Saturday, 23 January 2010

The Road - a different account of God and love in the ruins

I went to see The Road last night. I was on my own in London, and walking home through the dark puddled streets after the late showing, I felt nervous in a way I rarely do in this city. I was gripped by a deep sense of melancholy about human nature, by a feeling of how little trust and communion there is among us, and by a fearful suspicion of my fellow human beings.

But need it be so, or have our imaginations become infected by a vicious individualism and an evolutionary ethos in which survival of the fittest is the only creed we know and the only value we live by?

Of course not. Every one of us knows that isn't true, if we stop and reflect for just one moment on the nature of our daily lives. Most of us go through our lives in a spirit of trust, not of suspicion and defensiveness, because most of our encounters with others affirm that trust. We remember occasions of betrayal, violence and malice because for most people these are the exception rather than the rule of our lives.

But does all that break down in situations of extreme social or domestic stress? Is it true that human beings revert to a kind of savage despair when things go seriously wrong? My last blog reflected on media representations of Haiti as a place of lawlessness and corruption, whereas the photographs tell a different story of solidarity and shared sorrow. A few years ago, Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael wrote a book on the narratives of women survivors of the Holocaust, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, in which she argues that these are not marked by the atheist nihilism of many of the male writings which have come to epitomise post-Holocaust reflection on God and the world, but by a sense of the shared presence of God and of mutual dependence on one another in the most extreme imaginable conditions of betrayal and violence. How much of our present ethical and spiritual malaise in our relationships with one another and with nature might be because this capacity to express the co-dependence and care which are present even in extreme situations, has been overriden by a more aggressive and competitive ethos of survival at all costs?

Cormac McCarthy offers us a bleak dyspeptic view of the solitary male individual struggling to survive in a hostile world, and films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road translate these dark parables into visual nightmares which haunt the mind - although The Road has none of the satire of No Country for Old Men. Many have observed that The Road is ultimately a film about redemption, as the unnamed man (harrowingly played by Viggo Mortensen) and his small son (an astonishingly nuanced and sustained performance by Kodi Smit-McPhee), make their way through a landscape devastated by some dimly glimpsed catastrophe which evokes all our well-founded fears for what might lie just ahead, whether the conflagration and ruin are caused by the immediate human activity of nuclear war, or the less immediate but no less human activity of environmental destruction.

Father and son trudge through a sulphurous world without birdsong, vegetation or human kindness, sustaining one another by a boundless love tormented by loss (I am reminded of the photograph of a father and child I posted in my last blog), constantly threatened by the cannibalistic gangs which prowl the charred woods and scenes of urban ruin looking for children to eat. The man has frequent flashbacks to his wife (Charlize Theron) who, unable to bear the fear of the raping mobs, chose to go outside and freeze to death, rather than to eke out survival against such dread and despair.

The son, we learn at the beginning, represents the voice of God for the father, and there is something in the portrayal of the child's unfailing faith in humankind and persistent desire that they should remain 'the good guys', which lifts this film out of its dystopian misery and whispers of grace and love in the ruins - just as those photos of Haiti do. When the father indulges in a searing moment of retribution - Michael K. Williams gives a cameo performance which offers perhaps the most stunning visual moments of the film - the son becomes the voice of conscience and kindness. How far is the film an existentialist parable about life played out in the wilderness of history against the horizon of eternity? The sea is the goal of this film's bleak pilgrimage, and yet there is nothing there but more ruination, not the blue imagined sea of their dreams but an endless grey desolation lapping against the far horizons of time and place, and a journey which must go on with no apparent destination in sight.

I think 'redemption' is too decisive a word for what this film offers. 'Hope' seems to me a more appropriate word. It's my favourite word, 'hope'. It's more realistic and radical than optimism, for it is realized in the very act of experiencing it, whereas optimism must achieve its ends to be legitimated and people can do terrible things to one another in seeking to live out their optimistic ambitions. In other words, optimism is about the future whereas hope is primarily a quality of the here and now. It's hope that lets people love even when redemption may not be at hand - Albert Camus' The Plague and its forerunner in the figure of Dostoyevsky's Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov express what this quality of hope amounts to and what it can achieve, not by pointing to a better tomorrow or a rosy hereafter, but by saying what a difference love can make in the present, never mind what lies ahead tomorrow or at the end of time.

Yes, I left the cinema feeling uneasy, but with an elusive sense of hope too. Can we refocus our gaze so that, when we look at the world, we concentrate not on evidence of trust betrayed and goodness surrendered, but rather on those who sustain trust and goodness against all the odds? The Road is a film about the power of human love and, to coin a phrase, 'the audacity of hope'. The camera lingers with tender sorrow on the vulnerability and trust of the child and the anguished love of the father even as it shows us a human world surrendered to brutality, and that lingering gaze is the vision of hope. If the ruin of the world and our role within it is not inevitable, then we too need to refocus our gaze - and the media could play no small part in this - in order to ask, not why are so many people so bad, but in order to ask what it is that allows some people (many more than we realize) to be so good.

I walked home through the midnight streets of London and I passed ordinary people like me, doing ordinary things. Sometimes, the boys in hoods turn out to be gangsters, but most of the time they are just kids doing what kids do. Most of the time, the man who walks quickly up behind you is simply hurrying home to his wife and kids, not trying to rape you or rob you. (Even so, guys, I wish you wouldn't do that! If you must rush up to overtake a woman on her own late at night, cross the road or at least give her a wide berth).

Saint Paul says that love is greater than faith and hope, but in the end, aren't those words synonymous?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Haiti - God in the love and the ruins

Why are the media so discreet when it comes to publishing graphic images of dead and wounded westerners, and yet offer so little discretion and dignity to those whose suffering we observe from a distance?

In all the harrowing images of Haiti, I found myself dwelling on these few from a website on CNN, because they dwell not on mutilation and death but on compassion and, dare I say it, even a dark and dignified hope that, beyond this immediate senselessness, there is yet love in the world and meaning to be discovered.

We'll never find God through objective argument or through seeking some external evidence of God's existence. Rather, we ourselves must make God - rather as we must make love if love is to exist. This is different from inventing God, for we do not invent love but we express it and give it meaningful existence through our relationships with one another. Through expressing our care, our compassion and our co-dependence, we draw love in, weave its presence within the material world of which we are a part, and make it true and real. I think we must do the same for God - and, in the end, aren't they one and the same activity - making love and making God?

We're used to images of the Madonna and child, but if we're to go beyond the idea of God the Father as a distant patriarchal authority meting out punishment to the world, we need to find images which show fatherhood as well as motherhood as a relationship of tactile and sorrowing love. This image above speaks to me of how I want to imagine God the father, the relationship of God to Christ's suffering and ours, and the trust which such embracing love invites in the child's uplifted arm.

In our modern quest for meaning, we secularised westerners so often point to suffering and tragedy as evidence of the absence or non-existence of God. From a distance, we live vicariously in relation to God, seeking to justify our non-belief through the suffering of others. I don't want to deny the challenge which suffering poses to faith, nor to suggest that the personal experience of suffering doesn't sometimes lead to a loss of faith. Yet in these images, I see the human made in the image of God, expressing dignity, love and beauty in the midst of the most unthinkable desolation. Maybe we should kneel at the feet of the people in these images, and see in these suffering neighbours of ours the evidence they offer us of the compassion of God made real in their compassion for one another.

These people have taken such care with their clothes, wearing spotless white in the midst of such chaos and filth. It's a reminder that human creativity and the desire for beauty, the desire to preserve our dignity in the image we present to the world, is perhaps a more deeply rooted human need even than our physical need for food and shelter. We must take care that in seeking to meet the physical needs of those in extremis (necessary though that is), we don't deprive them of the dignity that is the essence of their humanity and ours. Such dignity is preserved when we know how to receive as well as to give, when we recognize that, while we might have material goods to offer, in our driven quest for autonomy and affluence we may have lost some more fundamental good that we witness in images such as these, the good of being together and sustaining one another.

This image is a living crucifix which speaks not of betrayal and torture but of trust, communion and co-dependence. We so readily look for evidence of human failure, eager for reports of looting and mayhem, of lawlessness and violence, and the media are quick to satisfy our appetite for cynicism and savagery. But images such as these tell a different story of how humans behave towards one another in times of despair, and maybe they invite us to think again of how God too behaves towards us in times of despair.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Sacred Made Real - lecture

I took part in a study day at the National Gallery yesterday on the Sacred Made Real exhibition. To read a copy of my lecture and see the Powerpoint presentation, go to my website and click on the links.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

In love with London

People tend to love London or hate it. Returning after several weeks, I sink into this city and I feel a great sense of homecoming - which is odd, because as a postcolonial migrant Scot I really don't have a sense of home in terms of place. I've been in Scotland for two weeks, and I suppose that's my spiritual home. I was brought up as a Scot in Zambia - we went to the Presbyterian Church, my dad was a chief of the Caledonian Society, and he once told me that if ever I had to choose between marrying an Englishman and marrying a Zambian, I should marry the Zambian 'because they're tribal, like us', but really, he never doubted that I would marry a Scot (I married an Englishman.) I could recite large tracts of Rabbie Burns by the time I was eight, but I only discovered Shakespeare as an adult.

So it's odd to discover that, when my delayed flight from Glasgow finally touched down in London today, I felt I'd come 'home' - or as close to it as I'm likely to get.

I think it's because London isn't just a city - it's a country in itself, a country like no other, a country for all those who have no country, a home for all those who feel happier among strangers than among those who are too closely bound together in terms of nation, race and creed. London belongs to everybody and nobody. It's a city of astonishing beauty and quite extraordinary squalor. Tonight, the snow is turning to slush and ice, the sirens wail along the A3 outside the window, people jostle in the queue at Tesco, and the underground trains rattle and clatter through the metallic arteries of the city.

But warm air blows through those arteries, and the anonymous crowds often behave like friends who simply haven't met. Yes, there are gangs in London and stabbings and violence. My own son was senselessly beaten last year by a group of thugs. But there's also a quiet sense of solidarity here, of being in this together - whatever 'this' is, but whatever it is, it keeps us here, allows us the occasional shared smile, a moment of eye contact, a friendly exchange, a rolicking ride home after a night out, when a drunk old man entertains us on the bus all the way from Victoria to Clapham by standing in the aisle and telling jokes and singing songs (I was there), or a sloshed young student leans over the serious-minded businessman reading his Financial Times on the midnight tube and strikes up a conversation so daft and endearing that eventually the FT can't compete and we're all listening and laughing, except for the couple lost in a world of eyes and hands and tongues who simply can't wait for the tube to deliver them home to bed.

It's good to be back here. Hello London! I've missed you.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Snowy Madonna

The Burrell Collection in the Pollok Country Park outside Glasgow is home to the eclectic and fascinating collection of wealthy Glasgow shipowner Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) and his wife, Lady Constance. Set in a purpose-built gallery with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the wooded parklands, it is a wonderful place to visit. I particularly enjoyed this Madonna and child. Mary seems to be showing her infant son the wonder of his creation, and the sculpture itself seems part of the organic life outside the window. There is a fine collection of medieval art and tapestries, as well as Chinese and Islamic art and some more recent European works.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Asking forgiveness of the birds

This is the outlook from Fairlie, a village on the Firth of Clyde where my mother lives. The glorious view includes this shipping terminal, built in the 1970s for shipments of iron ore, here silhouetted against the snow-covered island of Arran. It would be easy to rage against this industrial intrusion in a space of such natural magnificence, but it also has a strange kind of beauty. There is a nuclear power station a little further along the coast - Hunterston B. So this is a place on the edge of things, somewhere liminal, perched on the very brink of a wilderness of sea and sky, but still bearing the deep gouge of our human presence. Is this a violation, or is it in some sense also part of the natural environment, an expression of the kind of animal we are perhaps? But if so, how can our species learn to adapt so that others might live? On these bitterly cold winter nights, it seems romantic in the extreme to lament the industries which brings us light and warmth, but surely our human genius can find a better way of doing all this, if only there was the will?

Walking along the shore yesterday evening, I saw a curlew and I thought of my friend Mary Colwell, whose blog is called 'Reflections of a Curlew'. It was a solitary curlew, feeding among the plovers and the gulls and other birds which I can't identify. One New Year's resolution might be to learn to recognise more birds. I came home and looked up 'curlew' on the RSPB website, where I learned that 'there have been worrying breeding declines in many areas due to loss of  habitat through agricultural intensification'. On Mary's website, I learn that curlews were once blessed by St. Beuno.We no longer understand such acts of blessing and grace between humans and creatures, and yet if we don't rediscover them, what hope is there?

In today's Guardian there are reviews of two books related to such thoughts. The poet John Burnside has written an autobiographical account of how his turn to solitude and nature allowed him to escape his addictions to drugs and alcohol. The book is called Waking Up in Toytown, and in her review Aida Edemariam (wonderful name) quotes his 'sober, thrilled meditation on "the roads, all that God-in-the-details of the land: the sway of cottonwood in the wind, the black of a secluded lake, the monumental quiet of a Monterey cypress near a roadside motel on the way from nothing to nowhere", or the "gloaming just beyond the hedge, where the night begins".'

There's another review by Mary Midgley on the same page, of Ian McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Burnside discovered that he had to listen to the voices which played in his mind rather than trying to silence them - 'To ignore the voices is to be chased by them (into the pub, more often than not); to try to forget that he believes in what he calls the afterlife, in which "the dead we once knew ... will go on forever, or some element of them will, folding endlessly into rain and leaves and new animals hunting in the first grey of dawn".' McGilchrist argues that modern culture conditions us to privilege the left side of the brain - the side which is concerned with particularity and practicality - at the expense of the expansive vision and intuitive insights of the right side, so that we have become captive to a dualist vision which has all but destroyed our capacity to see meaning and transcendence in the world. There is surely a deep connection between these two thinkers - the poet and the philosopher, the one learning to live with the voices which speak to him of other worlds, the other analysing what has gone wrong with our culture that we no longer allow such intuitions space in our minds.

I love these serendipitous connections between texts and worlds. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov, and today I read the chapter on 'Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima'. Here is an edited extract of the passage that lingers now in my thoughts:

‘Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love. Love the animals: God gave them the rudiments of thought and an untroubled joy. Do not trouble it, do not torment them, do not take their joy from them, do not go against God’s purpose. Man, do not exalt yourself above the animals: they are sinless, and you, you with your grandeur, fester the earth by your appearance on it, and leave your festering trace behind you – alas, almost every one of us does! ... My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world. Let it be madness to ask forgiveness of the birds, still it would be easier for the birds, and for a child, and for any animal near you, if you yourself were more gracious than you are now, if only by a drop, still it would be easier. All is like an ocean, I say to you. Tormented by universal love, you, too, would then start praying to the birds, as if in a sort of ecstasy, and entreat them to forgive you your sin. Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people.'

Maybe that will be my New Year's resolution: to ask forgiveness of the birds and to learn to cherish the ecstasy of praying to the birds. That surely is a form of prayer which comes from the right side of the brain, and which requires us to listen to rather than run away from the voices that haunt us.