Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt

The Church’s loss is the world’s gain.

The Church’s loss is the world’s gain.

There are not many brave enough to take the risk of starting a new life at the age of 66. When Richard Holloway resigned as bishop of Edinburgh in 2000, he was turning his back on an institution that had shaped him since he was 14, when he left his home in a small town in the west of Scotland called Alexandria, for Kelham Hall, an Anglican theological seminary in the Midlands that trained boys from impoverished backgrounds for life in holy orders.

The decision he made to quit the Church was the result of a lifetime of following the path of courageous doubt. Welcoming gay people to his church, he came up against the morbid preoccupation with sexuality that has tainted Christianity ever since Paul invented the religion from the Jewish charismatic movement that had grown up around Jesus and Augustine interpreted the biblical myth of the Fall as having to do with the sexual origins of sin. When he heard of the wretched fudges that were being made with those in the Church who would not deal with women priests, Holloway burst out, "Oh, the miserable buggers! The mean-minded wee sods!" In an exchange he had with the archbishop of south-east Asia in the lavatory at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park, during a meeting of Anglican primates when he was still bishop of Edinburgh, Holloway was accused of filling hell with homosexuals because he was giving them permission to commit a sin that damned them to eternal punishment. "I resisted the impulse to deck him," Holloway writes, "and left him to go on pissing his wormwood and gall into the Queen's urinal."Amen to that

While Holloway's response to religious bigotry has been admirably forthright, his thinking on religion itself is searching and subtle to the last degree. His life has taught him that the ideas of belief and unbelief in terms of which religion is promoted and contested are not to
be taken on trust:

The fundamental difficulty is that all religious systems and the claims they make for themselves are as fragile - and sometimes as beautiful - as the floating villages of the South China Sea. The word faith is the giveaway. The opposite of faith is not
doubt, it is certainty.

The adamant conviction of believers - and unbelievers - is not what it seems to be. Citing the writer and psychotherapist Adam Phillips, Holloway sees certainty as a form of self-medication against the disturbance of thought. "Supreme conviction is a self-cure," Phillips writes, "for an infestation of doubts." A radical version of agnosticism - Holloway's preferred position - means living with doubt. "Strictly speaking, agnosticism should not be described as an hypothesis, because it is not so much positing an answer but learning to live without one."

Holloway's objection to religion is not to the beliefs it involves - unlike evangelical rationalists, he is happy to leave people believing whatever they like as long as they can't inflict their faith on others. But he rightly rejects the claims of religious institutions to define and possess the truth: "Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description but they end up claiming exclusive prescriptive rights to them."

If any specific event led to Holloway's departure from the Church, it may have been his book Godless Morality (1999), which sparked sharp condemnation from the then archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. Whether he would have stayed if the Church had been less closed-minded is doubtful.

The view he has reached of religion as a body of myths has been articulated by a number of Christian thinkers and forms part of a theological debate that mirrors controversies about realism and relativism in the philosophy of science. But Holloway's inquiring mind was never going to be boxed into any orthodoxy and it was inevitable that he would eventually make the break. Since he did, he has been active in many fields and has produced a stream of books, including a penetrating inquiry into the nature of evil, Between the Monster and the Saint (2008). The Church's loss has been the world's gain.

No one reading this arrestingly candid memoir can doubt that Holloway's life has been driven by an authentic religious quest. Yet, all along, he had what he describes as "that wee man" - his reflective, questioning alter ego - perched on his shoulder. For many years, he seems to have felt that he simply wasn't up to the vocation he had undertaken. It was during years spent in Africa in the late 1950s, working as secretary to the newly appointed bishop of Accra, that he came to realise "what a disappointment I must be to God". At the time, he writes, it never occurred to him that he might end up in the priesthood.

He tells in humorous and touching detail of his early sexual experiences and resulting guilt and the enduring division he felt between his profession as a priest and his needs and desires as a ordinary human being. Describing one of several spells in the US (where he met his wife), he recalls serving as rector in an elegant part of Boston, where he "got used to gay couples coming to see me to discuss their flagging sex lives, though I doubt if I was ever much help at restoring their early ardour for one another".

Holloway mocks an experiment in speaking with tongues he tried during a period of spiritual emptiness, which resulted in him thinking for a time that he might be speaking in Mandarin - a theory he tested when, after practising his new-found fluency on a train back to Edinburgh, he unleashed a burst of the strange language on to a Chinese-looking woman, who fled through the station exit on to Waverley Bridge and off into the city. What he calls his "Janus-headed mind" and an unsparing sense of the absurd gave him a sense of self-division through all his life in the Church.

Leaving Alexandria is a profound, personal investigation of the virtues and flaws of religion and the most stirring autobiography I have read in a great many years. It is also a meditation on the nature of one's own identity. At the end of the book, when he considers what may be the most important lesson he has learned from his life, Holloway mounts a more fundamental challenge to Christianity than any that has been posed by the so-called new atheists.

Reflecting on his past during the hill walks he has always loved, he has come to see that the belief that we author our lives through our choices - which is central in Christianity in the form of the idea of free will and reappears in liberal humanism as the notion of personal autonomy - is an illusion.

A friend working on ancient Norse gave Holloway the clue in an essay she sent him on the metaphor of weaving in thinking about human life: "Norse mythology showed me that the way we act does not so much make us as reveal us; our response to circumstance shows us not what we want to be but what we actually are. I was never constituted to be a saint. I had just fallen among saints by accident."

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His book "The Immortalisation Commission: the Strange Quest to Cheat Death" has recently been published in paperback (Penguin, £9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The weaker sex

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture