My mum -v- mimesis

I’ve been noticing a strong element of mimesis in some circles recently. Rene Girard had some fairly sound ideas about mimetic desire, it seems to me, and indeed I was rather prone to it in my youth. My mother called it “keeping up with the Joneses”, and devoted a lot of rather stern words to trying to cure me of wanting things which other people seemed to like, which she regarded as a foolish thing to want. For her, we were the Joneses, and people could try to keep up with us if they wanted.

As far as I can see, this mimetic desire is a very widespread phenomenon. I don’t know if everyone without exception feels it (or at least felt it when younger, as it seems to me something which can be trained out of), but I can’t think of anyone I grew up with who didn’t display some element of this. However, I find people suggesting that we don’t have any desires of our own, it’s always “the desire of the other”, which we try to guess at – and my obvious response, which is “why not just ask them what they desire if you’re bothered about it?” meets the “ah, but they don’t know their desire either”.  Mum was very keen that I examine why I wanted anything, and rejecting the “because they/everyone wants that”. What reason was that to me? Why was I bothered? Didn’t I have my own reasons for wanting something?

On the whole, she was pretty successful, to the extent that I really don’t any more really understand the impulse to want something just because someone else wants it (or, even worse, because some amorphous “other” wanted it. This may well be the “big other” which Peter Rollins talks of frequently. Yes, I can occasionally dimly feel the impulse, but have been practising not answering its call for a long time now.

On the whole, she was pretty successful. That, of course, led in part to me wanting things which my parents wanted (as I think, with Douglas Hofstadter, that we internalise at least a semi-working model of those close to us, notably parents and spouses), which was far more acceptable, but I then pursued the same strategy – did I want these things just because mum wanted them? OK, I was also aided in those days by being a teenager, and often rejecting what my parents wanted. And that was ultimately also a bad reason for wanting something, though that realisation took me a bit longer.  I will say that as I matured, to a considerable extent I decided that what mum wanted was generally pretty good – not without examination, of course!

It was, of course, perfectly OK to want something mum wanted because to provide that would please mum (or in my more rebellious moments, because it would annoy her – not a good reason, but one which did operate sometimes). Once over my rebellions, I like people having what they want, recognising that that isn’t necessarily something I would want. I quite like being able to talk with people about what they like while understanding something of it (OK, that’s never worked to make me like watching most sports, or being interested in cars or the clock-speed of my friend’s computer or who Susie Jones from down the street has been seen with… It seems that however hard I try, these are just not topics which I have any desire to interest myself in). But I have problems when, for instance, Lacanians suggest that desire is always the desire of the other. Where, in that event, does any desire originate? Someone has to be the Joneses, surely? It can’t be a complete loop, unsupported by any first instance. Indeed, the creation of desire is a major feature of marketing (which I touch on in a post on “The Devil’s Evangelism”). Yes, the “other people desire this” is a big feature of marketing, but not by any means the only one.

Incidentally, this business of trying to work out what the desire of the other is and satisfy it seems to have been a major mechanism in my wife’s family, and one which she hasn’t completely recovered from. Her mother and grandmother, in particular, used to make up expectations about how she would act towards them without ever actually spelling it out, and she was left spending amazing amounts of time second-guessing what that action might be in any particular circumstance. Some of that rebounds on me to this day – I am absolutely not good at taking half-hints about what she would like. That may, of course, be because I don’t spend nearly enough time trying to work that out (I am, after all, a self-centered entity at root, just somewhat decently socialised – which is the nearest I get to “original sin”). It is, in my opinion, no way to live your life, even given that a more abundantly compassionate person than myself might at least toy with the idea that it is.

So, how do I see the desire of the other? It’s quite clearly a factor in our desiring, so there’s some wisdom in the Lacanian view – but it’s not a totalising answer. Things are more complex than that. Clearly (as per my post on the Devil’s Evangelism”), there are also in play things like the perversion of the basic needs found in the lower levels of Maslow’s pyramid to want not just to provide for today, but for the entire future. If there’s a feature of modern consumer society which I find most pernicious, it’s this “more is better” attitude. Whatever happened to “sufficient unto the day”? (Which does not merely apply to evil, but also to good). Let’s face it, in the first world we already consume far more than we could ever need, and far more than is sustainable on a limited planet.

Enough, already…


Wanting a king…

A recent podcast from “The Bible for Normal People” (ep. 215) led me to contemplate what I see as the overarching message of the early history of the Jewish people, namely that they clamoured for a king, were repeatedly told kings were a bad idea, they got kings and – well – it was on the whole a bad idea.

The alternative was a society led by prophets, of course, and I have the deepest misgivings about prophets as leaders as well. Iran gives us a present-day example of a prophet-led nation, and megachurches perhaps give us smaller-scale examples. Although the scriptures paint us a fairly rosy picture (from the Israelite point of view, at least) of the prophetic period, I do notice that scripture is full of prophets who proved not to have the direct line to God which this arrangement would require in order not to be a form of kingship, just one with the force of a deity behind the glorious leader (Ezekiel 13 springs to mind). That said, there has been a strong tendency for kings to have divine authority attributed to them – the pharaohs of Egypt were god-kings, Alexander was hailed as divine in the East, as were Augustus and many of his successors in the West, and the tendency carried on up to Louis XIV’s pronouncement of the “divine right of kings”.

1 Samuel 8 is probably the definitive statement:-

When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

Now, I think it worth pointing out that this post is not a criticism of the kind of monarchy we have in the UK at the moment. I suspended writing this post when Queen Elizabeth died, and turned my attention to something more in keeping with how I felt about her. It would have applied more to Charles I, or, indeed, to any of our monarchs before him. They were in practice absolute monarchs in the mould of what the prophet was criticising (though the fact that Charles I lost his crown and his head as a result of going too far down the absolutist route indicates that even before our Civil War monarchy was more limited in practice than in theory), but ever since the Restoration in 1660, our monarchs have been subject to parliament. The Earl of Rochester wrote of Charles II “Here lies our mutton-eating king, whose word no man relies on, who never said a foolish thing, nor ever did a wise one”, and Charles replied “My sayings are my own, my actions are my ministers”. That was fairly true of Charles II, and has been increasingly true of all monarchs since then. Granted, James II had a go at returning to something more traditional, but was forced to flee the country and replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange in 1688, having lasted just over three years.

The issue is, however, that we seem to like kings, just as the Israelites did. I’m not talking for everyone here, but for substantial numbers in many countries. This has been brought home forcibly to me by the strong desire of US Republicans to see Trump re-elected, and in the UK by the clamour of rank and file Conservatives to see Johnson given another term as Prime Minister, only 7 weeks after he was forced out of the position amidst a host of instances of corruption, lying to Parliament and flagrantly breaking rules he had set during the Covid lockdown.

It isn’t just Republicans in the USA, either. Obama made massively more use of executive orders than had been the norm for previous presidents, and Trump followed him in that. Democrats were not worried about Obama’s use of them, but railed against Trump’s use; the reverse was the case under Trump. These circumvented (to an extent) the elaborate system of checks and balances set up by the founders, with two legislative chambers (with real power – the UK has two as well, but the House of Lords is hugely weakened) and an independent judiciary. Of course, the judiciary now seems to be not just politically appointed but also politically motivated, so not really independent. In the UK, laws have been passed reducing the ability of Parliament to review some governmental actions and to limit the power of the courts to challenge these. In addition, there is a bill going through Parliament at the moment massively reducing people’s freedom to protest. The Labour party, which one would have expected to be screaming at these, has not seriously opposed them, and its current leader has indicated that he actually supports the reduction of freedom to protest.

I tend rather to prefer the idea of the US system, which has checks and balances on legislative and executive power built in to it. The use of executive orders is clearly contrary to that spirit – but it seems to me a necessary development unless the Senate can be persuaded to give up the filibuster idea, which I find frankly ridiculous. Requiring a supermajority for the everyday business of government is a recipe for deadlock, and the deadlock needed breaking.

In the UK, it seems to me that Brexit has massively skewed the way our system worked. There was, to my mind, far too little in the way of checks and balances: the power of the upper house to block legislation was massively reduced in the early 20th century (which one finds it hard to criticise too much. given that the upper house in the UK was then hereditary and is now largely appointed and still partly hereditary, so lacking in democratic legitimacy), and the party system, which favours two parties in a “first past the post” voting system, makes it too easy for the leaders in a party to compel obedience from the rank and file members of parliament, and for their leader, once in government, to operate far too much like an absolute monarch. Johnson expelled most of those who were sceptical about Brexit; Starmer has expelled many who favoured a more socialist set of policies, and the recent reductions in parliamentary sessions (to a mere 20 weeks a year) and shift away from parliament having actual power to challenge government decisions has gone further in that direction. It is, to me, ironic that Tory governments from 2016 onwards have talked about Brexit “giving back control” to the people of the UK, whereas the effect of their recent policies has largely been to take control away from people more generally and vest it in the political elite – and ultimately a prime minister who functions very much like a monarch.

It looks to me as if we actually like the idea of a single individual with effectively all the power, as long as it’s an individual we approve of. Thinking back to 2019, part of the complaint Johnson had was that Parliament was “not fit for purpose”, as they couldn’t agree the terms of leaving the EU (something which, at the time, around 65% of them hadn’t wanted to happen in the first place – but they more or less universally accepted the fact that we were leaving, just wanting a closer relationship with the EU than the die-hard Brexiteers favoured); the 2019 election was overwhelmingly fought on the basis of replacing existing MPs with people who would commit to following Johnson’s lead without demur, which was replacing MPs who actually represented their constituents (for a change), who did not want a severing of economic ties with our biggest and closest trading partners. So far as I can trace, a serious majority of those who voted “Leave” in 2016 did not want us to leave the Customs Union and Single Market as well as the European Union proper, so those MPs were probably far more representative than those who followed Johnson. However, the cult of Johnson’s personality won out – coupled, of course, with the suggestion that anyone who did not want the most extreme Bexit possible was actually trying to stop Brexit altogether. Somehow those MPs who best represented their constituents were being painted as disloyal to them.

In the USA, it appears that personal loyalty to Trump may now be a necessary qualification for standing as a Republican (although the recent mid-terms may have reduced that tendency). This is totally out of line with the representative character of Member of Congress and Senators, which historically has been far more prominent than in the UK once the party system became entrenched here in the first half of the 20th century. Much as I sympathise with my Democrat friends who burn with irritation over the positions of Manchin and Sinema, that is entirely in keeping with the way politics has actually played out in the USA, with party politics being far less vital than it is in the UK, and the individual character of representatives being more important. Unfortunately, perhaps, the parties in the USA seem to be exerting greater control over most of their representatives, while the brief period (2016-19) when UK parliamentarians didn’t toe the party line nearly so much seems to have been an aberration, with party control in both Conservative and Labour parties having been firmed up massively (in the case of Labour, to exclude supporters of the previous leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as anyone proposing truly socialist policies).

This voting for the person rather than the party (or the set of policies proposed by the party) has been given a recent boost in my estimation by this podcast, which (to me depressingly) indicates that, at least in the States, people do not really know what the policies of the party they vote for are – and I’ve little reason to suspect that things are radically different in the UK. Unfortunately, this may lead to people wanting a “strong man” leader, as this poll indicated a few years ago. Granted, that’s quoted by Breitbart, so I regard it with suspicion, and this more recent poll indicates that a similar demographic would overwhelmingly support a socialist economy. The two are not as inconsistent as might appear – it is perfectly possible to have a strong man running a socialist economy, as many 20th century fascists would have supported both.

While I complain on a theoretical basis about this tendency, I must admit to feeling it to some extent myself. I would very much like to be able to leave all this business of government to a representative who would do, more or less, the things which need doing, and let them take the decisions, trusting in their knowledge, wisdom and hard work to know about the topics they are voting on and do the wise thing in the circumstances. That, after all, is what the theoretical elected representative in a representative democracy will do. I don’t really want to have to get to grips with all the minutiae behind every decision. I well remember my time on the District Council here, when every few days I would get through the mail another inch or so of paperwork which needed to be read in order to make a sensible contribution at the next council meetings. I was pretty good at reading the lot, aided by a very fast reading speed. Some of my fellow councillors weren’t quite as good! I quail at the thought of the amounts of background information which ought to be learned and remembered by those in parliament, which is probably several times the amount I had to cope with. OK, I’ll admit, I really don’t think most MPs are nearly as well informed as they ought to be. Neither, judging by some performances at Prime Minister’s questions, are government ministers, despite having political advisers and civil servants to absorb the information and digest it for them (something which is at least a little problematic, as anyone who has watched some episodes of “Yes Minister” will know only too well – that purported to be comedy, but was extremely close to truth).

So, you might ask, why did I spend 20+ years as a councillor? Largely because it seemed to me that those putting themselves up for election were neither well informed nor making wise decisions, so I had a responsibility to try to do that myself.

The idea that there could be one person I could rely on to make the right decisions is horribly attractive, though, particularly coupled with a disinclination to continue to do the necessary work. But I have virtually zero belief that anyone could do that consistently well, and in particular want to be able to express my pleasure or displeasure at the performance of my representative on a reasonably frequent basis. In addition, I really don’t want one person to be in that position for too long. I felt it in myself after three terms on the council – “power corrupts”, they say, and I felt that “entitled” sensation growing in me. Add to that feeling I had no restraint on what I did in the form of elections – well, I’m not sure I could have resisted that. As it happens, I eventually resigned from my council seat as I felt I could no longer do a proper job…

There is within that a more comfortable motive than laziness – it’s humility.  Admitting that there are others who can do the job better than you can and encouraging them to do it is, I think, a good thing. Perhaps I lacked humility when I first stood for election – I don’t know. However, I certainly managed it when I resigned my seat. There’s a negative side to that as well, of course – the forelock-pulling subservience to the entitled rich, which is conned by the idea that intelligence and ability inevitably produce wealth as well as by generations of indoctrination in a still class-ridden society. (Those in the USA may think they aren’t class-ridden, but they’d be wrong. They feel the “wealth denotes ability” mechanic even more than we do, and they still have their non-WASP underclass despite all efforts to reduce its bite).

Another thing making kings (and other autocratic rulers) attractive is hinted at above. A single individual can make decisions much more easily than can a group – indeed, as the US and UK situations mentioned above indicate, a group may be wholly unable to make a decision. Granted, in the case of Brexit, that was probably a good thing, and would that it had lasted! Yes, they can make wrong decisions quicker and more easily just as they can make right ones, but then, so can groups, or even entire democracies (I cite Brexit as an example again). Democracy costs in speed and efficiency. It also costs in money terms – paying for 600 individuals in the commons and 800 in the Lords costs around half a billion pounds a year according to the link.

Finally, I suppose, is the myth of the “strong man”. This is, as far as I can see, stronger in the US than it is in the UK, and stronger in both than it is in the north-western part of Europe – there are “strong men” in place in Hungary and Poland at the moment, and a “strong woman” in Italy, which I’d until recently have included in the “western” area. That’s closely linked with the phenomenon of feeling that leaders express us. It links closely with the loyalty and authority heads of Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory. OK, those are traditionally conservative values, and I’m not a conservative, except with a very small “c” in that I tend to the “if it ain’t bust, don’t fix it” school of thought and a preference for small tweaks to the system rather than wholesale “burn to the ground and start again”. I thus have relatively little time for that concept, and a huge scepticism that anyone other than myself can really represent me well.

That said, I’m not able any more to face the election process, nor the volume of work which would be involved in a representative position. I’m too old and sick. If I don’t want to do it myself, I’m stuck with someone else doing it – and I want to have a say in choosing who that is. Not a king. Not a strong man. Not Johnson, and definitely not (if I had the misfortune to be able to vote for him) Trump.

There is, in passing, a discussion of some early French theorists on monarchy in a recent episode of “The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps”. I note that I’ve outlined several reasons for a monarch that those theorists didn’t address. Nor did Thomas Hobbes. Let me know if you are aware of a theorist who supports monarchy on the kind of grounds I put forward!

Is mystical experience a perception of something real?

Andrew M. Davis has posted a link to an exchange between Rupert Sheldrake and Slavoj Zizek, in which Zizek raises a common objection to the reality of mystical experiences.

This is something I have agonised about at length. After all, when I had my first peak mystical experience, I was a scientific materialist, and my obvious question was to explore what, other than a glimpse into the underlying workings of the universe, which I didn’t think possible, might have prompted that experience. This was despite the fact that the experience itself was very real to me, more real, in fact, than anything else in my experience. I canvassed every potential cause which I or others could come up with. No, I hadn’t taken any mind-expanding substance, I wasn’t in a strong electromagentic field, I wasn’t hungry or sleep deprived, I wasn’t under any psychological stress. And after a visit to my GP, I was reassured that I didn’t have any of the brain abnormalities known to produce such experiences (such as temporal lobe epilepsy), nor any psychological conditions (such as schizophrenia) which apparently do likewise.

But this was not a type of experience which others around me could testify to. Indeed, it was some years before I met someone else who had had a similar experience. I’ve written elsewhere about my attempts to find both a language of expression to talk about it (which I found in the writings of mystics) and a way of repeating it (which I’ve never found a wholly reliable way of doing).

So, was this (as Zizek seems to say) something which was nothing but an anomalous brain state? In the case of Sheldrake, his was at least initially produced by a mind-expanding substance, so the challenge has more “bite” to it. But mine wasn’t.

I found significant assistance from considering my own eyesight. I’m short-sighted. I can’t see much detail in things more than a few feet from me, and the far distance is just a blur. I could go and get laser surgery, which providers assure me would let me see things I couldn’t otherwise see with clarity – that would be an external interference with my perceptual apparatus producing a change in my perception. As it happens, I haven’t done that, but I wear spectacles for any activities which need me to see clearly at any distance – and that is another, temporary, interference with my perceptual apparatus.

I’ve also noted that by applying slight pressure to the side of my eyeball, I can bring things into focus which would otherwise be unclear – clearly I’m slightly changing the focal length of my eyeball in the process.

The thing is, I don’t write off things I see this way or by wearing specs which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see as being merely products of interference with my perception. I therefore ask myself why I should write off mystical experiences, however they are arrived at, as merely products of interference with people’s perceptions. I will rather hold to the idea that, for some reason unknown, I suddenly became able (on fairly rare occasions) to perceive something real, but which was normally beyond my perception.

Mostly, it’s more analagous to wearing specs or deforming the eyeball, but some traces of that perception have never gone away. I cannot see existence other than in that light, ever since that day in August 1967 – and that makes it, at least a little, analagous to the laser surgery.

Limited success…

In the face of astoundingly stupid moves by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, Labour have been showing a 33% lead over the Conservatives recently, which has led at least one commentator to produce a projection that would give the Conservatives only three seats (and the LibDems 7) in an otherwise massively Labour-dominated House of Commons. As this article in the Guardian shows, that is probably very different from what might actually happen. The article is right to point out that Scottish voting looks very different from that in England (and Wales); it does not, however, factor in the fact that in much of the southern half of England, the LibDems are better placed to benefit from a historically unpopular Conservative party.

Nonetheless, I am worried. I’m worried that Labour might do too well in the next election, and have that handsome overall majority they have been dreaming of since the halcyon days of Tony Blair.

Now, one of the first things a sensible Labour government should do is bring in proportional representation for Westminster elections. In conscience, very high on their priority list ought to be reversing Brexit (so far as it’s possible for them to do that). It is a no-brainer, in the face of economic decline (and potentially collapse) for us to remove trading barriers with our nearest and largest market. The recent Labour conference has finally voted in favour of PR, which is a good sign – but not in favour of rejoining Europe.

The trouble is, Labour is led by Keir Starmer. Now, I like Starmer (unlike many friends who label him as being a crypto-Conservative). I think he’s principled, a quality much lacking in recent UK politics, I think he’s intelligent, I think he’s a competent administrator, as you’d expect from a man who formerly ran the Department of Public Prosecutions and was knighted for his role there. I think he would make a pretty good prime minister, in the most general terms.

The trouble is, I think he’s too principled. I’ve shuddered as he’s stated in no uncertain terms both that he would not seek to rejoin Europe and that he would not institute PR, and while a less-principled individual might well follow the time-honoured political ploy of promising whatever they thought would get them elected and then doing something different, I rather suspect that Starmer wouldn’t do that.

Unless he was forced to, of course. There, the saving grace from my point of view for the next election is the unlikelihood of that absolute majority, and the need to obtain support from the SNP and possibly, I would hope, the Liberal Democrats. The SNP might well be bought by a promise of a new independence referendum, though I could hope that they would also stick to their party principles and demand PR as well. The LibDems, I think, would insist on PR, and I hope would not be bought off by the promise of a referendum, as was the case with the coalition government of 2010-15. (The only thing on which I would support a referendum is what kind of PR we should adopt – the chances of falling into the trap of people arguing about what kind and getting none are far too high).

But I remember the 1997 election which brought Tony Blair to power. It was on the back of a historically unpopular Conservative government, led by a less-charismatic replacement in John Major for the charismatic but incredibly divisive Margaret Thatcher (which may ring bells for our current situation of Truss replacing Johnson). I remember Liberal Democrats being swept away by the red tide leading to that (including myself at local council level) despite the fact that we were absolutely not complicit in the previous government, which (due to the coalition) I am not certain can still be unequivocally claimed by LibDems now. Anti-Tory turned into pro-Labour, irrespective of whether you’d been actively campaigning against the Tory government for years as (for instance) a Liberal Democrat. “We have to get the Tories out” became a vote for Labour, whether or not the best chance of “getting the Tories out” was a LibDem vote.

So, what might that mechanic produce? I could swallow a Labour absolute majority better than the alternative, that “getting the Tories out = vote Labour” actually worked to keep a lot of Tories in southern England IN. I don’t think a Labour government set against rejoining Europe and PR both would be a particularly good thing, but it would be streets better than any form of continuation of Tory rule.

Thus, I wish Starmer well, but in a limited way.

De mortuis

I’m used to finding that when I’m writing something, suddenly I’ll find one or two things online which are relevant to what I’m writing, and last week I was in the process of writing a meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures’ attitude to kings in relation to our wish for leaders when I heard that Queen Elizabeth had died.

Now, I hadn’t expected the effect this would have on me. My wife and myself have been rather expecting her to die soon – after all, she was 96. We’d also remarked that she was looking increasingly frail since the death of Prince Philip last year. I’m only a marginal supporter of monarchy as a system – I think it’s theoretically indefensible, whereas republics are theoretically a much better concept, but find that in practice, I am much happier with constitutional monarchs as exemplified by the UK and by several surviving European monarchs than I am with elected presidents, who in my eyes range from the inconsequential to the utterly awful. I also don’t much like public outpourings of grief. I have in mind that following the death of Princess Diana (of whom I was not a fan) and those after various celebrity figures over the years have died. I’m English enough not to like public displays of emotion.

But after a short period of shock (which I didn’t understand, considering it was an expected death), I found myself tearing up on several occasions. It felt much as it had when my mother and my mother-in-law had died – I felt this as a personal loss of a loved one. I hadn’t really thought I qualified as “loving” the Queen. So I’ve been searching for reasons why this might be the case.

Like most of the population, I’ve never known another monarch – Elizabeth was crowned a few months before I was born, after all. She has, therefore, been a fixture for my whole life, and the most celebrated of celebrities in this country. I’ve therefore seen and heard a lot of coverage of the various trials and tribulations she has been though, and listened to my fair share of Christmas messages from her (though I haven’t listened to those nearly as often as my wife and mother-in-law have – they would never miss those). I never met her myself (which I understand up to a third of the country can claim, at least having been within talking distance of her). I did once meet her late mother, who I didn’t much like instinctively – it seemed to me that although she was outwardly pleasant, her eyes did not smile and her manner seemed false. That was something which never seemed to be the case with Elizabeth. Everyone I know who had any contact with her (including my late father-in-law who was a naval surgeon-captain and was appointed one of many “QHP”s – queen’s honorary physician, so he did regular duties at Buckingham Palace when she always came to talk to him at the start of his shift) agreed that she seemed genuinely interested in them, was friendly and asked sensible questions about what they did. Those, incidentally, are things which most politicians I know fail dismally to achieve.

Sho occupied the position of constitutional monarch in what I regard as an exemplary fashion. She never made “political” statements, and that must have been agonisingly difficult as at the beginning of each session of parliament she delivered the “queen’s speech” setting out the government’s programme of action as “my government will” – and you just knew that a substantial amount of this she would disagree with. Not only did she not make political statements publically, she didn’t make them in any circumstances where they could get “leaked” to the press. She read and digested all the governmental paperwork put before her, and had until the last year a punishing calendar of public appearances, always seeming the same calm and concerned person she always did, no matter what was going on in her own life or in the press (which was not always very kind to her, and was savage to several of her family). Some of those were, at the government’s behest, with foreign leaders you just knew she would privately dislike thoroughly, some were on her own initiative in countries with which we had a chequered past (such as Ireland) where she went a significant way to mending relationships.

That doesn’t actually seem to me enough to warrant the depth of my feeling, though. Yes, the way she resembled my late mother and mother-in-law late in her life brought back to me feelings on losing those two strong maternal influences in my life, but even then? Yes, I am one of those who has in the past pledged loyalty to her (we do not have any equivalent in the UK to the US pledge of allegiance in schools, so most of us never do pledge to the monarch, but all of my late parents in law, father, wife and son have pledged loyalty to her as being in one or other of the armed services as well), but that is now a long time ago, and though I take oaths very seriously, they don’t have a major emotional charge.

I fancy that I also thought of her as representing Britain, and representing the best of Britain – and thus representing me. That is, of course, what a king, queen or other leader is supposed to be, the personal representation of their people. I have been acutely embarrassed to have as “leader of the country” Boris Johnson and now Liz Truss, for instance. The idea of “mother of us all” seems to me to ring true emotionally for Elizabeth.

There are circles online, however, where I find the reaction very different. Toby Buckle, in his Political Philosophy Podcast, which I generally have a lot of time for, suggests that the massive amount of media coverage and public grief is a celebration of monarchy as a thing, while acknowledging that she was personally a very impressive individual. He is a “soft republican”, in that he would prefer a republic but there are a lot of more important political objectives for him – but as I indicated above, I can easily sympathise with soft republicanism. But he sees the praise for her as being praise for monarchy, and therefore considers the fairly widespread criticisms of monarchy as being entirely justified in the circumstances.

I tend to hold to the principle of “de mortuis, nil nisi bonum” (of the dead say nothing but good), which not infrequently means saying little or nothing about someone who has died. I held to that principle when Margaret Thatcher died, for instance – I thoroughly disliked the woman, and even more hated the policies which she enacted and stood for. However, I recoiled when friends posted “ding dong, the witch is dead”. I could understand it, though. I was therefore shocked and, frankly, felt personally attacked when an online acquaintance used the same words of Queen Elizabeth. Others have posted picture of people making rude gestures in front of a mockup of her tombstone. There has also been something of a flood of examinations of the often appalling actions of the UK in colonialism and in particular in the treatment of native people, with, not infrequently, the suggestion that she was personally responsible for the continuation of those (and yes, many parts of the former empire did not achieve independence until her reign). But she had no real power to influence government policy in those areas (or, indeed, any other). Yes, due to our constitutional system, every act of parliament had to have her assent, but that is something which has not been withheld by any monarch since 1708, and it is inconceivable that a modern monarch would do that. After all, they hold the monarchy entirely due to the actions of parliament, and what parliament can give, parliament can take away – and assuredly would if a monarch interfered in this way.

A young friend commented that she did not have to accept her position, citing the case of Edward VIII who abdicated rather than renouncing the divorced Wallis Simpson in 1936. That is, of course, technically true – but Elizabeth had been brought up to feel an overpowering sense of duty to the role (which she obviously exemplified for over 70 years). It is telling, perhaps, that Edward is known to have apologised to his brother, Elizabeth’s father, who became George VI, but it is understood that when he said to Elizabeth that he had apologised to her father, she commented that he should also have apologised to her. I’m sure that she would have regarded abdication as betraying both her family and the nation. Both family and nation would probably have regarded it as the same. I don’t think she felt she had that choice.

It’s probably worth commenting, before going on, that those reactions I took offence at took place during the first couple of days after her death. A week later, I’ve become rather sick of incessant coverage of the progress of her body from Balmoral via Edinburgh to London, and the “lying in state”. There is a lot of other news available – we have a cost of living crisis, and none of the other daily events have stopped happening, but they are being pushed to one side. Government has basically stopped, as far as I can see. Now, this has started to irritate me, and I’m on balance a supporter of the monarchy and definitely an admirer of the late Queen – how much more is it going to irritate those who do not feel the emotional attachment I’ve mentioned above?

Now, I am definitely sensitive to the fact that Britain has had a very unpleasant history in some respects, which I mentioned part of above. Having at some point ruled and/or invaded all but a very few countries on the earth, that is inevitable. Indeed, the United Kingdom starts with a colonial appropriation of Wales, and continues with the same in Ireland. The monarchy equally has an unpleasant history – until the 17th century, when we had a revolution, executed Charles I and for a while were a republic, monarchs exercised tyrannical power. It wasn’t exactly dictatorial power since at least William I in 1066 – there was always a need to balance royal power with that of the aristocracy, and increasingly with that of lower ranks of society, but it was frequently arbitrary and savage (as witness Henry VII and Henry VIII systematically eliminating other families who might have a claim on the throne, Elizabeth I’s Star Chamber setting on one side any concept of “innocent until proven guilty” and using torture to extract confessions or the horrendous punishments dealt out through the years to those thought of as “traitors”). I could wish, on occasion, that we had an equivalent of Rammstein’s “Deutschland” (although I feel the video adds much to the sentiment expressed, it has powerful and disturbing imagery and I advise caution). How, they ask, can we at the same time hate what our country has been and nevertheless love it?

But did Elizabeth II, granted that she was symbolic, symbolise monarchy, or her ancestors’ actions, or the actions of governments through the ages? Not to me, at least. To me, she might have been symbolic of a progressive decolonisation, a humanising of the monarch and the monarchy, a willingness to accept past faults of colonisation and repression and a desire to move forward to something better (although again, those were actions primarily of her governments, even if she seems to have embraced all of them with pleasure). Mostly, though, she was symbolic of the nation as a whole, the people of the United Kingdom (and of the Commonwealth), and of all those qualities of duty, compassion, warmth and dedication which I admired in her.

Those, I mourn. While I have hopes for Charles III, who has had a very long apprenticeship, she is an impossible act to follow. We will not see her like again.


Leaving Paul profaned

I started writing some posts about Paul, sparked by an exchange at Wake, some while ago. These start with “Paul, the shit sandwich”. The three posts to date focus largely on a book “Profaning Paul”, by Cavan Colcannon. I ordered another book mentioned in the first post at the same time; Daniel Kirk’s “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”, a title I’ve long liked. But I hadn’t read the book.

20/20 hindsight tells me I would have appreciated Kirk’s book far more if I’d read it first, but, of course, I was reading it in the light of Colcannon. Kirk’s book is some years old now, and, of course, couldn’t respond to Colcannon’s points – and Colcannon’s book is so much breaking new ground (for me, at least) that I don’t feel it entirely reasonable to criticise Kirk for not dealing with them much. But I don’t feel entirely reasonable on the subject of Paul!

I’ll start with saying that Kirk’s book is definitely worth reading. He’s a good, clear author. His main project is to argue that there’s more continuity between Jesus and Paul than is often thought – and yes, I’ve been guilty of suggesting in the past that Paul diverged too much from the message of Jesus to be worth attending to, summed up by “my Jesus trumps your Paul”. He does a pretty good job of tracing a continuity between much of Paul’s preaching and Jesus. But there is a snag there – Kirk was until 2015 a professor at an evangelical seminary, and for this book he reads Jesus’ words in the gospels through the lens of evangelical (and thus reformed) theology. And reformed theology rests massively on Paul. I might have hoped, given that Kirk also wrote “A Man Attested by God – The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels”  (an excellent book which I strongly recommend) that he would have made at least some mention of the fact that the Jesus (or Jesuses) of the Fourth Gospel and of Paul is significantly different from that “human Jesus”, and there might therefore be rather less contintuity between synoptic Jesus and Pauline Jesus, but he doesn’t. Indeed, in the last chapter he comments that it is all about Jesus – and that is, to my mind, the division between the Synoptics and Paul: in the Synoptics we are looking at the religion of Jesus as he talks of God and of the Kingdom, in Paul we are looking at a religion about Jesus. I wrote a post criticising this position some while ago – “Direction finding with Jesus”, in which I argue that Jesus points to God, while the religion about Jesus points to Jesus.

It is, therefore, not until the second half of the book that Kirk starts to engage with any of the problem areas which Colcannon is concerned about, and to a great extent he merely suggests that Paul was operating in a different milieu to that of Jesus, one in which Roman household and other codes were deeply established, and he could do no more than nudge people towards the great understanding in Galatians 3:28. Which is also Paul, and is so contrary to the issues raised by Colcannon, and which Colcannon and myself would have preferred Paul to stick with and preach, even if it offended the sensibilities and prejudices of Paul’s Romanised followers (most of whom were first Hellenised, given that Paul’s activity was chiefly in the Greek-speaking east of the Roman Empire). In conscience, I think it probable that Paul’s radical universalism as expressed in Galatians couldn’t have found footing in the communities he was preaching to, as it would have been “too far, too fast” – and Kirk rightly points out that even the Jesus of the synoptic gospels didn’t disregard gender boundaries to the extent which the Galatians passage might demand, and that Jesus needed to be schooled into a disregard of racial boundaries in, for instance, the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

So, do I excuse Paul for pandering to the prejudices of his audience? Should I level my criticism at a church which elevates his every word to holy writ, given that Paul himself maybe didn’t intend his words to be taken as anything more than sermons from a celebrity pastor (though we seem to have problems taking celebrity pastors’ words as holy writ as well)? He does at times give us some pretty strong clues as to his position – in 1 Cor. 9:19-23 he is forthright in saying that he adjusts his words to his audience, and in 1. Cor:7:25 he explicitly states that what he is saying is on his own behalf, not a “command of the Lord” (the link also indicates other passages where he said something similar).

But there’s the problem exactly. He doen’t give us the “this is just my opinion” health warning all that much, so by implication one might reasonably read him as claiming he was speaking on Jesus’ behalf (or God’s) any time he doesn’t. OK, there are also some passages in which he explicitly claims something to be The Lord’s command; one might prefer that he be read as if any time he didn’t say that, it was just his opinion, not to be taken as divine dictation. That, unfortunately, is not the case – so I think Colcannon’s wish to “profane Paul” (i.e. strip him of the assumption that what he said is a direct line to God’s wishes) is eminently reasonable.

However, Paul did also say some things which I would want to preserve, of which the passage from Galatians is one of the high points.

What of him constucting a religion about Jesus rather than preaching the religion of Jesus? Well, I haven’t done the background research to be able to state this with authority, but I found, approaching Paul as someone very sceptical about him generally, that I could find an understanding of him far better by considering him as a “Christ mystic”. I’m convinced Jesus was a “God-mystic”. There have been both in the history of Christian mysticism – Meister Eckhart was a God-mystic, Teresa de Avila a Christ-mystic, for instance. I am, for what it’s worth, a God-mystic myself, having had my most formative mystical experiences at a time when I wouldn’t have considered myself a Christian. The difference is, I think, that what the God-mystic considers an experience of God, the Christ-mystic considers an experience of Christ. Once I started to read Paul with that assumption, much of what he wrote came into an entirely new focus – in particular, when Paul wrote of being “in Christ”, I translate that to when Jesus talked of being “in the Kingdom”. “The body of Christ” is then at the least the whole of humanity (none of whom, we might recall, Jesus would allow to slip from his grasp, in the terminology of that other Christ-mystic in the New Testament, the author of the Fourth Gospel), and possibly the whole of sentient creation (which might be the whole of creation if one tends to panpsychism or panentheism).

But that is only “much of what he wrote”. I am very nervous about considering that any human can be inspired in every action they take or word they utter – after all, even Jesus might be thought to have been distinctly uninspired at the beginning of the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

After all, I had some personal experience of being regarded as authoritative back when I was at university, and was talking about religion and spirituality from the position of someone who had had peak mystical experiences and had developed an ability to connect with what I called an “edge” of that routinely. As such, I would look into that experience and make statements based on that, and a few people decided that I was a guru and they would hang on my every word. The trouble was, they hung on words which were not the product of direct mystical experience, but were, for instance, rational deductions made on the back of those, or even off-the cuff remarks which didn’t have any mystical origin at all. I was grossly uncomfortable with them doing this, because I was only too aware both that some of what I said did not have the self-authenticating weight of mystical experience behind it and that actually speaking about it with any degree of accuracy was massively difficult, perhaps impossible. I told them to go away and develop their own mystical practice. They were not happy – it was, it seemed, easier to find authority in me than to develop their own experience of God. I fancy Paul probably had the same problem, but took a different route from mine…

But does it work in theory?

In a recent course offered by Homebrewed Christianity (which is “pay what you want”, so doesn’t cost anything significant to get access to), Tripp Fuller asks John Cobb to start laying out foundations for Process Theology in the first talk/interview. I started writing this when the course was current, but stalled for a while… Now, bear with me here, as I attempt some philosophy – I don’t regard myself as particularly competent with philosophy, as we’ll probably see…

Sadly, Cobb starts with attempting to put in place a foundation via reinstating the concept of telos, i.e. “final cause”. Now, this causes me an immediate difficulty, because I am for most purposes a scientific materialist. I say “for most purposes” because I do not remotely think that this means that everything can be reduced to material things – for example, the concepts behind this post are not in any trivial way material things, nor are the words I’m selecting to write it (despite the fact that what you’re seeing when you read it is material inasmuch as it is composed of the activation of minute particles of material on a computer screen – that is merely the symbols, not the significance).

In particular, I don’t see any of the Aristotelean “causes” other than possibly efficient cause as being truly causes (though Aristotle’s terminology could probably better be rendered as “explanation”). “Material cause” (i.e. what something is made of) doesn’t cause something to be what it is – after all, the example Wikipedia gives of a table could be made of wood, but it could also be made of metal, stone or plastic. Yes, you need a material suitable to the end result – you cannot, for instance, make a table out of water (unless you freeze it). “Formal cause” (i.e. the shape or arrangement of something) also doesn’t cause something to be what it is. You can readily envisage, say, a table made out of water, but you are not going to get a table except in peculiar circumstances, such as an “Ice Hotel”.

“Efficient cause” is defined in the linked article as “consists of things apart from the thing being changed or moved, which interact so as to be an agency of the change or movement”. This is broadly what I would call “cause”, though I would question whether the removal of things inherent to the thing being changed or moved is valid – often, a thing will only be changed or moved if its inherent properties permit that. You cannot make a table out of a liquid, a gas or a plasma, for instance. Note here the implicit inclusion of an “agent”, the examples being human, biological entities which are capable of forming intention. Aristotle is, I think, right in saying that things do not change unless more than one “cause” is operative, but not right if this implies that there is always a conscious agent producing that change.

“Final cause” is what is often called “telos” by philosophers. It can commonly be rendered as “purpose” or as “design”.

So, what is Cobb’s argument? Broadly, it seems to me that it is this:-
1. Scientific materialists (possibly all scientists) consider that the only causes are efficient causes.
2. It is patently obvious that there are objects for which there are final causes (telos).
3. Scientific materialism’s account of causation is therefore wrong.
4. (Implicitly) Everything has a telos.
5.(Implicitly) There must be a conscious agent producing that telos.
6. (Implicitly) That agent can, absent a human (or perhaps animal) purpose, only be God.

#1 is, in my experience, plainly wrong for most scientists. The more hardline logical positivists did suggest that things not reducible to statements verifiable by scientific method were cognitively meaningless, but virtually everyone has abandoned that extreme stance, even if they once toyed with it. All the scientists I’m acquainted with would admit that there is meaningful dialogue which does not consist of scientifically verifiable statements.

It is also the case that most scientists I know do not attempt to make philosophical statements. If pushed hard, the most they are likely to say is something along the lines of “we do not yet have a theory to explain any regularity which we observe in this situation”. Even for physicists, this includes a staggering percentage of what they conclude must, in some sense, materially exist (for some sense of “materially” and “exist”). Ordinary, visible matter makes up around 0.5% of the universe as currently understood, with dark energy making up just less than 70% and dark matter just over 30%. 99.5% of what physicists think must, in some sense, exist, we can’t see or interact with. More simply, the scientists are saying “this is something we cannot currently predict for you”.  Physicists, by definition, do not do metaphysics!

#2, on that basis, would be accepted by almost every scientist I know, accepting that specifically biological entities of sufficient complexity can formulate teloi (OK, there are a very few who think that even humans don’t actually formulate teloi, as we’re predictable machines). Many think that it is not impossible that nonbiological entities might possibly formulate teloi, such as machine intelligences. This does not remotely mean that everything which exists has a telos (see #4).

#3, Given that #1 is incorrect, this is not a valid conclusion.

#4 is ostensibly not part of the argument, but is strongly implied by 1-3. Clearly, it’s equivalent to saying “All swans are white. But some swans are black. Therefore all swans are black”.

#5 is even more implicit, but might be postulated as at least a possibility you could derive. It is not wholly clear to me how a non-conscious agent could formulate something we would describe as a purpose, but non-conscious agents do frequently combine to produce results which look like a telos. The game of life and the Mandelbrot set are two examples. Both look organic, as if they have an inbuilt telos, but actually merely have some very simple rules. Of course, you could claim that both had a telos, set by the individual who programmed the system, but in both those cases, the algorithms involved are so simple that it’s fairly easy to contemplate that they could occur spontaneously and, indeed, the game of life is designed to mimic the kind of behaviours we see in living organisms which are too simple to ascribe a telos to.

#6 does not follow, particularly not in positing that such an agent is singular or, indeed, has any other god-like qualities aside from being not obviously apparent.

Cobb throws in two incidental suggestions which are often used to bolster arguments for God. The first of these is the allegation that scientists have to accept the “many worlds” hypothesis in order to explain what we observe, given any sensible degree of freedom.  This really isn’t the case. Really, only Physicists are prone to this view, which tends to accompany denying the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, and most of them will sensibly say “shut up and do the math”, avoiding speculating about metaphysics, which is, of course, not their field. Chemists, Biologists and the softer sciences generally aren’t concerned with this area. In addition, it isn’t just an attractive speculation to non-Copenhagen-interpretation physicists, it’s tempting to anyone who wrestles with free will –v- determinism as a dichotomy, which can include theologians.

The second is to invoke the “fine tuning” argument. If, this argument goes, many physical constants were even slightly different from those we observe, life would never have evolved (and, indeed, neither might any of the universe as we observe it), and thus there must be some kind of design, and thus designer, and so on. Again, this is an argument which most scientists tend to relegate to the category of “we don’t know enough to speculate”. My personal favourite speculation there is to note that yes, we do not know how, at a finer level of detail, physical constants came to be what they are, but that does not mean there is no mechanism which links them, i.e. constrains what they might be. We just don’t know what it might be.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt of the existence of God (for some value of “exist” and some value of “God”). I just don’t like weak arguments for God’s existence as a foundation on which to build pretty much anything, and I strongly suspect that Douglas Adams’ well known lines “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God “for proof denies faith and without faith I am nothing”. “But,” says Man, “the Babel Fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own argument you don’t. QED.” “Oh, dear”, says God, “I hadn’t thought of that”, and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) have more than just comedic impact. More to the point, in my “best guess” conception of God, which is panentheism, everything is in God (just as God is in everything), and I hold to the principle that a set cannot reasonably contain itself with a remainder, so if my conception is correct, we cannot have (within God) a full conception of what God is, far less prove that God exists from within God. I’m a mystic, so can say (and have) “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”. In other words, any “proof of God” is going to prove to be a weak argument.

In addition, in striving to convince, it seems a suboptimal strategy to start by telling a significant portion of the audience that they believe something they probably don’t.  So why do this?

It seems to me that here lies a vital difference between the philosopher and philosophical theologian (Cobb/Fuller) on the one hand and the scientist, at least the experimental scientist, on the other. The tendency of the philosopher or theologian seems to be to start at the bottom (or drill down further to try to find a bottom) and then build up (the number of theologians I’ve come across wanting to start with a “doctrine of God” is considerable, and philosophers seem to revert to talking metaphysics at the drop of a hat). It’s really common for philosophers to start by saying “first define your terms”.

In contrast, experimental scientists notice a set of phenomena and try to find regularities in them sufficient to advance a hypothesis – then test the hypothesis by creating more and novel  phenomena (experiments). You could say that they start at the top and work down.

This was something I noted at this year’s Wake during sessions involving Richard Boothby and Peter Rollins, both of whom are primarily philosophers. Indeed, I tried to underline this difference by picking up on comments by Richard about art and suggesting that philosophers maybe go for photo-realism, and think it “better than” impressionism – sadly, there wasn’t time to develop that with further questions. (I respect photorealism, but generally much prefer impressionism, in which to a significant extent “less is more”).

The thing is, I think that what we do in thinking about our perceptions starts by looking at them impressionistically, or possibly even in cartoon form. There’s too much detail to form any general description (and the word “general” there is already a clue to the fact that we’re drawing a cartoon), and we make sense of it (notice regularities, form hypotheses) by radically simplifying what we perceive. Sure, we can then add detail (complicate our model), but what scientists are doing in formulating hypotheses is radically simplifying first, and then adding detail. In much the same way, many artists produce a sketch (which generally looks fairly impressionistic) and then add detail if they want to be more representational.

Of course, we prefer our hypotheses about reality to be coherent and consistent, and that tends to be the province of the theoretical scientist and the philosopher. However, at the end of the day I have no patience for the reputed response of an economist when told that something works in practice – “Ah, but does it work in theory?” If it doesn’t work in theory, the theory is wrong, not the practice. This is what underlies most experimental physicists’ reaction to wave-particle duality (which is a favourite of philosophers and theologians attempting to suggest that science lacks adequate foundation) – the wave hypothesis works in some circumstances, the particle hypothesis works in others, and it really doesn’t matter whether one or the other (or neither) is “correct”.

Experimental science doesn’t work from foundations upwards, it works from phenomena downwards. Going back to art, it’s like the process of abstraction. The experimentalists abstract, the theoreticians and philosophers play with those abstractions and try to make them fit together. It seems to me, though, that in the process they are inclined to forget that they are talking about abstractions, about impressionistic pictures. The arch-perpetrator of this was, of course, Plato, who considered that those abstractions (“forms”) were the real things and that every actual thing being represented was an inadequate approximation to that reality, rather than that forms were an inadequate approximation of reality and should be treated as such. To me, this is so much the opposite of the actual situation as to cast doubt on everything Plato was involved with…

The further you go down, it seems to me, the more abstract/impressionistic you become, and the less able to be precise about anything. Of course, this means that philosophical efforts to dig deeper into the foundations of our concept-structures are bound to find contradiction (Hegel),  endless recursion of language (Derrida), nothing but differences (Deleuze) and/or nefarious motivations (Foucault). Unfortunately, the overall effect of these endeavours has been to cast doubt on the whole concept of truth, because, for the philosopher, truth has to be absolute and precise. Thus, rather than accept that our concept structures are impressionistic or cartoonish, we see the demolition of any idea that something could be more or less true – if it isn’t absolutely true, it’s false, undependable. There lies the basis for “my truth”, which is frequently devoid of much connection with reality.

Personally, I blame the illusion of certainty. We think that we need our concepts to be precise, exact, certain – but if, as I suggest, they can’t be that, we discard them completely as in error. Any scientist knows that in experiments it is important to realise that there are going to be errors, and quotes results with a plus-or-minus amount. An impressionistic painting may not be precise or exact, but it certainly conveys meaning – and often does this more successfully than does photorealism.

But you don’t necessarily end up with just one image, as Monet’s studies of Rouen Cathedral show…

Some thoughts about Dobbs

I’ve been involved in editing a volume on the US Constitution recently – this will have as a companion a book on the UK Parliamentary system which I wrote. The author, Elgin Hushbeck, is a conservative, and I’m not, which led to some spirited exchanges. As a result, and particularly because I’m a retired English lawyer, I’ve been particularly interested in the Dobbs decision in the States.

This podcast well illustrates some of the problems arising from the US system of constitutional amendments.

The UK is pretty much the opposite of the US so far as constitution is concerned. We have no written constitution, though a number of Acts of Parliament which have something of the character of constitutional provisions. However, a government with a decent majority in the House of Commons (our equivalent of Congress – our upper house is largely toothless, as it lacks theoretical legitimacy, being largely appointed but partly hereditary) can amend any UK law as they wish – and the current government has been doing exactly that, including limiting the power of our courts to challenge the government for any breaches of law.

This is obviously the polar opposite of the US, where the Supreme Court effectively has the power to change the constitution. It’s a very dangerous situation to be in, and I pine for a constitution which governments can’t override at a whim.

The US has the opposite problem. The process of constitutional amendment is so difficult to achieve, particularly in the current particularly polarised political situation, that it has been left to the Supreme Court to update, which was obviously done in the case of Roe -v- Wade and a set of other cases dependent on the right to privacy which Roe first elaborated. But the current Supreme Court has struck that down. It may come as a surpise to my friends that I can’t criticise the Dobbs decision too harshly – the decision in Roe -v- Wade is, shall we say, legally inventive, and UK lawyers (and especially judges) tend not to like too much inventiveness in legal argument. I wouldn’t myself have interpreted the law at the point of Roe -v- Wade anything like the Supreme Court did at that point – but as a counterpoint, there is absolutely no way I would have interpreted the Second Amendment in order to permit unrestricted ownership and carrying of guns in US society either.

[In passing, I might have managed a decision similar to that in Roe -v- Wade on different grounds; I thoroughly agree with the general principle that abortion should not be restricted in any absolute way, though it might be regulated so as not to produce later term abortions without compelling reasons – see my set of posts culminating in this post. My argument would be more along the lines of the 14th Amendment, coupled with a possible new principle that just as the federal government should not restrict the right of the States to enact legislation except where specified, neither should the States restrict the liberties of the individual except in specific circumstances. That would depend on a wider interpretation of life and liberty than seems current.]

The States, it seems to me, has an over-powerful judiciary, while the UK has an over-powerful lower chamber. Both countries, it seems to me, need constitutional conventions. One must just hope that in both cases, the selection procedure for those on those conventions will be entirely fair, because at the point of writing, it seems to me dubious that that would be the case.

Not ignoring Paul’s S4?

Continuing the theme, Colcannon’s “Profaning Paul” has a chapter in the middle of the book, “Redeeming Paul”, in which he criticises Jacques Ellul, Alan Badiou (largely the same book from which Pete takes his inspiration) and Ward Blanton for (perhaps) attempting to preserve Paul against criticism because they, as sociologist, philosopher and theologian, want to preserve him as a foundation for anarchism, revolutionary socialism or some other kind of evental understanding – and in both cases, I can see the difficulty in saying “we’d like to preserve this bit, but not that”. Those three postmoderns (and a significant slice of modern Paul scholarship, such as the “new perspective” to a significant extent) do that very much by discounting a lot of the text as not being authentically Paul, so the “true Paul” is still a “jolly good egg”. (It is, for what it’s worth, pretty much what Daniel Kirk does in his book, which is a narrative re-reading – he seeks to portray Paul as faithful to the message of Jesus, which is a hard sell for me, as my view is more that Paul almost completely subverted the message of Jesus by turning the religion OF Jesus into a religion ABOUT Jesus). Discounting the material is almost certainly justified in the case of all but seven of the “Pauline” epistles, and probably in at least parts of others. But there’s shit in some of the authentic ones as well. Ten chapters after 1 Cor. 13 Paul gets on his authoritarian, patriarchal high horse in  11 Cor. The first is thrilling, the second, to me, negates the love he talks of in the first. Three chapters later, 1 Cor. 4 is deeply problematic as well.

Colcannon goes on to discuss Pasolini’s unfilmed “St. Paul”, which he says goes slightly further in presenting a Paul with two faces, the saint and the cleric, and then discusses Brian Blount’s condemnatory approach to Paul, in which he argues that Paul’s attitude to slavery (inter alia) is so repugnant as to render him beyond the pale. But what Colcannon wants is not to sanitise Paul, to make him the victim of DID or to demonise him. He suggests, using Giorgio Agamben’s definition, profaning Paul (i.e. taking something set aside as sacred and returning it to general use by the population). Clearly, he doesn’t think Ellul, Badiou, Blanton, Pasolini or even Blount have succeded in “profaning” Paul.

He then turns to the grandmother of Howard Thurman, Nancy Ambrose, who was born into slavery in the American south. She almost never read from or quoted Paul, except on rare occasions 1. Cor. 13, because she was too well aware of the multiple passages in Paul instructing slaves to be good and dutiful slaves and not with to change that, which she had had preached to her on many occasions by white preachers. Here, I think, lies the problem with Paul. He is just too important a figure to discount if you mention him at all – he gets to some extent sacralised immediately you mention him.

After all, without Paul there would probably be no Christianity. There would be some Jesus-followers, but they would probably either be a smallish Jewish sect (although I note that Chabad Lubavitch are strong in modern Judaism) or a fairly insignificant independent religion like the Mandaeans (who arguably are the residual followers of John the Baptist). Indeed, without Paul and the author of the Fourth Gospel (who I suspect was not called John), most of Christian theology as it has typically been over 2000 years would be radically different (and much more like Jewish theology, which, to me, would not be a terrible thing!). And, looming over all of this, Paul’s letters are canon. They’re part of the scriptures which I need to take seriously in order to be part of Christianity at all, though I might be attracted by foreswearing Christianity in favour of being “Iesousian”… If you read or comment on him at all, you have to contend with the reverence he’s commonly treated with, even by Ellul and Badiou.

Although Colcannon does not directly suggest that the only real way to profane Paul is to more or less ignore him, or at the least to treat him as no more important than any non-Christian writer other than the Evangelists of the first century (you can’t include other Christian writers of the period, as they were all hugely influenced by Paul), he does imply this later in the book. This seems to me posssibly the only way to proceed, if, indeed, the objective is to profane him. After all, Colcannon thinks that Paul’s reputation subverted the atheistic Ellul and Badiou. In conscience, I spent very many years not reading Paul on exactly this basis. “My Jesus trumps your Paul” was something I frequently stated. That might be the subject of the chapter “Refusing Paul”, were it not for the fact that this deals with treating Paul AS refuse – after all, that’s what he calls himself in 1 Cor. 4:13; Colcannon fully exposes both the identity of this passage (taken with 1 Phil. 2-3) as a “humble brag”, that he is anticipating a sort of revenge fantasy in a perfected and powerful new body, and the fact that Paul goes on to exclude many members of his communities as not fit, apparently, even to be garbage.

Could Paul’s shit be composted and used, as for instance in Joseph Marchal’s book on Phillippians, in a queer rendering? Well, maybe. I confess to still having misgivings about the whole project: let’s face it, I’m at least as offended by shit as the next 21st century Western European liberal. My tendency is not, like Pasolini, to think there’s a good Paul and a bad Paul, nor is it to seek a kind of consistency in the man. I tend to think that we expect Paul to be someone with a well-developed overall position and a developed theology, whereas I see him as startlingly inconsistent. He is, after all, far more a rhetorician than a theologian (and sometimes a “sophistical rhetorician, inebrted by the exuberance of his own verbosity” as Disraeli said of Gladstone). We must not expect consistency, far less a developed theology such as Karl Barth managed to extract from Romans. Instead, we should notice that Paul said of himself “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law.” (1 Cor. 9:0). We were warned…

I would unhesitatingly recommend reading Colcannon to anyone who still grapples with Paul and has not consigned him to the refuse-pile or the privy. I have nothing like done justice to his content here, just gleaning the odd shiny bits from the heap of garbage he has assembled from Paul (which is no reflection on Colcannon!). Mostly, he is very readable. Sometimes (as when discussing Badiou or Blanton, who are notoriously difficult to read) he is more difficult, but still illuminates things which I didn’t glean from their works when I read them directly, for which I thank him.


More of the same S4…

Still thinking about my “Paul, the shit sandwich” post, I happened on a podcast episode of The Bible for Normal People featuring Pete Enns and Jared Byass talking about “Respecting the Bible for what it is (and isn’t)” (ep. 207). (No, I didn’t use “S4” to avoid scandalising people, I used it because in the event someone might want to link to it, they may be operating somewhere with a “nanny filter”. I well remember when the Religion Forum acquired a nanny filter, and the howls of outrage from the Judaism section when they got nannied for using the Hebrew word for the first book of the Bible – Bereshit…).

That got me thinking some more about Paul.

Now, I’ve posted before about my attitude to regarding Paul in particular as “the Word of God“. Paul was the main, if not the only, target of that post. However, Pete and Jared spent a little while criticising the attitude of “Progressive Christians” to the authority of scripture, accusing them (and thus, I suppose, me*) of wanting to argue a level of authority for it which their hermaneutic wouldn’t support. After all, Progressive Christians think that the Bible is a human product, very much of its time and place (and, indeed, so do I, as witness my Word of someone post). And so do they, despite mild criticism towards the group into which they clearly fall, at least on some grounds.

At around the 15 minute mark of the podcast, Jared talks about being possibly harder on his progressive (read “liberal”, perhaps) friends than on fundamentalist ones, on the basis that progressives should not, due to their view of scripture, try to ground all their moral decisions in the Bible. But it sounds like not grounding any of their moral views in scripture – and, of course, there’s a huge excluded middle between all and none. The issue there is “is it authoritative?” (OK, totally, somewhat or not at all seem subdivisions there…).

But they are appearing to discount inspiration altogether in what they are saying there. Admittedly, I don’t really mention it in my earlier blog post, but that is from 10 years ago, so maybe my ideas have developed a bit since then, most likely in the face of the repeated quoting at me of 2 Tim. 3:16-17 in a church I attended fror a while (actually, in two at different times). The NIV, rather conventionally, has that passage read “all scripture is God-breathed…” Which might go a little way to their contention that I should treat scripture as, effectively, dictated by God verbatim, were it not for the fact that at the time it was written (probably not by Paul, but that’s an argument I don’t have the equipment to defend thoroughly), only the Hebrew Scriptures were “scripture” in the sense in which we’d understand the term today. Or, at least, for more accuracy, the Septuagint, because that does contain the “apocrypha” i.e. those books of the Septuagint which were composed in Greek and therefore at a later date rejected by Judaism and thus by Protestantism. It’s stretching credulity to believe that it was being self-referential, or that it was meant to include books which weren’t written at the time conservative scholars think 2 Tim was written, i.e. before Paul died, and thus before even the gospel of Mark, and really hard to believe that even Paul was quite so arrogant as to believe his earlier letters were “scripture” – in that sense, at least.

It is, however, a perfectly valid translation of the original Greek to read this as “all God-breathed scripture” or as “all writings…” (as, at the time, “scripture” just meant something written). Conservative friends might concede the first, while suggesting that the communal choice of those works now part of the canon by the early church (not by the Council of Nicaea as is often stated – they merely accepted much of what was already majority view in their bit of the church…) was in itself something “inspired”.

Now, I spent something like 25 years of my life giving audio dictation to typists and secretaries. No-one, I think, who has done this will have any confidence in the idea of a divine dictation of the whole of scripture, and I was particularly concerned that the words typed were the exact words I spoke, being a lawyer (exact choice of words is important in law). Nor does the copying process for copy typists fill me with any more confidence – all such products needed to be checked very carefully for errors, and in any case the evidence is that in the extant early manuscripts there are more textual variations than there are words, so clearly the copying procedure wasn’t checked with the source of inspiration, human or divine.

[This issue of considering something as “authoritative” links, I think, to the veneration of kings and other authority figures and to the hero worship which I mention in my last post, and may go some way to explaining why we put so much work into rehabilitating authors by “chucking out their shit”, disclaiming that it is actually, say, “the true” Paul. Colcannon also cites the example of Valentinius, who deduced that as Jesus was a god-man, he clearly did not shit. Mark 7:15 might indicate otherwise, of course… though I note that Matthew “cleans up” Mark by restricting it to what goes into and comes out of the mouth. (Matt. 15:11)]

Me, I can’t go so far as to say that just because what we now see can’t be regarded as universally inspired, then none of it could remotely possibly be inspired (and that is perforce going to have to include moral inspiration – let’s face it, the Pauline passages I referred to in my earlier “shit” post were largely morally inspiring, irrespective of when (or by whom) they were written. Part of my attitude, I confess, stems from the thinking behind a t-shirt I own, which reads something like “In the beginning God said
, ,
and there was light”
. That, of course, is Maxwell’s equations (or, at least, some of them) governing electromagnetic radiation. And had God indeed said that to the writer of Genesis, sometime around 2000 BCE, they wouldn’t have had any idea what it meant, and even if it had been written down, there’s no way it would have been preserved and edited into the first book of the Bible. Much easier to replace the equations with “let there be light”. You can imagine God speaking, saying “At the beginning of time, I instantiated a set of field relationships in which div B is equal to zero…” and the bronze age individual addressed says “So how can there be a beginning of time, and what do “instantiate”, “field”, “div” and B mean?” And God gives up in disgust on actually explaining how things hang together and goes for something far less accurate but much easier to grasp.

The may be an inspiration there (perhaps), but if there is, it had to be translated, somehow, into language which the inspiree could understand and, in order for it to be transmitted, his listeners or readers could understand. After all, it took until the 1860s for James Clerk Maxwell to come up with those, building on the work of very many generations of brilliant men (and one conjectures women, although their contributions tended not to be recognised or published) before him. How could it possibly have been understood in 1860 BCE?

Things are, from my point of view, not nearly as bleak as they may sound for some inspiration from the distant past, say, for instance, written or dictated by Paul, to still be at least somewhat accurate and useful today (and possibly very insightful and accurate). I work from two facts. Firstly, most of us acknowledge that inspiration does occur to people – artists, musicians, poets, authors, humourists, even scientists (even if we don’t ascribe it to the divine). Many, many people in those fields report that something “just came to them” and felt as if it was from outside them. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s from the subconscious, or even a collective unconscious, if there is such a thing.

Secondly, although it is emphatically true that retellers of oral tales and copyists of written ones make frequent errors, some phrases and choices of language or concept make such an impression that they “stick”. For a very mundane example, again from my learning days as a lawyer, I took some instructions for a divorce from a lady. Knowing that the registrar at the local County Court was very straight laced, some of the wording read “He introduced into our sexual practices foreign objects, to wit, candles, candle sticks, beer bottles, milk bottles, screwdriver handles and saw handles…”. I noted two things. Firstly, there were absolutely no mistakes in that petition, and secondly, it more or less stopped the typing pool in its tracks for a good half hour as the typists talked about it. I suspect the words may stick in my readers’ minds as well as those of the typists.

Of course, they can stick for the wrong reason as well as the right one. An element of surprise is often a good thing (“Did he really use the word ‘shit’ in a theological post?”), but there can be the surprise of finding your favoured author has said something frankly horrible as well.

To me, those who say either that all scripture is uniformly inspired and those who insist we treat it all as not inspired are just chickening out of doing the real work of discernment. As Paul says (probably) himself “test everything, hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). My more conservative friends will accuse me of just taking a “cafeteria” apporoach, keeping what I like and dumping what I don’t, in a dreadful capitulation to the time and place I live in (“the world”, which possibly-Paul enjoins us to shun (Col. 3:2, though there are plenty of more reliably Pauline statements which align – he really isn’t keen on “sarx” i.e. flesh). Not so – some of the passages I remember best and take most to heart are those which I find most difficult – Matt. 5:48, for instance, or Matt. 19:16-22. (I’m no ruler, but by world standards, I have to count as at least fairly rich). I’ve written before about both of those. Or the refrain throughout Jesus’ teachings in favour of non-violence.

There is more. Impressed by complaints about the length of my posts, I’ve cut this one into two sections



* I’m not too comfortable with “Progressive”, because I think it’s an attempt to capture a term which doesn’t always fit in response to the capture, in the USA, of the term “Liberal” by conservatives who have redefined (“captured”) it as, basically, socialism – which they earlier redefined as indistinguishable from communism. Which is, of course, deeply scary. I’m from the UK, and have voted and stood (sometimes successfully) as a candidate first for the Liberal Party and then for the Liberal Democrats following the merger with the Social Democrats. Who were a socialist party. So I’m not scared of either “Liberal” or “Socialist”. Conservatives are often very progressive, even if they regard what they’re doing as an attempt to get back to some (fictional) earlier state, and they’ve coined “Libertarian” to express an attitude which has long been a part of Liberalism writ large. And it’s progressive. (Progress isn’t always in a direction I approve of…)