Divide and conquer

October 5th, 2018
by Chris

This article makes better than I can a point which has been worrying me for quite some time, namely that “the left” seems to be preoccupied with relieving the oppression of small groups at the expense of relieving the oppression of the vast bulk of humanity by countering the neoliberal agenda of concentrating wealth (and therefore power) in the hands of a smaller and smaller proportion of the human race, and at the expense of finding world-wide consensus for steps to arrest (and possibly reverse) climate change.

Both of those are, to my eyes, existential threats to the whole of human society. If wealth continues concentrating, eventually the have-nots will revolt, and violent revolutions are not things we want to live through, nor are totalitarian governments (which are two non-exclusive probabilities), even if the economic system does not collapse, as concentration purely on supply-side economics will inevitably cause. If we do not urgently address climate change, the sites of most of the world’s largest cities will become uninhabitable (mostly because they’ll be underwater) and, while it is just about possible that farming will be able to relocate largely to Northern Canada and Siberia and still sustain a sufficient population, the population movements resulting are ones which will be devastating.

The thing is, I have, according to much of the “progressive” or “left” camp, no position from which to make this comment. I’m a cisgendered straight white male* from a developed Western country, I’m middle class and I’m a baby boomer. OK, I do have a number of other identity markers which leave me about halfway between the very privileged and the very underprivileged if you play the game of “step forward if” and “step backwards if”. But I’m condemned by that initial set of markers.

I can readily accept that virtually all power in the world since very early times until (and, sadly, including) now has been held by cisgendered straight white males, and that using the principle of affirmative action, I should be ready to take a step back in favour of all those people who do not fall into one of those categories. Indeed, I would be quite happy to do so, if only those who are not quite so encumbered by privilege as am I were willing and able to take the power and run with it. This is particularly so as I’m now a “senior citizen” and am, frankly, tired of political activism (of which I’ve done a lot). However, let’s be real about this; if all other factors were equal, I’d prefer a non-white candidate to a white one, a woman to a man, trans over cis and gay over straight, just on the principle of affirmative action – but not if that candidate’s platform was based on whichever bits of their identity was minority, because I wouldn’t trust them to concentrate on the existential threats.

I’m not particularly convinced by the suggestion that identity politics is based on a conspiracy of neoliberals. But the effect of a concentration on identity politics is that “divide and conquer” is working very well for the neocons. While identity politics argues about which group should have a bigger slice of the pie, neoliberalism is steadily shrinking the pie, and ignoring two factors which might well mean the pie vanishes completely.

To borrow a phrase from 12 step, we should look for similarities, not differences. That way, we might just possibly manage to build a coalition which can deal with income inequality and climate change. Without that, we’re stuffed…


* I don’t fall absolutely neatly into all those categories, but had a choice growing up, which many don’t.

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Mysticism revisited

September 25th, 2018
by Chris

There’s a really excellent episode of The Liturgists podcast about Mysticism, which people have been pointing me at for some time, and which I’ve finally listened to. Several of the descriptions of mystical experiences are really very good indeed – though perhaps typically, the one which struck home with me most effectively was the poem by Hafiz. Somehow, poet-mystics seem to be able to capture the experience better than those of us who write prose, and especially than those of us who have training in writing technical prose (such as anything academic, law or science).

There are a couple of aspects of my own experience which vary from those of the Liturgists regulars, however. Firstly, I did very much want to share the experience with others – initially to find a way of talking about it at all (which demanded that I look at the language in which other mystics had written of it, the vast majority from religious traditions – and therefore got this at the time avowed atheist studying religions), and then to get others to share this absolutely wonderful change in consciousness. It was so good, I wanted everyone to have the same feelings… The people on the podcast seem to me to lack any kind of evangelical zeal of this kind, which surprised me, given that most of them had an Evangelical Christian background. Hillary even said she didn’t want to talk about it…

I suppose I can see some merit in that. It is hugely difficult to find words to talk of such experiences, and when you’ve done so, the results (perhaps unless you’re Hafiz) are disappointing, to say the least. It’s probably true, as was mentioned, that talking about it also changes the experience somewhat, and you wouldn’t want to do that – though my own experience indicates that the absolute peak experiences are so powerful that this maybe doesn’t happen. Does it cheapen the experience? I suppose it’s possible to think so, though I don’t really share that feeling. It’s definitely the case that trying to think about the experience while it’s happening is probably the best way of stopping it in its tracks, and possibly recall may do something of the same thing. Though, unless you have a deficiency in your autobiographical memory, recalling it can renew some of the feeling of the original experience – of which see later…

I think they did a fairly good job of conveying how formative mystical experiences are. At least, how formative the first one is – I’ve found myself that repeated experiences just tend to confirm the first one, and don’t produce the same kind of paradigm shift (such as convincing the 14 year old Chris that there WAS a God, for some value of “God”).

I think they’re absolutely right that there’s no way of guaranteeing such an experience, as well. I’ve done a lot of trying to find ways in which other people can get to the same state (as well as trying to find ways I could get back there), and while again I agree that a sound, disciplined contemplative practice very probably increases the chances of having such experience, there is no guarantee. Peak experiences definitely seem to be (feel as if they are) given not earned. Again, they’re probably right in saying that establishing a contemplative practice in order to have a peak experience is likely not to work. It’s my experience, as that expressed in the podcast, that mystical experiences most often occur when you stop trying, and indeed many years ago I gave an aspiring mystic a piece of paper on which was written “try not to try” in a circle. He wasn’t particularly thankful at the time; I do hope the message eventually struck home! I certainly went about things in entirely the wrong way in the first few years after my initial “zap”; I was trying very hard to have a repeat experience, and then to find a reliable way of repeating them (I was, after all, studying physics at the time and the scientific method was part of my intellectual DNA). And that, it seems, doesn’t work; it didn’t work for me, and it hasn’t worked, it seems, for the Liturgists panel either.

What didn’t come over to me from the podcast, though, was quite how good mystical experiences actually are. I’ve regularly suggested that they’re better than sex, drugs and rock & roll. The panel members, along with quite a lot of other people, talked a little about using drugs (particularly psychedelics) to get similar experiences. Such of those as I’ve tried myself in the past, obviously in an attempt to find a quick and reliable way of getting a peak experience, have been pretty uniformly disappointing. Sex is, of course, great, but from my point of view takes you to an entirely different spectrum of experience (other people’s viewpoints may differ – indeed, some definitely do, including a friend who was into Tanra Yoga…). I recently caught a clip of Jordan Peterson suggesting that something of this kind might be had at a rock concert… not for me. I may just not be the type for that; I suffer from an anxiety disorder and have always had a measure of social anxiety, and losing myself in a crowd is never likely to happen. I’m often at my loneliest in crowds. For me, although the presence of lots of other people hasn’t always prevented at least a minor mystical experience occurring, solitude is a far more conducive state – and, if music is to be involved, it will probably be some form of chant or church music (the Allegri Miserere has taken me a lot of the way on a couple of occasions).

All that being said, however, this was one of the best discussions I’ve heard between a set of people who had all had some form of mystical experience. I strongly recommend listening, assuming you didn’t start by doing that!

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New Game? Jubilee…

September 1st, 2018
by Chris

I got pointed at some Jordan Peterson videos recently by a friend who wanted me to respond to them, so I sighed and watched the first of his “Maps of Meaning” videos. I’m not following my normal practice of linking to the original, as I really don’t want my readers to spend hours of their lives listening to him (around two and a half hours for that one). That said, Peterson does regularly come up with flashes of insight – the trouble is, he then either doesn’t do anything useful with the insight or goes in totally the wrong direction (from my POV, at least) far too many times.

But I did get one snippet of insight of my own out of that. Peterson was talking about the inevitability of economics resulting in the strong tendency to produce a smaller and smaller number of “winners” until only one is left. I’ve struggled with this in designing variants to economic games, in which one of the huge challenges is to devise a set of rules which stop a player becoming dominant quickly and then proceeding to use their dominance to eliminate everyone else. Peterson uses the example of a game of Monopoly, in which eventually everyone except the winner is bankrupt. Monopoly is not one of the best balanced games from that point of view; others do keep at least some hope of overturning a dominant player alive for a lot longer, though that may not always be what players want.

Mostly, when I play economic games with my friends, there comes a point where we declare a winner well before we have actually played the thing out to its final conclusion, which avoids the horrors of most of the players being forced to continue to play an obviously losing position for ages, while the inevitable end approaches far too slowly. My friends are pretty well behaved in this; I’ve been in games many times when one of the losing players has swept the game pieces off the table and stormed out, furious (or even hitting another player); I’ve known plenty of other instances when people have just refused to play a game again after they’ve lost (and been condemned to sitting there knowing that, but unable actually to stop playing because they’re too polite).

The “game” of real economies is a lot like this. Sweeping away the pieces and storming out is, I suppose, an analogy of revolution, refusing to play is the equivalent of “opting out” or (as many people seem to do) just not trying any more, as the “game” is stacked against them too much. What it lacks, of course, is the moment when you declare the winner, and if the game has been reasonably enjoyable, clear away the pices and start again with everyone equal.

Peterson, to my intense annoyment, does not develop this line of thinking into anything which might remotely be a solution – he merely rubbishes Marxism as “something which has never worked”, confusing it with command economies, and, it would seem, just goes along with the TINA position – “there is no alternative”.

I don’t criticise him too much for that – I thought the same when I was, say, 14, but have actually read some stuff by Marx and by thoughtful Marxists since then… and also discovered that if I take the words of Jesus really seriously, I’ll have to try to practice a kind of communism – see Acts 4. I notice that the Acts  community only held things in common within their own faith community, but I also note that Jesus was very keen that we treat all sorts of people normally regarded as “outsiders” as “one of us”, so I don’t think the answer to putting this into practice is to just do this within our faith community.

What did however occur to me for the first time was that the clearing away of the pieces and setting up a new game where people were again equal looked a lot like the commands that there be a Year of Jubilee in the Hebrew Scripture. All debts are cancelled, all land returned (free and clear) to its original owners. It may well have been Jesus’ intention of setting up a sort of permanent Year of Jubilee when he commanded that we lend without expecting repayment, but he didn’t, as far as I can see, extend this to land – though his followers in Acts 4 seem to have done so. Debts, of course, were supposed to be cancelled more often than every 50 years (the frequency of the Year of Jubilee). Neither Leviticus nor Jesus proposed collecting all the cash (or, I suppose, the flocks and herds in those days) and dividing them equally, but had Judaism taken the concept really seriously and managed to implement it fully in reality (which there’s not much evidence ever actually happened), I’m confident the Rabbis would have got there…

In conscience, I don’t think there’s any significant chance that we can get from where we are economically to declaring “new game” every 50 years (which I think Judaism found out). I think there’s actually significantly more chance that we could set up a really communitarian society which would be along at least somewhat Marxist lines (though without any suggestion of a command economy).

The thing is, I think we are going to have to set up something very different from what we now have, or (in the more social-democratic countries) are being pushed toward. The writing is on the wall, as the 1% are giving way to the 1% of the 1% in having, in effect, all the economic power, and as Peterson can see himself, the concentration of wealth and power is only going to become more extreme. That way lies, probably, revolution (“wrecking the game and punching out another player”).

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The Gospels as biography

August 27th, 2018
by Chris

James McGrath (who is well worth following for his picking up of progressive Christian writers from all over the place) has posted an interesting link to two short essays by Matthew Ferguson on his “Celsus” site. The first of these discusses the conventions of Greek biography of the time, including the more-or-less historical, the completely fantastic and a third genre which falls somewhere between those, “plasma” (not to be confused with a superheated state of matter).

My more conservative Christian friends are keen to say that the Gospels are histories, and at that histories composed very soon after the events described, and have to be regarded as factually accurate as a result. I have tended to point out that even the more reliable histories of the time tend to include events which are almost certainly non-historical, and very often some which are clearly mythological; these two essays give substantial scholarly backing for my view. One thing which particularly stood out to me from the first essay is a quote from a book by Richard Miller, the quote being about Justin Martyr, who was a Christian apologist writing very early in the history of the church (in the early to mid- second century) and is one of the earliest people identified as one of the “Church Fathers”. This reads “Justin Martyr’s First Apology presented the framing contours of the Gospel narrative as having resided within a mythic mode of hero fabulation. Considering the plea’s broader context, one may best summarize the larger argument as follows: ‘We, O Romans, have produced myths and fables with our Jesus as you have done with your own heroes and emperors; so why are you killing us?’ Central to the earliest great apology of the Christian tradition, this grand concession casts a profound light on the nature of early Christian narrative production.”

This was new information to me. If the first, and one of the greatest, Christian apologists was conceding that Christians were making up myths and fables about Jesus, how can we stand here nearly 2000 years later and say that the Gospels are not as Justin thought they were, but are pure history? (I should, I suppose, reiterate that I do not think the category “myth” means that something is without application to our lives or without authority – indeed, myths can govern our lives, as witness the fact that I consider the little pieces of paper in my wallet to have the value of a substantial shopping trolley full of groceries, whereas they are actually only useful as, perhaps, spills with which to light a fire… the value of money is a myth, but one whose more or less universal acceptance makes it possible for us to have a functioning economy. This was made particularly obvious when, some 50 years ago, there was a period when Italian small change became worth more as metal than it was as money, which led to truck-loads of small change vanishing over the French border to be melted down, and a nationwide shortage of small change resulting in shopkeepers wanting to make up small money amounts with sweets.)

As quoted in the essay, Miller goes on to say “Interestingly, the apology did not propose any argument in support of this claim that the two groups of stories were distinguishable by the alleged veracity of the Christian narratives and falsity of the analogous classical Mediterranean narratives; this statement again provided merely an assertion, attempting to assign archaic precedence to Judeo-Christian tradition. The obvious step, were this an attempt at a historical argument, would have been to propose eyewitness testimony attesting to the historicity of such early Christian tales, an argument that may have perhaps appeared compelling considering Justin’s proximity to the region and time period.”

Ferguson goes on to say “And so, both the AR (the Alexander Romance) and the Gospels were equally “novelistic” and “historical.” They were novelistic in a generic sense, due to their their literary conventions (which were atypical of historical biographies), while being historical in the ancient rhetorical sense, due to their audience believing that they depicted real events. Under the modern understanding of historical reliability, however, both texts contain a number of details that modern historians doubt actually occurred within space-time.”

I have also regularly commented that some of the details of the Gospel accounts which my conservative friends consider must be accepted as historical but my scientific rationalist friends consider scientifically impossible (such as the virgin birth, many of the miracles and the resurrection) are details which were incorporated in stories about other historical figures, and notably the Roman Emperors, many of whom were hailed as gods and/or sons of gods. Several of them were credited with miraculous births, as well. If, I argue, I am to take the gospel accounts stating things of this kind as historical, do I not also have to take the accounts of Augustus’ miraculous birth, Tiberius’ divinity or Nero’s resurrection, or the general ability claimed of many emperors to heal by touch, as equally historical?

Ferguson goes on in his second essay to make comparisons with the Alexander Romance. This is actually the extended story about a real person which I most like to refer to as a comparison to the Gospels, as it contains all the elements of miraculous birth, divine parentage and miracles which the Gospels do (although not a resurrection), but suffers from the defect as a comparison that it was composed a lot longer after the events in question. This detailled treatment is fascinating, and again there is a snippet which I was not previously aware of – the presence of a poll tax narrative in all the Synoptic Gospels (including Mark) refers to a tax which was not levied in Palestine until 70 CE, over 30 years after Jesus was supposed to have used such a tax to make a point (“render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s…). The fact that that passage also refers to a tax which has to be paid in coinage, and such taxes were not a feature of colonial administration (as there were few such coins in circulation, at least in the early first century, and this would have made the tax doubly difficult to collect) added to that makes me all the more confident that the story was not composed until after 70 CE, and probably in a major centre or population in which payment in denarii would be the norm – so not in Palestine. This very much agrees with what I have long thought on the basis of the presence of a “prediction” of the fall of the Temple coupled with some aspects which were not typical of the early first century but which were perhaps commonplace in the late first-to-early second centuries, for instance the call of the disciples. There was no system in the early first century by which Rabbis attracted students out of the countryside (as wonderfully described by Rob Bell in an extended talk some years ago), but there was a need for that after the fall of the Temple and all its ancillary functions (including education of aspiring Jewish teachers).

I have not infrequently argued that it would not in fact be beyond the bounds of possibility for Jesus actually to have predicted the fall of the Temple, given the situation in Palestine in the 30s CE, with zealots and sicarii attacking Romans and Roman sympathisers and, by that time, already at least three revolts by putative messiahs. The writing was on the wall, as it were, particularly given Roman governors as brutal as Pilate. Jesus might well have said something of the sort – but it would be irresistible for people writing after the actual fall of the Temple to have picked up on any gentle suggestion and made it into a prophecy.

All of this, from Justin Martyr to the manner of taxation, just reinforces my view that the initial subversive identification of Jesus as Lord (as opposed to Caesar as Lord), which is very early indeed (witness Larry Hurtado’s “One God, One Lord”) prompted followers to imitate the kind of stories told about the Caesars in an equally subversive way. I don’t think they remotely thought that they were writing fiction as we’d understand that term today, I think they thought they were telling stories about their leader designed to underline his importance in exactly the same way as the Romans told stories about theirs. And, of course, the question which Miller restates Julian as asking “so why are you killing us?” is easily answered – it was a question of loyalty. Only the Emperor (or the previous world-spanning emperor Alexander) could be talked of in these terms, and if you talked of someone else, particularly an obscure Galilean tekton, in that way, you were being subversive, potentially revolutionary – and Rome did not brook revolution.

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The slave of the passions

August 22nd, 2018
by Chris

There’s an interesting article on David Hume I’ve chanced on recently. It’s well worth reading generally, but one thing stood out to me, his dictum ‘Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.’

I am, I have to admit, very much a rationalist. Indeed, I struggle not to be a reductive scientific-rationalist materialist, i.e. someone for whom everything is ultimately reducible to physics, and physics is best expressed in mathematics. I was, let’s face it, once planning a career in Physics, and have a degree to prove it, which has been useful since then mainly in meaning that I’ve been asked to change plugs and fuses everywhere I’ve worked – and my response that it was Theoretical Physics, and I am thus qualified to tell someone else how to change plugs but not to do it myself hasn’t generally been appreciated… OK, in fact the experience I got in labs did end up facilitating one of my various part-time occupations since retiring, namely being a sort of research assistant doing research Industrial Chemistry, but until retirement? Plugs and fuses.

A number of things hold me back from the completely reductionist materialist position. The first is, I suppose, the old dictum “To a man who has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. Science has a toolkit for explaining things (with the assistance of mathematics, which, it has been said, is unreasonably effective in modelling the real world), and anything which is not amenable to the methods of science may be being ignored.

The second is a form of epistemic humility – there is no viable reason I can see justifying the idea that the whole of what exists can be effectively modelled using human brains. Of course, these days I need to modify that, and substitute “human brains assisted by supercomputers”, and to add that there are now supercomputers whose functinality is not actually understood by those who built them. The principle remains, however.

The third is the observation (perhaps linked with the previous one) that, in order to produce scientific explanations for phenomena, we have always simplified situations so that an intelligible mechanism can be proposed. We have then complicated those explanations where necessary, but some measure of simplification may not be able to be eliminated (and what if the basic mechanism is not reducible in this manner?).

The fourth is the fact that physics now appears to have demonstrated that, at root, everything we see is based on uncertain ground (with thanks to Heisenberg’s Unicertainty Principle) and that whatever it is which is matter (or energy) at the smallest scale we can observe (which, due to the same uncertainty principle, may well be the limit of how small a scale will ever be observable) is, to say the least, weird. The maths works, by and large, but actually conceiving of what the things are which the maths describes has so far defeated physicists.Though there are physicists who would argue the point.

The last is the observation that “some really odd things do occasionally happen”. My scientific instincts rebel at this – it seems too much like the “God of the gaps”, who has been progressively vanishing as science explains more and more of what we observe, and the set of observational defects humanity suffers from (many of which appear in this list) could, maybe, explain the rest. There is, however, no reason to state dogmatically that science can explain everything – back to epistemic humility.

All this having been said, I still expect everything to be rationally explicable, at least in principle, and Hume’s suggestion that reason is, and even should be, the “slave of the passions”, which are pretty much immune to reason, is very difficult for me to swallow.

However, it’s easier for me to swallow following my recovery from a 17 year depression which, for at least six years, more or less completely demolished my ability to have passions. The technical term is anhedonia. It is difficult to explain this adequately to someone who has never suffered it. I have joked that it isn’t a matter of, as t-shirts sometimes state “Spock was too emotional”, but “Data was too emotional” – and, for those not versed in the Star Trek world, Data was an android, a completely synthetic being ostensibly without the mechanisms of neurology which, in us and many animals, produce things like pleasure. It led to me trying to make decisions, and while I was largely just as able as before to work out what the potential consequences of any course of action would probably be, there was no reason to prefer one outcome over another. I wouldn’t, for instance, “like” having money to spend more than I’d “like” suffering a traumatic injury. This may seem really difficult to understand – but insofar as I had any input from emotions, it was “it’s all horribly WRONG”, and beside that, the contemplation of a traumatic injury seemed insignificant. This extended even to really trivial things – on one occasion my wife was in hospital, and returning from going to see her, I noted that I hadn’t eaten that day. It seemed that a rational person would eat at this point, so I called in at a Chinese takeaway on my way home – and was confronted with a menu with at least 60 dishes to choose from. And I couldn’t. I could remember that there were some dishes which I’d had in the past, but there was no memory of “liking” that dish associated with seeing it on the menu, and no anticipation of “liking” it if I were to eat it now. Eventually, after maybe half an hour, the counter staff bullied me into making a choice, and I duly bought the dish I’d plumped for more or less at random, took it home and ate it. And didn’t enjoy it. But then, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed anything else on the menu either.

[This inability to remember liking things (or, indeed, anything connected with strong emotions in the past) seems not to be a standard feature of anhedonia; it is generally labelled as a defective autobiographical memory. It seems to have persisted to some extent after the depression, and the anhedonia, lifted; I am still having difficulty remembering past events as if by reliving them, and am sometimes surprised when some such memory does surface.]

In the light of this, I can see that reason has to be at the very least assisted by “the passions”. Otherwise, there’s really no basis on which to do anything, other than a set of rules (I was hugely assisted during that period by two things, some rules of behaviour which I adhered to because that’s what reasonable people did (and which I’d always tried to adhere to in the past), and by considering what a reasonable person with emotions would be likely to do in various circumstances). I admit that I still recoil at “slave of”, though. I did from time to time experience my reason being truly the slave of my passions before the depression reached it’s deepest point, and that was a little like having the rational side of me tied up in the back seat of a car driven by a lunatic – all it was able to do was to suggest slightly less unreasonable ways to reach the objective on which the lunatic, i.e. the emotional side of me, was fixated – and not inevitably being listened to. There’s a strong possibility in my mind that it was experiencing the negative results of this inability to exercise any rational control on my actions which resulted in me suppressing emotion to the extent that it was inaccessible – hence the anhedonia. It’s just an idea, though – I don’t know of any psychological backup for the theory.

I can do without reason being the slave of passions – but I can’t do without there being some emotion. Aside anything else, it is just too time consuming and exhausting trying to work out, without the aid of autobiographical memory, what the right thing to do is. The better course, and one I’m now able to pursue, is that reason and emotion should inform each other, but neither should completely shut out the other.

One result of this experience is that I find suggestions that there should be a purely logical basis for morality or ethics slightly laughable. It now seems to me that pure logic is never going to be able to give answers in these fields.

Another is a worry I have that true artificial intelligence may be just unfettered rationality, if it can exist at all, given the very probable lack of endorphins, seratonin and oxytocin, or anything remotely like them. And I know from personal experience what unfettered rationality can mean.

I just hope the set of rules for living for any future AI is very complete…

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Killing bodies

August 10th, 2018
by Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Connecting with Jesus?

August 5th, 2018
by Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back, I think, to Matthew 7.

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

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

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Myths of origin

July 31st, 2018
by Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Market as Religion

June 28th, 2018
by Chris

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

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

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

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Free Speech – who pays?

June 26th, 2018
by Chris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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