Killing bodies

August 10th, 2018
by Chris

There is an excellent short talk by Philip Clayton at Catacombic Machine. In it, inter alia, he says “we do live by killing bodies – that’s a lesson I learned from Jain friends”. It’s notable because listening to that is the first time I’ve heard a significant Christian theologian expressing that point of view.

I don’t think you need the Jain perspective in order to arrive at that realisation, though. All you need is a sufficiently powerful mystical experience. OK, perhaps all you need is the sufficiently powerful mystical experience plus the freedom to apply a panentheistic interpretation to it. A relatively weak mystical experience may dissolve the boundaries between you and other humans – that will probably boost your empathy, possibly to painful levels. A stronger one, though, will dissolve the boundaries between you and other life – and, if sufficiently strong, this may result in the conviction that even insects – no, even microbes – are part of you (actually, a really strong one will dissolve the boundary between you and the whole of existence, so even the non-living is included). Science has, of course, now realised that we cannot function without a vast quantity of microorganisms within us which are not ultimately “part of us” but for all sensible purposes are (and if a reader doubts this, consult one or more yoghurt adverts which talk about replacing good bacteria in your gut…).

It was well before I looked at the Jain beliefs in any detail that I arrived at this perspective (and, like any metanoia, it is one which once experienced cannot be undone), and I had already wrestled with the ethics of killing in order to live, if it be only plants and animals (and formerly living things form the overwhelming majority of what I live on). I’d considered vegetarianism, but the dissolution of boundaries in my case was so strong that I could no longer see a hard and fast dividing line between animals and vegetables (which was many years later bolstered by finding that I am over 60% genetically similar to a banana), and indeed a dividing line between the human and the bacterium. Being a rather sickly adolesccent at that point, I needed to make a decision about taking antibiotics as well, and came down firmly on the side of taking them and continuing to live through several episodes of pneumonia. (I hadn’t at that point discovered fruitarians, some of whom will only eat things which have already fallen from trees and are therefore arguably already dead, but living as one was wholly impractical, and didn’t make any dent on my wholesale slaughter of bacteria…)

The Jains do try very hard not to take life, including both vegetarianism and, in the case of really devout members of the religion, sweeping the path in front of them lest they inadvertently step on and kill an insect. They cannot, however, ever hope to avoid “living by killing bodies” in an absolute sense. They “have to draw the line somewhere” (see my earlier posts with that title) and draw it in a place much closer to real nonviolence than I do, but they nonetheless draw a line. I’m not actually sure I do draw a line any more – there is an increasing level of reluctance in me to kill something the nearer is is to being human, but while I consider it always to be a wrong to take life, I am stuck with taking life of some kind in order to live myself, and I need to make a value judgment in every specific case. Given no greater wrong which would arise, I will even avoid wholesale slaughter of bacteria by washing down the kitchen with bleach… It is not necessarily a wholly comfortable thing being a mystic!

There is one aspect which I haven’t discussed, and that is that the mystic will typically see the wholeness, the One with which boundarioes have dissolved, as being God. By killing to live, I am therefore killing God on a daily basis. There are, in Christianity, two symbols which lend themselves particularly to this. One is communion, in which you “take and eat; this is my body, broken for you” – and, of course, this becomes literally true as well as symbolically true.

The other is the death of Jesus. Forgetting all of the Christian interpretations of the cosmic significance of that event, we (that is to say human beings) killed him. Nietzsche wrote “God is dead, and we have killed him”, though he had something more than just the death of Christ in mind, but in the narrowest sense, he was also correct. I’ve written before about my rather literalist interpretation of Matthew 25:31-46; what we do to any other person we are literally doing to God. Including killing him.

Just for today, I will kill God as little as I can.

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Connecting with Jesus?

August 5th, 2018
by Chris

A friend of mine has posted these observations, which were in turn put to her by a long term acquaintance. I thought I’d give answering them a shot.

1) “You’ve had all this time to reach intimately into yourself and your relationship with God and that sense of presence. Bear in mind what you say won’t make sense to most people, and you could lead them astray by describing how you live and what you see.”

I do bear in mind that what I say won’t make sense to most people, if only because I find that most people haven’t had a peak mystical experience, and a fair proportion of those who’ve had more moderate mystical experiences have largely dismissed them as “one of those things” (or, as one atheist friend beautifully put it “a brain fart”). I’m acutely conscious of the fact that if I do something to take apart someone’s existing belief structures, I can’t give them their own mystical experience on which to build. That is either given (as in my case) or acquired through a long process of practice. Possibly also via the use of pharmaceuticals or other radical ways of adjusting the brain, but I’ve no competence to suggest those.

That leaves me thinking of “No disassemble” from “Short Circuit” and the picture of a child surrounded by mechanical or electronic parts which he or she (usually he) has taken apart and has no idea how to put back together.

I do have some ideas about how to put things back together, but they take a lot of time (disassembly is far quicker!) and I made a decision many years ago that I didn’t want to be in the position of a guru. In part that was because I considered myself unfitted for that role, in part it was because I was scared of being the focus of a huge weight of expectation, and of what that might do to me.

Those who ask me what I really think, however… eventually, I’ll answer them truthfully, even if by doing so I’m taking them down the rabbit hole with no expectation of them ever coming out of it. It seems to me that the original speaker is terrified of that happening to them…

There is, of course, an implication there that the speaker thinks my friend is woefully misled herself. But hey, I think the speaker is woefully misled, and probably needs to listen long and hard to what my friend has to say.

I also need to think more about “could lead them astray by describing how you live and what you see.” I recoil at the idea that anyone should ever be told that sharing their experience or their perspectives (“experience, strength and hope” if you like) is a bad thing. I do self-censor when talking to people whose beliefs I judge to be fragile – and rigidity and brittleness often go together – but as an overall objective, I think there’s little better than being able to share about how you got where you are, what assisted you in getting there and how you now view the world at large.

2) “When you hear people talk about their own spiritual experience you need to connect them up specifically with Jesus, in case they get deceived by other spirits. It’s all about that name – the man on earth who died and rose again.”

My goodness, how many ways is that statement bad? There’s the magical thinking of there being power in a particular name (which, of course, wasn’t actually “Jesus”, but something more like Yeheshua, or if you like Joshua). There’s the equally magical thinking of seeing a world of disembodied spirits, which is (with thanks to Walter Wink in “Naming the Powers”) pretty definitely not how Paul, the writer of most of the early attempts at theology on which the speaker probably relies, saw spirits – the Hebrew concept was that no spirit could ever be disembodied. There’s the issue of ignoring Matthew 7:22-23 “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!”.

Then there’s the concept of The man on earth who died and rose again”. Concepts, unlike mere words, do have some power (and OK, words might have power inasmuch as they are signifiers for a concept). What a horrendously denatured version of the gospel! Implicit in that is the idea that at root, Christianity is nothing more than an escape plan (and, of course, “Jesus” is its label).

It’s almost enough to make me think that deconstructing such a belief would be a good thing irrespective of whether you could construct something better to take its place (and get that to take root in the consciousness of your interlocutor…)

3) (In the context of mentioning mutual friends of mine who are 10 years older than me…) “…we can be in turmoil as we reach the last part of our lives, because we are being prepared for eternity.”

There’s the escape plan again. Now, in my own perspective, our whole lives are preparation for “eternity”, inasmuch as we don’t manage to taste it during our lifetimes – and I can think of no gift greater than being allowed to taste it ante-mortem (or from Luke 9:27 ,“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”) given that I don’t actually know what happens post-mortem (and I don’t think anyone else does either). By “eternity” there, I obviously mean the concept rendered in the original as “zoe aionios”, which is usually translated as “eternal life” – but that is a terrible translation. It might mean “the life of ages” or “the life of the aeon”, but I think the true sense is more like “the fullness of life”.

If I’m right about that, the implication of “prepared for eternity” is that they are being persuaded that the life they are actually living is worthless in comparison to that which they can anticipate after death, and that is, to my thinking, a deeply immoral thing to suggest to anyone.

4) (I mentioned 7 chakras in eastern thinking, and how they were about balance and energy, which I said I found helpful in dealing with my faith at a level beyond words.) “Words like ‘chakra’ should be avoided because they belong to another way and there is only one way (Jesus) that leads to God. ”

Again, we have the magical thinking that words have power in and of themselves, coupled with an implicit equation of what is almost certainly one of the “many mansions” of John 14:2 and the “other folds” of John 10:16 with (and there is no way of putting a finer point on it) Satanism. This is the kind of thinking which, were I to put a cover saying “War and Peace” on my Bible (as I might, in some circles, be slightly embarrassed to be caught reading the Bible), I would have in some way changed the contents. OK, I did originally think of using the cover of, say, The Bhagavad Gita, but I don’t have a Bible thin enough to fit that dust cover… though, come to think of it, Crowley’s “Magick in Theory and Practice” would fit on my RSV.

Back, I think, to Matthew 7.

As it happens, I am very much with the Dalai Lama on this point. If someone is using the language of chakras (whether in conjunction with other Hindu, Buddhist or Jain concepts or not), I am far more disposed to try to assist them in being the best Hindu, Buddhist or Jain that they can be than to persuade them that they are following the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire, as Shakespeare put it. If they’re merely using them as a language (and set of concepts) to assist healing, I might even point out that there are much wider systems of concepts into which that language fits, and which they should probably be exploring. (The Dalai Lama has famously told many people that, rather than converting to Tibetan Buddhism, they should strive to be a better practitioner of the religion they grew up in).

Actually, of course, the Dalai Lama’s point rather indicates that those from the West who are talking about chakras should maybe be exploring traditions more native to them, and that is something I am always keen to mention. I suppose, in so doing, I’m actually going to be “connecting them up with Jesus” for some value of those words. Probably not the value my friend’s acquaintance had in mind, though!

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Myths of origin

July 31st, 2018
by Chris

I’ve just restrained myself from picking up on someone who, responding to the suggestion that America was built on slavery, wrote “No, America did not start with ‘genocide and slavery’. People from Britain and elsewhere fled there to find religious freedom, and it was the first country to establish a true democracy – one without a king. America started out of a noble idea! Yes, negative things like slavery did take place, but wasn’t it also America that abolished it?” (the writer is called Maxim Ilushenkov). I may put a link in that discussion, if I can find it again, but in any event, have seen similar statements so many times that I think it useful for me to have a boilerplate answer.

It seems the myths of origin are still strong in the States. Let me suggest a more historical narrative. America was originally settled, so far as modern European influence was concerned, by a number of government-approved groups. The first settlement in North America (if you ignore Viking settlements much earlier, which did not survive long term) was Spanish, and was in Florida. The first English sponsored colony, Jamestown, was founded in 1607, nearly 100 years later. 13 years later, the “Pilgrim Fathers” arrived, as the first non-state-licensed group. Yes, in a sense they were trying to find religious freedom, but they didn’t “flee there”; the religious element of the group had indeed fled England to the Netherlands in order to avoid persecution, but had then returned to England when the climate for dissenters improved, having found that the extremely religiously tolerant society in the Netherlands didn’t agree with them. Their wish for religious freedom was the wish to impose their brand of extreme Protestantism on everyone else, which they proceeded to do in Massachusetts for quite some time – but, I suppose, that is in line with the ideas current in the USA of “Religious Freedom Restoration”, being the freedom to discriminate against others not of their religious views. There were however other early colonies which actually were formed with an ethos of religious toleration – William Penn’s Pensylvania, for instance (formed as a haven for Quakers) and Roger Williams’ Rhode Island (a reaction to the attitudes of Massachusetts).

Curiously, a substantial reason for the persecution of extreme Protestants which had prompted the move of the original Pilgrim Fathers group to Holland was the aftermath of the English Civil War, in which (among other things) extreme Protestants gained a substantial voice in government and were instrumental in banning theatre, music and dancing, and other restrictive laws prompted by their extremist views, as well as being responsible for the destruction of huge amounts of religious art (most churches I know which date from prior to the Civil War bear the scars of that episode). On the restoration of the monarchy (to which subject I’ll return shortly), not only were religious dissenters regarded as bigoted killjoys, but also as having been significantly responsible for the Civil War itself; the monarchy was re-established with the national church (the Church of England) in place, and as the king was the head of the church, not being part of that church was regarded as potentially treasonous. The same had been the case with Catholics since Henry VIII nationalised the English Church, with even more justification, given that the Pope had authorised and encouraged Catholics to revolt and/or kill the monarch from time to time, and Catholic nations to invade and overthrow the monarch (and government).

Incidentally, it is worth stressing that the Anglican Church of the time was far more an offshoot of government than was government under religious control. Catholic countries were, at least theoretically, able to be ordered about by the Pope, and we had seen what control by a group including Puritans looked like – that was government under religious control. England was therefore much more self-determining than were Catholic countries or some German states where Protestantism took a strong role in government. In other words, ironically, the Pilgrim Fathers who are hailed as seeking religious libery were actually looking for a place where they could impose religious control of government. I am sure the Founding Fathers were well aware of that, and had it in mind when decreeing that there should be no established religion! There are, I think, some uncomfortable parallels with attitudes these days to Islam.

My second issue is with “the first country to establish a true democracy”. Actually, that is slightly truer than might appear, given that there is no way that the Republic established in 1776 could be regarded as a “true democracy”, as it denied votes to blacks and women, because the USA was fairly early in granting full suffrage. Sweden possibly has the claim to be the first county to have women’s suffrage (in the 18th century, though it was limited, and an universal franchise was not achieved until 1919); the United Kingdom finally got there in 1928 after a limited franchise in 1918; the United States got there as a whole in 1920 with the 19th Amendment after various states had instituted womens’ suffrage in the previous 20 years. But perhaps Mr. Ilushenkov meant “the first country to establish a modern republic”? We’d had one for a few years during our civil war period, of course, but thought better of the concept. Iceland almost certainly has the claim to that title, though – their republic dates back to 930.

Hidden within that claim, though, is, I think, the thought that the American Revolution was a revolution against absolute monarchy. Certainly I repeatedly hear from Americans that George III was a tyrannical ruler, and the American revolt was against him (and the Declaration of Independence rather suggests that…) Again, this is not really the case. He wasn’t an absolute ruler – that was something which was also settled by our Civil War after a long process of incrementally increasing democracy in England dating back to the 13th century; what the colonists objected to was a set of laws passed by the British parliament, which was by the standards of the time a democracy, George III being a constitutional monarch. The Civil War had been, to a significant extent, a war of religion, against the prospect of Charles I returning England to Catholicism, but it was also a war to prevent him becoming an absolute monarch in the continental mould – though, of course, still subject to Papal interference. We’d in fact had another revolution ourselves on this issue when James II showed similar tendencies. The problem for the colonists was, ostensibly, that they didn’t have representation in that parliament. Actually, though, it was probably more a tax revolt; the American colonies didn’t like paying taxes, something which hasn’t changed much for some of the population. It was also, which should not be forgotten, a revolt against crony capitalism; the British Government gave the East India company massively favourable terms of operation, and American enterprises couldn’t compete…

Of course, the British democracy of the time wasn’t a very good democracy. The franchise was largely limited to adult males who owned property, and quite a few of the constituencies which returned an MP were “rotten boroughs” which, due largely to population shifts, but also a certain amount of gerrymandering, had very few electors, all of whom were likely to be in the pocket of the local landowner – or, at least, easily and relatively cheaply bribable (or otherwise able to be influenced) by him. What the Founding Fathers set up was somewhat better, and was definitely better if you ignore the lack of votes for the huge slave population in the South.

The King did have considerably more power than monarchs do these days – he could refuse to sign Acts of Parliament without the absolute assurance that his reign would end very shortly thereafter (which is the position for all 20th and 21st century rulers of Britain), though with the spectre of that hanging over his head (perhaps literally, given the fate of Charles I…). He retained a modest amount of executive power, and had a lot of influence in parliament via a system of patronage – he had in his gift a lot of valuable positions, and though members of parliament were debarred from accepting those, their relatives weren’t. Besides, in those days the British House of Lords (the upper chamber of the legislature) had at least equal power with the House of Commons (the lower chamber), and represented specifically the rich and powerful (which was the hereditary group of noblemen), and they were not denied offices of profit.

The more of this I write, the more I see echoes of the faults in the British democracy of the 18th century appearing in the American democracy of the 21st.

As to Mr. Ilushenkov’s last point, the USA was slow to abolish slavery after the British government took the step of banning the international slave trade in 1807, and actually went to considerable lengths to try to enforce that. (I do note that this was a matter of poacher turned gamekeeper – Britain had had a disproportionately large part of the Atlantic slave trade for over 100 years at that point).Parts of the USA were, however, well in advance of this – Pennsylvania abolished it in 1780. Britain abolished it in it’s overseas possessions in 1833 by act of parliament, probably largely on the basis that it took that long before the political will to compensate the slave owners had been assembled (Somersett’s case in 1772 had by then established that slavery was not legal in Britain itself, and in the marvellous way of legal cases, that it never had been…); the States needed a civil war before the South caught up in 1865 with the Thirteenth Amendment. There was an immense economic system which was fuelled by the existence of slavery, and the Southern States were entirely unwilling to give that up (as they thought would be the consequence of emancipation). The marvel, in my eyes, is that Britain managed to bring itself to demolish that system, which was still producing a majority of the world’s sugar in the Carribean colonies in the 1820s…

Now, I enjoy England’s myths of origin, which are probably about as accurate as the ideas mentioned in my first paragraph – King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, King Alfred burning cakes, Robin Hood bedevilling the Shrrif of Nottingham and even Francis Drake not allowing incipient invasion to interrupt his game of bowls. Two of those are probably pure fiction (the Round Table and the game of bowls), Robin Hood is mostly so, but they all have some root in history. However, it is in the study of real history that we learn lessons to guide us through the present – it is regrettably true that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. And there are a plethora of lessons to be learned from the real history of American Independence and the ending of the slave trade.

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The Market as Religion

June 28th, 2018
by Chris

There’s a rather good article in Evonomics I’ve just seen, the contents of which I tend to agree with generally. However, this passage stood out to me:- “Religious zealots are famously immune to experience, scientific evidence, logic and common sense. The religious story that has been planted in their heads is so captivating that it drives the behavior of the true believer, no matter what the consequences. In fact, the typical response to failure is to redouble one’s faith. The power of story is by no means restricted to religion. The dominant economic narrative, with its imaginary Homo economicus and frictionless market, is as detached from reality as any religion, as the theologian Harvey Cox perceptively observed in an Atlantic Monthly article titled The Market as God, which is even more relevant today than when it was published in 1990.  Perverse business practices with ruinous consequences make sense to the economic true believer. If they fail, then the solution is to practice them even more assiduously. The only solution to this problem is to break the spell by changing the story to one that is more in tune with reality.”

As regular readers will be aware, I consider financialised free market capitalism as The System of Satan. Any system in which, in order to succeed, you need to do the exact opposite of everything Jesus taught us to do has to have a good claim to that title. In the First Century, that system was probably the Roman Empire, and much of the thrust of the New Testament is subversive towards the Empire and it’s rulers. The very proclamation “Jesus is Lord” was a counterpoint to “Caesar is Lord”, which was the only “rational outlook” to take in First Century Palestine. The term “euangelion” (which we translate “gospel” or “good news”) was typically in that period the proclamation that you had just been conquered by the Romans and assimilated into the Roman Empire (and yes, I do have the Borg in mind there… hyperlink included just in case to you, “Borg” only conjures up Marcus of that name). There was, however, a huge amount of Jesus’ teachings which was economic (the Empire was political, military and financial, after all) – and this was counter-cultural as well – “Give to anyone who asks it of you”? Lunacy. “Lend without expecting repayment”? A recipe for disaster. “Pay your workers what they are worth”? That would be the end of the world for the kind of thinking which imagines that setting a minimum wage (far less than a “living wage” normally) would ruin the economy.

What I particularly like about the article (and it’s links) is that it shows that this idea of “the market” as the be-all and end-all is a fundamentally religious one. Yes, it’s the System of Satan, but it’s also the religion of Satan. Like the philosophical concept of God or the supernatural theist concept of God, it’s a neat intellectual idea which is not borne out by actual evidence. Markets in practice are messy, subject to all sorts of distortions and require very careful regulation to come anywhere close to the idea. Happily, God is merely subject to all sorts of distortions – of human concepts, at least – but requires no regulation…

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Free Speech – who pays?

June 26th, 2018
by Chris

I was reading with interest a New York Times article about Free Speech today; the basic premise is one with which I agree, and which could be more succinctly captured by a facebook meme, also seen today, which reads something like this:-

Right winger “Let’s do genocide”
Left winger “Let’s not”
Centrist “Come on guys, you have to come to a compromise. How about ‘Let’s do some genocide’?”
Right winger “I suppose I can live with that for the time being”
Left winger “No”
Centrist “That’s what I can’t stand about you Leftists – you won’t compromise. You’re the real extremists!”

I am continually distressed by the fact that some media (and I’m looking, inter alia, at the BBC here) feel obliged to give two sides of stories where one of them is appalling; one result is that it only takes someone to start arguing a really extreme position to skew the whole debate towards that position. This, I hasten to point out, can skew debate either towards the Right or towards the Left; it does the first any time economics is discussed, with the extreme position of neoliberalism having managed to become mainstream, it does the second (in my opinion) where identity politics is involved, though there is a very sound Biblical case for privileging any person or group who are typically underprivileged, and I am open to argument… but not to the extent of closing down any debate which considers that no voice is valid except that of the multiply disadvantaged (intersectionality), which is what I sometimes see happening.

However, one of the examples given involves a long criticism of Charles Murray (author of the notorious “The Bell Curve”) and of Sam Harris for giving him air time on his “Waking Up” podcast, using the term “junk science” of his work. Another article is referenced , from Vox. The NYT writer, in fact, suggests that colleges and universities should not invite Murray to speak, on the basis that his position was as untenable as an individual fired from an Oceanographic Institute because he didn’t believe in evolution.

And I lost all sympathy with the article in the process. The Vox writers make some good points, but say (inter alia) “Murray casually concludes that group differences in IQ are genetically based.” Now, I’ve actually read The Bell Curve (I was asked to do so shortly after it’s publication by a group some members of which were distressed by the conclusions of the book, in the hopes that I could come up with conclusive arguments against its premises), and I can readily state that it is not “junk science”. It may be flawed science – the Vox writers advance arguments as to why this may be the case – but “junk” is just abusive. And Murray does not say that differences in IQ between racial groups are solely genetically based (which is what the Vox writers are suggesting, and which the NYT writer clearly takes on board), he merely suggests that the result of his study show that they are partially genetically based. TBC is quite adamant that a large proportion of IQ is due to nurture rather than nature, but it does come to the conclusion that some of the difference in IQ is genetic.

And there’s the problem which the group who asked me to read TBC were concerned about. It isn’t a question of what the science says, at root, it’s what you do with the conclusions. As the Vox writers say, it’s toxic. TBC has always been a favoured text of racists, because even a little genetic component, to them, justifies profiling the whole of a race, and discriminating against them (I can hear the word “untermensch” in the back of my mind here). I was equally concerned about that result – but, at the time, not to the extent of wanting to deny the science in TBC – and there is science in there, albeit now it’s 23 year old science. For those who are interested, my conclusion was that there was some merit in TBC, but that we should in social and economic policy stipulate that those results should not be taken into account. After all, the USA is founded on the premise that We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I regard this as a set of fictions, but ones which there are powerful reasons to adopt…

As the Vox authors point out, there have been a lot of studies done since TBC, and some of them call into question some of it’s conclusions, sometimes to a considerable extent. I would personally be very happy to find that virtually all of the difference in IQ between racial groups (which absolutely does exist) is due to nurture, because then I could stand in front of racists and tell them that any of these differences are due to disadvantaged circumstances in the group’s upbringing and berate then for their responsibility for that (whether it be systematic discrimination as in the USA or predatory colonialism – in which I include the virtual ownership of some states by large corporations). At the moment, however, and despite the Vox authors’ arguments, I do not feel I can do that.

The Vox article, in fact, ends with a very balanced and measured conclusion:-

“Our bottom line is that there is a responsible, scientifically informed alternative to Murrayism: a non-essentialist view of intelligence, a non-deterministic view of behavior genetics, and a view of group differences that avoids oversimplified biology.

Liberals make a mistake when they try to prevent scholars from being heard — even those whose methods and logic are as slipshod as Murray’s. That would be true even if there were not scientific views of intelligence and genetics that progressives would likely find acceptable. But given that there is such a view, it is foolish indeed to try to prevent public discussion.”

Would that the NYT writer had taken that to heart before using the Vox article as justification for his claim that TBC was “junk science”.

And this, I think, illustrates the problem in the whole thrust of the NYT article. Who gets to decide when a point of view is so appalling that it should not be allowed to be argued? The crux of the issue about TBC is that if its conclusions were taken to be true, the African-American community would very probably be “paying” for that truth. Is free speech, in this case, too expensive?

I don’t know, but I incline towards the view that even extreme and distasteful positions should be able to be discussed. Though, perhaps, they shouldn’t be given equal air time…

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Drop dead money…

June 7th, 2018
by Chris

Many years ago, I was struck by the ambition of a character in James Clavell’s “Noble House”. That ambition was to have “drop dead money”. To explain this, the idea was to have sufficient money that, when asked to do something, you had the freedom to say “drop dead”. This is rather similar to the formula adopted by a friend in the recovery community about 10 years ago, who had a problem saying “no” when asked to do something – she was a “people pleaser”, and had a fragile sense of self-worth which was bolstered by being able to please other people, who would then like her. In recovery, she realised that rather than pleasing people, she was giving them licence to exploit her. Her standard answer to “Will you do this for me?” became “No, fuck off”. Over time, she has been able to relax that somewhat, but I suspect it still lurks at the edge of her thinking.

I am currently in the happy position of being able to say “drop dead” to anyone who asks me to do something, though I would be unlikely to be that forthright, far less to say “fuck off”. I can afford to be polite to people almost all the time – but I do reserve the possibility of saying something like that to anyone who won’t take no for an answer, particularly if that’s accompanied by any threat. In fact, I adopted the position of wanting “drop dead money” for around nine years, during which I was (due to PTSD) terrified of doing the job I was in; I conceived that I needed a really major influx of funds, at which point I could stop doing the job. I also conceived that there was nothing else I could sensibly do to make that money than stick with what scared me witless.

As it turned out, I didn’t make the huge windfall. In fact, I lost pretty much everything which I’d built up over the years – but I found, having hit rock bottom financially, that actually I didn’t need nearly the amount I’d envisaged, and in any event trying to get that via practising law was something which would harm my health to an extent entirely disproportionate to the benefit of a large degree of financial freedom.  Scared people make bad decisions, and scared people who self-medicate with alcohol make even worse decisions, and I therefore lost nearly everything as a result of not telling some clients to drop dead. Which, in hindsight, I should have done.

Circumstances have now arranged themselves without my having to make a “killing” on some contingency legal matter; I haven’t got the amount I envisaged 20 years ago, but I have enough to make it possible to refuse any action which people want me to do for them, dangling the prospect of money in front of me. Partly that’s because the government still maintains a safety-net for those who are disabled and an old-age pension system (into which I paid a lot of money for a considerable number of years), partly it’s because I made one spectacularly good decision in buying a property many years ago, partly it’s because my wife and myself have inherited from our parents. The net effect is that neither of us needs to work in order to live, albeit fairly modestly. I do work at a couple of part time jobs, as well as being primary carer for my wife, but I can refuse any work without fear of penury and starvation. Yes, I feel a certain amount of guilt at not following Matt. 19 (which would not be a concern if I didn’t seek to follow Jesus), but I am liberated from the tyranny of making money, and enabled to spend a large slice of my time helping others and a smaller, but healthy, slice of my income on charity. And I regard myself as holding the bulk of what we are living on in trust for my own children; just as inheritance saved us, I feel I should as much as possible pass it on. I think it possible that that might be what Jesus was getting at; not being a slave to ones wealth.

The vast majority of people I know, and particularly those significantly younger than me (a member of the much maligned baby boomer generation) don’t experience this kind of freedom. Neoliberal economics says that they are all free agents, able to contract to work or not depending on whether the terms of employment are acceptable to them. Neoliberal economists actually regard unemployment as being a choice people make when wages are too low to interest them in working (even during recessions), a claim I consider laughably stupid. Of course it isn’t a “choice”. Statistics show that the vast majority of people in most of the developed countries of the world (including, in particular, the UK and the USA) are only one or two pay cheques from financial ruin. Those in that position cannot afford to bargain for a job unless the safety-net of unemployment or other benefits is generous (and it isn’t generous in the UK, at least not these days, and is paltry in the USA).

There is no level playing field for bargaining, because the person seeking the job is desperate, and the employer is not. (Indeed, some economists in the USA at the moment are complaining that the unemployment rate is too low, and wages are going up as a result. They fear the awful spectre of inflation – against the background that wages in real terms have been static or dropping for the last 20 years or more.)

In addition, the job seeker is terrified, and as in my case, terrified people make bad choices and can’t be regarded as “rational agents”. Very few people would (or could afford to) “choose” to be unemployed before they reach pensionable age, and increasingly not even then, as pension returns diminish. Unless, of course, they happened to have “drop dead money”…

For those significantly younger than me, things are made worse by the fact that young people are told they need qualifications in order to get a job. However, higher education is not (as it was in my day) free, but saddles them with a mountain of debt to start them out in life. Having debt just ramps up the fear of financial ruin. Instead of having “drop dead money”, they have debt. They can’t afford to make bargains the way the “free market” enthusiasts say happens. I do note with interest that when people arrange for migrant workers to be permanently in debt, and thus desperate, it tends to be called “debt slavery”.

Thus, the jobs on offer tend to be low wage, often with no security (as in the “gig economy”), and are very often inimical to health in and of themselves, creating levels of stress just as a result of the job conditions (constant monitoring, frequent raising of targets and limited or no rest periods, for example) which destroy psychologies. Only the adrenaline addict can be comfortable in such jobs (and, as an admission, my first and dearest addiction was adrenaline, but eventually a high-stress job and intervening circumstances demolished my tolerance, to the point of my being, as far as I can tell, allergic to adrenaline – otherwise diagnosed as a Generalised Anxiety Disorder).

I suppose there is reason to hope that economics will soon come to the conclusion that, at least under governments affected by neoliberal ideologies, there are no free markets (I’ve written previously in various places about the lack of real freedom in consumer markets). After all, the “gig economy” seems to have spread to university lecturers these days, and I read recently that the long term unemployment rate was highest not for liberal arts degrees, but for those with business degrees… This might just mean that those writing with authority about economics will soon be people who actually know how unfree labour markets are…

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In the kingdom of the blind…

May 30th, 2018
by Chris

I’ve been reading some of the “Homebrewed Christianity” guides recently, courtesy of a sale by Fortress Press which reduced the price to one which didn’t evoke deep feelings of guilt in me (and which will probably be over by the time I post this, for which my apologies!) One such is the Guide to God by Eric Hall. Like the other Homebrewed Guides, it is “theology with snark”, which is something I really appreciate (the Guide to the End Times was, to me, hysterically funny much of the time…)

But I’ve been having problems with the Guide to God, probably primarily because Eric Hall is a philosophical theologian. He’s also recently converted to Catholicism, so it was hardly surprising to find that there was more than an edge of Aquinas there. And Aquinas has got up my nose for years, with his “proofs of God”, all of which I consider to be <cough> flawed, though in some cases it took me quite a long time to work out where the flaw lay. I had a Religious Instruction master at school who was keen on those (he was an ex-Jesuit), so I had an early-ish exposure to them.

I am probably not a philosopher. That’s on the basis of a talk by Keith Ward, when he was promoting his book “Why there almost certainly is a God”, in which he presented something very like Alvin Plantinga’s richly reworked version of one of Aquinas’ proofs, and paused, and said “At this point, some of you are probably thinking ‘That’s rubbish’; you’re probably not philosophers. Some of you are maybe thinking ‘Now that raises some interesting points’, and you probably are philosophers”. I was in the first category. I would have been in the first category even had I not encountered Plantinga’s argument some years previously, thought “That’s just reworked Aquinas, I think” and spent quite a few hours working out how it in fact was just that. Ward’s book is mostly not about that, though, it’s mostly an extended argument for idealism, and, based on that idealism, for “God” being at least a reasonable hypothesis.

I’m not an idealist either… In fact, what I am is mainly a scientific rationalist with a mystic somewhat uncomfortably grafted on. And, unfortunately, quite a bit of the latter part of Hall’s book consists of arguments based in idealism. But that isn’t the bit of the book which I want to concentrate on, or which gave me the majority of my problems with it. After all, I’ve seen arguments from idealism before, notably in Ward’s book.

Hall starts interestingly by describing five different God-concepts, which he (snarkily) describes as Miagi God, Jersey Shore God, Retired Oprah God, Hippie Aunt God and Joan of Arc God.Very briefly, Miagi is the God of the Philosophers (ground of being, ultimate guarantee of meaning etc.), Jersey Shore is omnipotence gone wild, subject to absolutely not constraints (things are good and bad merely because God says so), Retired Oprah is the God of Deism, who set up the system but is really a former CEO (referencing Oprah’s media empire), Hippie Aunt is the God of Process, intimately involved in everything (and wanting to set up a drum circle, for some reason which escapes me) and Joan of Arc is the God of the totally unexpected (as seasoned soldiers in Mediaeval France didn’t expect to be surrendering to a peasant girl…).

Of those, Miagi and Hippie Aunt are probably closest to me (with Miagi a distant second to Hippie Aunt), and with a side order of Joan of Arc. I needed to look up Jersey Shore; it sounds like a cross between “Big Brother” “The Only Way is Essex” and “Made in Chelsea” to me, all reality TV programmes I have little time for. (OK, as an admission, I did watch a couple of series of “Big Brother” back when I was really very ill, and “Jeremy Kyle” (an English version of Jerry Springer) was too intellectually stimulating for me). The characteristic feature is unrestrained ego… and there’s one of my problems; I fancy that label will grate a little too much with those who major in divine omnipotence. Miagi gave me little problem, despite being somewhat related to my own God-concept, as did Joan of Arc – but “Hippie Aunt” is, to me, too dismissive of the God of Process, which is a hairs-breadth from the Panentheist God. But hey, the series is labelled as being “theology with snark”, so having my treasured God-concept slightly lampooned is maybe to be expected. Hall is, however, wrong in calling Hippie Aunt a modern phenomenon – while Process dates from the 20th century, Panentheism dates back at least as far as Dionysius the pseudo-Areopagite and probably a lot further.

I had far more problems when Hall came to discuss mysticism. I was initially hopeful – after introducing the metaphor of bourbon tasting (and criticising “spiritual but not religious” as being perennial tasters who never bought a bottle), he wrote “The mystic seems to be the original claimant to the title of taster, managing to do so without even wearing today’s customary yoga pants. Mystics look behind the confines of human language and engage the being of God through “mystical experiences”.” Aside the putting of mystical experiences into inverted commas, a common way of calling something into question by implication, this was looking reasonable. He went on to write (after extending the metaphor to breaking open all the barrels of bourbon in a warehouse and flooding the place) “Any way you look at it, mystics seem to swim in the flooded warehouse of bourbon unhindered by the barrels of human language, taking the immediate experience of the divine flood of bourbon and trying to put that experience into a set of words that extend beyond their normal usage”. Well and good, but then “This fact also confirms a second point. Mystics do generally sound drunk when you try to read them.”

Oh dear. In a line from this article on Wittgenstein as a mystic, I find “The problem is, if you haven’t had a mystical experience, mystical writings seem like, well, woo” . Yes indeed. To the man who has only a hammer, either everything looks like a nail, or it’s nothing to concern yourself with. It seems similar with philosophers, and particularly analytic philosophers. Hall indeed continues “As good as this sounds in theory, I have serious reservations regarding how far we can go with this type of experience and rejection of human language, especially when we begin thinking that the experiences are totally delinked from tradition that emerges in and through our forms of talking”.

I cannot blame him too much, to be fair. Early in my own search for a language of description for mystical experience, for which I found I had a sudden pressing need, having had such an experience, I read F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology”, which, apart from convincing me that what I had experienced was a mystical experience and that such experiences were found across a wide spectrum of world religions (and, indeed, outside them), also made me very strongly suspect that either the founder or very early adherents of most, if not all, religions had themselves had mystical experiences. And I formed on that basis a hypothesis that the entire remainder of religion involved non-mystics misinterpreting the words of actual mystics. To carry on the analogy, I was a man with a screwdriver, and everything looked like a screw to me…

I have since discovered, not least from William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience” that mysticism is not the only way to experience something religious, and have been interested to find out to what extent (if at all) the experiences of those who have other species of experience are similar to those of mysticism. Those, incidentally, seem without exception closed to me – which means that I still have only a screwdriver, but an at least conscious that other tools exist and maybe, just maybe, there may also be nails in the world… or that a hammer might actually drive a screw into wood, though perhaps not with the finesse and durability of fixture afforded by a screwdriver.

Maybe I’ve over-extended that metaphor now?

I think Hall is wrong in saying that mystics are “unhindered by the barrels of human language” and “totally delinked from tradition”. Most mystics have been very thoroughly situated in a tradition (including Meister Eckhart, who is mentioned by Hall as being a Catholic), but have found the language of tradition inadequate to express the fullness of their experience. The Wittgenstein article suggests that they pursue a form of apophatic theology, but that isn’t strictly correct; what they do is try very hard to convey their experience using exactly the language and tradition in which they are situated. Let’s face it, in Christianity and Islam, at least, mystics who strayed too far from the bounds set down in the religion tended to get executed as heretics (which, in fact, Meister Eckhart avoided by dying of natural causes first).  That heresy-hunting tendency may have a lot to do with the fact that so many people are identifying as “spiritual but not religious” in a time when a hugely greater percentage of people polled are saying that they have had a mystical experience themselves than at any time in the past.

I suppose that, mostly, Hall frustrates me. He comes so close – he acknowledges that mystics appear to have a privileged manner of experiencing God, he concedes that mystics provide a valuable lesson that theological formulae may be only approximations at best (“seeing through a glass darkly”, one might say), but then discounts them as having nothing useful to say beyond that.

This is all the more curious as, later in the book, he takes reductive scientific naturalism to task for having a set of criteria within which it is very good at providing answers, but saying that outside those criteria things are meaningless – because they don’t take the form in which one can reliably repeat experiements.

And he does reference Thomas Aquinas’ statement, after having had a mystical experience late in his life, that everything he had written was chaff. I am inclined to say that, unless you take on the reports of mystics as to their experience and try to incorporate that into your theories (rather than dismissing it as “drunk” or “woo-woo”) and attempting to improve the language of tradition to take those reports into account not just as an interesting but not serious phenomenon, but as primary evidence, you will join him in writing chaff.

There is, of course, the other old saying “In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, and I am very seriously suggesting that, in this field, the mystic (together, perhaps, with some other varieties of experience) is at least partially sighted. But H.G. Wells was pretty much on the mark in his story, in which the blind decide that the sighted visitor is deranged, probably as a result of having eyes, and propose that they be removed… That has been the fate of far too many mystics over the years, and perhaps I should be happy just to be sidelined as largely irrelevant. Though my scientific rationalist self rails at the ignoring of so much primary data…

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Come back, Marcion, all is forgiven?

May 25th, 2018
by Chris

There has been a certain amount of fuss on the internet recently arising out of a video by Andy Stanley and a response by Michael Brown. I was not by any means the only person to have mentioned Marcion in criticising Stanley’s position (if I recall, I wrote something like “come back, Marcion, all is forgiven”), and there has been quite a bit of pushback against that label, most recently by my occasional employer Henry Neufeld. There was earlier a rather similar criticism by Jacob Wright (in a set of posts on 14th May). Both of those are people whose opinions I take very seriously.

So, is there any justification in suggesting that Stanley was going in the direction of Marcion (I stopped short of calling him Marcionite, though others commenting didn’t)? Quite clearly, he does not follow Marcion in coming to the conclusion that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures was a different God from the one revealed in or by Jesus, so to that extent he is not Marcionite. However, he does effectively dismiss the whole system of the Hebrew Scriptures, which is what Marcion is most prominently remembered for (Marcion constructed a Bible consisting of the Gospel of Luke, somewhat redacted, and 11 “Pauline” letters, which is fairly widely thought to have been the impetus for the church constructing their own rather wider canon). Indeed, not a few scholars think that Marcion didn’t actually propose “another God”; this was something levelled against him by his critics, so the reliable information is just that he wanted to ditch the Hebrew Scriptures. Stanley probably had in mind Hebrews 10:4, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” But there is, to my mind, a huge problem in taking this approach, and just as Henry goes rather further than Michael Brown, I go further than Henry.

If we take Hebrews 10:4 as saying that sacrifices were ineffective,it suggests that the whole sacrificial system laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy was pointless. The snag there is that most of those proposing such a view, or views somewhat less extreme but still dismissive of a huge proportion of the Hebrew Scriptures, also consider those same scriptures to have been divinely inspired (they were, after all, probably the “scripture” which 2 Timothy labels “God-breathed”, while the NT writings were almost certainly not at that point so regarded), and thus they need to ask themselves why God would lay down a very detailled scheme for dealing with sin (though this was not by any means the only explicit purpose of the Levitical sacrifice regime) which was ineffective. I’ve got flak previously for pointing out that Biblical writers seem to have made God tell – well, not the exact truth – but this point of view argues, in effect, that God perpetrated a collossal scam on the Israelites which they were suckered by for their entire history (and most of them still are).

The writer of Hebrews, in fact, has exactly that problem. A little later (Heb. 9:22) is the passage much quoted by those who would like us to think that Jesus’ death was a propitiating sacrifice for the sins of all, stating that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (a keen eye will note that the passage says “nearly everything”, not “everything”, which rather negates the thesis). It is, therefore, on the very basis that the Levitical system was effective that at least this New Testament writer expounds his theology (which, to my eyes, is more a “last and final sacrifice” theology written in the circumstances that there was no more Temple to sacrifice in, but I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who think it exactly a support of substitutionary atonement).

He is not alone. Paul, in Romans, spends much time trying to work out how he can say at the same time that the Law (the first five books of the Bible) is a good and necessary thing, but also that it has been pretty much wiped away by his interpretation of Jesus’ death and resurrection (Paul is big on including resurrection, which is an optional add-on to most if not all substitutionary atonement theories). For Gentiles, at any rate. He is, for instance, much quoted as saying that the Law is a “stumbling block”.

Aaron Andrus, in a comment to another piece from Jacob of the same day (see link above), goes so far as to suggest that if we don’t agree with Stanley, we risk being labelled “Judaisers” ourselves – that bugbear of Paul, which seems to have followed him around. The trouble is, I think those who agree wholeheartedly with Henry in saying “There is an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus…” (and, of course, with Jacob, who takes a similar tack “As I have said for years, I believe the Old Testament is the history of a people wrestling with divine revelation through their own many times primitive violent lens, and God worked through this anthropological, social evolution as they projected their often faulty and barbaric human nature onto God, all the while God summoned them to higher ideals of mercy, justice, and inclusion, until we get the full unveiled image of God in Christ who taught God as an Abba who loves his enemies and calls us to emulate him.”) are making a mistake. Jacob, indeed, thinks that we don’t need the Hebrew Scriptures in order to follow Christ, the Gospels will do admirably – and even that, at a push, we can do without the Gospels as well. I take issue with this; it is to my mind impossible fully to understand the Gospels without knowledge of a whole load of earlier scripture on which they depend in part and which they quote-mine shamelessly (not that that’s a bad thing…), and a Jesus shorn of his actual life events is, to my mind, no Jesus at all. You equally cannot understand Paul without similar knowledge of the scriptures he uses (and, were he a modern bible student, one could argue misuses).

“Judaiser”, of course, was specifically used by Paul to complain of those who thought that in order to be followers of Jesus, they first had to convert to Judaism (with all 613 commandments and, for men, physical modification – which Paul’s Gentile audience clearly did not find popular!). I don’t think any of us who have seen shades of Marcion (or at least the Marcion who discounted the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than the one his enemies describe) in Stanley would want to go that far. But I do think that, if we wish to follow the actual Jesus, we should recall that the religion OF Jesus was Judaism, and without understanding that, I find it difficult to see how we could follow him. Those who see an “earth shattering change” are no doubt subscribers to the religion ABOUT Jesus which is what Christianity has mostly become (the contrast is one which I think is owed to John Dominic Crossan); it is to a great extent the creation of Paul (and the writer of the Fourth Gospel, to be fair) who were very much devotees of things being about Jesus. To my mind, this is all to the detriment of Jesus’ lifetime ministry, which was all couched in terms of Judaism, though a Judaism which was being subtly changed in the process. If a wish to follow Jesus as nearly as reasonably possible is “Judaising”, I’ll say that my Jesus trumps your Paul (or possibly that I’m a fundamentalist at heart – so fundamentalist that I regard Paul with suspicion…).

Clearly it’s now impractical to “Judaise” in Paul’s sense of converting to Judaism for Jesus followers – it isn’t possible to convert to Judaism while maintaining a devotion to Jesus these days. Indeed, I see absolutely no necessity for it, unless, perhaps, you’re gripped with an ambition of following Jesus very closely indeed (in which case I fear you will be disappointed; the only option really would be “Messianic Judaism”, which is not really Judaism at all, at least according to every branch of Judaism proper). The stories of the Syrophonecian woman, the Good Samaritan and of the Centurion’s servant strongly indicate that while Jesus may have initially thought his message only for the lost of the House of Israel, his focus had broadened, and needed to include non-Jews, even from the historical enemies, the hated heretics or the brutal occupiers of the homeland. Perhaps if he had had more time to flesh out his ideas, he might have come up with something like the idea of the Noahide Covenant. It is possible that the concept already existed, indeed; certainly there were already in the first century plenty of people regarded as “righteous gentiles”; non-Jewish synagogue-goers were a significant category, indeed, forming the basis for Paul’s missions. Perhaps it’s for this reason that even Paul preserved the possibility that his proto-Christian followers could follow the Jewish Law, even though there was no need for them to do so. I’m with Paul on that point, just as I’m with him in his “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” statement in Galatians (my misgivings about him come from other places…).

I’ll go a step further. What Jesus did in his lifetime is important, what he told us we should do if we want to follow him is vital; this is the real Jesus (at least insofar as the NY writers were not putting their words into his mouth). That gives us the Way of Jesus, which is (even more than was Judaism) the religion OF Jesus. What people later said, about his importance, why he died, why he is still with us in some way, what his relationship is to cosmic principles such as sin and forgiveness – or even God, is not just the religion ABOUT Jesus, it exists in what I tend to call “concept-space”, not in reality. Ideas in concept-space can be very useful, even extremely important to how we are in the world, but they aren’t real. They act on our minds, not on the more tangible “stuff of reality”. They are subject to change without warning, as peoples’ thinking changes. This is how we now have a Christianity in which an imperial power can be thought of as “Christian” and in which people can gasp at the idea that a follower of Jesus could be anything other than a Republican capitalist – neither of which is remotely compatible with what Jesus actually taught his followers. The ideas have changed – and they could change again.

Thus, I’m pretty much in total agreement with a recent piece by Roger Wolsey, in which he says (inter alia) “Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us. God isn’t wrathful or vindictive. There isn’t a hell (other than ones that we create here on this earth). Going to heaven after we die isn’t what the faith or salvation is about…  …Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one (Paul and many of the early disciples encountered a spiritually risen Christ).” OK, he also said “Jesus isn’t God”, which I (as a panentheist) would query, but the drift is definitely right.

It follows that I don’t think there was “an earth-shattering change with the incarnation, the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus”. There WAS an earth-shattering change in concept-space which followed those events, and an equally earth-shattering change in human history. What, then, of Jacob’s statement: “Furthermore, I believe it is possible for people to experience and know Christ without reading the Bible at all. This is not to say the Bible is unhelpful or that you should throw it away. Of course not. It is simply to say that Christ is exactly who the Bible says he is – the cosmic Logos who fills and sustains the whole universe, in whom all live, move, and have being, and who is the light that enlightens all coming into the world. His presence is at work everywhere whether they have heard of his historical story or not.”? Well, in a way, I would say that he is right – “the heavens and the earth proclaim the glory of the Lord”, you might say, and (in concept-space) we have equated Christ with God. But there is really nothing there of the Jesus who lived, taught and died in first-century Palestine. I’ve no real problem with that; it’s a heartfelt statement of adherence to God (envisioned as Christ), but it’s departed too far from Jesus for my taste – and, indeed, only the very Jewish Jesus could possibly have been the Messiah, the Christos…

Come to think of it, there’s precious little of the living Jesus in Paul either. And that’s my biggest misgiving about Paul. Where there’s any doubt in my mind, I’ll stick with Jesus rather than Paul.

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The demon-infested small group

May 19th, 2018
by Chris

At small group this week (which I actually managed to get to, after a couple of months worth of the fortnightly session clashing with other commitments), we looked at Mark 9:14-29, which is headed in the study notes “Jesus confronts our unbelief”. While I strongly suggest you click the link and read the passage, shortly it’s an account of Jesus healing a boy possessed by a demon, the symptoms described being almost certainly (to my modern eyes) those of epilepsy. The disciples have clearly failed to cure him (following Jesus’ instructions to them back in Mark 3:13-15, Mark 6:7 and Mark 6:12-13), possibly due to the presence of scribes and a crowd of other people. Jesus reproaches those present (which the group and the study notes thought was directed at the disciples) as an “unbelieving generation”, asks the father how long he has been this way (since birth), says that all things are possible for those who have faith, and elicits the famous “I believe, help thou my unbelief”. The fit ends, and the boy is helped to stand up.

Unfortunately it appears that I am the only thoroughgoing sceptic in the group. After several testimonies of belief in the power of faith healing, I felt I had to say that I don’t believe it works. I have a fairly thoroughly non-supernatural view of reality, and faced with such testimony, the best I can manage is to suspend disbelief and concede that strange things do occasionally happen (and, of course, be glad for the person for whom it has apparently happened). Very occasionally. That hasn’t prevented me from storming heaven asking for a cure for some other people, in the very faint hope that this time it might work (and the absence of anything more likely to succeed), but that has never worked for anyone I have prayed for. I’ve heard insanity defined as “doing the same thing which hasn’t worked in the past expecting that it will work this time”. OK, it’s a very bad definition of insanity, but everything I know about the real world tells me that unless you change some aspects of what you’re doing, what hasn’t worked previously will still not work today… so there is no way I can rationally have any significant expectation that prayer will cure people (or, indeed, have any other effect beyond the relationship of the person praying with God and their own psychology).

I should maybe have clarified that I think prayer or belief may work sometimes with illnesses with a significant psychological component (though my track record of seeing cures to psychological illnesses through prayer is still a blank sheet, despite a LOT of attempts in that direction on behalf of myself and others, by myself and others – unless, that is, you consider that the cure might take over six years and involve several other possible causative factors, in which case the record may stand at one partial cure in the case of my own longstanding depression). I  can also see a possible mechanism for it to work (very rarely) for some physical illnesses via producing an excess of some chemical already naturally produced in the body, but again have never actually seen that. I know of no occasion when anything of the sort has cured epilepsy, though in conscience, all the passage tells of is the alleviation of a single fit. We do not know if according to the author, the child went on to be free of the complaint for life – it is not stated, though I found it interesting that (reading between the lines) the group seemed to think it was a permanent cure.

I have listened to a lot of testimonies of people who have thought themselves cured via such means, and after discovering that there were sound naturalistic explanations available in every case I looked at, eventually stopped looking for such explanations for fear of annoying people or, just possibly, causing them to doubt and thus prompting a psychosomatic recurrence of symptoms. Nothing is to be gained by doing that, unless people are refraining from seeking actual medical (or psychological) help in the expectation of a miraculous cure. But my group are not of that mind, they would unhesitatingly call for an ambulance rather than a priest on seeing an epileptic fit, just as I would.

Even so, I could see that my merely stating that I could not believe in such cures was upsetting to some, and I stopped talking about that aspect – and then clearly upset people again when the discussion turned to “unseen forces of darkness” and I said I did not believe in demons, whether or not a demon might have been responsible for the incident related in Mark. Again, I think the group were unanimous in thinking it was probably an epileptic fit, but it seems that there is widespread belief in demons, and indeed one person testified that each time he makes an advance in faith, difficulties seem immediately to arise – which he ascribes to demonic influence.

As a result of this, I did not explore the fact that possibly what we were actually talking about in our discussion was not faith in God or Jesus as such but self-belief. The disciples clearly were suffering from a loss of self-confidence. The trouble there is that the passage seems to me to be mocking the afflicted – I do not know any way to become more self-confident save for a history of repeated success in doing something, and to tell me that I should just have more belief in myself is somewhat aking to telling me to grow wings and fly. I would dearly LIKE to have more self-coinfidence. Indeed, I belive in self-confidence – it seems quite strongly to me that those who are self-confident have a far greater success rate than those who are not, and indeed, I have seen people serene in the confidence that something would work do things which I would have previously regarded as just plain impossible. I would really like to have more faith of this kind. But I don’t, and I don’t see how I can pull myself up into that by my bootstraps.

I did very briefly outline my acceptance of Walter Wink’s idea of the “Powers that Be” (I link to the single volume, though I have the three volume, in depth version) in relation to demonic powers. I didn’t amplify this – it didn’t seem that there was much interest beyond the fact that I had just said I didn’t believe in them in the absence of them being expressed concretely. This was Wink’s view of how Paul was thinking when he talked of the “powers and principalities” – the Jewish world-view of the time did not include the possibility of disembodied spirits; any spirit had to be embodied – a viewpoint with which I find I agree, in contrast to a view prevalent in Greek thinking of the time, which did have a view of disembodied spirits – and, indeed, for much of Greek thought, the disembodied was more real than the embodied. The study guide included a quote from C.S. Lewis “Enemy occupied territory – that is what the world is”, and it seemed to me that the prevalent world-view was of a demon-infested universe – which is not really the way I see things. Yes, I do see the world as gripped by some “powers”, including that of neoliberal economics (about which I write frequently, and which I tend to characterise as “the System of Satan”), but not as having a plethora of little imps set on frustrating our faith-based actions. Indeed, sceptical Chris sees the legend of “making an advance in faith and then being assailed by some setback” as a get-out clause – indeed, another get-out clause to add to the “your faith wasn’t sufficient”. When I come to believe that something will work, take action and find that it doesn’t, I question whether my initial belief is correct. I don’t assume that some incorporeal force of general buggeration is attacking me, or assume that if I just believed a bit harder, it would all work.

What are we to make of the last part of the passage from Mark, where we find Jesus explaining the disciples’ failure by “this kind needs prayer”? One could suspect that he had found by his question to the father that this was a functional disorder, whereas the disciples might have been having success with psychological or psychosomatic complaints. This statement does, in any event, tend to argue against the idea that his condemnation of a “faithless generation” was levelled at the disciples – it was, perhaps, rather levelled at the crowd generally. My sceptical side suggests that he might have more honestly responded “this practice largely doesn’t work, at least not for anyone except myself”, though perhaps, indeed, his prayers were commonly answered where my experience is that they aren’t.

If, however, I am correct in saying that the criticism was levelled at the crowd generally, it might suggest that a theory of a friend of mine regarding supernatural effects was in mind – he thought it possible that where a group of people is involved, it is the faith of all of them which produces a result, and the disbelief of the crowd (and particularly the scribes or teachers of the law, depending on your translation) impeded the disciples faith having the desired effect. On this understanding (which, I may say, I don’t share, but can’t entirely discount), the presence of even one or two sceptics might prevent faith healing working (or prayer being answered); the father’s thin faith, connected more closely with the child than anyone else, could have tipped the balance… OK, while I think that unlikely, it seems possible that the author (or even Jesus himself) may have subscribed to a similar view.

And there, possibly, I have an answer to why my personal lack of belief in faith healing upset some members of the group (and meant that I wrote this blog post instead of sharing further thoughts on the day). Perhaps on some level, the state of my belief is seen as in some way counteracting theirs?

There is one further thing which springs to mind, and that is returning to demons. I may not think the world full of disembodied inimical spirits (well, with the possible exception, on occasion, of my computer!), but I do think we can construct within our minds (and chiefly our subconscious minds) templates which are very inimical to our flourishing in various ways. Deep psychological work, then, can very reasonably be talked of as “talking with our demons”. The snag is, I strongly suspect that believing in the reality of demons above and beyond psychological mechanisms is capable of strengthening those which are already there, or even creating new ones. I have therefore said on occasion “If Satan did exist, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”, which combines combatting the strengthening of the template in our own minds with, if my friend’s idea about belief creating supernatural effects happened to be true, reducing the power of such an entity.

Hey, I’m very conscious of the fact that these pieces of paper in my wallet marked with various numbers of pounds are only worth something because everyone believes they are. Now the £5 and £10 notes are mainly plastic, indeed, they aren’t even much use for lighting the barbecue… but don’t worry, my scepticism about their actual value doesn’t reduce their utility for you. Unless my attitude were to become commonplace, of couse.

Now there’s a scary thought!

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The other side of despair

May 11th, 2018
by Chris

As some reading this will already be aware, in 1996-7 I suffered a set of what, for me, were traumatic events, which resulted in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I didn’t know that was the case for several years (I was first diagnosed in 2003), though a friend who had been a soldier actually suggested to my wife that might be the case in 1997 – but neither of us took that entirely seriously, as, to us, PTSD was something which happened to the military and people involved in disasters involving loss of life or very serious injuries.

PTSD tends to come with depression and anxiety “on the side”, and my depression, certainly, deepened over the following years. As for anxiety, the events had made my profession extremely scary for me, and I tried to carry on with it (and so fulfil my perceived duty as breadwinner for the family) despite being, basically, terrified. As I now know, untreated PTSD tends to get worse. I made things worse by trying to self-medicate with alcohol (I know, medicating depression and anxiety with a depressant drug which is addictive and so causes anxiety when you stop taking it is, not to put too fine a term on it, mad – but in at least one sense of the term, I was already mad…)

As it turned out, I “snapped out of” the depths of the depression in 2013, and have functioned at least tolerably since then. OK, I still have diagnoses of chronic depression and chronic anxiety, but have medication which lets me function somewhat normally, albeit with restrictions (I can get, perhaps, four to six really productive hours out of a day if that involves human interaction, rather more if it’s solitary activity).

I’ve written about the depression on a number of occasions – in one post I wrote “I think we’re inclined to confuse depression with an emotional state – I certainly used to, and there’s a voice at the back of my head which still tells me that it is, with the corollary that ‘you can and should control your emotions’. Actually, depression isn’t controllable like that. You can’t ‘think your way out of it’; it isn’t a matter of controlling the impulse to look on the black side of everything. No, I think depression isn’t an emotion, it’s where emotions go to die.” The thing is, people in the grip of really deep depression don’t – can’t – feel emotions (or at least positive ones). For several years prior to 2013, if I attempted to consult my emotions (“What do I feel about this?”) the only answer which came back is “It’s all WRONG”.

That post was written after the depression lifted somewhat – I probably couldn’t have written it during the depths of the thing itself.

Another piece I wrote talked about the phrase “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which appears in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34. At the bottom of depression, that cry of apparent despair spoke to me as God incarnate knowing what it was like to be desperate (de- meaning without, and spero meaning “to hope” – so desperation and despair are both forms of hoplessness).  Not only was there no hope, there was no love, affection, happiness or any of those emotions, and therefore there was no way to choose one option over another – I was unable to summon the emotion “I would prefer this to that”, whether it was a choice in a Chinese takeaway (after about half an hour gazing blankly at the huge menu, I effectively flipped a coin) or whether to walk under a bus. And, of course, I had lost the sense of the presence of God (the foresakenness), because faith without emotion can’t exist – indeed, faith as in the original scriptural sense is best rendered as “love and trust”, and both those have at least an element of emotion.

I not infrequently would recite to  myself “be still, and know that I am with you”, which is actually a slight mangling of “be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) – but surely, to know that He is God demands that he is with you? Jesus, of course, represents the epitome of “God with us”. That, and other, generally more authentic,  biblical phrases were the key to surviving the depression. I had no way of making choices between options on the basis of my own preference, but I had rules, many of them Biblical ones, and reassurances that, even if I could not experience that presence, God was still with me.

Indeed, if we go back to Jesus’ cry on the cross, it is actually the first line of Psalm 22, and one can suspect that in the mostly oral culture of first century Israel, many listeners would have recalled the rest of the psalm. Yes, it goes on to say “I am poured out like water,  and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax;  it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,  and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;  you lay me in the dust of death.” as well as the better known “a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet”, which still conveys extreme emotional distress (or, in my words, “It’s all WRONG”…

…but it goes on to affirm that God is near “But thou, O Lord, be not far off” and “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” I see there an echo of what I was doing for several years – the situation seemed hopeless, I could not summon hope, but I could summon an ultimately hopeful scripture.

In fact, the scripture I made most use of was the next psalm in the book, probably the best known of them all. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, yet will I fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”. Is “the valley of the shadow of death” exaggeration? No, because depression is definitely a life-threatening illness; many depressives eventually kill themselves, and my other regular refrain was “just for today I will not kill myself”.

And, if you insert “gospel” for “rod” and “psalm” for staff, they did comfort me – I am still here to write this, and give thanks for that fact.

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