Musings of a nobody

November 15th, 2019
by Chris

A recent Evonomics post (worth a read generally) contains one statement which pulled me up short. It was this:-

” What sucker wants to earn $10 million/year at a 52.5% tax rate when you can get away with hundreds of millions in one take at just 15%? Nobody, that’s who. “

Well, that puts me in the category of “nobody” as well as that of “sucker”! For a start, I don’t like the concept of getting “money for nothing” (though at one point in my life “the chicks for free” might have been attractive…) I like to think that I’ve done something useful or created something useful or beautiful, and am getting paid a sensible amount for that. Anything over and above that would make me feel somewhat dishonest.

Add to that the fact that, in the premise that I could work a year at something and get 47.5 million dollars for it, I might be tempted, though I’d probably only bother to work at it for a month or two (netting, perhaps, around $4 million per month), because I really don’t need that much money, and for me, need and want are pretty close to being the same thing. I only say “tempted”, because although a month or two at those rates would increase my available capital by a phenomenal percentage, I actually don’t NEED any more than I already have. Would a few millions be nice? Yes, I suppose so – but I’d give most of it away. If it most definitely fulfilled my criteria of doing something useful or making something beautiful, I’d be more likely to do it in the first place and to stick with it longer.

But, you might say, what about the amount of good you could do with hundreds of millions? Well, that is a consideration. If I had, say, four million, I’d maybe hang on to a million against a rainy day, ensure that my children were financially solid (but not absolutely rolling in it – see later), that a few impoverished friends were also financially solid. OK, I might need to do another month to make sure that was the case, as it would definitely involve paying off the student loans of all my friends’ children. Student loans are a blot on our society – having young people start life with major debt is condemning them to a period of effective debt-peonage.

Then? Buy a load of houses locally and give them to a local housing charity which at the moment houses only the elderly poor, but could readily deal with the younger poor. I might consider allowing the local council (who are the housing authority) to manage them instead, but they have huge financial pressures on them and the temptation to reallocate the funds would be extreme. Homelessness is equally a blot on our society.

Fund our local food bank with sufficient to keep them catering for all local candidates rather than having to triage. No-one should be having to beg at food banks in order to survive in a society I want to live in.

Beyond that, I’ll be stretching. Yes, there are a load of issues which deserve funding which they haven’t got at the moment (including all of student debt, homelessness and hunger more generally than just in my town), but I am almost certainly not the person who should, unaided, be deciding where the money goes. If I had the hundreds of millions, for instance, I’d want to put a lot of it into research to combat climate change – renewable energy, carbon-fixing, better batteries. But I don’t have the detailled knowledge of the science to determine exactly where it should go.

The thing is, I also don’t want to be the person who decides where the money goes for entirely personal reasons. I have noticed that having oodles of cash tends to go with people being complete a***holes; there are very very few really rich people I have known who were not at least somewhat tainted by this. I have also noticed that when I have had ample finances, I have tended to be less responsive to the needs of those who need help and started being concerned with keeping what I have (and increasing it) more than is remotely healthy for me.

Wealth is, after all, power – and it is power even if you don’t spend it. Consider the shopping scenes from the film “Pretty Woman”. Just the knowledge that Julia Roberts’ character can spend an obscene amount of money is sufficient to have all the shop assistants bowing and scraping, before any money has actually been spent. In our current climate in the West, it is by and large the only kind of power which matters…

I also have some experience of having perceived power in that for a year I was mayor of my town. Now, in the UK system, outside some large cities who have mayors who have actual power (such as the mayor of London), a mayor is just the chairman of the council. I was mayor in a council in which I was actually the only member of my political party. The thing was, I was perceived to have far more power than the ability to control the way a meeting proceeded and to exercise the occasional casting vote would justify – and I found that very limited power somewhat intoxicating, sufficiently so that I actually contemplated an offer by one of the other political parties to make me mayor again, destroying the convention which had put me there in the first place (that you got to be mayor in rotation based solely on length of service) when the next person in rotation was arguably unfit to hold the position…

Power, it has been said, corrupts. I am quite confident that that is correct, having felt the corruptive lure. I don’t want the kind of power which having oodles of money would produce, because I don’t want to be corrupted.

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We can’t have another vote, so we have to have another vote…

November 8th, 2019
by Chris

We are gearing up for another general election. Is it just me, or is the idea that we should have ANOTHER general election (making two in all) in order to try to pack the House of Commons so the government can force through a bad Brexit because “the people have spoken” and we therefore can’t possibly have a vote on the deal which is on the table somewhere between ironic and insane?

Let me spell it out. We decided to leave the EU in the referendum, and thus “have to obey the will of the people”, so we can’t have another vote now we know a lot more about how the process would work and how we will be affected. But despite the Fixed Term Parliaments Act stipulating that the next election should have been in 2020, we had an election in 2017 and are now having another in 2019, and the only real issue at either of those is Brexit – certainly, this year’s election will be the Brexit election.

We can’t have another vote, so we have to have another vote.

Let’s face it, if the government had agreed to put to whole thing to a second referendum having got as far as the May deal, they would have got that past parliament back in the spring, and we could have had our second referendum in good order and then gone ahead or not on the basis of that vote.

There is, of course, only one possible answer – the hard line Brexiteers think that if a second referendum was held, the country would decide overwhelmingly not to leave. So much for Brexit being “the will of the people”. Far better, they think, to force us to a vote where other issues muddy the waters, such as the abysmal poll ratings of Jeremy Corbyn (which I put down largely to a campaign of vitriol launched by the Tories and by the vast majority of the media starting the day after he was elected) and the fact that in a Westminster election, the Liberal Democrats have never managed to get into triple figures of MPs (and more usually have been down in the teens and twenties).

Of course, in the European Elections the Liberal Democrats polled more than Labour and more than twice as many votes as the Conservatives – but that was an election which was far more clearly about Brexit. OK, it must be admitted that the Brexit party got nearly as many votes as Labour and LibDem put together, but totting up their votes and those of the Conservatives, the other parties, who were at the least in favour of a second referendum, polled significantly more….

The trouble is, it isn’t going to be clear to a lot of people that Brexit really is the only issue on the table. It certainly isn’t about whether Jeremy Corbyn would be a good leader – there is no chance that he could come out of this with an overall majority, given that Scotland will vote overwhelmingly SNP and Wales will probably knock off a few Labour seats in favour of Plaid Cymru, and that previously safe Labour seats in the north may even elect Brexit party MPs… For those scared of him, the worst that might be seen is that Labour would be the largest party, but be forming a minority government and seeking SNP and LibDem votes on specific issues. We won’t be seeing the socialist republic of Britain on the back of this election.

It isn’t going to be about the wonderful spending promises of either the Labour or the Conservative parties either. If we do actually exit the EU, neither of them will have the money to follow up on those, due to the expected reduction in GDP (which funds taxes, and so the government) of around 10-20% – though Labour might actually try to, given the cheapness of international borrowing at the moment. We’d pretty soon be seeing “we can’t afford to do these things” and a new period of austerity which might even eclipse that of the Cameron government.

No, our slogan for this election should be “Let’s get Brexit done with” – let’s elect ABC candidates (anything but conservative), have a new referendum and yes, OK, if we still vote to leave, we can do that; I’d support putting extra options on any new referendum such as “Norway deal” to clarify further what the people actually DO want, but I’m pretty confident that the “will of the people” is to stop this madness.

And we should remember that this is not about “the will of the people -v- parliament”. Parliament has wonderfully represented the lack of any single will of the people; it’s represented the hardline “get out at all costs” merchants, the “let’s try to keep decent trading arrangements but nothing else” viewpoint, the “let’s have a Norway style deal and get out of the political side but keep all the other advantages” body of opinion and the “Brexit is a stupid idea” camp. The thing is, none of those have had an absolute majority, so there has been deadlock while May and then Johnson try to finagle us into “get out at all costs” – and parliament has said “no” to that.

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Is there a gnostic in the house?

November 6th, 2019
by Chris

I was struck by a recent article from Kimberley Stover on Patheos, written as a heartfelt letter to God – or at least, the concept of God with which she had grown up. I have huge sympathy with her feelings, and like her reject completely that concept.

This reminded me forcibly of the Gnostic attitude to God, and particularly the God depicted in much (but not by any means all) of the Hebrew Scriptures. In what may possibly be the standard Gnostic approach to scripture, the figure generally considered to be God is actually the Demiurge, a lesser emanation of God (but possibly the principal medium through which creation occurs) who, fuelled by delusions of grandeur, sets himself up as being God; the true God is above and beyond the Demiurge, and the Demiurge, while not actually a Satanic figure, takes on some characteristics of the orthodox Satan. Indeed, some gnostic tendencies have led, ultimately, to some forms of modern Satanism; while true gnostics argue for worshipping only the true god behind and above the Demiurge, Satanists argue for worshipping the cosmic figure which actually wields the power.

Gnosticism is a label which has been spread around far too liberally by champions of orthodoxy over the years, notably by such early Church Fathers as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and is therefore a very amorphous accusation; properly speaking, “gnostic” refers to there being a truth beyond that on the surface of scripture, and (for instance) Paul’s reference in 1 Cor. 2:7 “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God…” could very reasonably be regarded as gnostic in that sense, as could his reference in 1 Cor. 3:1-3 “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it; and even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh”.

So could the much repeated injunction in Mark to his disciples not to talk about Jesus. So, very notably, could Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the parable of the Prodigal Son: I quote from an article in Think Theology

“Here is a list of Augustine’s allegorizations taken from Robert H. Stein’s The Method and Message of Jesus’ Teachings (p. 46):

The man going down to Jericho =Adam
Jerusalem, from which he was going =City of Heavenly Peace
Jericho =The moon which signifies our mortality (this is a play on the Hebrew terms for Jericho and moon which both look and sound alike)
Robbers =Devil and his angels
Stripping him =Taking away his immortality
Beating him =Persuading him to sin
Leaving him half dead =Because of sin, he was dead spiritually, but half alive, because of the knowledge of God
Priest =Priesthood of the Old Testament (Law)
Levite =Ministry of the Old Testament (Prophets)
Good Samaritan =Christ
Binding of wounds =Restraint of sin
Oil =Comfort of good hope
Wine =Exhortation to spirited work
Animal =Body of Christ
Inn =Church
Two denarii =Two commandments to love
Innkeeper =Apostle Paul
Return of the Good Samaritan =Resurrection of Christ”

OK, I know of no modern interpreters who would be likely to put forward an interpretation like Augustine’s. It is absolutely not apparent on the face of the story in Luke’s gospel. I certainly wouldn’t attempt anything similar myself, preferring to stick as closely as I can to what I think the Biblical authors were intending (and flagging any excursions I might make from that principle). However, as the article indicates, it was for most of the early history of Christianity a very common way of interpreting scripture. This was not a new phenomenon, either; Jewish interpretation has four categories, of which such allegorisation is merely the second (Remez), there is also Sod, which is an even deeper esoteric or mystical reading…

[In fact, the emanationist view of creation which forms the basis of the Gnostic’s concept of the Demiurge is one which is central to a lot of Jewish mystical writing, particularly Kabbalah. It seems possible that, in trying to eliminate “Gnostics”, the early church fathers also turned their backs on a huge part of the Jewish mystical tradition (which, I’d argue, makes much of the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures unintelligible or at least impoverished as well…)]

I also know of no modern interpreters who do not bring something more to their interpretations of scripture – indeed, the very act of interpreting scripture argues that the meaning is NOT transparent on the face of the words as they appear on the page. Every theologian is, in this sense, a kind of gnostic… and, indeed, almost all of us interpret the Prodigal at least somewhat allegorically – we see the father in the story as being God, for instance.

So, I wonder, should I be suggesting that Stover is a Gnostic? Well, I suppose yes, in that very general sense of seeing something more behind the words. Yes, in the sense that she is treating the fundamentalist God-concept which she criticises as being a real supernatural entity, a false claimant to the title “God”. The thing is, despite the way she words the piece, I don’t for a moment think that she believes that God-concept to be a real entity, or that it is an emanation from the True God, a kind of intermediary claiming to be its source. I’m confident she attacks it as an inadequate interpretation of scripture – and that might be considered an anti-gnostic tendency.

However, I am not blind to the fact that I am now reinterpreting what she actually wrote – and that might itself be regarded as gnostic. Nor am I unaware that an interpretation might be regarded as an emanation from an original text – and that is gnostic again…

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Grace is neither costly nor cheap

October 27th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve been editing a book by William Powell Tuck, “The Rebirth of the Church” (forthcoming shortly from Energion Publications). In it he says “Many church members turn to the church only when they want to get married or buried or have a crisis in their lives. These same people often show greater loyalty to their civic clubs or country clubs where they have annual dues and attendance requirements. The church must assume some of the responsibility for this failing since it has placed too much emphasis on the ease of church membership and has not had any real requirements for those who have joined. There has been too much stress on the security of the believer and not enough acknowledgement of faithfulness. Many have found cheap grace from their church and have been unwilling to examine the New Testament requirements for following· Christ. This failing demands that we look again at the New Testament call to discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has called this “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace,” according to Bonhoeffer, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” “

He goes on (quoting Bonhoeffer again) “”Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the regal rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.” Bonhoeffer goes even further when he declares:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought repeatedly, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God” (The quotations come from “The Cost of Discipleship” pp. 36-37)

Now, I hugely respect Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately, I think that in this much quoted attitude to grace, I think he is mistaken. What he speaks of is, I think, true of discipleship, of following Jesus, who talked about taking up our crosses in Luke 9:23. If you are “all in” following Jesus as Lord, then yes, that is at least a potentially very costly course of action.

But that is not “grace”. Let me explain…

Grace is a huge feature in Christianity, and particularly in Protestant Christianity, in which it is one of the three (or sometimes five) “solae”, “sola gratia”. It is unmerited gift (we preserve the terms “gratuity” meaning a tip, and “gratis” , meaning entirely free, in English).

Gifts, however, particularly in the West, seem historically to have been hugely difficult for people to grasp. In the Roman world of the first century (i.e. the background of most if not all of the New Testament), gifts were given by a patron to his clients, and there was an overwhelming understanding that receiving such gifts placed you under an obligation of service to the patron. Jesus was dead against giving gifts this way: in Matthew 6:1-4, for instance, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is echoed in the common Twelve-Step “Just for today” injunctions “Just for today… I will do someone a good turn and not get found out; if anyone knows of it, it will not count” .

We preserve this in modern society to a considerable extent. How many of us, for instance, calculate the value of presents we are given and try hard to give presents of similar value? The motivation is clear – if you agree to buy something, you know the price. If you accept a gift, you incur a potentially infinite obligation, certainly one which is not well-defined. In giving a gift of similar value, we are trying to get rid of that unspecified obligation…

This is particularly forceful in the case of the debt we feel we owe if someone has saved our life. In that instance, we readily talk of an infinite debt, possibly involving the whole of the rest of our life. After all, we wouldn’t have that were it not for our rescuer, would we?

Curiously, that doesn’t apply in every society. The Chinese template, for instance, is that if you voluntarily save someone’s life, you become responsible for them for the rest of your own. There is a logic there as well, though it is one which is difficult for Western minds to grasp quickly.

The Roman and general Western attitude is picked up by Paul in the quotations to which Bonhoeffer is referring – 1 Cor. 7:23 and 1 Cor. 6:19-20. Paul is there perhaps thinking of the concept of ransom (which isn’t explicit in either passage, but in 1 Cor. 7 he does refer to us being freedmen of God, even if we were previously bondservants). Ransom is, of course, a motif which is used by Paul for what Jesus does for us, and forms the basis of Origen’s “Ransom” theory of atonement.

The thing is, if you accept that we are infinitely indebted to Jesus for his self-sacrifice, you are not talking about ransom, which (as Paul indicates) frees you, you are talking about the purchase of a slave. To give Paul his due, he is only arguing that there is some moral weight to Jesus’ action in the 1 Cor. 6&7 texts; you might feel that you are undoing Jesus’ actions, for instance, if you then misuse your newfound freedom. Bonhoeffer, however, sounds far more as if he is talking about Jesus having purchased our slave-contracts – and that is nothing remotely like gift.

Indeed, the very idea of “cheap” or “costly” grace contradicts the basic concept of a gift. You can have a cheap or a costly purchase, but not a cheap or a costly gift – at least, not to the recipient. The giver, of course, can give as much or as little as they wish, but if they follow Jesus’ prescription, they shouldn’t expect anything in return, even the good opinion of others.

Thus, of course, if we look at Jesus’ self-sacrifice as a gift, we should be able to accept it as just that – the freedom not just to accept it or reject it, but to accept it in total freedom. Any suggestion that we need to commit ourselves to Jesus if we accept it (and otherwise it is witheld) is no longer a gift, it’s a purchase.

But, as I say, we don’t really understand gift.

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The wrong Gospel

October 25th, 2019
by Chris

My friend Tom Sims posted a quotation from Matthew, which got me thinking (my emboldening):-

Matthew 12:15-21
When Jesus became aware of this, he departed.

Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

I have also recently been thinking about the Great Commission, to some extent courtesy of listening to a Richard Rohr podcast. This is also found in Matthew (28:16-20):-

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee onto a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.

And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.

And Jesus came and spoke unto them, saying, “All power is given unto Me in Heaven and on earth.

Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Amen.

That got me thinking about the way in which people have so often told me this initial instruction to the disciples not to talk about him became an instruction to “go and teach all nations”, and how that has always been interpreted as “teach all nations about Jesus”.

The thing is, that’s not what Matthew 28 tells the disciples to do. It tells them to teach them to observe Jesus’ commandments (and I think of “if you love me, you will obey my commandments” from John 14:15, and the synopsis of Jesus’ commands in the Great Commandment). I might, perhaps, extend that to the “good news” (i.e. Gospel); that, I think, is encapsulated in what might be regarded as Jesus’ “mission statement” in Luke 4:18-19 ”
“The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” “. That is quoting Isaiah, about the Year of Jubilee (which is something Israel is supposed to implement, not something which is miraculously imposed by God).

There’s nothing about Jesus in there… nor is there anything about sin, hell, judgment or most of those things which street evangelists like to talk about.

John Dominic Crossan talks about how the religion OF Jesus becomes the religion ABOUT Jesus; I’ve written about this previously in “Direction Finding with Jesus”. I don’t think we were ever instructed to go out and tell everyone about Jesus. I think we were instructed to go out and tell everyone Jesus’ message. And that is the Great Commandment and the news of the Jubilee which we should be implementing.

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Brexit – more on Path dependency/Slippery Slope

October 20th, 2019
by Chris

Theresa May’s speech after the defeat of the government yesterday included, according to the Sun, these words:-
“Because we have, today, to make a key decision. And it is simple, do we want to deliver Brexit? Do we want to deliver on the result of the referendum in 2016? When we voted to trigger Article 50, did we really mean it? When the two main parties represented in this House stood on manifestos in the 2017 general election to deliver Brexit, did we really mean it?”
 “I think there can only be one answer to that and that is yes, we did mean it. Yes, we keep faith with the British people. Yes we want to deliver Brexit.”
“If this Parliament did not mean it, then it is guilty of the most egregious con trick on the British people.”

I think this beautifully examplifies the path dependency I referred to in my previous post.

David Cameron stood on a manifesto of holding a referendum, and then campaigned against a leave vote, never expecting that it would actuallyu result in a “leave” vote. That’s the first step.

The second was when parliament agreed the proposed referendum, on the basis that it was a non-binding indication of preference, and NOT that it would be binding on every subsequent government. Mrs. May referred to the fact that the legislation had passed with overwhelming cross-party support; we cannot now know for certain, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely that it would NOT have had cross party support if it had been couched as mandating the government to leave the EU – it might well not have got a majority, given that at the time polls of MPs indicated that over 60% of them opposed leaving.

The third step followed the referendum result. Suddenly, it was taken as a binding obligation on parliament to implement Brexit (and I note this is the view Mrs. May is still pushing, despite the fact that it’s probable that when parliament agreed the referendum, that is not what they thought they were doing). When there was a snap election called by Mrs. May (and agreed by Labour) to try to get a better majority (and with the actual result that the existing majority vanished, leaving her in the hands of the DUP to get anything done), both Conservative and Labour stood on a manifesto of leaving the EU, a mistake on the part of Labour which the Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru did not make. Mrs. May is therefore right to say that Labour supported some Brexit at that point. However, Labour’s preferred continuing relationship was in that campaign, in general terms, a “Norway” deal (which would have kept us in the customs union, kept all the environmental, labour, food and product safety rules, kept us trading in exactly the way we always had), and on the doorstep not a few Conservatives were also campaigning on the basis that we could leave and still have such a deal.

A “Norway” deal, as I’ve pointed out before, would be pretty much a case of agreeing to all EU law and paying for common institutions but not having any say in how they were made, something which was, of course, totally unacceptable to the UKIP/Brexit party bloc (of which Conservatives and, to a lesser extent Labour were scared, with some merit, given that our first-past-the-post voting system might actually have given them an absolute majority despite having only around 31% of the vote) or to the 150-200 Conservative MPs who favoured leave at all costs. Nevertheless, at that point it was still a live option.

Then it became apparent that the EU would not negotiate unless an Article 50 notice (which committed us to leaving if not first withdrawn, without any certainty of a future trading agreement) was given, and again, Conservative and Labour MPs voted overwhelmingly to do that. That was the fourth step – Mrs. May again rightly points out that that was agreed by parliament.

Then we had Mrs. May’s “deal”, which, under EU rules, didn’t actually specify what the future trading agreement would be. OK, technically it couldn’t, we had to leave before the eventual agreement could be negotiated, but the accompanying political declaration could have specified a “Norway” deal, or a “Canada” deal, or a “Switzerland” deal – but it didn’t. That was the fifth step. The likely outcome had now become something less beneficial to us than any of those options.

The reason for this is that the hardline Brexiteers wouldn’t support any of those beneficial agreements which could have been made under any circumstances, and as we progressed down the path towards a harder and harder Brexit, their votes became more and more vital if any progress was to be made, as those MPs who had expected not less than Norway, Canada or Switzerland stopped being willing to support anything further. As everyone know knows, that is the point at which Mrs. May no longer had a majority…

Finally, the “Boris deal” arrives, trampling all over the lack of a customs border in Ireland (mandated by the Good Friday agreement, which is the basis for peace in Northern Ireland) and the lack of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (an absolute requirement of the Ulster Unionists whether DUP or otherwise) as well, and anticipating that on a simple majority vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly we could crash out of the Good Friday Agreement as well. It is hardly suprising that MPs are digging in their heels at this point. We are so far down the path to a “no-deal” or a very damaging deal Brexit that MPs with a lively interest in the welfare of the country cannot support it.

Does Mrs. May have ANY merit in her suggestion that to stop Brexit (or even delay it) would be “an egregious con-trick on the British people”? I am totally confident that she does not. Let’s look at the votes cast: 52% voted in favour – but although that 52% were in favour, how many of them at the time were prepared to go so far down this path as “no deal”?

My very strong suspicion is that the answer to that is something around 31%, namely the proportion of people who voted Brexit in the 2019 European election – after all, everyone who wished to leave expected at the time that the MEPs elected then would either never take their seats or only sit for a very short amount of time, and it was a “regional list” PR election so tactical voting was pretty much ruled out, so it was in effect a fresh “free vote” on what kind of Brexit people were prepared to countenance. Yes, one can argue that a proportion of the Conservative voters thought the same way, perhaps as many as 70%. The thing is, the Conservatives only polled 9% of the votes, and even if every single one of them was a “no deal Brexit” supporter, that only gives “no deal” 40% – and that is a long way from a majority.

But, watching the BBC coverage of yesterday’s debate, I noticed that there was virtually no mention of the possibility of stopping the whole thing in its tracks by revoking Article 50. Path dependency seems to have removed that possibility from the table completely; the only options really being talked about were the “Boris deal” and “no deal”.

A similar thing seems to have happened in the minds of many of those who voted Leave in the first place. People who told me that they wanted a “Norway” deal in 2016 became willing in 2017 to accept “Canada” and, by this year, would accept “no deal” just in order to have the thing over and done by (and I note at this point that the only way for it to be over and done with quickly IS to revoke Article 50, as the Boris deal means we will then have uncertainty until a new trade deal has been negotiated and agreed by Parliament, and that will take at least another year, and more probably two or three).

It looks a lot like a “slippery slope” rather than a true path dependency, and that seems to have infected the minds of a lot of the population, the BBC and a fair number of MPs, including Mrs. May (assuming for a moment that she was not just being disingenuous…). The thing is, it is not too late to stop the whole sorry mess. Yes, a lot of damage has been done (see my previous post), but we don’t have to have any more damage.

Please God, revoke the Article 50 notice now, and put us out of our misery. At least 60% of those who voted this year plainly don’t want a no deal Brexit, and that is what we are inexorably heading for.

If there’s a con-trick, it’s those who lured people into voting on the basis of a decent trade deal and are now telling them they have to accept a bad one – and yes, I’m looking at you, Mrs. May, and you, Mr. Johnson…

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The fallacies of Brexit

October 19th, 2019
by Chris

Three years ago, we voted in a referendum, and by a modest but not wafer-thin majority, those who voted, voted to leave the European Union. At the time, I head a lot of reasons given for people voting to leave, and a lot of differing expectations about what leaving would actually mean. Many who voted did so on a rather fine balance between a “leave” and a “remain” vote (and I note in that connection that Boris Johnson prepared both a pro-leave and a pro-remain opinion piece, so he was at least somewhat representative of a country which took a very marginal decision to leave – and that after being a major contributor to the enthusiasm of some to leave through his largely fictional columns for the Telegraph, which unfortunately people often believed).

Of those I talked to who voted Leave, the vast majority expected to end up with a trade deal like Norway or Canada, or perhaps Switzerland. I’ve previously written about why I think the deal we currently have, remaining IN the EU, is superior to any of those options. Some voted that way as a protest vote against the way David Cameron had been running the country, without any expectation that the vote would succeed (and I’ve noted previously that even the arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage didn’t expect to win, even on the evening of the vote). A significant number of people who wanted us to remain just didn’t vote, because they thought it a foregone conclusion that the vote would be to remain – and I’m sure David Cameron thought that when he campaigned on the basis of calling a referendum and then did so.

I’ve also commented that, far from deriding the House of Commons as unable to make up it’s mind and get on with things, I think they have been pretty accurately representing the population as a whole (and we are a representative democracy, not a direct democracy). We were

So, I ask myself, how have we arrived at a situation where, though we were most definitely in two minds about whether to leave or stay, where most of those who wanted to leave expected a trade deal not much different from the trading relationships we had previously had, the options on the table appear to be either:-
(a) a no-deal Brexit (which almost all commentators agree would be an economic disaster for the country) or
(b) a hastily cobbled together “deal” which commits us to 33 billion pounds in transitional costs, erects a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and, most saliently, contains absolutely no assurances that after a little over a year’s transitional period, we would have any trade deal at all, far less the Norway/Canada type model.

Looking at its terms, it (in common with the previous Theresa May deal) is predicated on us leaving the customs union, which means that 44% of our exports and 53% of our imports will be subject to administrative burdens even if there are no tariffs, again in common with that deal, but in stronger terms, it is predicated on us not having the same protections against unreasonable labour conditions, food safety and product safety and environmental protection, and it withdraws us from all Europe-wide information sharing and other cooperative ventures – even the European Court of Human Rights. It also leaves the issue of a possible hard border in Ireland up to a simple majority vote of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which would actually let the Unionists break the Good Friday agreement which brought civil strife in Northern Ireland to an end.

It is, as one might expect from any agreement reached in a hurry, a pretty bad agreement.

The main thing is, it definitely looks to a trade deal not as good as that for Norway, and it’s dubious that it looks to one as good as Canada. The whole tenor of it seems to indicate that we’ll end up on terms which are not specially favoured in any way over more distant EU trading partners…

And that is most definitely not what the majority of my Brexit-supporting friends voted for three years ago. Curiously, though, some of them who expected a very close trading partnership with the EU three years ago are now content (or at least resigned) to accept no-deal or something close to it. Why? Probably because they are tired of this going on, and on, and on, and think that this will bring an end to that (it won’t, of course, because we still need to negotiate an actual trade deal with the EU…). The refrain of Tory Brexiteers is now “let’s just get this done”, and I am SO sick of hearing that.

I see this as the first factor at work, exhaustion. We are, it seems, supposed to surrender to a really bad deal because it’s too much work to carry on fighting.

The second factor I see at work is path-dependence. Our avilable options for the future are governed by the decisions we have already made. Granted, in the case of Brexit, there is relatively little which has been done which cannot be undone, but the perception is definitely that we have collectively made a decision (much reinforced by Brexiteers saying “the people have voted, now we have to act on that”); the agreement, if parliament does vote for it, represents another step in that direction. I will freely grant that that perception is an example of the slippery slope fallacy, but it is a very real factor.

The third factor is another fallacy, the sunk cost fallacy. It is a fact that we have already, as a country, lost a very great deal by having Brexit looming for so long – commentators estimate over 400,000 jobs have been lost as a result so far, and that the damage to the economy has been around 66 billion pounds so far. Johnson knows that, having argued in the House today that we needed to accept the deal to put an end to cotinuing damage to our nation and increasing acrimony in the nation, clearly appealing to just that fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy says that we’ve lost so much already, we ought to just plough ahead and try to make a success of it – though in fact estimates of future cost range between around 8% of GDP and 20%, and clearly a significant amount of that could still be avoided.

I think the sunk cost fallacy also applies to our national reputation, which has suffered a huge blow (the only reason my American friends are not holding us up as a laughing stock is that they elected Trump in the same year…) and to the personal reputations of those who admitted to voting for Brexit; again, the feeling is that we just have to, somehow, go ahead and hope that in some sense it can be demonstrated to have been a good thing, because otherwise they’ll just look like total idiots.

Those who are busily saying “we just need to get on with it”, “I just want it to be over” and “there’s no other option than no deal or Boris’ deal” are just falling for one or more of those fallacies. The answer, of course, if we want the damage to stop, is to stop banging our head against a wall and revoke the Article 50 notice.

(addendum – I’ve explanded on the slippery slope in another post)

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11:59 and several seconds…

September 25th, 2019
by Chris

Various sources have posted links to Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN – this is one of them. Listen to it, if you haven’t already, and weep with me.

She speaks truth, as far as I am concerned; unvarnished, painful truth. Unfortunately, I think she is at least a generation too late. Yes, I think that if the world’s governments were to have a metanoia, a complete changing of minds and spirits, we could possibly turn things round in time without there being a climate catastrophe – and against that background, all other political and economic issues (yes, including Brexit and Trump) pale into insignificance.

But do I think that there’s the slightest chance that the world will actually do that? I except the USA – there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no way in which the USA is going to change, but the rest of us, those who don’t try against all the evidence to cling to some possibility that it’s all a huge mistake and won’t actually be nearly as bad as is predicted, sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “nah nah nah…” can probably do it without them. Is it at all likely? I suspect not.

I feel a considerable sense of guilt about this situation – I am of the “baby boomer” generation, and members of my generation have been in control of most things for quite a while now, exactly that period during which things have gone from a significant portion of climate scientists sounding a note of caution to nearly all climate scientists being confident that a catastrophe is imminent. We, collectively, should have listened and taken action a lot earlier. OK, personally, my wife and myself don’t have a huge carbon footprint; we generate a significant portion of the energy we use from solar panels on our rather expansive roof, we don’t fly much, we don’t actually use cars all that much, we recycle pretty well (though not as well as is possible), we have a strong bias towards repairing or repurposing rather than throwing away… I could go on. However, we could do more, which is, paradoxically, less in a lot of cases – we could eat less or no meat, we could ditch the car (though as a result of disabilities that would seriously curtail our interactions with others) and I could not attend the Wake festival next year (or get there over a period of a couple of days by land routes rather than flying, taking a couple of hours). I cannot feel satisfied unless my carbon footprint is zero.

I am particularly ashamed that, some years ago, I edited a short book criticising climate change science for an author who shall remain nameless – this was on the basis that I disagreed with virtually everything he said, but that I could improve his argument by ensuring that he considered all the counter-arguments to what he was saying. In my defence, I can say that at the time we were not nearly as far along the “hockey stick” graph as we are now, and I didn’t feel able to state with certainty that he was wrong. He probably still thinks he’s right, but a few more years down the line, I’m certain he was completely and utterly wrong – and also dangerous, in that his book, which I helped to produce, may have convinced and may still convince some people not to take climate change seriously. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of exponential graphs that you can’t say with certainty that they are exponential until you’re in a dangerously near-vertical portion of the curve.

I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the fact that for the first thirty plus years of my life, the danger of climate change which most of us perceived was the possibility of a nuclear fimbulwinter. Indeed, thirty years ago I was (among other things) a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, so was closer to such thinking even than the average. Living for many years with the expectation that civilisation would end with an ice age, with expanding glaciers and polar ice and the shifting of the temperate zone radically south perhaps makes it more difficult to change tack and worry about decreasing glaciers and polar ice, sea level rises and the shifting of the temperate zone radically north. By the way, yes, I have toyed with the idea that some strategically placed nukes, perhaps in volcanoes, could counteract global warming; that is probably true just in terms of warming, but the resulting lack of insolation would itself almost certainly be catastrophic for crops. It might still be better than runaway global warming…

That is, however, a reason but not an excuse. So is the fact that, practically, those of us who were bleating about potential global warming thirty years ago were met with the argument that we were asking China, India and the developing world generally to do without all the good things which technology could bring them because we, the developed West, had already used up all the leeway in the global climate for CO2 emissions. We were reminded of our colonial pasts and accused of trying to continue them by “keeping down” the developing nations – and, truth be told, the vast majority of the increase in the interim is those countries starting to catch up with the West.

It is also true that there have been quite a few predictions of castastrophic climate change in the other (cooling) direction issued by climate scientists over the years, and that has made it significantly more difficult to argue that the direction of change is warming, and that it has reached the level of an existential threat to civilisation (and possibly even the human species). An example of such counterargument can be found here – and lest you take the piece too seriously, here is an analysis of their funding and political ties. When those accounts were published, they were mostly discounted by the vast majority of climate scientists (the notable exceptions being ozone depletion and acid rain, which we communally accepted as problems and have now largely fixed); now, all but a very few accept that there is climate change happening, that it’s largely anthropogenic and fuelled by greenhouse gas emissions and that we’re headed inexorably for a tipping point. The naysayers, of course, point to the lack of unanimity as evidence that it’s not certain, to which my response is that (a) there’s never going to be unanimity in the scientific community and (b) you can totally guarantee that by paying scientists to find reasons why the consensus is wrong.

Am I absolutely certain that we are headed for imminent catastrophe? No, but then I’m not 100% certain the sun will rise tomorrow either.

Do I think that Greta’s figure of 8-9 years is actually the point of no return? No, I think that’s probably a pessimistic figure, but I give it at least a one-in-three chance of being right, and ask if we want to bet on the future of the entire human race on those odds?

Do I think that enough people will take anough notice of her to reverse the trend using technology we actually have at the moment? Frankly, no. I think there’s maybe a slim chance, but on the whole I agree with this commentator about the character of the people she’s addressing and the fact that action needs to be governmental and not just personal.

Do I think (like him) that we can, in the interim, come up with some technological innovation which will reverse the trend before it’s too late? I’m actually hopeful, but it isn’t a very strong hope.

In the meantime, I have been noticing a lot of comments on postings of Greta’s speech which have, frankly, made my blood boil. Some of them are dealt with in this article. She must be a mouthpiece for others, some say, or she’s just a misguided child, or even (and I really hate to disseminate this) she looks a little like a 1930s Nazi poster of a blonde, pigtailed girl and, therefore, must be government propaganda. I find myself wanting to jump down the throat of all such commentators in her defence. What is it that they find so all-fired unacceptable about her? That she’s female? That she’s young? That she’s on the autism spectrum? That she speaks truth to power? In all those cases, I would want to defend anyone… and yet, I’ve held my tongue (or, at least, my keyboard) so far – because actually, I think Greta Thunberg is quite capable of speaking for herself. She’s fierce. And for me to leap to her defence would, in part, be an admission that I thought that females, or young people, or those on the autism spectrum, or prophets were weak and in need of my help.

And in at least three of those cases, that’s discrimination…


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Response to “Roman Glass”

September 21st, 2019
by Chris

This follows on my “Looking through Roman Glass”. I posted a link to that piece in the closed facebook group dealing with the course Pete Rollins is running, and which prompted that writing. Pete then came up with a very spirited response, which was as follows:-

” I tend to think that mystical experience is a very common (I’d even say universal) human experience. I’ve always like Gabriel Marcel, who in his essay “On the Ontological Mystery” brilliantly shows how mystery (which he calls the “ontological need”), is at work always in the subject, even though it is often in a repressed or minimal way. But it is experienced at various times when (to name only a few), in morality we are caught up in the experience of an act that is beyond utilitarian value, in love, which moves us beyond the assessment of someone in terms of their qualities, in religion, who one feels absolute dependence, in art, when one is taken into the iconic nature of the work… etc. Because I believe the mystical experience – or ontological need – is a universal, I am very skeptical of anyone who claims privileged access to it. Like Tillich, I would say that we only need to pay attention to our lives in order to see our participation in it – even if this participation is rudimentary. So, I’d lay aside the idea of a special class of people who experience something that others do not, and turn to the question of what this experience is. In the worlds of Perennial Philosophy, Psychedelic Enlightenment, New Age, and even in Kant. the mystical experience is an experience of a limit (the Kantian Sublime). But I think that even a conservative like Marcel sees this as wrong, mysticism is not the limit… the seeing through a glass darkly, it is the seeing ‘fully’ that Paul talks about. I write about this in The Divine Magician, but to sumerise, the misreading of Pauls ‘Dark Glass’ is the assumption that there is something behind it, rather than the idea that the dark glass is what creates the illusion that there is something behind it. The conservative reading that Paul is saying that the dark glass refers to ‘General Revelation’, is then closed to the truth than the liberal idea that it refers to our current state. Paul is saying that ‘Specific Revelation’ is the moment in which we see through the dark glass. The mistake of confessional theology is to think that this is the point at which we see that substantive reality is there, when the revelation is that substantive reality is subject. This is all very provisional and would need unpacked. I was thinking about doing a seminar on the Dark Glass, maybe I’ll try that for the next pyroseminar.”

My own response to that was this:-

Well, that’s an interesting and forceful rejoinder.

I might make a distinction between mystical experience and peak mystical experience here (and when I refer to people as mystics, I mean those who have had peak mystical experiences and whose worldview is largely shaped by those).

Looking around in the 60s for fellow mystics, I found very, very few. I did, however, find quite a number of theologically minded people who basically denied that mysticism existed (they’d not experienced anything like that, mystics were unable to tell them exactly how to have such an experience, so obviously it didn’t happen). Others tried to downplay the impact of a peak mystical experience, probably aided in that by mystics saying “well, it’s a bit like…” Yes, there are parallels with, for instance, aesthetic appreciation (I list a few in my post), and most people can relate to one or all of those, but they are not equivalent to peak mystical experience in much the same way that a mild buzz from a glass of good whisky is not the same as a psilocybin trip (and even that may be too similar to express the experiential gap).

I am, in other words, telling you what (for instance) William James identified when studying mystics, that mystical experience IS a particular category of experience which is not really very much like any other, and that in my considerable experience of talking with people about their spiritual experience, looking for other mystics, I have found it to be very much a minority who have such experiences. That said, there do seem to be more people these days who will state that they have had a mystical experience than was the case 50 years ago, and certainly more people are prepared to talk about mysticism as if it is a particular mode of perception.

I have not seen the detail of the questions used in surveys which return those results, though, and I suspect that if the questioners set the boundaries of “mystical experience” widely, they may be including in their figures, for instance, those who feel a certain frisson when viewing a panoramic view, or whose world is turned upside-down by falling in love. They may be in some ways similar, but (using James’ terminology) they tend to be distinguishable as they lack the noetic quality. As, to my eyes, do the examples you use above.

It may therefore be that there is no room for further discussion here, as you invalidate the means of perception which is the whole basis of my own thinking; if I am not seeing something special, there is obviously no need to engage with what I say about it. Indeed, I may be being very foolish in trying to engage with your work at all.

However, for at least the time being I intend to persevere.

Now, firstly, mystics will commonly report a very few peak experiences during their lives – I know of a few who have only had one, but have based their entire lives thereafter on that one experience. They will, however, often report much more minor experiences which partake of some of the quality of the original, and which revive some of the force of it, on a regular basis. This may, I think, be analagous to the common experience range which you talk of. These I have in the past described as “an edge of” a full mystical experience, and I found myself that a regime of meditation and contemplation could keep up such experiences on a regular basis. The trouble is, from my point of view, these are “mysticism lite”, mysticism without most of the information-carrying aspect and without the transformative impact (though they might serve to maintain a transformation).

Now, I am not a philosopher by training, so I can’t engage with your comments about Marcel or Kant, at least not at the moment, having not read them. I also do not peg Tillich as a mystic, particularly as he seems (like you) to reject mysticism. Paul, however, I can talk of a bit, particularly as he is identified by several writers on mysticism as having been a mystic himself (and, in some of his writing, I think I can identify that source of inspiration). I can therefore unhesitatingly identify Paul’s writing about “through a glass, darkly” as pointing at the distinction between the noetic content of mysticism and the inability to express it adequately (which James calls “ineffable”). I can very easily relate to the information content of the mystical experience as “seeing clearly” and that of the rest of the time as being “through a glass, darkly”.

Like you, however, I tend to materialist readings, so I’ll be more generous than you and not characterise your suggestion that there’s nothing behind the glass as a misreading – it’s merely another reading. It’s one which doesn’t resonate with me, but hey, the author is dead, so…

So, why am I persevering here? Well, for one thing, I like your humour and your putting of complex philsophical ideas in terms I can at least sometimes (and somewhat) understand. I like the exploration of the absurd and apparent contradictions. More, though, I look for you coming up with forms of words which, while they may not analytically work, nonetheless *do something* which brings one of those “aha” moments.

And I think you could probably do with a mystic harrassing you when you talk about mystics…

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I was a teenage atheist (a spiritual journey)

September 15th, 2019
by Chris

“I was a teenage atheist”.

Well, that is true, in and of itself, but it also makes for decent click bait. From where I now sit, most of the “New Atheists” look like teenagers; certainly, had they been around when I was 13, I’d have been a big fan of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

But I need to backtrack. I’m actually writing this because I keep finding, in facebook groups, the question “how did you get to where you are today?” and posting a very abvreviated version of my spiritual journey, suitable to the location – and then, not infrequently, being asked for more.

So, I grew up the child of a Methodist Local Preacher and a frequent soloist with the Church Choir. I was therefore guaranteed to be in Sunday School at the earliest opportunity, which, as I recall, was just before I turned 5 – Dad preached about every other week, somewhere in the local circuit of churches but rarely in the Central Methodist Church which we attended, while mum really wanted to be up singing with the choir rather than child-minding down in the pews.

On those occasions when I was in church rather than Sunday School, my overriding impression is of a relatively few sermons which were of the “fire and brimstone” variety; Sunday School tended to stick with Bible Stories and avoid the theologically weighty areas. The Bible Stories didn’t really strike me as more than just that – stories. I should, I suppose, explain that I was a precocious brat, and could read decently (and was getting books out of the local library regularly) by the time I was 5 – and I like a good story.

The fire and brimstone preachers, frankly, scared me, while at the same time being at least slightly unbelievable. The picture they painted of someone described as “Our Father” was just not very similar to my own father, who was most of the time extremely mild mannered, loving and tolerant, although yes, he could be provoked to anger, and when he was angry, he was extremely scary. On the occasions when he preached at the home church, his sermons were notably not “fire and brimstone… I suspect that somewhere in my childish subconscious, however, I got the idea that there might just be a God who was father-like only in the extremity of wrath, but that didn’t gel at all well with my developing reason.

Being a precocious brat meant that I discovered the awesome power of the word “why” very early, and I tormented my parents and teachers with it frequently. My parents and the teachers at my normal school were pretty good at diverting the flow of questions – and, in both those cases, they tended to give me at least somewhat reasonable answers. The Sunday School teachers were different – they tended to get flustered at the questioning, and give answers which were sometimes contradictory, sometimes just woefully unsatisfactory. I decided rather early that they were peddling fiction in the guise of fact, and I was probably an atheist by the time I was 7 or so.

And, like the “New Atheists”, I decided that everyone else should be an atheist too. Sunday School bore this trial with rapidly reducing equanimity, and at 9, I parted company with Sunday School “by mutual agreement” – they were sick of me aggressively questioning everything (and, no doubt, worried about the other childrens’ spiritual formation being impacted), and I saw absolutely no point in the exercise, and preferred to be at home reading – and I was probably a reading addict by then. I read all the books which the three of us got from the library every week (three each – I was upset both that they wouldn’t allow me to take more books out and that my parents didn’t want to make more than one trip to the library per week), and once I got to have textbooks from school, I would typically read the whole of all of them within a couple of weeks of the beginning of term.

I particularly liked science lessons, once I got to secondary school and there were such things. They played into what was already an enthusiasm for experimentation (which, incidentally, had resulted in me much earlier setting traps for Santa, to try to establish whether such an entity actually existed – my parents managed to circumvent those for two years, but the third, failed to notice one which was actually hidden IN the chimney…) I give my father huge credit for the boot prints in the talcum powder on the hearth on one of the previous occasions!

Science, if seemed to me, was the field which could potentially explain everything; certainly it was far less inclined to say “just because” to a line of questioning, and there were techniques to use to try to establish things not currently known. That formation hasn’t left me – I am still, for most practical purposes, a scientific materialist, and only the realisation that emergent phenomena may not actually be reducible to a lower level prevents me being a reductionist scientific materialist.

Continuing the theme of the Jesuit saying “Give me a child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man”, my parents were not scientists. They were, in fact, a rather hard act to follow. They were both enthusiastic amateur artists, and ran the local art club – and, therefore, I got to do significantly more painting and drawing than most of my friends. Art, I found, was not reducible to technique and mechanics.

Despite their Methodist credentials, they were both intereted in spiritualism, and my father in particular in horoscopes; while I was extremely sceptical about both, there was there clearly a region which science didn’t do a good job of explaining – mother was definitely not tricking us when she “channelled” some spirit, and father did seem to extract some valid insights from his workings out (which were vastly more technical than the “horoscopes” printed in newspapers those days – the thought that one twelfth of the population should be having essentially the same experiences for the day was just ridiculous, but Dad’s careful calculations from the place and minute of birth were at least capable, it seemed to me, of having some more validity. Though it would have to be scientifically explainable…

Dad was also keen on history, and was the local amateur archaologist. Thus, a significant number of the library books I was consuming were history, and I got to help on a few archaeological digs he organised, when development was going to destroy the site. Mother, as I mentioned, was a choir soloist and had at one time been a semi-professional singer – and had had a scholarship to read Music at Durham, which she had had to refuse as her father was ill and she needed to work to support her parents. History and Music therefore also loom large (and, of course, my parents also were two of the stalwarts of the local music society, which I got to accompany them to…) Oh, and I got to learn piano, and to enter piano competitions.

So, while I was very keen on science, and thought science was the “go to” technique to tell me why something happened the way it did and how I could get it to happen again, it didn’t really help me appreciate, say, art or music. I didn’t love (for instance) Caravaggio’s St. Jerome better through analysing the brush strokes or the pigments (though both those things might have helped if I had wanted to copy it – as would a lot of practice).

I didn’t rule out entirely the possibility of some “supernatural” things – after all, my mother in particular was convinced she’d experienced something of the sort – but if such things did happen, they would be best investigated scientifically (and I’d already ruled out Santa by that method!). Indeed, I was fascinated by these things on the edge of what was possible or likely. However, I could much more easily find that reports of such things were tricks or misperceptions than something actually supernatural, and became very dubious about them all.

And then, one warm summer afternoon aged 14 or a month or so light of that age, I was lying reading a book (nothing weighty, as I recall) and appreciating getting a little sun, when I got hit between the eyes by a spiritual half-brick, metaphorically speaking. I had an entirely unlooked for, out of the blue mystical experience.

The most prominent aspect of this was an overwhelming sense of unity, both of everything (up to a cosmic scale) and with everything. I was expanded to everything and, at the same time, was diminished to a minute speck against the immensity of the All. Secondary was an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance; tertiary was a conviction that whatever this was, it was in some way personal, as opposed to being some cosmic force like gravity.

It was pretty much a full-spectrum experience (a terminology I’ve arrived at since); although I don’t recall any smell or taste, vision was affected (I could seemingly see forever, and see through things which were otherwise solid, and vision switched between the massively large and the infinitesimally small, or was perhaps both at the same time), sound was affected (I could hear things which I wouldn’t normally be able to), as was touch (I could, it seemed, reach out and feel the texture of infinite space), proprioception (the same at-the-same-time feeling of infinite largeness and infinitesimal smallness) and the kinaesthetic sense (I felt myself rushing from one place to another, while still being conscious of lying inert).

My sense of time was clearly affected, as this all seemed to take a huge amount of time, but afterwards it proved that it couldn’t have had a duration longer than about half an hour. It needed to feel longer, as a part of the vision was a rewinding of time back to the origin of all things.

One facet of the experience was being confronted with a “God’s eye” view of who I was and what I’d done, which was a fairly unpleasant realisation (I had previously been immensely self-centred and pretty much unconcscious of how my actions affected others – such as being aggressively atheist when father was a preacher) ; at the same time, however, there was a consciousness of complete forgiveness and acceptance (perhaps grace?). As an aside, if, as I hope and believe is the case, on death we are confronted with something similar just prior to complete (re)unity with the divine, it is a form of “last judgment”. It has occurred to me that there may be people who are unable to stand this realisation (and I don’t think it’s something which can be avoided); they may, just possibly, be denied that unity (and forgiveness and acceptance) for some period of time, or, perhaps, even elect for their own annihilation without tasting unity.

A really major feature was what I call “disindividuation”; the boundaries between my self and the outside world dissolved. I use “disindividuation” in distinction to the well-recognised term “deindividuation” which refers to the aspect of mob psychology where the group seems to take on a psychology all of its own and individual psychologies are “taken over” by the “group mind”. There was no sense of being “taken over”, but there was a sense of being extinguished – but that was balanced by the feeling of being infinitely expanded. Coincidence of opposites is definitely a feature! This aspect has never really gone away completely, in that ever since I have felt the boundaries of self as being at the very least fuzzy; this links well with the sudden access of empathy, something (as I referred to in the previous paragraph) which had never much troubled me in the past; that too has never gone away. It’s worth noting here that Peter Rollins not infrequently suggests that such disindividuation and return to the sense of “oceanic oneness” is a feature of psychosis. It is possible that it might be, were it not for the fact that the sense of self never actually completely vanishes.

The experience was immensely self-confirming. It told me in no uncertain terms that this was the way things really were, despite any appearance to the contrary. And it was ecstatic – that first experience remains the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced (though subsequent mystical experiences have come close); I’ve said of it since that it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” – since, because at the time I’d experienced none of those (well, with the exception of hearing some records).

On “coming round” from this, my first suspicion was that I’d had some kind of traumatic brain event, and I went to see my doctor and described it as best I could. It seemed that no, I wasn’t suffering from (for instance) a brain tumour or temporal lobe epilepsy, and it certainly wasn’t the result of drugs or any of the techniques I later discovered for promoting such experience. I also around that time happened across F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology”, having on a whim attended a lecture on “The Mystical Experience” in which the book was mentioned, and found that there were a lot of accounts historically which were at least somewhat similar to what I’d experienced – and they were labelled as experiences of God by most of those who wrote about them.

So, reassured, I went looking for a repeat – it was, I suppose, instantly addictive, as a friend has since jokingly suggested, but I fancy that in this case it wasn’t really a joke. Over my remaining school years and into university, I went looking for any group which suggested that it had a technique for producing experiences like this – which included Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, Sufis and various species of Eastern meditators, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu. Under the influence of Happold, whose book includes quite a few Christian mystics, I didn’t entirely rule out Christianity, but Christianity was the system which I’d rejected in earlier childhood, and the stream of Christianity which is most conducive to mystical experience, the Orthodox (and particularly the Greek Orthodox) wasn’t one which had any representation anywhere near where I was, either at home or at university; it was also the case that there was no way, following this experience, that I could feel that the Christian concept of the “fall of man” had any validity (something which I’ve written about before). If there was no fall, then a sizeable chunk of what was normative to the flavours of Christianity available to me was negated…

I tried all the techniques, as well as the concept-structures, including a set of Shamanistic ones. These ranged from meditation and contemplation through mantra and tantra to the more extreme – sleep deprivation, fasting, sensory deprivation, partial strangulation, and, of course, drugs. In the process, I could cross off a lot of possible candidates for having produced that first experience – none of those had applied, and it’s still a complete mystery to me why it happened. Drugs were, perhaps strangely, rather disappointing (as well as being something to be avoided for reasons of legality) – I think I was maybe “spoiled” for those by having an unaided experience first (I have in mind here, inter alia, The Liturgists, and the fact that both Science Mike and Michael Gungor have used psychedelics to get to what seems to be pretty much the same place, plus a host of others such as the late Alan Watts and even Sam Harris). The more mechanical ones were all at least somewhat effective, though dangerous – I didn’t really want to go there if I could avoid it.

So, over the course of some years, I found that I could slip into at least what I call “an edge” of the full blown experience via a very attenuated contemplative technique – and that was, by and large, enough for me; full blown experiences have the disadvantage of taking significant time, being of uncertain duration (some seemed to last an age but were actually only minutes long, others seemed fleeting but took me out of action for hours) and, of course, meaning that I was functionally useless in the world out there – I joke that there’s a danger of bumping into lamp posts, but that has actually happened to me when I went slightly too deep when contemplating while walking. I can, however, state with some confidence that the best way of stopping an incipient mystical experience in its tracks is to start analysing what is happening.

There have been some repeats of the “full spectrum” experience – perhaps three or four – but from my perspective, such extremes are very unusual (perhaps because I’m a compulsive analyser…). That said, I’ve met a number of people who could reasonably be described as having a mystical approach who have only ever had one peak experience, which has sustained them for many years (in one case, over 50). I think having one such experience is very important, and possibly vital (I surmise that a peak experience creates pathways in the brain which can then be accessed more easily), but having many does not really add too much to the information content.

A lot of people I mix with online these days talk of “deconstruction”. Keith Giles has an useful piece on deconstruction, which some readers may relate to. I, however, have never needed to deconstruct most of these (or, if I did, it was in the years between ages 5 and 9, and I don’t remember the process). When I arrived at my spiritual practice, it was without most of the “pillars” Keith describes. The only one of those which Keith talks of which really exercised my mind was “suffering in the world” – and it still does. But I have been relatively comfortable with the concept that there are things which I don’t yet understand, but which are nevertheless the case since I accepted my initial peak experience for what it was, namely unitive mystical experience. I don’t have to understand something in order for it to work; the universe really does not need Chris’ consent in order to keep on existing!

There I stayed for quite a few years, while I started a career, got married and had children. My wife was Anglican, so inasmuch as I actually went to church, it was to an Anglican one locally – but I found huge difficulties with liturgy, sermons and hymns (there’s a lot of very bad theology in 18th and 19th century hymns, and I don’t think the 20th and 21st centuries have improved on that much, if at all!) Then (and this was the result of a series of events which are a story in and of themselves), I found myself arguing about God with a set of French-speaking atheists on the then Compuserve European forum. From there, I got asked to start posting in the Mensa forum, which was pretty atheist-heavy, and when the lady who invited me there left as a result of a dispute with the forum management, I started posting in the Compuserve Religion forum instead (having, of course, got the taste for such discussions).

I was somewhat surprised to be invited to moderate the Christianity section there after only a couple of weeks posting, and responded that I didn’t really regard myself as Christian – which, apparently, was not a problem, and perhaps even an advantage, given that this was specifically a religious discussion forum, and “proselytising” was forbidden. It was at the time a very active venue – the forum was putting on over a thousand messages a day in all; the next door section was Judaism, and I kept finding that conservative Christians would stray into that section and start trying to make converts, which precipitated tit-for-tat incursions of Jews into the Christianity section, trying to provoke conservative members into breaking the forum rule against spiritual judgment (and so getting barred); the same happened with members of the Free Thought section, which was the home for quite a few refugees from the former Atheism forum.

I spent a lot of time there trying to educate conservative Christian members into putting their points more politely (and improving their arguments, while challenging them gently) and trying to defend Christian members from the incursions of non-Christians, which were quite frequently backed up by a few liberal Christians who posted there. That necessitated a lot of background reading. And, considering the message count (which actually exceeded 4000 for the forum on one occasion), I found myself putting in the proverbial 10,000 hours.

After some months, two of the more liberal Christians there (both, as it happens, Anglican lay readers) messaged me quite independently (at least, I don’t think they were ganging up on me!) telling me that I was a Christian. I demurred, but they managed to persuade me that I was at least as Christian as they were (and significantly more so than John Shelby Spong, who was an Anglican bishop in the States…); one of them added the accusation that I regarded moderating on the forum as being a “pastoral mission”. Obviously I denied that flatly (and probably three times…) before taking stock and realising that yes, I did rather regard it as that.

It’s a sadness to me that, with the AoL takeover of Compuserve and the opening of all the former forums to the world at large rather than Compuserve subscribers, plus the general development of the internet, the Religion Forum essentially died as a location for serious (but relatively polite) religious discussion. It still exists, but is a pale shadow of its former self.

I then suffered some personal trials and tribulations, which left me with PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety; this took me to a positively suicidal state – and, among other things, the slide into full blown depression revealed to me that my contemplative techniques had stopped working for me, and I was no longer able to give myself a contemplative boost to deal with life’s problems (I had, clearly, been using contemplation more as a therapeutic technique and an “intuition pump” than as a purely spiritual practice for some time by then). I also made the huge mistake of self-medicating with alcohol – medicating depression and anxiety with a depressive drug which produces anxiety when you stop taking it is quite obviously totally insane, but there you are… In all, the descent into full blown depression and the climb out again took 17 years.

I’d like to be able to say that meditation and contemplation dug me out of that particular pit, but it was a lot of hard work with the support and structure of a twelve step fellowship, and the ability actually to have some feeling of connection from contemplation had to wait until a change of medication (my best guess as to the “why”) gave me the first moments of happiness for years – in point of fact, I was manic (although it was a well-contolled manic) for twelve days. My twelve-step friends argue that the lifting of the depression was the result of twelve step; my friends in an evangelical Anglican church at which I’d just been invited to help with Alpha courses said it was due to throwing myself into another form of church work. (My involvement there was the result of my attending some talks at the church and demonstrating that I could ask very awkward questions – to their credit, the church thought that having a contrary opinion present and indeed helping at Alpha would be good for the quality of discussion, and I of course had by then a lot of experience of such discussions!).

During that manic fortnight, I realised that the sense of connection which I’d been lacking for years was back – and I resolved that I wouldn’t take mystical experience for granted any more, and that I’d back that up by going to church again – which I could suddenly manage to do again; for years, churches were by far too crowded for me to be able to support staying there for a full service (an effect of anxiety).

In the meantime, when I managed to start returning to something like normality, the former sponsor of the Compuserve Religion Forum Christianity section asked me if I’d like to do a bit of proofreading to keep my brain working. So I did that – and found myself unable to resist pointing out things which might improve the manuscripts. Thus I became an associate editor, then editor and now “editor in chief” for Energion Publications, and, in the process, found myself writing and publishing a book… which stemmed from Henry at Energion encouraging me to blog and hosting the site which this blog is at.

What was the background reading? Well, I liked pretty much everything I read by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Ed Sanders and Daniel Boyarin gave me some extremely valuable insights into the development of Christianity from its Jewish roots (which were very helpful when dealing with Jewish incursions on the Religion Forum); Daniel Kirk’s “A Man Attested by God” was also helpful. Homebrewed Christianity was a hugely useful source of introductions (some of them relatively heavyweight) to a number of currents in recent theology along the way. Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog introduced me among others to John Caputo, who is somewhere in the radical end of current theology (and Richard’s book “Unclean” is a splendid exploration of the idea of purity in Christianity). Through him I found Douglas Campbell’s astonishing but exceptionally heavyweight “The Deliverance of God”, which cast Paul’s thinking on justification in an entirely new light for me, and Walter Wink’s “Powers” trilogy, which did much the same for talk in the New Testament of “powers and principalities”.

Some years ago I was asked, after writing a blogpost titled “The heresy of all doctrines…” if I was a follower of Peter Rollins. “Peter who?” I replied – and it seemed that my title was a little reminiscent of some of his (for instance, “The Fidelity of Betrayal” and “The Idolatry of God”. And so began a following of Pete’s work which has taken me to see him (and meet him) at Lincoln, and then to two Wake festivals – I’ve paid for next year’s as well. Pete is definitely in the radical theology tradition, which is almost all “death of God” theology.

I’ve been called a “radical theologian” a few times, but I don’t think the label really fits, given that the only way I can really accept “death of God” theology is in the sense that the childhood picture of an intervening God is dead for me, and the term “radical theology” seems reserved for those who go further with “death of God” (such as Rollins and Caputo) than I can do myself. What I think I am is a speculative theologian and a constructive theologian. I appreciate other speculative theologies like those of Rollins and Caputo without necessarily subscribing to them wholeheartedly. In the course of this, I’ve tried to come to a new appreciation of Christian doctrines from my own perspective, which is of course heavily influenced by my mysticism and by my basic scientific rationalism; my book on the Trinity is one part of that, and if you go through my other blog posts, you’ll find most of the main doctrines dealt with – and largely reinterpreted (the Fall, for instance). Some might say “radically reinterpreted”, which is no doubt where the tag comes from.

This is a work in progress, though. My next book will be an examination of the concept of the Logos – a whole book based on what, in English, is the sixth word of the Fourth Gospel (fifth in French, fourth in Latin…). After that, I’m thinking of expanding my “System of Satan” post into a whole book. Watch this space!

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