Can Artificially Intelligent Machines go to heaven? Can you take Eucharist on the internet? Is Facebook a good thing for our churches? These questions and many other issues and themes which arise from the increasingly digital world which overlaps onto and into our lives have been explored at the CODEC MediaLit conference this June 12-16 2017.
It has been an interesting experience and I’ve entered into the experience by blogging and tweeting throughout. I’ve posted blogs on each session on Medium and I’ve gathered them all together in this post here. The Chronicles of the CODEC Conference.
There comes a time when a man realises that if he wishes to write, then he must in fact write. The proper way to do this is meaningless. There is no proper way so long as words keep on appearing on the screen. It’s fair enough to pause for a moment to correct a spelling or to use the naturally better word, but the aim should be to keep on typing and typing.
I wonder what would happen if we were to sit down together with this app open. Agree a time to start and start typing down our thoughts? I wonder what voice you would hear speaking in your head and which voice it would resonate with in my own. You see we do not hear the voice which says the words, but in reading discover a voice which seems to fit the words. I forget which writer it was but he helpfully observed that half of the book or the essay or the blog post, or even the words themselves, are written by the author. The other half, well the other half are written by the reader. One might start writing, for example, of a world which seems as real to us as the one in which we write. A brave world. A different world, with people and creatures guided by rules and principles which seem at once alien and familiar to our own. But the world which one starts writing, is not the world which the other creates. There may well be an overlap, a similarity to these dreams but it seems to me that no one can ever read the same book as another.
In a way that’s a rather a lonely idea.
There’s thousands of ‘great’ works which millions have read and thought about. Yet for each one the world that they experience, while commonly inspired, is unique. There would be those who should like to say that this is no different to the way that each of us subjectively engages with the so called ‘objective’ world around us. The issue here is that each secretly supposes that their own subjective experience gives them a solid insight into the objective which they seek. Yet which of us today would read an email written two or five years ago to another and suggest that they still see the world as they saw it before? Day by day we create new realities so fast that our pictures of the world have become rambling movies, only a little more coherent and consistent than this own piece of writing.
This piece has the semblance of sense because the eye moves from one word to the next and the mind processes what is current with a degree of priority over what was before, while even then reaching out to eat the words which are yet to come.
This is where we find the second myth of the shared experience of the writer and the reader. For the reader, there is material laid before them as a path through the countryside to a village. One may wander along through some trees here. Through some fields there. Yet there is ever that looming and growing view of the end. But for the writer, there is no such clear way. Only emptiness on the screen and maybe a few stray thoughts wrestling with one another in the mind, begging to escape through the fingers. Indeed for the writer, the way to the end is to cling to that intangible something which compels the writer to write in the first place. The irony being that in the end all they have are words and those words will, for them, create a new world the next time they read them.
The real grasps for that which is intangible and produces something only a shade less obscure; teasing the mind with the sense of productivity and satisfaction. Yet, as every and any writer could tell you, they could always have phrased it better. It could have better punctuation. Longer sentences. More succinct ways of expressing the concept. Maybe even an appealing attempt at alliteration, which somehow never quite hits the intended meter.
This is electrifying. There’s an interesting experience which just occurred with the writing of that very word. Momentarily I wrote that this was paralysing. Then I waited. My mind was blank. The only way to move forwards was to change the word from a stop to movement. It was electrifying. That alone shows the trouble with writing. It is all too easy to stop and all too hard to write. Having started, having marked one’s course by the compass, one must march forward. The fingers type the keys and the pen scratches across the page; thus the writer writes.
Allow this writer to lead you on a little further down the path because there is another mystery between the writer and the reader. Just as the reader can see where the material is going, so too he can read the material far faster than the writer can produce it. This is obvious!, you say. Yes it is. But it is seldom accounted for. Think back to those emails and messages that you have sent to your friends and family. Not just the mundane ‘How are you’s but think of the angry responses which have been firmly crafted (and hastily sent). The time which goes into the writing lends an importance to the words for the writer. This is because attention is currency – a concept that few understand.
There’s a a qualitative distinction between the value that a text has for the author and the value which it has for the recipient. A poem might well be the best example, because a poet has lived with the dream and imbibed the composition; most likely working through several drafts before approaching something which approximates to the intention. The hours that it takes to compose a truly intelligent and beautiful poem is gargantuan compared to the time that most people take to read the 14 lines a couple of times.
Does that make writing the less valuable? Goodness me, no. Does it account for the hope of anticipation when someone else reads that which we have written, only to feel the empty drop in the guts when that acknowledge that it’s “alright“? It seems likely, at least in part. Sometimes the writer is guilty of pausing in time to write… that which should be denoted by some form of punctuation. As if the words on the page genuinely do infer the spirit of the intention that wrote it.
Alas, when the writer wishes to make plain that he has paused, or that he has at last (by his reckoning) reached the end, he must make it plain. And so, for this occasion, the fingers tap tapping away on the keys must falter and dwindle to a not quite satisfied but pleasantly content silence.
Just for fun, I should point out that I have not returned to edit any of the phrasing or structure of this piece. I simply sat down and let my fingers type. I trust that your eyes have enjoyed the reading as much as I enjoyed the writing.
A friend and I went took the opportunity to attend the Durham Castle Lecture about Free Speech on Wednesday. The speaker was political historian and free-speech advocate Professor Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford. It was an interesting presentation of two main halves; systems of speech in our interconnected world, and principles for speaking freely with ‘robust civility’.
He opened with two quick questions for the audience.
Is there anyone who does not think free-speech is a good and important thing? (One person put their hand up).
Does anyone not have a smartphone (magic box)? (One person didn’t).
This set the stage for him to explore just how interconnected the world is becoming. His image was that we are becoming a world of neighbours in a great city. These changes are both physical, with mass migration, and virtual, with the rise of the internet in developing countries as well as in the west.
This greats a ‘fantastic chance’ for speech and communication, but also risks ‘enormous danger’. This is a world where a fatwa from Tehran can result in attempted attacks in London and Paris, a world where a known prankster in South California releases a video called ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which results in over 50 deaths in the resulting riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
And so the question for Timothy Garton Ash is:
How do we maximise the chances of free speech and minimise the risks?
To answer this requires understanding the significance of the paradigm shift which has happened.
The Old Way of looking at free speech was to follow the rules of the nation states and their court systems. If you travelled you would be subject to different regulations on what you could and could not say – When in Rome, as it were.
But with the Internet, the New Way of looking at it is to realise that Rome is everywhere and what is said there doesn’t stay there; it spreads virtually and geographically.
Rather than just being controlled by the power of the state, he identifies four interpenetrating layers of a kind of matrix in which free speech occurs and is shaped by.
There are the international treaties and organisations.
The ‘Big Dogs’.
The ‘Big Cats’.
The international treaties would include things such as the Bill of Human Rights from the EU or ICANN, which manages and deals with a lot of the stuff that makes the internet ‘work’ such as the Domain Name System (DNS).
The Big Dogs are the nation states rules and regulations. The First Amendment in the USA is a good example; a government regulation which maintains free speech in a particular geographical location.
The Big Cats would be companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Their influence is huge. With an impossibly large to imagine number of regular monthly users (1.9 Billion) Facebook has become a dominant force in the world of social media. Below, the Blue is Facebook.
This means that for these 1.9 Billion users, much of their online speech is dictated by the Terms of Service provided by Facebook – which is enforced primarily by algorithms.
Internet Terms of Service for social media companies are often:
Timothy Garton Ash illustrated this point by referring to the story of the editor of Norwegian paper ‘Aftenposten’ who uploaded the iconic Vietnamese war photo of the naked girl fleeing only to have it removed as a violation of the Terms of Service. After a media outcry it was eventually restored. The question is, what about those users who don’t have the platform to appeal to preserve their free speech?
Lastly, there’s the Mice. And the Mice are us.
What can we do in the face of the megalithic entities and power structures?
“We can do a hell of a lot!”
Timothy Garton Ash pointed to the various successful anti-piracy campaigns such as Stop SOPA (led by individuals such as Aaron Swartz, who more than most has shown the impact that the individal can make when we communicate and organise effectively) to demonstrate his point. I would suggest that the success of the contemporary so-called ‘populist’ movements which have led to the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns also demonstrate the ability of the Mice to make their voices heard.
Given these four layers which influence free-speech, then to focus simply on the Law isn’t enough. There needs to be a more comprehensive approach.
This is where Timothy Garton Ash’s involvement in the Free Speech Debate project comes in.
Their intention is to have transcultural (not simply inter-cultural) discussions on the nature of speech in an attempt to find some basic norms which can help create the chance of free-speech while minimising the dangers. This involves speaking around the world. Last week it was India, next week it’ll be Turkey.
He says that there are two important questions:
How free should speech be?
How should free speech be?
The first is a question of ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ of content.
The second is a question of ‘attitude’ and ‘conduct’ of presentation.
These questions are concerned with what he calls ‘the gamble of freedom’, and the answer is ‘Robust Civility’.
Robustness without manners can lead to violence, and manners without robustness can lead to not saying anything at all. The combination promotes a healthy respect for the other whilst enabling a genuine commitment to personal beliefs.
The Free Speech Debate presents 10 Principles to which, balanced out, they believe should help to facilitate free speech in accordance with a slightly modified version of Article 19 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.
Here ‘and able’ is the important distinction from Article 19, recognising the agency of the individual.
Timothy Garton Ash didn’t go through each of the ten principles so they’re listed below and I’d encourage you to go and have a look at them on the Free Speech Debate website.
Having outlined the structures which influence free speech and presented some key principles for how that free speech should be defined and conducted, Timothy Garton Ash then turned to how free speech is under attack.
It is here that things got interesting.
To start with he compared his experience of speaking abroad in different places five years ago and said that it has become less free to speak almost everywhere other than Burma, which is perhaps having the opposite problem of too much free speech.
Then he turned his attention to the West, and described a recent rise in Anti-liberalism which, in his view, was to a greater or lesser extent a reaction against the financial crash of 2008. It was this reaction which has developed into the fragmentation of the media, the rise of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’. In essence, free speech is under attack from those who supported Trump, from those who supported Brexit and those who are currently supporting Le Pen (never minding that each of those three situations are distinct and that while there may be those who support all three, they are most definitely not synonymous movements). He stressed the need for a good and honest media as required for democracy. I’ll return to these points shortly.
These attacks can be described as three vetos.
The Assassin’s Veto
The Heckler’s Veto
The “I’m offended” Veto
The first is essentially the threat of violence if someone says or does something. The natural example was that of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
The second is the simple disruption and drowning out of the other’s voice to prevent or disuade them from speaking.
The last is the idea that certain forms of speech shouldn’t be allowed because someone will be offended. This was encapsulated in the PREVENT agenda which was initially supposed to tackle radicalisation of students but has been used to ban or no-platform non-violent ‘extremists’. One such example was when Germaine Greer was banned from speaking at a university on feminism because of her views (which were not planned to be discussed) on transgender issues. Another would be that of not allowing Tommy Robinson to speak of his experiences in Luton.
Timothy Garton Ash affirmed the idea that safespaces and trigger warnings are helpful in limited contexts on a university campus, but stressed that you shouldn’t consider the entire campus to be a safespace. More than that he argued that people like Tommy Robinson should be allowed to speak to students because they would destroy him and take him apart in the Q&As.
He concluded by returning to classical liberal values as outlined at the start and then the floor was open for questions.
Whilst I had been sitting there listening to the presentation I found that there was lots of really helpful elements which he had presented. The four layers and the ten principles with the three vetos were all interesting concepts which seemed on the whole to work well – I still need to reflect further on the rest of the ten principles and see how far I would agree with them or not. However, what had struck me through out was that Timothy Garton Ash wasn’t shy about his own political views and opinions, particularly on topics such as Brexit and Trump. The way that he talked about “Fake news” and the Media made it clear that he would consider himself to be ‘on their side’ – something which he made clearer whilst responding to one of the earlier questions. As such I found myself sitting there wondering to what extent his free speech principles were wedded to his own political beliefs, or whether these two things were separate constructs which met naturally in him as he was the one speaking.
I did not for a moment begrudge him using his lecture to discuss his opinions in a public context, but the way that he presented his case about freedom of speech being under attack resulted in him characterising it as being under attack from ‘the right’. So I asked him this question:
I applaud your commitment to trans-cultural dialogue on these topics. I wonder, however, if there’s need for a trans-political dialogue as well? You’ve talked about echo chambers on the right, I wonder if you could talk about echo chambers on the left? For example I know many people were aghast when Brexit occurred because they hadn’t seen or known anyone who would have been in favour of it on Facebook etc.
He responded partially, as he was responding to a couple of questions in a row. His response was along the lines that of course there are echo chambers on the left and that the New York Times and the Guardian had found themselves to be out of touch with the white working classes and that this was something that needs to change.
It was nice to hear an acknowledgement that there are echo chambers at the various stages of the political/ideological spectrum however there was no comment on embarking in dialogue with those of other political perspectives to discuss principles for free speech.
I’ve written about echo chambers on twitter before and I consciously strive to be exposed to arguments and perspectives on all sides of different issues.
One conclusion which I have come to is that Timothy Garton Ash is right when he says that democracy requires a good media. However I suspect that he would view “fake news” as stories presented by ‘alternative’ media sites which are then ‘debunked’ by ‘Main Stream Media’. I would suggest that the reality is far more complex and that there have been multiple and repeated occasions where the ‘Mainstream Media’ makes assertions which are then demonstrated to be false. Journalistic Integrity should be a non-partisan value! That’s not a counter-claim saying, “No, the left are the ones who are attacking free speech”. I would suggest that free speech is not the property of either the left or the right. In the recent past it was the religious right which wanted to ban music and video games which were offensive and today it’s largely speaking those on the left who want to police what can and cannot be said. Give it a decade or so and I imagine the pendulum will swing once again. I also wonder where “the media” would fit in the layers. I doubt they would be Big Dogs or Cats, but they’re certainly not mice.
My friend and I walked away from the Great Hall of Durham Castle, replete with its high ceilings and larger than life portraits on the walls, having been listening to an Oxford university professor speak to a room of largely white, well educated, generally politically liberal people and wondered whether, as good as it was, this was the living embodiment of academia in its ivory towers.
This is the latest chapter in the on going discussions within the Church of England surrounding a variety of questions of the place and value of lesbians and gays in the Church of England, and the degree to which same sex relationships are compatible (or not) with the teaching of the Church of England. Having written briefly on the Primates meeting this time last year I thought I’d identify a couple of interesting features while not intending to preempt the discussions which will happen at General Synod.
There’s two strands of context which I found helpful: the historical and the legal.
The Marriage and Same Sex Relations (M&SSR) report, locates itself as the intermediary conclusion of the ongoing process of the Church of England considering issues arising from same sex relationships since ‘well before’ Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 (13). In 1999 there was Marriage: A Teaching Document, which worked on the basis that marriage was between one man and one woman. In 2013 there was The Pilling Report which recognised a range of views and proposed two years of, what became, ‘Shared Conversations’. These were facilitated conversations intended to ‘assist the careful listening that would support clear and open exchange of views and embody the principle of disagreeing Christianly, in a manner marked by Christian care for each other'(13). These concluded in July 2016, at which point the House of Bishops took responsibility for exploring ‘what should happen next'(14).
The Archbishops nominated ten bishops to form a Bishop’s Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS) to propose a process to put before the synod (15). There were meetings in September, November and December which all led to the formation of this course and these meetings involved prayer and mediation, both personally and corporately.
The other strand of context is the legal advice as to what the potential options of moving forward would be with regards to the changes which would have to be made to Canon Law. There were two issues which were dealt with (provided in Annex 1 of the report as a background resource): Services and Clergy Conduct.
As it stands, Clergy are only allowed to use services which have been approved (Authorised or Commended) and where there are no available services they may form their own so long as it does not depart from the doctrine of the Church of England. The effect of this is that in the light of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony ‘it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’.
As such there are four possible responses:
Remove the requirement to be faithful to the doctrine of the Church of England.
Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
Make no changes but explain it would be okay for clergy to use forms of services which did not equate same sex relationships with holy matrimony.
With regards to clergy conduct, presently there is the expectation that clergy will ‘be diligent to frame and fashion their life and that of their family according to the doctrine of Christ’. It’s understood that this would mean maintaining the doctrine of Holy Matrimony in their personal lives as well, which would mean one man and one woman. More than this, it’s pointed out in paragraph 46 that all clergy explicitly assent to the principle of this in their ordination vows. As such to enter a marriage with a person of the same sex is fashioning ones’ life into a way which is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ.
From a legal perspective there are five possible responses:
Change the rule so that being married to a person of the same sex doesn’t break the rule.
Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony to state that civil marriage to a person of the same sex is a different institution from Holy Matrimony and so entering into that institution does not amount to an act contrary to the doctrine of holy matrimony.
Make no change but issue a teaching document which explains that the Church of England does not equate same sex civil marriages with holy matrimony, and that by entering one clergy would not be considered to be acting in a way contrary to the doctrine.
I think that acknowledging any response (in any direction) to the Shared Conversations is bound to deal with these legal realities in order to make sure that the conversations weren’t merely ‘a smoke screen for dismissing those we disagree with’ (10) but actually have a real ecclesial response.
The general consensus, though not unanimous, of the bishops in writing the report was twofold (18):
There was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage;
There was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.
As such the intention is to:
interpret the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church (22).
Paragraph 23 goes on to summarise the four practical proposals that much of the rest of the report goes on to expand, namely:
Establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, and their families, and continuing to work towards mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church.
There should be a substantial new Teaching Document, replacing or expanding upon the 1999 Marriage Teaching Document. This should be comprehensive but accessible enough to be widely read and understood throughout the Church of England.
There should be clear guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples.
There should be new guidance from the House of Bishops about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.
That last one is particularly interesting to me as an ordinand myself. I am aware of those who are under regular scrutiny of their moral integrity with living by the standards they have assented to in Issues in Human Sexuality (as all ordinands must in order to proceed with training) on the basis of their sexuality while others, who may well be morally deficient in other ways, escape that scrutiny on the basis of their presumed heterosexual orientation. As such the suggestions in paragraph 55 and 54 that questioning about sexual morality should form part of a wider examination of ordinands by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and bishop, and that this questioning should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form, seems to me to be a sensible development of the discernment and accountability processes of the Church.
There was one phrase which leapt out at me while I was working my way through the report. Paragraph 31 says:
The national Shared Conversations have demonstrated the need for and value of careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with the reading of scripture.
I found the addition of the word ‘reading’ an interesting one, in that it implicitly acknowledges that the location of the discussions aren’t necessarily located within the text of scripture but within the different ‘ways’ that different Anglican traditions approach scripture. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s not going to be questions of morality which will prolong and hinder the Church in finding a unified position on sexuality, but rather the less asked and underlying questions of biblical methodology, hermeneutic practice and even epistemology.
This process is one which has placed a strain on the Church of England, and this comes through in paragraphs 59 and 65. Paragraph 65 stresses that ‘to maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine in this matter [holy matrimony is one man and one woman] while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it is entirely consistent with our traditions and is a perfectly coherent approach to take’. As such, returning to paragraph 59, ‘We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.’
The report is well worth a read, and I imagine that many will be pleased and disappointed by various different elements of what the bishops have to say. However I think that, particularly bearing in mind the legal realities and options which are available to take as the next steps in this continuing process, in reality the bishops would have been hard-pressed to say anything substantially different than they have done. There’s a certain logic to the movements which have long since been set in motion and what will be far more interesting, from my perspective, will be the response and feedback of the General Synod as the Church of England continues to ‘walk together’ through this process, hopefully, wherever the Spirit leads them.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve just spent the last two years working as a Pastoral Support Worker at the London School of Theology while studying for a masters in Theology part time. This followed three years of studying for my Bachelors of Arts in Theology.
Whilst there, a sense of calling which I have avoided most of my life became increasingly hard to ignore. Having grown up as the son of a Vicar people had always assumed that I would be a Vicar like my Dad (with more than a joke or two made about some day being the Archbishop of Canterbury!). I had always disagreed. That was not to be my life – I would be my own person thank you very much.
My philosophy ever since I had to choose my options of my GCSEs has been to study what I’ve found interesting and enjoyable and I would hopefully find myself qualified for a job I would find interesting and enjoyable.
This led to choosing my sixth form in order to do Philosophy and Ethics.
In turn I then chose to study theology at the London School of Theology. I wanted to engage with scripture and the philosophies of faith from a believing Christian perspective, but I didn’t want to go to a denominational college as I was aware that I was, then, Anglican by virtue primarily of having grown up with it. The London School of Theology is both interdenominational and international and intercultural. This broadened my horizons on many levels. A story for another time would be my experiences of my first year where I began to recognise that I with my growing and developing theological understandings fit best into the Anglican system of beliefs (despite my baptist roommate passionately explaining his various perspectives until 4am on several occasions; and vice versa!).
During my time there I underwent a lot of personal transformation, much of which was a direct result of the Gospel which was ministered to me continuously through studies, friendships, the community, prayer and worship.
As a result of many conversations with different people I spoke to my Dad to ask what the process was of exploring the possibility of ordination. He pointed me towards the Bishop’s Officer for Ordinands and Initial Training (formerly the Diocesan Director of Ordinands; DDO). At his recommendation I spent probably the best part of a year, if not more, having conversations with a vocations adviser.
It was these conversations which really guided my reflections on my faith, abilities and sense of calling. There were a couple of moments in particular which spiritually resonated with me and gave me the confidence to knock on the door and see what would happen.
A few more chats with the DDO, a couple of interviews with examining chaplains and a Bishop and I was off to the Bishop’s Advisory Panel in May of this year. For those who don’t know, this is a residential few days of a variety of activities. There’s presentations and group discussions, and there’s a series of interviews. These are the Pastoral, the Educational and the Vocational. Over the course of the few days (I keep thinking of it as a weekend but it was a mid-week thing) they assess you against the nine selection criteria and write a report which advises your Bishop on whether or not they recommend you for training. It was both an intense but oddly comfortable experience which raised about as many doubts as it settled nerves.
I had a visit to speak with the Bishop a couple of weeks later and he was satisfied to send me for training.
A few more interviews and a busy summer of studying and paperwork and here I am! Sitting in my office in my house in Durham (which I’ll be sharing with some fellow ordinands) getting ready for the induction days which start tomorrow!
I am now here and about to spend a couple of years at Cranmer Hall training for Ordination and ministry in the Church of England. It’s an exciting place to be emotionally and spiritually. I imagine that I have no idea what I’ve let myself in for! One of my lecturers at the London School of Theology gave me this small poster of encouragement a year or so ago and I’ve placed it on my door here as a reminder and encouragement to myself to fix my eyes on Christ as I find myself pursuing this path of obedience to the Lord who has called me to follow him.
I look forward to blogging more often, reflecting on the topics we study and, where appropriate, of my experiences here in this next chapter of my own pilgrim journey seeking after God! I also have some side projects in mind which will hopefully be appearing in the near future!
May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your Spirit,
I was at primary school that day. Eight years old in a small rural school in Devon, in the United Kingdom. I remember walking out of class to the corridor where the parents would wait to collect us children. Some of my friend’s joined their parents and left, while others hung around whilst the mums were chatting. I remember my mum walking in the door and walking over to me but something seemed off. My memory of this bit is a bit hazy. I think I wanted to tell her something or other about my day. One of the other mums asked if Mum was alright and she said something about a terror attack. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember that it seemed weird enough that the other mums didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t believe her.
I was eight and this was just a normal day becoming a bit strange. I think that Mum must have tried to explain what was happening, but I didn’t really know what to make of it. But here’s where my memory becomes clearer. We walked into the house and I dumped my bag at the bottom of the stairs before walking into the living room to see my Dad sitting on the sofa, watching the television with the blue screen in the corner. As I looked at the television I saw for the first time that now iconic image of the twin towers, with smoke billowing from the towers. I don’t have particularly strong memories of watching what happened, but I distinctly remember the atmosphere of a significance which was too real for me to deny but which was also too great for me to really understand. The main moments of memories which I remember are my parents reactions to the hankies which were waved out of the windows, and that moment when the first tower fell.
15 years on and the repercussions of that day echo on throughout the world. The response has shaped international politics, particularly in the middle east, in such a way that it has become commonplace for analysts, writers and pundits to discuss policy and narratives as taking place in a post-9/11 world. Culturally, even internationally, it became one of those rare “Where were you when..” moments.
Each year since, but particularly this year as the 15th anniversary, it’s natural that people will remember and acknowledge the events of that day.
Remembrance is an important thing.
Yet it can also be a complicated one, and the fact is that the remembering of 9/11 today is in that transitioning phase between a shared recollection of the majority of people and the establishing of how the significance and legacy of that moment will be explained and shared with those who have either been born after it, or who were too young to remember it. This year is the first american election where among the people voting, in part, on foreign policy there will be voters who do not personally remember 9/11.
This means that those who were there that day, as a survivor, a firefighter, a medic, a news reporter, a bystander or relatives who lost loved ones should consider starting, if they haven’t already, sharing their stories and writing them down. Records are important so that when the intuitive emotional understanding of an event fades, people can still engage with and learn from it.
One hundred years ago Europe was in the midst of the first world war. The last combat veteran of that war, one Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy, died five years ago on the 5th of May 2011. That war is well documented, but is surprisingly poorly understood by the general public – particularly the younger generations. In part this is because the emotional understanding of the subsequent world war of 1939-1945 and the tangible impact of the death toll on the population where seemingly every town, village,and farm lost family members. To an extent, this experience relegated and absorbed the horrors of the first world war into the horrors of the second in the public consciousness. Perhaps not at first, but as the years roll by and the stories are handed down to those who were born 10, 30, 50 years later there has been a peculiar union between the historical realities and the legends which have grown up about them.
Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys encapsulates this beautifully in the line: “This is history. Distance yourselves. Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.”
This is not to undermine the historical records we have, in fact precisely the opposite! With the world wars, the legends and the cultural consciousness of the significance of these events has inspired and prompted books, films, plays, lectures and art which have in turn enabled the education and remembrance of those events.
In reflecting on remembering 9/11 and the exploration of the recent past as it consolidates into history, my mind is drawn to Luke’s Gospel.
The purpose of John’s Gospel is so that the reader might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20:31).
However the intention of Luke’s gospel, whilst chronicling the same events, is subtly different. Luke begins,
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things which have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke’s gospel was not written as Jesus was exercising his ministry, and the account of the crucifixion and resurrection are not the equivalent of an ancient diary entry. Instead it was likely written sometime between 80-100AD.* That is, it was written some years later as the church grew and there were more and more believers who had not encountered Jesus during their own lives, and more than this, as there were more and more believers who didn’t know many (or any) of the eyewitnesses personally. This is important, because as Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised [from the dead], our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”
Luke’s Gospel, with its focus on eyewitnesses (which are often referred or alluded to within the text) is an attempt to present the reality of who Jesus is, what he did and also of what happened to him. This helps Christians to remember Jesus. To remember the pain of the Cross that resulted in his death. To remember the despair of the disciples as they grieved. To remember the hope of the resurrection and the promise that in darkness and pain and suffering that we are not alone, but are accompanied by Christ; and that as he joins with us in our sufferings and our death, we will share with him in his Life, in his joy and in his relationship with the Father, sustained and nourished by the Holy Spirit.
It seems fitting that this day of remembering 9/11 is a Sunday.
As we remember and wrestle with the terrible events of that day, and as we try to explain it to those who came after that day, we would do well to remember that in the darkness and the horrors of human experience we are not abandoned. We have a Lord who does not shy away from despair or flinch in the face of death, but who squares up to it and takes it upon his shoulders along side us. As well as looking back to what has happened, let’s take stock of where we are and how we let this define us as we move forwards, with a sense of hope.
*there are discussions about the extent to which it was continuing to be edited and revised into the second century but 80-100AD is fine for the purposes of this post.
Something that most people I meet learn sooner or later is that I am deaf.
That’s right, my hearing is not great.
Many people don’t realise, partly because, in case you haven’t noticed, my hair is quite long and covers my ears! (Though I didn’t grow it to hide that I’m deaf; I wanted to be like Aragorn).
I was born with bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, ie. I’m partially deaf in both ears. In fact one of my earlier memories is of going to the hospital with my parents to get my first hearing aids when I was around four years old. I took my favourite toy, a small toy of the Disney character Goofy, with me and the audiologist who gave me my hearing aids gave Goofy a hearing aid too! Rather than having an earmold he had a small piece of elastic which went through the tubing to hold it onto his ear. This helped to normalise having hearing aids.
Growing up as a child with hearing problems meant I had regular trips to the hospital. Just as small children grow and go through a million pairs of shoes, as I grew I needed new earmolds which would fit. When earmolds get too small, or worn down through lots of use, the seal in the ear isn’t good enough and you start to get feedback – a loud annoying whistley squeaky noise! These trips to the hospital would often have long waiting times and that would be a day off of school. I didn’t miss any long chunks off of school, just a day here and there every few months. It was years before I ever had a school year with full attendance.
My parents were great. They have fought for me to have all the appropriate support I’ve needed for school. From liaising with the teacher for the deaf (an external person that supports deaf children and visits them in their schools) to help me have radio aids (a device which works kind of like a walkie-talkie; the teacher wears a microphone, often around their neck, and the student wears a receiver which plus into their hearing aids so that they can hear the teacher directly through the radio aid rather than being unable to hear them over the sound of the rest of the class) to investing in a caption reader which could display subtitles for films on VCR.
However, as great as my parents were and as much as they loved me,
I was still different from my classmates.
In fact, films are a great example of one of the struggles I experienced as a child growing up. With subtitles they were fine. But without… well even today I rarely hear or follow all the dialogue in a film at the cinema (I saw Suicide Squad yesterday and loved it, but am looking forward to watching it with subtitles in future to pick up the several bits I missed). This means that where possible I often ask if it’s possible to put subtitles on. However many people, and particularly children, who aren’t used to it complain that it’s annoying and don’t want to have subtitles on. On those occasions it would often feel embarrassing or awkward. As if either I could ask so that I could join in and enjoy the film but risk spoiling it for others, or let them enjoy it without creating a fuss and probably miss out on dialogue and the ensuing in-jokes that form when a group watches a film together.
It wasn’t just films that being deaf made harder, but also general group conversations. I would routinely be unable to hear something and when I’d ask someone to repeat what they, or someone else, had said they’d often reply with “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter”. This would happen in class, on the playground, on the bus, and even today in pubs.
In these ways and others, being deaf has often been an isolating experience.
I think that as I was growing up I generally handled it pretty well. However I do remember a couple of occasions where it would really get to me.
I remember sitting with my parents in the living room and crying my eyes out and telling them that I wish wish wished that I wasn’t born deaf!
I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be my parents. By some genetic lottery their son was born disabled. They could love him and support him with everything they had, and it would help, but at the end of the day when I was crying and upset they were powerless to change the simple fact that my ears would never hear properly. As I say, I can’t imagine how it would feel to be a parent in that situation. But what I can say is that they were the best I could have asked for in that situation. They never treated me as if my disability were any cause to think less of me, because for them I was and am their son who they love.
One day we were at church and we were singing a hymn with the words on a screen using an Over Head Projector and I leaned over to my Mum and commented that it was hard to see it today. Within a couple of weeks I’d been to the opticians and had my first pair of glasses. In and of itself, having to wear glasses is no great hardship, but knowing that you can’t see or hear without some form of assistance was often a fairly sobering reality which I would privately have to wrestle with.
Growing up I went to several Christian summer camps. Week long residentials packed with fun activities and bible teaching to encourage children and teens in their faith. When I was in my early teens I was given the opportunity to sign up to go on a couple of weekend residentials to do similar things with other deaf people my age. I remember talking to my parents about this and looking through the promotional leaflets. It looked good. There would be rock climbing and high ropes courses and other activities I knew I’d enjoy. Yet the idea of going on a residential for Deaf people didn’t sit easily with me. In part, I suppose, because whilst I’m deaf I’ve never learnt sign language. Why would I? I personally never needed to in order to communicate. Part of me felt awkward about the idea of spending time with people who would be signing when I couldn’t sign. But another part of me knew that it wasn’t just that. Not long before this opportunity I’d been to the same place for a weekend residential but on that occasion it had been with other teens whose parents were clergy (my father has been curate and then a vicar all my life). It had been good to do the activities I enjoy doing, but I’d come away from that weekend realising that apart from our parents having the same career I had nothing in common with the other people on that particular residential. Why, then, would I automatically have something in common with other people who are deaf?
I decided I didn’t want to go, and my parents were supportive of that.
On a personal level it was probably around then that my attitude towards being deaf became defined more concretely in my mind.
I am a person who is deaf. I am not a deaf person.
Life carried on. I continued to grow up with deafness being a reality and a part of my daily ritual. I put my hearing aid in when I wake up, and I take it out when I go to bed. I have hospital check ups and I get new earmolds and I get new packs of batteries. It has crossed my mind on more than one occasion that should there ever be some form of national tragedy or emergency then my hearing will be limited to however long my supply of batteries lasts (not a major worry but a valid consideration).
During this time I had glue ear in my right ear. This is a build up of liquid in the eardrum which dampens the amount of noise which the ear can hear. I had surgery insert grommits to try and fix it, but had a really bad infection which could be smelt from a distance at school. I then had surgery to remove the grommits and the consultants decided to see if I would grow out of it. Nearly ten years later, it’s still an issue. The affect on my right ear is such that I no longer wear a hearing aid in my right ear because it doesn’t make enough of a difference to my hearing to be worth it.
I eventually ended up studying for my degree in Theology and sharing a room brought to light new ways in which my deafness affects me. I used an alarm clock with a vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up, because I wouldn’t necessarily hear an alarm. There was about a week where my hearing aid wasn’t working and my roommate made the most of sneaking into the room and playfully insulting me behind my back, gradually getting louder until I jumped out of my skin when I suddenly realised he was right behind me – and had been for a while!
It was whilst I was in my final year of my degree that I had a problem with my eyes.
Towards the end of November I found that I was increasing the zoom on the monitor of my computer to read it properly. I set my phone to the largest font size and tried to do the reading for an essay that was due before the Christmas vacation. But my eyes were getting worse. I was getting a fuzzy pixelisation on the edge of my vision.
I spoke to my former roommate and he agreed to drive me to the local A&E to get them to have a look. They saw me and then sent me straight to Moorfields eye hospital in central London. I went and was met by a couple of my cousins who went with me. I was seen quickly (it was a Sunday which helped). They said it was something or another (pseudopapilledema). I had a note and got an extension for my essay.
At this point I could barely read.
I went home to my parents for Christmas and went to the opticians to get an up to date prescription to help as best as possible. She had a good look at my eyes and wasn’t convinced by the diagnosis. She thought it might be optic disc drusen. Any which way, I was referred to my local hospital who saw me quickly. Between Christmas and the new year I was supposed to be doing my essay to hand in when I got back to university at the end of the first week of January. During that time I had several appointments and visits to the consultant. I had photos of the back of my eyes. I had an ultrasound on my eyes (a bizarre sensation) and then it concluded with an MRI scan to check that there wasn’t a tumour in my brain pressing on the optic nerve causing the issues with my eye sight.
My optician’s suggestion proved to be correct. I had optic disc drusen.
The good news, I didn’t have a tumour and wasn’t about to die.
The bad news, there’s no cure and I may be disqualified from driving. First there would be more tests.
Briefly, optic disc drusen is essentially a condition where you end up with a couple of dead cells which end up in the optic nerve which in turn creates pressure on the surface of the optic nerve which affects the way that light enters the nerve and so creates visual disturbances.* Occasionally these dead cells can move within the nerve and that causes a change in pressure, which causes a fluctuation in the visual disturbance. The main risk for me personally is that these disturbances will affect enough of my peripheral vision to prohibit me from driving.
Before I had the relevant tests which concluded that my eyes aregood enough to drive, I had to finish off the essay. By the time I’d had all the tests, my vision was starting to normalise and I could read again. I wrote the vast majority of the essay between the MRI and receiving the results. I returned to university and submitted the essay, glad to be rid of it. It would have been easy to write it off as a casualty of circumstance, but actually that essay got the highest mark of my degree.
The final year of my degree was also an emotional struggle because during February my grandfather passed away. This was difficult not just for myself, but for the entire family.
However, throughout my final year, complete with the stress of my medical issues and the bereavement, I managed to lift my grade average up from my second year by an entire grade boundary; resulting in a First Class Honours degree in Theology.
I have issues with my ears.
I have issues with my eyes.
However through the love and support of my parents, my family and by friends I have grown to identify as Samuel.
I don’t place my value and my identity in my disabilities or the events which have happened to me.
I personally do not consider myself as a disabled person.
More than that, I do not consider myself a Victim.
All too often in today’s cultural discourse it seems that opinions and even arguments are considered more valid by virtue of an appeal to authority. This authority doesn’t necessarily equate to authority in the sense of an expert in a relevant field with a doctorate, with years of professional experience, or as an eyewitness to an event. Instead it often correlates to a person who shares experience, circumstance or heritage with another person or topic. This association is primarily categorical rather than genuninely relevant.
In essence, a lot of today’s cultural (or perhaps I should say internet) discourse plays the game of identity politics; a game where the trump card is ‘victimhood’.
This rhetoric leads to the disingenuous idea that:
to speak about feminism you must be female
to speak about racism you must be a person of colour
to speak about homophobia you must be gay, lesbian or bisexual
to speak about transphobia you must be a transperson
to speak about Islam you must be a muslim
to speak about obesity you must be fat
to speak about class you must be poor
to speak about disability you must be disabled
All of these are predicated upon the notion that a categorical association with a ‘community’ which is perceived to be oppressed or marginalised somehow lends a social currency to an individual which makes them more credible than someone who is not associated with that community.
This culture encourages us to focus on that which gives us credibility, which means that the most credible people are those who are minorities and then it’s their allies.
This means that to be credible you need ‘ an angle’.
Or in other words, to focus on a distinguishing characteristic or trait to gain a voice in the conversation.
There are two issues with this.
It reduces people to the sum of their parts, rather than treating them as authentic person in their own right.
It is exclusive and polarises rather than promoting tolerance and productive dialogue.
How can I say that identity politics reduces people to the sum of their parts? That it is intolerant?
I am deaf. I have just shared some of the struggles and experiences I have had in relation to that part of my identity. I do not deny that I am deaf. It is my daily reality. But I am more than my deafness.
Those who are black are black. They have their own experiences and struggles and whenever they look in the mirror they will still be black. But they may not support #BlackLivesMatter or the might be politically conservative. They may well be black but to define their ideological affiliation with the colour of their skin is to diminish them as independent human beings. They are more than their race.
Women are women. They have their own stories and relationships and make their own choices about their lives. They may not identify as a feminist. They may not believe in the patriarchy or they may be pro-life. They may run for president of the united states or enter STEM based careers or they may be nurses or mothers. They are more than their vaginas.
There are those whose sexuality and/or gender identity gets them labelled as LGBT+. Each one has their own story of how they discovered and engaged that aspect of their identity. Each one has their own story of how their families and friends responded to them; positively or negatively. Their romantic patterns of behaviour will be as varied as any one who’s sexuality is heteronormative, with a single partner or many. Their political and religious views cannot be determined by orientation. They are more than their sexuality.
This is not to preclude the importance or significance of those who are oppressed speaking up against injustice.
As a Christian I cannot lose sight of the numerous times scripture tells us that God watches over the stranger and sustains the orphans and the widows whilst frustrating the plans of the wicked.
I also cannot lose sight of the fact that when God himself walked the earth as Jesus Christ of Nazareth that he ate with and embraced sinners. It was the tax collectors (the capitalists), the lepers (the disabled), the prostitutes and adulterers (sluts and LGBT), the gentiles (people of colour and migrants) and the fishermen (the white males).
The Lord of creation, the God of the righteous, embraced the whole of humanity with all of our discrimination and labels and prejudices and died on the cross for both the oppressed and the oppressor. In his resurrection, Jesus establishes an eternal reconciliation between God and his creation, between humanity and himself; within this reconciliation we see the embodiment of a peace which affirms the differences of those which have now been, and will be, irrevocably joined together.
In the face of this hope to play the game of identity politics is to prioritise the marginalisation and reduction of individuals, rather than to honour and engage with them as whole persons.
I am many things.
I am a Christian.
I am a metalhead.
I have struggled.
I am a theologian.
I have long hair.
I am deaf.
I am white.
I am adventurous.
I am young.
I am english.
I have imagination.
I am Samuel.
I am not a Victim.
*I am not a doctor, it’s a bit more complicated than this but in essence this is how it works.