Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Visit to Hampton Court Palace

Yesterday was a bank holiday in UK, and taking advantage of the sunny weather I visited Hampton Court Palace with my wife and daughter. The palace is only about five miles from where I live. It is on the banks of the River Thames in the London suburb of Hampton.

We didn't go inside the palace but wandered around the gardens. The gardens were pretty and immaculately well kept. The British have a love of gardens that date back to Roman times. On this particular day, we were fortunate to see a re-enactment of events in the sixteenth century with actors dressed in costumes of the time. There were a lot of people there who came to see it.

The palace was the residence of Henry VIII, the Tudor king who reigned in England from 1509 to 1547. He wanted a son in order to enable the Tudor family to rule England for a long time. Since his first wife failed to bear him a son he tried to annul his marriage but the Pope refused. Henry broke away from the Catholic Church, established the Church of England with him as the head and remarried.

Henry married six times in total. His wives were Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr. The following rhyme describe their fate:

"Divorced, Beheaded, Died
Divorced, Beheaded, Survived"

Although we did not have time to go into the palace, we enjoyed walking around the beautiful gardens.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Europe without Christianity: a dire prospect

Europeans are turning away from Christianity in greater numbers than ever as Europe becomes more and more secular. It’s part of a trend that has been ongoing for over a hundred years. In 1900, more than 80% of Christians lived in Europe and America. Today 60% live in the developing world. In some countries like Portugal, Ireland and Spain there is still a sizeable practicing Christian community, but the overwhelming majority of Europeans are Christian in name only. More and more claim to atheists. As there’s a fine distinction between nonbelievers of various kinds - atheists, agnostics, sceptics and humanists – the majority of Europeans are practically atheists because they are not religious. This trend of secularism runs counter to the trends seen in other parts of world where religion is growing.

The atheist German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, claimed in many of his works that “God is dead”. Nietzsche hated religion, and most of all he hated Christianity. He felt Christianity was a “slave morality” designed for losers, which Nietzsche explained its immense popularity. Nietzsche condemned the Christian God for keeping a check on the strong men of this world and exalting the lowly. He developed the concept of ├╝bermensch (or “overman”), a type of superior human being, who through his “will to power” could bring down false ideals and moral codes of his day. His ideas had a big influence on Nazi ideology.

I’m reading a wonderful book by Dinesh D’Souza called “What’s So Great About Christianity”. In chapter seven he gives a warning about Europe’s future regarding its increasing secularization and abandonment of Christian beliefs:

The life of the West, Nietzsche said, is based on Christianity. The values of the West are based on Christianity. Some of these values seem to have taken a life of their own, and this gives us the illusion that we can get rid of Christianity and keep the values. This, Nietzsche says, is an illusion. Our Western values are what Nietzsche terms “shadows of gods”. Remove the Christian foundation, and the values go too.

True, values like equal dignity and equal rights will persist for a period out of sheer unthinking habit. But their influence will erode. Consider the example of secular Europe. Secularization has been occurring in Europe for well over a century, and for a while it seemed as if the decline of Christianity would have no effect on Western morality or Western social institutions. Yet if Nietzsche is right we would expect to see the decline of Christianity also result, over time, in the decline of one of the great legacies of Christianity, the nuclear family. We would expect to see high rates of divorce and births out of wedlock. And that is what we do see. Secular trends in America have produced the same results, which are not as advanced in America because Christianity has not eroded as much here as it has in Europe.

As secularism continues, Nietzsche forecasts that new values radically inconsistent with the Christian ones – the restoration of infanticide, demands for radical redefinition of the family, the revival of eugenic theories of human superiority – will begin to emerge. These, too, are evident in our day. And they are some of the motives for attacking Christianity and insisting that its values are outmoded and should be replaced.

Unfortunately for the critics of Christianity, even the values care about will, according to Nietzsche, eventually collapse. Consider our beliefs in human equality and the value of human life. We may say we believe in human equality, but why do we hold this belief? It is product of the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of souls. We may insist we believe that all human life has dignity and value, but this, too, is the outgrowth of a Christian tradition in which each person is the precious creation of God. There is no secular basis for these values, and when secular writers defend them they always employ unrecognized Christian assumptions.

In sum, the death of Christianity must also mean the gradual extinction of values such as human dignity, the right against torture, and the rights of equal treatment asserted by women, minorities, and the poor. Do we want to give these up also? If we cherish the distinctive ideals of Western Christianity, and believe as I do that they have enormously benefited our civilization and the world, then whatever our religious convictions, and even if we have none, we will not rashly try to hack at the religious roots from which they spring. On the contrary, we will not hesitate to acknowledge, not only privately but also publicly, the central role that Christianity has played and still plays in the things that matter to us.

I have to say I couldn’t agree more with D’Souza here. Europeans have been swayed by all sorts of different ideologies that are fundamentally contrary to Christian beliefs over the last century with disastrous consequences. If the current trend of secularization continues in Europe, I fear for its future. Europe will be a far worse place without Christianity.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Isle of Wight trip

Last week I went with my wife, daughter, mum and dad for a holiday to the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. Each day was spent visiting a different and we had a lovely time. Here’s a summary of what we did.

Monday 2 August 2010

Drove from London to Portsmouth and took the car ferry to Fishbourne. The crossing took around 40 minutes and was most comfortable. The ferry was called St Cecilia.

After reaching Fishbourne, in the north of the island, we headed to Carrisbrooke Castle near the town of Newport. The castle was built by the Normans following their conquest of England in 1066. Although parts of the structure have eroded over time much of it is still intact and wonderfully preserved. There are a number of buildings within the walls of the fortress. Going up to the top of the shell keep we got a great view of the surrounding countryside. The castle is a treat for people interested in English history for it has seen over 800 years of service. One of the castle’s most famous residents was King Charles I, who was imprisoned there after his defeat in the English Civil War.

From Carisbrooke Castle we headed to Shanklin, a town in the east of the island, and checked into our guesthouse. Shanklin has a sandy beach and is quite touristy. When we visited the beach in the evening there wasn’t much of a crowd. My daughter Anya made a sand castle. In the distance I saw ships crossing the English Channel.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

After breakfast we went to Robin Hill Park in Downend. The park is a great place for children, having lots of rides and other activities. Anya particularly enjoyed the Toboggan Run. I liked the falconry show, which featured a number of birds of prey including the European Eagle Owl, Harris Hawk and Saker Falcon. A ride on Colossus, a swinging galleon boat ride, really shook up the full English breakfast in my stomach. A few more swings on the ride and I could easily have thrown up on the person in front! We spent four hours in the park. It’s possible for children to spend the whole day there.

Our next stop was the Isle of Wight Zoo in Sandown, another seaside town not far from Shanklin. The zoo has a large collection of Indian tigers and African lions. We arrived in time to see the lions being fed. There was a white tiger called Zena and a white lion called Casper – two very rare species. I had never seen a white tiger or lion before, so this was quite exciting. Posters warned about the sad the plight of the tiger whose numbers are continuing to diminish worldwide.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

After breakfast we made our way to Needles Park on Alum Bay at the western extreme of the island. We passed along narrow roads under canopies of tall trees and across the countryside, past fields containing various crops, sheep and cattle. At Needles Park we saw glass being made and took the chairlift ride down to the beach. It is possible to go the edge of Alum Bay and see the Needles, which are a series of chalk stacks that protrude into the sea, but we didn’t do that as the weather was windy and rainy. In the Sand Shop, Anya created her own souvenir by filling in a plastic shape with different shades of Alum Bay sand. Like Robin Hill Park, Needles Park was full of children and their parents.

From Alum Bay we headed east again to Havenstreet Station and boarded the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. This really was a trip back to a bygone era when steam trains were the norm. The hissing of the engine and the smell of steam brought back memories of childhood train journeys in India. The staff, who were mostly volunteers, were friendly and helpful. The train went to Smallbrook Junction and back, and then to Wootton station and back. It was a pleasant ride across unspoiled, beautiful countryside.

Thursday 5 August 2010

After checking out of our guesthouse, we travelled to Osborne House in East Cowes. This 342 acres estate was Queen Victoria’s summer residence, and it certainly was befitting place for her and her family. There were beautiful sculptures, paintings and frescoes that adorned different rooms. I particularly liked the Indian style Durbar Room, which was a celebration of Queen Victoria’s role as
Empress of India. Here there were the finest works of art from India, presented to Victoria by Indian rulers. Complementing the house were lovely gardens, a summer house and the Swiss Cottage, originally built for the royal children for their education. This was a great place for adults with a love for history as well as antiques (like my parents).

In the afternoon we the caught ferry to Portsmouth. This ferry was called St Clare. After a short visit to Portsmouth Roman Catholic Cathedral we headed back home.

Final thoughts

What was clearly noticeable was the slower pace of life on the Isle of Wight. The island is heavily dependent on tourism although it does have a strong agricultural heritage. The beaches, the hills, the green countryside and quaint little towns, villages and churches were a joy to see. It was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of London. Fortunately the weather, always an unpredictable factor in any holiday in the UK, was good during our stay. Only on the third day did we experience some rain. Our guesthouse proprietors – Graham and Sally – did their best to make us feel welcome, for which we are very grateful. Anya so liked the place she wanted to stay longer. Being such a pleasant little island, I’m sure we’ll be visiting the island again sometime in the future.