Summary of First Thursday discussion February 4th 2016
It is very clear that our basic assumptions about life fundamentally influence the way we respond to events, even to the way in which we “hear” their story. – Two newpapers can give completely different impressions of the same story, depending on the political “line” they wish to promote, or their assessment of their readers’ prejudices (which they must satisfy to sell more copies)- one example was the way David Cameron’s “deal” with the EU was said by Time magazine to receive a “muted” response from the Tory Party, while the Daily Mirror told of deep divisions and battles.
Some of us are natural “optimists”- we always see the glass “half full”. Others appear to be natural pessimists (the glass “half empty”). Yet others find ourselves “in two minds” and struggle to achieve some consistency. – During the days of apartheid Trevor Huddleston was asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future. “I am not optimistic, but I have hope” was his answer. In his autobiography (“I, Claud”, published by Penguin in 1967, page 309) Claud Cockburn says that for the ancient Greeks “hope” was an illusion, a drug the gods granted you to dull the pain of your inevitable destruction. By contrast, he says, modern European civilisation is founded on hope. When Lesslie Newbiggin returned to the UK in 1974 after nearly forty years’ work in India he was asked what was the main difference he noticed about England now. He replied “The disappearance of hope”. Perhaps UK politics since then has been an attempt to deal with that- how successfully is a good question.
Some of us can come to terms with the fact of old age and death, regarding “quality of life” as more important than mere longevity. Others of us try to hide from it, perhaps putting unfair pressure on the medical profession in our desperation to maintain physical life “at all costs”.
What determines these fundamental attitudes of optimism or pessimism? Is it our past experience? Or are we influenced by the seasons of the year, with their longer or shorter hours of daylight? How significant is faith in this- or do our basic assumptions even colour how we understand faith, including many Biblical stories? For example, the story of Ishmael and Isaac in Genesis 21 can be understood in very different ways: Some will see it as a story of the inevitable separation and antagonism of two distinct peoples (and perhaps especially if the story is understood as a “historical” account of the separation between Jews and Arabs, and between Judaism and Islam), of permanent conflict between them, and the need to build walls of separation (whether between Israel and the Palestinians, Donald Trump’s Mexican Wall, or the growing practice of “gated” communities) to keep an uneasy peace. Others, however, see in the story that although there may sometimes be a need for temporary “distance” (to lessen the tension caused by Sarah’s jealousy), the “Ishmaels” in our lives remain our elder half-brothers, from whom we cannot permanently separate, and with whom we must work out a way of living together.