A Satanic theology?

February 9th, 2019
by Chris

I’ve recently been pointed to an article in The Atlantic “The Market as God”. This is an extremely good analysis, supporting my contention that financialised free market capitalism is the System of Satan.

Having extolled the article, there are a number of points where I think it oversteps the mark. The first of these is in the statement “Since the argument from design no longer proves its existence, it is fast becoming a postmodern deity—believed in despite the evidence.” Strictly speaking, I think this has to refer to a supernatural theist deity; the trajectory of thought since the dawn of the enlightenment has left no room for a God who created the universe and then needs to tinker with it every so often to keep it on track, like the owner of what is generally called a “classic car” these days (to avoid calling someone’s pride and joy an “outdated money pit”); sometimes such owners seem to spend more time with their heads under the bonnet than actually enjoying the ride.

There is no clear evidence for an interventionary God, just as there is no clear evidence for the picture of the Market drawn by “classical” economics. There is, in fact, significant evidence against both.

Perhps, however, the author is thinking of the postmodern view of God as an “event” (as outlined, for instance, in Badiou’s “St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism” or Zizek’s “The Puppet and the Dwarf”), as something which, once declared (without foundation) has massive effects. While postmodern thinkers might beat about the bush on this point, I think they are getting at something like the Dawkins “meme” idea, that a belief propagates and governs behaviour quite independently of any correspondence with reality. In that respect, money and value would both definitely qualify as meme/event concepts (and as supernatural, existing in the mind but not in reality). God, however, is more like that-which-is-God, in that despite our demonstrating that the supernatural theist concept of God is dead and explaining away a lot of the effects of belief via, for instance, psychology or, with the postmoderns, claiming that God is an Event, there is nevertheless something there. So too it is, I think, with the market. There are countless transactions between humans and their institutions which create between them a force which can be studied (and process thinking would not consider the market too lacking in materiality to be properly nonexistent), but the market is plainly not as economists generally have wished to paint it. The article does show that very clearly.

The next assertion I take issue with is “In particular, the econologians’ rhetoric resembles what is sometimes called “process theology,” a relatively contemporary trend influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. In this school although God wills to possess the classic attributes, He does not yet possess them in full, but is definitely moving in that direction.” While I do not claim to be a process theologian (far less a process philosopher), it seems clear to me that this does not remotely do justice to process theology, all the practitioners of which with whom I am familiar would balk at the idea that God-as-process was moving towards several of the “omnis”, notably omnipotence and omniscience, and would be appalled at the idea that God was moving towards immutability or impassibility. OK, they would be happy that God was omnibenevolent and most would be comfortable with omnipresence, even if they were not outright panentheists…

With those caveats, I think Cox does an excellent job of outlining a theology of Satan. He concludes by saying “There is, however, one contradiction between the religion of The Market and the traditional religions that seems to be insurmountable. All of the traditional religions teach that human beings are finite creatures and that there are limits to any earthly enterprise. A Japanese Zen master once said to his disciples as he was dying, “I have learned only one thing in life: how much is enough.” He would find no niche in the chapel of The Market, for whom the First Commandment is “There is never enough.” Like the proverbial shark that stops moving, The Market that stops expanding dies. That could happen. If it does, then Nietzsche will have been right after all. He will just have had the wrong God in mind.”

Actually, there are significant other conflicts with any other religion I can think of, and I have gone to some lengths in other posts to outline how the System of Satan is contrary to Christianity (or, at least, to the Way of Jesus, which is what Christianity should be striving towards). Most of all, I think the conflict lies in the totalising nature of both. Jesus comments, in Matt. 10:29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” It is not just sparrows which the Market puts a price on. It puts a price on you and me, not only in “how much do you earn?” but in “is it worth the price of the medication to extend your life by a year”, on what an injury to us is worth, on whether we are “productive members of society”, and it has the temerity to suggest that action to reduce the impact of climate change is “too expensive” where allowing climate change to continue unchecked will at the least destroy almost all current cultures in the world (including, in all probability, the Market itself) and may prejudice the continuation of humanity as a species.

In the preceding verse (28), Jesus says “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” I could restate that as saying that by substituting for Maslow’s peak value of self-actualisation, The Market tells us that we can never have enough money, and that money is all we need. The Market is thus killing our spirits, our souls, and if any evidence is needed, we can look at the epidemic of addiction which is sweeping through the developed world. As Peter Rollins remarks of addiction, it isn’t a problem, it’s a solution to a problem (albeit a bad solution), it’s a means of escaping from a world which the Market has made unfit for habitation by humans. “Do not adjust your brain, there is a fault in reality” is a catchphrase which counters that particular escape. Instead, let’s abandon the whole idea that the Market governs everything, and find our value elsewhere.

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The radical theologian…

January 28th, 2019
by Chris

I was recently tagged on facebook by someone quoting me as “The radical theologian, Chris Eyre”, which pleased me more than was reasonable. Yes, I try to do theology, notably what is called “constructive theology”, which means, to me at least, not the analysis and categorisation of systematic theology, but branching out into new expressions of theology, and sometimes entirely new concepts. I do this largely from a panentheistic root understanding, and in conscience I do it at all largely because there isn’t a great deal of theology written from this precise perspective. Yes, there’s “Open and Relational” theology (Tom Oord is an example of that who is currently making waves with his popular book “God Can’t”), and there’s “Process Theology”, of which John Cobb and Bruce Epperly are prominent examples, but neither of those is specifically panentheist.

The thing is, I don’t have academic credentials in theology, and regard my writing as “baby steps” in the discipline. Indeed, they may never be more than that, because I prefer to carry on doing constructive work, as much as I’m able, rather than going through years worth of academic programmes which will teach me about theologies which aren’t tailored to the panentheist. Also, I probably don’t have enough years of productive life left in me to spend 10 or more of them in an academic setting.

But what kind of theologian am I? I would tend to say that I was a Liberal Theologian, given the description in this blog post. Though I don’t particularly see myself as following Schleiermacher, who I’ve never actually read, I definitely start (as he does) from “deep inner experiential awareness”. We all, I think, prioritise one side of the Wesleyan quadrilateral, and I start with my experience (which is mostly non-negotiable*), pay massive attention to scripture (which I regard as an account of the experience of those in my tradition who are accepted as authoritative over the whole tradition), significant attention to tradition (which I regard as the experience of other members of the tradition in bulk over the years) and, in looking at all these, use reason. My problem with that label is that a lot of constructive liberal theologians pay much less regard to scripture and tradition than I do (which is a feature picked on regularly by conservatives!)

A lot of theologians who I read with significant fellow-feeling are described as “progressive”. So, am I a Progressive Theologian? There are some similarities, in that those with that label tend to work more closely with scripture and tradition than do those labelled “liberal”. But “progressive” turns out to be a label which says that you’re a former Evangelical (which, to my mind, is why they have more time for scripture and tradition), and I am not now, nor have I ever been, an Evangelical. OK, I’ve spent time in the pews at a couple of churches which brand themselves as “Evangelical”, but I was always somewhat semi-detached from them, and was typically labelled as their token Liberal.

Radical, though, is a word I really like to describe what I try to do theologically. “Radical” means “going to the root of” something, and I have a lot of sympathy with the project of stripping away layers of interpretation and looking as closely as I can at the root of all theology, namely experience. “Radical” also has the connotation of going in new and completely unexpected directions, and I certainly try to do that, as much as anything on the basis that in a field in which the base experience is a numinous one, thus extremely difficult to be precise about, having a few additional stories about it can only be a good thing.

Yet, when I look at theologians who are commonly called “radical”, I come across names like Peter Rollins, Thomas J.J. Altizer and Kester Brewin, all of whom are in the Altizer tradition of being “death of God” theologians. I worry that “radical” implies that I base myself in some way on “death of God”, and possibly as well on existential concerns – Kierkegaard and Bonhoefer tend to figure large in radical theology. I am not really a “death of God” theologian – for one thing, I can’t stand Nietzsche, who coined the concept (OK, he had a few very good lines, but on the whole I dislike the way his thinking went). Yes, I can take on board “death of God” meaning the fact that old conceptions of God as am interventionary supernatural force in the world are dead, but not the ontological or psychological meanings which Peter Rollins is in the process of expounding in a new series of lectures on “death of God” theology going on at the moment (Note, these are patron-only lectures, but a few dollars for a month or two does get you a lot of Pete’s previous work…)

I’m more familiar with Pete’s work than that of other radical theologians, but note that Pete is very concerned with the existential questions of fear of death and fear of nothingness or absence of meaning. I don’t fear death (although I have a healthy fear of many of the means of getting there – I don’t like pain very much), and fear of nothingness doesn’t make sense to me, nor does the question which exercises philosophers of “why is there something rather than nothing”. My suspicion is that if I were ever have going to have developed such concerns, my peak mystical experience aged 14 put paid to that possibility. For me, peak mystical experiences remove fear of death (which becomes merely a rearrangement in the All) and concern about nothingness (the experience tends to produce a paradoxical “everything and nothing at the same time” sensation, which you get used to – and in any event, gives you an absolute assurance of the existence of the All). What much of Pete’s work seeks to do is to rid you of the wish to avoid death and nothingness, whereas to me mystical experience gives you exactly the solution to those problems; I can’t help regarding his approach as a little like Origen’s solution to having sexual desire which he didn’t think he should indulge – he famously castrated himself in an appallingly literal following of Matthew 19:12.

Personally, I think Origen’s action (which, to be fair, may be apocryphal) is ridiculous. Perhaps Pete’s removal of concern might be more sensible – after all, it does appear that only a small minority of people historically have been able to have peak mystical experiences, though the incidence of people reporting such experience has shot up in recent years, making me hopeful that in fact everyone might be a mystic in the future – but I still consider it extreme.

Most other theologians called “radical” are in something like the same mould; they are in the Altizer tradition.

And yet, I really like the concept of “radical”, both in the fact that it indicates one is trying to “go to the root” of things. I am, I suppose, always trying to look behind the descriptions of experience of God to “that which is God”, and that definitely counts in my book as “radical”, and in the process I also tend to try to look at things afresh and independently of the tradition of interpretation, which leads me to writing things which people view as “radical” in the other sense, of being something “outside the box”.

Perhaps the one “radical” theologian who does not seem to me to be so much a “death of God” thinker is John Caputo, whose thinking in and following “The Weakness of God” is very much to my liking – it ignores conventional concepts and strikes out in a new direction. Thomas Jay Oord, whose writing has generally been considerably more conventional in most senses, has recently written “God can’t”, which has the same kind of radical tinge to it (let’s face it, all of us were probably brought up with a concept of God which was above all else omnipotent)… perhaps he may start being referred to as “radical”, at which point I will feel that I comfortably fit within the description.

 

* When I say the experience is non-negotiable, I do not necessarily include what I can identify as the interpretation of the experience. How much of it is interpretation has shifted a little over the years, particularly as the uninterpreted experience is very difficult to talk about. Such experiences as I have had were definitely experiences, were definitely mystical experiences, using the thinking of Happold, James and Underhill to verify that fact, and in the case of several of them were as far as can be established not the result of any physical or mental stressors, mental abnormality, drugs or any other environmental cause.

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Salvation by correct theology?

January 25th, 2019
by Chris

Henry Neufeld, who is the CEO of Energion Publications, for which I’m Editor in Chief, has put up a video on the subject of “Salvation by Correct Theology”. My own often-stated view is that, in the debate between salvation by works and salvation by faith, the option of “salvation by correct intellectual conception” is never mentioned. Indeed, I think it’s a non-starter, given Jesus’ suggestion that we need to be as “little children” (who are incapable of forming complex intellectual conceptions) and many instances, including the thief on the cross,  where there is no evidence of much in the way of theology.

And yet, I’ve just listened to an episode of the “Patheological” podcast (which I recommend, particularly the series which ends with this episode, which talks a lot of depression) in which the guest, Scott Curry, uses Job 42:7 to suggest that what you think about God is of supreme importance, and noted a facebook post in the Liturgists group which quotes an unnamed source as saying:-
“Peter Harrison in the acknowledgements in his Cambridge University Press book “The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science” quotes a University of Queensland faculty friend Ed Conrad that the bible does not describe a world but creates a world.
What a helpful statement.
THAT is why bad theology is so horrific and good theology is so important.
Our reading of the bible and what we do with it through our theological thinking creates either a world of beauty, holy love, and wonder at what it means to be human, loving our neighbours inhabiting this astounding planet.
OR
we can create a world full of ugliness, avarice, finding ways to accuse and exclude those with whom we do not agree rather than in and through loving hospitality speaking the truth
or to put it another way – this is why serious, informed, educated reading of Scripture is important.
Reading of Scripture, if it is without learning and wisdom, can lead to terrible theology with appalling consequences.”

It hasn’t escaped my notice, too, that when Henry and myself inveigh against salvation by correct theology or salvation by correct intellectual conception, we are saying that the correct theology, the correct intellectual conception is not “salvation by correct theology or correct intellectual conception”, so, to the philosophically minded, we are possibly destroying our own premise just by stating it. I have little patience with this kind of philosophical argument, which sets up a self-referential, absolute, statement in order to destroy the premise – if nothing else, you can escape from the loop by commenting that a statement about statements is of a higher order than a mere statement, and cannot legitimately be included in the lower-order case. (I say this despite being very keen on Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which uses just such a self-referential structure in order to “prove” its point – I think the conclusion there is correct, even if the argument is faulty!). I would also point out that using this kind of argument, even if everything in fact is relative, this argument apparently disproves what is then the fact that everything is relative; there has to be something wrong with the method of argumentation! (I point to the fact that every word in your dictionary is defined by other words, i.e. is relative to other words).

Both Curry and Conrad, however, have a point. In the case of Job, I might suggest that the take-away is that the use of theology in order to make people feel bad is a bad idea; Job’s friends spend much of the narrative attempting to say that his misfortunes are ultimately all his own fault, and the picture of God they end up putting forward is one of a vindictive judge. The fact that the whole book of Job suggests that God’s motive is not vindictive but is actually to prove a point to Satan (at this point a minion of God, tasked with putting forward counter-narratives), which is in no way actually a better picture of God, is by the by.

That is echoed in the piece from facebook – our conceptions of God matter inasmuch as they can reassure us or destabilise us, make us community-minded or defensively individualistic, compassionate or accusing, inclusive or builders of walls. I think Henry would agree with me that, in the face of a God whose chief characteristic has to be love (and who is sometimes identified with love), it does actually matter what our conceptions are. For my part, however, I feel I need to re-stress that our intellectual conception, our theology, can never be regarded as wholly true (“now we see through a glass darkly”), at least not if we are talking of what-it-is-to-be-God.

This leads me on to another line of thinking. I am not sure in what sense Conrad means the bible does not describe a world but creates a world”. It may be that the underlying thought is that scripture (and thus theology) is in some way performative – stating something makes it the case, as when a person with appropriate authority declares two people married. This could be regarded, in postmodern terminology, as “an event”. He may mean that the stories in the Bible and our theologies exist in what I call “concept space”; the issue of the extent to which they are true (given that I am strongly sceptical of our ability to state anything which is true in an absolute sense) is secondary to how they fit together and what they do, i.e. the effect they have on humanity. With fiction, for instance, it is pointless asking whether the story is true or not, the issue is whether it conveys something to which I relate, from which I can obtain a truth.

Things in concept-space can, of course, propagate as what Richard Dawkins has dubbed a “meme”. As Dawkins notes, memes can be extremely damaging (or extremely beneficial, though he tends to focus on the damage they can cause). Followers of Jung, however, go futher than this and posit the idea of a “collective unconscious” in which such concepts exist; it seems inevitable that Jungians believe in one or both of a form of telepathy and the inheritance of concept-structures. This, of course, raises the issue of concepts which we create “coming back to haunt us”; Voltaire famously remarked In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” When we consider memes or the collective unconscious, the image we create of God has an existence independent of any individual, and if we create for ourselves an image of a vengeful, capricious, unfeeling and unmerciful God, we are, perhaps, creating that as a reality rather than just a concept, at least in some sense.

That God-concept is, in my mind, Satanic, and not in the sense of ha-satan of the book of Job, but in the picture which developed later, not of an aspect of God which acts as accuser, as tester of concepts, but as the adversary of God, a spiritual power in its own right, the inheritor of the “equal-and-opposite-to-God force of evil in the world” concept of Ahriman in Zoroastrianism, opposed to the God-figure of Ahura Mazda. We should not give it our thoughts to feed on…

And, in respect of the Satan of the Intertestamentals and the New Testament, which I blame on the percolation of Zoroastrian ideas into Judaism (possibly aided by the Babylonian captivity), my watchword is “If Satan existed, it would be necessary to disbelieve in him”.

We are not saved by intellectual conceptions, but we can be horribly damaged by them.

 

 

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Wrong question…

January 13th, 2019
by Chris

A comment on a facebook thread got me thinking. The commentator said that she had been approached in the street by a total stranger, who asked “Are you a Christian?”. In her case, she instinctively answered “no” before starting to dwell on how many times she’d been told she would be damned to hell for denying Jesus, which she commented was equivalent to not being a Christian – and that gave her an answer.

It’s a while since anyone has done that to me. I think the last time it happened, I said “It depends what you mean by ‘Christian'”. A discussion followed…

I think, though, that my reply would now have to be “Wrong question” and, if they followed up with the alternative “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour?” to repeat “Wrong question”.

The right question is “Do you follow Jesus?”, to which my answer is “Yes”, or more accurately “Yes, but not very well”. “Christian” generally carries the subtext of “are you an evangelical?” and so exactly the same as “have you accepted Jesus…?”, but it’s hugely problematic. (I’ve heard people say several times in response to the question “what were you before you became a Christian?” that they were Anglican, or Catholic, or Methodist…) Do I want to identify myself with a movement which wants to deny women and homosexuals (plus, plus) equal rights and inclusion? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which seems to make a habit of excusing pedophilia in its leaders? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which currently seems to give Donald Trump unquestioning support? No. Do I want to identify myself with a movement which believes that the only sensible issue on which to cast their vote is abortion, and that the entire recorded sayings of Jesus can be ignored in favour of that one issue? No. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers care for the environment irrelevant because God is about to destroy everything anyhow? Absolutely not. Do I wish to identify myself with a movement which considers that most of humanity is both irretrievably depraved, no matter what they actually do, but is also destined for an eternity of conscious torment? Hell, no.

I’m not very happy with the movement which tends to self-identify as just “Christian” as it is at the moment. However, even when I was casting around for a faith community 50 years ago, which was before the first four of those became hot topics, I didn’t want to identify myself with the historical persecution of Jews (and any group of other Christians who had a slightly different conception of Jesus or God than did the mainstream), I didn’t want to identify myself with forced conversions and the dismissal of native peoples all over the world as not being worthy of consideration as “they were not Christians”, I didn’t want to identify myself with massacres, pogroms, witch burnings, the crusades (particularly the Fourth and Albigensian) and the attitude which would kill or main people over whether there should be another “i” in the word “homoousion”.

How about “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and saviour?”. Well, all Jesus seems to have asked is that we follow him. That might, I suppose, mean accepting him as Lord – certainly, I’m happy to identify him as more “Lord” than anyone carrying that title (or a higher one, or indeed any title) these days. “Saviour” is a different matter. I have never thought that the biblical witness requires us to believe a particular account of Jesus’ significance, granted that (for instance) John and Paul are both confident that Jesus saved them, and extend that to humanity generally, though I could with some effort say that Jesus has saved me and may well save me again – I just wouldn’t mean by that what most Christians mean by it. It is sufficient for me that Jesus said “follow me” and that I attempt to do that. His disciples weren’t all that good at following him either, which gives me significant comfort!

And, of course, the formula is so identified with evangelical (meaning fundamentalist) Christianity that I would fight shy of it anyhow.

The trouble is, even though I hear the question as something like “are you a pedophile?” or, in England these days “are you a credulous fool?”, I cannot do what the writer of the facebook comment did and say “No”. With considerable reluctance, I have to accept that I am somewhere in the general mass of what has historically been called “Christianity”, even if that does not mean to me what someone asking me the question means by it. But then, I have to accept that I’m British, too, and that comes with a historical baggage which makes it an admission rather than a boast to a large proportion of the world population.

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There will be roombas in heaven…

January 9th, 2019
by Chris

On James McGrath’s “Religion Prof” podcast is an interview with Douglas Estes, which talks of the intersection of technology with Christian belief (my link is to the second part).

Estes is more conservative than McGrath, and definitely far more conservative than I am. He talks, when discussing Revelation, of interpreting scripture in many ways, including metaphorical and symbolic, but when it comes to resurrection and the “New Jerusalem” plumps for a literal answer. This leads to the conclusion that, as on this view we will have new material bodies and will be living in the New Jerusalem which is located on earth (albeit, one assumes, a remade earth), we will also have technology. Including smart phones and roombas…

I find that a ludicrous image. I grant that if you accept Estes’ presuppositions, it’s a logical consequence of this view of the resurrection, and it’s a fascinating play with concepts – but to me, it means that at least one of the ideas on which the logic is based is wrong, and I strongly suspect that taking the passage literally is the best candidate. It’s a kind of reductio ad absurdum – the absurdity of the conclusion means that the premises of the argument are false.

Even before hearing this podcast, I was quite confident that the scripture (Revelation 21:9–27) was a visionary experience, and thus will have involved a substantial usage of symbols from the mind of the person who experienced it. As is probably appropriate, given Prof. McGrath’s interest in the intersection of Christianity and science fiction, it is best regarded as a vision of utopia. Estes’ vision of utopia, were he to construct one today, would probably include smart phones and roombas. Personally, I can’t construct a vision of utopia in which I can have any real belief  – not only am I confident that, as technology advances, the concept will change radically, but I am also extremely sceptical that any embodiment which might occur would be in a body which is anything remotely like the one I currently occupy (or, probably more accurately, a body which I am). Indeed, I recoil at trying to constuct any vision of utopia – too often, if you push the conception far enough, our utopias turn out to be dystopias…

It is fairly probable that the visionary in question was Jewish, and will therefore have been working with Jewish conceptions of what is possible – and the Jewish mind of the time (unlike the Greek) regarded non-material entities as needing to be embodied (Walter Wink gives an extended argument for this in “Naming the Powers”). Any conception of post-mortem existence will thus have had to be in a physical form, and the writer will not have had available to him various forms of technology in which we can now envisage the essence of “that which is us” being preserved, such as those who expect in due course that we will upload ourselves into the cloud. A similar line of thinking leads to the Jewish insistence that the particular is important, indeed often more important than the general, resulting in the Talmudic statement “He who saves one person, saves the world”.

In my own rather simplistic philosophical stance, I am inclined to something much like the Jewish position – for me, there is “stuff” and there is “pattern”. We don’t have access, ultimately to the “stuff”, although at a higher level we can distinguish between (for instance) a chair made of metal and one made of wood – there is no chair there absent the metal or the wood, but neither material is essential to there being a chair. If there is, post-mortem, something which can legitimately be called “me”, it will need to be the “me-pattern” expressed in some kind of stuff. At the moment, the “me pattern” is a biological entity, whereas if one day I could be uploaded to the cloud, the “me pattern” would need to be expressed in patterns of electrons. Personally, I question whether that would capture enough pattern to be regarded properly as “me”, but I could be surprised.

The concept of a set of patterns of humans resident in some way in a distributed sense over a lot of computers is, of course, a concept which I in the 21st century can just about get my head round, but would be totally inconceivable to a first century Jew. And similarly, what (if anything) awaits me post mortem is very likely to be as inconceivable to me now as the cloud (or, for that matter, a roomba) was to John of Patmos. But the scriptural picture we have which is supposed to represent that is in 1st century concepts… update it at your peril!

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Tim Minchin thanks God…

January 6th, 2019
by Chris

There has been some discussion in a group I belong to on facebook about this video from Tim Minchin, including quite a bit of suggestion that Minchin was being arrogant and bullying.

Oh dear. Let me preface this by saying that I’d dearly like divine healing to work, and I do pray for it on occasion. But I don’t believe it does, at least not in the simplistic sense which Minchin’s Sam was clearly suggesting. Even trying the conventional “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief”.

I have seen a few apparent cures myself (all for relatively minor ailments), but *massively* more cases of no cure at all. Notably, perhaps, none for anyone in my family or who I care about deeply.

There are, of course, all the factors Minchin mentions which can skew reports of cures, but above and beyond that, in order to say “God caused this to happen” we would need to see something at least approaching correlation, and we don’t. The results of attempts by scientists to demonstrate a statistically significant correlation are, to say the least, disappointing.

At best, one might say that perhaps, just perhaps, God might work *with* some other factor or factors, and without that (or them), nothing will happen. That is probably not, so far as I can see, the level of belief of the person cured or of those praying – I’ve seen too many cases of rock-solid belief producing nothing, and a few of at best lukewarm belief apparently producing a cure to accept that – and I don’t like that explanation for practical purposes, because it tends to end up with blaming the victim. (I will mention that a reasonably positive outlook of the sufferer does seem to have some effect in recuperation rates and perhaps on illnesses with a track record of remission, to be fair).

There is, of course, the possibility that what is needed is one or more human beings with a healing talent (possibly in combination). Some of my friends, mostly in the past, have been entirely convinced that this occurs (and some of those haven’t believed that prayer is of any assistance, but still report some positive results – or, of course, pray to “the wrong God”). I can’t say I’m convinced by that either, but if there is to be an effect at all, and if God is remotely reliable, some combination of people seems the only possible route.

Otherwise, if cures *are* the result of divine intervention, God is totally capricious and arbitrary. This is not what I understand God to be, but it may be that that is what is effectively being said. Were that to be the case, I would have to re-examine Gnosticism, and probably conclude that the interventionary God was the demiurge and so a created usurper of God’s position.

Back to Mr. Minchin. Yes, he comes over as somewhat arrogant, I suspect because “Sam” is not one incident but many – but what of “Sam”? He expects Minchin to be convinced of the existence of God on the basis of one hearsay report, assuming, possibly (and if so with little regard to knowledge of him), that Minchin is too polite to suggest that he may be mistaken or worse. And extremely ill-informed and/or gullible.

I’ve had a number of “Sams” talk to me in similar terms, and have some difficulty not giving them a piece of my mind, and I actually believe in God (for some value of the term, not including a supernatural theist one). What I actually do is concentrate on the positive; it’s great that X has been cured, let’s thank God for that (not sarcastically, like Minchin, but genuinely). And move on.

Back in my atheist days, I’d probably have been a LOT ruder than Minchin… but that was before a mystical experience left me with a compassion overload and over 50 years to mellow a bit.

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Coming down the mountain

December 19th, 2018
by Chris

A conversation on facebook prompts me to recall a couple of TV programmes I’ve watched in the past (and I don’t remember enough details of either to provide a link, or even a title). Both involved someone from the UK exploring other forms of spirituality.

In the first, the presenter was in India, and found a holy man who was prepared to talk, and who claimed to have achieved enlightenment. The presenter was fairly impressed by some of this man’s statements, and asked if he could teach him more – and the holy man refused, saying that in order to teach, he would risk losing his lack of attachment to the world. In the second, the presenter was trying out the life of a Desert hermit in the tradition of the Desert saints of early Christianity. His guide and mentor for that had been living in a cave partway up a mountain for years, and expected to continue doing that. He said that his function was to pray for the world without interruption (a version, I suppose, of the “say one for me” statement which often accompanies me leaving for a church service when others in the house are staying at home). He wouldn’t normally have accepted anyone else to teach unless they were intending to be a long-term hermit themselves.

I could have gone in one of those directions around 40 years ago. I’d had my initial peak mystical experience, I’d sampled a stack of spiritual practices which promised to produce something like a repeat of that, and I’d developed my own praxis to the point where I could almost completely reliably drop into a non-dual consciousness with, in effect, a mere thought. OK, it wasn’t quite the mountain top of the original experience, but it was close enough for my purposes (and, in complete honesty, lacked the feeling that whatever it was that was “me” would be snuffed out, never to return, which is, to say the least, scary).

I did consider the possibility of joining some contemplative group and taking myself off to a mountain somewhere (and a close friend of mine at the time who had a similar consciousness did, as far as I know, eventually do that with a Zen monastery in Japan). I also considered the possibility of taking on students – there were certainly some people who were hanging on my every word at the time, and who regarded me as some kind of guru. That second path I rejected fairly easily; I did not feel that I had a praxis which I could guarantee would produce the same results as it did in me for others, so would be taking on students in bad faith, added to which the position of teacher was calling to my ego, which I felt was a bad thing. Shades there of the Indian holy man I mentioned… (In fact, I now look at those who teach contemplation and non-dual thinking, and in many cases think I detect people with a problem with ego – I’m glad I didn’t go that way, as I have quite enough problems with my ego without others puffing it up for me).

The first was, however, very attractive. If I devoted myself single mindedly to a contemplative practice, I could reasonably expect to be spending a lot more time “on the mountain top”, and if I lacked ties to the world outside, it would not matter if I died while in a state of ego-death. The trouble was, the initial experience had also given me an overdose of empathy and compassion, and withdrawing from the world seemed as if it would be cutting that off. I will grant that the amount of empathy I was feeling was positively painful, particularly as in most cases I was not in a position to alleviate the suffering I was feeling in others – “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” was a fine sentiment, but the things I could not change were damaging that serenity badly, so again, like the Indian holy man, non-involvement was a possible way out.

The thing is, withdrawing from the world utterly failed to follow up on “The courage to change the things I can” – not that I was at the time yet significantly aware of the Serenity prayer, but its sentiments were definitely in my thinking and, above all, feeling. So I decided not to, and to go ahead and do the things which were pretty much expected of me, but with a somewhat different consciousness of my place in the world. T.S. Eliot wrote We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”, and I had, in a way, arrived at the place where I started.

OK, I didn’t go in quite the same direction as I might have done if uninformed by mystical experience. I went into Law on the basis that that way, I could work at something which would give me an adequate income but would at the same time help others, and I later went into local politics on the same basis.

One day, perhaps, I will look at devoting myself single-mindedly to going back to the top of the mountain and staying there. In the meantime, however, I have taken on, quite deliberately, a set of attachments (which would probably horrify the Buddhists among my readers) and am content to live with those.

And, just maybe, I’ve found “the wisdom to know the difference”.

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere – The Alpha and the Omega

December 9th, 2018
by Chris

This is technically the fourteenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is at the point of writing the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over around four weeks. My first post deals with the first chapter/essay, which is by Philip Clayton, one of the editors of the book and includes my introduction of myself to the group; there are altogether twelve chapters which I have reflected on, plus one excursion prompted by some of the discussions I was having in the facebook group.

The other editor, Andrew M. Davis, provided the introduction and conclusion; hence, in part, “Alpha and Omega”. Alpha and Omega being all encompassing, I will start by saying that I really loved this book (as witness 14 blog posts!) and that it got me thinking in directions I haven’t previously considered very much. As Davis says, it is a journey, and one very much worth taking in my eyes, especially for those with an interest in mysticism, those who are drawn to panentheism and for process theologians and open theists.

Interest need not be limited to those categories, though – in discussing religion with very many atheists and agnostics over the course of the last 20 years, I have often heard them say something along the lines of “If I were going to believe in God, it would be something like the God that Chris talks about” – and that is the panentheist God-concept. So when Davis quotes Whitehead saying “The modern world has lost God and is seeking him”, indeed my best prescription for the kind of God-concept would be panentheism. He then goes on to talk of Nietzsche and the “death of God” which has founded much radical theology, and asks “Is there a way of returning to God after God, of (re) discovering a new God rising from the ashes of a dead one?”.

Well, insofar as what Nietzsche’s madman was talking about was the supernatural theist God-concept, yes, I think there is such a way, and so far as concepts go, panentheism (or possibly process if that can be fully separated from panentheism in practice) is that concept. However, if we are talking of the more radical sense of the death of God which founds, for example, the late Thomas J.J. Altizer and Peter Rollins’ work, I worry that the introduction promises something which the book does not deliver, namely a way in which to see panentheism through the eyes of radical theology or vice versa. There is no essay by a theologian from the radical tradition here, and I think that is a pity. That said, I don’t think either Altizer or Rollins connects with the panentheist god-concept at all (and I’ve been following Rollins work for some time). Those are theologians (if theologian is the right word) perched on the vertiginous brink of nihilism, for whom God is dead in all senses of the term. Perhaps the only radical theologian I can think of who could have perhaps usefully engaged with panentheism for this volume would have been John Caputo, whose concepts of “weakness of God” and “folly of God” would, I think, have found resonance.

I particularly like the stress in this volume on personal testimony, which is a thread running through all the essays; as Davis says “It is one thing to ask what these prominent contributors imagine of the divine in the 21st century, but quite another to ask how they have found their way”. Where that involves a description of their thinking process (as, for instance, Keith Ward) it is possible to criticise that, but no-one can criticise a personal testimony, only say “I didn’t relate to this”.

The introduction closes with a brief description of panentheism, and rightly, I think, stresses most the immanence and relational nature of God “And this relationship is often described in mutual ways: not only is God immanent in the becoming of the world, but the world is also immanent in the becoming of God – affecting God, sharing its own reality with that of the divine”.

What is not evident from either his introduction or conclusion is the fact that, according to his initial interview for the reading group, Davis is not himself a mystic or contemplative. It is, in my experience, rare to find a non-mystic theologian taking mysticism really seriously, and I commend him for that. I’m not unused to finding theologians completely dismissing mystical experience as a source of insight (including one who “didn’t believe in mysticism”, which I found incredible); it’s mostly for those that I reserve the comment “The whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the sayings of mystics”. I write that only slightly tongue-in cheek…

Having said that, the conclusion deals largely with the philosophical and (to a lesser extent) theological threads which he discerns in the essays, and not significantly with the experiential aspects. I might have liked to see a volume where threads of personal testimony were drawn together and shown to evidence a single root experience and then argue that the best explanation for the experience attested to was panentheism, as I am by original formation a scientist. However, as it turns out, the personal aspects of the essays do not lend themselves to that, but do lend themselves to extracting a set of theological and philosophical benefits of a panentheist conception of God. In point of fact, however, my confidence in my own sanity was much aided shortly after my first mystical experience by finding F.C. Happold’s “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology” which does take that approach to a selected set of writings of historical mystics from multiple religions, and reaches the conclusion that panentheism is the best explanation, so to have done this would in a way merely have brought Happold’s work up to date. As Ian Marra pointed out in the discussion group, this starts to feel like apologetics for a panentheist view, and while I have absolutely no problem with this (and I’ve done a lot of arguing for it in the past), that is different from the thread of personal testimony.

I think in the early parts of the conclusion that Davis is effectively setting up a conception of God as an imaginative human construction (which Feuerbach, with whom he opens, would probably have agreed with). Via Howard van Till (inter alia) he presents some conceptions of transcendence as an experiential reality, but then goes on to the “Masters of Suspicion”, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud). I might have liked here to find a Philip Clayton style rider that God is “not less than” an imaginative human construction, given that all the writers of the essays seem to consider God to be an experiential reality about whom we make our imaginative human constructions.

To me, the Masters of Suspicion mistake function for reality (or telos for ontos); they point to the various uses to which the god-concept of supernatural theism has been put  and say that those uses are all that there is there. This is a little like pointing out that they have noticed me using my screwdriver as a hammer, as a paperweight and as a measuring stick and saying that that is all there is to the screwdriver (and that there are better hammers, paperweights and measuring sticks); not only is there potentially (as in the case of the screwdriver actually) another function or functions unexplored, but this does not really adequately describe the screwdriver. I experience the screwdriver quite independently of its function; just so I experience something which I most conveniently call “God”, and I experience that as first and foremost something radically immanent, unitive and all-inclusive. I may well then use my conception of that experience in just the ways that Marx et. al. wrote of, but that does not explain the experience. Atheists are quite keen on quoting Galileo’s famous “Eppur si  muove” (nevertheless it moves), and my ultimate response to them is nearly the same quotation – nevertheless I experience it.

However, of course, the radically immanent God I experience is not the supernatural theist god entirely separate from creation but occasionally intervening in it; as Davis comments, this notion of God is effectively dead (and we have killed him, as Nietzsche’s madman said).

David then proceeds to take us on a journey through anatheism, quoting T.S. Elliot’s “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (which is so good a line that I cannot resist repeating it) to a restatement of panentheism at greater length, bringing in quotations from many other theologians and philosophers, with a nod to Eastern traditions. He quotes Marcus Borg (who is the only theologian of recent times who I have not, so far, found any reason to want to raise quibbles about), saying “[Panentheism] does genuinely resolve much of the intellectual difficulty posed by supernatural theism. For the most part, modern skepticism and atheism are a rejection of supernatural theism, but if God is not thought of as a supernatural being separate from the univerrse, the persuasive force of much of modern atheism vanishes. The resolution of this intellectual difficulty about God is no small matter, for it means that the ‘God question’ becomes and open rather than a closed one”. Just so.

His answer to “what is the lure of panentheism”, however, ends up identifying seven areas which have resulted in a “panentheistic turn”, and I am disappointed that this does not include (perhaps as a central circle overlapping all of the surrounding circles in his graphic) the directly experiential. After all, I got to panentheism myself without having any theological of philosophical argument, just experience and knowledge of the experience of others; the theology came later. Perhaps, though, this forms an element in the “Religiously more viable” circle? If so, perhaps that could have been more explicit. Inasmuch as I see a surge in spirituality (as opposed to religion) going on at the moment, I do find that a panentheistic god-concept is far more attractive to the “spiritual but not religious” than is any other (such as, for instance, supernatural theism or “imaginative construction”). Maybe this group could have been targetted more directly? On the other hand, I suspect that his group are probably not going to be buying many theology books…

I have, therefore, mixed feelings about the conclusion. On the one hand, it is an integral part of a book I will unhesitatingly recommend to a lot of people (the book needed a conclusion), and I enjoyed reading it and wrestling with the accounts in it hugely. On the other, it just slightly missed a mark which I would very much have liked it to hit.

 

 

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (XI)

November 28th, 2018
by Chris

This is the eleventh in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next week or so. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The eleventh essay is by Richard Rohr, who probably needs no introduction, but is a Franciscan friar who writes, talks and teaches prolifically about spirituality (and particularly mystical spirituality), and founded the Centre for Action and Contemplation. He has co-authored with Mike Morrell (one of the facilitators of the group) the book “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation” which I will admit to not having yet read. I have, however, listened to Fr. Rohr talking about it.

He opens by making a case for why Christians tend to decry pantheism (which panentheism is often mistaken for), finding the problem in the insistence on an absolute divide between God and man, between transcendence (God) and immanence (presence in the world, and not God). So far, so good – but he then goes straight to asserting that early Christians found God in “two other manifestations of the Godhead”, namely the Christ and the Spirit, and we’re into Trinity. Actually, early Christians found God in more than three manifestations, particularly including Logos and Wisdom, but that slips by…

Panentheism does (as I alluded to in my response to Philip Clayton’s essay, the first of these reflections) make it necessary to re-evaluate the historical doctrines of the Church, and this is more or less easy depending on which doctrine you’re talking of. Having been wrestling with doctrines and whether I can legitimately assent to them as a panentheist for some years, I can say that Trinity is one of the most difficult. With panentheism comes the overwhelming conviction of unity, but of unity as seen in limitless multiplicity, and so trinity offends by being more than one, and by being absurdly limited compared with an infinity of manifestation. However, Fr. Rohr proceeds to try to make a case for Trinity as flowing out of a panentheistic (or perhaps pantheist) consciousness alongside his otherwise excellent trip through the experiences of the more mystically inclined Christians of the past.

Now, panentheism does solve the gap between a transcendent God and earthly creation by insisting on the radical immanence as well as the transcendence of God, and Fr. Rohr spends some time criticising (rightly, in my eyes) the effects of the historical insistence on God as wholly other, and commending the long chain of mystics who saw God as immanent, quoting for instance Catherine of Genoa as saying “My deepest me is God” and the Eastern Orthodox belief (which I think may stem from the fact that mystics have always been far more central in Orthodoxy) in theosis. Do we get to Trinity, as Fr. Rohr suggests, via Jesus’ seeing God in a third person perspective “God as him”, a second person perspective “God as Abba” and a first person perspective “God as me”? Well, no, and not just because this falls smartly into one of “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies”. You don’t arrive at Trinity by looking at the relationship between two individuals (or a part and the whole) in three ways.

Do you, however, arrive at Trinity by thinking of God in terms of action or activity rather than something more static, as the essentially static “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” might indicate? Can you, indeed, get there via mystics thinking in terms not so much of identity with God, but of “interbeing between God and the soul”? This is, of course, the basis of the concept of perichoresis, mutual indwelling, which is a favorite of recent writers on Trinity, but one which Fr. Rohr only touches on briefly here (but in much more detail in “The Divine Dance”). Again, if you start with two, I don’t think you get there. Other writers in this book have talked of the love between two individuals inevitably producing a third entity – but short of actually conceiving a child, I cannot see this as a “third person”, even if you regard, for instance “Chris and Nel” as being a person distinct from myself, my wife or the mere addition of the two. Again, the general concept of mutual indwelling is very amenable to a panentheist – but has nothing in particular to do with threeness. In her talk (although not in her essay) Ilia Delio remarks that three is the lowest number which avoids binary dualism – if you like, the gateway to multiplicity, and that is, I think, about as close as any of the writers get to an argument for a threefold interpretative lens – but that is still not “one essence, three persons”.

And yet, in his penultimate section, headed “The Ultimate Template for All Orthodoxy”, Fr. Rohr says “…the ultimate Christian source and model for panentheism is the central doctrine of the Trinity itself”. I don’t think he has remotely succeded in showing that. On the other hand, he also says “Divine union is not uniformity but precisely diversity loved and overcome! Only the contemplative, non-dual mind can process this, not the rational dualistic mind”. With that, I can agree wholeheartedly.

Fr. Rohr is plainly a contemplative and a mystic, and as such I am confident the most natural god-concept for him will always be panentheism, and he makes a decent case for this. However, he is also a Catholic priest, and more even than people in the other confessional denominations will have the catechism, and thus a fairly full description of Trinity, ingrained in his mind as a primary necessity for Christian belief. He doesn’t do a bad job of reconciling that with panentheism, and he plainly takes great intellectual joy in the concept. However, there is no way in my mind that he has demonstrated that it is, for the panentheist, more than one among many interpretative lenses which can be employed.

 

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Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (X)

November 25th, 2018
by Chris

This is the tenth in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The tenth essay is by Marjorie Suhocki, who is a process theologian. What most struck me about her chapter was her personal story. She falls about halfway between me and my late mother, and her story of being expected to go out to work rather than pursue an academic career mirrors my mother’s – she had a place to read Music at Durham University (where I eventually got my BSc), but had to go to work to support the family when her father fell ill; like Suhocki, she returned to study later in life, although whereas Suhocki managed this in her 30’s (with three young children and an alcoholic husband, no mean feat), my mother waited until her 60s, and was content with a BA from the Open University. Suhocki’s achievement in doing the coursework aspects of a PhD in one year particularly belies her early thought that “I don’t have enough brains”. I am filled with admiration, and left with the feeling that possibly I don’t have enough brains to understand process adequately, whereas she clearly does…

I love her statement that “Theology is provisional; God is not” and her later quote of an article “On the other hand, this may not be the case at all” which she adds as a silent rider to all her work. Those very much sum up my own attitude to theology, and I will not doubt borrow them in the future. I’m also with her in rejection of two out of the three “omnis”, namely omnipotence and omniscience. She and I both cannot abandon omnipresence, which she talks of experiencing as do I; I like the fact that she differentiates this from the idea of a King’s rule pervading his kingdom, which is absolutely not the way the average mystic experiences it.

Regarding process, let me just quote her “I do not know if process theology has it right. Its intricate metaphysical system, in its attempt to describe the world, may or may not concur with contemporary scientific understandings of the world… What matters for me us that its relational analysis of the world is consistent with the way the world is in a metaphorical way. Its metaphysics provide not a road map, but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of reality. And that fundamental naure is relational, through and through.”. Equally, I do not know if process has it right; those who are following my set of responses will already know that I have particular difficulty getting my brain round proces metaphysics. However, once they leave Whitehead behind, I tend to find process theologians coming up with statements which I can readily agree – it works as a metaphor, in other words.

It is just as well. Her earlier statement “Whitehead’s conception of God as a singular actual entity with a reversed polar structure necessitated that the world be taken into God at all moments of its multitudinous entities’ completions…” goes straight over my head. Maybe, however, a less concentrated, more expansive account might break through my wall of incomprehension? I hope so – I have her “God, Church, World” on order now.

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