Q: When is a human being ethical?

A: When a human being is being human.

Whether you read the title question as, ‘When is a human being ethical?’ or ‘When is a human being ethical?’, you read it correctly. The question of ethics arises along with the question of being. How I should act is tied in with the question of what I am. If I am a dog and aim to behave properly, i.e. ethically, I should aim to behave like a dog. But dogs do not struggle with ‘What is a dog?’ questions, only we do. And when I say ‘we’ I mean you, who are able to recognise that you are human like me, who also struggle with such questions. Any robot reading this post cannot recognise itself as one of ‘we’ and know what being one of ‘us’ is like. Human existence brings with it the anxiety induced by the ethical question: what now? What is the humane thing to do in this situation I am facing? We know we are human but what does it mean to act human in any given situation?

The ethical question, according to Roger Scruton, is opened up by the fact that ‘a person is something that could be held to account’.[1] We are the kind of beings who point at each other and say, ‘hey!?’.* Paul Ricoeur speaks of a ‘responsibility’ that arises as part of the human reality, oneself encountering another like itself. There is an expectation that we can count on one another and because someone is counting on me I am accountable for my actions before them.[2] Ethical systems are developed to describe and recommend these expectations we have of each other. After some recent reading and group discussion I engaged in, I will map out my own understanding and thoughts on ethical actions and how I understand it from the Christian perspective.

In this post I will only ponder the idea of an ethical human being while in the next one I will consider different approaches to being ethical, in conversation with the Christian perspective.

humanWhat a thing essentially is deals with the confrontation between existence (emergence) and disappearance. A thing exists, typically changes over time and then disappears. Humanity began to exist, changes in many ways and may well not continue to exist forever. So too, you came to the conclusion that you have begun existing, realised that your current state of existence has an expiry date, and experience the expectation to live the best life you possibly could. What then is the essence of this humanity we are to align with or aim for in order to live proper human lives? We realise that humanity, which appears and then likely disappears later on, cannot itself be the measure of humanity. The best we come up when following this method is to describe how we typically do act, not how we ought to act. Ought always ascribes to some of idea of a ‘better’ and therefore preferred outcome but that idea is based on something apart from ourselves and the physical world we exist in. It is measured against something other than humanity itself.

What we can conclude, however, are humanity’s common desires driving these actions. We do find unique human desires, accompanied by the ability to interpret, judge and steward these desires. This human ability to stand in judgement over ourselves and the desires which we experience as ‘ours’ and for which we feel responsible, leaves us with further uniquely human experiences. Experiences such as guilt, shame, pride, or thankfulness. Another interesting thing to take into account when thinking about being human, is that we feel responsible for these desires and consequent actions as ‘ours’, while we feel thankful (or otherwise resentful) for our own existence, as if it is not our own.

Dealing with this dilemma has looked different for different people. What does seem to be constant in people’s sensemaking journeys, however, is the use of stories. The essence of humanity is conveyed through characters in these stories, with the most powerful ones offering freedom from our dilemma. These stories contain a moral element, what Meredith Klein[3] might refer to as an ‘invitational proclamation’. They simultaneously invite others to imagine their shared humanity as something and expect them to participate accordingly as human characters in these stories. Contained in the recognition of yourself as one of the ‘we’ being referred to in these stories, is the recognition of being held to account. Or, at least, recognising an experience of oneself as being responsible for living as a proper human character and accountable to someone for doing so.

In the next post I will consider some proposed stories into which we are invited as characters and what an ethical character in those stories might look like.


“Behind everyman is an author who wanted a relatable character.” –Hope Cantwell, presumably




* [ ! ] We may argue that we are not alone in pointing at each other and that a dog’s bark is its way of saying, ‘Hey!’, but what I posit is that [ ? ] we are alone in questioning the meaning and significance of our response.

[1] Roger Scruton, ‘Ethics’, M.A. in Philosophy lecture: University of Buckingham, London: U.K. 2016.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, transl. by Kathlene Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1992 [1990]), p. 165.

[3] Meredith Kline, Kingdom prologue: Genesis foundations for a covenantal worldview, (Eugene, OR.: Wipf and Stock 2006), pp. 40-41.

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Pax Idem: Sameness and the Difficulty of Diversity

“They should all just get with the program and change to the right”, says one commenter. Some countries are “just stubborn”, says another. These are some of the tongue-in-cheek comments appearing underneath a world map posted on twitter. The map indicates which countries drive on the right (i.e. left-hand) side of the road and which drive on the wrong (i.e. right-hand) side. [1] Wait! What?

Sweden switches traffic left to rightNo, I too am of course only joking about one side being ‘right’ while the other is ‘wrong’. This example of cross-cultural banter did, however, bring to mind a common approach to dealing with uncomfortable differences: an insistence on sameness or uniformity as a prerequisite for mankind’s Progress towards Peace. History is understood as some ‘program’ along which we progress. We ultimately hope to get everyone on the same page, or side of the road if that’s what it takes. Even those ‘stubborn’ Enemies of Peace ought to get with the ‘program’ eventually.

Whether Peace refers to the world at peace or simply our own inner worlds at peace, we share a desire for it. In fact, our lives largely consist of (failed) attempts at bringing it about. What we do not share is an understanding of what it is, why we are not enjoying it right now and how it ought to be brought about. What often follows is the popular solution of Pax Idem or, ‘Peace by Sameness’.  The idea that Peace is found through a doing away with our differences. Unfortunately, much like Pax Romana of old, this peace is all too often offered as a Caesarian edict: obey peacefully, or else!

Dealing with differences is difficult. We typically opt for one of two ways to deal with it. On the one hand we insist that all that is different must conform and become the same. We tend to call it unity. On the other hand we insist that everyone conforms to the idea that what appears to be different is actually the same. We tend to call it diversity. Each position merely expects what is different to conform to itself. We struggle to exist within the tension between unity and diversity.

Ellis Potter

Earlier this year, I attended a Worldviews seminar in which Ellis Potter gave his 3 Theories of Everything talk. Drawing from what he shared I will consider an underlying Monistic worldview, and its understanding of ‘what went wrong with the world’, as a belief system that encourages the insistence on Sameness. Monism, in short, is the doctrine that ascribes Oneness to all things, often leading to the belief that ‘all is one and all is God’.

Potter posits that all people approach life with some basic prejudice, adding that we approach it with a prejudice towards life rather than death. In an adaptation of the famous Cartesian cogito from ‘I think therefore I am’ to ‘I hurt therefore I am’, he emphasised how we approach reality from the (experiential) realisation [2] that ‘something’ is wrong. And hence follow our attempts to set things right, i.e. bring about Peace. While we might not agree about what Peace is, many agree that the solution is to be derived from something that is and did go wrong. But what exactly did go wrong?

Potter, a former Zen Buddhist monk, introduced Monism as one approach towards ‘Peace as Sameness’. This worldview originates from India and is foundational to Hinduism and Buddhism but is not necessarily limited to these belief systems. The Monistic view is a response to the observation that the world consists of very strong unities along with much diversity. Unities are deemed stable and faithful while diversities appear unstable, disruptive and problematic. I will use the sky above us, as example. On the one hand we know that there is only ever one expanse to which we refer as the sky while on the other hand we refer to the day-time and night-time skies as if they are two different and opposite entities. The same could be said of the different seasons which are all one prolonged phenomenon, influenced by the same rotation of the earth around the sun. So too, land and water are ‘opposites’ used to describe the earth itself. All these are experienced very differently and yet each is enjoyed and appreciated in its own right. Each is so different, yet uniquely enjoyable and beautiful.

In giving different names to different parts or manifestations of supposedly the same thing, we are seen to create meaning where no actual meaning exists. This is considered problematic. Debates arise about whether summer or winter is better. Or, whether the night is too scary and miserable or the day too cheery and busy. No serious conflicts arise from these differences but what about those contributing to our more serious misunderstandings and feuds? Our different sexes, religions, cultures, ethnicities, languages, persuasions and inclinations are seen to destabilise our one humanity, which is deemed stable. Apparent difference is said to distort actual sameness.

It is a fair observation of which we are all aware. But how do we interpret such observations and how do we go about finding Peace?

Monistic faiths hold to the idea that we all suffer because an illusion of diversity has entered our consciousness. The idea that there are things which are essentially different or ‘other’ to one another, is an illusion. All truly is one. ‘Otherness’ is a nightmare from which to wake up, i.e. we are to shed the darkness of night – which in truth only seems real because our eyes are closed – and become enlightened. Then we may embrace unity and enjoy stability. The goal or hope is to become one with all that is not disrupting the Peace. One could call it ‘becoming one with divinity’ or perhaps more accurately, ‘becoming free from all the non-divine meaning we ascribe to ourselves and our world’. Free from that which defines us as other than divine or True.

A crude (but perhaps accurate?) interpretation of what was further said by Potter is that diversity, which translates into movement, irregularity and (attempts at) meaning, is understood as rotating around an axis of ‘possibility’. This is the case in Buddhism, in particular. This axis is the possible One into which we will enter should we shed our illusion of diversity and meaning. It is pure Sameness with nothing to meaningfully distinguish from anything else – meaning causes suffering; it disturbs. This possibility is described as a pregnant ‘nothing’, that potential something we will enter once we have shed everything. It reminds both of Heraclitus’ pure potentiality and Sartre’s nothingness. It is the absolute unknown other into which ‘we’ – the confused self-aware beings who use the self-referential term I – dissolve once our misperceptions of ourselves and reality disappear along with self-awareness. All that remains is not-self and not-reality: nothing.

SamenessPotter emphasised that while Monism may have come to prominence through abovementioned Eastern beliefs, it is not necessarily absent among Westerners or others.

He provocatively pointed out that many Westerners conclude the Monistic understanding of reality to be true, not despite their Western worldview but because of it. A strong emphasis on – or perhaps misguided notion of – reason, as the means by which truth is known, developed in the West in the modern age. This leads people to conclude that because something is both logical and rational, we will necessarily deduce the true meaning of that something in the process. I.e. Westerners (and perhaps many Easterners too) ascribe to the idea that Truth is reached by making sense of things. Such Westerners might then conclude, ‘Monism makes sense to me’ or ‘… makes most sense to me’ and is therefore True. But! A story that makes sense is not necessarily true. A true account of events does not in itself reveal the true meaning of those events either. We are rather concerned with Truth as Peace, namely the true way of being and relating to all else.

My conclusion, in short, is that Monistic thinking is attractive because it is empowering and it is easy. It is empowering because it makes us one with Truth and easy because the problematic diverse ‘other’ by whom we are confronted, merely needs to be dissolved into this Truth with us.

All that said, why do you and I not just go ahead and dissolve into nothingness then? Why not do it without insisting on sameness or being frustrated by others for not getting with the ‘program’? The true Monist might ask the same questions. The true Monist understands that an insistence on sameness is a Truth claim and an ascription of meaning. The true Monist considers the idea of a self as other than the one reality, an illusion. It appears that, for the true Monist, we exist as a nightmare of self-awareness from which Divine Reality is hoping to wake up. In this nightmare, we are amongst the diversity of creatures through which it experiences its false existence. Once reality wakes up, the illusion of beauty, pain, happiness, nostalgia, love and all other judgements and experiences is no more. We are no more. We never were. The One existence continues, unnoticed.

But how can a perfectly peaceful existence become disillusioned in the first place and why are we, characters in its nightmare, concerned about  finding an answer? Oh right, we are not, we are merely the manifestation of a Divine Nightmare.

Potter continued his lecture by introducing Dualism as propagated through Far Eastern religions such as Taoism and Confucianism along with the Christian Trinitarianism, as the remaining two approaches towards life. Dualism seeks to restore balance between observed harmony and disharmony. Trinitarianism concludes that creation is restored through acts of self-emptying in order to turn self-centredness to other-centredness, initiated by an initial self-emptying act of God as ‘other’ to creation. [a version of the full talk can be viewed here]




[1] Considering some of the reasons why countries prefer either the right or left, we realise it has something to do with a recognition of the other and at times an other-centredness.

[2] Can realisations ever be non-experiential?

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A Morning Prayer

morning prayer



Grant me eyes that I may see Your goodness

Grant me ears that I may hear Your loving call

and words of guidance

Create in me a pure heart, that I may know You

and You dwell in me as I reside in You

Strengthen my hands by Your Spirit

that Your temple may be built

and your people rejoice freely in Your Glory



Autumn 2016 – Stellenbosch, South Africa




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Sex in Progress

I had one of those rare ‘worthwhile discussions’ on social media this morning. One of those where you feel better about the world and its people afterwards. You know? If you don’t, it is totally understandable, they happen rarely and I contemplate leaving all forms of social media (apart from instagram) at least once a week because of that fact. This morning’s discussion was on ‘progressivism’; what makes someone a progressive and does being a progressive necessarily mean one departed from orthodoxy. As all worthwhile discussions do, it involved mention of sex. Well, sort of. It was about whether a prominent Christian figure’s alleged departure from orthodoxy on human sexuality was indeed an ‘evil’ progressivist act, or the more benign ‘progression from orthodoxy’. That is not the question I was hoping to pose to you, however, but rather wanted to draw your attention to these fascinating articles which I read minutes thereafter:


“Human conception was still basically a total mystery until as recently as 1875.”

Why it took scientists so long to figure out where babies come from


“Nearly a third of Japanese people are entering their 30s without any sexual experience, leaving the country facing a steep population decline”

Young Japanese people are not having sex

The first article shares the bizarre views (to man in the 21st century at least) people until 1875 held on how exactly sexual reproduction works. The second article is on the problem of population decline in Japan, which involves a seeming decline in desire for intimacy with other, embodied people. This is accompanied by a turn towards disembodied sexual activity. Some suggest this might be a growing phenomenon in other countries as well.

Of course scientific insight and technological advances have the potential to be greatly beneficial. The fact that we now know ‘ground-breaking’ facts such as that eggs and sperm cells do exist and that if they meet under certain conditions human beings are formed, is most certainly a sort of progress. I refer to such knowledge as ‘a sort of progress’ as it might simply increase the potential for progress. But when is something beneficial and when is it simply new? Or when do we refer to something as progress and not just change?

When we talk about things being ‘better’, we are necessarily assuming something about the true, the good, and the beautiful. We ascribe meaning to life, probably possess a definition of ‘freedom’ and have certain ends or a purpose in mind. We picture ourselves within a story or attempt to write a good one of our own, casting ourselves as main character.

In reading the above two articles the following questions came to mind: Do we know more about human sex than the people of the 1800s? We understand conception quite well and have ideas about sexual attraction but do we have a better idea about what sex is? While we are better at preventing STDs and undesired children, are we actually better at sex? I guess we have to know what it is before we can say whether we are better at it or not.

Earlier this week I saw someone mockingly accuse the Church of England as being obsessed with sex, as they appear more concerned about questions of sexuality than other ‘more important’ matters. Our answer to what human sex is, actually has a lot to do with how we will answer many other questions of importance. We will draw from the same story to answer sex related questions than we would for the other big ones. Wrong views about sex can literally destroy nations it appears from the article above and some argue it played a major role in the fall of many an ancient empire. This is because our opinions on sex are very much tied in with our opinions on personhood and the meaning of life in general. Also, when I ask whether we are doing better I do so because regardless of how you might be doing we are all rather dependent on the we, and you do often derive what you do from what we believe.

And finally, a quote I read in Brooks and Nicholas’ book, Virtually Human: flourishing in the digital world, which deals with the question of how we place technology within the right story in order to use it wisely and for flourishing:



Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?


                                                -T.S. Eliot




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In search of ‘shame-covering’ garments

The review of Hélène Opperman Lewis’ Apartheid: Britain’s Bastard Child (image below) intrigues me especially as my research this year focuses on identity and its need for a narrative. Apart from this I am of course a South African from within the broader Afrikaner context, associating mostly with the Southern Cape/Boland perspective, while having roots stretching to other regions as well.
Lewis discusses her work on the cycle of being shamed and shaming in turn through oppression as a means of dealing with one’s own shame. Her work highlights how it is not only the case for individual shame but also collective shame and looks at how it played out in modern day South Africa, leading from Britain to the Afrikaners and now the modern ‘Black’ collective. The peoples named in this specific book are then simply examples and the British of course not the root of the problem. Also, not every individual within a people associates similarly to the overarching narrative which haunts them as a group – degrees of being bound up or committed to the narrative differ. While simultaneously, that culture cannot be reduced to that aspect of its narrative. What I believe can happen though, is that people can say, “I feel shame” or “I feel superior” and begin to ask why.


Apartheid Lewis


Ascribing primarily to the Biblical narrative, I see shame’s origin lying in an experience before God, also ‘losing face and status before the rest of creation’, as one commentator puts it (read the Genesis account in the Christian Bible for context). Mankind has since been binding itself to identities apart from its relationship with God in attempts of self-justification. A recent (Eastern) Orthodox Christian scholar I read talks of ethics that flows from this, as attempts to manage and ease the blows of our rootedness in death (sin/shame – just using these terms interchangably and perhaps somewhat carelessly here).

We put on many ‘shame-covering’ garments but the good news of the gospel is that we, even us who are of pagan, Gentile decent, may put on Christ and be reconciled to God – in a somewhat similar fashion that he extended skins to Adam and Eve to cover their shame (Genesis) – and in that also to one another.

It remains a tricky business but I would propose we must at least seek to find ourselves in the fully true story, while seeking to allow others to do so too.

I am working with Paul Ricoeur’s concept of narrative identity as the suggested means to interpret the fully true story (as opposed to partly true stories, such our cultural narratives, for instance) but there is of course much to be said about the process of entering a fully true narrative. I would certainly begin in agreement with Ricoeur that we are confessing beings, asking to be interpreted by ‘the other’ (or Other), and so too participate in interpretation.



PS – being here in England now (2016/17), it is also sad to see how shame leaves them confused and seeking to write a new ‘shame-covering’ narrative, while there is also so much that is beautiful about Britain and its historic seeking to be rooted in God; how it shaped them.


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Freedom of Speech – a Scruton lecture

The following is a compilation of notes drafted during a lecture by Professor Roger Scruton on ‘Freedom of Speech’ at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, on 21 March 2017. Note: this is not a verbatim transcript of the actual lecture but a paraphrased version containing additional notes of my own and some others.

 The core idea I took from the lecture: 

The legal right to free speech is important for it is meant to facilitate public discourse and invite all opinions into the public square so that they may be exposed; it assists us in developing a better grasp of the truth.

Roger Scruton

First, a few introductory questions to guide us…

What is ‘freedom of speech’?

It is basically the right to say what you wish to say, regardless.

But regardless of what?

We do need some account of what we are trying to avoid. Words have effects. People can be stirred up to violence or psychological collapse could be caused, for instance.

What kind of right is freedom of speech – legal or moral?

There is, for instance, a legal right (on occasion) to commit adultery but is there a moral right? In this instance we are referring to a legal right, for we are arguing for state protection against being silenced; to prevent those trying to shut us up from doing so.

We are calling on the state to protect us. Those who try and stop you are thus infringing on your rights.

When is such a right infringed upon? What does stopping someone from saying something mean? Noise? Intimidation?

Some might argue that shouting people down is not technically stopping them. What about threats of violence or, what seems to be a primary location of conflict today, a mass attack on Twitter? Many instruments of intimidation are not necessarily a violation of the right to speak.

Regardless of what?

The law generally draws the line at words which are a prelude to assault. They are condemned as criminal. British common law would refer to incitement (affray, sedition). Certain uses of words are not free to be allowed and so it is also illegal, for instance, to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre, for it can lead to bodily harm as mass panic and trampling occurs, which is a further example of words having an effect.

What about the area of blasphemy?

Blasphemy is unacceptable in Muslims contexts. In pluralistic contexts we ask who defines blasphemy and how?  The reality is that in praising one god we often blaspheme another.

Should we enshrine the honour of God in law?

Protected and unprotected beliefs

In relation to our question, human beliefs are divided into two types.

Protected beliefs are ring-fenced against criticism, being made fun of, etc. Unprotected beliefs are those we expect to see or even invite criticism against. Scientific theories or judgements would typically be thought of as unprotected beliefs. But even here the instinct to protect beliefs arises. Examples are the Creation vs Evolution or Climate Change debates. Critical engagement does not occur but rather silencing of the other or in the case of the latter, in particular, people are polarised into groups of either ‘denialists’ (of climate change) or ‘part of the conspiracy’ (of fabricating climate change), for instance. A great scientific question all of a sudden turns ideological and moves beyond the sphere of scientific investigation and criticism.

John Stuart Mill argued that scientific beliefs must be unprotected – non-protection and exposure to refutation help us gain better understanding, otherwise you are unable to say what you are defending. True science is the science which survives criticism over time.

Protected beliefs and the issue of identity

Most protected beliefs, however, are not scientific but issues related to identity. What matters when it comes to identity-forming beliefs is not whether something is true or not but whether it enhances my life. These beliefs are not arrived at by pure reasoning or observation but by inheritance or conversion – through revelation of some sort. It is through such beliefs that a community is retained in a corporate entity – if you lose such a belief a radical existential change occurs. You become community-less with no sense of metaphysical rescue. Protected beliefs are incorporated into the deepest sense of who a person is; when that is afflicted everything goes out of joint.

Protected beliefs are badges of membership; an insult to the group is an insult to me personally. When such beliefs are criticised I can call on other community members to band with me in resistance. These beliefs are hungry for authority to validate it – such as a priest in a religious setting or a crowd of supporters in other instances. Appealing to such authorities frees me from having to justify these beliefs myself. It is therefore that we have dogma, with dogmatics being ‘the enquiry into that which cannot be enquired into’ – a fascinating field of study.

Religions traditionally satisfied these beliefs with dogmas being accepted from the magisterium. Take a religion away and a host of other beliefs flow in to take their place as protected beliefs with their own sets of dogma.

A posture of identity is required to form communities which is why orthodoxy is important and a ‘necessity’ for a community to exist. It is hardly possible to live in ubiquitous doubt. Living as an individual with an ever open mind is an ideal of the enlightenment and hard to live with. Religious dogma assists us in closing our minds, on the right things.

In the case of protected beliefs, it is not the falsehood of the opponent that is offensive but the truth. Silencing is the manner through which to protect a falsehood. When someone verbalises a truth that you are afraid of, you feel the need to protect it. If you have built your life on a falsehood, you must fight at all costs against the truth. Silencing is the only way of protecting the false argument from being dismantled.

Religion (such as our Christian tradition) portrays us as being in it together under a benign Sovereign from whom truth flows; remove this and we are to cohere around the negative – that which ‘we’ do not possess, we are united in our contradiction of this or that. The movement away from a single source of truth drives us back into tribes, and this is also the source for the ‘Twitter wars’. Remove religion and you remove the positive going forward nature of human life; religion helps us to confront the absurdity of life.

‘Equality’ is one concept drawn from in such a way to target aspects of the surrounding society for its oppressiveness. Large sections of the modern feminist movement and others engaging in identity politics take on such a posture; they do not necessarily stand for wrong ideas but gather around an identifier and aim to silence those who criticise or joke about them. Self-criticism and jokes at their own expense are also taboo – it touches on the idea of blasphemy. We see various figures in academia reprimanded, not for being wrong but for criticising a protected belief.

Should they get away with such criticisms is the question at issue?  Most of us do say what is on our mind. Should the belief be so protected that people are to be hounded out of the professional communities like universities?

The community needs a scapegoat

Some sociologists are of the opinion that communities need scapegoats to cohere. Persecuting a scapegoat is a way for communities to re-unite. Those who transgress the protected doctrine can present themselves as scapegoats. Intimidation may take many forms. Even I (as a figure already on the outside and somewhat irrelevant) am hesitant to draw from the ‘gay marriage’ debate as an example, which testifies to how problematic the situation has become. In the academic world, if you express views critical of the orthodoxy of the day, you will be fired.

We further need to distinguish between givers and takers of offense. Certain academic programmes seem to be training people in offense-taking, rather than teaching them how to reason and participate in public discourse. Identities are now formed through narratives of victimhood. These new identities are so fragile that they cannot accommodate reasonable questions or any risk of being triggered, and so public spaces of discourse are often required to provide safe spaces to cater for this fragility. The aggressor too have become an expert at offense-taking, posing as the victim while responding with hate to the speaker (scapegoat), who is portrayed as the source of aggression by this victim’s own confused state of mind.

Visiting speakers do not get fired but face opposition in attempts to censor them. The loss of religion also changed the face of censorship in that it created a situation in which we are uncertain where censorship might come from next. There is no longer a moral code against which we rebel but multiple new ones popping up all over the place. Consider someone like feminist Germaine Greer for instance, who used to understand the orthodoxy she is challenging; she now gets opposed by various tribes (such as the transgender community) to her own surprise.

It is in light of this phenomenon that the question of free thought and speech is raised anew today.

It has been a temporary achievement of our culture to be free to ask questions about anything. Freedom to enquire sets humans apart from the world and makes it a place we can enquire and wonder about, and be surprised at what we discover. This helps us to live in uncertainty; in a public realm where we do not know who people are but whom we trust. This is the Christian legacy – we are led to believe the other is like us, that we need not think of them as the enemy within but be reconciled to them in truth. We share with them attributes to defuse a quarrel which might arise and might even laugh at each other’s idiosyncrasies and at our own. We recognise the validity of laughter. Laughter is an acceptable way to respond to the absurd parts of religion which has been the standard since 1688 in England, before which we were all killing one another. There is among some Muslims a tradition to laugh at pieties while others struggle to cope with such ironies. It is not a sin to laugh, provided you do laugh in a proper way. Such laughter is not to dismiss but a way in which people live with the absurdity of life. We have the ‘Life of Brian’ etc. but do not want to kill the Monty Python team which produced it.  Mormons too laugh at The Book of Mormon currently in the London theatre. There is still the understanding that what we are laughing at are virtues and that we laugh at our own practises thereof. Could you have such a play be written about Islam?

Use of irony

In the Christian tradition there exists matters about which we disagree and at times we treat cultural certainties with irony. I think of Christ’s response to the woman taken in adultery as such a use of irony in defusing a dangerous belief. “Who of you have not thought of sleeping with this woman yourselves or perhaps have slept with her, or others like her? Go ahead, cast the first stone”.

In closing

It is important that free speech be protected, especially in a space such as a university. We should be able to criticise certainties and the more certain we are of them the more open they must be to criticism. It is through criticism that we gain better understanding of the truths we hold on to.

Q&A session

 Q:  Why have universities and theological colleges abandoned free speech with such alacrity?

A:  University staff underestimated the importance of free speech and also realise now there is a cost to stand up for it. An academic lecturer focuses on and is primarily passionate about his or her professional work in a specific field. They regard their ability to continue to do that work as more important than the general maintenance of academic freedom.

Q: There is a tension between your argument that freedom of speech is a cultural phenomenon since 1688 and an assertion that it should be a universal right. Is it not cultural oppression to suggest it should be a universal right?

A:  Freedom of speech is a tradition and inheritance – an identity forming idea.  This is not cultural oppression to commend it to all because it liberates the rest of us and worth defending in multicultural societies.

Q: I recently went to speak at a British university and it was indicated in the disclaimer that academic staff have freedom of speech but not students nor visiting speakers. Is the closing down of free speech on campuses aiming to censor what the students say?

A: It may very well be a preventative counter-terrorism strategy to keep out radical Islamic preachers or students who propagate similar ideas. In my opinion, there is no reason radical Islamists shouldn’t be allowed to speak as long as the meeting is open and all others can attend and disagree.  The law of incitement can of course be applied. This is part of the importance of free speech; to invite the absurd into the public square so that it may be debunked or laughed at. Radicalisation happens when ideologies are driven underground.

Q: Along the understanding that attempts to censor are protecting identities – eg. denying a “transwoman is a woman” – the consequentialist argument is mostly used, arguing that talking in a certain way inevitably harms people and must therefore be avoided. Where does this figure in all this?

A: That is a good observation. Yes, the consequentialist argument is certainly used; it is thought that people are being upset in the deepest part of their being – it touches on their identity. It is here that ‘phobia’ words have great force. Phobias burst onto the scene post 9/11 (Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc.) Every belief can indeed have adverse consequences but apart from harm, the opposition encountered exists primarily to prevent proper discussion from happening. There is a dramatisation of issues which humanity has been dealing with throughout history in one way or another, as if it is something new. Talk of transphobia is one such way of dramatising something so that certain matters relating to men and women cannot be discussed anymore. People do really care about the harm of others and want to see it avoided but as it is said, “sincerity guarantees nothing but itself”; it does not make something true.

Q: What about the censorship of something like pornography? Should that be allowed?

A: Porn entered the world in a profound way when the US Supreme Court said it was protected by free speech provision. The law does, however, still provide for censorship of representations of life which is considered ‘obscene’ and offensive to humanity. I believe a distinction can be drawn between the expression of a view or opinion and the portrayal of people in a certain way (or employing people to be portrayed in a certain way). I do not think we are preventing people from expressing beliefs through the censorship of pornography.

Q: Are we in a situation where we need martyrs for free speech to draw attention to the matter?

A: Maybe we too easily opt for martyrdom. People should use the law where it is on their side and push back when they get pushed out of jobs, etc.

Q: We do still enjoy the right of preaching the Christian gospel – in lots of places this privilege is not enjoyed – how can we avoid becoming such a place?

A: It comes down to courage. Without courage you cannot establish a faith anywhere – the example of your courage displayed is what persuades people that this faith is more than a few minor dogmas. They have to see you prepared to make that sacrifice. In the 18th century people had a shared religion and culture and were very outspoken – it was all done against background that could not be shifted. We have lost that background which makes us more uncertain and hesitant.

Further thoughts

Liberalism (perpetual open-mindedness) tends to become a censorship of religious faith which is about closing your mind on the right things. Christian faith could be driven underground. Liberalism is a universalism which says we all have the same aspirations – it neglects local attachments. Attachment to the place and way of life that is yours is indispensable, however. All the freedoms are pointless because there is nothing you can do with them. This was at the foundation which led to the Brexit vote in 2016. Social attachments are extremely important and fundamentally necessary for freedom; it is a form of giving up freedom in order to live freely.

We must not forget that there is also a certain sense of joy which comes with transgressing orthodoxy. Behaviour we all know to be quite typical of late teens and students in particular. The problem though, is that people tend to end up with a more restrictive orthodoxy than the one they are attacking. The Christian orthodoxy (which also silenced speakers at times) has been displaced by another.

Free speech can be as damaging as anything else, yes, but we have no alternative but to invite free speech – to protect us from ourselves in the long run. Freedom of speech prioritises rational discourse and silencing such discourse ought to be prevented. There is no point to a university if subjects for discussion can be removed without explanation.

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No Ordinary People

I live about a ten minute walk from the university offices where I go at times, to work on my thesis. It is the same route I go down to get to church on Sundays and halfway along gets me to the bus stop from where I leave to every other gathering I regularly attend in the city. Needless to say, it has become familiar to me.

The corner shop to the left as I turn right, which I’ve visited on occasion to buy an emergency bottle of milk or shampoo. The pub on the right where people gather after work, which makes me wonder why they are here and not at home. On the odd occasion I could also be seen in this pub and perhaps it is for them too such an odd occasion, or perhaps it is because they are English and going to pubs is what they do. The fish and chips shop on the left which you only enter to place your order and then wait outside until it is ready because you don’t want to smell like fish and vinegar when you get home. Nearly every single time I go there I think of the Eastern European cook in The Beach who is fed-up with smelling like fish and requests soap – “something toxic, something industrial” – to wash with, and wonder whether the Romanian guys working in this shop feel like that at night when they come home. The Turkish place on the left which offers possibly the biggest, healthiest and tastiest plate of food for £5 in this part of London. It seems like a family business with grandma rolling out dough at the window looking into the street while the son and his wife, who appears to be the owners, work the floor with others who could be cousins or sisters of theirs. Another pub on the right as I turn left but this one always seems a bit over-crowded and not too cosy. An estate agent on the right as I also make a right-turn where a plaque on the left says “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN 1870-1924 Founder of the U.S.S.R. Lived here in 1908”. Although the individuals are no longer familiar from here on in, the characters certainly are.

Vladimir Lenin London

Cyclists looking somewhat comical as they charge down the bike lanes in their bright yellow attire and focussed expressions on their faces. A foreigner (from a non-biking city) might be excused for momentarily mistaking it for an actual race peloton. As I go further along I pass by countless students making their way to and from classes. I see student society posters asking whether Marx was right and wonder how many of them admire “Vladimir Ilyich LENIN” who lived down the street in 1908. I do not think all of these characters are students; some look too old but may very well be lecturers or simply people walking past across the university ‘campuses’ for some other reason. Tourists maybe? I have never quite figured out which university is which, and which buildings form part of a university and which don’t. There is no obvious campus in the way that I am used to. I am reminded of the last words of the young English lady sitting next to me on the plane, coming back from a short holiday in Bali, after we landed at Heathrow: “So this is your first time to the UK, right? Yeah, you’ll see everyone’s miserable all the time … but you’ll love it”. I couldn’t quite make sense of it at the time but I might since have begun to understand what she meant. I am not quite sure whether I like London or not. Maybe I have adopted the love-hate relationship the English has with everything? (I just googled ‘love-hate’ to see how it is spelled and the first suggested search showed up as ‘love hate london’) Next up I pass the church on my right as I enter the centre of ‘student capital’, greeted by the friendly presence of the three-story book shop to the left and sign-board-Kitty friendly yet sternly reminding me and other passers-by: “Read More Books”. Across the book shop, in large letters in the windows of a university building I read the phrase, “Change the World”. Not ‘for good’ or ‘for the better’, just ‘change it’. It might be best to stick to Kitty’s advice? I take a final left and continue to the office where I will work on my paper, arguing for the good life, hoping that I myself change accordingly.

Waterstones Gower

Leaving the office, on my way back, a C.S. Lewis quote pops into my head: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal”. As I walk back, I look at every person I see around me, quoting Lewis and considering them in light of it. I experienced something fascinating. It felt somewhat like one of those cinematic portrayals in which time slows down and senses are heightened. I see beyond every character-projected image and become immune to the tempting invitation to perceive the person behind it through prejudice; I could see vulnerability and uncertainty. I imagined the back story which gave identity to each person as I pass by; not trying to imagine it but seeing it as I reflect on Lewis’ words. I now try to make this a habit as I walk the streets of London. The characters come to life. Objects are subjectified. Beings made for eternity, like me. They long for something other than merely ‘changing the world’.


This pic of my friend, Ivan, was on my room wall for many years with the shortened Lewis quote (above) written along the yellow line on the platform. [Sydney, Australia, 2008]

CS Lewis Sydney

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

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