Friday, September 24, 2010

True Conversions No.13: Tony Blair: A Journey

Tony Blair: A Journey: My Political Life
Alfred A. Knopf: New York
718pp., ill. c.2010 $35
ISBN: 978-0-09-192555-0

“I have always been more interested in religion than politics,” writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Tellingly, this comment is made not in the introduction, but rather as part of the postscript of his recently published and quite compelling memoir. Political memoir, that is. It would be foolhardy to engage in a search for “proof texts” in this writing in order to flesh out any treatment of specifically theological/philosophical underpinnings. Missing altogether here is the tale and trajectory of his spiritual journey from childhood in Scotland and Australia, education at Oxford, his quondam association with the Christian Socialist Movement, his recent reception into the Catholic Church, and subsequent establishment of the international and ecumenically-based Faith Foundation. All of this would necessitate a distinct and separate account altogether and is, perhaps, would be better expressed in a biography rather than memoir. Blair’s reporting is more pragmatic, concrete, and action-based-- the self-description of a man in constant motion: “That’s the purpose of life: striving.”

That said, Blair’s career as a key player in both domestic policy and international diplomacy during his decade of leadership (1997-2007) and beyond would appear to manifest an apparent, if not explicitly stated grounding in a set of core values consistent with the Christian tradition.

Tony Blair is first and foremost a politician—more specifically, a politician in the social democratic tradition of his beloved Labour , or rather “New Labour” party, as he might interject. In fact, his media-awareness (and not infrequent aversion), charisma, and international appeal might well put him in the class of his own as probably the most quintessentially “American” politician Britain has yet produced. The social programs of his administration are part and parcel of the social justice legacy of his party, with its roots in the trade union movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Significantly, Blair’s self-avowed predilection is not for ideological consistency or purity-- of a Left over Right-- but rather for an “open” over “closed” worldview. It is this characteristic openness which enables him to appreciate the gifts and perspectives of both people and movements a more ideologically driven leader might otherwise reject out of hand. As a result, he was able to engage and collaborate with President George Bush on issues such as aid to Africa, assistance in combating HIV/AIDS, and the war in Iraq, while parting company with him—without apparent rancor-- on global warming and much of Bush’s domestic agenda. He was able to meet, engage, and at times collaborate with such mercurial world figures as Silvio Berlusconi or Nikolas Sarkozy without losing sight of his own principles: “Personal relationships matter—this is obvious, of course, but is also completely ignored by people who think it’s florid stratagems and mathematical calculations that drive negotiations and compromise. At all levels, but especially at the top, politics is about people. If you like a leader, you try to help them, even if it stretches your own interests.”

Blair readily espouses “an impatience with ideology and a hearty common sense about human nature.” At times he appears to delight in upsetting the conventional wisdom that people ought to operate within the narrow confines of a specified worldview. Does this expose him as a rank opportunist, or conversely, as a more prescient actor with an appreciation of ambiguity, subtlety and nuance? Depends if your are a fan or critic.

It is Blair’s impatience with received narratives and hidebound ideology that impels him (and challenges his readers, as well) to look at some issues with new eyes. During his decade of political power, he was forced to address any number of complex and often frustrating international crises ranging from Kosovo to the Northern Ireland peace accords to the ongoing deadlock of Israeli/ Palestinian relations. Domestically, his administration dealt with significant paradigm shifts in the role of government in areas of health, education, immigration, and criminal justice that have their analogs in every society.

It is not necessary to share Blair’s partisan views on all or even any of these issues. By his own admission, he either erred or even stumbled badly through several of them. What is informative, refreshing, and inspiring is his overall orientation and disposition . He is neither the sanguine moral relativist nor the affectively disengaged policy wonk. Rather, Blair avers over and again that his approach to issues often has its basis moral values rather than pragmatic or technocratic concerns alone. This is reflected most clearly, perhaps, in his insistent and consistent-- almost counterintuitive stance-- in favor of military engagement in Iraq. It is a position which generated widespread controversy both within Britain and internationally at the time. Some critics regard as his signal folly, while Blair has consistently stood what he considers to be his moral ground.

But what moral ground? What specific values? Who and what has shaped this particular world leader’s perspectives, informed his choices, or sustained him in his convictions, especially in the face of widespread public rejection? In this respect, Blair is uncharacteristically silent, making only passing and somewhat scant allusion to either salient formative experiences or any specific spiritual epiphany. Early on, for example, he mentions that he is deeply stirred by a viewing of Schindler’s List—struck by the moral complaisance, the “passive assent” of the guilty bystander to the depredations of Nazi terror. In passing, he makes mention of a seminal figure in his own moral development—his friendship with fellow student and future Anglican priest Peter Thompson, referring with admiration to the latter’s “muscular Christianity.” (a la C.S. Lewis?) In his discussions with Ulster Unionist Ian Paisley, Blair reveals that “we were both fascinated by religious faith as well as being people of faith.” Later on, Blair expresses respect for the ideas of Hans Kung on the nature of changing society and its rules. The Sower and the Seed, he reveals, is his favorite parable. And….?

These hints and passing references to belief and personal moral underpinnings are, unfortunately, both scant and scattered. What is largely unarticulated in this otherwise vast (700 pages) and sometimes overly articulated narrative is a sense of the ideas and convictions that have shaped and sustained the worldview and decision-making of one particular human being strategically located at the decision-making epicenter of some of the most significant and, often controversial issues of our time. Significantly, Blair does not reveal his sources-- at least not in this environment. Yet, clearly he has them. Otherwise, how would he have been able to withstand the unbelievable pressures and stresses of a limelight decade on the world’s stage? Is he just being coy, or is his reticence more deeply rooted in a personal belief system he considers inappropriate to discuss in a public forum? As one of his confederates, Alistair Campbell, indicated early on in Blair’s administration: “We don’t do God.” Really?

Arguably, we live in a contemporary culture deeply affected by a certain moral relativism, but Blair has infrequently a decidedly and often decisively moral stance frequently at odds with that culture—and one certainly not based on the perception of national self-interest alone. He offers, for example, primarily moral arguments for military interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Fine. But one wants him to drill down even further: What are the source and basis of his moral decision making?

The ‘journey’ Blair alludes to in the title of this work is not, then, one of any direct conversion experience, political or otherwise. Rather, it is the description of his growth in public leadership , his decade-long metamorphosis from opposition figure to effective governing agent: “At first we govern with a clear radical instinct but without the knowledge and experience of where that instinct should take us in specific polity terms. In particular, we think it plausible to separate structures from standards… In time, we realize this is wrong; unless you change structures you can’t raise standards more than incrementally.” The call to leadership is a given; its fulfillment depends upon one’s response, rather than reaction to events over time. The arc of this learning curve is long.

Blair concludes this fascinating discourse on his political journey with a curious and oddly ironic remark: “… it has never been entirely clear whether the journey I have undertaken is one of triumph of the person over the politics or of the politics over the person,” he states. It is a subtle, perhaps even humble admission. But one suspects that there’s more to this man. Much much more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990

The Irish Franciscans: 1534-1990
Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon & John McCafferty, editors
Four Courts Press: Dublin.
464pp, illus. c. 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84682-209-4

This epic and epochal work is the third and presumably final volume of an historical trilogy tracing the history of the Franciscan friars in Ireland from their arrival in the thirteenth century through to the 1990s. Its publication in 2009 makes it an appropriate festschrift commemorating the Irish contribution within the context of 800 years of the Franciscan order’s existence. In his foreword, the current Minister Provincial for the Irish province, Caomhin O’Laoide, notes that this work is a cause great delight, gratitude and consolation: “Consolation—in that however difficult our own times are, there have been worse periods from which the Franciscans emerged with life and vitality.” The ensuing collection of 18 essays by 14 separate authors proceeds to chart, in quilt-like fashion, the varying fortunes of the Franciscans in Ireland over the past half-millennium. A scholarly work, brought about by the collaboration of the Irish friars and a team of experts, this compendium of current research is nevertheless quite accessible to the nonacademic reader and makes for stimulating reading.

The volume is divided into two distinct sections—the first charting the history of the Irish friars chronologically over the past five hundred years. The second half of the volume consists of a series of discrete articles of topical interest, ranging from such diverse themes as the contributions of exiled Irish scholars in the area of Franciscan philosophy and theology (Bernadette Cunningham)—the evolution of the Irish Poor Clares (also, Cunningham), the founding of the Secular Franciscan movement (Patrick Conlan), and the development of Irish Franciscan friary architecture (Michael O’Neill). An essay on St. Anthony College, Louvain, by Micheal Mac Craith ofm, is written in the Irish language; an English summary would have been helpful.

The authors offer quite literally a ‘blow by blow” description of the Franciscan experience from the initial effort to suppress monastic (and mendicant) life in Ireland under the English King Henry VIII (starting in 1539) to the struggles and challenges of contemporary religious life. One comes to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the various struggles the friars were engaged in over time. Suppression of religious orders and houses in the 16th century, for example, as described in essays by Colm Lennon, Mary Ann Lyons, and Raymond Gillespie--was by no means a straight-line, unidirectional development. Rather the trajectory of the friars’ fortunes is perhaps more aptly described in terms of a two-step-- as both well-placed benefactors and even, at times, civil authorities colluded to create a “protective network of well-wishers” which made the survival of the friars possible. The fortunes of the friars appeared to rise and fall as well, according to the course of least and/ or greatest military resistance to English rule, culminating in the ultimate re-conquest of the island by Cromwell’s Puritan-led troops in 1649-50. In the face of the subsequent imposition of the notorious penal laws (not to be relaxed until the late 1770s) the Irish friars once more faced the threat of virtual extinction.

In the face of such daunting domestic oppression, the friars adapted a number of strategies for survival, most notable among which was the establishment of a network of Irish colleges on the Continent (St. Anthony’s College, Louvain, 1607; St. Isidore’s, Rome, 1625; and, the College of the Immaculate Conception, 1629). These offshore institutions—along with other efforts which did not survive long-term-- served several vital functions: they allowed for the training of Irish friars who would return home, often surreptitiously, to engage in essential pastoral work. They also provided spiritual support and succor for exiled Irish troops and nobility. They further provided for the preservation of Irish language , identity, and culture—a culture which was being systematically decimated in the homeland. Finally, they provided an intellectual arena in and from which Irish friar/scholars could engage as full participants in debate and dialog on the major theological, philosophical, and ecclesial issues of the Catholic Church at large in the post-Tridentine era. No mean achievement for an exile community.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, the friars seem to have shone most brilliantly in their very darkest hour, and under the most trying of circumstances—the life and scholarship of friar Luke Wadding serving as a parade example. Conversely, in times of relative peace—during the course of the 18th century, for example—the friars appear to have lost their way. As author Joseph MacMahon – a friar himself-- writes: “Many external factors—the penal legislation, the prohibition on receiving novices and the assault on the colleges—had a detrimental impact upon them, but the main cause of their decline was the fact that they did not have a clear vision of their identity and mission. They gave the impression of drifting helplessly through choppy and unfamiliar waters not knowing when, and where they would land, if ever.” A sobering reflection upon any era.

Through their reference to source materials-- some of which have only become available in the past few decades through the close cooperation of the Franciscan friars and the University College, Dublin-- this team of scholars has provided an objective and detached historical overview of the order in Ireland. The friars’ relative progress—or lack of progress at times—provides both an inspiration and cautionary tale as contemporary Franciscans in Ireland and internationally seek to discern the movement of the Spirit in these demanding times.