Thursday, 31 July 2014

31 July Thought for the day - Radio Ulster 94.5FM

Twenty years ago, I was living and working for the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (that’s the Association of University Bible Groups) in the South of France. French people reminded me regularly: the French are much less clubbable than the British or Americans.  Individualism appeared to be key. I learned  the phrase, “Tall poppy syndrome:” Anyone who stands above the crowd gets their head chopped off. 

At that time, it seemed to me, the French were still living under the memory of the guillotine. Every 14th of July they remembered the storming of the Bastille and the “Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood” mantra of the French Revolution. I sometimes encountered a critical spirit that I called the Spirit of the Bastille. Fear of authoritarianism made leadership a real challenge. People seemed to dislike taking responsibility or authority themselves and they were quick to criticise and depose those who did. I know now that this is not just a French phenomenon. Though it has a particular flavour because French state schools teach children philosophy instead of religious education: the idea is to equip citizens to think and engage critically and not accept everything they are told. The positive side is that they don’t easily hand over their autonomy to any petty autocrat who wants to run a club or a political party – or a church for that matter. The negative, lazy option is to be critical without engaging.

Today I am a university chaplain and I think a lot about critical minds. Critical minds are crucial to the functioning of any good human organisation. We need critical minds to see abuse, name it, engage to find better solutions and devise ways to bring about change. Critical minds are essential to free people from all kinds of oppression. But a critical spirit brings its own oppression, crushing fresh thinkers, replacing passion with cynicism. A critical spirit destroys community and relationships . A critical mind constructs better alternatives.

Some of the best people I know – both French and from here use their critical mind with a spirit of generosity. What would this day look like if we engaged in our world with a critical mind and a generous spirit.