BOOK REVIEW: The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, by Richard Holloway

Richard Holloway writes in The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death that all of us are guaranteed citizenship in ‘the great democracy of the dead.’ A typically witty and concise way of summarising human fate.

Holloway’s book is written with his characteristic gentleness of tone, but the themes are demanding and theological. In fact, the great strength of The Last Bus is that its author is able to masterfully distill terrifying and complex philosophical ideas into accessible, enjoyable prose.

A former Episcopalian bishop, and now something of a wistful agnostic, Holloway does not offer any priestly reassurances. His manner is more that of the Scottish headmaster you never had. A friendly but admonishing voice, urging us to face and accept the unknown. This may be a negative to readers hoping for self-help-style consolation. Holloway is artful and humane, but whatever hope there is in this book is to be found in strategies of acceptance, rather than of transcendence.

Early in the book, Holloway recalls visiting Kelham Hall in England, where he trained for the Episcopal ministry when he was still a boy. He finds this former haven of Christian contemplation converted into a luxury hotel, and the domed chapel hosting a colourful, Asian wedding. The austere beauty of his beloved church is now the home of a modern, multicultural union. Holloway is melancholy about the loss of his teenage memories in such a dramatic change, but insists that it also allows him to let go of it. Change can be wrenching, but without change, we would be left clinging to memories, stuck in moments that are now abstractions.

This introduces a theme which runs through all of Holloway’s meditations in the book. It is our clinging to experience that causes us pain. Time brings death and loss, but it also brings renewal, freedom and relief. If we cannot let go of what came before, we condemn ourselves to imprisonment in the past. The sense of nostalgia brings with it the heartbreak of disappointment. We are confronted with the dreams and hopes that never came to pass. But for Holloway, stark shifts such as that of a seminary becoming a luxury hotel can force us to release those disappointments, and to move on unburdened.

Holloway identifies himself with St. Peter, the apostle who began as a blustering and boastful defender of Christ but ended up betraying Jesus three times over when he was arrested. Holloway’s discussion of this biblical story centres around Peter The Penitent by Guercico (1639), which hangs in the Scottish National Gallery. Our image of ourselves is very rarely what manifests itself when we face the moment of truth, when our values are tested and our character is stripped of its masks. Like St. Peter, we are likely to burst into tears when we confront the horrible facts of our weaknesses, and the lies we have told ourselves about ourselves.

In the moment of betrayal, Christ looked upon Peter as the bible teaches he looks upon everyone, with compassion and pity. Jesus being human as well God, knows the self-deceits of the human heart. When Peter sees Jesus look at him with warmth and understanding, the apostle is thrown into shame and depression. Only when Jesus reappears after his resurrection and offers Peter a chance to atone, is he able to release himself from suffering.

Holloway seems to see the story of St. Peter as a way of viewing his own folly. It helps him confront the self-aggrandisement of his religious years, and to forgive himself for not living up to the self-image of the wise philosopher-scholar. The story also sheds light on the nature of forgiveness itself. We cannot undo the past. Peter cannot return to the image of himself as the fierce warrior of Christ. But Jesus’s pity gives him an opening to release the shame, and to move onwards in life with a renewed, more mature spiritual mission.

Quoting St. Paul in Romans, this leads Holloway to meditate upon the concept of ‘predestination’. We are sinners. We are weak in the heart and mind. We chose the very things we don’t want. But as Paul says, God is in charge and law is good. So in some sense even our sinfulness is part of God’s plan. We are who we are, warts and all, because God wills it that way. Our lives then, are predetermined. Though the passage from Romans has no definitive interpretation, its mystery would be the very faultline that fractured the church during the Reformation. Anyone interested in the minutiae of this theological controversy, will be impressed with how Holloway handles it here. He not only explains it in swift, approachable prose, but he manages to apply it to the everyday challenges of the human condition.

In acceptance of our sinful nature, we find the compassion necessary to forgive ourselves. We see that though we are responsible for our failures, they are also the product of our environments, the pressures of circumstance and countless forces acting upon our conscience. We may never be able to undo the damage done by our shortcomings, but we can learn from them if we are prepared to face the truth about who we are, without the posturing of narcissistic masks. Once we accept that we are not perfect, our imperfections cease to haunt us.

Holloway’s discussion of predestination marries well with his reflections on free will, earlier in the book. Again, a complex and persistent philosophical puzzle is tackled with a lightness of touch. To Holloway, free will is defined as the sense that we could have chosen differently, that we were somehow in charge. And it is a foundational notion to our sense of justice and free society.

But Holloway insists that our sense of control over our lives is at least partially a convenient illusion. Instead of being the supreme auteurs of lives, the truth is we are more like craftsmen. He cites a friend’s preferred metaphor, that our lives like woven cloth. The thread is inherited, the loom is time, and the pattern is often surprisingly complex. It manifests itself as we merely sit and work the mechanical process of our lives. We play a part, but there are many other forces that we can’t control, which will affect the outcome.

More examples can be found of Holloway’s ability to hit the sweet spot when distilling difficult problems into accessible prose. ‘Being dead is beyond or past experience. But dying isn’t.’ ‘The mind is its own place and does its own thing.’ Or, with a subtle wryness: fear of death is ‘an entirely ecumenical emotion.’

Holloway describes himself as having a ‘romantic temperament’, but he’s critical of this fact. As a child he dreamed of being a cowboy, escaping the central Scotland village he grew up in and discovering his great mission. This desire for new experiences, he says, stopped him from truly relishing the beauty of the world around him. Death, says Holloway, forces us out of this kind of romantic preoccupation. And if we cling to our ideals, we can do ourselves a disservice in failing to prepare for our end.

This somewhat jars with an earlier section of the book, where Holloway seems to affirm the power of beauty, the romance of ritual and creative sacrament in religion, in helping us to face death with defiance. In this discussion, Holloway says it’s through our songs and our imagination that we can find the only conquest of death available to us. Life after death, the notion of salvation, the promise of a messiah – all of these are ways of the soul remaining heroic in the face of our common fate. Through them we create meaning and beauty in our lives. ‘Death gets us all in the end, but it can never kill our songs. And that is they only victory they give us.’

So it seems odd that Holloway is so damning about the romantic instinct in a later chapter. Using John Wayne as an example, he seems to relish the difference between the projected image of cultural heroes and the ‘quotidian’ reality of their lives. Wayne appeared to be the paragon of courage and masculine resolve on screen, but he ‘finessed’ his way out of service during the Second World War. Only when the Duke was on his deathbed did he actually become heroic in real life. Certainly we must be cautious when revering images rather than genuine human character, but none of this condemns romance and the idealistic longing intrinsic in the human soul. Surely it possible to be both romantic and idealistic, while also accepting the facts of existence? The odes of Keats would stand in testament to that possibility.

That said, there is wisdom in the idea that if we spend our lives trying to escape who we really are, we risk losing the chance to see grace and beauty in death. The very shortness of life means we cannot afford to kid ourselves. Only by making friends with ‘the stranger’ that is our true self, can we hope to meet our end with strength, acceptance and poise.

Acceptance of our fragility does not imply capitulation to death. Rather it is a chance to show virtue in the face of that which we can’t control. As Holloway deftly puts it, ‘We didn’t get to deal our hand in life. We only got to play the cards we were given. And how we play the last card can win the game.’

The Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death is published by Canongate and can be purchased here

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‘Equal marriage’ is a phoney emancipation for lifestyle activists

After the weekend’s LGBT marches in Northern Ireland, and the German parliament’s vote in favour of gay marriage, the great non-issue of ‘equal marriage’ is back in the headlines.

Writer Colm Toibin, in a recent interview, said that the referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland a couple of years ago, marked a historic moment for gay people like himself. In a religiously conservative culture, the acceptance of gay people’s right to marry in a church, said Toibin, is final proof of inclusion for LGBT people.

It is certainly part of civil freedom to allow any one of us to declare love to another person in any which way we want, and have that recognised and protected by law. One thing the reactionaries like the DUP have right, is that marriage is a vital force of social cohesion.

When we make a commitment to another person under the law, we promise to invest the power of our citizenship in their lives. We are making a symbolic gesture of the very meaning of citizenship itself, that with one’s freedom comes a responsibility to protect that same freedom for another. Marriage is a very intimate way of expressing that responsibility.

There are differences between marriage, civil partnerships, and civil marriages. However, these differences are purely material. What each contract embodies, is the same level of freedom to love and the duty of care that involves. Whatever imbalances may exist between civil partnerships and Christian marriage, these are not matters of human rights, but legal procedure.

Colm Toibin may be right in claiming that allowing gay people to marry in church is profoundly symbolic, especially in countries where the church has wielded serious political clout. If that is true, then it should be permitted, without question.

However, the idea that this campaign is the new civil rights question of our age, or is a matter of ‘equality’ and human rights, is tiresome and fatuous. The hard political battle over LGBT rights has been won. The reason that it is still treated like some great fight for emancipation is because it makes people feel like revolutionaries, without actually calling on campaigners to expose themselves to any risk.

The recent resignation of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron shows how twisted the issue of ‘equal marriage’ is. Farron is a typical Westminster centrist, and a committed human rights advocate. His own personal beliefs about the nature of marriage are of little consequence.

Part of what it means to be a liberal, is an ability to separate questions of civic justice, from personal conscience. The balance of liberty can only exist if we tolerate opposing views on what constitutes the moral good, while we protect each person’s right to determine the answers to such moral questions on their own terms.

‘Equal marriage’, as it is pompously called, is a perfect way to see into the heart of modern liberalism. We can see why the free press and free speech are issues treated with contempt by the left. Liberals have no interest in allowing people to form opinions based on personal conscience.

The ‘good’ in society is prescribed before one’s conscience even comes into play. If you fail to fall in line with what has been determined as right thinking, you are branded a bigot, excluded, just as gay people were ostracised before 1965.

The DUP in Northern Ireland are indeed wrong. They are stunting democracy and imposing their own views by abusing their veto on gay marriage. However, this is the very same tactic used by many of the LGBT side, especially those who called for Tim Farron’s resignation.

Liberty means that no one’s personal whims can be imposed on the constitution. The benefit of this, is that we are all free to express love, hate and indifference to each other as we please, as long as that doesn’t amputate aspects of each other’s citizenship.

‘Marriage equality’, bears no resemblance to any case of emancipation.

What are the core features of a real act of emancipation? The first has to be that there is some form of social and conservative oppression. The great trick of the modern left, of course, has been to redefine ‘oppression’ to be so broad, so abstract and invisible, that it exists everywhere. But the real moments of emancipation – the freeing of slaves, the civil rights act, the legalisation of homosexuality – conversely, happened against the backdrop of identifiable crimes.

To go out and protest these crimes meant you were up against an infrastructure of repressive state violence and corruption, and this meant a direct threat to one’s physical safety and livelihood. Speaking out meant ostracisation, blacklisting, or being beaten up.

The second feature of authentic emancipation is a clear and tangible miscarriage of justice. What’s interesting about the great movements of emancipation was the fact that they involved fighting an internal contradiction between the proposed values of the state, and the way the state was actually behaving.

Today, protesters and activists are not going up against miscarriages of injustice, so much as claiming that the very structures of society are unjust. This must be treated with suspicion. It’s not enough to mouth off about ‘inherent privilege’ or contort everyday unfairness into some evidence of hidden structural inequality.

Real emancipation can only happen when real violations of basic rights have occurred. In the case of marriage, it’s not a right. So it cannot, by definition, be an issue of equality. The only question of rights would be whether people are free to declare their love to each other without fear of persecution or danger.

Yes, it is wrong to stop people from using their Christian faith to declare their love. But allowing this to happen is not a matter of human rights or justice.

The final feature of an emancipation is that it radically alters the society from a restrictive one to a free one. Can we really claim that allowing ‘equal marriage’ does this? Is there some great attitudinal shift at the heart of this issue? Are people who were once deprived of basic human dignity now tasting the fresh air of liberty?

The only people who are actively against ‘equal marriage’ are evangelicals and reactionary conservatives. These people are a laughable minority, and their views have no hope of oppressing anyone politically, or violating anyone’s human rights in a legal sense.

And yet, the social justice movements, and the triangulating politicians that feed off such movements, give the impression that the bowler-hatted 50s Tory is still the great threat, that we are still fighting forces of establishment aristocracy and Victorian conformity.

These activists need to invent an archaic establishment to fight against, and refuse to see the massive social changes that have happened since the 60s. The bowler-hatted man is dead. And the stuffy, bourgeois conservatism that was so dangerous to gay people, has been deposed.

This is the problem with the Left in general. It has been ossified, trapped in history and over-saturated with 1960s iconography, to the point where it is wildly ill-equipped to identify the real, modern battles for justice, and to see new challenges and new forms of oppression when they present themselves.

And the new establishment of the Merkels and the Camerons and Mays love this delusional kind of activism, because it acts as no real threat. As long as people mistakenly battle against an idea of the establishment that died years ago, they pose no danger to the yuppy, neoliberal, corporate globalism that is doing the real damage to people’s lives.

You can tell this is a non-issue by the feebleness of those objecting to it. The celebrations, protests and marches are completely disproportionate to the moral and political victory that is supposed to be had by making equal marriage legal.

Protest has become a lifestyle choice. Since Apple Mac’s ‘think different’ ad campaign in the late nineties, freedom-fighting has become a kind of branding, a social status symbol, rather than a moral necessity.

Essential to this neutered, narcissistic version of emancipation is the fighting of causes that have little or no impact. Nothing substantial is achieved by allowing gay people to marry in churches. Most people, gay or straight, probably get married in civil ceremonies anyway.

Virtue-signalling about ‘equal marriage’ is an easy way to give yourself a moral high-ground, but the truth is it has little to do with gay rights, gay health, or the well-being of individuals struggling against religious fascism or political persecution for their sexuality.

There is no need for barricades, no long nights starving in the flanks. There is no danger involved. It’s a false issue. A great way to make yourself seem like a revolutionary when what you are is really the worst kind of bourgeois sheep.

All the while gay people are thrown off roofs in the middle east, and the best they can hope for from their LGBT brothers and sisters in west is the signing of a few petitions and some Facebook outrage.