Criticising Religion

A recent blog post on Patheos caught my attention the other day. It concerns the well known anti-Christian speaker and author Richard Dawkins. Dawkins has made a name for himself largely by his popular books attacking Christianity.

Recently, his scheduled appearance at an event sponsored by a Berkeley radio station was cancelled–not because of a critical attitude to Christianity but because of his criticisms of Islam.

In this case, it was not the Christians who protested, but Dawkins himself. “Why,” he responded, “is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?”

That’s a good question, and the author of the blog suggests a couple of answers. I agree, in part, with the author’s suggestions, but I think he misses at least one important point, which is simply this: few of us, maybe none of us, are completely impartial when it comes to making judgments. That is, we either oppose certain things or support freedom of speech when our own perceptions or biases are not challenged. But it takes a special kind of person to be consistent, to graciously grant freedom of speech regardless of how it affects or disturbs us personally.

For example, if we are anti-Christian, we may congratulate ourselves for our high principles in allowing freedom of speech to criticise religion; but might we be quick to condemn Christians for criticising, say, homosexuals. Why is the one group bigoted and not the other? Or, Christians may be incensed at anti-Christians books and speeches, some of which may contain information that is actually false. But how quick are some Christians to criticise, say, Mormons, with little regards for determining the truth of their statements? One could multiply examples.

There will always be critics of everything. Let’s endeavour to be consistent and careful in whatever we choose to say.


Snakes: Something to love or hate?

There are no snakes in my home country of New Zealand, not even the harmless variety! So whenever I’m overseas I get excited when I see one of these ‘legless lizards’. I was therefore delighted, some time back, when I stepped out of my faculty apartment at Sahmyook University in Seoul, Korea, to spot one of these creatures on the steps down to the path.

It was an Autumn morning, and she (he?) was attempting to warm up in the sun. She looked to be venomous, judging from the triangular-shaped neck, but since the weather was cool I figured she’d be pretty sluggish. I therefore braved touching her on the tail. What a thrill for this Kiwi!

In class, later that day, I told my students about this. They were animal biology students. One of them had told me, on more than one occasion, that he loved animals. Yet when I told him about this snake, his reaction was, “Did you kill it?” Another day, the same gentlemen, on hearing that I rather liked the (harmless) large spiders that sometimes visited me in my apartment, blurted out, “Kill them, kill them.”

From where does this antipathetic, even violent attitude to animals come? And how do we square it with a professed love for animals? I realised that, in actuality, this young man–this otherwise fine Christian gentleman–did not really love animals as such. He loved things that were cute and fluffy. Period. But he quite lacked what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.”


Animals suffer dreadfully, and in very large numbers, in our societies. (I’ll be writing more on this in the future). They need advocates. They do not need animal lovers; for what if one loves cats but dislikes cows? Is the cow, then, out of luck? No. We need more people with a reverence for life. That will go a long way toward addressing the animal welfare question–and many other societal ills at the same time.

Reverence for life. What a precious concept! Let’s cultivate it in ourselves, and encourage it in others.

Bruckner and Me

I fell in love with Bruckner’s music at first hearing. I was somewhere in my late teens. So taken was I by the opening of the 4th symphony, that slow horn theme over buzzing tremolo strings, that I wrote it out on my desk blotter at work. There I could see it–and, in my mind, hear it–all day.

In those early days, Karajan was, for me, the only conductor for Bruckner. A steady, measured pace (Bruckner must not be hurried), warm sound, huge climaxes, Karajan set the standard. Klemperer’s 6th is widely, and repeatedly, acclaimed. But just listen to his slow movement and then listen to Karajan. Against Karajan, Klemperer sounds positively perfunctory.

More recently, however, I have discovered Celibidache. There’s so much I could say about Celi and Bruckner. Today I will stick with the 4th Symphony, specifically the ending. And what an ending! Bruckner sets things up with the usual tremolo strings, hovering over a few notes and gradually rising higher and growing louder. They form a barely audible background to the real action, which (as at the beginning), is in the brass. A typical Bruckner ‘sequence’ leads directly to a stupendous tonic chord, the brass blasting out the melody and rhythm with which the work opened.

Now, Celibidache was known for his slow speeds. But here, in these final few minutes of the 4th, he outdoes himself. The speed is so slow that the string tremolos, which under every other conductor are a background noise, become almost the main event. I find my ear drawn to the strings, pulled in by the stubborn persistence of their throbbing. By any measure, it ought not to work. Not that slow. But it not only works, it transforms the ending into something magical and unique. And even if Karajan hits that tonic chord (after the sequence) with greater power, the overall effect in Celibidache is intensely moving.

If you’re already very familiar with the piece and have not heard Celi, here’s the link. But if you are not so familiar with Bruckner’s 4th, I strongly recommend that you listen to AT LEAST three or four other versions–it doesn’t matter whose–before you listen to Celi. That way, the uniqueness of what this conductor does here will not be lost on you. The action starts at about 1min 40secs in this link.

”Beauty and the Beast”: An Explanation of My Blog Site Title

Beauty and the beast … Now there’s a contrast. I think that life as we see it, hear it, feel it, know it, is contradictory. There are the highs and lows of marriage. There’s the beauty of snowfall and the ugliness of a landslide. People are sweet and kind. People are harsh and violent. And the (ugly) truth is that the beautiful and the bestial co-exist within us, and none of us is purely one or the other.

I am fascinated by beauty. Captured, enraptured by it. I seek it out, always alert to its presence in a smile, in a mood, in nature. I seek to create it in my music making (more on that in future blogs).

But what is beauty? Can it be defined, or only recognised by some non-refereed adjudicator within our minds? That’s a philosophical question that I have pondered. I’ll share my thoughts on that, too, in a future blog.

Finally, the “beast” in my blog site title has a more-than passing allusion to animals. As an animal lover, I delight in the exquisite beauty of my grey chinchilla Persian cat. When I’m with him, I can hardly take my eyes off him! But there’s a downside to the beast in him, too–not as terrifying as what we see in his larger relatives, but there inchoate while (fortunately) impossible of full expression. I’ll be talking a lot about animals, also, on this blog site.

So, I hope you will enjoy what I have to share. As you read, let me know what you think.

Introducing World Blogger #357,897,002

OK. I admit it: I made the number up. What might that suggest about me? That I’m happy with approximations? That I’m too lazy to research things properly? That I’m really busy? That I lack imagination? That I’m grossly ignorant as to how many bloggers there really are in the world?

It needn’t matter. As time goes by, readers will gain more accurate impressions of the Being behind the blog. But to at least get you started, you can call me Bernard. No, it’s my real name. Depending where you are in the world, you’ll pronounce it differently. If you’re American–or in one of the many Asian countries that follow American pronunciation–you will put the stress on the second syllable: Bernard. But I hail from more southerly realms, namely New Zealand. And we say, Bernard.

But go ahead and say it as you will. I live in Asia, so I’m used to it! Besides, I won’t hear you.

I’m an absolute beginner at blogging. I’ve no idea how to set up my site so that it looks how I want it. Hang it, I don’t even know how I want it! How can a person born blind tell you what colour they like?

Why am I blogging? Because I like writing. I have screeds of notes on a variety of subjects: things that I’ve studied, thought about, observed, and practiced over the years. It’s time they got an airing.

But I don’t know how to do this effectively. I hope others will be able to help me. And who knows, maybe I will be able to help others at some point?