Psychoanalysis – towards a century of relationship?

June 23rd, 2019
by Chris

For the last four weeks, I have been in a reading group run by Barry Taylor (an old friend of Peter Rollins, regular at the Wake festival, and about whose Wake talk this year I weaved a meditation recently). We’ve been reading and trying to get our heads round Jamieson Webster’s book on psychoanalysis“Conversion Disorder” (she also gave a talk and participated in a forum discussion at Wake this year), and I’d hoped to generate some posts out of that process.

However, having done the reading and spent four hours (one per week) talking about it, I have very few clear insights. I haven’t done much reading in psychoanalysis previously (it’s one of the few psychological disciplines I’ve not experienced) and Jamieson weaves her narrative together with readings of Benjamin, Foucault and Agamben (all writers in the general field of postmodern philosophy) as well as the notoriously difficult Jacques Lacan.

Barry has also linked recently to a series of documentaries by Adam Curtis (a BBC series shown in 2002) called “The Century of the Self”. This was, for me, easy watching in one sense (it is admirably well constructed and clear), but difficult in other senses – for one, it’s nearly four hours of watching, for another it paints a very depressing picture of how psychoanalytic techniques have been used in propaganda, marketing and public relations to manipulate the public. Its conclusion is that, in the name of individualism, we are all being selectively marketed to (big business is not concerned what our views really are as long as they involve buying stuff we don’t really need as a result of marketing exciting desires or pretending that what they produce somehow expresses desires we already have), and while politics has become a far more individualistic affair (we are persuaded that politicians are only there to satisfy our selfish desires), at root, those desires are being formed by the marketers and public relations executives.

In other words, (and this is a brief version of the end point of the documentary series) we have been induced to think of ourselves as markedly free, while being subtly controlled.

I have written previously about free market capitalism (as “the System of Satan”) and about marketing (as “the Devil’s Evangelism”), and commented on an article which seeks to establish neoliberalism as a religion (“A Satanic Theology”), so regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I found Curtis’ documentary both disturbing (in the extent to which it portrays this tinkering with our heads as pervasive) and as confirming what I already thought.

I am probably something of a nightmare from the point of view of the marketers and PR people. I instinctively consider that the more something is marketed to me, the more I am paying for that marketing and the less for the actual quality of the goods involved. I hate buying anything which is “throw away” or which embodies “planned obsolescence” or which is “in fashion”. Preferably, anything I buy which is not a consumable should be something which can be mended. And, if anyone invites me to participate in a marketing questionnaire or focus group, I let them know that I would be delighted to assist them at the very modest rate of £3 per minute (minimum one hour). Strangely, marketers seem not to want to engage my help… their loss!

This is also a feature of a significant amount of Peter Rollins’ work – consumer items are the things which can fill the lack which Peter thinks is ubiquitous in humanity (and that includes consumer systems – self-help seminars, some aspects of religion and some psychological therapies being among them). I am not so sure that such a lack is so fundamental to humanity – let’s face it, if it were, it would not be necessary for advertisers to spend so much time and effort trying to persuade us that we lack the very product they are attempting to sell us. Oh, OK, I do lack most of the things they are trying to sell me, but it isn’t a lack I have any wish to fill, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to any deep-seated inadequacy I have. I have plenty of deep seated inadequacies, but (as I’m in the happy position of having the bottom three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled, at least for the time being, and don’t generally feel much lack of the fourth) those aren’t things which the expenditure of money can be expected to correct. A Twelve Step programme is much more likely to do that – and that is free in money terms, though it does require time and energy.

Jamieson Webster is emphatically not the kind of psychoananalyst who is the focus of Curtis’ documentary, the kind who sells themselves to commerce in order to help commerce to get us to buy. She is trying to do something which will, perhaps, improve the lives of clients. It is not abundantly clear from reading the book how, exactly, that is supposed to happen – that may just be a part of the psychoanalytic literature which is not explicitly quoted by her, but she does seem very tentative in suggesting that there actually is a clear objective – and that offends my own analytic tendencies. I like my tasks to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited, and psychoanalysis seems to tick none of those boxes.

What she does do is voyage through a set of specific cases, those of the classic Psychoanalysts such as Freud and some of her own, picking up motifs which she then plays with, in conversation with philosophers and, of course, Freud and Lacan. The overwhelming impression I got was how different various cases were, how they had completely varying associations – and in that respect, when she fixed on some wordplay in Freud which was considered significant, she touched a nerve with myself. I do a lot of wordplay myself, and form associations based on that rather than on any real-world connection between the things signified by those words. I see a firing squad portrayed on the TV, for instance, and think “ri-fol, ri-fol, fother diddle di-fol” (nonsense words appearing in various English folk songs, and having nothing to do with the rifle or musket – to which I then add “and Oman”).

There seems a part of my mind which works in that way, and I was delighted to find that a part of Freud’s worked similarly (though his was bilingual in English and German; mine tends to French and Italian as pun-partners for my English). In the same way, particular incidents have huge significance in a particular analysand’s mind (for instance, suffering serious burns), whereas the associations of fire for another might be entirely different. I smell bad drains and immediately think of Venice in August, for instance, an association which would mean nothing to someone who hadn’t actually been there (and loved the experience, despite the pervasive smell of drains).

It seems that she is seeing a very particularly individual constellation of associations in analysands, which are not nearly so “analysable” as I might have thought before reading the book – and yet, rather than trying to fit everything into a single template (and make people conform to normality, whatever that is – the marketers can probably tell us), this is dealt with in a relationship. Admittedly, the psychoanalytic relationship is a very odd one, in which there is very little to and fro – the analyst, ideally, contributes nothing. However, the fact of that relationship (one which is inevitably ultimately limited in time, even if that timing cannot be predicted) is the absolute key to psychoanalysis.

There, I see a glimmer of hope for the possibility of a next century, not of self, but of relationship. Maslow, who created the hierarchy of needs, is mentioned in Curtis’ film – he puts “self actualisation” at the top of the pyramid, as befits a member of the psychoanalytic establishment which gave us modern marketing. Even then, however, the theory of the pyramid is that you can’t attend adequately to one of the higher levels if the lower levels are not adequately provided for, and two levels down is “love and belonging”. There is a lesson there – we are never going to be able to achieve the self-actualisation we may desire in the absence of love, and that implies relationship. The atomic individualism of the “Century of the Self” is doomed to failure. “No man is an island”, as John Locke put it.

And, of course, from a Christian point of view, love should possibly be at the top of the pyramid as well as in the middle. One’s highest self-actualisation is in loving others.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ” (I Cor. 14:4-7)

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D-day – a cynical view

June 13th, 2019
by Chris

A friend, commenting on the D day anniversary, wrote “As we remember D-Day, let us not forget that World War 2 was the product of nation-first, white supremacy, uncritical populist, and racist ideologies and that the war was one through global cooperation, the globalism that has keep the peace for over 70 years, our Alliances with Europe (NATO), the Marshall Plan of recovery after the war, helping our enemies recover (Germany and Japan), and the belief that America’s leadership is moral, involves sacrifices on our part, and a willingness to support other nations.”

I really like the sentiment, and completely endorse the observation about Hitler’s Germany. I am, indeed, seriously worried that similar forces seem to be at work in the Europe of today, as witness (among many others) the success of Marine LePen’s National Rally party (formerly the National Front) in France and the election of significant numbers of Alternative für Deutschland MEPs (AfD is essentially a neo-Nazi party) in recent European elections, and the complexion of Victor Orban’s Hungary. Also, of course, our newly formed Brexit party, which won an alarming number of seats. Athough it claims to be a single issue party (at least, so far), all the same tendencies seem to be operative in very many of its supporters, and its forebear, UKIP, is now clearly a party of the far right.

However, my sceptical and cycnial side forbids me from regarding the US intervention in World War II as pure gift, and expressing the degree of gratitude which many Americans seem to think is appropriate. In point of fact, the US managed to keep out of the war until in December 1941 Pearl Harbour left it with no real alternative (though there had been an effective war at sea going on with Germany in the Atlantic for some months prior to that – again, prompted by the Germans sinking American ships). By that time, the UK and its then empire and dominions (such as Canada and Australia) had been at war since 1st September 1939, and the USA had been selling weapons to us (and also to Russia and China) throughout, offering credit terms when we basically ran out of money. We finally managed to pay off that debt in the 1980s. The USA managed to keep out of WWI even longer…

This article gives a view of the US involvement in both world wars which rather differs from the “America saves the day!” message which Americans often wish to claim as truth. Extracting figures from this source seems to indicate that pre-WWI, the US had around 18.9% of world GDP while the UK (including British India but excluding other colonies and dominions) had 19.7% (of which the UK proper was around 9%). By 1950 (India having become independent, in part due to the effective bankruptcy of the UK, in part because promises had been made in order to avoid India siding with the Japanese in WWII), the US had 27.3% and the UK had 6.5%.

It seems rather evident that, at least in terms of GDP, the two world wars seriously damaged the UK economy (leaving the country massively in debt to the US into the bargain) but seriously advantaged the US economy.

As the article points out in relation to WWI, “The trouble was that by 1916, the U.S. commitment to Britain and France had grown—to borrow a phrase from the future—too big to fail.” The same might well be said of World War II (and, indeed, there is an argument that both World Wars were fundamentally one conflict, divided by 20 years of truce – certainly, it is very arguable that the draconian terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which were imposed on Germany made something like the rise of Hitler and his foreign policy inevitable).

The cynic in me says that America looked at the European situation together with the fairly dominant trading position of the British Empire and the rapid rise of industry and technology in Germany, realised that its most valuable markets were in Europe, so it needed to avoid the rise of a Germany which would dominate that market, but that by delaying it could bleed dry it’s main worldwide competitor, Britain, and still see Germany defeated – and so acted entirely in the best interests of the US (some evidence indicates that US interests were also supplying Germany…). Seen as an effective trade war against Britain, this was a master-stroke – and wildly successful. My view is strengthened by the US sabotage of Britain and France over Suez in 1956, which inclined Britain to ask how good an ally the US actually was…

Much the same consideration on the part of the British government also punctures the British myth that we entered into the war in 1939 out of the goodness of our hearts and a desire to curb tyrrany. Neville Chamberlain has said of the annexation of Czechoslovakia that it was a ‘quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing’, and in conscience, Poland was in much the same position. However, with Poland, the writing was on the wall, and it was clear that Hitler was going to go on expanding in Europe until stopped. Britain did have significant trade with Western Europe, but was divided from Europe by the English Channel, had the bulk of its foreign trade with the world outside Europe and could conceivably have sat there and left Europe to its own devices. A substantial proportion of the population would have been entirely happy with that. In Britain’s case, however, the danger was not only of losing Western Europe as a market, but also of Germany breaking out of being a merely European power and challenging Britain’s world trade…

Where nation states are involved, I tend not to believe legends that their actions are altruistic – there are almost always clear advantages for their own narrow interests which are quite sufficient to explain their actions.

Thinking even further about D-day, hindsight tells me that, in all probability, it was not necessary in order to defeat Hitler. He was already losing the war badly due to the Eastern Front, and in particular the disaster of Stalingrad. The Italian front should have been enough… the Allies (by this time including the USA) could have afforded to wait it out.

There, too, the actual reason was probably not the reason which was presented. In that case, the danger was the potential rolling of Russian forces all the way to the North Sea, taking all of Germany, Austria and possibly even the Low Countries, France and Scandinavia into the Russian sphere of influence. D-day was a proxy action, in effect, against Russia, the first battle of the Cold War. I may not go quite so far as this article, but it is clear that by mid-1944, the end was in sight – but without the landings in France, it would have probably produced a largely Soviet Europe, thus demolishing the market for both the USA and Britain. The Western powers’ effort stopped at the dividing line between East and West Germany which obtained until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany – but it seems that Churchill, at least, was willing to go further than that. Clearly, for him, the defeat of Hitler was by no means the whole story.

Do I thus undermine the immense sacrifices made by US, British and Canadian troops (in particular) on D-day? Not at all. They were emphatically in the best interests of our respective countries at the time. But we should maybe restrain ourselves from expecting unqualified gratitude from those who were liberated from German rule as a result…

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Variations on a theme of Barry Taylor

June 1st, 2019
by Chris

Day three of the Wake festival in April saw a talk by Barry Taylor called “Everything I learned about the Bible I learned from prostitutes”. With that as a title (possibly the ultimate clickbait…) this was an unmissable occasion.

What follows is in part a brief account of what Barry talked about, in part some excursions which occurred to me during the talk, and, at the end, an extended meditation which the talk prompted me to think about after it ended.

It was somewhat autobiographical, in that one of the instances Barry used was a brush with the “Children of God” (whose successors are called “The Family International”) and their much-publicised technique of sending out wives to attract new members via sex (their founder stated that God was love and love was sex); these were called “hookers”. Barry was at the time touring the USA with AC/DC; his bio also includes partaking in a religious revival in Russia, doing music for porn movies and teaching at a fairly conservative Christian seminary, leading to the suggestion in the programme that “Barry could well be the most interesting man in the world”.

Being asked, mid coitus, to pause to pray is something which he found surprising. I think, in that, he is probably typical… but clearly possessed of a sangfroid greater than anything I could muster in that he apparently followed through – and was then introduced to her husband in the morning, a second moment of amazement.

Barry also used two other examples of “prostitutes”; Annabella in “Tis pity she’s a whore”, a 1633 play by John Ford (the title of which is also a track on Bowie’s “Blackstar” LP, which was the way Barry was led to the play), who is persuaded into a relationship with her brother and then stabbed by him when she marries another in order to justify her pregnancy. The play closes with the cardinal (who has confiscated the property of most of the dramatis personae on the basis that they are guilty of something) saying “who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”. The second is the woman who washes Jesus’ feet at a meal in a Pharisee’s house in all four gospels (though other details differ), one of the few incidents from the synoptics which also appears in the Fourth Gospel.

Barry quoted several notable theologians on prostitution, including Aquinas, who said that they were like a cesspool in a palace – it may be distasteful, but take it away, and the whole palace will stink, and Chesterton, who said that everyone who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.

In all three stories, the excluded, disavowed individual is calling into question the whole ethos on which society is based. In the Biblical story, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about indebtedness, and asks who is more grateful, he who has been forgiven little or he who has been forgiven much? But then, I noted, though it wasn’t the direction the talk went in, Jesus was regularly companionable with those who society considered beyond the pale (and, in the Jewish conception of the time, frequently ritually unclean and capable of contaminating those around them). Tax collectors (read “Quislings”) and sinners. Members of the Jews’ greatest enemies, the Phoenicians, Samaritans and Romans. Children (who were non-persons until they were 14). And, of course, women, even those with a continuous discharge (a major contamination in Jewish eyes – Lev. 15:19-33). Lepers. The dead… He must have been seen by Pharisees in particular as quite shockingly transgressive.

One lesson I personally learn from Jesus’ inclusivity is to judge a society by how they treat the least privileged among them, and I think of the list in Matthew 25; the hungry and thirsty, the stranger (foreigner/immigrant), those without adequate clothing, the sick and the imprisoned. And, I suppose, the prostitutes… On that basis, my own society stands condemned, having moved away from all those principles since Margaret Thatcher was elected. My friends in the States may, I suspect, have similar feelings, substituting Reagan for Thatcher…

Barry also drew out a theme of being converted by the intrusion of the excluded – the Pharisee, for instance, was forced to concede that he who was forgiven most was the most grateful, and that was also a deconversion, from the perspective which was previously taken; all conversion, he said, involves deconversion from something which precedes it and promises deconversion later from what is converted to. Sometimes, however, a label prevents conversion… such as “whore”.

…………………………………………………………………………

After the talk ended, I went on musing. I don’t have much experience of prostitutes, I thought – but then I paused. Prostitution is often called “the oldest profession”, and my former profession, Law, is sometimes called the second oldest. I did think, when going into Law, that it was a respectable occupation with a reasonable social status – and so, at the time, it was, at least in England. Some years later a friend in the States sent me a copy of the “1000 best lawyer jokes”, including “What’s the difference between a dead lawyer on the freeway and a dead cat on the freeway? The cat has skid marks in front of it” – but by that time I was already beginning to appreciate that, in the States at least, lawyers are one of the most hated and despised professions (possibly only eclipsed by politicians in the States, but I was also a local politician…).

There is, perhaps, a closer correspondence than just the “despised profession” or the antiquity of the occupation. Prostitutes sell the use of their bodies, while Lawyers sell the use of their minds. OK, there are a very few lawyers who go to work for, for instance, the Council for Civil Liberties or various Law Centres around the country who are more donating than they are selling, but in general terms, lawyers are mercenaries, “guns for hire” if those guns spout words rather than bullets. Another lawyer joke runs “Someone came to see me and asked ‘What is the truth of this situation?’, so first I negotiated a fee, then I asked him what he wanted the truth of it to be”. To a great extent, in law, the truth is what a lawyer can persuade a judge (and/or jury) to believe it to be, and one result is that we tend to get the best justice we can afford (tempered to some extent by the many lawyers who take on “pro bono” cases or work for a fee unconnected with whether they win or lose).

I’ll grant that the “mind for hire” allegation could be levelled at a wide range of other professions involving words, including to my deep regret some scientists who are lured into fields like climate-change denialism or the long hard fight (happily now lost) against the link between smoking and cancer. Don’t get me started on politicians, who seem increasingly to have lost touch with anything remotely resembling truth.

I have to say that the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known do not actually tailor what “truth” they argue for entirely to the wishes of the client; for a start, in the UK, professional ethics demand that they do not argue a position they know to be false, though that can lead to some very careful avoidance of clients admitting guilt directly to their lawyers; nonetheless, there are in most court proceedings two sides, each with lawyers arguing opposing positions – and only one of those (as a maximum) can be right.

I did my share of advocacy in court. Contra the impression given by courtroom dramas like “Perry Mason”, results are rarely obtained by breaking down witnesses under questioning so that they admit they were lying or, even better, admit guilt, they are more often obtained by finding an interpretation of the evidence actually given which founds innocence or guilt, depending on whether defending or prosecuting. Defending is easier in criminal cases, as you don’t need to demonstrate that your interpretation is the most likely one, just that it’s sufficiently plausible to put doubt in people’s minds as to another interpretation.

I did much more work drafting and amending contracts. There, part of the secret is to pull back from what you know the text is supposed to convey, and ask yourself what other meaning it could possibly have, if argued over in the future by a pair of clever lawyers. You then adjust the wording so as to exclude, so far as possible, any such misinterpretation – admittedly, sometimes in competition with a lawyer acting for the other side who actually wants that interpretation to be open. You also need to envisage situations in which the wording might not give a clear answer, or any answer, and so far as possible plug those gaps. The exercise does produce an ability to see second, third and fourth meanings in sets of words, which gets ingrained after many years doing it.

That, of course, is something which I now bring to interpreting scripture, having retired from doing anything connected with the law, at least so far as I can manage. I can see secondary readings of passages which people may miss, and perspectives which others may not think of (for example, my dumfounding of a small group by suggesting looking at the parable of the prodigal son from the perspective of the fatted calf… I’d already heard all the conventional perspectives being canvassed that week). Yes, some of those may be regarded as less likely interpretations for the writer to have intended, but as long as the words actually used open up the possibility, who are we to say that they weren’t intended to mean more than one thing, or even that what we now percieve as less likely wasn’t, from the author’s point of view, exactly what was the intention?

We don’t, of course, have the authors of scripture available to interrogate as to whether they also meant c,d, and e as well as a, or whether they actually only meant d… and even if we did, a modern interpreter could well say “ah, but that must have been at least in your subconscious, otherwise why would you pick those words…”. Indeed, that’s been done to me in the past, by an English Literature student interpreting some poetry I wrote – I denied having intended some of the meanings she extracted from it, and she made that argument, plus the rather more postmodern argument that the meaning of everything is created by the reader as much as by the writer, and the “death of the author” school of thought elevates that to a guiding principle. Those are the words, now shut up and let us interpret them – which is, I note with some amusement, the main moral of the Jewish story of the Oven of Akhnai, relating exactly to the interpretation of scripture. For my more conservative readers, you might like to note that the story takes a very high view of scripture – the Torah – as, in effect, divine dictation, but still supports variant interpretations.

I’m now in the happy position of being free to do this job of supplying reinterpretations and variant readings both in my writing and when editing others without any financial motive – or, indeed, for the most part any other compelling pressure. I don’t need to earn extra money any more; I’m largely retired, and have enough provision in retirement to be able to say “no” to almost any offer made to me. I am, however, perhaps more sensitive than most to the fact that I have let money dictate what I did with my mind in the past (that was, in essence, the nature of the job of a lawyer) – and that makes it impossible for me to be condemnatory towards those who let money dictate what they do with their bodies (i.e. prostitutes).

So I go to the inevitable question which I think we should all ask ourselves – what is our price? How much would it take to persuade us to do something which we think is reprehensible (such as myself defending criminals and assisting them to avoid conviction and punishment)? Maybe we wouldn’t do it for £100, but what about £100,000 or £100,000,000? Or maybe in non-money terms – what would we be prepared to do to save our child’s life, for instance?

That is something which I may need to come back to in another post. In the meanting, though, we might note that Barry presented a text – verbally, of course, and I found unexplored avenues in it and built off it in a major way, which rather illustrates my point about the value of thinking of variant interpretations.

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Euro election result – what on earth does it mean?

May 27th, 2019
by Chris

It would be tempting to interpret last night’s results in the European Election as a massive victory for “Leave”, on the basis that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party looks set to end up with around 30% of the total votes (it’s higher than that at the moment, but Scotland and Northern Ireland will drag the figure down a bit) and is already emphatically the largest party sending representatives to Europe from the UK. Certainly, that’s what Farage and some hard-line Tory leave MPs such as Mark Francois are saying.

They are wrong. If you tot up all of the Brexit party’s votes and those of the remnants of UKIP (which is fundamentally where the Brexit party’s votes came from), they only manage around 35%. Thus, ardent Remain supporters are suggesting that the vote, over all, is a victory for Remain… after all, as they point out, Brexit and UKIP stood on a platform of “no deal” on access to the European market, and have signally failed to get an overall majority. There’s some naive truth there – given that, assuming we leave, all the MEPs we have just been electing are going to be out of a job at the most by 31st October (and possibly earlier, if a “let’s leave now and stuff deals” attitude prevailed), there was no reason for someone who actually wants a no deal Brexit to vote anything other than Brexit/UKIP. Logic would say that everyone who didn’t vote Brexit/UKIP does not want a no deal Brexit.

Logic is wrong, and so are those who consider this a 65/35 vote against a no deal Brexit. Logic is wrong primarily because people don’t vote entirely rationally. Had they done so, there would have been no Change UK votes cast anywhere (as they had no serious chance of electing a member), in most of England there would have either been no Green vote or no Liberal Democrat vote (as everyone thoroughly opposing Brexit would have voted tactically for whichever of those had the best chance of success in the area, just as I did – I was entirely ready to vote for whichever Remain party was strongest – and just as did Alastair Campbell, formerly Tony Blair’s press secretary, and he’s died in the wool Labour); in Scotland and Wales there would have been little reason to vote for anyone other than the nationalist parties. Granted, in Scotland, that seems to have been nearly the case!

Would there, however, have also been a complete absence of Conservative and Labour votes? Well, perhaps yes, had it been a straight “in or out” decision and arrived at completely rationally. After all, the only reason you would vote for an MEP of a non-clear-remain party is if you expect Brexit not to happen and that MEP to have a function, surely? However, it wasn’t a straight “in or out” vote. There’s also the possibility which has been being kicked around parliament for the last three years of a negotiated closer relationship with the EU while still leaving. Can we therefore assume that all the Labour and Conservative voters this time want a negotiated exit? (If we could, the balance would be 65/35 in favour of leaving, though not if it was no deal).

The trouble is, I don’t think we can assume that either. I’ve heard stories of long term Labour voters weeping as they cast a tactical vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I can easily believe that many felt unable to do that – but similarly, I know Conservative voters who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for anything else. There may well be a significant number of Remain voters who still voted for those parties. But there may also be a significant number of “let’s leave with no deal” voters there, who similarly couldn’t bring themselves to vote outside lifelong party allegiances.

So it isn’t that simple. My own very strong preference would be to develop a “third way”, perhaps a Norway-style relationship, which could be implemented by Europe easily, would be very acceptable to them, would safeguard what’s left of our trade with Europe, and would remove the awful spectre of a hard border in Ireland, and then have another referendum with three options, no deal, Norway or remain. We would probably need to have a single transferrable vote system and eliminate the lowest of the three, reallocating those votes to their second preferences. Granted, that has it’s dangers for a Remainer like me – what if “Remain” was the lowest option? However, it would allow me to cast my second preference for Norway over no deal… and that would be preferable to the disaster which no deal would present.

I have no doubt that some Brexiteers will decry this as being antidemocratic – “the people have spoken and their will should be put into effect”. This is, of course, total bull. Having a public vote on something cannot be called “antidemocratic” in any way, shape or form, particularly when it does not ask the same question as was previously asked or when much more information is available, both of which are, of course, the case. Besides which, the people spoke in 1975 on Europe, I voted to be in Europe than, so what of the antidemocratic nature of having another vote in 2016?

One might as well say “the people have spoken and their will should be observed, so we should never have another General Election to the Westminster parliament”. After all, parliaments in the past have lasted around an average of 3-4 years, so we are arguably due a new vote anyhow!

There is a worrying factor, which Farage is now trying to capitalise on, and some Tory MPs are seeming to heed. That is that Brexit topped the poll in every region except London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and if you break down the figures by local council areas, Brexit were top of the poll almost everywhere in England and Wales (see the map in the BBC’s coverage).

The fear in the Conservatives (who didn’t top the poll anywhere) is that these results might be repeated in a General Election if Brexit doesn’t happen, or even that things might get even worse for them, and General Elections are on a “first past the post” basis, so had this election been on that basis, Brexit would have had every seat except for London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. That fear affects Labour as well, though not to anything like the same extent. Some Labour MPs really fear for their seats – after all, much of the North, the Midlands and South Wales should be red on that map.

They shouldn’t be as worried as they seem to be; after all, this was effectively a single-issue election. An election to Westminster would not be single-issue. One might normally expect the gains of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens to disappear, leaving them both around the 7% mark again, and for Brexit to do only about as well as UKIP did last time (and they didn’t take any Westminster seats). However, I don’t think that would happen. Brexit would have to put forward a policy platform in order to do that – would it be as right-wing as the UKIP platform? Nobody knows. Far right, however, is not very popular in the UK.

I would expect some of the defections from the Conservatives to stay where they were, however – they are seen as being the masterminds of the chaos in parliament over the last three years, and would be punished. Labour might do slightly better, but they are seen as not forming a sensible opposition to the Conservatives, and would be punished as well. There’s also the factor that once one has voted other than one’s traditional party, it’s easier to do that again. And there is a significant swell of both absolutely ardent Leave and Remain voters who would still vote single issue (probably, if Brexit had not happened, more on the Leave than on the Remain side). What would that mean in terms of a General Election? I have no idea.

But I do know that the surest way of avoiding a parliament dominated by the Brexit party at the next election, on around 33% of the votes cast, would be to institute proportional representation of some kind, or (and it isn’t strictly proportional representation but come up with somewhat similar results) Single Transferrable Vote. I would favour STV, because almost all the other PR or PR-like systems magnify the power of political parties. The trouble is, I can’t see much chance of getting the current parliament to vote for that, even though it would tend to preserve the positions of the vast majority of Conservative and Labour MPs (and that’s easily more than three quarters of them), and it’s been LibDem policy for years…

But then, you may say, you would prefer that, because had these elections been by STV, the probability is that very few second preferences would have gone to Brexit, but many would have gone to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, and I was a member of the Liberal Democrats, and a councillor for them, for many years. Actually, though, I rather lost confidence in the LibDems when they permitted the coalition government to follow neoliberal policies and exacerbate the trend towards an uncaring, non-compassionate society started under Thatcher, and I have been having my politics moulded more and more by the Synoptic Gospels, which push me increasingly towards the kind of politics espoused by Jeremy Corbyn. I might well vote Labour in the future – and actually did vote Labour in local elections last time (in a straight fight with Conservative, to be fair). I increasingly think that, in order to follow Jesus, one must be a socialist.

Indeed, if Labour now follow the views of the shadow Chancellor and the shadow Foreign Secretary (John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry) and come down firmly on the side of a new referendum, campaigning to remain, I may find myself supporting Labour without wincing too much, given my lifelong LibDem support. The trouble with Corbyn, in my eyes, is not that he’s “far left” as the Conservatives and most of the media (even including the Guardian) try to paint him (he would have fitted into, say, a Harold Wilson government without seeming particularly extreme), it’s that he hasn’t come down in favour of Remain. I suspect that he harbours thoughts that, in a fairly definitely neoliberal Europe, his ability to implement thoroughly socialist policies would be very limited – but against that, I would comment that outside Europe, it seems unlikely he would be commanding a strong enough economy to afford socialism.

Where does this leave us? Not, I think, including Farage and his mates in a negotiating team with the EU, as they are pushing for. There is, I think, an increased danger now of the Conservatives electing a new, hard Brexit leader to be PM, and that could far too easily lead to us crashing out with no deal on 31st October, with a PM happy to let that happen and a continuing voting deadlock in parliament. I think the chances of that have gone up significantly.

The thing is, a hard Brexit PM would find it utterly impossible to make a deal with any of the other parties, even more so than Mrs. May did. Even, I fancy, the DUP, which has been propping up the Conservatives so far in this government. I don’t see how, say, Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab could actually last more than a few weeks… unless, that is, the massive Con/Lab majority in the house are too scared for their seats and insufficiently prepared to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal position to rock the boat.

Unfortunately, nothing I have seen so far in this parliament indicates to me that the bulk of Conservative and Labour MPs are prepared to grow spines.

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A cold apocalyptic light

May 11th, 2019
by Chris

I spent most of last week at Peter Rollins’ “Wake” festival in Belfast. I can strongly recommend this yearly gathering of around 80 people interested in radical theology (and associated fields) to anyone who has a liking for thinking outside the theological box.

This year, the two main international speakers were Todd McGowan (a theorist working on generally left-leaning and postmodern topics, notably influenced by Jacques Lacan, and author of “Enjoying What You Don’t Have” and “Capitalism and Desire”) and Jamieson Webster (a practising psychoanalyist and author of “Conversion Disorder”, largely Freudian but also influenced by Lacan). The evening of day 1 saw a fascinating three way conversation between the two of them and Pete, largely focusing on the motif of conversion.

Todd, it turned out, has a pessimistic anthropology. He considers that we are not born free, but everywhere in chains as Rousseau famously remarked, but are born in chains and might aspire to become free, for some value of “free”, a conversion of some description, though preferably not one which exchanged one certainty for another. There was general agreement between the three of them that mankind suffers from a fundamental lack, as one might expect of three Lacanians.

We have, it seems in Lacanian terms, a disrupted set of drives, and Jamieson quoted Freud’s “Civilisation and it’s Discontents” to the effect that “something unhinges us and disrupts our libidinal system”; put in the terms of a motif of creation, we might see this as an outpouring of God into creation, but Todd insists that “something went wrong”. Between Pete and Todd, indeed, we had what was looking like the start of an emanationist creation story very much along the lines of Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah or some strands of Gnosticism, in which the immensity of God is poured out into vessels which are incapable of containing the fullness of the Divine emanation. In Gnosticism, one of the first of these is the Demiurge, who thinks himself God as a result of this surplus of being (or power) and goes on to deceive us into neglecting the God-behind-God.

There seems to be a possibility that Meister Eckhart at the very least had elements of this thinking when he wrote “before creatures were, God was not God albeit he was Godhead which he gets not from the soul” (from Tractate XIX) and “When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring of the Godhead, no-one will ask me whence I cam or whither I went. No-one missed me: God passes away” (from Sermon LVI). Indeed, Eckhart also wrote “The authorities teach that next to the first emanation, which is the Son coming out of the Father, the angels are most like God. And it may well be true, for the soul at its highest is formed like God, but an angel gives a closer idea of Him. That is all an angel is: an idea of God. For this reason the angel was sent to the soul, so that the soul might be re-formed by it, to be the divine idea by which it was first conceived. Knowledge comes through likeness. And so because the soul may know everything, it is never at rest until it comes to the original idea, in which all things are one. And there it comes to rest in God. “, so was definitely thinking in emanationist terms.

This is obviously fruitful ground for the mystics among us!

The overall impression I got between the three of them, though, was that we are congenitally in severe need of conversion, of a far-reaching overhaul of all of our psychology. That, I suppose, would agree well with the standard evangelical original sin -> fallen state -> need for salvation/metanoia paradigm (and I keep getting the feeling that some bits of Pete’s former protestant evangelicalism have not so much gone away as transformed into a slightly different form, a conversion which perhaps skates too close to exchanging certainties for my liking). Todd went on to reference as evidence of this collective lack of rationality the fact that we seem unable to form a sufficient consensus to act (to a large enough extent and soon enough) on climate change.

Now, I don’t know whether Todd used the words “end of the world” – my notes don’t include that, but my memory says that by the end of the discussion it had been used.

Even if we do absolutely nothing to combat climate change, of course, it will not be “the end of the world”; the planet will continue more or less unscathed. Even though we have already started a mass-extinction event, with the loss of countless species, it will also not mean the end of the natural world. What it will produce is widespread famine, the loss of huge areas of low-lying land (on which a substantial portion of the human population currently live) and mass migrations. Indeed, I’ve seen suggestions that the Syrian crisis, with its attendant refugees, can be blamed ultimately on drought and thus on climate change; so can a substantial proportion of the African refugees who regularly try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. Canada and Russia will gain quite a bit of cultivable land from the permafrost, but most of the rest of us will lose agricultural production.

The result will assuredly be a huge reduction in the human population attended by the wiping out of a lot of national borders, and in all probability the end of our current economic systems. “The end of civilisation” is a distinct possibility – but not the end of the world, except as we know it, and probably not even the extinction of humanity in its entirety. Probably not even reduction to as low a number as the 144,000 some of my more extreme Reformed friends talk of…

Having said all that, the thought crossed my mind that against the background of the impression that humanity was a possibly irremediable species, perhaps I should not be so concerned. Perhaps we deserve to die off… and given what we now know about evolution, species will evolve to fill the gaps left by the mass extinction, as they have many times previously.

The further thought crossed my mind as a follow up to that that we tend to think in an extremely anthropomorphic way. Thinking that the world comes to an end because our species is in some peril reflects this. Our religions tend to suggest that the whole thing was created so that we could exist and thrive.

But what if God created the world in order to form a habitat for, say, cockroaches? There are many more cockroaches on the planet than humans – indeed, studies have indicated that there may be a greater weight of cockroaches than humans, which at several thousand cockroaches per human is a sobering thought. They have most certainly been fruitful and multiplied. Cockroaches are also exceptionally durable – there is little or no doubt that they will survive any climate-change extinction; they are better fitted to a multitude of environments than is humanity.

Perhaps they (or some other insects) are actually the pinnacle of creation, and humanity is somewhere between a cosmic mistake (which is in line with what the panel were saying) and a means to an end to create a beneficial environment for the cockroaches?

Then again, perhaps it’s all designed to support viruses…

It would seem that those of us who take a similarly jaundiced view of anthropology (for instance, proponents of original sin) should perhaps pause for thought before welcoming the End Times…

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More on the Brexit mess

May 9th, 2019
by Chris

It seems inevitable that we will have elections to the European Parliament in a couple of weeks time. Those who bleated about Europe being undemocratic are now bleating about the waste of money electing people to help run Europe – which, I admit, is a waste of money when it elects the likes of Nigel Farage, who takes his significant MEP salary and does nothing useful. Also about the incredible burden of having to vote again (which, of course, is what democracy demands, and what many of our forebears fought to achieve…).

Quite clearly, electing MEPs is not a waste of money if (and only if) we don’t actually end up leaving Europe. That is, I admit, an outcome I would very much like to see happen, but it seems somewhat unlikely unless those pressing for a new referendum get their way (and even then might not be the case). The reason is that both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party have accepted Brexit as a part of their political platforms, and under our largely two party system, they have a massive majority between them. The saving grace so far has been that they don’t agree with each other on the form Brexit should take – which is unsurprising as members of both parties don’t agree with each other on the subject.

However, this means that about 80% of Parliament is committed by manifesto to Brexit in one form or another.

This is curious to me, as before the referendum, around 67% of MPs were declared Remainers (including all the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Greens), and we haven’t had anything remotely like half of the MPs replaced by subsequent elections. MPs with backbone would have refused to stand on a Brexit manifesto if their views were that it was a disastrous idea – and they didn’t.

The breakdown of division along party lines we have seen as Parliament discusses Brexit does, unusually, mean that on this topic, MPs represent the actual views of the public as they were before the Referendum rather well – the country voted 52% to 48% for Brexit, but in talking to people who had voted for Brexit, they wanted widely different types of Brexit. However, I don’t think (given the lack of backbone I mentioned earlier) that we can actually trust Conservatives or Labour to vote their conscience rather than their party line, if such a thing could be re-established, and certainly not to be seen to vote against any Brexit at all.

In last week’s Local elections, it is notable that the LibDems and the Greens did remarkably well, both more than doubling their number of councillors. Pundits are pretty much agreed that this voting pattern reflected a degree of anti-Brexit sentiment, and was possibly largely a judgment on the handling of Brexit by the two main parties (both of whom lost a lot of seats, as, incidentally, did the arch-Brexit party, UKIP). This, of course, means that if the Pundits are right (which I think they are) people didn’t vote for the best people to represent them at local level, they voted significantly on the basis of national politics in which local councillors have absolutely no voice. (I disapprove of people doing that, and not least because I lost the council seat I’d occupied for four terms on the basis of a national trend which had nothing to do with local politics…). Encouraging to Remainers that may be, but we should note that we still have around 2/3 of councillors who belong to Labour or Conservative, and those are both pro-Brexit. The share of the popular vote was estimated (on the basis of all seats being fought) as 28% for each of Labour and Conservative and 19% for LibDem, so even on a properly proportional basis, there is still a 56% vote for pro-Brexit parties there.

Against that background, what are we going to see with the European elections? The first thing that strikes me is that people are really going to feel more free to vote along Brexit/Remain lines rather than to stick to the established parties (and I can’t criticise them too much, given that if we do leave, any MEPs will be in office for a very short time and unlikely to have much impact). It is impossible to estimate with any accuracy what proportion of people voted on Brexit lines and what proportion voted on traditional party lines (or even for the best candidate irrespective of party, which happens more at local level than in national politics). We also have the new Brexit Party and Change UK standing, respectively for Brexit and Remain, who will no doubt take votes and split the vote in both cases. OK, our voting system for those elections is on a regional list (proportional representation) basis, so splitting the vote might not matter so much as it would in our usual first-past-the-post elections.

Incidentally, the Brexit Party is fundamentally a new vehicle for Nigel Farage and his devotees (he’s currently a UKIP MEP), which I don’t want to underestimate because he’s the closest thing UK politics gets to Trump; Change UK is based on a group of Conservative and Labour MPs who have defected to form a new party (reminiscent of the SDP), and I have no idea how much traction they will actually achieve in an election. To my mind, they should have joined the LibDems (their predecessor, the SDP, did of course eventually merge with the Liberals to form the LibDems).

Against this background, there is a petition going around at the moment requesting the government to guarantee to hold a new referendum if pro-Remain candidates are in a majority after the European Election.

I haven’t signed it. The first reason is that I’ve signed every other petition to Parliament which offered the possibility of mitigating or reversing Brexit, and the government has taken virtually no notice of those at all. The second reason is that I worry that treating the European Election as basically another referendum may founder on the rocks of long term party loyalties; even though voters are going to feel more free to ignore their old loyalties in a potentially pointless election and even though party loyalties (at least for Labour and Conservative) seem to be at an all-time low, if the government did treat this election as functionally another referendum, I think there would be enough “reflex voting” along party lines that it would not actually represent the “will of the people” on Brexit at the moment, and they would be emboldened in going for some Brexit with a fresh argument that “the people have voted…”. To sign this would be giving another hostage to fortune, and I really don’t want to do anything which might conceivably increase the chances of Brexit happening.

There is another factor in play now, and that’s path-dependency. We’ve now been ostensibly leaving Europe for three years, and many companies (including Lloyds of London) have actually relocated outside the country to protect themselves against a hard Brexit. We can expect many more to be well along the route to doing likewise. Even I am somewhat swayed by the idea that we have basically done most of the damage already, and so some form of Brexit will at least lance the boil of paralysis in government. There are other issues which require urgent action, and they are being sidelined by Brexit. I’ve toyed with the idea that I might be able to swallow, say, a Norway-type solution.

But I tell myself that the contents of my last post on this topic still hold good. This will not be over even then…

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Death and resurrection

April 21st, 2019
by Chris

There is a scene in James Clavell’s book “Shogun” (and in the film of the book) where the hero, Blackthorne, decides to kill himself in the classic samurai style, sets himself up to do it (including a “second” to cut off his head to prevent him suffering too long, as stomach wounds are wont to do), goes through with it to and including the muscles tensing to drive the sword home, and is at the last microsecond prevented from going through with it.

Blackthorne is never quite the same again thereafter. He has fully accepted the fact of his imminent death and committed himself to it.

On 30th November 2006, I was in the depths of a long clinical depression (which, in all, lasted for 17 years, ending in March 2013), and was facing at the same time the end of my career, major legal problems and imminent bankruptcy. It came with PTSD and chronic anxiety, and I had been self-medicating for some years with alcohol, which had landed me with alcohol dependence as well. (If you have these kinds of problems yourself, please don’t self-medicate with alcohol – it may seem to alleviate the symptoms short term, but makes them much more difficult to handle long term). That had led to my wife leaving me a week earlier.

So I decided that the world would be much better without me. Knowing myself well enough to realise that my instincts would cut in to stop me doing something like Blackthorne’s solution, I settled on pills. I researched the lethal dose, ensured that I had a sufficient supply and settled down to take them. First, however, I apologised nicely to God, and attempted to apologise nicely to my wife over the phone…

As it turned out, this provoked a call to emergency services which led to an ambulance arriving at the house. I tried to run from the ambulancemen, but having taken a significant overdose, didn’t move quickly enough and was piled into an ambulance (I remember only flashes of this, but have pieced together the narrative from other people). Some hours later, I woke up in hospital, and thought “Well, that didn’t work; what do I do now?” My best metaphor for what then happened was the screen in a computer game which says “Game over: New Game? Y/N”.

I chose “Y”.

It was pretty much a coin toss as to which it would be, but I was going to commit myself to whichever course of action I chose – and, as it turns out, I’m still here 13 years later, have solved the alcohol dependency, have prescribed medications which keep the depression and anxiety at a manageable level (as from 2013) and suffer relatively few PTSD symptoms.

Like the fictional Blackthorne, however, things have never been quite the same since. The acceptance of my death remains – I just don’t feel the need to do anything about it at the moment, confident that it will arrive some day.

One of the elements in this years “Atheism for Lent” course has been a reflection by Katherine Sarah Moody on one of the events in Peter Rollins “Ikon” community, called appropriately “The End”, as it was the last event Ikon produced before winding up the community, which was always planned to be time-limited. It was a piece of “transformance art” which used a host of symbolism in order to provoke a visceral appreciation of the participants’ eventual death. I wonder whether some or even all of those who were there had something like what I experienced myself in 2006, or which is described by Clavell in “Shogun”.

All of this is, of course, particularly relevant as I write this on Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. Personally, I cannot bring myself to believe that this was in essence a revivification of the dead body of Jesus, although I retain sufficient doubt to say that I am (just) agnostic as to whether that took place, and in any event, my reading of the various gospel texts as a lawyer looking at them as eyewitness testimony (which, incidentally, I don’t think any of them actually are) strongly indicates to me that the “best fit” for what actually happened involves a set of apparitions. Some of those may have been tactile apparitions, but as I’ve actually experienced tactile apparitions a few times, I have no hesitation in saying that, for instance, Thomas touching Jesus’ wounds could have been a tactile apparition. And no, I don’t know what happened to the actual body if, indeed, there was an empty tomb. I do, however, think that the actual body, revivified or not, could not have entered a closed room without passing through a doorway, nor could it have suddenly disappeared in other accounts. Those are the territory of apparitions, not of real physical objects.

I rather fancy that Blackthorne and I understand resurrection in a way which most people might not. Paul may have, however, when he claimed to have died with Christ, and that not he but Christ now lived in him.

I’m not sure I’m as completely transformed as Paul’s words indicate him to have been (and as elsewhere he complains that he knows what he wishes to do and actually does otherwise, I think those words were dictated by him at a “high point”), but I was transformed, and perhaps transformance art may do something of the same thing. Certainly I don’t recommend getting to that point via an overdose or a wakizashi.

What is, however, the case is that I not only do not fear death intellectually (that came from peak mystical experience many years ago) but I am confident that I don’t fear it physically either (though I have a strong aversion to most of the means of getting there). There is an additional factor; as a friend said “Since then, you’re playing with house money”. Yes, I am. Every day is a gift when by all accounts I should have died 13 years ago.

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Saying things about God…

April 15th, 2019
by Chris

A little while ago, I noted in connection with the statement “Jesus is Lord” not only that it states by implication that Caesar (or your king, president, prime minister or party leader) is not Lord, but also that the very making of the statement instantiates (to at least an extent) what it proclaims. Government is always to a great extent by consent; it takes a fairly modest proportion of a population to deny a government actively to make it incapable of governing, even where that government is very repressive and totalitarian. A ruler is a ruler, to a huge extent, because you and others think he or she is a ruler.

It is a performative speech act, in the same way as “I now declare you man and wife” actually makes a couple man and wife. I grant that in order to make a ruler, you need a large number of such performative speech acts, but the principle holds good in general – and in any event, the statement “Jesus is Lord” creates an allegiance within you. In this way, one can easily see how the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus is Lord, is an “already but not yet” situation; it is already the case in those who proclaim it, but not yet in that the whole body of humanity has not yet proclaimed it.

Writing this on Palm Sunday (I note that it’s very unlikely I’ll finish writing it on the same day), I can readily understand the Roman reaction to crowds of people loudly proclaiming Jesus as he rode through Jerusalem. The very action of proclaiming him was a rebellion against Caesar. I note in passing that those who these days worry about Muslims having a “dual allegiance” are probably correct – in my country, Catholics were accused of that from the time when Henry VIII split from the Catholic church until really very recently, with considerable justification as, for many years, Catholic nations were being encouraged to invade us and re-establish “the true faith”, and following our Civil War the same attitude was taken for some time towards many nonconformists, as a considerable impetus for the rather short lived “Commonwealth” was found in some of the more ardent strands of Protestantism, for example the Diggers and the Levellers. (Americans may note that the Pilgrim Fathers were from one such sect, though they were no longer being persecuted by the time the Mayflower set sail). The Romans were reacting very much as do those who worry about Muslims (or, indeed, Jews) in the States, or the British governments from the 1500s towards Catholics.

However, to my mind, members of any religion should have an allegiance first to God, and only thereafter to the nation, or, in the case of non-theistic religions, to the way, the Tao, the principles. That holds particularly good for Christianity, which has a weakness for turning itself into or selling out to empire, starting with the Constantinian turn and going on to the imperial papacy of the Middle Ages, the smug self-satisfaction of the European empires of the 16th to 19th centuries (whether it be the Spanish, the French, the Dutch or the English, all took with them their missionaries and considered themselves to be “enlightening the heathen”), or the casual arrogance of American Exceptionalism which just knows that God is a proprietary feature of the American Way and can imagine that a lying, cheating, adulterous narcissist is God’s chosen instrument to lead the “free world”.

It is probably worth pointing out that those same 16th century Diggers and Levellers were prominent examples of the concept that allegiance to God trumped allegiance to country, and that this mindset was very much a feature of the post-Civil War concept of the country, in a secularised form in which the rule of law and the will of the representatives of the people were sovereign over the notional leaders of the country (whether monarchs or prime ministers). Their lineal successors are now our Socialists and Social Democrats.

All of this is very well, but I’m also writing this nearing the end of Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course, which I’m doing for the third time. Some of the writers we’ve been contemplating would see what I’ve written above not as a matter of according power to an entity (whether Caesar or God) which actually exists absent such proclamations, but as actually constituting that entity. In that vein of thinking, if Muslims talk of “Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, they are looking to constitute the meme of Allah as being merciful and compassionate. Some Theologian friends of mine will cheerfully talk of theology as being an “imaginative construction”, which is at most a hair’s breadth from this way of thinking; some Magician friends will say that it is something slightly more than an imaginative construction, but it is still actually creating the entity of God.

We can agree, I think, that what we mean by “God” is not less than an imaginative construction; it should be abundantly clear that even in a completely atheistic world, our talk of God creates a God-concept and so a force which operates in our concept-space independently of whether it corresponds to something in the real world. Let’s face it, our talk of money creates such a force, and money these days does not have any real existence – no-one considers that billionaires are such because they have in their possession more than a billion pound coins, for instance (nor are those pound coins really “worth” a pound each, other than because we believe them to be).

The Magicians think that they are creating something akin to archetypes in the collective unconscious, and that those archetypes can have real physical effects. In calling God “merciful and compassionate”, we are therefore actually making God merciful and compassionate, in calling God all powerful we are making him or her all powerful, and in calling God loving we are creating a loving God. I have sufficient suspicion that there may be a grain of truth in this way of thinking that I really do not like language like “sinners in the hands of an angry God” or of consignment to everlasting torment for the unfaithful, just in case by so describing God we are making a God who is actually like that – we are certainly creating a psychological force within some of us which can be very inimical to us, and can cause untold grief.

But what if, in reality, there IS a God, and what we say about God is potentially true, potentially false? Yes, we have the nasty and insidious thought that we may be blaspheming by describing God as wrathful if, in fact, God is endlessly loving (or vice versa).

In addition, however, I think of the image of the Eastern potentate from which we derive a concept of God as sovereign. Yes, you extol his power and might, and that helps to make him powerful and mighty. But you also extol his compassion and mercy in the hope that that might persuade him to be compassionate and merciful (or even loving) in circumstances where he is anything but those things.

It is with those thoughts rattling around in my head that I was looking through some of the Psalms recently, and thinking that we may be doing just that; we may have a weak God whom we are calling powerful, we may have an ignorant God whom we are calling all-knowing, a heartless God whom we are calling compassionate, a legalistic God whom we are calling merciful and an unfeeling God whom we are calling loving. Perhaps the terms we use most of God are exactly those qualities God actually lacks? I could also worry about faithfulness, constancy, justice and, perhaps above all, the possibility that we are dealing with a wholly unpredictable God, one who does “play dice” (as Einstein famously suggested God did not), not just on a subatomic level but in all respects…

And perhaps, just perhaps, if we redouble our efforts to call God those things which we would want God to be, we may get a God like that…

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The specific and the general

April 12th, 2019
by Chris

The last week of the Open and Relational Theology reading group engages some of the work of Karen Baker-Fletcher, who is a womanist theologian. That means that she is a black feminist theologian, approaching theology from the point of view of one who is triply disadvantaged, though being female and black, and thus in addition (her society being constructed the way it is) from a low social status.

She is also American.

This means, from my point of view, that she is quadruply removed from my experience; I am a white male, of middle class origins, and I’ve from the UK. My immediate impulse is to shut up and see where her particular experience leads her to go, because I cannot adequately place myself in her position, and if I can’t do that, I may be unable to engage any of her points adequately. Certainly, it has on occasion seemed to me that those who talk of intersectionality (being multiply disadvantaged, which tends to lead to problems which are over and above those faced by anyone who is singly disadvantaged) have a tendency to tell me that I can’t understand where they are coming from, and should thus remain silent.

The thing is, in original academic formation I’m a scientist (specifically a physicist), and in thinking about physics it is irrelevant what my colour, sex, nationality or SES may happen to be. I tend to carry that attitude over to any other area of interest; having got my degree, I then turned to Law, and aside the specific areas of discrimination law and matrimonial law, the law is ideally colour-blind, takes no account of gender and is equally accessible to lord and peasant alike. Anything else is a specific defect to be addressed, of course (none of those ideals are actually the case in practice, and from what I read, are somewhat less the case in practice in the States than they are at home), but that doesn’t go to the root of how the law should actually work.

This attitude is not infrequently criticised as being the “view from nowhere”. I prefer to think of it as being an universal viewpoint, one which is informed by specific viewpoints but does not adopt any of them to the exclusion of others.

That said, another long term passion of mine has been politics, and I spent something like 30 years heavily engaged in politics at a local level, a significant proportion of that as an elected representative and, for one year, mayor of my town. In politics it is not really possible to have a “view from nowhere”; everyone is situated in some way, and their political standpoints are going to reflect that. To a great extent, success in politics involves recognising the positions of various groupings and forming a coalition of their views in order to get elected. Also, a good elected representative is just that, a representative of his or her constituency, and although a modest number may have actually voted for them, their responsibility is then to represent all the persons in that constituency. The representative needs to listen to all constituents… Even then, though, the resulting policies are not for a particular group (one would hope), they are for all.

Moving on to theology, I confess that I want to move as quickly as possible to universality, particularly as I come from mysticism, and I see nothing particularly specific about the mystical experience (talking about which is far more a matter of casting doubt on all the specifics you may come up with). But I recognise there the genius of the Hebrews in insisting on particularity – the Jews as “the chosen people” are perhaps the primary example of that, and they insist, for instance, that saving one person is to save the world entire (the corollary of which, obviously, is that you can’t save the world entire without saving one or more specific individuals). Equally, you can’t construct a theology without the individual experiences of people interacting with God, particularly if doing relational theology.

Moving on to Christian theology, we don’t have, at least not in the beginning, an account of the generalised unity of man with God (as a fully fledged mystic might write), we have a set of accounts of a specific man who was one with God (and doubly or perhaps triply specific, in being into the bargain a Jew who was a man rather than a woman), accounts taken from a set of specific viewpoints (one of those, I would argue, is that of a mystic, so as not to ignore that point of view). Attempts to harmonise those were very early taken to be heretical, in the form of Marcion (and to a lesser extent Tatian).

So I should look at Karen Barker-Fletcher’s writing with interest as being just such a particular approach; not from my particular position (but not the less valuable for that) and definitely not less valuable for not being an universalised viewpoint.

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This will never end…

April 9th, 2019
by Chris

There has been a cartoon circulating, with a man carrying a “The End is Nigh” placard, and another following him with one labelled “This will never end” and saying “your optimism disgusts me”.

So, a few days ago, I was talking with some people about Brexit (lets face it, there has been virtually no other topic of conversation for the last three years or so), and one pf them expressed the opinion I’ve heard many times (and a feeling I’ve shared) “I just want it to be over with” (OK, he followed on with “even if it’s a no deal Brexit”, which is a step I could never have joined him in). At that point I had an awful realisation – and as a result probably completely spoiled his day when I spelled it out.

Everyone knows by now that if Brexit is cancelled for some reason, the Tory Brexiteers and all the UKIP crowd (most of whom have been being fairly quiet recently) will be up in arms, and immediately pressing for a new Brexit. To listen to some of them, I would not rule out violence. They may or may not still have the support of the 52% who voted for Brexit in the first place – personally I think a sizeable proportion of those would heave a sigh of relief and accept the position, but there are enough hard-line Brexiteers around that we would not hear the end of it in my lifetime. Let’s face it, I innocently thought when I voted to stay in Europe in 1975 that that was a final decision (and I ask whether “the people have spoken” doesn’t still apply to that vote…)

The thing is, if Brexit does happen, much the same thing will be the case – except it’ll be (at least in part) people wanting us to rejoin the EU.

48% of those who voted, in particular, will be somewhere between annoyed and furious, depending on the type of Brexit involved, but that’s not all. A sizeable number of those very embarrassed people who didn’t vote “because it was a foregone conclusion and we wouldn’t be leaving” will join them.

And so will all those who wanted a different kind of Brexit. None of the “soft Brexit” options, ranging from a “Norway” type deal, accepting pretty much all the EU rules (including free movement of labour) and pretty substantial payments to the EU into the bargain, through to a mere Customs Union, will satisfy the hard Brexiteers. In fact, their argument that “we might as well stay in the EU” if we have even as much as a customs union is fairly accurate – we’ll have most of the regulation, but without having any say in its creation. Jacob Rees-Mogg characterised that as being a “slave nation”. That may well persuade many who thought it a good idea to try to be “semi-detached” that, well, we might as well be full members again. After all, there can’t be much more of a “democratic deficit” than having no say at all in the rules…

If there were, God forbid, a hard Brexit, all of those who were against it in the first place plus all of those hurting because of the huge damage it would do to us (not least, in all probability, food shortages) would be even more furious than the Brexiteers would be were we not to leave at all. There would be a huge push to rejoin… but how long would that take? The EU’s starting position would be for us to accept all the EU’s mechanisms and rules (we have a lot of derogations from those as things stand), including the single currency (and also making the House of Lords fully democratic, though that might not be so much of a problem). And an increased contribution to the budget, of course. Negotiating against that background could take many years.

And then the Brexiteers would be at it again…

That is, of course, assuming that the country were still governable following a hard Brexit, which I think is far from certain.

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