Westminster abbey has been crowning and burying England’s monarchs for 11 centuries. But it rarely pays spiritual homage to anyone else apart from occasional statesmen, warriors, or poets of great eminence. So it was an unusual honor when the abbey recently held a special service of thanksgiving for a billionaire philanthropist and Wall Street fund manager whom Money magazine in 1999 called “the greatest global stock picker of the century.” He was the American-born Sir John Templeton, who died last year aged 95. As the packed congregation attending his memorial service discovered, there was a lot more to Templeton than his stellar achievements in wealth creation. For he was also a scholar, original thinker, and philanthropist in the realms of spirituality and science, with views that may be coming into increasing acceptance.
This time last year, shares in Archbishop Rowan Williams on the imaginary stock exchange of spiritual leadership were plunging with the same trajectory later experienced by Lehman Brothers in the real stock exchange. According to ecclesiastical bears in the summer of 2008, the Anglican Communion was about to break up over the issue |of gay bishops, the Lambeth Conference would be a disaster, and Williams was hastening the inevitable schism by maladroit pronouncements such as his controversial (although much misquoted) endorsement of some aspects of sharia law.
Fortunately, the measurements of Mammon are not applicable to archbishops of Canterbury. But if they were, the present incumbent of the throne of Augustine might now be given the Wall Street accolade of a “turnaround stock.” For the commentators who were disparaging Williams a few months ago have changed their tune.
Richard Nixon is having yet another comeback. As his biographer I always thought he would find a way of running again for some extra-terrestrial office. Instead his latest resurrection has been caused by Hollywood, or to be precise by Frank Langella, who stars as the 37th President in Frost/Nixon, the movie that is winning rave reviews and big box office takings on both sides of the Atlantic.
Syria is a difficult country politically, even for an Obama administration committed to dropping the axis of evil and replacing it with unconditional dialogue. But here is an idea for an initiative that might help to thaw the present frosty atmosphere between Washington and Damascus. The initiative would be focused on “antiquities diplomacy,” a more ancient yet no less potentially effective version of the Ping-Pong diplomacy that paved the way for Nixon’s opening to China.
Syria cherishes its antiquities and is richer in these treasures than almost any other nation in the world. It offers the discerning traveler the chance to see some of the least visited yet most amazing sites in Christian, Judaic, Muslim, and Roman history. These ancient monuments are a source of great national pride to both the leaders and the people of the country.
What spiritual lessons should be learned from the world’s white-knuckle ride into, but not yet out of, financial meltdown? As the roller coaster has not halted on anything close to terra firma, it is premature to join in the chorus of praise and thanksgiving to the recently canonized savior of capitalism, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. His halo may slip in the coming months, but St. Hank undoubtedly deserves credit for staving off short-term disaster on both Wall Street and Main Street, even though his swoop of nationalizing more assets in America than Vladimir Putin holds under state control in Russia will not delight the consciences of all conservatives. But as this is not a column about political philosophy or economic theory, let’s take a step upward from the terrestrial floor of the stock market and engage in some celestial speculation on what the divine perspective of the current chaos might be.
The new atheism, an intellectual cult ardently promoted by the likes of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, is increasingly fashionable in today’s secular Europe. By contrast, old-fashioned Christian apologetics are on the back foot. A reversal of this trend in the public square is unusual, to say the least. So, Oyez! Oyez! Come hear the news of a star-studded Faith vs. Atheism debate that ended in a most unexpected voting result at the recent Edinburgh International Festival (EIF).
The home of John Knox might seem an unlikely venue to provide a platform for the author of God Is Not Great (Hitchens) to propose the motion “The New Europe should prefer the New Atheism.” But the Scottish capital’s annual arts festival specializes in putting on avant-garde productions of one sort or another. In that spirit EIF’s chief executive, Jonathan Mills, found space in his program schedule for this ground-breaking debate, giving it prime time and a prime location. It was a high-risk enterprise.