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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My book

April 6th, 2019
by Chris

It has occurred to me that not all of those who subscribe to my blog are also people who follow me on facebook, so I thought I should publicise the fact that I have written a book, which was published at the end of March.

It’s called “A Holy Mystery: Taking Apart the Trinity”, and it’s published by Energion Publications.

It came about after I mentioned to Henry Neufeld, the founder of Energion, that I thought I’d now covered all major areas of doctrine in one or other of my blog posts, and was thinking of trying to put them together into a sort of semi-systematic theology – and he remarked that I hadn’t touched on the Trinity. I felt really stupid at that point, because Trinity is perhaps THE major doctrine of Christianity; the vast majority of Christian denominations are Trinitarian, and those which are confessional all have a statement of the Trinity in their liturgy. The Church of England, which is my home church, regularly recites the Nicene or the Apostles’ creed, and has hidden away in the prayer book the Athanasian creed as well, for those who really want to go into detail (which doesn’t include the clergy in any church I’ve actually attended).

You can have all sorts of beliefs about the way salvation occurs, you can have all sorts of beliefs about the nature of God, but Trinity rears its head almost everywhere…

It is perhaps not surprising that I’d not written about Trinity, because, as a mystic, I have an overwhelmingly unitive experience of God which does not easily translate to trinitarian thinking. Yes, I’m very well aware of other mystics who do find trinity central to the way they think – Richard Rohr and Ilia Deleo spring to mind – but they are people who have grown up in confessional trinitarianism and therefore have trinity kind of baked into their thinking. I was not on speaking terms with Christianity when I had my first mystical experiences, so I more or less inevitably had a different conception.

So, I set out to write a blog post to correct the omission. When it got to about 5000 words, I had another chat with Henry, because I could by then see that it was definitely over-sized even for my blog (I did originally contemplate titling the blog “tl:dr”, because I really cannot restrict myself to the recommended 500 words or so which someone advised me was the length a blog post should aim at). And he suggested that it might make a “Topical Line Drive” for Energion; Topical Line Drives are short books (less than 40 pages) which aim to go straight to the heart of a topic in a very concise form.

That was how the book started out. I did manage to fit what I wanted to say into a little over 12000 words (and 38 pages), which is perhaps remarkable, as it includes a survey of the scriptural evidence and of the church fathers who developed the concept, as well as a criticism of the philosophical basis, a meditation on other possibilities which the church fathers might have contemplated and a brief excursion into threenesses in the god-concepts of other religions. It also outlines the problem which I was addressing, which is that the early church were very keen to refine the doctrine and therefore determined that a number of ways of thinking of trinity were heresies. The result is that almost everyone who tries to talk about the Trinity falls into one or more of those heresies, and that includes a sizeable number of clergy. As I say in the book “…how did the church arrive in this position, of having what is generally regarded as a very important or even an absolutely fundamental doctrine, which is however extremely difficult (some would argue impossible) for even theologically trained people to understand?”.

I hope that subscribers to the blog will want to read more! In other words, please buy my book.

Indeed, if you’re likely to be in church listening to a sermon on Trinity Sunday or (and my sympathies go out to you if this is the case) actually preaching on Trinity Sunday, I’d suggest that you’ll probably get far more from that sermon if you have read “A Holy Mystery”.

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Physicists turned theologians…

April 4th, 2019
by Chris

In the Open and Relational Theology reading group I’ve been following, we’ve arrived at John Polkinghorne, who has the distinction of being a brilliant particle physicist, a knight of the realm and a priest in the Anglican communion. I feel considerable fellow-feeling with him, as I did my BSc in Theoretical Physics many years ago and, like Polkinghorne, decided that most physicists had their good ideas in their teens or 20s, and I was probably not going to have any more really good ideas, so I changed direction – in my case, to law. I was never in Polkinghorne’s class as a thinker, though, and part of my decision was based on the realisation that I probably didn’t have the instinctive flair for mathematics which would have potentially carried those ideas I had had through to being useful scientific work. After 30 years practising law, again like Polkinghorne I’ve turned to theology (we also share a faith, in both our cases uncomfortably coexisting with a scientific rationalist), and to writing small books on limited topics – but again, I’m comparing my one published book so far to his massive oeuvre…

We’re looking at selected chapters from “The Polkinghorne Reader” edited by Tom Oord, the first of which deals with creation. Polkinghorne gives an account of the first 14 billion years or so in scientific terms in a couple of pages, and then comments “Of course, the first thing to say about that discourse is that theology is concerned with ontological origin and not with temporal beginning. The idea of creation has no special stake in a datable start to the universe. If Hawking is right, and quantum effects mean that the cosmos as we know it is like a kind of fuzzy spacetime egg, without a singular point at which it all began, that is scientifically very interesting, but theologically insignificant. When he poses the question, “But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary, or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?” it would be theologically naive to give any answer other than: “Every place—as the sustainer of the self-contained spacetime egg and as the ordainer of its quantum laws.” God is not a God of the edges, with a vested interest in boundaries. Creation is not something he did fifteen billion years ago, but it is something that he is doing now.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t particularly clear to me that the “spacetime egg” needs sustaining or that the laws governing it’s behaviour (to which scientific laws hopefully approximate increasingly closely) need ordaining. Tripp and Tom talk in their discussion about Polkinghorne being a realist, which they say most scientists are (i.e. what we discover in science has some correspondence to what is really there, i.e. ontology). I don’t feel able to go quite that far myself. Certainly I think that the models of reality we create through science have some similarity with what is really there; they have to, as they have immense predictive power for how reality is going to behave, but the best I can say is that they are approximations to reality, hopefully closer and closer approximations. I have a lurking suspicion that like all asymptotic functions, the approximation can never reach exact duplication.

He clearly thinks, however, that revelation can tell us about ontology, and goes on to insist that the Christian doctrine is of a God separate from reality who creates something distinct from Godsself; he wants to avoid panentheism. I’m a mystic; I experience God as being radically immanent and therefore not reasonably distinct from creation, and the only really amenable god-concept I can find to express that experience is panentheism (though pantheism, which would be an immanent God with no transcendent remainder, is not something my experience can entirely rule out). He really wants to preserve a doctrine of “creation ex nihilo”, and possibly a Moltmanian withdrawing of God in order to make a space separate from God in which creation can occur (something which is absolutely not consistent with my experience, though I do find value in the concept of kenosis in relation to creation). I don’t see the need to do that; I don’t read Genesis 1 as involving creation ex nihilo in any event, and generally reject the arguments of Platonists and Aristoteleans which lead to that, not being a member of either camp.

He also seems wedded to the preservation of God’s power (which is admittedly severely curtailed by, for instance, Process thought); personally I think the concept of omnipotence is a “theological mistake” following Charles Hartshorne’s argument on the subject. I would point out, however, that in a panentheistic conception of God, all the power which exists is God’s power, without the need for that to be infinite (a determination which I argue we are incapable of making as we cannot observe infinity, merely intuit it – and I think intuit wrongly from the astonishingly large).

Like Polkinghorne, I consider speculation about the universe emerging from a quantum vacuum (which would not, as he comments, be “nihilo” but might well be “tohu wabohu” – without form and void) to be pointless. However, I can’t muster the confidence he shows in revelation (even if “ex nihilo” were what was revealed, which I don’t think is the case). If the mathematics of cosmology is right, there is no “outside” to the universe in which there might be a quantum vacuum, but there is also no “before” to found an act of creation either. T=0 is an absolute limit, and the very concept of “creation” demands that first there not be something and then that there be something – and without a “before”, the term has no meaning. Though my own (pointless) speculation might be that there could be a timelike dimension in which a “before-like” state might be thought to have existed – but such a dimension is one which we cannot observe and have, it seems, no need of in order to explain anything else in the universe, so probably doesn’t exist.

The second chapter being discussed is “Providence”. Polkinghorne rejects Cartesian mind-body dualism in favour of what he describes as “dual aspect monism”, arguing that what is has physical and mental poles, while being one thing at root. This is, I suppose, a form of panpsychism. I have major problems thinking about what it might be to be a bat, without trying to think what it might be to be, say, a single cell (whether an organism in its own right or part of a larger whole) a rock or, ultimately, an electron. Is that a possibility, I wonder? Can an energy probability density have a mindlike quality? I can’t see that, myself – it would be slightly easier to conceive of it having “experience”. He does, on the back of that, seem to at least toy with the idea of emergence – that properties can be seen at higher levels of organisation which could not be predicted from a completely reductionist examination of the individual elements involved (i.e. the idea that physics is not actually all there is, with chemistry, biology and psychology being progressively less exact and more wooly representations of phenomena which can all be explained by physics). I agree with that, which produces the odd phenomenon of two physicists agreeing that physics is not the be-all and end-all…

I have huge sympathy for his argument that there could, just possibly, still be direct divine agency at work in the world via a “tweak” of quantum states which, conceivably, could then via chaos theory have macroscopic effects. Rather than a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon and causing a storm in Europe, it’s more a matter of a single particle popping into existence out of the Dirac sea and having the same effect – OK, maybe via a butterfly. It’s one which I’ve entertained myself, as while I fall within the category mentioned by Tom who have no experience of anything which could be regarded as a miracle (or as supernatural intervention) as such, I do have that first mystical experience, which felt as if it was given to or imposed on me. I would really like to think that there were circumstances in which God qua God (and not as that which underlies everything) could act. Indeed, frankly from my perspective, that’s pretty much the only way I can see Tripp’s line that God creates novel possibilities all the time happening. But around 99% of my brain says that that is wishful thinking.

The trouble is, anything of this kind seems to me to contravene Tom Oord’s “not even once” principle, in that even one intervention by God would negate openness. I’m entirely unconvinced that Polkinghorne’s “top down” provision of information can get round this problem – why, for example, does God not provide people on the brink of committing some dastardly act with the full knowledge (including empathetic knowledge) of the consequences of that act?

That said, Polkinghorne talks of “strange attractors”, and it seems to me that memes might provide some such strange attractor as a “top down” causation. Memes are, of course, human creations, but we have to assent to following as well as creating memes. “Jesus is Lord”, for instance, is a statement which in part effects and instantiates the lordship of which it talks, given that rule is always ultimately by consent.

When he talks of prayer, I can follow on from the previous paragraph and regard prayer as aligning ourselves with the God-meme. I have also in the past speculated that prayer might release in us capabilities which were not otherwise accessible. Certainly, prayer does release in us a reflective knowledge of our own desires, and possibly even those desires which are normally hidden from us. Mainly, though, for me, the point of prayer is in the last line of anything I pray “nevertheless, Lord, not my will but yours be done” (or, more briefly “whatever, boss”).

The “not even once” principle, however, seems to me to negate any possibility of the gross physical miracles he discusses, even with Lewis’ caveat that they only occur at pivotal moments. To that, I enquire “And the holocaust?”

The final essay which the group is considering is about time.  Polkinghorne seems to have something of the problem with time which bedevils me, though he doesn’t ascribe it to the same source – in my case, it stems from the fact that time appears in all cases except in mystical experience to flow ineluctably (albeit, as Polkinghorne notes, not necessarily regularly in the case of special relativity, where time passes differently depending on the speed of ones motion), while the mystical experience tends to yield a strong sense of atemporality. I would have been happy with his final conclusion that everything is subject to time were it not for that mystical intuition. Having read Hartsthorne, the attribution of any infinite aspect to God seems to me to be unwarranted, quite apart from my own thought that it is inevitably unobservable.

I’m not particularly encouraged by his note that simultaneity or the lack of it is a judgment performed in all cases after the event as negating the idea that, at root, all exists simultaneously anyhow, nor by his use of the concept of a “light cone” (which is a three-dimensional diagram representing a four-dimensional space, indicating all those places from which light could by now have reached us).  Actually, the light-cone diagram illustrates one of the huge problems of talking about time, possibly whether as a physicist or not – it represents a time dimension by a space dimension, and space dimensions lack any “arrow of time”; the mathematics used does not yield any directionality, and that has to be imposed, commonly by adding the principle of entropy. In the mathematics of space-time, everything is reversible, and “things fall apart” is just not true – they might just as well spontaneously come together. All the representations we come up with fall into that trap, including Feynman diagrams. We think we are explaining something by saying that particles “move along” the lines of the diagram, but the very concept of “move along” already has time embedded in it. Polkinghorne, indeed, suggests that Physics lacks a concept of “now” – I would suggest that what it really lacks is a concept of anything else but “now”.

He also suggests that the concept of causality is not the same as that of time. While I would agree that far, the concept of causality likewise has time implicit in it – a cause now produces an effect at a later stage (or, if we were talking about teleology or “final cause”, a cause now is explained by an intention at an earlier stage). I don’t think he has managed to bypass the problem of time…

It is always interesting to see another physicist grappling with these concepts, but at the end I arrive at a quotation I once saw ascribed to Augustine but cannot now find an origin for, along the lines of “I know what time is, but when you ask me, I don’t”.

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Not my sin…

April 1st, 2019
by Chris

I have been deeply disturbed by reading a book which on more than one occasion rails against the compromise of the church with society at large (and, indeed, its tolerance) and uses as its prime example gay and lesbian priests and pastors. The whole tenor of the argument is that anyone should immediately see what is wrong with this picture.

Now, I do not want to recite here the arguments for or against homosexuality being regarded as a sin. There are certainly arguments for that position; many years ago now, a friend asked me to review the scriptures and tell him if I thought they did condemn homosexuality, and at the time I came to the conclusion that they did, and told him so. I very much regret having come to that conclusion, because he was at the time feeling a strong call to the priesthood, and my advice was significant in dissuading him from that path. I think he would have made a very fine pastor, had the denomination of his choice been accepting of his sexual orientation.

Since then, I have read very many arguments against homosexuality as such being seen that way, and arrive at the position that things are much less clear than they appeared to me in 1972; I am not sure whether the Biblical writers did in fact intend to exclude as sins even the manners of sexual intimacy which we consider to be part and parcel of “homosexuality”, let alone an homosexual orientation (which I do not think is actually mentioned in scripture). In point of fact, homosexuality as such is not mentioned either, as witness this article, but there are condemnations of, for instance, arsenokoites and malakoites, two Greek words used by Paul the exact meanings of which are unclear and disputed, but which very probably refer to practitioners of some species of homosexual activity between men. Lesbianism is not mentioned at all.

Paul’s argument in Romans 1-2

Three things about these passage in the book immediately stand out to me. The first is that the writer assumes that his audience will automatically feel that homosexuality is repulsive. I don’t, and many of those of my generation don’t (having grown up in the 60s and 70s), and I haven’t found anyone of my children’s generation who does. My parents’ generation definitely suffered from this kind of instinctive revulsion, though. I grant you, I’m a child of my time, and thinking too much about any kind of sexual activity, homosexual or heterosexual, makes me slightly squeamish. I don’t think sex is a spectator sport – though I hugely value intimacy with my wife of nearly 40 years.

The thing is, if you read Romans 1 (one of the key passages for those who want to condemn homosexuality), you will definitely find Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” in verse 24 and Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error” in verses 26 to 27. The thing is, these are not isolated verses, they are part of an extended argument.

Paul introduces this argument with “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,  since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools  and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” in verses 18-23. It’s beginning to look, at that point, very much as if Paul is using “sinful desires” and “shameful lusts”, which his audience will immediately condemn, as not the target of condemnation but the obvious result of turning away from God, obvious to the audience who are going to be “God-fearers” and therefore adhere to Jewish standards of behaviour for the most part – and Greek and Roman sexual culture of the time will have been as distasteful to them as they were to my parents’ generation.

Move on, and don’t stop at the end of the chapter (as the original didn’t have verse numbers or chapter divisions), and we find “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.  Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.  So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?  Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” in Romans 2:1-4. I’ve emboldened and underlined the main point – again, the original definitely lacked those.

Paul’s whole argument, therefore, is that those who are judgmental about anything are no better than those horrible sexually immoral people who his audience will naturally be disgusted by.

The thing is, studies show that only around 10% of humanity is born with a homosexual orientation. Personally I’d guess that the real figure is rather higher, particularly if you include people who are born bisexual and can choose between the sexes for their sexual fulfilment; even in the much more relaxed climate of the UK in the 21st century, social pressure is such that, having both options available, many bisexuals will just stick to heterosexuality in order to avoid the kind of instinctive condemnation the writer of that book evidences.

That makes it, for a very sizeable majority of the population, a “sin” which they can happily condemn because they feel absolutely no inclination to commit it. Exactly what Paul was condemning in Romans (the argument continues to Rom. 2:11 and then takes another turn). It’s “not my sin”. What Paul was asking people to do was to focus on what was “their sin”, which was primarily judgmentalism at this point.

By using this kind of easy method of attack, what the writer is doing is diverting focus from what the sins of the church actually are to one which they can avoid by the simple means of excluding (judging) a minority within their ranks. That distresses me hugely, and I note that the writer expressly says that tolerance is wrong – whereas Paul is saying that lack of tolerance is sinful.

Compromise with society

I actually have some sympathy with the writer in thinking that the church as it stands has compromised with society in a way which needs correcting (and this is the second thing which stood out to me). However, Paul’s career as a whole shows that we must not make easy arguments about compromising with society being a bad thing.  A huge focus of his mission to the Gentiles involved persuading the church generally that converts did not need to practice the Jewish dietary laws (in which respect let me note that eating seafood is condemned as an abomination in Leviticus, just as is lying with another man as with a woman) and that they did not need to be circumcised. To the average Greek or Roman of the time, the removal of the foreskin in males would have appeared to be a mutilation, and extremely distasteful, as witness during the period of the Greek Antiochid rule of Israel the number of Jews who sought an operation to reverse the operation.

In these two things, therefore, Paul was absolutely “compromising with society”, and Christianity continues to do this – it is, for instance, not considered a sin for me to eat a bacon cheeseburger, at least not on the grounds that it is twice forbidden in Leviticus, once as eating a pork product and once as mixing milk and meat. I might also ask at this point why we are ditching one provision in Leviticus but emphasising another.

Just as in the time of Paul, it would clearly make it much more difficult to evangelise for Christianity if among the first requirements were lopping off part of a man’s tackle and forswearing bacon!

Jesus, of course, makes no mention anywhere in the gospels about same-sex relationships, and where I think the Church has compromised with society is in going against clear commands of Jesus. We do not, for instance, sell everything we have and give it to the poor (except in some extreme cases, such as St. Francis). Indeed, we tend to exclude the poor, even in those churches which avowedly include them – you do not, for instance, see homeless people asked to be sidesmen or greeters in any church I’ve ever encountered, though if we were really following Jesus, they would no longer be homeless. We hang national flags in our sanctuaries and pledge allegiance to those who currently occupy the position which Caesar one did, and support our countries when they kill people either as a legal penalty or in war; we frankly worship money, and consider the possession of it to be the primary indication of the value of individuals, we argue that financialised free-market capitalism is the way we should live, despite it being based on greed and self-centeredness.

And we exclude not just the poor, but also those who have slightly different beliefs from ours (heretics!) who follow another religion (Satanic!) who have a different skin colour or speak a different language (invasion!)… or, of course, who are of a minority sexual orientation.

Indeed, in recent polls, by far the most common attribute ascribed to Christians by non-Christians was “jugmental”. Exactly what Paul was arguing against in Romans 1-2.

The conduct and character of clergy

The third point is that the writer clearly thinks it entirely inappropriate for a member of the clergy to be gay. This goes even further than thinking that homosexual activity is sinful and that clergy should not engage in it (and has no scriptural support which I can find). The writer clearly thinks that being gay is a “way of life” which is in and of itself sinful, a position which is scientifically untenable (sexual orientation is not something that people can choose, otherwise there would have been no homosexuals at all in my parents’ generation, because it was not just more or less universally condemned but actually illegal) and instinctively wrong – if you are heterosexual, ask yourself whether you could adopt “the gay lifestyle”. No? It isn’t a choice.

However, most people I talk to who take the view that homosexual behaviours are biblically condemned restrict their disapproval to clergy who are actually in a same-sex relationship. They argue that one cannot lead a congregation if one not only sins but carries on doing it.

So, let me recall some Church history. In the early fourth century, there was a major persecution of Christians under the Emperor Diocletian. In North Africa, the governor was relatively lenient, and allowed those clergy who handed over their scriptures as a token of their repudiation of the faith to go free, something which many of the laity thought was an unpardonable sin (both in repudiating the faith and in handing over the scriptures, in Latin being labelled “traditors” from the word “to hand over”, which gives rise to our word “traitor”). After the persecution ended, many of those clergy sought to resume their ministry, and a group grew up which repudiated their authority to administer the sacraments, called “Donatists”. This proved a problem to the developing ecclesiastical hierarchy, and the result was that Donatism was condemned as a heresy in 314. After many years discussion in the church, the position was clarified at the Council of Trent in the 16th century for Catholics as “The worth of the sacrifice does not depend by the celebrating priest”; it did not matter for this purpose if the priest was in a condition of mortal sin or not.

So, I can label this position heretical, and, for protestants, it’s a declared heresy which is far older than the Reformation.

Again, for any of us, Christianity has as one of its most foundational principles that we are all sinners and all in need of repentance and forgiveness. We confess our sins regularly in church, and in particular before receiving communion – and in most churches, that includes the officiating clergy. However, we are also all redeemed or justified – as Martin Luther put it “simul justus et peccator” (at the same time justified and a sinner). Complaining that your pastor is a sinner is, therefore, equivalent to complaining that he or she is a Christian.

That said, I have heard it argued that in the case of practising homosexuals, they do not really intend to stop sinning, assuming for a moment that that is a sin. I have two questions at that point – the first is “how do you know this?” I know of homosexual clergy who do consider it a sin and who both confess it and ask to be relieved of it on a daily basis. They are, like most of the rest of us, aware that they will probably not in fact stop sinning in any of the specific ways they have identified as a fault when they confess their sins. They are, I admit, in a minority.

Far more have determined to their satisfaction that God would not have ordained that it be a sin to pursue the sexual orientation that they were born with, and so, to them, it is not a sin and does not require confession or repentance. Some of us respond that they are wrong, and therefore cannot be considered worthy of leadership. My second question is thus “do you recognise all the sins you actually commit and repent of them?”

And, if you say “Yes” but still want to condemn homosexual clergy, let me repeat Paul’s words “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things”. For myself, I have to say that I do judge people, and I don’t always notice that I’m doing it, nor can I put my hand on my heart and swear that I will never do it again.

Indeed, I’m doing so in writing this post. I could excuse myself by saying “It isn’t me who is judging, it’s the scripture I’m quoting to you”, but that’s something I regularly hear from judgmental Christians.

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Dropping like flies…

March 28th, 2019
by Chris

There was a story going around a little while ago, along these lines:- A father says to his daughter “Could I have a newspaper, please?”. The daughter says “Oh, dad, you’re so 20th century – here, have my iPad”.

Result: Dead fly, broken iPad, crying daughter.

Going through week four of Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course, which has a set of “masters of suspicion”, including Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud (plus Joe Hill and Emma Goldman), I’m struck by that story. Clearly, to us, the iPad is not designed to swat flies, but to the father in the story, who knows what he wants the newspaper for, it will definitely serve the purpose.

I’ve also noted this recent article. The thesis of it is essentially the same as that of F.C. Happold in his book “Mysticism, a Study and Anthology”, namely that religions tend to start with mystics around whom a group grows who find the statements of the mystic interesting and stimulating; some of them go on to commentating, putting forward theories about what the mystic really meant by what he said, and before long you have a religion (or at least a cult) with a fixed theology, an hierarchy and rules as to who is in and who is out. I have myself written in the past “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the words of mystics”, and while that is an extreme statement not indended to be taken entirely seriously, there is a considerable amount of truth in it. I fancy there is some truth in it if you remove the word “Christian” as well. In point of fact, some of the mystics start doing the job themselves; Paul was clearly a Christ-mystic following the greatest mystic of the age, Jesus, but was also the first Christian theologian. Many of the Church Fathers in the East had a strong mystical streak in them as well; it is unfortunate that they then felt compelled to try to rationalise their visions beyond the point which the visions could legitimately support. However, in general, I think it clear that the mysticism comes first.

That is, of course, a very different story from that told by Feuerbach, who wrote “Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God (Religion) consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image.” In that he is reversing the tongue in cheek wording of Voltaire, who wrote “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man, being a gentleman, has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” Feuerbach is an adherent of the “God of the gaps” idea, that God is, in effect, an hypothesis as to the cause of all the things we cannot readily explain by finding a naturalistic explanation for them.

Of course, Feuerbach is right in that God (and supernatural entities in general) have been used as explanations for the otherwise unexplainable since very early times. He and Voltaire are both right that man has been constructing anthropomorphic concepts of God from the beginning (or at least, almost so), and in the case of Feuerbach that those God-concepts then go on to shape the thinking of mankind. In effect, Marx just follows on from Feuerbach’s criticism, but expands his thinking to providing societal hope. He might also have noted that religion has historically formed one of the “glues” which societies (at the most fundamental level tribes) need to remain cohesive.

Freud looks at religions as vehicles to assuage anxieties, also accepting Feuerbach’s conclusion as being common knowledge, and in another of the week’s readings (in this case actually a song) by Joe Hill, one of the religious claims which most commonly assuages anxieties, namely reliance on an afterlife to correct unfairnesses in life, is viciously skewered (and quite rightly so, in my opinion).

So, we can quite reasonably say that God has in fact been used as a kind of description of mankind, as a tool of social control or social cohesion, as a therapeutic invention, as a correction for the incredibly conterfactual instinct in humanity that life should be fair, and as an explanation of last resort for otherwise unexplained events. We could also say that God has been used as an ultimate source of meaning in life or a guarantor of a system of morality.

But are these things what God-concepts are “designed to do”, or is God, in effect, being used as a fly swatter?

The mystic in me is inclined to respond that, so far as we can see historically, some concept of God is first a response to a particular species of human experience which appears in all ages and cultures, albeit historically in a small minority of individuals. For the mystic, some God-concept is necessary. Granted, it probably does not look much like the God concepts which are produced by non-mystic theologians, and that is a possible flaw. However, what mysticism tends to do in practice is to produce non-violent, compassionate, generous people invested in the care of creation (and I could cite examples like Richard Rohr or the Dalai Lama), and inasmuch as some God-concept is necessary to their formation, that is not any of the things criticised by the “masters of suspicion”. Indeed, most mystics would tend to criticise the use of God-concepts in those spheres, just as I would criticise the use of an iPad as a fly swatter.

Dear Sigmund – sometimes a God is just a God…

There is a problem in this line of thinking, however, and that is that mystics using God-concepts to aid their non-violence, compassion, generosity and creation-care have historically been a fairly small minority, and one could readily argue that in fact the less beneficial uses of God-concepts have historically been far more prominent. Several of the “New Atheists” have done just that, notably Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Good”. I cannot say with confidence that the balance has historically been favourable, nor can I say with confidence that even if something is designed for good, the fact that it is usually used for bad may justify its general disuse.

What can I therefore say in conclusion? Mystics are going to continue to exist (in fact, I’ve been very encouraged by some polls indicating that nearly half of the people interviewed have had some kind of mystical experience, a massive increase from, say, 50 years ago when the percentage was more like ten) and they will most definitely have God-concepts, even if those are couched in such abstruse philosophical terms that they don’t look much like God-concepts any more. Buddhists, I’m looking at you here… and possibly also Pete Rollins “Pyrotheology”.

The thing is, things which are operationally God-concepts (and operate in the less beneficial ways outlined) are also going to continue to exist. Money. The State. The people. The proletariat. The Church. “Our team”. The list could go on for a long time. All of those are, for some of us, as Paul Tillich puts it “matters of ultimate concern”.

We will have Gods. We should strive to become conscious of the nature of those Gods, and if they are not worthy of our devotion, we should find others. Then, perhaps, we can ask not (as all the writers this week are doing) “What can your God do for you?” but “What can you do for your God?”.

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