During a holiday in Northumberland the wife and I visited three of its impressive and famous castles: Alnwick, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh. We also visited one of those ever mysterious Stone circles, the circle at Duddo and also what may be its Christian equivalent, the Church at Old Bewick near where we stayed; but more about those two sacred locatioms in part 2.
The interior decor of Alnwick's state rooms is extravagantly opulent to say the least. Filigree is piled on filigree making it clear that the owners are at the extreme end of the wealth spectrum (guess which end). To me this was all very reminiscent of the over-the-top baroque message I saw when I visited Versailles. Not that I'm any judge of art, but I've always much preferred the clean and rational elegance of palladian and neo-classical decor myself.
The next day we visited Lindisfarne castle, a castle whose decor is the very opposite of Alnwick. Publishing Magnate Edward Hudson purchased the fortification in 1901 and had Lutyens refurbish it in the arts and crafts style. The result is an austere feel to the interior. Lutyens, as was the intention of arts and crafts architecture, succeeded in creating the atmosphere of the unpretentious life of more primitive times, times when building materials were far less processed and more recognizably having their origins in the natural world and the hands of the craftsman rather than the machine. Although the interior ambiance of the castle is stony and spartan Lutyens' genius was such that he was able to give his work, nonetheless, a very homely and comfortable feel once the furnishings were in and a bright fire was in the grate. As I walked round the castle it felt like a sparsely furnished holiday home and that was in fact what Hudson intended it for. The castle is now in the hands of the National Trust; from what I know of the NT you couldn't ask for more caring owners!
The acquisition of these castles by the bourgeoisie constituted the ultimate status symbols proving they had arrived at the pinnacle of Earthly power and wealth. As I have said before material wealth and the power it bestows has less to do with its own intrinsic worth to the individuals who possess it than it does as a status marker. True, material wealth does bring along with it intrinsic creature comforts and other artistic consolations, but it actually plays what is probably a far more important role bound up with the social matrix. A test I have long used in order to assist self-refection about what really motivates humanity re wealth is something I refer to as the tropical island test. Viz: Let's say you lived in a huge well appointed castle with all the material treasures, technological mod cons and luxuries you could imagine. But the catch is that you had all this on a remote Island all to yourself with no one else around by which the comparisons of status could be made. In such a situation what then is left of the pleasures of riches?
By contemplating this imaginary scenario we can perhaps resolve out the components underlying human motivations toward vast wealth and power. Yes, there may well be motivational components revolving round the intrinsic artistic appreciation of material wealth and its comforts. But let us ask this question: What motivational expressions are lost in the island scenario, expressions which might lead us to regret the absence of a societal context in which we could possess overt wealth? How much is that regret due to us having lost the manifest glory of status and power? And how much is that regret a result of us being unable to use our wealth and power for the good of others?
Obviously, the island scenario is an armchair thought experiment where for the sake of the test we have to imagine a wholly unrealistic situation: Clearly, conditions of high wealth could not be contrived and maintained without a societal. context. But the purpose of the test is to bring an analytical spotlight on our human motivations by attempting to isolate an important human trait - namely, the human hankering after status and position, aspirations which only make sense relative to a societal context. The consequent questions arising put our moral metal under the spotlight for examination.
Norwich Central Baptist Church has a monthly prayer card. On the 29th of some month whose record I have lost I read the following item for prayer.
"Temptation comes in many guises - materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success, indifference to the Spirit's prompting. To defeat the devil's wiles - pray and obey! We have victory through Jesus Christ! Mat 4:10-11, 1 John 1:8-9"
I don't think the devil's wiles need have much to do with it; he can sit back and watch us fail! Look at those first eight motivational items; materialism, selfish ambition, greed, pride, envy, self image, success. I would hazard that each of them has at its root a common motivating factor and that is the human status drive. I'm not saying that the pleasure we derive from status is all wrong; it's like the reward appetite satiation when we eat food, a necessary activity which is ultimately needed to nourish the human frame. Likewise, we all need status for our own worth's sake and we also need people of high status in society. Also, legitimate pleasure comes from knowing we have a measure of societal recognition. However, it is possible, and it certainly has happened countless times in human society, that status becomes a glutenous overriding drive to the detriment of others and society in general; status seeking then becomes a sin; "sin" the word with the "I" in the middle,
Though status and its pleasures, unless abused, are no more wrong than sexual drives, short term self-denial in favour of long term goals is at the heart of Christianity. At this point I must quote my oft quoted favorite Biblical passage once again: Philippians 2: 3-11:
Let nothing be done out of strife or conceit, but in humility let each esteem the other better than himself. 4 Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
5 Let this mind be in you all, which was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, being in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
7 But He emptied Himself,
taking upon Himself the form of a servant,
and was made in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in the form of a man,
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name which is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Contrast that with the temptations of Christ (See Mat 4:1-11) which culminated in the offer of a promise of Earthly glory in vs 8:
8 Again, the devil took Him up on a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their grandeur, 9 and said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me. ”
Correct handling of status is, then, at the very heart of the Christian Gospel. The verses quoted above stand stark against general human mismanagement of otherwise acceptable motivations. This mismanagement has brought so much suffering with it. But just as the competitive search for status has been the problem, so in Christ denial of status has been the solution.
If life ultimately has meaning then we find that meaning in the questions which surround societal living and the right handling of status; for status is another word for human relations. If life has meaning its about getting right our perspective on status through Christ. I'm amazed by the universality of the core Christian message: We might even be atheists and yet find the above core values appealing and needed for societal solutions; good atheists will align their goals accordingly.
But there is one thing worse than mismanagement of our status motivations and that is the mismanagement of our religious motivations. I might deal with this question in part II as I probe the depths and mysteries of religion.
Duddo Stone Circle, Northumberland