Was Jesus an undocumented migrant?

December 30th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve seen a lot of posts recently about the Holy Family being undocumented migrants, this stemming from the “flight into Egypt” narrative in Matt. 2:13-23. Equally, it seems to be a common conservative reaction to that (I’ve seen it at least three times) to focus on the relocation of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, recounted in Luke 2:1-5, which it is said was mandated by Emperor Augustus for the purposes of registration for taxation.

Now, I’m very attracted to the idea of Jesus and his parents being refugees; this plays straight into the narrative running through Judaism up to that point that you should care for strangers and foreigners in your midst. The thing is, as at 6 BCE (which is commonly accepted these days as the likely actual birth year of Jesus), Egypt was a Roman province – but so was Judaea, albeit with slightly different statuses, Egypt being a straightforward province while Judaea was technically a client Kingdom ruled by Herod the Great. Transit between Roman provinces seems to have been more or less unrestricted, relying on this paper. (It seems to me well-researched and adequately scholarly, and is worth a read in general, though it is long).

There’s evidence in there (e.g. p.88) that Rome did occasionally issue decrees ordering citizens to return home (in that case due to the nearness of Gallic armies to Cremona and Placentia having led to a mass movement towards Rome), and specifically that immigrants to the city of Rome could occasionally be ordered to leave (P.72, relating to Samnites and Paelignians, notably both at the time client states rather than provinces) but the author arrives at the conclusion that views of Roman policy towards migration as being a privilege of the selected few must be abandoned. Other than in situations where colonies or provinces were concerned about depletion of manpower, there seems to be no evidence that relocation was restricted in any way – and that includes relocation from outside the Empire to within it (as witness, inter alia, the comments on P.84 about the ease of migration within the empire evidenced by foreign family names appearing in inscriptions and the discussion on P.88 of the Balbus case – where the point made is that in the case of certain nationalities there was in the treaty with them a restriction on becoming citizens, so there must be no restriction on that based on “nationality” as a general rule).

It seems, indeed, that in respect of the movement of individuals into and through the Roman Empire, the default was that it was permitted, the principle being that anything which was not specifically prohibited was allowed. It was also very common indeed. This seems especially true of those who were not of the upper classes, who typically seem to have been below the notice of Roman Law except when migration created labour shortages. There is no evidence that there was any such law in respect of Judaea, and so I regretfully conclude that no, the Holy Family were not undocumented migrants in the sense we now understand it, i.e. as not being legally permitted to travel to Egypt or to stay there.

They probably were undocumented, as although Roman citizens were required to register in the communities they were settled in, this did not apply to non-citizens, but that would not have been any kind of bar to free movement. What did affect non-citizens (and that would include the vast majority of inhabitants of the Empire) in Roman provinces was the 15-yearly census, which (contra Luke) was intended to establish the number of men available for military service. There was such a census under Quirinus, but it was in 6 CE, when Jesus would have been about 12, when Rome instituted direct rule over Judaea some years after Herod’s death, and no Roman census ever required people to return to their place of birth – nor did the census include client kingdoms, which were not directly taxed, which was the status of Judaea under Herod the Great. The result was widespread unrest at the prospect of direct taxation for the first time and the administrative intrusion into peoples’ lives, which was one of the multiple factors which ended up precipitating the Jewish revolt of 66-73 CE.

It is notable that following the next (and final) Jewish revolt in 135, Jews were specifically prohibited from entering Jerusalem except on the day of Tisha B’Av; this is, as far as I can tell, the only recorded instance of a legal requirement on Jewish movement or residence outside the city of Rome. Yes, I suppose there could have been an edict similar to that relating to Cremona and Placentia, but there is no evidence of one, and it would have been unprecedented in 6 BCE in affecting two parts of a client kingdom, rather than Roman provinces.

So, with much less reluctance, I conclude that Luke’s story about the census was weaving some real historical information about Quirinus’ census into earlier history (it was something between 6 and 12 years too late) and arriving at a relocation from Nazareth to Bethlehem which really didn’t need to have happened, assuming that it actually did. My strong suspicion is that Luke felt that he had to locate the birthplace of the Galilean Jesus in Bethlehem (Judaea) in order to fit what was understood as messianic prophecy. The strong probability is, in fact, that Jesus was actually born in the Galilee, probably in Nazareth.

Having established that the conservatives are relying on a non-historical event, does that mean that what Luke was trying to convey is untrue? Not at all: his object was to establish that Jesus was the hoped-for messiah, and that might well have been a truth independent of the fact that a birth in Bethlehem was predicted.

Similarly, Matthew was clearly drawing a parallel with Moses in the flight into Egypt. Most historians think this story didn’t happen; certainly there is no evidence that Herod ever ordered the wholesale slaughter of children born in a certain period, and this is something Josephus, at least, would surely have mentioned. Again, however, historical accuracy is not what was being aimed for; drawing parallels between Jesus and Moses is theologically very fruitful territory.

And, in conscience, although Jesus was not historically an “illegal immigrant” and probably never visited Egypt, if we do not today see Christ in the illegal immigrant (and in the starving, the thirsty, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned), we cannot see Christ anywhere. He is there in the child in a cage in ther USA, he is there in the child washed up on a Greek beach, he is there in the camps in Turkey and Jordan and near Calais.

And we are not bringing him any gifts…

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Towards a one-party state?

December 17th, 2019
by Chris

A clip of Nigel Farage claiming that his Brexit Party had been successful, in that we now had a substantial Conservative majority and would definitely leave the EU, got me thinking. He, of course, did not put forward candidates in Conservative held seats, which indicated to me that he expected to attract voters who otherwise would not vote Conservative in Labour or Liberal Democrat held seats.

So I spent some time going through the results for the whole country, and assuming (as Farage seemed to do) that all the votes cast for the Brexit party would otherwise have gone to Labour.

There were 19 of these. Had Brexit not stood at all, the Conservatives would have had 346 seats, not 365 – and, recalling that 326 is a majority, Farage’s efforts clearly did not give Boris Johnson his win.

Another thought was that, given that Wales elected 14 Conservative MPs in total and Scotland elected 6, Johnson would still have had 345 seats, a reasonably comfortable majority, just from English seats (Northern Ireland has completely different parties, so doesn’t elect Conservatives anyhow, though the Democratic Unionist Party, which has 8 MPs, can be regarded as Conservative for most purposes – the Conservative Party used to be the Conservative and Unionist Party, after all). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were therefore irrelevant to the result. The term “unequally yoked” springs to mind. If someone were to claim that this made them effectively colonies with no real say in UK politics, I would have difficulty disagreeing…

It also follows that the election was not, in fact, all about Brexit. If it had been, one would have expected that Farage’s claim would have been correct. However, this got me thinking more about something which I was very enthusiastic about early in the election campaign, before Labour and the LibDems both ruled out an electoral pact to defeat Johnson and a “bad” Brexit.

Had Labour and the LibDems agreed not to stand against each other in seats in which one of them had come first or second in the last election, 45 seats would have not been Conservative now. 31 of them would have been Labour, the other 14 LibDem. (Not all of those were seats taken from one of those parties by the Conservatives this time – some previously safe Labour seats now have an absolute Tory majority). Incidentally, this was the case in all 19 seats in which the Brexit party’s votes alone conceivably produced a Conservative victory – even with the Brexit party standing and taking votes from Labour, they would still have not gone Conservative against such an electoral pact. That would have given the Conservatives 320 seats, not an overall majority (again), but sufficient to control parliament to at least some extent with the aid of the DUP. In another 9 seats, adding the Greens to that electoral pact would have done the job, giving the Conservatives 311, at which point even the DUP votes might not have been enough (and certainly wouldn’t have been enough to ensure a hard Brexit).

A further 12 seats would not have been Conservative if both factors, no Brexit party AND a broad anti-Brexit pact had been in play, and another 6 if the SNP and Plaid Cymru had joined in. That last, however, is probably beyond anything achievable in the future – apart from the absence of the Brexit party, which, let’s face it, has been a single issue organisation and, as we are virtually assured that Brexit will now happen, won’t have that vote-getting power in the future.

Let’s add another consideration. If we envisage a future in which Scotland becomes independent (which I think is inevitable, except, perhaps, under the softest possible Brexit, which Johnson is currently making it vanishingly unlikely he will achieve by proposing a ban on any extension of the final date beyond December 2020) and Northern Ireland slides into union with the Irish Republic instead of with the UK (which seems similarly likely in the long term, though it may be accompanied by a renewal of armed struggle in that case), we will be left with a House of Commons with only 587 members. (It is not likely that Wales will gain a majority in favour of independence any time soon). 359 of those are Conservative at the moment, which would be a majority not of 80 but of 131. Reversing the Labour and LibDem losses this time would hardly put a dent in that. Nor, at that stage, would the grand alliance of the centre and left which I propose change the result – there would still be a majority of around 40.

Granted, if Blair’s 1997 result were repeated, removing Scotland from the equation, Labour would still have had a working majority, but the arithmetic is clear; without Scotland, it will be far more difficult for anything other than a Conservative government to be elected. In fact, only Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 could have formed Labour governments without Scotland… This, I think, shows that there is not only a pressing need at the next election, whenever that is, for exactly the kind of electoral pact I propose, but it should also be one which vows to bring in some form of proportional representation.

Of course, the above depends to some extent on being able to convert LibDem votes to Labour and vice versa (likewise to a smaller extent Green). I think this would be a lot easier task if we could all point out that, as there would be proportional representation every time thereafter, this grand electoral alliance would probably only have to occur for one election (I am reasonably confident that the SNP and Plaid Cymru would be onside).

The alternative, it seems to me, is that we are headed inexorably towards an effectively one-party state with all other parties in permanent opposition and largely irrelevant to politics. Given that the current membership of the Conservative Party is around 160,000, and they would get to decide who were MPs, who was Prime Minister, and what were the country’s policies, I think this is a somewhat terrifying prospect.

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I have to vote tactically…

December 9th, 2019
by Chris

I am going to do something this week I swore I wouldn’t do many years ago.

I joined the Liberal Party when I was 15, actually as a result of reading the manifestoes of the various parties at the time and deciding that the Liberals had ideas I could get behind, which was prompted by my school holding a mock election, in which I stood for the Liberals and, to much surprise, won. When I left University and returned to my home town, I became active in local politics as a Liberal; the SDP came along, and the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and I got elected to a local council seat at a by-election, which I managed to hang on to through four elections. That was one of the few times when I voted for someone not from my own party – they were from the SDP, and he got elected too;  there were vacancies at Town and District level, and he got District, but only served one full term. I won the seat at District level the next time… It was also one of three times I have voted for someone other than myself who has won (one of the others was when, for one term, my running mate from the LibDems was also elected).

The two parties merged, becoming the Liberal Democrats, and from the 1970s to the early 2000s, that was the way I voted, and that was the party I paid a subscription to. In conscience, I only let the subscription lapse because I couldn’t afford it in 2005 onwards, but I was hugely disappointed by Nick Clegg’s coalition with the Tories from 2010. I really couldn’t see any sensible identity of interest between the Liberals I knew and Cameron’s Tories, and my worst fears were confirmed when none of the policies the LibDems wanted actually happened (and Clegg’s pledge on University tuition was broken), apart, that is, from the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. In 2015, the Tories selectively targeted LibDem seats pretty much on the basis that if you were going to vote LibDem you were going to vote for them anyway, and were talking to LibDem voters who were as disappointed as I was…

Throughout the 50 years since that school mock election, I have railed against a phenomenon I have seen time and time again when canvassing; people said they would like to vote LibDem, but they didn’t stand a chance of being elected (and yes, they said that to me when I was a sitting councillor and clearly HAD been elected previously) and, when quizzed how they were likely to vote, generally said that they would vote X because otherwise Y might get in (the X and Y could be Labour or Conservative interchangeably). I’d estimate that at least 50% of people were claiming they were voting the way they did as a negative vote, i.e. not because they liked the party they were voting for, but because they hated or feared “the other” party.

That is, of course, what “first past the post” voting gives you – a system in which you vote against people and policies, rather than for them. I vowed that I would not fall into that trap, and would always vote positively…

Incidentally, my preferred voting system is single transferrable vote – you rank candidates in order of preference, and the one with least first preference votes is eliminated and their second preferences are counted, and so on until someone has an absolute majority. This is not a proportional representation system, as such, although it does yield far more proportional results than first past the post (in which a party with 34% of the votes cast can get a really solid majority, almost a landslide, given that there are quite a few minor parties on our ballot papers). However, it allows you to vote positively rather than negatively, it does elect people who have the support of over 50% of the voters, even if some of those are second or third preferences, and it allows you to vote for an individual to represent you, not just a party, and that can include independents, who I think are in general a good idea.

As another aside, the other time when I voted for someone other than myself who won was in the Euro elections earlier this year – I voted LibDem, and due to us having a regional list system for Euro elections (mandated by the EU), we did elect one LibDem MEP, together with one Labour, one Green and (to my shame) three Brexit MEPs. I don’t like regional list particularly – it gives a lot of power to the political parties (who choose the order in which their candidates get elected, so you can’t necessarily vote for an individual) and it tends to eliminate individuals, who typically can’t get on the ballot paper at all, having no national or at least regional party behind them (there’s usually a cut-off for the size of parties), but on that occasion is did give me a positive vote which counted.

However, this election I am going to break the vow I made to myself. I’m going to vote negatively, against the sitting Conservative MP, and while I’d have naturally gone back to my allegiance of 50 years, the LibDem candidate doesn’t stand a chance of unseating the current MP, and the Labour candidate just might (the constituency was actually held by Labour from 1997 to 2005, but then had its boundaries radically altered which favoured the Conservatives a lot). I think this particular election is so important that I’m prepared to do this, against my better principles. Might I have voted Labour anyhow, given that the more I read the gospels, the more I think that Jesus would have thoroughly approved socialism, and I flatly disbelieve most of the tales peddled by the media about Corbyn (including that which has been picked up and repeated by the Chief Rabbi)? Possibly, though I still have some reservations about the good sense of Labour elected representatives, and I prefer the LibDem approach to Brexit, which is just to cancel it, while being disappointed by Corbyn’s equivocal stance on it – and read below…

Firstly, Brexit must be either stopped or a FAR better trade deal than the one which Boris’ agreement signposts must be available. There is a huge chance that Boris’ deal won’t go through anyhow, and we will be left with a “no deal” Brexit, and I am absolutely convinced that this would damage the country’s industry and its finances for many, many years – and in either case, we would be left having to negotiate a trade deal with the US, whose basic negotiating posture is that US companies should have access to everything (including the NHS) and that they should also be able to sue the government if it legislates in a way which might damage their profits, such as environmental legislation, food and trading standards, animal welfare and potentially employment security (look at TTIP if you doubt this). Corbyn might manage to negotiate something like a “Norway” deal, which is something I could live with… and he will give us a say again in a referendum.

That, however, is not all. Unless a very beneficial form of Brexit, i.e. something like Norway’s arrangement  (which, incidentally, includes most of the things people have complained about with membership of the EU, but without any representation or veto over the rules they are subject to), can be reached, the spending plans of either Labour or the Conservatives are going to be impossible to meet, and while I’m pretty sure Labour will at least try, the Conservatives are the ones who have imposed austerity over the last 15 years and crippled services in the process. The NHS, social care, police, education, libraries… the list is endless. The chances of them turning over a new leaf if, as all reputable economic sources indicate, we have far less money to spend following Brexit are, I think, zero. They also propose to demolish human rights legislation, taking us out of the European Convention on Human Rights, and their manifesto includes pledges to stop the courts having power over administrative decisions and to remove the power of parliament to bring a government to account. And, of course, their whole campaign has been lies piled upon lies. They absolutely cannot be trusted to run the country – I wouldn’t let them run a local cricket club…

The result would be a government which gets elected at a time chosen by the previous government (the Fixed Term Parliaments Act is to go) and then is responsible to no-one – not parliament, not the courts and certainly not the public – until it decides it’s time to have another election, hopefully still with 5 years as a longstop. With no checks and balances on them, I think the term “elective dictatorship” is not too strong.

I put Brexit first because I doubt that the negative effects will be able to be reversed at all easily – and some of them won’t be reversible. Even if we were to apply for membership again after a few years lapse, it is beyond belief that we would get as good a deal as we have now, with multiple derogations from various EU programmes (including Schengen and the Euro) and a substantial rebate on the cost. Maybe a TTIP-style trade deal with the US which was forced on us could be rescinded, but I think the fallout from that would be very nasty, and a lot of the damage (for instance to the NHS) might not be repairable; the likely environmental damage almost certainly wouldn’t be. I also fear that the effects would be so unpleasant (think food and medicine shortages, for instance) that the people would not wait for another election to take action, and I am very much opposed to revolutions…

Yes, a Tory government for 5 years would be a very nasty thing in and of itself, but assuming that we did manage to avoid a revolution, I note that among 20-30 year olds, support for the Tories is below 25%, and that age group and younger generations will increasingly be in a majority as time passes. There is a reasonable chance that in that department, any damage will be relatively short term.

Taking the two together, though, I think that electing the Conservatives with a working majority poses an existential threat to the Britain I know and love. Electing them as the largest party and so the one expected to form a new government would be bad enough, and I can’t see Corbyn managing to get more MPs than Johnson – but I can live in hope, and I’m not scared of a Labour government any more, particularly one which needs support from one or both of the LibDems and the SNP.

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The Tyranny of Oneness

December 8th, 2019
by Chris

I should preface this by saying, as I have before, that I regard myself as a definite non-philosopher, so I particularly invite any reader who is a philosopher to comment or email me…

In one of those coincidences (synchronicities?) which, these days, seem to mark my interaction with the internet, I find myself listening to Peter  Rollins course “The Tyranny of Oneness” (which is broadly on Hegel) – it’s available to his Patreon supporters – at the same time as happening across a link to an article on Hegel on Partially Examined Life and discussing the limits of knowledge and of representation in two other locations.

The article says at one point “The safest indication of the rupture is our gut feeling that overwhelms us when we read some classical metaphysical. Something tells us that today, we simply cannot any longer think like that…” Yes. I look at Plato’s idealism and Aristotle’s realism (or Spinoza’s), and I can’t think like either of them any more – but they are classical philosophy, pre-Kantian philosophy, and my brain can get me up to shortly before Kant, but Kant himself, and pretty much everything in philosophy after that, leaves me feeling that I don’t quite understand what’s going on. That may be at least in part because the way philosophers word their work seems to me to take a nosedive with Kant, and to keep on getting worse as time goes by (I make an exception for a few – William James’ pragmatism, for instance). In their case, it isn’t so much that I can’t think like that anymore, it’s that I’m not certain I ever could think like them.

However, from what I understand of Kant from second hand sources, I am entirely with him in thinking that there exists a transcendental divide between perception and underlying reality; we can only know phenomenology, not ontology.

That is one reason why I came to like Pete Rollins’ work – he is clearly entirely up to speed on post-Hegelian continental thought, at the least, and sometimes it has seemed to me that he has put bits of that in terms which make sense to me.

The trouble is, he talks extensively in this course (and a lot of his other recent work) about a fundamental inconsistency in reality (otherwise a lack or a conflict), and I get the same overwhelming gut feeling about that as well. I do that when reading the later stages of the article as well.  It states, for instance “With regard to philosophical issues that have predominated in the last decades, a new and more convincing case for the rupture was made by Paul Livingstone who, in his The Politics of Logic, located it in the new space symbolized by the names “Cantor” and “Goedel.” Here, of course, “Cantor” stands for set theory, through self-relating procedures (an empty set, a set of sets), compelling us to admit an infinity of infinities. “Goedel,” for his part, is notable for his two incompleteness theorems, demonstrating that – to simplify it to the utmost – an axiomatic system cannot demonstrate its own consistency since it necessarily generates statements that can neither be proved nor disproved by it.”

I rather fancy that my problem with those two luminaries is a function of the very action of making something self-relating. Russell and Frege, it seems (and again, this is insofar as I understand either) consider that self-reference is an illegitimate logical step (what you can say of a set is not what you can say of a set of sets, for instance). Gödel’s famous proof is based on a very devious way of making a system self-referential, and I find it impossible to accept it as logical, while being intuitively confident that, while it is not a proof, his thesis (which I’ve emboldened above) is correct. Without going into the depths of Russell and Frege, I just think that the idea of something which includes itself with remainder is logically ridiculous.

I am equally unprepared to accept an infinity of infinities as being something real; it has been suggested that there are only three really interesting numbers in mathematics, zero, one and infinity, and I am sceptical of the existence of two of those (zero, which is a nothingness elevated into reality, and infinity, which is never observable)[1]. I grant you that both of those are readily manipulatable in mathematics and, indeed, maths couldn’t survive without them. Mind you, quite a lot of maths (for example, quantum mechanics and electrodynamics) also couldn’t survive without the square root of -1, which (“i”) is even called an “imaginary number”.  What we can do in what I often refer to as “concept space” does not map accurately onto what is actually in existence… we can, clearly, imagine (at least in the sense of being able to put some symbols together on paper) things which do not and cannot exist.

I’m in more or less the same place when it comes to people talking of “being itself” or “the ground of all being”; to me, these are the inverse of Russel l and Frege’s position on nothing or nothingness – whereas they consider that “nothing “ merely denotes the falsity of a correspondence between a statement and reality, “being” seems to me only to connote the truth of such a correspondence. I used, once, to quite like talk of “ground of all being” used by some mystics (Teilhard de Chardin’s “Milieu Divin” springs to mind), but further thought has given me another dose of the overwhelming gut feeling that there is something wrong – and in the case both of nothing and of being, the basis for that is that there is no referent for them. This, unfortunately, means that a substantial slice of Pete’s thought (including  in a recent seminar “A Contingent Gristle of the Real”) where he talks of a rupture or a deadlock between something and nothing floats serenely over my head, having no referent for me.

Working more from the article than from Pete’s seminars, though, I have a couple of worries about Hegel. Firstly is the complete dismissal of anything other than phenomena. Now, I’m entirely happy with the idea that we cannot know, for certain, what is beyond phenomena, but entirely unhappy with the suggestion that there is nothing beyond phenomena. We may not be able to know that an ontology is correct, but we can be pretty certain that some ontologies are not correct, due, if nothing else, to the fact that most if not all ontologies demand that the resulting phenomena be some way which they are not.

Beyond that, however, I have the very strong feeling that, if this kind of interpretation of Hegel is correct, he is in effect constructing an equivalent to an ontology, and lapsing back into a form of idealism. When Pete talks of a “rupture at the heart of reality”, how can this be anything other than an ontological statement?

The article puts it like this: “We remain within the domain of reason, and this domain is deprived of its consistency from within: immanent inconsistencies of reason do not imply that there is some deeper reality which escapes reason. Rather, these inconsistencies are in some sense ‘the thing itself.’“ For me, while yes, those inconsistencies do not imply that there is a deeper reality, they equally do not imply that there isn’t, and while Schopenhauer’s irrationality is rejected (why, I ask?), they absolutely cannot be “a sign that we touched the real”.

I am not persuaded by Peter’s mention of quantum mechanics either. True, at the most fundamental level we can examine, we have phenomena like wave-particle duality, non-locality and “spooky action at a distance” to contend with, but in that case we are definitely looking at a failure of our system of representation adequately to describe what is there, and inasmuch as that is not amenable to rationality at the moment, it is at least in part because it is probabilistic, not rationally deterministic. “Fuzzy” is not the same thing as “ruptured”, and I observe that that fuzziness only operates at the quantum level; at higher levels, things are not fuzzy, because (at least in part) those probabilistic effects sum into something dependable.

That said, we know that we are examining reality through the lens of our own subjectivity, and when the article talks of that embodying exactly the kind of self-reference which Gödel made use of and which Russell and Frege rejected, it is a relatively straightforward deduction that some form of self-reference is involved (though not self-inclusion with remainder). We are clearly (and I think here of Douglas Hofstadter’s “Gödel, Escher Bach” and “I am a Strange Loop”) composed in at least some part of one or more feedback loops, and when Pete talks of something not being self-identical, in the case of a human subject (and any other organism which is in any sense self-aware), this is obviously true, on the basis that what is in view in this feedback loop is always going to be a slightly previous version of its current state – in the manner of Heraclitus’ river, it cannot be stepped in twice.

That, however, is not a fully adequate answer – after all, what is observed by that feedback loop is probably only infinitesimally different from that which observes. Hofstadter, however, is usually talking of “a” strange loop, and we are not simple. What does the observing is very probably also a loop separate from the loop which is doing the thinking in the first place, and so is not truly feeding back to itself – but what it is observing is then not itself. The “conscious mind” observes a subset of the conscious mind and thinks that that is all it is… and that is, in a sense, a “rupture”, but only one which betokens multiplicity rather than simplicity. (Where the “interesting numbers” I mentioned earlier are concerned, what is perhaps most interesting about infinity is that it is multiple, not that it is infinite – and that is something which can be observed, at least in some way.)

It follows that when the article says “The elementary gesture of reflexivity is that of taking a step back and including into the picture or situation one is observing or analyzing one’s own presence. Only in this way one can get the full picture.” I think “No, you are still not getting the full picture”. Not only, from my point of view, can you “not have totality and consistency at the same time”, you cannot have either of them in any absolute sense[2]. I also have no time for “The Hegelo-Lacanian perspective conceives these paradoxes as an indication of the presence of subjectivity: the subject can emerge only in the imbalance between a genus and its species.” There is no need for any imbalance as such, only for a feedback loop.  Nor am I impressed by “paradoxico-critical analysis demonstrates how this order is already in itself its own exception, sustained by permanent violations of its own rules.” There is no need, in Hofstadter’s system, for any violation of its own rules.

I have, in passing, an even more visceral rejection when the article says “For a Lacanian, it is immediately evident that Livingston’s duality of the generic and the paradoxico-critical perfectly fits the duality of the masculine side and the feminine side of the ‘formulas of sexuation.’” As soon as any writer uses masculine and feminine to mean anything other than gender, I turn off.

However, I repeat, I am not a philosopher. If anything, I’m a scientist – I have a bachelor’s degree in Physics, and am currently active, albeit very part time, doing research Chemistry. As such, I look at this as a problem in using some lab equipment (in this case the lab equipment being ourselves); most of the time my first line of enquiry where some phenomenon occurs is to look at the equipment to see if it is generating that phenomenon irrespective of the observation you are trying to make through it. And there, I find that we do indeed have a fundamental rift; the most basic feature of our thought is to distinguish one thing from another (the archetypal essay question starts “compare and contrast” with the split already in existence and asking to be better defined). We start with “A and not-A” and work from there. This is an even more basic feature than the “strange loop”, and, from what I can see, gives rise to quite a bit of philosophical thinking, possibly including Hegel (if I could only wade through the word-salad and come up with something understandable). As soon as the division becomes “A or B”, we arrive at excluded middles, surpluses of meaning and arbitrary divisions of continua, and this gives philosophers endless amusement, such as saying “For Hegel, the One of self-identity is not just always inconsistent, fractured, antagonistic, etc.; identity itself is the assertion of radical (self-)difference. To say that something is identical with itself means that it is distinct from all its particular properties, that it cannot be reduced to them. ‘A rose is a rose’ means that a rose is something more than all its features: there is some je ne sais quoi which makes it a rose, something ‘more in a rose than the rose itself.’”

Inasmuch as this has any meaning to me, it is perhaps saying that the old saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is true, perhaps saying that the framework in which you observe that something is a rose is a different framework from that in which you identify properties of a rose, a different set of distinctions is being made. It may just be returning in a slightly disguised form to Kant’s absolute barrier between reality and phenomena. What it appears to be saying, however, is that if you were to write “A=A” there is suddenly some kind of inconsistency (and we are possibly back to things including themselves with remainder). That just appears ridiculous to me, and symptomatic of the tendency to make distinctions where there is no difference which I’m afraid I tend to see in philosophy (and which is one of the things which probably disqualify me as a philosopher). I note in passing that this includes the apparent compulsion to make binary distinctions where there is actually a continuum.

That, in itself, leads me to what I think IS a fundamental difficulty of logical systems in dealing with the way things are (or, more accurately, appear to be) or, at least, language-based logical systems. I find, in this area, philosophers taking wave-particle duality or the concept of the “Dirac sea” as supporting ideas of fundamental inconsistency or fundamental rift, and comment as a Physicist that neither of them seems to me to support those ideas. What they more reasonably support for me is the superiority of ideas of uncertainty and of probability over deterministic concepts and the view that natural language and the concepts we have in it fail miserably to describe adequately the way things behave at quantum levels (the oft-quoted “shut up and do the maths” line which many quantum physicists have used is here indicative that the maths, which is itself a logical system, works a lot better than does natural language…)

There IS, therefore, a rather fundamental rift in human thinking, but it seems to me to derive from our binary way of thinking rather than from anything fundamental. What is fundamental seems to be something more like fuzziness, at least at the smallest scales we can investigate.

Of course, as the whole area we are now talking of is observations made by humans, we are inevitably talking of human psychology; to use my analogy, the experimental apparatus is our senses and minds (the two are inseparable), and psychology is possibly better suited to examine our minds than is philosophy. I am therefore less reluctant to accept the introduction of figures like Freud and Lacan into the discussion than I instinctively want to be – again, I’m to a significant extent a scientist, and I instinctively prefer philosophy to psychology, which still seems to me an appallingly imprecise science, and I long for “objective truth” even while being convinced that this is not ultimately obtainable.[3]

That said, both Freud and Lacan, as psychotherapists, tended to see people with psychological disorders. I worry that, as a result, they are imposing specific pathologies on the generality of humanity, because that’s what their sample is drawn from. For instance Pete, based on Lacan, makes much of the “big other”, and I try in vain to find any “big other” in my own psychology. Not that I’m saying my own psychology is normal and they are just dealing with abnormal psychology; I am well aware that my own psychology is abnormal in a number of ways, just not those which Freud and Lacan typically wrote about.

Similarly, when Pete talks of some person or object making you “whole and complete”, this is something which doesn’t afflict me, possibly because, as a mystic, I am used to experiences of “oceanic oneness” which do, briefly, provide a feeling of wholeness and completeness. Nothing else is going to do that. Thus, I don’t have the drive to find that in persons or objects.

This, however, does not mean that Freuds or Lacan’s insights do not have very wide applicability, indeed, I think they probably do (Lacan’s more than Freuds…) I just worry that they are being taken as being of universal application, as a quasi-ontology, and one counterexample is sufficient to defeat that.

I have one more note, and that’s on the use of the term “deadlock”. Pete is starting from the Hegelian idea of dialectic, which, to him at least, is something more than the mere human tendency to distinguish into binary oppositions and then need to find some wider sense. A deadlock is a situation which prevents movement. It is similar to the physical concept of stability, in which the forces on an object are balanced so that no movement occurs, but may well be more like the concept of metastability, in which if a force is applied, the object returns rapidly to the balanced condition. Now, as I don’t relate well to many of the concepts he is using (see above!), I need to find some other way of viewing this – and my own base dichotomy is between order and chaos. Order is balanced, static, immovable and yes, deadlocked. Chaos, on the other hand, is all movement and no regularity.

And, in order to have the world as we perceive it, we need both order and chaos. Yes, at the smallest scales we can perceive, chaos appears to reign (we cannot be certain where things are, how fast they are moving, what wavelength they are if they are wavelike or, ultimately, whether they exist or not) but at the scales we perceive in normal life, there is a balance – things move, they develop, they grow and shrink and are born and die. Movement requires an imbalance of forces, and things which are not moving and developing are essentially dead. However, they are ordered. The order is temporary and, given entropy, inevitably ceases.

Somewhere in that mode of thought, I hope to find some access to Pete’s thinking…

To conclude, I don’t see Oneness as in any way tyrannical, though I grant you that it would be for someone who was seeking it at the expense of living a reasonably balanced life. I do however see it as counter to the general project of philosophy and science in particular and human thought more generally, that being do divide things up into smaller and smaller bits and then argue about where the dividing lines should be…

I wanted to get this down on paper before Pete’s next talk (later today), which is titled “The Deadlock of Mysticism”, which I confidently expect to hate!


[1] Please do not go away and try to construct a mathematics which avoids zero and infinity (or, indeed, either of them). That way lies madness…

[2] I note here that “absolute sense” equates, for me, to taking things to an infinity – and I’m sceptical about infinities. I also note that there is a very strong tendency in science for theories to break down in “limit” conditions, strong enough for me to expect that any explanation is going to do that when called “absolute”. This could link very well to Pete’s ideas of taking a position to the extreme, and seeing it fail…

[3] Though self-referencing systems (and science in general may be thought of as a complex self-referencing system) can produce iterative solutions which approximate more and more closely to an accurate answer, as an example the very simple formulae for calculating a square root. If X is the number you with to find the root of, make a guess of A(0), then instead of Aexp2=X, take A(0)*A(1)=X, i.e. A(1)=X/A(0). Then the next guess A(2)=(A(0)+A(1))/2; repeat until A(n)=A(n-1) to however many places of decimals you want. One might hope that a similar more general procedure could produce, if not “absolute” accuracy, then an arbitrarily close result to that. The formula needs to be convergent rather than divergent, and there is huge additional complexity where multiple factors are in play, of course.

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The woes of democracy

November 21st, 2019
by Chris

One idea from Toby Buckle’s most recent Political Philosophy podcast resonated with me in particular (it wasn’t the main thrust of the podcast, which was, as usual, excellent) . It was this: a functioning Democracy relies on the side which has not won a vote accepting that, and moving on.

I was immediately reminded of the fact that almost immediately after the Brexit referendum result, Brexiteers were calling on Remainers to come together with them and deliver Brexit (without having the slightest idea how Brexit could be delivered or what the consequences were), and have ever since then been criticising Remainers and accusing them of not being in agreement with the result of this popular vote. I was also reminded of the fact that the narrative behind Boris Johnson calling for another election is, in essence, that Parliament has frustrated Brexit and is no longer fit for purpose.

Now, bearing in mind that even on the evening of the referendum, the arch-Brexiteer, Nigel Farage, was expecting to lose, and pledging to carry on fighting for Brexit despite the expected “Remain” vote, I thought the immediate criticisms of those of us who voted “Remain” were unreasonable. In effect, his position was that “his side” would never accept a “Remain” vote and would carry on trying to reverse it – and his position as an MEP (and that of the other members of what was then the UKIP party) was to disrupt the European parliament as much as they could, which signals exactly the same refusal to accept a democratic result. I will note here that the position of the “European Research Group” of Conservative MPs who were ardently in favour of leaving the EU was fairly similar, if not quite identical. It wasn’t, however, quite the refusal to accept a democratic result which the podcast refers to, as the commitment was to further democratic action at that point.

At that point, my position, and that of a large number of other “Remain” voters was that yes, we had lost, and we therefore needed to campaign for the least damaging Brexit which could be obtained – and this was also the position of a majority of MPs – perhaps not a majority of Conservative MPs, but almost certainly a sizeable majority of Labour MPs; both parties campaigned in the 2017 election on the basis of putting Brexit into effect. Remainers, in other words, were being accused (in advance) of doing what Brexiteers had already been doing or would do themselves.

From the point of view of consensus the trouble is that at that point the narrative shifted. In the referendum campaign, much was made of the fact that we could leave the EU and still have a very favourable trade deal, perhaps still being in the Customs Union and having zero tariffs (which is essentially the deal which Norway has), and I’m sure that influenced a significant proportion of those who voted “Leave” and of the Labour MPs and at least a significant number of the Conservatives elected in 2017. However, it then became a refusal to accept “the will of the people” if someone wanted anything other than the very hardest Brexit, a “no deal” Brexit which would leave us with customs barriers and tariffs between us and our largest trading partner, or at the very least to guarantee that we wouldn’t end up in a “no deal” situation.

This was apparent when Mrs. May negotiated a deal with the EU which, at the time, I was unhappy with, but said was the best which could be expected, indeed, better than I had expected, given the negotiating positions of the two sides. There were three attempts to get Parliament to accept that deal; Labour were against it as it didn’t give an assurance of a future close trading relationship with the EU, but the thing which actually prevented that being accepted by parliament was NOT the votes of those who might have preferred to Remain to start with (and were probably more convinced of the good sense of the Remain view by this time), it was members of the Conservative ERG, the “hard Brexiteers” who voted against it and stopped it being adopted. Remember; only a “no deal” Brexit or something close to that is acceptable to them (and, I remind the reader, the referendum was not a vote for “no deal”, it was a vote for some form of withdrawing from the EU, and that included a range of much closer relationships than “no deal”).

I have, of course, written about this slide towards “no deal” previously.

Now, given that there were a diversity of opinions about what kind of Brexit was desirable in Parliament (just as there was in the country in general and the “Leave” voters in particular), one would have thought that a consensus could have been reached for a Brexit which was considerably less damaging than “no deal” – perhaps “Norway”, perhaps something a little less cosy (people talked of “Canada ++” or “Switzerland”), but definitely something well short of demolishing most of our foreign trade for the foreseeable future (about half our trade is with the EU, but in addition all our other trading relationships are under the EU’s trading agreements, and those would be lost too, at least for the time being). Yes, the ERG would have voted against this (and shouted loudly about a betrayal of democracy, which it obviously wasn’t), but there were probably a majority of Conservative and Labour MPs who could have lived with that. The trouble is, Mrs. May was too scared of her own party to propose anything closer to the EU than the deal she secured, so she didn’t negotiate one nor did she put one to parliament.

The Johnson narrative on this was that parliament had been deliberately frustrating the “will of the people” in the referendum, and needed to be replaced. Again, we see the Brexit side accusing Remainers of exactly what the Brexiteers were doing themselves…

Johnson, on the other hand, is in the pocket of the hard Brexit people. His “deal” is massively closer to “no deal” than Mrs. May’s (and could still end up there), and he backed up getting there by sacking Tory MPs from the party, among other tactics. (Maybe Mrs. May could have done the same with the ERG to good effect?). He is clearly now hoping that an election (which we don’t need, rather than a new referendum which we do) will get him a majority of either ardent Brexiteers or others who are too scared of expulsion from the party to argue with him, trading off a popularity in the polls which I find difficult to understand and the corresponding unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, following a campaign of vilification of him in the press since the say he was elected.

Now, I have encountered this trait of accusing your opponents of what you are doing yourself before they have done anything remotely like that themselves. It is, I suppose, understandable that someone might expect their opposition to use the tactics they are using (or intend to use) themselves, particularly if they have sociopathic tendencies, but accusing them of doing it before there is any evidence they actually are is symptomatic of one type of personality, the malignant narcissist.

I’ll mention here in passing a really bizarre allegation I’ve seen in comments (more than once) in response to the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to cancel Article 50 without a second referendum that this is “anti-democratic”. What part of standing for election with this as your declared policy and asking voters to vote for it could possibly be “anti-democratic”?

At this point, I need to pick up the point I started with. Brexiteers have been saying for quite some time now that if we were to cancel Article 50 and stay in the EU, it would potentially lead to violence; I have read today comments in three different threads from people suggesting this. This is strongly arguing that democracy has broken down in exactly the way Toby’s podcast alluded to. On the Remain side, I can’t see any corresponding claims that violence would attend us actually leaving (though many of us have committed to campaigning to re-join if that occurs) – but I have grave misgivings that, in the case of a no-deal hard Brexit, there would be so much misery caused, including possible food shortages and a substantial rise in prices of many things – plus the fact that as GDP would drop by 10-25%, so would tax revenues, which would make the spending promises of either Conservative or Labour laughable – that we would see violence.

And, in that event, democracy would have suffered a huge blow, from which it might not recover.

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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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