Arguing with God

August 30th, 2016
by Chris

Here’s another address from the excellent Rabbi Brad Artson, which I strongly recommend.

In a recent discussion, someone said that they really liked the way Judaism grapples with its texts – and I completely share that feeling. R. Artson talks at one point about what he is saying not being dismissible as a modern liberal interpretation – because it’s an ancient liberal interpretation… would that Christianity preserved its arguments and counter-arguments between scholars in their entirety, rather than having to have one become “orthodox”.

Also, it’s reinforced for me by R. Artson’s words that Rabbinic students need to learn their scriptures really thoroughly – and then apply them in the spirit of the rabbinic tradition, which always argues and always develops. Sadly, although some Christians do know their scripture this well, those who do seem always to be incredibly conservative in their outlook, and are therefore pretty much immune to any process of argument, counter-argument and owning the scriptures (through their interpretations) as a co-production with the original authors and with God.

I think I need to go away and study a bit more…

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Revisionist or balanced personal history?

August 17th, 2016
by Chris

Malcolm Gladwell podcasts at “Revisionist History”, and episode 9 is titled “Generous Orthodoxy”. Much of the episode revolves around Chester Wenger, a Mennonite clergyman, and his dealing with his son’s coming out as gay. He displays there what Gladwell calls “Generous Orthodoxy”, and I might add that it also displays costly discipleship.

His proposed alternative action for protestors at Princeton is also an example of costly discipleship (and one I approve of; if you desire that something take place and argue for that, you must take into account the thought processes of the people you’re trying to persuade, otherwise you’re just venting and will not get what you want), but what I want to focus on here is what Princeton should do. The root of the protest was the naming (many years ago) of a building after Woodrow Wilson, who was a major benefactor of the university (along with a lot of other “rich white guys”) and also, of course, a notable president of the United States.

What I hadn’t known before listening to this was that he was also a segregationist who set back the cause of black equality significantly. I plead in my defence that I’m not American, and the history of the States in the 20th century tends only to interest me where it bears on the history of my home country or where it displays some major historical trend, though I’m tempted to quote “1066 and all that” and say “the Americans became top nation and history ended”.

The issue was that black students at Princeton felt uncomfortable and excluded by having to study in a building named after a prominent oppressor of black people. Now it’s difficult for me to put myself in their position – I’m white, male, English, British and European, and all of those are “privileged” categories. I’m also comfortably off by the standards of my relatively rich country, which also probably doesn’t help. OK, I do also have a number of features which move my “privilege” score down to something more median, but still, I must consider myself as being in a privileged position. Could you make me feel uncomfortable and excluded by the naming of a building I had to use? I’m not sure. Maybe the “Adolf Hitler Cultural Centre”, or the “Joseph Stalin Centre for Political Studies” might give me pause, but probably no more than a very mild discomfort. That’s a thing I’ll come back to later.

I have two main problems with removing Wilson’s name from the building. The first is that he did make a huge contribution to Princeton and to the fact that there is a building there at all. Gladwell’s suggestion of various other Wilson’s to name it after ignores that rather fundamental fact; those others didn’t make that contribution. In removing the name, you are erasing the building’s history (but then, the podcast IS called “Revisionist History”); with that, you are erasing both the good and the bad aspects of Woodrow Wilson. I have no problem with looking at history anew and finding new ways of interpreting it, but I have a huge problem with throwing away chunks of it in the process – generally when new historical ideas are proposed, they have some truth to them, but they are also a reaction against the previous dominant historical ideas, and have a tendency to overreact – very often, a better analysis is found in a synthesis of the two. Rewriting history is, of course, always the project of the winners of any conflict, but as Orwell described in “1984”, it makes a mockery of any search for truth.

Secondly, though, I challenge whether it’s Christian to do this. One essence of Christianity is the willingness to admit fault and ask for forgiveness (which, I concede, Wilson never did) but another is to offer that forgiveness to everyone. All that is left of Wilson is his memory, and erasing a chunk of that memory is a kind of death penalty (and as he has passed beyond earthly sanction, we can perhaps consider that he has already been adequately judged and, as appropriate, sanctioned and forgiven; “Judgment is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay“, with the subtext that we don’t need to and perhaps should not). Yes, that memory is at the moment only (at Princeton, at least) of the good he did, following the principle “de mortuis nil nisi bonum“. Clearly that memory is inadequate, and needs adding to – but not in the half-hearted and apologetic vein suggested by the Princeton graduate whose comment is on the podcast. Equally, though, I think it inappropriate that we should follow Shakepeare’s somewhat sarcastic “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones; so let it be with Caesar”.

The thing is, we extol the virtues of famous people but fail to mention their bad qualities. Often this leads to meteoric rises and falls – the public (often through the press) latches on to someone and puts them on a pedestal, and then finds flaws and brings them down again. It also leads to the idiocy of thinking that (say) a pop star is worth hearing about politics or economic theory.

What we should, I think, do is always hold in mind the fact that everyone is “simul justus et peccator“, Luther’s phrase to indicate that everyone remains a sinner while being justified or righteous. Or, indeed, forgiven. What we need is a balanced view of everyone; they will have their virtues and good deeds, they will also have their vices and evil deeds. Perhaps the best exposition of how I think we should view people is described in Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead“; his invention of the “Speaker for the Dead” attempts to give just such a balanced view of those who have passed away, presenting them as a human being and inviting understanding rather than adulation or condemnation, and there are now some people who, following Card, will act as Speakers for the Dead at funerals.

So what should Princeton do? At present, they have an unbalanced testimony to Wilson’s good actions. I suggest a plaque is sufficient, not just giving a nod to his bad side but giving it equal weight with the good and recording that the bad is not approved while yet the good is celebrated.

And, as one should always “follow the money”, that might allow Princeton to assuage student’s anxieties while still not putting off future donors who are afraid their own contribution will end up on the scrap heap of history due to a reassessment of their character in the future…

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Timings – questioning the panel

August 15th, 2016
by Chris

After day 1, I was mulling over some of the things said by the speakers, and put together things which Pete Rollins and Rob Bell had said to form a question – which, as it was solidly in Roger Bretherton’s area of expertise, seemed to me like a good question for the last session to put to the whole panel of speakers. As it ended up multi-part and a little long, I took a few moments in breaks to write it down and gave it to Pete on the morning of day 2, thinking that it was only fair not to ambush everyone with it.

As it turned out, Pete talked about it with his fellow speakers (he said it was a pretty decent question), but suspected the organiser wouldn’t want to use it, and he was indeed right. I gather the organiser’s reason given was that he thought he’d mess it up reading it out, but actually the questions he put were just right to wrap up the event, and my question would have opened up new avenues which wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, but with a little more detail, here’s the question:-

Peter talked about the existential lack at the root of being, which (as a gift) gave us our individuality, and in the process said that people who didn’t feel this separation from “the other” were commonly labelled psychotic.

Rob, on the other hand, talked with conviction about God being present in all places. Now, I’m not sure whether he did this as a result of having a mystical experience of oneness with everything, but it is the kind of thing someone who has had such an experience is guaranteed to say.

Now, I’m a panentheist mystic; I wouldn’t have followed the spiritual path leading to me being at Timings had it not been for an out of the blue peak unitive mystical experience which hit me when I was 14. One powerful feature of unitive mystical experiences, no matter which religious tradition they occur in, is that the boundary between the self and the other weakens or vanishes. (At the time, I was intellectually an evangelical atheist, so it was extremely unexpected and very life-changing.) It was a sufficiently good experience to set me on a path of trying to repeat it. (I’ve tended to say it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, though that was in hindsight as I hadn’t experienced any of those aged 14).

However, if I take Pete at his word, this means that my initial experience may have been psychotic.

I have in mind here Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the evolutionary neurophysiology behind religion. Sapolsky identifies, for instance, Luther as having created his theology out of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, several other religious giants as probably having temporal lobe epilepsy and shamans (he thinks shamanism is at the root of many other religious leaders) as having schizotypal personality disorder.

Part 1 of the question, therefore, particularly directed at Pete, is “Are we to believe that all powerful religious experiences are the result of mental disorder?”.

Part 2 is “Does it matter?”

Part 3 is particularly addressed to Rob, and is “I’ve been preaching for years that an unitive mystical experience is something everyone might wish to aspire to – have I been suggesting to them that they should become psychotic or otherwise mentally ill?”

and Part 4 is “Does that matter?”

As it turned out, I was able to have a chat with Roger Bretherton after the last session and ask him his thoughts. He suggested that this kind of “surge” or “flow” experience didn’t completely fit the definition of psychosis. He also mentioned to me an incident where the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown had induced an experience in an atheist who afterwards didn’t want to accept that it was not a “true” experience, which I found interesting (I think I’ve found a video of that incident on You Tube, but it’s blocked by Channel 4 in the UK; most of his “atheist conversions” seem to have reverted to atheism later). I’d have liked to do the same with Rob Bell, but I had stretched my elastic to breaking point by that point, and for that reason and because Pete looked as if he was in the same condition (and admitted to me he was) I left discussion with Pete to a promised email exchange later.

My thoughts? Well, as I mentioned, when my first peak experience arrived, I was an evangelical atheist, and it was a severe shock to my system. My first thought was, in fact, that there was something wrong with my brain, and I went to my GP. Apparently at the time there wasn’t (though in a spirit of complete openness, there is now – I have diagnosed PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety, though only the anxiety is really a significant ongoing problem and I manage that fairly reasonably). It didn’t involve any of the other factors which might provoke similar experience, such as drugs, sleeplessness, starvation, oxygen deprivation or electromagnetic stimulation of the brain either. I do not know why it happened when it did.

As I mentioned before, it was a VERY good experience. Clearly dopamine, seratonin or both were involved, because those are how the brain gets to feel really good. I therefore put aside worries about why it happened, and went looking for a repetition by any means which I could find written about as tending to produce mystical experience. If anyone’s faith tradition talked about mystical experience, I tried any techniques they said produced it.

For what it’s worth, the conclusion I eventually came to was that none of these would (at least in me) guarantee a repeat, but some of them looked as if they increased the likelihood of a peak experience and definitely were conducive to lower level experience (which I’ve tended to describe as an “edge” of full mystical experience) but which was sufficient for maintenance purposes. Sometimes there would be something a lot stronger, and that was good, but you couldn’t go round in a peak experience all the time, as you’d be non-functional for almost any other purpose. Being a fundamentally lazy individual, I hit on a set of low level practices which did this job without taking up too much time or energy, and didn’t involve anything illegal or dangerous.

Courtesy of The Religion Forum, I’ve been able to go through the various physiological symptoms and the circumstances with a friend, George Ashley (another psychology professor, now sadly deceased) in detail; George was an out and out atheist and was pretty certain there must be some mental abnormality there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it – he finally put it down to “a brain fart”, bless him. Another friend from there, Mel Bain, remarked to me that it sounded as if it was addictive – it sounded, he wrote, as if I was “Jonesing” for another “fix” of it – and I took that on board; it is definitely that.

Does it matter what caused it, then? I don’t think so. I have in mind Karen Armstrong, who found that her own peak experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy and went through a period of atheism as a result; she however eventually seems to have concluded that the origin of the experience didn’t matter, and is now what she describes as a “freelance monotheist”; she has a fairly serious mystical streak to some of her writing. I have in mind several people with bipolar disorder, some of them famous (like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams), some of them people I’ve come to know well (which category doesn’t include famous people). Many of them value their manic phases so highly (despite knowing they’re part of a mental illness) that they won’t take drugs which would prevent them, and in some of those cases (Fry and Williams) the world would be a poorer place without their manic genius. But, of course, it eventually killed Robin Williams… I had my own taste of mania for 12 days three years ago when my depression lifted, and I can understand their attitude – it was an incredibly creative and productive time for me. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to go on much longer, I’d have burned out. I think of Van Gogh, as well, who probably painted his amazing works out of schizophrenia. Clearly, some mental conditions labelled as illnesses can produce remarkable things – and, indeed, as Sapolsky says, the people of a village he mentions are very glad that they have one schizotypal shaman – though they wouldn’t want a second one.

The second “does it matter?” is maybe more of a worry. I’ve rhapsodised about peak mystical experience for nearly 50 years now, and the thought that this may only be available through what is viewed as mental abnormality does concern me. Certainly all the experimentation and discussion with other mystics I’ve done over the years inclines me to think that at least the most intense forms of unitive experience are only felt by relatively few people, though many more describe experiences which I think might be taken as a base, worked on through various practices and perhaps might become more intense as a result.

But do I want to encourage others to go down that road? Initially I most definitely did – it was a supremely good experience, and I wanted others to have that. It had a lot of pluses from my point of view. It made me, for instance, a much nicer human being (it’s hard not to think of others when the border between what is you and what is them is blurred or nonexistent, and massively increased empathy is a typical result). It makes it pretty near impossible to feel an existential lack of “the other”; it strongly tends to stop one being at all worried by the thought of death. It also gave me a peculiar certainty- not intellectual certainty (I am still baffled by that-which-is-God) but emotional/spiritual certainty. I used to write sometimes that I didn’t need to believe in God, I experienced God.

A concern was that it might be that not everyone could have such a peak experience, even with a lot of work, and I started early on warning that nothing seemed to guarantee a peak experience – certainly, I never found a way of guaranteeing one in myself, merely guaranteeing an “edge” experience. Some of the well attested routes are illegal where I live (many drugs, for instance); some are physically dangerous.

Mel Bain’s comment also concerned me – yes, I found these experiences addictive, and that led me to warn against that aspect as well.

However, there is another potential downside which has concerned me more since my long period of depressive illness (which happily seems at the least to be in remission, albeit medicated, since 2013), and that is that this is something which messes with your psychology, and any amateur messing with psychology is potentially dangerous. I’ve interpreted that depressive illness as at least partly my “dark night of the soul”, which several mystics have identified as a normal part of a mystic’s journey. However, it was also most definitely mental illness, and it nearly killed me, several times; I also spent some years (10 or so) frankly despairing of it ever being over, and I’m not sure there was ever any guarantee it would be.

That is not an experience I feel I can in conscience encourage others to go through. It also leads me to warn that going seriously down the contemplative mystical path can lead to mental illness and possibly death. Pete’s warning about psychosis only feeds a little into that – depression is quite bad enough!

It might have been easier to deal with, less dangerous and more certain of coming to an end had I identified it as a “dark night” and had I had a spiritual director (rather than or in addition to psychiatrists and psychologists) at the time; that is perhaps the only saving aspect – but from my own experience it is only a possibility.

So I have to say that the mystical path comes with a pretty severe health warning.

However, so does any other technique which tends to produce radical psychological changes in people, including (unfortunately) the standard Evangelical “pray the sinners’ prayer and give your heart to Jesus” model, particularly if you also experience the “slain in the spirit” phenomenon. There are a lot of cases of people scarred by past experience of the Evangelical mould of conversion and its follow-on (which I tend to criticise all the more because, to my mind, it seriously fails to deal adequately with spiritual growth after the initial conversion). There are some theologies, as well, which are particularly conducive to producing or worsening anxiety disorders or which at the least exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Radical psychological change, it seems, comes with radical dangers.

_________________________________________________

I would mention that one result of the “beneficial” aspects of the unitive experience is that I find it difficult to engage with some of Pete’s work other than on a purely intellectual level, because he regards the existential lack as fundamental, and the fear of death as not much less so – and I don’t really feel those.

 

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Timings at Lincoln – pushing boundaries

August 13th, 2016
by Chris

I spent Thursday and Friday at the excellent Timings event in Lincoln. I just couldn’t resist the prospect of hearing (and hopefully meeting in the flesh) Rob Bell and Peter Rollins; there was a third speaker, Roger Bretherton, of whom I hadn’t heard – but how could he be bad when in that company?

And indeed, he wasn’t bad in the slightest, except perhaps in Michael Jackson language. He’s a psychologist who is also a reasonably well-known Christian . I probably actually learned more from him than from the two speakers I’d actually gone to see – but then, I’ve followed both of them online for ages, bought their books and had a pretty good idea of much of their material. With Roger, I had no idea.

His first talk went into character strengths (as opposed to character flaws, which he said psychologists were more typically interested in), and involved audience participation. We were asked to pick someone in the audience we didn’t already know and who was preferably somewhat “high risk” and talk to them, first about a success we’d had, then about a failure – and in each case, identify in the other’s story character strengths (or in the second case, excess of them…). I have to thank Graham for being my “threatening other” – he’s pretty unthreatening, but I was in a room of 100 or so people I didn’t know, and ALL of them were threatening. For readers who don’t know, I score very high on tests for introversion, and on top of that have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and groups of people are a particular problem. I was always going to have difficulties – but as Roger shared from his own experience of debating Richard Dawkins, it wasn’t that courage won out (he doesn’t think he’s particularly courageous, and I’m certain I’m not) but that intellectual curiosity was just stronger than the fear, at least initially.

I think experimental psychologists are frustrated torturers (think of the Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment) – just joking – but was the sudden loud music with a countdown and flashing images on screen towards the end of each segment of that interaction REALLY necessary? I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time, and felt colossally pressured.

It may be, however, that that experience engaged another feature of courage (which he later focused on, together with humility, the subject of the clip I linked to); if you’ve done something once, it’s easier doing it again. Thursday evening I went looking for people who were going to be meeting in an unspecified restaurant on Brayford waterside, and saw a couple of people I vaguely thought might be doing the same thing and walked up to them and asked – and they were, and so I got to meet James and Sarah, both of whom I expect to be talking with on the internet in the future now, and another four people who recognised one or the other of them. We never did link with the main speakers, who it turned out had arrived slightly later and holed up in another restaurant two doors along from the Prezzo we ate in, but it was really good listening to them and getting to know them a bit – more listening than talking, though, as a group of 7 is getting a bit large for my comfort!

Even so, I was feeling particularly fearful on waking up on Friday morning and realising I was going to need to do it all again, and got a pep talk from my wife on the phone to encourage me to jump in again. I’m very glad I did, because I got to talk to Rob Bell a little and Peter Rollins and Roger rather more.

So, Roger’s second talk delved into the dangers of too little or too much of the various character strengths he’d introduced, and in particular the fact that people perform at their best in a band which falls between too little and too much courage, where they are relatively comfortable – but they are, from research, at their absolute best when they’re just pushing at (and sometimes a little beyond) the point where they’re uncomfortable (and fearful). And it occurred to me that that’s exactly what I’d been doing for the whole event, pushing a little beyond the envelope where I was comfortable.

My psych people (who I haven’t now seen for some years) would be really pleased with me!

However, I also pushed the envelope of how much walking and uncomfortable sitting I could comfortably manage, and pushed it a lot further… my physiotherapist is going to be a lot less pleased when I see her on Tuesday.

Oh, and yes, I am now suffering from an introvert hangover – but I’d do it all again anyway in a flash!

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Roman Catholic (and other) terrorists?

August 13th, 2016
by Chris

George Takei (always good value to follow) has posted a photo of a letter to the editor from an Australian newspaper. It’s a really good letter, calling attention as it does to the fact that when the Provisional IRA were waging a terror campaign against the United Kingdom, no-one in Australia (or the world generally) referred to them as “Roman Catholic terrorists” and no-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be denied entry to Australia, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA were acting, in their eyes, for the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland and were mostly Catholics.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this applied equally in the remainder of the UK – we didn’t call them Catholic Terrorists, we didn’t ban Catholics from entering the country. The situation was, however, a little different in Northern Ireland itself, where notable members of the Unionist parties typically saw the IRA as the minions of the Pope, who was (as they were largely fairly fundamentalist Protestants) the Antichrist. The Unionist side had their own paramilitary organisations (such as the UVF and the UDA) which equally used terrorist tactics – and the rest of the UK and the world in general didn’t call them Protestant Terrorists either.

This might be considered surprising, as the Unionist attitude was very much what had been the English (and therefore largely the British) attitude generally after Henry VIII decided to nationalise the English possessions of the Catholic Church and the Pope excommunicated him, and he and several subsequent Popes adhered to the line that the duty of all good Catholics was to work to bring about the downfall of England as a nation. In 1605, this extended to the earliest political bomb plot I can think of, in which the catholic convert Guy Fawkes and others attempted unsuccessfully to blow up parliament and with it King James I, not in response to a specific papal order, but definitely in response to repeated papal pronouncements. It took a long time before Catholics were regarded as anything other than probable agents of a foreign power and probable terrorists in England, not just by the state but also by the population at large, involving a lot of barbaric persecution in the early period and causing riots as late as 1780. Some of that popular feeling was actually still present when I was growing up; Catholics were regarded as slightly suspect. However, there wasn’t a widespread identification of the “Troubles” as being the fault of Catholics generally, and certainly Catholics in general were not blamed for any of the actions of the IRA, though for some years we were wary of people with Irish accents. Except by the Northern Ireland Unionists…

Many UK commentators are at pains to paint the Troubles as not a religious conflict but a struggle for national self-determination, but I think they go too far downplaying the religious aspect, not least because religion was fundamental in creating the divided population in the first place. Certainly there were by the 1960s two communities in Northern Ireland, one which saw its identity as part of an united Ireland and the other seeing its identity as part of an unified Great Britain, but that was only one aspect of the respective identities, and another (and very strong) aspect was religion. If you were Catholic, you were almost certainly in favour of an united Ireland, if you were Protestant you were almost certainly in favour of an united UK including Northern Ireland. The touchstone for that identity was religion, and an English rabbi tells of going to Northern Ireland and being asked almost immediately whether he was Catholic or Protestant. He replied that he was Jewish; there was a pause, then came the question “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” The same story has been told to me by more than one atheist, which might lead one to conclude that it’s just a pointed joke which changes its non-christian teller depending on circumstance, but even if it is a fiction, it’s a very true fiction. To anyone who lived through that period (and, indeed, probably the current-day visitor to Northern Ireland) it rings true; that is exactly what the first question of anyone usually was.

In other words, while the conflict might well have been primarily a national and/or ethnic one, religion was so fundamentally part of both national and ethnic identities that it was also a religious conflict. In the secularised West, we are inclined to overlook the fact that for the vast bulk of history and for the vast bulk of humanity now, religion is a fundamental part of their ethnic or national identity – and as the version of the story told by the atheist indicates, this is irrespective of whether you actually believe in the tenets of the faith in question. To anyone with this outlook, the question “are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” doesn’t sound in the slightest bizarre. There is just no third category in Northern Ireland, and there is no third category for most of humanity outside the Western secular democracies today.

Indeed, I can clearly identify, say, Richard Dawkins as a Christian atheist, in that his atheistic thinking is in direct reaction to Christian concepts, not to mention the fact that his upbringing was in a country steeped in Christianity for approaching 2000 years, and while having a surface tone not inimical to atheists, having extremely strong undercurrents of thought which are just – well – Christian. This article is at least partly on point.

I’m inclined to think that it’s pointless asking whether religion co-opted into the service of nationalism or nationalism co-opted into the service of religion is at the root of phenomena like terrorism (and its counterparts state tyranny and national xenophobia). The two are generally such close bedfellows that separating them is impossible. What I do take from this is that states, peoples and religions which feel existentially threatened (as was the case with England, both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout England and Ireland and in Northern Ireland much more recently than that, and is currently the case with some Islamic peoples, nations and groups on the one hand and several Western nations including the UK and US on the other) will react with extreme violence to protect themselves.

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Biblical politics and economics

August 9th, 2016
by Chris

I think Brad Artson may be my favorite Rabbi (he’s certainly been asked to be “their Rabbi” by more than one non-Jew). Under the guise of biblical advice on which to choose political candidates, he has outlined a biblically based political programme – which is pretty much exactly as I’ve been arguing for some time (although Rabbi Artson doesn’t go so far as to call free market capitalism as we see it operate “the System of Satan”…)

He does have one caveat in the article – he states that he is no expert on the Christian scriptures, but that from everything he’s heard about Jesus, Jesus would not disagree with any of what he’s written. Now my arguments have largely been based on the sayings of Jesus – and they end up in the same place.

This may demonstrate that Jesus was solidly in the Jewish tradition (I think it does), or that our dominant neoliberal social and economic policy is contrary to God’s will for the world (I think it is). Or, of course, both…

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A God of psychotic unconcern?

August 6th, 2016
by Chris

There’s an interesting article on Patheos’ “Unfundamentalist Christians” blog  by Randall Rauser, which I strongly suggest you read before reading further.

Rauser could also have pointed out that the granddaddy of Western Theology, Thomas Aquinas, wrote as an answer to question 94 of his “Summa Theologia”:-

94. THE SAVED AND THE DAMNED

1. The sufferings of the damned will be perfectly known to the saints or blessed in heaven, and will only make them the more thankful to God for his great mercy towards themselves.

2. There can, however, be no pity in the saints with reference to the damned. For, on the other hand, they know that the damned are suffering what they chose and still perversely choose. On the other hand, pity is painful in the one who experiences it, and there can be nothing painful in heaven.

3. The blessed are in full conformity with the will of God who wills justice. The saints rejoice in the accomplishment of God’s justice. To this extent it can be said that they joy in the pains of the damned.

Rauser (to my mind entirely reasonably) asks how we can see holiness in individuals in this life as involving increased compassion for others, but think that the summit of holiness, presumably reached by being “saved” and thus one of the blessed in heaven could mean the complete absence of compassion for others.

To my thinking, this is the result of the miscegenation of Judaism and subsequently Christianity with Greek philosophical ideas, in this case the deduction that God must be “impassible”, i.e. not moved by passions. There is a decent article on Aquinas’ position at Helms Deep, which (inter alia) attempts to dispel the idea that this means the same as “impassive” (i.e. unfeeling) and, to quote, the idea that “An impassible/impassive God is said to exhibit psychotic unconcern.”

Aquinas also uses the same set of principles, arguing from God’s perfections; God must be perfectly loving, pure, wise, holy and just, to argue that God cannot be angry or jealous (both of which scripture ascribes to God repeatedly) nor can he repent (as scripture says he does on several occasions, notably in the book of Jonah), as these would detract variously from Godly perfections, as would (for example) pity or sadness (again, both ascribed to God in scripture).

My perhaps naive conclusion is that the “God” described by Aquinas (and by most of the Western traditions of theology up to and including the evangelicals of today) is not the God described in the Bible – but this “God” is one who exhibits psychotic unconcern.

And not one fit for worship.

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Towards a Christian economics?

July 31st, 2016
by Chris

Elgin Hushbeck has responded to my recent post in the comments to his original article; this is my reply.

Elgin,

Sorry it wasn’t still fresh in your mind – I confess it took me nearly a month from first putting down some reaction to actually posting it; various other things kept intervening and it nearly didn’t get posted at all – but I didn’t want to waste the work…

Let me start with where we agree. As you note at the end, we agree that there is a problem when organisations get too big, and this goes for both companies and governments. It also goes for Labour Unions, which I think are a good thing unless they become too large and powerful (i.e. significantly more powerful than the organisations they are negotiating with). We definitely agree that a government in the pocket of large companies is an extremely bad thing, and that we have moved towards that over the last 50 years.

We also agree that a bargain between individuals is an extremely good way of establishing an equitable result, as long as the parties have a fair level playing field, i.e. neither has any duress applied to it to close the deal, neither is unable to walk away if a deal cannot be struck, and both parties are in full possession of all the facts (there may be more caveats on further reflection).

We also agree, I think, that when purely financial considerations drive an organisation, that organisation becomes toxic. I have had quite a bit of experience of organisations driven by cost accountants and MBA’s of the Harvard school (happily mostly from the outside), and they are every bit as nasty as I’ve described.

However, I don’t see the problems of short-termism and intolerable pressure to keep on producing more for less as flowing purely from the payment of performance bonuses, as you do; I think the root problem lies with a stock market which can respond within milliseconds to any perceived opportunity or risk, and where you have a market which works to a timescale of milliseconds, you are likely to be forced to think short term.  Performance-based incentives for CEO’s just makes things that bit worse. The system itself forces the actions of individuals; even if managers wish to be long-sighted, the demands of finance make them short-sighted.

That is, however, just an intensification of a tendency already inherent in the idea of a market in shares in large limited companies. Ambrose Bierce (one of your better American sceptics) said that the limited liability company was the greatest instrument of fraud ever invented by humanity; I would add that it is the second greatest instrument for dissociating an organisation from its ownership (the greatest being a representative democracy with a strong party system).

We also agree that attempts to create pure socialist societies have been, to a large extent, failures; we agree that they come up against the problem that people are not all paragons of civic virtue, and some of them will game the system, some of them will grab and hold power. However, you do not concede that moving closer to the idyllic concept of socialism would produce a society far better than the ones we live in, while you do maintain that moving closer to your idyllic concept of capitalism would do this.

This is where we completely part company. I don’t think that moving too far in either direction would be a good thing, and in particular I am absolutely convinced that removal of all restraints on capitalism would make things far worse.

The thing is, we have seen societies which have been substantially less regulated by government than either of ours now is, and indeed have seen some where there was absolutely minimal regulation. What results is the development of larger and larger organisations, the concentration of wealth (and power) in fewer and fewer hands (both of which Karl Marx observed would occur), the cartels and price-fixing which Adam Smith warned were a feature, as I quoted:  “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” , and the increase of influence of corporations over government, which both of us have observed and deprecate. It is the system itself which tends to monopoly and cartel, and not any particular failing of individuals beyond normal human nature.

Incidentally, the replacement of small shopkeepers by chains here has nothing to do with government regulation (which is far lighter on small businesses) and everything to do with economies of scale and cartels involving the chains and suppliers, i.e. the negative effects of an imbalance of power.

Yes, such societies can indeed “produce wealth” – indeed, it is the whole objective of their economic systems (and frequently of their governments as well). Without redistributive taxation and strong curbs on the power of corporations, however, in the absence of a labour shortage this wealth largely stays in the hands of a very few people and is of no benefit to the wider population. Both of our societies were far less regulated in the days of our respective industrial revolutions, and both saw the absolute degradation of labour and the rise of super-rich individuals until governments started to limit the power of the industrial concerns and provide for the mass of the population both by providing a safety net, by restricting the ability of the employers to make use of their disproportionate bargaining power and by legislating as to the conditions in which they were asked to work. Both produced appalling living and labour conditions for the workers, frequently worse than those they had had before moving to work in cities. I for one do not want us to go back to the systems of the early 19th century.

We definitely agree that monopolies are in principle a bad thing; where we disagree is that I see the likelihood of monopolies growing as regulation decreases, and you see competition as being a sufficient mechanism to stop that happening and even think that deregulation assists competition. While we agree that government-sponsored and protected private monopolies are a bad thing, we are not agreed, I suspect,  that there are no areas in which a government monopoly is beneficial.

I have in mind there that there are going to be natural monopolies in some areas – it is, for instance, inconceivable that it would be sensible for me to have two entirely different sets of wires connecting my house to two different electricity producers – and in those cases, if private companies are supplying my electricity, they need to be extremely strongly regulated. In fact, we now have here a rather artificial “market” in which a number of middlemen companies contract with individuals on the one hand and with electricity generators on the other, and “compete” with each other (which would never have happened without government intervention – without that, there would have been local monopolies and possibly a national one). I am unconvinced that this system actually delivers any benefits over and above the previous government-owned and run electricity monopoly. Rail transport is another area in which I am not convinced the current privatised system works as well as the former British Rail, which had to be formed when the previous private railway companies became insolvent and incapable of providing a reasonable service. The theory behind both these moves was hugely convincing, but the outcome has been fairly bad.

And, of course, I have not come across any advocates of privatising the defence of the country – though it could be argued that the USA has experimented with this with several private military contractors. I do not envy you that piece of privatisation!

This is a position I could well have reached (and in fact did) without years of reading the scriptures, and in particular the synoptic gospels, and within them the injunctions of Jesus to his followers. It is not too dissimilar from your own – that market forces are the basic way in which human commerce is best organised, and government should intervene primarily to ensure that competition is fair, though I think far more needs to be done by government than you do to ensure that fairness.

However, I see a different set of injunctions from Jesus. In particular I see a clear identification of the pursuit of wealth as evil; “you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24), which is underlined by Paul “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Jesus enjoins those who would follow him to sell all they have and give it to the poor (Matt. 19:21) or at least half of it (Luke 19:8-9) and asks followers to abandon their small businesses in order to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22).

Now you think that socialism taken to its extreme doesn’t work, I think that capitalism taken to its extreme doesn’t work (and largely agree with you as to socialism); I think both of us would have substantial problems thinking that following Jesus’ economic injunctions would work. If we did follow them, we would probably end up as itinerant beggars – but that is, I am wholly clear, what following Jesus demands when taken to its extreme. I can’t do it myself, and setting aside all arguments that it isn’t practical, that I have responsibilities I’d be abandoning and the like as self-serving excuses, at the root I am too scared to do it and lack the faith to trust that God would see that I was all right if I did.

So Jesus is suggesting that money is an alternative to God, i.e. a demon, and Paul is reinforcing that; Jesus then suggests that we renounce Satan in renouncing wealth and its pursuit (to paraphrase him).

Pope Francis put it this way in a recent address:- “Friends: the devil is a con artist. He makes promises after promise, but he never delivers. He’ll never really do anything he says. He doesn’t make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy. … He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone. Everything is based on appearances. He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess.”

This all leads me to the position that free market capitalism, at least in the form it’s developed to, is an inherently satanic system. However, it’s the one we’re stuck with; the alternatives are perhaps theoretically attractive but can actually be worse in practice – it’s much like the Churchilian comment about democracy, which he said was a bad system, but better than all the others which had been tried.

I could, however, also point to a set of injunctions of Jesus which militate against putting faith in governments (or nation states); these too are at least potentially satanic. What I advocate is not to let either have free rein, but to balance the one with the other and in the process always have in mind that both are flawed, both are man-made, both are fallen.

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Are Conservatives generous?

July 22nd, 2016
by Chris

It’s been mentioned to me a few times (mostly by my conservative counterpart on GCP, Elgin Hushbeck) that conservatives are more generous than liberals. This is a claim I haven’t investigated previously, but it is definitely one which is apparently backed up by research in the USA.

On closer examination, however, I find that the situation might not be quite as the headlines taken off that and similar pieces of research claim. An article in Huffington Post, for instance, brings out the facts that one such study merely looks at tax deductible contributions, and rightly enquires whether this is a sound basis for assessing charitable giving; in particular it notes the fact that payments to churches are all considered charitable, and raises one issue involving the Knights of Columbus which casts doubt on the charitable nature of payments to churches.

In fact I’d be inclined to go much further than the article. What churches spend on evangelism, on the upkeep of buildings, on the teaching of religion, on the presentation of worship services and for the most part on personnel is not the kind of charity which liberals typically have in mind (which is payments to or for the benefit of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disabled and those generally cast out of society). Most churches I know do not actually spend a very high percentage of their income on such objectives. I would therefore be inclined to disallow as “charitable” maybe 70-90 percent of giving to churches. In point of fact, I split my own giving, which currently goes about 30% to the church, 40% to charities for those target groups and 30% to education (which doesn’t necessarily satisfy my criterion). Although I do give rather more than 10% of my disposable income, the church doesn’t get a tithe of it.

A study reported in the Washington Post raises another problem with the research which is commonly used; it is based on a test of social conservatism rather than political conservatism. When purely political stance is taken into account, the study they quote reveals that political conservatives and political liberals give about the same amounts, but of course not necessarily for the same purposes; it is then arguable that the political liberals’ contributions are higher, as part of the political conservatives’ giving is for church purposes rather than strictly charity. Again, I note that while I’m politically liberal, I’m socially significantly more conservative in the way I act myself – I don’t, for instance, like the ease with which divorces are available, and I frown on people bringing children into the world without considering how they will be supported and brought up (not that I’d want to prevent other people doing these things, merely that I think they shouldn’t).

I don’t know of any comparable studies done in the UK. I fancy that the statistics might be somewhat different, as of our main churches, the Methodists have traditionally had a close relationship with the Trade Union and Cooperative movements (and thus with the Labour party), a very significant number of Catholics are left-leaning (locally to me they have provided several longstanding Labour councillors) and even in the Anglican church, which used to be called “the Tory Party at prayer”, I know a lot of left-leaning people, particularly clergy. Even if, as seems likely, churchgoers here give more than non-churchgoers, I suspect that the US assumption of churchgoers being politically conservative may not hold good, or at least not as good as it does in the States.

I therefore arrive at the conclusion that no, political conservatives are not more generous than political liberals. I wouldn’t want to argue that they were less generous, though…

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A free market exchange of views…

July 17th, 2016
by Chris

Elgin Hushbeck has written an impassioned piece in favour of capitalism. I quote him at length:-

“One of the common criticisms of those on the left, particular the religious left, is that capitalism is an evil system because it treats individuals as commodities of momentary worth, rather than as people made in the image of God.  This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.

One reason for this is that at its core capitalism is based on a mutual giving among individuals that is, at least ideally, freely chosen.  There is nothing in this that demands greed or exploitation.  Granted we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives, but this is a problem with all systems, from sports to science, movies to teaching, the private sector, government, and yes, even socialism. It is hardly limited to capitalism.  People are people, regardless of where they are.

and

There is nothing inherent in capitalism that makes men greedy or teaches them to exploit others, in fact if anything it is the opposite for capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual.  Since it is based on mutual consent, it encourages people to be concerned with the needs of others, which I believe is one of the reasons those supporting capitalism are on average more charitable than those supporting socialism.”

Now, as Elgin is my opposite number from the Global Christian Perspectives webcasts (currently in hiatus pending new technology and a new format), and by “opposite” I mean in politics, theological stance and country (the UK and the USA being opposites at least from the point of view of the Atlantic), and he is therefore well aware of my take on capitalism; I still recall the expression on his face when I called free market capitalism “the System of Satan” (which I later elaborated on in a post of the same name). I have written other posts in a similar vein – “Depression, the System of Satan and the Devil’s Evangelism”, “Freedom with or without Property” and “What price Free Trade”.

Do I feel just a teeny bit targeted by that This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.” ? Well, even if Elgin hasn’t read all those four posts of mine (and I’m not going to recapitulate them here – you can click through and read or reread them to see that I do have some very good reasons for thinking the way I do), I think it isn’t unreasonable to think I am, if not THE target, then part of the target. Mind you, it does seem possible that this is just turnaround, and he felt himself targeted as one of the “Devil’s Evangelists”. That would be fair enough, I suppose.

What, then, does it “tell you about me”? It seems to me that in writing it, Elgin meant to imply that my view of capitalists is an overly negative one (after all, he goes on to paint a picture of capitalists as benefactors of all…). What it should tell you is, I think, expanded upon in the four blog posts I link to, but Elgin hasn’t dealt with the contents of those, so I suspect he hasn’t read them. They would also tell him that I’ve reached my position largely due to reading and rereading the synoptic gospels.

But yes, it does tell you that I don’t regard capitalists as generally beneficial to humanity as a whole. For that I have good reason.

It tells you, perhaps,  that I read a bit of economics occasionally, in which people are either units of consumption, units of production or “wealth creators” (i.e. profit takers). Elgin himself is fond of saying that taxation is bad, because it holds back “wealth creation”.

It tells you that I’ve encountered (and advised) large companies governed by cost accountants, balance sheets and share prices, I’ve encountered (and advised) individuals ground down to unsustainable wages and then continually pressured to make more and work harder and faster for no extra benefit to them than that they keep their jobs while the capitalists they work for grow rich, and others thrown on the scrapheap of society as unemployable and therefore worthless, and somehow also morally reprehensible.

It tells you that I’ve seen societies in which the size of your bank balance is the main indication of your worth as a human being (and on both sides of the Atlantic that is increasingly true). It also, perhaps tells you that I spent a significant part of my life enslaved by the fear of loss of financial security and the need to make more (as I deal with in the second post above) and have only with substantial pain learned that that is a way to exist, but not a way to live.

But actually, if you read on in the piece I’ve quoted, it tells you not about me in myself, but about me not being a writer who confuses capitalism with a market economy – perhaps particularly a “free market economy”. Capitalism is about the ownership of the means of production by individuals, which in and of itself seems innocuous enough; you can have a capitalist economy with very restricted trade, as indeed we used to in the UK when mercantilism was the dominant economic model (and, for what it’s worth, I think the free market version of capitalism is significantly superior to the mercantilist version).

As with the rest of Elgin’s piece, however, he describes (in descibing a free market rather than a capitalist economy) an idyllic world in which everyone bargains freely for everything they want or need with others who merely wish to make a reasonable return for their labour, and if he actually lives in a world which generally operates like that, he is incredibly lucky and privileged.

Actually, in order for the bulk of his transactions to resemble the picture he paints, he must be truly privileged and have a significant disposable income as well. Those who are “scraping by” or who are dependent on low-paid employment in order to exist will not recognise that picture, wherever they live.

No society I have encountered actually operates that way. In small towns in the UK, some businesses certainly used to operate like that when I was growing up (though by and large not in cities), but not any more – that type of business owner has mostly been driven out of business by large companies, and those who survive, survive on the margins. Most typically this change is seen in the case of small retailers who have almost all fallen to the supermarkets and chain stores, which, of course, operate purely for profit; these may try to make their customers happy, but this is at the expense of their producers and their workers (and in the celebrated cases of Wall-Mart and others like them, the expense of the taxpayer who subsidises the workers’ poverty wages). Both their producers and their employees scrape along without any of the supposed benefits of a “free market”, the first because there is now nowhere else to sell to, the second because if they raise any objection they can be fired and instantly replaced by one of the millions of jobless.

His idyllic scene, of course, only works if we ignore the fact that (as he concedes)  “we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives”Better, I think, that we assume that people are not driven that way and be agreeably surprised if things turn out otherwise – but please, let us not make a virtue out of greed and exploitation. Elgin writes of an idealised (I’m tempted to say “fantasy”) capitalism, suggesting that greed and exploitation are not at the root of a free market capitalist economy, but this is not what conventional economic theory says; he claims “capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual”. However. the form capitalism has actually developed to (which is probably properly described as “financialised capitalism”), does not remotely “seek an exchange that is best for both sides”, it attempts to extract the maximum price for the least possible overheads (and the wages of employees and the quality of raw materials are both overheads). Anything else hurts the bottom line, and impedes “wealth creation”.

This is traditional economic theory, which holds that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. In other words, it demands exactly “greed and exploitation”, and rewards both with bonuses for CEO’s and managers. This capitalism indeed does not “care what motivates a transaction” (as Elgin says later), but it also does not “care whether it is freely entered into by both sides” contrary to what he suggests – indeed, it prefers monopolies, particularly in goods which are necessities, and in labour relations it prefers that the option is “take what we offer or starve”. For example, our young people are increasingly forced to take “zero hours contracts” where they are at the beck and call of the employer, but the employer has no obligations to them.

It is unfortunately the case that in a free market businesses grow inexorably towards monopolies (or at least cartels) and as Adam Smith wrote “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The result is that the ideal of the free market is distorted by the players in the market, until it stops being free, and until it takes at least partial control of government, as this article shows. The “wealth” (i.e. ownership) becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands until a very few people hold almost all the ownership and power – and money, and therefore worth as human beings.

It is also resolutely short term, because it is forced to be that way by the financial system which sees only the last balance sheet and profit and loss statement, and will take profits where it can, as there are always other bigger short term profits to be made than building for long term stability of a company. Whatever type of motivation people may have personally, finance-driven capitalism substitutes the law of the bottom line.

Elgin is, of course, right that at the root of much of this is the insurance companies, pension schemes and banks on which we normal human beings rely – and so very few of us are not in the end complicit in this system. Short term means that you do not want your employees to be loyal, just to work harder (they can always be replaced), you do not care about the environment (far too long term!), you do not care about quality as long as you can get people to buy (what, after all, are marketing and advertising for?). The fact that we are complicit, however, does not mean that the system is good…

Finally, he contrasts capitalism with socialism, which he states needs a strong central government, and suggests that as government restricts autonomy, this is axiomatically a bad thing.

Now, bearing in mind that markets (as we have seen) tend to produce monopolies, and monopolies are bad even from the point of view of the most ardent free-marketeer, and that capitalism tends to produce a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals with a larger and larger percentage of wealth/ownership, which itself distorts the market (a free bargain for something requires that you have disposable income sufficient to buy, which is increasingly not the case for a large proportion of society, and mere disparity in power to purchase negates any sense of free bargain), there is clearly a need for something to mitigate these effects (and the other negative effects I’ve mentioned above, including perhaps most strongly the short term perspective of everything), and as businesses and the markets are not going to deliver that, government must; that is to say the people acting as a whole by their representatives and employees must take a stand to prevent the domination of everything by a few corporations. Many of those corporations are now multi-national and have  wealth and power well in excess of that of some countries, so government must be at least that strong.

However, Elgin has a point with which I do agree. Just as corporations tend to get bigger, so does government, and the larger something is, the more remote it is from its ultimate owners even in a system of representative democracy. Just as by the time I have followed through the investment of my pension through multiple companies, my voice cannot be heard, so by the time my democratic vote has been filtered through a party system, a lobbying system and the necessary apparatus of civil servants my voice also cannot be heard (though it is there somewhat easier, as I can at least find where to meet my immediate representatives in person).

In addition, the financial power of big business, big finance and the very wealthy allows them to influence government in a way the ordinary individual cannot match, even in combination, just as it creates automatic distortion in markets. Elgin and myself are agreed that this is a bad thing, but he appears to consider that capitalism, left to itself, will produce a beneficial effect and that anything else is transferring power to government and is therefore axiomatically a bad thing. I consider that capitalism and government both are at least somewhat broken; capitalism needs restraining, but so does government – and we have, in theory at least, the means to restrain government via the ballot box.

I am thus very slighly hopeful, seeing the collapse of both our UK main political parties in infighting, that we may see a political restructuring here which may, just possibly, restore a small amount of control to the individual voter. Maybe in the course of that, the messages that bigger is not always better and that local issues should be dealt with by the people who live there may strike home. Perhaps, just perhaps, we could see the possibility that all of big business, big finance and big government might have their wings clipped.

It’s a small hope, but I need to nurture it.

 

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