately proved futile and indeed barren, except in its very limited aims. Once the Race to the Moon was won, much less money was found to fund other space programmes. But money needs to be found now to fund a different kind of Space Race: one that discovers, as quickly as possible, how to make viable colonies on other planets and transport people there. We know that it will be difficult, and will stretch our resources and our ingenuity. But the alternatives are bleak. Human beings are not ants. We need space. And the Earth is not an anthill. Already the stresses of environmental damage are clear, and if climate change proceeds as the IGCC predict, they will become even more dangerous. Under too much population pressure Planet Earth will not be able to regenerate and heal herself. And if Earth becomes inhospitable to us, and we have nowhere else to go, what then?

Worse than climate change? Oh, I think so.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

On myths, perceptions and statistics

No photo yet, but I will find one, I promise!

A survey of the UK population published this morning relates that a majority of people do not view marriage as being essential to healthy relationships, good parenting or the wellbeing of children. Socially the stigma of unmarried mothers has disappeared, our peers accept cohabiting as of equal worth as marriage, and of course if things go wrong cohabiting couples don’t have to resort to the divorce court to return to single freedom. The Times opined that David Cameron and his Conservative policy-makers might have to think again about their much-trumpeted support for marriage, tax-breaks and all, if they want to be in line with the social mores of out time, and with the perceptions most people have of acceptable social trends with regard to the family.

The trouble is, it seems to me, that these perceptions don’t seem to match with widely reported statistics on a range of relevant subjects, from the mental health of single and married people to the academic and occupational achievements of their children. Cohabiting couples are more likely to separate than married couples (perhaps reflecting a degree less commitment in the first place?); single people are more likely to suffer from physical and mental illness than those who are married, and more likely to be poor; children brought up by single parents do less well in school and by extension in the work-place, and are more likely to be in trouble with the police; the list goes on and on. Yet the perception of the bulk of the UK population is that marriage does not confer much in the way of tangible benefits either to themselves or their children. I find this interesting, and I find myself asking why there should be such a gap between perception and the reality shown by the statistics.

When this kind of gap occurs it is often because what it suits us to believe is running counter to what we would believe if we were being completely rational. And in our individual lives this may be no bad thing. The type of statistics I mean only tell us about a large group of people, and deal with probabilities, not individual cases. Individual decisions have to be made on the basis of our own sense of right and wrong, and what will be best for us and/or our children. Sometimes the right decision for us will fly in the face of the statistics, because of the particular circumstances – violent quarrelling between spouses, for example, or persistent adultery. Sometimes we will want to be sympathetic to the friend who tells you that she has decided to split up with her husband because they have grown apart, especially when it is clear that she is doing her best to keep him in touch with their children. Where this goes wrong is where those individual decisions and sympathies are broadened to make up a social philosophy at odds with the statistical evidence. This is where sympathy and sentimentality turn perception into myth. The evidence of the statistics tells us that it is a myth that cohabitation is just as good at marriage at keeping ourselves and our children healthy and prosperous. We may not want to believe it, and those of us who are married know just as well as those who are single that being married is not a bed of roses all, or even the majority, of the time. But allowing our perceptions to mythologise the situation will not help us to heal the ‘broken society’ of which the Bright Young Men of the new Conservative leadership have been so eloquently and touchingly speaking. To put society right you must believe the facts. The Conservatives may have to take note of the social perceptions revealed in the survey, because they need to have the political support of the electorate to win the next election and form a government: being in Opposition will not allow them to put their policies into effect. But the rest of us should look at our perceptions again. Do we really not believe the evidence about the relationship between marriage and the health of individuals and of society? And if we don’t believe it, we need to ask ourselves why.

Sunday 20 January 2008

First posting, 20 January 2008

Hi everyone! This is my first ever blog, so I hope it works. I shall try to find a photograph before I write this again, and post it here. But for now my blog consists of just words - and as words are my trade as a writer and desk editor, perhaps that is only right and proper.

So first of all, what can I see as I look out of my window, here on our windy, exposed ridge?At the moment Cornwall, UK, is wet and windy, and it has been like this for most of the year so far. Grey skies, no sunshine to power our solar panels (but we wish we had a wind turbine!), and we get soaked just walking from the house to the garage to get out the car. It's very British to start out by commenting on the weather, I expect, but there we are.

I've called this blog View from Trevadlock Cross because that is where I live, a tiny hamlet (four houses, including a converted chapel) on a crossroads looking south-west towards the peaks of Bodmin Moor two or three miles away. In summer it is beautiful, the hills changing from hour to hour as the light moves across them picking out rock, grass, wooded slopes and heather in flower. Even in winter, as long as the sun shines the panorama is magnificent and clear. But when the clouds come down and the mist hides the hills it is bleak and uncomfortable. Every winter I hate the relatively infrequent periods when it is continuously like this for two or three weeks at a time. But eventually it passes, and the skies clear and the hills hove into view again.

So this is my view from Trevadlock Cross; I promise the blog won't always be about the weather - or at least not just about it. I mean to share my thoughts about issues, too, political, environmental, social and so on. Whether anyone will actually read them or not remains to be seen. If you do, I'd love to hear your comments.

Jane Anstey