Friday, 26 May 2017

Are you ruled by fate & superstition?

Sandy was on the motorway heading for Preston, Lancashire. Suddenly, she saw a single magpie flutter across her path. Desperate to spy a second magpie, she missed her junction and found herself on the road to Hull.

Bad luck? Had this inoffensive black and white bird, or ‘harbinger of doom’, really caused Sandy to veer off course? Or had she simply allowed herself to get distracted?

Every day, millions of people face similar situations. Walking under ladders, passing someone on the stairs, having recurring dreams and – a particular dread for actors -  whistling backstage are all viewed as potential hazards in the bad luck department. Sportsmen and women too are usually prone to lucky mascots and pre-performance rituals, and I’ve even known of people refusing to get out of bed if their horoscopes were unfavourable.

Of course, it’s easy to make light of superstition but for many lands it can be highly damaging, even dangerous. In India, AIDS is being spread by truck drivers who think sexual relations will keep them cool in hot weather. In other parts of the world, the birth of twins is viewed as a curse, sometimes causing parents to kill one – or even both - of them. And superstition can actually enslave whole communities, especially when combined with an overdeveloped fear of the dead.

Like Sandy, one  of my worst phobias was lone Magpies (“one for sorrow, two for joy” as the rhyme goes), but there were plenty more where that came from, such as breaking a mirror  ( 7 years’ bad luck!),  putting new shoes on a table (death within a year), opening umbrellas indoors and uncrossing knives (broken friendship) many  superstitions, in fact,  they were actually affecting my life and it was only through  research and applying simple logic that I eventually learned to cope with them in a rational way.

What’s the point if the future’s already written?

Omens, superstitions and predictions all have one thing in common - Fate, a philosophy which began with the original three Fates from Greek mythology, goddesses who spun the thread of life, decided how long it should be for each individual, and cut it at the predetermined time.

Despite its mythical roots, this belief is very widespread, pointing to inevitable (often adverse) outcomes for every event - outcomes that are totally inescapable because they’re determined either by God or by other supernatural forces. As a result, fatalists may have a laissez-faire view of life, displaying a lack of purpose and an unwillingness to make decisions.  After all, what’s the point if the future’s already written?

If there IS no point and if the future is truly controlled by unseen forces, then why do we visit doctors? Why do we try to live healthily? And why are there fewer fatalities for people who wear seat belts when setting off in cars? If you’re fated to be an X-Factor winner, why bother with singing lessons? If you’re meant to pass that exam, why bother swotting? And if the job’s destined to be yours, does it matter how you dress for the interview? 

According to astrologers, a person’s character can be determined by their horoscope, the precise positioning of the planets and signs of the zodiac at the time of birth. Despite many challenges to astrology over the years, belief for many in its abilities - not only to predict the future but also to influence human behaviour - is very deep-rooted. 

Yet is such faith backed up by evidence? As part of an A-level course in Psychology, students were given a horoscope that had supposedly been drawn up according to each individual’s date and time of birth. Most students agreed it was extremely accurate, only to find they’d all been given exactly the same character description! 

So what’s the harm? Well, convincing someone they have a certain nature, set of talents or even destiny can exert undue influence over his or her decisions for the future......almost as though a screenplay of their life has been written in advance by somebody else. Social workers and psychologists have highlighted how being typecast as, say, the black sheep of the family, the clever one, or the ditz can colour  youths’ development,  virtually obliging them to live up (or down) to their given role. 

Even worse, whether it comes via zodiac chart or family members, such prejudgement interferes with our most basic human right – free will. 

We may be born with certain traits, we can certainly be influenced by nurture, and circumstances we encounter throughout life will obviously affect us. But with free will, we have the right and the means to change ourselves. So be the person you want to be, choose the path you want to follow and never, ever let fate or superstition dictate yours – or your children’s -  life!

Monday, 22 May 2017

'Woman in Gold' and the Nazi regime

'Woman in Gold' by Gustav Klimt

Watched the ‘Woman in Gold’ recently, an evocative true account of a Jewish woman looking to reclaim the famous Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. This painting, one of many treasures stolen by Nazis in 1930s Austria, later took pride of place at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, where trustees were determined it should stay.

As the story unfolded, with flashbacks to the awful pre-war events, my blood boiled at the petty sadism and insatiable greed of Hitler’s regime, at seeing human beings stripped of their possessions along with their dignity.  For heavens' sake - what were ORDINARY people doing?! 

How easy it is to rage against barbaric Nazi practices from the relative comfort of one’s armchair 80 years later! Until a not-so-comfortable thought hit me. What if I’D lived in Germany or Austria during those critical times?  Would I have supported Hitler? Would I have been intimidated by his storm troopers, or believed the lying propaganda? Would I have turned a blind eye to the concentration camps and vicious persecution of minorities?

Sadly, many did; ordinary people who, but for the National Socialist Party, would have remained decent, peace-loving citizens. Christians with long-held loyalty to the Catholic Church. On July 20, 1933, a concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany was signed by Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII). His co-signee was former chancellor and Papal Knight Franz von Papen who mustered support for Hitler from industrial barons.

For this act of patriotism, Hitler made von Papen vice-chancellor and used him to rally support from Germany’s Catholics. By the end of 1933 (proclaimed a Holy Year by Pope Pius XI) Vatican support was a major factor in Hitler’s push for world domination and swastikas hung from every cathedral.

A few brave priests and nuns denounced Nazi atrocities and were quickly silenced. Yet the Catholic Church as a whole gave active or tacit support to the regime, as did their followers.

Could such a situation happen again? This is a question that may never be answered but needs to be asked.

Fortunately, most of us have an innate sense of justice which fires us up against tyranny, oppression and cruelty of all kinds. But we must never forget how easily whole populations can be swayed. Given human fears and weaknesses, each and every one of us should look to ourselves, examine our hearts, and root out any prejudice or misplaced loyalty.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

What are Saints?

The canonisation of Mother Teresa and, more recently, the children of Fatima, seems as good a time as any to explore ‘sainthood’ – a privilege imbued by the Catholic Church on men and women of outstanding virtue.

According to the Tridentine profession of faith, these paragons, who now (it is believed) live with Jesus in heaven, are to be invoked as intercessors with God, while their relics and images are venerated.  One case in point is the big toe of St Peter’s statue in Rome’s Basilica. Next to the papal ring, it is arguably Christendom’s most ‘kissable’ item, with millions bowing down to press their lips against it as they make their petitions! This toe-curling practice has not only added a shine to Peter’s foot but has doubtless spread many a tummy-bug to hapless worshipers!

Saints proliferate. There’s a saint for every occasion and activity you can think of. One of my favourites used to be St Genesius, patron saint of actors, lawyers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, musicians, printers, stenographers and victims of torture! A former thespian, he used the stage in ancient Rome to mock Christianity - until experiencing a sudden conversion mid-performance! I dare say many luvvies (who, with the possible exception of Ricky Gervais, are notoriously superstitious!) have ‘invoked’ Genesius’ help before that nerve-racking first night. Victims of torture indeed!

So why do we have saints? The answer lies with the Emperor Constantine, who supposedly converted to Christianity in the 4th century. With previous Roman Emperors having tried and failed to contain this vibrant new religion, Constantine used a subtler approach: He simply fused fusing Jesus’ pure teachings with Rome’s polluting pagan beliefs and practices.

Believing Jesus to be the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:5, Matt. 6:9; John 14:6, 14), genuine Christians never prayed through other  intercessors, nor does scripture allow prayer to be addressed to anyone except God Almighty to whom Jesus directed his own prayers, telling his followers to do the same.

Which left Constantine with a dilemma. If Christians worshiped and prayed to only one God - whom nobody could see - what would happen to the thousands of pagan gods? Were they to be made redundant? Would silversmiths and image makers lose their livelihoods? 

The solution was to re-invent Rome’s existing deities with Christians and market them as ‘Saints’. Foremost to undergo this marketing ploy was Apollo who, with his handsome features, gold halo and sun-god attributes, made a very acceptable Christ!  Jesus’ earthly mother Mary became a substitute for Juno, mother of the gods and wife of Jupiter. And there have been countless other deities now posing as saints under different names.