It is always interesting when the real world breaks through into the theoretical world. As a researcher, I can get lost in the academic ideas and need to be brought back down to earth with a bump. I need, especially as a Practical Theologian, to keep grounded.
An important ‘grounding’ happened for me recently. I had been doing my homework for the Critical Reading Seminar we were having at MBIT. We were looking at Roger Scruton’s chapter on The Moral Life, from his book On Human Nature. Having not only managed to read the chapter without needing to lie down in a darkened room (reading philosophical works is a bit of a challenge) and feeling that I might have got to grips with some of his arguments, I decided to reward myself with a trip to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Scruton’s argument on living a moral life seemed to me to centre round the idea that in order to live in harmony with each other, we need to negotiate with others. This negotiating gives rise to morality. We need the context of family, relationships, and a sense of justice towards strangers in order to learn and implement this. Morality needs a social context, which influences the personal, which in turn influences the social.
So these thoughts were around for me as I went into the Fitzwilliam and after enjoying the wonderful Studio Pottery exhibition, wandered into ‘Flux: Parian unpacked.’ This is an installation piece by the artist Matt Smith. Parian ware is a particular type of pottery, it produces a very fine polished finish and was used extensively in the 19th Century to create busts of Very Important People.
As I went into the room where these busts are carefully arranged, I was struck by the beauty of the display. The busts are approximately 30 cm high, it was obvious that great care had been taken in placing the figures. On the six walls of the exhibition space, beautiful coloured backgrounds of reds, whites, blues were backlighting the black plaques, in front of which these pristine white Parian busts were displayed. I recognised Queen Victoria, wondered about a couple of others and then began to look more closely.
And I was shocked. The beautiful wallpapered backgrounds were designed from photographs, showing events that the key figures on display had knowledge of or were instrumental in their execution, such as the Irish famine, the Indian mutiny, the siege of Khartoum. These very important people knew about these terrible events or were instrumental in allowing them to happen. Depicted on the wallpapers were ordinary people who, at the command of the VIPs, were either suffering as a consequence or carrying out quite terrible orders.
And with a bump, I was left questioning, where is the public morality that allowed this to happen? And then I am left questioning myself – do I have the courage from my personal morality, informed according to Scruton from my social context, to question some of the public actions, exhibited in today’s social context, that do not promote justice for all? I can only hold the hope that I do.
Written by Sue Price, a doctoral student with Anglia Ruskin at the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology. Her topic is ‘Hearing the Silent Speak: An exploration into the silent spirituality of disabled children’.