Four Poems by John Comninos

his was the dance
crow had danced in youth
in praise to god, 
for dance was his love
and love the body’s 
without chagrin
or prevarication, 
this was joy
joy until god fled 
and steps
and flight 
he had not moved since
his soul became still as god’s voice
sleep was the exception
untainted by the lost world
within faint confine
he dreamed
and he dreamed he awoke
and he dreamed he danced
again and god

love and love
he woke with
upon waking, his dreams
were simply moments
and god
the God of the dance
an understudy

it was as if christ
it was as if christ,
the median, was in his inner sight
and he could not yet see the end; 
he peered towards the core 
with fear, for in this place 
was the surrogacy of hope
like some ancient artifact that held him; 
he thought about the grail, 
its containment, and he felt lost
without it, lost with it—wondered 
if he was moving,
travelling—between fragments,
less of his past
or the divisory elements of the now
and while he wondered

it was as if Christ
became an augment to heart, Christ—
soothing, sonorous, solist

it was as if Christ, until now,
had waited to speak these words,
as if Christ had bent

into his hollow frame
to promise the very grail,
how blood and flesh meet

in this holy surprise

he knew his soul
he knew its stem
its voice, its creed
its stupefaction
he had known it
when he waited
for god in a church
had observed
the pure enchantment
of its ancient quiver
when he had looked at
jesus and his perfumed
feet and a woman
washing his body
since then his soul
had never denied him
and now in the reach
of an uneven love
he knew
once more 
the call
of its passions
pure as breath 
upon the new day
in a new prayer, he bent
towards this 
for this was his soul
and he knew 


we laid them at rest
walked the short walk
from star to grave
bequeathed them
towards their own dust

onlookers seemed drawn
in grimaces of grief

they watched the deaths
as distant deities
the tragicomedy,

the priests led the way
and then the wood
and then the others
and then the descent
always down always

we filled the graves
with sand and rock
the dirt, itself, 
alien, though familiar 
as children, we tasted
the ground

the spade in my hand
was comforting
a comfort to touch 
and shovel and dig
propel the past

finally we lay
the elements down
patted the ground
my hand pressed there


John Rueal Comninos is a Gestalt Psychotherapist and Play Therapist as well as a Pastoral Psychologist. He initially studied theology (LIC.Th) and became a Presbyterian Minister and later studied Pastoral Psychology at Stellenbosch University (M.Th.) and Gestalt Therapy at UNISA and has extensive experience in trauma, he lectured broadly in Psychology at Huguenot College and lectured and supervised students in the Masters Programme in Pastoral Psychology at SU and in the Masters programme in Play Therapy at the Play Therapy Centre, Wellington.

Discourse on the Logos

Reason without love and the imagination is a curse

by Phil Hall

In trying to understand the concept of the Logos I read how Pope Benedict described Christianity as the religion of the logos.

From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason. … It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures and images of God, proclaiming for them … the same dignity. In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith. … It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice … Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a “sub-product,” on occasion even harmful of its development—or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal. … In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: To live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.’

Christianity pairs itself with science and all human knowledge because Christ is the embodiment of reason, too. The reason why Christ is considered to be the son of God is because he is the logos. So Christ is the embodiment of the word of God and he manifests God because God is the word.

But there are serious questions to ask about the nature of the logos. Not only in the Christian meaning, but in the Greek meaning and in the meaning of logos embedded in the philosophy of science.

The idea then is a simple one. That the world is an ordered place and that it is formed and ordered and that there is something about it that orders and forms it.

Humans have characterised this ordering principle in different cultures in different ways. For example, the Hindus and Buddhists characterise it as Dharma. But according to the peoples of the book the principle way this force expresses itself is through language: the logos. They understand the universe through exegesis, through readings and analyses of the scriptures of their religion. The concept of the logos comes down to us from Heraclitus via Philo of Alexandria and it was incorporated into Christianity:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God ‘

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’

John 1

Harold Bloom, the literary critic thought Shakespeare used words to bring a certain type of human awareness of self into being. Bloom was also a Kabbalist and while he was a literary critic, he didn’t get lost in deconstruction and semiotics, where meaning tends to disappear up its own fundament. Kabbalism thinks of words as intermediaries or connections between us and God, אֵין סוֹף‎,.

Words exist, according to one branch of Jewish philosophy, in the methos: acting as a bridge. This is the obvious philosophy of a literary critic who venerates literature. In the Targumim (authorised translations of the Torah) the Logos is discussed. In The Book of Wisdom it is called the memra.

Shakespeare himself understood the idea of the logos perfectly. The power of language to conjure up whole orderly, consistent realities. In the end, Shakespeare drew many people into his world, just as the Bible did before Shakespeare.

But, unlike the Bible writers, Shakespeare doesn’t manage to convince himself of the transcendent value of what he has written. In The Tempest, Shakespeare the writer describes how Prospero breaks his staff and eschews his art. Shakespeare breaks his magic wand (his pen). He can’t enchant himself, though he can enchant everyone else.

Helen Mirren as Prospero

The ancient Egyptians thought the word hu brought everything into being. They personified it. In modern terms you might say that the people who believe the universe is best explained through mathematics believe in the logos and Mathematics. Science and mathematics as their Hu. They personify science in the way the ancients personified the logos, but in an odd, disembodied way: ‘Science tells us that…’ Science is placed in the subject position of a sentence, as if it were an animate noun.

Logos is rationality, reason, thought. It is the essence of the enlightenment. The enlightenment disembodies god, ‘killing’ him, returning the logos to the abstract, the material. and depriving it of the imagination, of love and altruism. These become mere welcome additions. The enlightenment steals away some of the key defining qualities of the embodied and personified logos in Christ. In doing so it makes utilitarian obscenities like the Internet panopticon and eugenics seem logical and desirable. Once you separate out reason from the Logos, reason usurps the Logos and it becomes Procrustean.

My problem with the logos as a rational force is that it becomes what Jung termed the animus. It is what Nietzsche characterises as the Apollonian. It rejects the anima and the Dionysian.

In other words, whatever the logos as reason is, whatever the logic is that is used to justify a certain privileged position or viewpoint is, that which it is not considered reasonable is discarded, pathologised, relegated, ignored, misinterpreted, bowdlerised and rubbished.

So, some people who regard themselves to be rational and reasonable would abort all foetuses with Down’s syndrome. But someone with Down’s syndrome might strongly protest the abortion of all people with Down’s syndrome. Autistic people, people with crooked noses, the list of foetuses that the rational eugenicists might decide to abort is long.

Reason alone as the logos burns alternatives and possibility and creates chaos and destruction. Reason must be informed by ‘a holy spirit’. By an inclusive vision of humanity and life. By a closer, more intuitive and open-minded understanding of the real underlying ordering system of the universe, that which is sometimes characterised as the inexpressible Tao.


‘Existence is beyond the power of words

To define:

Terms may be used

But are none of them absolute.

In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words,

Words came out of the womb of matter;

And whether a man dispassionately

Sees to the core of life

Or passionately

Sees the surface,

The core and the surface

Are essentially the same,

Words making them seem different

Only to express appearance.

If name be needed, wonder names them both:

From wonder into wonder

Existence opens.’

Verse 1 of Lao Tsu’s Tao The Ching, Witter Bynner translation

Alternatively, as the Muslim Hadith has it:

‘The Prophet (ﷺ) said “If a house fly falls in the drink of anyone of you, he should dip it (in the drink) and take it out, for one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure.’

Al Bukhari

Reason without love and the imagination is a disease.

Saint or sinner? The Sins of G. K. Chesterton by Richard Ingrams

Review by Jon Elsby

Some years ago, a slim, paperback volume entitled The Holiness of G. K. Chesterton appeared. It was a collection of essays by various Roman Catholic academics who shared the (still somewhat eccentric) view that Chesterton should be canonized. Now, we have a book by Richard Ingrams – best known as the former editor of Private Eye and the founder of another magazine, The Oldie – which is apparently intended as a comprehensive rebuttal of the claims advanced in the earlier work. Ingrams is a convert to Catholicism, and his co-religionists might wonder whether his time would not have been better spent in pondering the sins of Richard Ingrams than in exposing what he alleges are the sins of G. K. Chesterton.1 However, the passion for the sensational journalistic exposé has clearly not left him, and his book is in the best Private Eye tradition of moralistic indignation and merciless iconoclasm. Curiously, in spite of his own conversion, Ingrams appears to have retained a good deal of residual anti-Catholicism, or at least anti-clericalism. As early as the Introduction, we find him writing this—

[The] saintly picture of Chesterton painted by the Catholic biographers involved isolating, as far as possible, three people who exerted a powerful if not damaging influence on the course of his career – his brother, Cecil, Cecil’s wife Ada (always known as Keith) and, in particular, the friend and mentor of both brothers, Hilaire Belloc.

The names of Belloc and Chesterton have always been coupled together and so became in the eyes of many Catholics a kind of Peter-and-Paul diumvirate defending the faith in the pages of their countless pamphlets and books. No-one has suggested canonization for Hilaire Belloc, but his reputation, too, has been zealously protected by Catholic commentators who saw him as the champion of Catholicism, a man who had spent a lifetime in defence of the Church – belligerent, admittedly, but admirable and sincere. Only A. N. Wilson’s masterly 1984 biography has challenged that perception, though even Wilson is generally sympathetic to Belloc.

Leading the field in the campaign to preserve the good name of both men were their respective official biographers – Maisie Ward (Chesterton) and Robert Speaight (Belloc). Ward, who wrote two books, G. K. Chesterton (1943) and Return to Chesterton (1952) was the wife of Catholic publisher Wilfred Sheed and a close friend of Chesterton’s wife Frances. Her biography contains a valuable store of information but, as Graham Greene wrote in a review, ‘It is too long for its material, too cumbered with affectionate trivialities … Mrs Ward has amiably supposed her readers to be all friends of her subject … One wishes too that she had remembered more frequently her non-Catholic audience.’

The same criticism could well be levelled at other writers, including Chesterton’s most recent biographer, Ian Ker, whose 747-page book, published in 2011, gives precedence, as Ward does, to Chesterton’s Catholicism and his religious writings – not surprising perhaps in view of the fact that the author is a Roman Catholic priest.

It seems that Catholic biographers cannot be trusted to tell – or even to recognize – the truth about their Catholic subjects. They will be biased. They will not be objective. They will ignore or gloss over inconvenient facts (that is, anything that does not redound to the credit of their heroes) and unduly emphasize and exaggerate their subjects’ virtues. Fr Ker’s views may be discounted on the grounds that, although he is a scholar who teaches at Oxford, he is also a Roman Catholic priest. In Fr Ker’s defence, however, we may point out that at least his scholarship prevented him from committing gross blunders, such as asserting that Maisie Ward was ‘the wife of … Wilfred Sheed’, when, in fact, she was the wife of F. J. (Frank) Sheed, a well-known lay theologian and Catholic apologist, and Wilfrid (not Wilfred) Sheed, the English-born American novelist, was their son.

When a writer is caught out in such an elementary mistake in the Introduction to his book, the reader may, not unreasonably, wonder how far he is to be trusted on anything else. For example, we find Ingrams doing what no previous writer on Chesterton has done – treating Ada Chesterton’s book, The Chestertons (1941), as a reliable source of information.2 As Ingrams himself quotes from Graham Greene’s review of Maisie Ward’s biography of Chesterton, we need not apologize for quoting, from the same review, what Greene has to say about Ada Chesterton’s memoirs. According to Greene, The Chestertons is ‘vulgar’, ‘inaccurate’, ‘badly written’, ‘expansive’, ‘discretionless’, ‘tasteless’, and ‘spiteful’. It seems, then, that there may be sound reasons for treating Ada Chesterton’s memoirs as a fundamentally unreliable record and ignoring them.

As we read Ingrams’ narrative, it quickly becomes clear that there are two villains of the piece: Hilaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton. Belloc is depicted as narcissistic, egoistical, given to prevarication, cavalier with regard to facts in both speech and writing, violently anti-Semitic, obsessive, self-pitying, domineering, and manipulative. He is allowed no virtue whatsoever, nor any likeable qualities – facts which should make one suspicious, as Belloc had many friends and admirers, and no one who was as repulsive as the person depicted here would have had any.

But if Ingrams’ portrait of Belloc is harsh, one-sided, and unsympathetic, his depiction of Cecil Chesterton is even more so. Cecil, we learn, although highly intelligent, was ‘physically very unattractive’. He was ‘dwarfish’, ‘ugly’, ‘ill-favoured’, and ‘unprepossessing’. His voice and laughter were ‘harsh’ and ‘discordant’. He had an unpleasant habit of obtruding himself where he was not wanted. He was contrarian, argumentative, combative in temperament, pugnacious in manner, and indomitable in controversy. He stuttered and spluttered when he spoke. As a schoolboy, he was friendless and unpopular with other boys.

The effect of this torrent of opprobrium is to make one feel a certain sympathy for the unfortunate Cecil. After all, he could not help his appearance, or his temperament, or the harsh sound of his voice. Ingrams does not mention certain facts about Cecil recorded in his Wikipedia entry – for example, that he was wounded three times while fighting in France, or that, in spite of being sick, he refused to leave his post until the Armistice. Aged thirty-nine, Cecil died in a French hospital of nephritis. Clearly, he did not lack physical courage. And it is worth mentioning that Ada Chesterton evidently did not find him as repulsive as nearly everyone else (bar Gilbert) seems to have done.3 That Gilbert was able to love even the apparently unlovable Cecil surely strengthens his claim to sainthood rather than weakening it.

The worst flaw in Ingrams’ book, however, is not the violence of its animus against persons, but its insistence on judging late Victorian people by twenty-first-century standards instead of taking account of the very different regnant standards of the late Victorian period. However offensive we may find them today, racially derogatory epithets like ‘yid’ and ‘nigger’ were commonly used in those years, and for many years afterwards. And racism was not universally condemned, as it is today, but, on the contrary, universally practised. An Englishman of the Victorian age would have taken for granted the inferiority of other races and nations to the English; similarly, a Frenchman would have maintained, as a matter of course, the superiority of the French to every other race or nation on earth. Such views in monocultural societies, where the only contacts with people of other races were likely to have been mediated by the profoundly asymmetrical experience of imperial conquest and colonial rule, were not unusual: they were what ‘all right-thinking people’ thought. A tiny minority of wealthy, cultured, and well-travelled people might have acquired an immunity to these prejudices, but the great majority of the population had not.

If we consider the way Jews were depicted in Victorian literature, it is clear that anti-Semitism4 was normal in Britain at that time. Trollope’s portrayal of Jews in Nina Balatka and The Way We Live Now is certainly not unprejudiced. It took the humanity and generosity of Dickens to create the kindly Riah in Our Mutual Friend and the luminous intelligence and scrupulous sense of justice of George Eliot to create the eponymous hero of Daniel Deronda. But for the great majority of Victorian Englishmen, the stereotype of the Jew was Fagin, not Riah; and Augustus Melmotte, not Daniel Deronda. Ingrams shows no awareness of any of this, and makes no allowances for the cultural differences between that period and ours. Nor does he bear in mind that, if we indulge in the exquisite pleasure of condemning the sins of our ancestors from a lofty position of assumed moral superiority, then we shall have no reason to complain if our posterity judges us and our prejudices with equal severity.

In the case of Belloc, there is no lack of correctives to Ingrams’ biased and condemnatory verdict. Belloc’s biographers include Robert Speaight, A. N. Wilson, and Joseph Pearce. J. B. Morton has left us an affectionate memoir of his long friendship with Belloc. The late Fr James Schall, in Remembering Belloc (2014), has written a heartfelt tribute to Belloc, acknowledging the beneficial influence of his substantial literary and intellectual legacy. Cecil Chesterton is less fortunate. Although several of his books have remained in print, his literary achievements have been dwarfed by those of his brother, and he has not aroused the interest of biographers, with the exception of the English Carmelite friar, Fr Brocard Sewell. Perhaps it is just as well. If poor Cecil was really as awful as Ingrams says, then the kindest thing might be to pass him over in silence.

And what of GKC himself? The main focus of Ingrams’ book is on the unedifying details of the Marconi scandal, from which no one emerged with much credit – and certainly not the government ministers who stood accused of what today we should call ‘insider trading’. But the attention he has given to this unsavoury episode is entirely disproportionate. He treats it as though it were the fulcrum of GKC’s public life. He seems to think that GKC’s anti-Semitism, such as it was, effectively disposes of any claim to sainthood made on his behalf. But even the greatest saints were imperfect. Saint Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians before he became the apostle to the Gentiles. Saint Augustine led a dissolute life in his youth and fathered a child out of wedlock before he became Bishop of Hippo, the scourge of heretics, and one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Church. Of the brilliant and scholarly Saint Jerome, it has been said that he always preferred an opinion to a friend. The saints are fallible, both morally and intellectually. They have flaws, not all of which are trivial. Like the rest of us, they bear the inexpungible taint of Original Sin.

What distinguishes the saints from ordinary people is that their lives have shown a pattern of what the Church calls ‘heroic virtue’. The question whether GKC’s life, taken as a whole, displays such a pattern is not to be answered by partisan polemics like The Sins of G. K. Chesterton. It requires a much more careful sifting of the evidence and a dispassionate consideration of what may be said on both sides of the argument. Ingrams’ book is well written, interesting, and, in places, entertaining. But it is neither objective nor, in any sense, a serious or scholarly contribution to a debate about the sanctity of G. K. Chesterton.


1In my Reassessing the Chesterbelloc (2016), I set out my reasons for thinking that a reappraisal of the reputations of Belloc and Chesterton was long overdue. I argued that, although their novels were of relatively minor importance, their works in other fields of literary endeavour – including, notably, Christian apologetics – deserved more serious consideration.

2Previous writers on Chesterton  are numerous. His biographers alone include, in addition to Maisie Ward and Fr Ian Ker, Alzina Stone Dale, Michael Ffinch, Michael Coren, and Joseph Pearce. Authors of critical studies of various aspects of Chesterton’s protean output include Ian Boyd, Margaret Canovan, Stephen R. L. Clark, Lynette Hunter, Mark Knight, Aidan Nichols, and Ralph C. Wood. None of them has suggested that Chesterton was influenced by his brother Cecil or Belloc as radically as Ingrams claims.

3The photograph of Cecil in uniform which accompanies his Wikipedia entry does not suggest that he was as ill-favoured as the witnesses quoted by Ingrams claim. He was short and stocky, but his features are regular and, while not handsome, they are by no means ugly or repulsive. It may be that the testimony of some witnesses concerning Cecil’s physical appearance is coloured by their dislike of his loud and rather harsh voice and of his assertive and combative personality.

4The anti-Semitism of Victorian Britain was not the fanatical, genocidal anti-Semitism of the Nazis, but it did involve a contempt and dislike for Jews and a view that they were fundamentally untrustworthy owing to their allegedly divided loyalties. It is odd to find Catholics like Belloc and Chesterton holding such views for two reasons. First, Christians are spiritual descendants of Jews. Our Lord, his apostles, the New Testament writers, and all the first Christians were Jews. Had there been no Judaism, there would have been no Christianity. Secondly, for centuries Catholics were accused of having divided loyalties (to the Pope and the Crown) and distrusted and discriminated against accordingly. One would have thought that their historical experience would have made them more sympathetic to the predicament of Jews in British society.

Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture.

Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity by Valson Thampu

Reviewed by Peter Cowlam

You might posit, from an Hegelian perspective, and given the long-term goals of history, that reformations of one kind or another cannot be avoided. There can be no refining process otherwise. If the long-term goal of human history is spiritual as much as material, then an intractable problem occurs in the latter part of that equation. Humanity goes wrong, with its warring kings and its disputes over territory, and the tribal conflicts for supremacy over competitors and control of natural resources. A prophet arrives, in the guise of the human, and lives a human life, but it is written later must have been divine. In a very short span of worldly time that prophet has gathered followers, has ministered to those who will hear, and as part of the mission has delivered instruction as to the founding of a church, and has chosen disciples to begin that work of construction. The prophet returns to whatever divine realm is co-extensive with our earthly reality, and it is a mere band of humans left to carry on with the mission, and from it form a religion. If the religion survives, it becomes an institution, because that is the way we humans organise things.

The problem as Valson Thampu sees it is that we have found no way of practising religion other than through such institutions, whose presence is necessarily material – buildings, monuments, temples – and whose perpetuation is a hierarchy of those who are learned in the religion and officiate over its ordinances – bishops, priests and other clergy – or those who deliver the teaching, the evangelists and preachers. It might well be that in the beginning the laity is unlettered, and so must take on trust what is purveyed through official or sacred scripture. The prophet said this. The prophet said that.

That arrangement probably works well at the outset, but over time – long tracts of Hegelian historical time – what the philosophy envisages doesn’t quite come about, and the human soul isn’t perfected. We have not shaken off those warring kings and their disputes over territory, and now it’s a world of multiple religions or a single religion in its many denominations, all acting their parts in the political domain. As with any earthly power, all such factions vie with each other for possession and direction of the human spirit. To the medieval mind and the upholders of the one true faith (whatever that faith might be) war is justified as the duty to rid the earth of its infidels, and in so doing make of the earth’s environs a freehold fit for the God who is worshipped.

There are of course rebels, and dissenters, the more so the firmer is entrenched the politicisation of the religious institution. The sixteenth-century Reformation saw Martin Luther condemn the Catholic priesthood, which did not allow the individual unmediated exchange with God, but stood between those two parties and determined what their relationship would be. Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society. Valson Thampu calls for a similar reformation, conducted in both the material and spiritual realms. It is his contention that the human soul is perfectible, but that there is no religion and no political initiative on earth that will facilitate the adherent, acolyte or believer in attaining to that state. He points to the paradox of God in the twenty-first century, still said to be omnipresent, but in the way religion is practised is reduced to a supernatural being confined to the temple, church or mosque. The counter-argument has a different view of the concrete embodiment of our religions—

The temple, church or mosque ‘can serve as meeting places for people, but not presume to be exclusive habitats of God.’ 

The point being that if the priesthood really wished to teach us about God, that teaching would centre on a supra-parental being present in our lives everywhere and at all times. Faith has been tested and has failed if that is not the belief. Nor does the priesthood do much to demonstrate that its religion is the true religion (and not just a chant). As Thampu tells us—

‘We believe in only two possibilities: either all religions are one or none is true’ and so underlines the emotionally arrived at notion that the ‘“Priesthood,” [according to] Arthur Schopenhauer, “is born in hypocrisy.”’

We see already that Thampu’s argument is more with the priesthood, less with the religion. Religion he would like to see practised without priestly intervention, whose claims to truth are easily brushed aside (and it doesn’t necessarily take the Scottish Enlightenment to tell us so)—

‘David Hume has argued that each religion is a proof of the falsity of the other, because if each of them claims to be the true religion, then all the others must be false.’

If no religion is true, then there is no god at the apex of each religion, and if that is too harsh a reality for those inclined to believe, then faith promotes itself as faith in itself, not in God. That is a state of affairs that reduces the priesthood to the status of carpet-baggers, no better than commercial hucksters disinclined to offer any valuable contribution to the life of the polis—

‘Avoidance of physical work, as Thorstein Veblen points out, is the insignia of the priestly class. He observes that priestly vestments are designed with a view to excluding manual work: “the end of vicarious consumption is to enhance, not the fullness of life of the consumer, but the pecuniary repute of the master for whose behoof the consumption takes place. Therefore, priestly class vestments are notoriously expensive, ornate, and inconvenient…”,’ with leisure a necessary ornament of priestly identity.

You see how we’ve been duped. This is faith as masquerade. It isn’t faith with reason, or a reason to believe. Nor is it a reason for Thampu to advocate that we don’t believe, when above all he wants to see in his fellow-human beings full scope for spiritual development. According to Marc D. Guerra (see his essay Christians as Political Animals), and his words quoted in Jon Elsby’s Seeing is Believing

‘…because human reason will inevitably be brought into collision with the objective reality of its own limits, hubristic claims of the absolute self-sufficiency of human reason and its adequacy to the task of establishing and grasping the truth in all its fullness, will be disappointed, and will therefore either have to be abandoned or will lead ineluctably to a universal skepticism, nihilism, and irrationalism.’

While we do not want blind faith in a career-driven, money-oriented priesthood, we should not embrace scepticism, nihilism and irrationalism either. Thampu’s remedy for all these ills dispenses with the priesthood altogether, with the individual communing with God in a both private and communitarian way. Private because one’s innermost experience is personal and largely unshared with others. Communitarian because faith in a God cannot be relativistic, where the kind of god I have created for myself suits my purposes just as much as the one you have chosen suits yours, the religion relegated from something shared, social and conducive to human flourishing, to no more than a lifestyle choice, apt to change anyway once we get bored with the wallpaper. As Thampu says—

‘The very first thing that we need to do is to wish passionately to be free and at peace with oneself. The second is to be willing to do whatever we can to achieve that end. The third is to acknowledge that the means for our liberation and inner coherence are at our disposal. The fourth is to realize that it is futile to wait to be liberated by some agency external to us, when everything required for us to liberate ourselves is ready to hand. We must resolve to be liberated, no matter what the cost; get up from where we are, and walk!’

And so Thampu picks up where Müntzer left off.

Valson Thampu, for over three decades, has been a voice of reason on issues of national importance in India, covering education, politics, religion and culture. Prize-winning translations from Malayalam are among his fourteen other books. Commencing his life of public service as a member of the faculty in St Stephen’s College, Delhi, he served as Principal from 2008–16. During this time, his interests grew, blossomed and covered the Indian sub-continent, a process of growth in which he followed in the footsteps of illustrious predecessor C. F. Andrews, who was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi and Gurudev Tagore. Beyond Religion: Imaging a New Humanity is published by Pippa Rann Books and Media.

Salt Desert Media Group Ltd (SDMG), UK, was established in 2019, and currently publishes under the imprints Pippa Rann Books and Media (PRBM) and Global Resilience Publishing (GRP). Pippa Rann Books and Media publishes books about India and the Indian diaspora, for everyone who has an interest in the sub-continent, its peoples and cultures. At a time of political challenge, Pippa Rann Books aims to nurture the values of democracy, liberty, equality and fraternity that inspired the founders of the modern state of India. Titles on the Global Resilience Publishing (GRP) list explore how global challenges can be addressed and resolved with an inter-disciplinary and transnational approach. The imprint focuses on subjects such as climate change, the global financial system, multilateral and corporate governance, etc. In addition to its own publications, Salt Desert Media provides distribution services in English-speaking territories for several authors and publishers.

Intrigues and Machinations: Conclave by Robert Harris

Review by Jon Elsby

Assessing Robert Harris’s1 Conclave is not only a question of style. Also singled out are the quality of the dialogue, the architecture of the narrative, the balance between different sections, the sharpness of the characterization, the economy and precision of the descriptive writing, the ability unerringly to choose the telling concrete detail, and the sheer readability of Harris’s prose – the sense that the narrative practically reads itself without requiring any indulgence from the reader.

Conclave concerns a convocation of cardinals to elect a new pope on the death of an incumbent who clearly resembles Pope Francis.2 Historical persons – Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI – are interwoven into a narrative whose fictional characters, in the words of the now customary (and legally obligatory, even if disingenuous) disclaimer, bear no intentional resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead. The central characters are the papabili: namely, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, an urbane papal diplomat and canon lawyer; the Secretary of State, Cardinal Aldo Bellini, an aloof, austere intellectual and liberal theologian; the Nigerian Cardinal Major Penitentiary, Joshua Adeyemi, whose robust views on homosexuality appall the liberals but delight his fellow Africans; the suavely photogenic French Canadian Cardinal Joseph Tremblay, the Camerlengo or Chamberlain; the ultra-traditionalist Cardinal Goffredo Tedesco,3 a wily ecclesiastical politician and a perpetual thorn in the side of the late Holy Father; and Cardinal Vincent Benítez, the Filipino Archbishop of Baghdad, whom the late Pope had elevated to the cardinalate in pectore.

Lomeli himself has no ambition to be Pope, but one by one the other candidates fall by the wayside. Bellini shows himself to be lacking in moral courage. It transpires that Adeyemi as a young man had fathered a child out of wedlock by a girl who was probably underage at the time. Tremblay is exposed as a blackmailer whom the late Pope, in one of his last acts, had dismissed from all his offices for gross misconduct. Tedesco overplays his hand and alienates the moderates whose support he needed to secure the necessary number of votes. Lomeli’s election seems inevitable. But, in another twist, it is Benítez who is elected, to Lomeli’s mingled relief and disappointment. His election is succeeded by a final revelation which it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment of the novel to disclose.

The plot is, of course, implausible, as the somewhat contrived and convoluted plots of thrillers are apt to be. Conclave was published to mixed reviews, and several reviewers criticized the less credible aspects of the story. But they missed the point, which is not that such a concatenation of events is at all probable, but that it is (just about) possible. They also missed the skill with which Harris recreates the atmosphere of the Vatican, with its characteristic juxtaposition of splendid opulence and spartan austerity, and the distinctive tone of communications between senior clergy, which is compounded in equal parts of urbanity, indirectness, candour, self-restraint, articulacy, courtesy, precision, and intellectual clarity. It is a tone perhaps best summed up in the Greek word, parrhesia – a term derived from classical philosophy, but hardly heard outside the Church nowadays. It means to speak frankly, but to ask forgiveness for so speaking.

Harris perfectly captures the pervasive climate of secrecy and intrigue which many Vatican observers have noted. Scandal is to be avoided at all costs. In some ways, this is laudable, especially in an age of such vulgarity as ours, with its insatiable appetite for the lurid details of any salacious goings-on. But it also causes as many problems as it solves or avoids. The scandal of clerical sex abuse, which has done such serious reputational damage to the Church since it first broke in 2002, would have been far less traumatic had it not been for the misguided attempts to cover it up, shield the perpetrators, silence the victims, preserve the appearance of decorum, and protect the Church’s good name. Even today, after almost two decades of appalling revelations, there is scant evidence of the kind of rigorous self-examination and profound cultural change in the Church that are needed in order (1) to address the fallout from the scandal, and (2) to ensure that it never happens again.

Harris also conveys the sheer impossibility of the papacy’s demands – the scale of the job; the weight of responsibility; the unreasonable expectations placed upon the incumbent; the relentless scrutiny, the investigative endeavours, and (often) malicious intentions of the media; the physical and mental stamina required; the intellectual qualities; the extensive knowledge of history, theology, philosophy, canon law, politics, current affairs, and diplomacy; the personal holiness, and the other pastoral and spiritual attributes…and the list could go on. The Pope is expected to be without sin, no matter how often popes reiterate that no one is sinless. Moreover, that expectation is by no means confined to Catholics, for many non-Catholics would also condemn a pope whose sins had been uncovered. Most of the popes have been old men, some very old. None has been young. For how much longer can we expect septuagenarians and octogenarians to shoulder the insupportable burdens and impossible demands of this job?4 Surely, ordinary human decency necessitates a more collegial approach to the governance of the Church of the future – this fast-expanding, global Church with around 1.3 billion members worldwide. The burdens and responsibilities of the papal office will have to be dispersed and shared, and Church governance will have to be more transparent. The Church will also have to find meaningful roles – i.e. roles which involve the bearing of administrative responsibility and the exercise of executive power – for the laity, especially for women. It is no longer acceptable for all the power to be concentrated in the hands of the clergy, let alone in the hands of one man. The popes of the future will probably be more like prime ministers – primus inter pares – than absolute monarchs.

None of this is explicitly stated in Conclave; but, first, there is little doubt that Harris’s sympathies in the theological and ecclesiological controversies currently raging between liberal-progressives and conservative-traditionalists in the Church lie with the former; and, second, the clear implication of his account of the tortuous process of electing a new pontiff (and the extremely slender – some would say, manifestly insufficient – grounds on which some candidates are eliminated from the election), is that what is now demanded of a papabile is unrealistic, and it can only be a matter of time before a pope is elected who is subsequently found to have a skeleton in his closet.

Harris hints that at the heart of the present dysfunction in the Church is the prevailing attitude among the clergy to women. He quotes as follows from Pope John XXIII’s Journal of a Soul:

‘As for women, and everything to do with them, never a word; never; it was as if there were no women in the world. This absolute silence, even between close friends, about everything to do with women was one of the most profound and lasting lessons of my early years in the priesthood.’

This [adds Harris] was the core of the hard mental discipline that had enabled Lomeli to remain celibate for more than sixty years. Don’t even think about them! The mere idea of going next door and talking man to man with Adeyemi about a woman was a concept that lay entirely outside the dean’s closed intellectual system.

Harris does not pose the obvious questions, but they insistently obtrude themselves nonetheless. Is this healthy? Is it normal? Is this how a priest should live – by forcing himself to ignore the existence of half the human race? Is this conducive to growth to sexual and psychological maturity? Does the discipline of celibacy result (in some cases) in a malformation of ordinary human sexuality, and, if so, does this explain why so many among the senior clergy were apparently less able to empathize with the victims of clerical sex abuse than with the perpetrators? And does it also explain why they display a certain tone-deafness to the needs of women in the Church?

Conclave shows that serious issues can still be raised in works of popular fiction. This would not have seemed an unfamiliar idea to the Victorians – or, for that matter, to the Edwardians and Georgians. If it has become strange to us, that is because of the comparatively recent emergence of new forms of popular literature – e.g. airport fiction, beach reading, ladlit, and chicklit – which combine poverty of language, triviality of subject, and vacuity of thought to a degree one hopes will be unsurpassable. It is good to be reminded that not all writers and publishers have given up even trying to produce intelligent popular fiction, and that the term is not yet an oxymoron.


1It is worth mentioning that Harris is not himself a Catholic. However, he writes with considerable insight about the Catholic Church and the clergy, and his tone is unfailingly respectful. It is sad that this is so uncommon today as to deserve special mention.

2In a prefatory note, Harris says that, ‘despite certain superficial resemblances’, the late Holy Father depicted in Conclave is not meant to be a portrait of the current pope. This should be taken with a pinch of salt. The resemblances are more than superficial, and are too numerous to be coincidental. For example, Harris’s late pope is a reformer who has alienated traditionalists in the Church and has aroused much determined opposition in the Curia and in the college of cardinals. He is dealing with scandals in the Church, but is handicapped by feeling surrounded by enemies with no one he can trust (cf. Pope Francis Among the Wolves by Marco Politi). And he lives in the simple Casa Santa Marta in preference to the luxurious papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

3Is his name accidental (Tedesco = German) or is this meant to be a reference to Ratzinger/Benedict? However, while the fictional Tedesco shares some of Ratzinger/Benedict’s views, he does not appear to possess the Emeritus Pope’s formidable intellectual qualities, theological expertise, or gentlemanly manners.

4The demands of the papacy have been enormously magnified by the relentless, unceasing scrutiny of the modern mass media – not only their focus on what the Pope says and does in the present, but also their determination to ransack his past for any indiscretions, errors, or missteps. And the worse they are, the better, as far as the media are concerned.

Jon Elsby is the author of numerous books on aspects of Roman Catholicism, and is a specialist in opera, on which subject he has written a wide-ranging survey of operatic tenors, titled Heroes and Lovers.

Reborn as a Buddhist

My Metamorphosis from Christian caterpillar to Buddhist butterfly

By Patrick Taggart

Caterpillar: in reality I was a judgemental asshole

I am ashamed of the young man I was in 1985. I was an evangelical Christian and I remember chiding a friend for not being sufficiently joyful. Yes, she had lost her only brother, her soulmate, in a tragic accident quite some time before. But that was no excuse; Christians have a duty to praise God without ceasing and, anyway, it was years ago. At the time, I liked to think of myself as a humble and faithful servant of the Lord. In reality I was an insensitive and judgemental asshole.

Fast forward to 2003 and the deficiencies of my arrogant and inflexible view of the world were becoming all too obvious. My marriage was falling apart, and I was burdened by depression. I started to ask questions.

Had God really been guiding me throughout my life, as I’d thought? It certainly didn’t look like it. Why would God set belief as the bar for entry to Heaven? I mean, it’s not as if we often get to choose what we believe; for example, I can’t simply choose to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that I still have the luxurious head of curls that I had in my youth.

And then there was the perennial question: why does God allow so much suffering in the world? These were all important questions, at least to me. All the responses from Christians seemed more like facile attempts to explain difficulties away than genuine answers.

Pupa: I felt the intimations of liberation

And so began my slide from belief to agnosticism and eventual atheism. Despite being in my chrysalis at this stage, I already felt the first intimations of liberation. The constant struggle to defend the fortress of my Christian faith had been exhausting. The duty to spread the good news of Jesus to people who would spend eternity in Hell, if they didn’t believe it, had become too heavy a burden to bear. The conflict between trying to share God’s love while belonging to an organisation that was, at best, ambivalent on questions of equality, had created an internal tension that was not sustainable in the long term.

The universe became a dazzling phenomenon. It itself was difficult enough to believe in without the imposition of a creator God, who would have to be even more incredible. But the universe couldn’t have come into existence by pure accident. It had to have been created by God, my Christian friends would argue. Well, who made God then, I would counter? Nobody made God; he has always existed. Well then, why can’t the universe have always existed? These discussions would circle around infinitely, without hope of resolution. Far better, I thought, to marvel at reality and forget such religious nonsense.

I was in trouble, in freefall, and I realised that cold hard atheism did not have what I needed

Then in 2010 my life was overtaken by crisis. A relationship that had become one of the pillars of my life disintegrated. In addition, I was living with prostate cancer and the ravages of the treatments which, although successful, did not leave me unscathed. I was in trouble, in freefall, and I realised that cold hard atheism did not have what I needed to get through my troubles. Enter Buddhism. I started to read about it and liked what I read.

Drawing by Patrick Taggart

Butterfly: What appealed to me about Buddhism

First, as I understood him, the focus of the Buddha’s teaching was modest and pragmatic. Rather than bothering much with elaborate creation stories and cosmologies, he seemed to have focused on understanding and relieving human suffering.

Second, the impermanence and lack of essence that characterise all things are not seen as a tragedy. Instead, they open up a world of possibility.

Third, while not an atheist in the modern sense, the Buddha seemed to have regarded gods as having no role to play in overcoming suffering. Spiritual help is available without having to believe in anything supernatural.

as someone who loves nature, gardening, sea swimming and other outdoor pursuits, the earthiness of Buddhism appealed to me.

Fourth, the Buddha’s philosophy empowers us. He tells us that by living ethical and compassionate lives, studying the causes of suffering and happiness and training our minds in meditation, we can cultivate happiness for ourselves and others.

Fifth, as someone who loves nature, gardening, sea swimming and other outdoor pursuits, the earthiness of Buddhism appealed to me. One of the iconic images of the Buddha, depicted in many paintings and statues, is of him touching the earth with his right hand while in seated meditation at the moment of his awakening. Rather than waiting for salvation to descend from on high, it comes from the earth. Rather than yearning for some blissful afterlife, we are to create happiness here and now.

Drawing by Ms. Taggart

Sixth, the Buddha, rather than being some kind of saviour was an entirely human teacher. Even if he had never existed, the teachings ascribed to him did exist and, if they worked, well, that was good enough for me. In contrast, in all major forms of Christianity, Jesus is a saviour. Therefore, the historical facts of his life, which I doubted, really mattered.

My demons were gradually losing their power. I could confront them, unflinchingly, as I grew in confidence and awareness of my own resilience.

Granted, there are several schools of Buddhism, some of which are quite different from the form to which I was attracted. For example, some portray the Buddha as a demigod. Nevertheless, with my appetite whetted, I happily set them to one side. I knew that my friend and sometime climbing partner, Gary, attended Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast. I asked him what it was all about. Finding his answers rather unenlightening, I decided to check it out for myself.

First impressions were bewildering. The meditation sessions were very minimalist; they were silent, apart from the ringing of bells and the creaking of floorboards during painfully slow walking meditation. Long periods were spent motionless, in silence, staring at a wall. When we did move, our movements, characterised by much bowing, were circumscribed by an OCD-inducing choreography.

The teachings and practice are non-dogmatic and emphasise mindfulness, respect, compassion, peace, joy and engagement in the world.

The bizarre practice at the Zen Centre seemed at odds with the helpful things I was reading in Buddhist books. Gradually, though, I noticed something that surprised me. Despite my anguish, which had seemed unbearable, I found myself able to sit quietly staring at a wall, without the distractions of a screen, music, literature, food or drugs for the guts of an hour at a time. My demons were gradually losing their power. I could confront them unflinchingly as I grew in confidence and awareness of my own resilience.

Not long into my involvement with the Zen Centre, I crossed paths with people who practised Buddhism in the Plum Village Tradition of Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Although I had found the Zen Centre helpful, there were certain elements about the practice that had made me feel uneasy. It seemed very Japanese and, as someone brought up in the UK, I didn’t feel it was totally authentic for me personally. Also, I had reservations about what I perceived as the cold austerity and unnecessarily macho nature of the practice.

My wings are unfolded and I am learning to fly. I still have much to learn, but I feel I am happier and more accepting, peaceful and useful to others.

I found myself gravitating towards the local group (or Sangha), The Leaves of One Tree, practising in the Plum Village tradition. In this tradition, I found a practice more accessible to western people. The teachings and practice are non-dogmatic and emphasise mindfulness, respect, compassion, peace, joy and engagement in the world. The founder, Thich Nhat Hanh, is singularly impressive, with his long history of peace and environmental activism.

I have been involved in Buddhism now for over a decade. Occupying a place somewhere between philosophy and religion, my understanding of Buddhism seems to meet my needs. Like us all, I’ve had my ups and downs. My health has been problematic. My diagnosis with a heart condition and a rare form of blood cancer (myelofibrosis) led to my premature retirement in 2019. Fortunately, though, I seem to be fairly healthy for an ill person. Although walking any more than a short distance can be difficult, I still enjoy cycling and sea swimming. Of course, I can’t be sure how I’d be now if I’d never encountered Buddhism, but I credit it with helping me cope with whatever life has thrown at me. My wings are unfolded and I am learning to fly. I still have much to learn, but I feel I am happier and more accepting, peaceful and useful to others.

there are many Christians that I admire greatly, both well-known names like Father Richard Rohr and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known people, such as my partner Anne

Looking back, I recognise that the form of Christianity I turned my back on all those years ago was just one among many. There is much diversity within Christendom and there are many Christians that I admire greatly, both well-known names like Father Richard Rohr and the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as well as lesser-known people, such as my partner Anne, living lives of quiet service. But admiration does not equal belief and I still find the existence of any creator god, let alone the Christian God, inherently implausible. Whether right or wrong, belief in a creator god is a door that is locked to me.

I’ll end with a poem. As well as the Buddhist inspiration, it is also inspired by the Italo Calvino story, All at One Point. It is illustrated by my daughter and is an excerpt from our collection, A Heart Sutra.

A Heart Sutra, by Emma and Patrick taggart

Poppy and Patrick taggart

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