Page 10, 3rd August 1990

3rd August 1990
Page 10
Page 10, 3rd August 1990 — Cornish influences in a trip round Oxford

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Locations: Somerville, Prague, Oxford


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Cornish influences in a trip round Oxford

"TAKE a seat aboard the flying desk," says the hand-out, "and spiral backwards through the corridors of time." Thus begins The Oxford Story, opened last year in Broad Street. It is the easy way to "do" Oxford, without the inconvenience of traipsing around.

But the flying desk gives you a very "Protestant" pageant of Oxford. Cranmer is duly burned at the stake, John Wesley visits the prison and clothes the poor, but poor John Henry Newman is not even mentioned, and this in his centenary year.

"Theology was the chief concern of the mediaeval university," says the guide, "and philosophical discourse was aimed at providing proofs of theological propositions." Just what Dr Joseph Ratzinger ordered.

But then in the 15th century, the gap between philosophy and theology widened. The Master of 13alliol, John Wyclif, was condemned as a heretic in 1482, and thus "prepared the reformation."

Oxford was purged by Henry VIII's commissioners in 1535, who condemned the monks as "false, feigned, flattering, hypocritical knaves". Their precious libraries were ransacked, their altar vessels stolen, and a tableau depicts Henry banishing "superstition" (a crucifix is being hauled down) while "religion" (the Bible) is restored.

No author is assigned to this work, which comes from Heritage Projects (Managements) Ltd. But one senses the influence of that opinionated and choleric Cornishman, A L Rowse.

Czechs bounce back

1989 was 1968 turned upside down, as Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out. The Prague "spring" became the "velvet revolution." An almost

forgotten figure from 1968 popped up in Religion in Communist Lands (which will no doubt have to change its name, as the context if not the object of its study ceases to exist).

Erika Kadlecova was then a communist sociologist with a genuine interest in religion. She took part in the first (and only) Christian-Marxist dialogue on communist soil at Marienbad in 1967.

The atmosphere was still tense, there were spies about, and Czechs like Milan Machovec made bold revisionist statements such as that there was an objective truth, not determined by class interest. Kadlecova, one of the few women to hold an important political role under communism, became head of the office for religious affairs under Alexander Dubcek.

The tanks of August 1968 swept her away along with so much else that was good, and I never knew what happened to her. Now in 1990 she reappears saying that the persecution of believers in Czechoslovakia "increased their prestige" and was the principal cause of the religious revival the country experienced in the 1980s.

I looked up her report of the Marienbad meeting of 1967. There were many complaints, she said, about the powerlessness of intellectuals locked into systems they could not change. True, she went on, "they don't have at their disposal armies or prisons, but they can create an intellectual atmosphere in which change is possible."

And that, roughly speaking, was the story of Charter '77. Very unMarxist: first think straight, and change will follow.

Snowballs in hell

THE whole idea of ChristianMarxist dialogue now appears dated if not contradictory. Leszek Kolakoswski, once professor of philosophy at Warsaw University, now at All Souls, dismissed it as "fried snowballs in hell."

Another leading protagonist of the 1960s, Roger Garaudy, once a member of the Central Committee of the French CP, has become a Moslem. I wonder what he thinks about Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

The Czech philosopher, Milan Machovec, was expelled from the CP after his book A Marxist looks at Jesus. When last heard of, he was said to be eking out a meagre existence as organist at a Catholic church in Prague. 1 doubt if he lived to see 1989.

Menacing merger

THREE years ago Tony Benn chose A Marxist looks at Jesus for the BBC World Service programme, Good Books. Since I had translated and introduced it, I was invited to interview the great man.

This was hard work, for having reviewed it for Theology when it first appeared (in 1976) and not reread it since, the MP for Chesterfield's memory of what it actually said was rather dim. And the passages prerecorded by an actor illustrating the book's themes were chiefly remarkable for their opacity.

Benn had all his equipment:

the pipe, the mug of tea, the tape-recorder. When the producer asked him to try and answer a question again, he waxed indignant, enquired why his time should be so wasted, and claimed that Marxists were persecuted by the BBC.

His most startling remark, not part of the programme, was that if the Kremlin and the Vatican ever came together, the result would be the worst tyranny the world had ever known.

Naming Mikhail

THINGS almost as strange are happening in the Soviet Union today. In Paris Mikhail

Gorbachev was pressed on the question as to whether he was baptised. At first he refused to answer, but finally snapped "Of course." Did this mean it mattered to him, or was just routine in Privol'noye, his birthplace, in 1931?

A recent American biography has a simple explanation for the Gorbachev mystery. Shortly after he became first secretary in 1985, an aide gave him Dale Carnegie's work of poppsychology, How to Win Friends and Influence People. That's what he's been trying to do ever since. It seems to work better with foreigners. Mrs Thatcher should read it and discover how to be really nice to Germans.

Words of wisdom

MANY profound things were said at the Newman summer school held at Mrs Thatcher's old college, Somerville. A remark I liked came from Nicholas Lash, refuting the fantasy that Newman ever went in for a "leap of faith": "Newman never leapt anywhere not even out of his bath. He was one of nature's great non!capers."

Fr Ted Ross SJ of Loyola University, Chicago, provided some light relief. I liked his story of the 85-year-old Jesuit who said: "If I'd known I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself."

The following story needs the drawl of the deep south to work: "Ah jus' don' understan' the church today. The only people who want to wear Roman collars are the married deacons. The only people who want to get married are the priests. And the only people who want to get ordained are the women. Ah jus' don' understan'."

Of course it wasn't all jokes. Professor Lash quoted some texts which show that in Newman, loyalty to the church did not mean he could not be critical. After the 1870 definition of infallibility he wrote: "We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a pope to live for 20 years. It is an anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him."

Did that make him a "dissident" in the present meaning of the term? I do hope he gets beatified. Blessed John Henry, pray for us all.

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