A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart. ~Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Following my review of Between the Monster and the Saint posted on Monday I had the pleasure of interviewing the author, Richard Holloway.
Here is a transcript of our conversation:
Mary: I’ll go straight for the jugular and start with the most personal questions.You were Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church but resigned from these functions in 2000. What was the turning point for you?
RH: I think the turning point was the 1998 Lambeth conference (and the rejection of homosexuality). I can honestly say it was one of the worst experiences of my life.
Before going, I expected that there would be a lot of heated debate just as there was around the time of the debate about the ordination of women but what I hadn’t anticipated was the level of hate. I think something died inside me at that time.
I’ve supported the gay movement for a very long time, I can’t say exactly why. I suppose I must have known that quite a number of the priests who helped me as a young boy were gay although I didn’t realise that until years later. I’d always supported gay people’s involvement in the church. I performed my first gay marriage in 1972 when I was a parish priest in Edinburgh and I’d always felt a particular kind of care for them partly because I knew, until the law was changed, what a difficult, dangerous life they lived, very often they had to lie and hide. It was an extremely painful life and it struck me that these were precisely the kind of people that used to gather around Jesus.
So getting back to 1998. I wanted to leave that conference at 5 o’clock in the morning and drive back to Scotland I felt so wretched and the Archbishop of Canada persuaded me to stay on. I did stay on until the end of the conference, came home and carried on the battle a bit but I think something had gone out of my heart. I published a book called Godless Morality the year after that which was my first book for Canongate. I’d written a lot of books before but this was the first one with Canongate Press. In essence I was arguing that ethics are so complicated, so personal, so related to time and circumstances that we should try to be deal with them on a human level and keep religion, the God bit, out of it. How can you argue with people who are saying – this is not a human opinion, it’s a divine opinion – and so in 1999 I wrote this book called Godless Morality which is still my best-selling book. It upset a lot of people as you might expect and was publically denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a conference in Scotland at which I was the host.
Mary: And did you say in that book that you didn’t believe that God existed?
RH: No and I’ve never actually said that anywhere. That book was more about ethics and I said the history of our changing attitudes should make us more modest about moral claims we make. For thousands of years we thought it appropriate to oppress women, for 1800 years we endured slavery in the Christian church etc so looking back hundreds of years, having changed our minds about those things we should handle ethical issues with much more modesty and provisionality. We should not be so sure that we can get things right and treat matters with more tentativeness.
The point I’m coming to here is that a year after that book coming out following the Lambeth conference I decided to go early, that I was done. I could have stayed on for another 3 years but I decided to get on with my own life, my writing and thinking. So that in a sense was what precipitated the early resignation. I then continued to think and to write and explore.
I often use the metaphor of a journey and as I travelled more on that path my attitudes towards issues like God and the afterlife became a bit more radical. But they were not a particular element at the time in 2000 when I went. I continued to wrestle with these issues. I think it probably was a relief. Looking at it very honestly, when you’re in a position of authority in a religious institution, one of difficulties you face is that you are supposed to be the spokesperson for the official truth which for me is a bit of a contradiction in terms because the nature of truth is that there can’t be a single official version. If you make new discoveries and change your mind about things then truthfulness requires you to say that.
So when I gave up the bishopric it was a bit of a relief to discover that I didn’t actually want to be defending an official truth. I wanted, in a sense, to be seeking truth. I had always been a bit like that as a bishop anyway, questioning things, challenging official attitudes, getting up people’s noses. I understood that I was causing pain to people who were very fixed in their particular positions so it was a relief when I no longer had to do that. I felt like I could just be myself and I felt able to become, I suppose, a little more radical about life and as I went further into my heart and mind about some issues I felt more and more uncertain about how to talk about God. I reached a stage where I feel there’s very little we can say about the mystery of God. There really is no definite authority and again we need more modesty and to try to see religion as encouraging us to be more loving and compassionate towards one another. So that was the journey I embarked upon. That’s the long answer to your first question!
Mary: I suppose life is all about balance. It struck me when you said that there isn’t such a thing as an official truth, one that exists out there, standing apart from people. Sometimes I think we can go too far the other way too, where anything goes. There must be such things as right and wrong, no matter how you might like to interpret it, some things are not OK to do.
RH: Oh I entirely agree. I’ve never argued against that. Behind your question is this loaded word relativism. I think the word has a number of different uses, the most obvious one is seeing things in relation to where we are, where we live, the way we were brought up and so that inevitably affects your perspective.
I think that as humans we need to have a kind of basic standard by which we live and that could probably be distilled into the golden rule ‘Don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you.’ And another way of putting it is ‘Do no harm’. And so I think if you can distil your ethics into something as simple as that, it’s actually still quite radical because it may stop you from condemning behaviour that may be aesthetically displeasing to you such as some of the sexual practices that some people have, practices that may give you unpleasant feelings.
There are people who have masochistic desires, people who have sadistic needs, very often you get strange combinations of people who pay to have things inflicted upon them. I remember the case of that man who was head of the International Racing body and it was discovered that he found sexual release by hiring women who would abuse and discipline him. He was not proud of it but it was the way he achieved sexual release. He was not causing anyone any harm by it but of course when the tabloids made a horrible fuss of it and used it to humiliate him. The point I’m coming to here is that we do need basic norms of behaviour, especially to protect the weak which is why all sexual activity should be consensual, it should never be imposed on others by virtue of being in a position of power. This rules out all sex with children and manifestly rules out all rape, all forced sex on people of any gender or sexual orientation.
You need a fairly basic level of ethical conviction and then you can build on that a number of obvious rights and wrongs. And I think this basic ethic does take you quite far but where it can become quite dangerous is if you develop an ethic that goes further than that simply based on a prejudice or based on a misunderstanding from an ancient religion making a judgement. The example I give to people is the status of women. It was considered for a very long time that women were essentially sexual property, they belonged to their fathers until they were transferred to their husbands, they had no rights other than what a man allowed them to do. This is manifestly against basic ethical reason. So the quick answer to your question – well, this isn’t a quick answer I’m giving you – is that there are things that stand out as being wrong but they are probably fewer than people think because it’s important to interrogate what is an absolute ethical standard and what is an opinion or a prejudice.
Mary: But I would argue that there are probably other things that are too accepted, things that we should stand up against more and that are morally wrong…
RH Can you give me an example?
Mary: Well, infidelity is one. There is nothing legally wrong with this, there is no law against it and it is relatively accepted in society except that it destroys families, it crushes people. It is a devastating, intensely hurtful experience. You rightly condemn rape as a ‘compulsion that turn those who are subjected to it into things’ and yet seem to condone infidelity ‘he (Martin Luther King) struggled with sexual needs that were inconsistent with conventions of the church’. I would argue that the real problem is that his infidelity (and the attendant dishonesty and abuse) was inconsistent with his committment to his wife, the person who supported and cared for him most, rather than the church. Are you implying that it is more acceptable to hurt the ones who love us most?
RH: Adultery does cause enormous damage and pain. I think you can however make the distinction between what is a human weakness and what is a human cruelty. And I think that a lot of sexual confusion that people get into is because their temperament drives them and they don’t have the strength to resist. They are not necessarily thoroughly bad people. It’s a sin of weakness. You mention Martin Luther King, he, like a lot of men, had a particular sexual weakness, he felt immensely guilty about it, he struggled against it and I think that’s one area where Christianity has actually been quite gentle on people. For the good which I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I practise. Because there is something about human nature that doesn’t always live up to its best ambitions. It a question of how you handle that and I think that you can understand how terrifying and painful and destructive the sin is but also understand the weakness of the sinner who gives in to it which is why we can get involved in forgiveness and understanding. I don’t know anyone who thinks that adultery is not wrong but I think a lot of people also recognise that it’s a complicated area that certainly not in the same area as rape which is a sin of violence and hatred.
Mary: There, I disagree with you. I think most women who have experienced infidelity would far rather to have been raped.
RH: Is that because it’s a stranger doing it?
Mary: No, it’s because in the case of infidelity the person chooses to take a path of destruction to the people who have loved them most. What is most destructive is not the sex, it’s the lies, the dishonesty, the deceit and often the attempt to undermine their partner’s mental health by making them believe they are imagining things. Because of their own guilt which they are doing their best to avoid, they create a situation where they make their partner the one to blame.
RH: You’re right, objectively, it’s the lying, the deceit, the not being able to face the truth that is the most destructive. And you’re right, on the whole society is much more tolerant in the ethical sense because there’s much more availability for it than there was years ago when women were more constrained, confined. That doesn’t justify it but it does probably explain it.
But sex is an extremely powerful driving force in the world which is why we need more honesty and also more, in a sense, understanding and forgiveness.
Mary: But even in a more general sense, taking into account the notions of a crime versus a sin, society is much more tolerant of mental, emotional cruelty than of physical cruelty. Maybe this is because physical cruelty is clearer, it’s easy to define whereas mental cruelty is less so even though it can be every bit as destructive and in many ways more so. Most people would rather be hit than bullied.
RH: I agree, cruelty is, in my opinion, the worst of human sins because it is treating the person as an object, whether as a psychological object or a physical object.
Mary: And that for me, was one thing I liked about religion. It gave a place for something to be wrong that wasn’t a crime. The law doesn’t and can’t cover everything.
RH: Well, actually it doesn’t cover most of the important stuff but it can’t because you can’t apply the sanctions of the law to all the vagaries of the human heart and all the forms of cruelty and nor would you want to because then you would end up living in a horrible police state. What religion does, at its best, is that it gets us to examine how we relate to our neighbours, to go to a place once a week and make you think outside your own head.. That’s one of the featuring virtues of religion. Of course there’s also the shadow side because it can induce a lot of guilt. And it can also sometimes be involved in attitudes that are no longer appropriate which is why I think they need to be interrogated as well. I do not believe that religion is the root of all evil the way some people do but I think it is just as capable as any human institution of doing evil and of being cruel. It was in the past and still is and therefore I think it should be subject to the same kind of inquiry.
Mary: You equate strong believers with strong atheists…
RH: I don’t think I quite do that. There are some differences. The point that I was trying to make there is that some strong atheists are, in their way, as evangelical as strong believers and to that extent there is a kind of symmetry, one almost being the flipside of the other. They do not make the same range of claims of course, the same range of supernatural claims, so while there is a kind of symmetry it’s not absolute.
Mary: But you seemed to condemn the holding of an absolute position – sorry, condemn is the wrong word, in fact you make a strong claim for tolerance and acceptance of everyone’s position – but you do seem critical of people who have absolute positions.
RH: What I think I’m trying to do in that section is draw out the implications of particular positions, the weaknesses they have and the weak postion has difficulties as well. The trouble with people who hold absolutist opinions is that they tend not to be capable of negotiating with other points of view for advising or refining and that makes them immensely strong people. This gives you a complete list of answers to any questions that life might throw at you. It gives you immense confidence, this can also blind you immensely as well and I think some of the very strong atheists today have no way of offering any positive evaluation of religion and religion does have many wonderful and tender aspects to it that are worth affirming and trying to preserve. I think likewise people who are strongly traditional from a religious point of view do not appreciate the purging effect that atheism had in most of the great religious reforms in history. Christians were called atheists at the beginning as well because they didn’t believe in the mini-gods that were around at the time. So I think what I’m calling for in all of these aspects is a kind of modesty, a kind of openness to the possibility that you might not have got everything right.
I’m very fond of a poem from which I’ve used a line as the title for one of my books. It’s Doubts and Loves and it’s a poem by an israeli poet Yahudi Amichai and it goes like this:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
And I think there’s something lovely about doubt and uncertainty, they do not crucify people. And I think that doubts and loves really do dig up the world, they dig up our prejudices and make us aware of the impact we’re having on other people. If anything, my book’s about some ways to get people to be a little less certain, a little more compassionate, a little more able to put themselves into the lives and shoes of other people, especially people who are having a hard time.
Mary: Environmentalists and in particular climate change activists have been accused of ‘green evangelism’. I can see the similarity with religion in that it forces us to examine our relationship with others, with the world around us and with ourselves, calling into question our desire to ‘have it all’. Yet these activists are often as ‘strong’ and full of ‘diamond sharp clarites of science’ as it is possible to be and this happens to be my position. Don’t you feel that sometimes there’s a place for doubt and sometimes there’s a place for stong thought and action?
RH: I think you have to have be careful in choosing words to describe different kinds of things. I think it’s appropriate to be modest and uncertain about the big ultimate questions about whether there is God, about God intends, whether there is life after death, areas like that where no achieveable certainty is available to us. But there’s a big difference between that and matters relating to the way we handle one another and the way we live on this one planet and in the one life we are given. And there we can have levels, if not of absolute certainty then coming very, very close to it.
There are some obvious things that are just wrong, things that we just have to attack. I think that the war in Irak was just wrong. I marched against it as many people did. I think it’s destroying the Labour party, a party that I used to support. I think that the greed of great capitalism is just plain wrong, I think it’s destroying the planet as well as the lives of others and is furthering the gap between rich and poor which is growing wider in our day rather than getting narrower. Taking the difference between the titans of industry and the bottom, it used to be that a really wealthy person earned, maybe twelve times what the equivalent of a modern-day middle-class person earned and now it’s away up in the hundreds. Those things are just wrong. They are bad for people. We know that equal societies are happier societies, they are healthier societies, it’s a fact, just as two plus two equals four is a fact. There are certain things that are factual that we can be certain of the impact they have on people. These things we have to fight for and challenge, so I’m absolutely with you on that. I’ve been a campaigner all my life on that level. What I want is for people to be more certain about justice in this life and less certain about the claims they make about ultimate reality. We know about this life, we don’t know about ultimate reality so I’d rather that the focus is the one you’re giving and not the one that has been so preoccupying for so many centuries for so many.
Mary: I think we’re on the same wavelength on this point. Yes, I believe in modesty too but also I think sometimes it’s important to stand up and be counted. And sometimes we need to do that even when we are not certain that we are right but we believe we are.
RH: Yes, but also on the basis of our knowledge. I think factory farming is evil because I think life is tragic. We get one life and every species gets to a chance to live before it’s cut down in the hunt. But the ugliness of the human predator now is that we don’t give animals the chance of a life before we hunt them down. From the moment they come out of the shell they do not have a life and I think the immensity of the cruelty we practice in the name of cheap food is staggering and it’s only because it’s done at a distance that it doesn’t make us revolt. One of the points of writing my book was to try to make people look closely at the immense cruelty the human animal is capable of against ourselves but also against other animals we share this planet with.
Mary: You refer quite a bit to feminist writers in your book and you talk also about women’s role and men’s role in society. Your theory is that evil is the submission to the force…
RH: I’m quoting Simone Veil there. She describes that force, without saying were it comes from, as one which turns people into things or to use that old feminist word, it objectifies them. I think we tend to do that to strangers and I think men have done it supremely with women. We have sexually objectified them and one of the good things about the feminist revolution has been that men have been forced to re-think a lot of their attitudes towards women but I think the objectification process goes in other directions as well.
I read a very interesting book this summer on cruelty written by a neuroscientist, a woman I interviewed at a book festival and she says that one of the ways in which a humans enables himself to be cruel and to persecute and destroy strangers is by a process which she calls ‘otherisation’, you treat them as different and you treat them as less than human so that you can thereby destroy and kill them. In a sense it’s part of that objectivication and otherising of people rather than seeing them as being on the moral and spiritual level as yourself. It’s that that Simone Veil was talking about .
Mary: You mentioned specifically two forms of that force; one was sex, the other was violence. I can’t remember any others being mentioned…
RH: Those are the two main ones but of course violence can be psychological as well as physical so there are refinements but those are the two big drives, the two big appetites, – but you’re right I think that the main agents of them are men.
Mary: So do you believe then that men have a greater tendance overall to be the ‘monsters’?
RH: Yes, yes, I think so and I think statistics would bear that out. Most of the murders, the casual violence, the rapes are committed by men. It’s usually some natural drive that’s got out of hand, that’s not being controlled, either because the person has not been trained or is unbalanced, it could be that the biochemistry is not in sych but I think that statistics would demontrate that it’s men behaving badly that causes most of the violence that goes on in the world and it’s men that start the wars, it’s men that fight them, I think there’s no doubt about that.
Mary: So does the corollory work? Are women more likely to be the saints?
RH: I don’t think that bit necessarily follows. I think that on the whole, and I don’t want to sentimentalise women here but I think women are more patient, more long-suffering, therefore they are better at child-nurturing although I think that the new generation of men is getting better at it. My generation left it to the women. There’s a lovely Dermot Bolger poem I discovered this summer. He’s looking back at a time his son was very ill it was his wife who did most of the care, who was sitting up because he was too impatient to do it and I recognise that in myself. I think on the whole women are more nurturing in their essence and are therefore more likely to be healers, listeners than men who are programmed to achieve, to fight, to succeed, all that. Not all men and not all women, we have a bit of each in us, there’s the anima in man, there’s an animus in women, but on the whole I think there are basic differences between men and women. Men tend to be more interested in violent sports than women, I think there are deep genetic roots to this maybe going back to the days when we had to hunt so it’s not surprising.
What I think is the trick we have to learn is that a lot of those passions and aggressions that are still deep in our subconscious nature are no longer adapted or useful to us because we live in very different societies but if you have these caveman hunter-gatherer impulses in very, very different urban, civilised environment, you really have to learn to understand where these things are coming from and try to weigh them, what Freud would call ‘sublimating’ them so that they don’t take over again as sometimes they can. I’ve been conscious of wanting to be violent, not very logically; your temper can rise in given situations and the main instinct is to lash out but it doesn’t get you anywhere. Although there may be some situations where violence may be appropriate, where you might need to save your child from an aggressor or something like that but on the whole the difficulty the human animal faces in today’s society is how to harness all those problematic energies and put them to positive uses.
Mary: Hmm, this might be one of the areas I disagree with you on. I am less positive about women.
RH: Oh, I don’t want to sanctify women, I know they can be devious but I can only see this it from my angle. Women may lack the virtues of men, they may lack the directness, the honesty that men can sometimes achieve but they also have their own virtues, the ability to be patient that I, as a man, don’t often see myself having but I think it is just silly to see women as saintly and men as monsters. Women have not been the big dictators but maybe that’s because they haven’t had the opportunity to be.
Mary: My own feeling is that, if we take say sex and violence as driving forces, which I agree with, then if we go below that layer again there is selfishness. So the reason why men give in to sex and violence is that it gives them pleasure and they want that pleasure. They give in to that selfishness which shows itself in the form of a desire for sex or violence. I think women have just as much selfishness in them but it doesn’t express itself in the same form. It doesn’t come out as much as a drive towards sex and violence as, in general, that isn’t what they want but when it comes down to it they will be equally as blind to the needs of others when these are in conflict with their own desires but the format is different.
RH: It’s what the Christian church called original sin. We have this capacity for goodness and evil, for justice and injustice, for going with the crowd, following the herd. It’s one reason why we have to be realistic about human nature and not be naive. And you’re right, it’s partly to do with opportunity; what we get up to, what we can get away with.
Mary: When I think of the men and women in my life and when I think of those who have gone against the flow which is a very hard thing to do – when you are in a group or society which is behaving in a certain way, say making racist comments, just to take an example, to go against that and raise your head above the parapet means you are actually taking the defence of another person at the expense of yourself and that’s a very hard thing to do. When I think of the people I know who have done that – and it doesn’t happen that often – I cannot say that there were any more men or women, it had more to do with the person they were.
RH: I think you are right on that, it’s the rarest and most admirable of human virtues, that ability to go against the crowd, to come to the aid of the person who’s being beaten up. When you see it happening it breaks your heart it’s so touching.
Me: Yes, and it can be done without becoming a big deal. Simply saying ‘I don’t like this, this isn’t my kind of thing’ with no big drama; even that’s hard to do.
RH: Yes, because we don’t want to appear tobe too different or a party-pooper or any of those things. It takes courage which is why I think courage is the basis of all virtues. When you see the bravery of someone who takes on the criticism, it looks reckless but they can be quaking inside.
Mary: So talking about women, what about the feminist movement. Do you believe that there is still a role for it? Many men and women think, certainly in the developed world, that that job is done even if it isn’t everywhere.
RH: Well, it’s certainly not done everywhere and I don’t think it’s even perfectly done in our own society. You only have to look at the pay differential of men and women doing the same job. I think as with all ethical imbalances, it’s something we need to be watchful about because the powerful always gradually take things back and it’s happening again. Lord Acton was right when he said ‘all power corrupts’. There’s no doubt that one of the things we need to do in a sane society is keep an eye on the powerful. Tony Blair always said before putting someone in a position of power and authority over you is to ask the question ‘How do I get rid of you if I need to?’
I think the powerful are very good at building in protections of their own power and they’ve done that subtly against equal opportunities legislation. So although it’s not quite won, it’s a lot better than it was. I think there’s still a fair bit of bullying goes on in the workplace, a lot of commercial institutions have a rather macho culture, it can be difficult for women to compete against certain cultural norms because they suit the male way of handling things.
Mary (an aside) : And now I have to admit that I got so absorbed in the conversation that I didn’t notice until ages afterwards that my tape had finished and that I didn’t record the end of our conversation including that bit of Vulpes Libris tradition which is to ask what the interviewee’s five favourite books are and why. We had a lovely conversation about this but I couldn’t remember enough to write it down now. So subsequently Richard Holloway, despite his hectic schedule, kindly told me these five books. He did warn me when we spoke that his favourites are a movable feast so this is not the same list as he gave me on the phone. For example the bible managed to fall off this time.
RH: W.B.Yeats, Collected Poems.
The Oxford Book of 20th Century Verse, edited by Philip Larkin.
The Penguin Nietzsche Reader.
Lampedusa’s, The Leopard.
Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life.
Mary: Thank you for your time, Richard Holloway, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Cross-Atlantic cultural exchanges happen this week in Vulpes Libris.
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Wednesday 1 July: Kate wonders about the flaws in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence.
Friday 3 July: Guest reviewer Susan from The History Chicks podcast and the Kansas City Star goes back to This is Where The World Ends by Amy Zhang.