11:59 and several seconds…

September 25th, 2019
by Chris

Various sources have posted links to Greta Thunberg’s speech to the UN – this is one of them. Listen to it, if you haven’t already, and weep with me.

She speaks truth, as far as I am concerned; unvarnished, painful truth. Unfortunately, I think she is at least a generation too late. Yes, I think that if the world’s governments were to have a metanoia, a complete changing of minds and spirits, we could possibly turn things round in time without there being a climate catastrophe – and against that background, all other political and economic issues (yes, including Brexit and Trump) pale into insignificance.

But do I think that there’s the slightest chance that the world will actually do that? I except the USA – there is, as far as I can see, absolutely no way in which the USA is going to change, but the rest of us, those who don’t try against all the evidence to cling to some possibility that it’s all a huge mistake and won’t actually be nearly as bad as is predicted, sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “nah nah nah…” can probably do it without them. Is it at all likely? I suspect not.

I feel a considerable sense of guilt about this situation – I am of the “baby boomer” generation, and members of my generation have been in control of most things for quite a while now, exactly that period during which things have gone from a significant portion of climate scientists sounding a note of caution to nearly all climate scientists being confident that a catastrophe is imminent. We, collectively, should have listened and taken action a lot earlier. OK, personally, my wife and myself don’t have a huge carbon footprint; we generate a significant portion of the energy we use from solar panels on our rather expansive roof, we don’t fly much, we don’t actually use cars all that much, we recycle pretty well (though not as well as is possible), we have a strong bias towards repairing or repurposing rather than throwing away… I could go on. However, we could do more, which is, paradoxically, less in a lot of cases – we could eat less or no meat, we could ditch the car (though as a result of disabilities that would seriously curtail our interactions with others) and I could not attend the Wake festival next year (or get there over a period of a couple of days by land routes rather than flying, taking a couple of hours). I cannot feel satisfied unless my carbon footprint is zero.

I am particularly ashamed that, some years ago, I edited a short book criticising climate change science for an author who shall remain nameless – this was on the basis that I disagreed with virtually everything he said, but that I could improve his argument by ensuring that he considered all the counter-arguments to what he was saying. In my defence, I can say that at the time we were not nearly as far along the “hockey stick” graph as we are now, and I didn’t feel able to state with certainty that he was wrong. He probably still thinks he’s right, but a few more years down the line, I’m certain he was completely and utterly wrong – and also dangerous, in that his book, which I helped to produce, may have convinced and may still convince some people not to take climate change seriously. Unfortunately, it is a characteristic of exponential graphs that you can’t say with certainty that they are exponential until you’re in a dangerously near-vertical portion of the curve.

I was perhaps somewhat influenced by the fact that for the first thirty plus years of my life, the danger of climate change which most of us perceived was the possibility of a nuclear fimbulwinter. Indeed, thirty years ago I was (among other things) a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor, so was closer to such thinking even than the average. Living for many years with the expectation that civilisation would end with an ice age, with expanding glaciers and polar ice and the shifting of the temperate zone radically south perhaps makes it more difficult to change tack and worry about decreasing glaciers and polar ice, sea level rises and the shifting of the temperate zone radically north. By the way, yes, I have toyed with the idea that some strategically placed nukes, perhaps in volcanoes, could counteract global warming; that is probably true just in terms of warming, but the resulting lack of insolation would itself almost certainly be catastrophic for crops. It might still be better than runaway global warming…

That is, however, a reason but not an excuse. So is the fact that, practically, those of us who were bleating about potential global warming thirty years ago were met with the argument that we were asking China, India and the developing world generally to do without all the good things which technology could bring them because we, the developed West, had already used up all the leeway in the global climate for CO2 emissions. We were reminded of our colonial pasts and accused of trying to continue them by “keeping down” the developing nations – and, truth be told, the vast majority of the increase in the interim is those countries starting to catch up with the West.

It is also true that there have been quite a few predictions of castastrophic climate change in the other (cooling) direction issued by climate scientists over the years, and that has made it significantly more difficult to argue that the direction of change is warming, and that it has reached the level of an existential threat to civilisation (and possibly even the human species). An example of such counterargument can be found here – and lest you take the piece too seriously, here is an analysis of their funding and political ties. When those accounts were published, they were mostly discounted by the vast majority of climate scientists (the notable exceptions being ozone depletion and acid rain, which we communally accepted as problems and have now largely fixed); now, all but a very few accept that there is climate change happening, that it’s largely anthropogenic and fuelled by greenhouse gas emissions and that we’re headed inexorably for a tipping point. The naysayers, of course, point to the lack of unanimity as evidence that it’s not certain, to which my response is that (a) there’s never going to be unanimity in the scientific community and (b) you can totally guarantee that by paying scientists to find reasons why the consensus is wrong.

Am I absolutely certain that we are headed for imminent catastrophe? No, but then I’m not 100% certain the sun will rise tomorrow either.

Do I think that Greta’s figure of 8-9 years is actually the point of no return? No, I think that’s probably a pessimistic figure, but I give it at least a one-in-three chance of being right, and ask if we want to bet on the future of the entire human race on those odds?

Do I think that enough people will take anough notice of her to reverse the trend using technology we actually have at the moment? Frankly, no. I think there’s maybe a slim chance, but on the whole I agree with this commentator about the character of the people she’s addressing and the fact that action needs to be governmental and not just personal.

Do I think (like him) that we can, in the interim, come up with some technological innovation which will reverse the trend before it’s too late? I’m actually hopeful, but it isn’t a very strong hope.

In the meantime, I have been noticing a lot of comments on postings of Greta’s speech which have, frankly, made my blood boil. Some of them are dealt with in this article. She must be a mouthpiece for others, some say, or she’s just a misguided child, or even (and I really hate to disseminate this) she looks a little like a 1930s Nazi poster of a blonde, pigtailed girl and, therefore, must be government propaganda. I find myself wanting to jump down the throat of all such commentators in her defence. What is it that they find so all-fired unacceptable about her? That she’s female? That she’s young? That she’s on the autism spectrum? That she speaks truth to power? In all those cases, I would want to defend anyone… and yet, I’ve held my tongue (or, at least, my keyboard) so far – because actually, I think Greta Thunberg is quite capable of speaking for herself. She’s fierce. And for me to leap to her defence would, in part, be an admission that I thought that females, or young people, or those on the autism spectrum, or prophets were weak and in need of my help.

And in at least three of those cases, that’s discrimination…


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Response to “Roman Glass”

September 21st, 2019
by Chris

This follows on my “Looking through Roman Glass”. I posted a link to that piece in the closed facebook group dealing with the course Pete Rollins is running, and which prompted that writing. Pete then came up with a very spirited response, which was as follows:-

” I tend to think that mystical experience is a very common (I’d even say universal) human experience. I’ve always like Gabriel Marcel, who in his essay “On the Ontological Mystery” brilliantly shows how mystery (which he calls the “ontological need”), is at work always in the subject, even though it is often in a repressed or minimal way. But it is experienced at various times when (to name only a few), in morality we are caught up in the experience of an act that is beyond utilitarian value, in love, which moves us beyond the assessment of someone in terms of their qualities, in religion, who one feels absolute dependence, in art, when one is taken into the iconic nature of the work… etc. Because I believe the mystical experience – or ontological need – is a universal, I am very skeptical of anyone who claims privileged access to it. Like Tillich, I would say that we only need to pay attention to our lives in order to see our participation in it – even if this participation is rudimentary. So, I’d lay aside the idea of a special class of people who experience something that others do not, and turn to the question of what this experience is. In the worlds of Perennial Philosophy, Psychedelic Enlightenment, New Age, and even in Kant. the mystical experience is an experience of a limit (the Kantian Sublime). But I think that even a conservative like Marcel sees this as wrong, mysticism is not the limit… the seeing through a glass darkly, it is the seeing ‘fully’ that Paul talks about. I write about this in The Divine Magician, but to sumerise, the misreading of Pauls ‘Dark Glass’ is the assumption that there is something behind it, rather than the idea that the dark glass is what creates the illusion that there is something behind it. The conservative reading that Paul is saying that the dark glass refers to ‘General Revelation’, is then closed to the truth than the liberal idea that it refers to our current state. Paul is saying that ‘Specific Revelation’ is the moment in which we see through the dark glass. The mistake of confessional theology is to think that this is the point at which we see that substantive reality is there, when the revelation is that substantive reality is subject. This is all very provisional and would need unpacked. I was thinking about doing a seminar on the Dark Glass, maybe I’ll try that for the next pyroseminar.”

My own response to that was this:-

Well, that’s an interesting and forceful rejoinder.

I might make a distinction between mystical experience and peak mystical experience here (and when I refer to people as mystics, I mean those who have had peak mystical experiences and whose worldview is largely shaped by those).

Looking around in the 60s for fellow mystics, I found very, very few. I did, however, find quite a number of theologically minded people who basically denied that mysticism existed (they’d not experienced anything like that, mystics were unable to tell them exactly how to have such an experience, so obviously it didn’t happen). Others tried to downplay the impact of a peak mystical experience, probably aided in that by mystics saying “well, it’s a bit like…” Yes, there are parallels with, for instance, aesthetic appreciation (I list a few in my post), and most people can relate to one or all of those, but they are not equivalent to peak mystical experience in much the same way that a mild buzz from a glass of good whisky is not the same as a psilocybin trip (and even that may be too similar to express the experiential gap).

I am, in other words, telling you what (for instance) William James identified when studying mystics, that mystical experience IS a particular category of experience which is not really very much like any other, and that in my considerable experience of talking with people about their spiritual experience, looking for other mystics, I have found it to be very much a minority who have such experiences. That said, there do seem to be more people these days who will state that they have had a mystical experience than was the case 50 years ago, and certainly more people are prepared to talk about mysticism as if it is a particular mode of perception.

I have not seen the detail of the questions used in surveys which return those results, though, and I suspect that if the questioners set the boundaries of “mystical experience” widely, they may be including in their figures, for instance, those who feel a certain frisson when viewing a panoramic view, or whose world is turned upside-down by falling in love. They may be in some ways similar, but (using James’ terminology) they tend to be distinguishable as they lack the noetic quality. As, to my eyes, do the examples you use above.

It may therefore be that there is no room for further discussion here, as you invalidate the means of perception which is the whole basis of my own thinking; if I am not seeing something special, there is obviously no need to engage with what I say about it. Indeed, I may be being very foolish in trying to engage with your work at all.

However, for at least the time being I intend to persevere.

Now, firstly, mystics will commonly report a very few peak experiences during their lives – I know of a few who have only had one, but have based their entire lives thereafter on that one experience. They will, however, often report much more minor experiences which partake of some of the quality of the original, and which revive some of the force of it, on a regular basis. This may, I think, be analagous to the common experience range which you talk of. These I have in the past described as “an edge of” a full mystical experience, and I found myself that a regime of meditation and contemplation could keep up such experiences on a regular basis. The trouble is, from my point of view, these are “mysticism lite”, mysticism without most of the information-carrying aspect and without the transformative impact (though they might serve to maintain a transformation).

Now, I am not a philosopher by training, so I can’t engage with your comments about Marcel or Kant, at least not at the moment, having not read them. I also do not peg Tillich as a mystic, particularly as he seems (like you) to reject mysticism. Paul, however, I can talk of a bit, particularly as he is identified by several writers on mysticism as having been a mystic himself (and, in some of his writing, I think I can identify that source of inspiration). I can therefore unhesitatingly identify Paul’s writing about “through a glass, darkly” as pointing at the distinction between the noetic content of mysticism and the inability to express it adequately (which James calls “ineffable”). I can very easily relate to the information content of the mystical experience as “seeing clearly” and that of the rest of the time as being “through a glass, darkly”.

Like you, however, I tend to materialist readings, so I’ll be more generous than you and not characterise your suggestion that there’s nothing behind the glass as a misreading – it’s merely another reading. It’s one which doesn’t resonate with me, but hey, the author is dead, so…

So, why am I persevering here? Well, for one thing, I like your humour and your putting of complex philsophical ideas in terms I can at least sometimes (and somewhat) understand. I like the exploration of the absurd and apparent contradictions. More, though, I look for you coming up with forms of words which, while they may not analytically work, nonetheless *do something* which brings one of those “aha” moments.

And I think you could probably do with a mystic harrassing you when you talk about mystics…

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I was a teenage atheist (a spiritual journey)

September 15th, 2019
by Chris

“I was a teenage atheist”.

Well, that is true, in and of itself, but it also makes for decent click bait. From where I now sit, most of the “New Atheists” look like teenagers; certainly, had they been around when I was 13, I’d have been a big fan of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens.

But I need to backtrack. I’m actually writing this because I keep finding, in facebook groups, the question “how did you get to where you are today?” and posting a very abvreviated version of my spiritual journey, suitable to the location – and then, not infrequently, being asked for more.

So, I grew up the child of a Methodist Local Preacher and a frequent soloist with the Church Choir. I was therefore guaranteed to be in Sunday School at the earliest opportunity, which, as I recall, was just before I turned 5 – Dad preached about every other week, somewhere in the local circuit of churches but rarely in the Central Methodist Church which we attended, while mum really wanted to be up singing with the choir rather than child-minding down in the pews.

On those occasions when I was in church rather than Sunday School, my overriding impression is of a relatively few sermons which were of the “fire and brimstone” variety; Sunday School tended to stick with Bible Stories and avoid the theologically weighty areas. The Bible Stories didn’t really strike me as more than just that – stories. I should, I suppose, explain that I was a precocious brat, and could read decently (and was getting books out of the local library regularly) by the time I was 5 – and I like a good story.

The fire and brimstone preachers, frankly, scared me, while at the same time being at least slightly unbelievable. The picture they painted of someone described as “Our Father” was just not very similar to my own father, who was most of the time extremely mild mannered, loving and tolerant, although yes, he could be provoked to anger, and when he was angry, he was extremely scary. On the occasions when he preached at the home church, his sermons were notably not “fire and brimstone… I suspect that somewhere in my childish subconscious, however, I got the idea that there might just be a God who was father-like only in the extremity of wrath, but that didn’t gel at all well with my developing reason.

Being a precocious brat meant that I discovered the awesome power of the word “why” very early, and I tormented my parents and teachers with it frequently. My parents and the teachers at my normal school were pretty good at diverting the flow of questions – and, in both those cases, they tended to give me at least somewhat reasonable answers. The Sunday School teachers were different – they tended to get flustered at the questioning, and give answers which were sometimes contradictory, sometimes just woefully unsatisfactory. I decided rather early that they were peddling fiction in the guise of fact, and I was probably an atheist by the time I was 7 or so.

And, like the “New Atheists”, I decided that everyone else should be an atheist too. Sunday School bore this trial with rapidly reducing equanimity, and at 9, I parted company with Sunday School “by mutual agreement” – they were sick of me aggressively questioning everything (and, no doubt, worried about the other childrens’ spiritual formation being impacted), and I saw absolutely no point in the exercise, and preferred to be at home reading – and I was probably a reading addict by then. I read all the books which the three of us got from the library every week (three each – I was upset both that they wouldn’t allow me to take more books out and that my parents didn’t want to make more than one trip to the library per week), and once I got to have textbooks from school, I would typically read the whole of all of them within a couple of weeks of the beginning of term.

I particularly liked science lessons, once I got to secondary school and there were such things. They played into what was already an enthusiasm for experimentation (which, incidentally, had resulted in me much earlier setting traps for Santa, to try to establish whether such an entity actually existed – my parents managed to circumvent those for two years, but the third, failed to notice one which was actually hidden IN the chimney…) I give my father huge credit for the boot prints in the talcum powder on the hearth on one of the previous occasions!

Science, if seemed to me, was the field which could potentially explain everything; certainly it was far less inclined to say “just because” to a line of questioning, and there were techniques to use to try to establish things not currently known. That formation hasn’t left me – I am still, for most practical purposes, a scientific materialist, and only the realisation that emergent phenomena may not actually be reducible to a lower level prevents me being a reductionist scientific materialist.

Continuing the theme of the Jesuit saying “Give me a child for the first seven years, and I will give you the man”, my parents were not scientists. They were, in fact, a rather hard act to follow. They were both enthusiastic amateur artists, and ran the local art club – and, therefore, I got to do significantly more painting and drawing than most of my friends. Art, I found, was not reducible to technique and mechanics.

Despite their Methodist credentials, they were both intereted in spiritualism, and my father in particular in horoscopes; while I was extremely sceptical about both, there was there clearly a region which science didn’t do a good job of explaining – mother was definitely not tricking us when she “channelled” some spirit, and father did seem to extract some valid insights from his workings out (which were vastly more technical than the “horoscopes” printed in newspapers those days – the thought that one twelfth of the population should be having essentially the same experiences for the day was just ridiculous, but Dad’s careful calculations from the place and minute of birth were at least capable, it seemed to me, of having some more validity. Though it would have to be scientifically explainable…

Dad was also keen on history, and was the local amateur archaologist. Thus, a significant number of the library books I was consuming were history, and I got to help on a few archaeological digs he organised, when development was going to destroy the site. Mother, as I mentioned, was a choir soloist and had at one time been a semi-professional singer – and had had a scholarship to read Music at Durham, which she had had to refuse as her father was ill and she needed to work to support her parents. History and Music therefore also loom large (and, of course, my parents also were two of the stalwarts of the local music society, which I got to accompany them to…) Oh, and I got to learn piano, and to enter piano competitions.

So, while I was very keen on science, and thought science was the “go to” technique to tell me why something happened the way it did and how I could get it to happen again, it didn’t really help me appreciate, say, art or music. I didn’t love (for instance) Caravaggio’s St. Jerome better through analysing the brush strokes or the pigments (though both those things might have helped if I had wanted to copy it – as would a lot of practice).

I didn’t rule out entirely the possibility of some “supernatural” things – after all, my mother in particular was convinced she’d experienced something of the sort – but if such things did happen, they would be best investigated scientifically (and I’d already ruled out Santa by that method!). Indeed, I was fascinated by these things on the edge of what was possible or likely. However, I could much more easily find that reports of such things were tricks or misperceptions than something actually supernatural, and became very dubious about them all.

And then, one warm summer afternoon aged 14 or a month or so light of that age, I was lying reading a book (nothing weighty, as I recall) and appreciating getting a little sun, when I got hit between the eyes by a spiritual half-brick, metaphorically speaking. I had an entirely unlooked for, out of the blue mystical experience.

The most prominent aspect of this was an overwhelming sense of unity, both of everything (up to a cosmic scale) and with everything. I was expanded to everything and, at the same time, was diminished to a minute speck against the immensity of the All. Secondary was an overwhelming sense of love and acceptance; tertiary was a conviction that whatever this was, it was in some way personal, as opposed to being some cosmic force like gravity.

It was pretty much a full-spectrum experience (a terminology I’ve arrived at since); although I don’t recall any smell or taste, vision was affected (I could seemingly see forever, and see through things which were otherwise solid, and vision switched between the massively large and the infinitesimally small, or was perhaps both at the same time), sound was affected (I could hear things which I wouldn’t normally be able to), as was touch (I could, it seemed, reach out and feel the texture of infinite space), proprioception (the same at-the-same-time feeling of infinite largeness and infinitesimal smallness) and the kinaesthetic sense (I felt myself rushing from one place to another, while still being conscious of lying inert).

My sense of time was clearly affected, as this all seemed to take a huge amount of time, but afterwards it proved that it couldn’t have had a duration longer than about half an hour. It needed to feel longer, as a part of the vision was a rewinding of time back to the origin of all things.

One facet of the experience was being confronted with a “God’s eye” view of who I was and what I’d done, which was a fairly unpleasant realisation (I had previously been immensely self-centred and pretty much unconcscious of how my actions affected others – such as being aggressively atheist when father was a preacher) ; at the same time, however, there was a consciousness of complete forgiveness and acceptance (perhaps grace?). As an aside, if, as I hope and believe is the case, on death we are confronted with something similar just prior to complete (re)unity with the divine, it is a form of “last judgment”. It has occurred to me that there may be people who are unable to stand this realisation (and I don’t think it’s something which can be avoided); they may, just possibly, be denied that unity (and forgiveness and acceptance) for some period of time, or, perhaps, even elect for their own annihilation without tasting unity.

A really major feature was what I call “disindividuation”; the boundaries between my self and the outside world dissolved. I use “disindividuation” in distinction to the well-recognised term “deindividuation” which refers to the aspect of mob psychology where the group seems to take on a psychology all of its own and individual psychologies are “taken over” by the “group mind”. There was no sense of being “taken over”, but there was a sense of being extinguished – but that was balanced by the feeling of being infinitely expanded. Coincidence of opposites is definitely a feature! This aspect has never really gone away completely, in that ever since I have felt the boundaries of self as being at the very least fuzzy; this links well with the sudden access of empathy, something (as I referred to in the previous paragraph) which had never much troubled me in the past; that too has never gone away. It’s worth noting here that Peter Rollins not infrequently suggests that such disindividuation and return to the sense of “oceanic oneness” is a feature of psychosis. It is possible that it might be, were it not for the fact that the sense of self never actually completely vanishes.

The experience was immensely self-confirming. It told me in no uncertain terms that this was the way things really were, despite any appearance to the contrary. And it was ecstatic – that first experience remains the most wonderful thing I have ever experienced (though subsequent mystical experiences have come close); I’ve said of it since that it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” – since, because at the time I’d experienced none of those (well, with the exception of hearing some records).

On “coming round” from this, my first suspicion was that I’d had some kind of traumatic brain event, and I went to see my doctor and described it as best I could. It seemed that no, I wasn’t suffering from (for instance) a brain tumour or temporal lobe epilepsy, and it certainly wasn’t the result of drugs or any of the techniques I later discovered for promoting such experience. I also around that time happened across F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A Study and Anthology”, having on a whim attended a lecture on “The Mystical Experience” in which the book was mentioned, and found that there were a lot of accounts historically which were at least somewhat similar to what I’d experienced – and they were labelled as experiences of God by most of those who wrote about them.

So, reassured, I went looking for a repeat – it was, I suppose, instantly addictive, as a friend has since jokingly suggested, but I fancy that in this case it wasn’t really a joke. Over my remaining school years and into university, I went looking for any group which suggested that it had a technique for producing experiences like this – which included Wiccans, Ceremonial Magicians, Sufis and various species of Eastern meditators, Buddhist, Taoist and Hindu. Under the influence of Happold, whose book includes quite a few Christian mystics, I didn’t entirely rule out Christianity, but Christianity was the system which I’d rejected in earlier childhood, and the stream of Christianity which is most conducive to mystical experience, the Orthodox (and particularly the Greek Orthodox) wasn’t one which had any representation anywhere near where I was, either at home or at university; it was also the case that there was no way, following this experience, that I could feel that the Christian concept of the “fall of man” had any validity (something which I’ve written about before). If there was no fall, then a sizeable chunk of what was normative to the flavours of Christianity available to me was negated…

I tried all the techniques, as well as the concept-structures, including a set of Shamanistic ones. These ranged from meditation and contemplation through mantra and tantra to the more extreme – sleep deprivation, fasting, sensory deprivation, partial strangulation, and, of course, drugs. In the process, I could cross off a lot of possible candidates for having produced that first experience – none of those had applied, and it’s still a complete mystery to me why it happened. Drugs were, perhaps strangely, rather disappointing (as well as being something to be avoided for reasons of legality) – I think I was maybe “spoiled” for those by having an unaided experience first (I have in mind here, inter alia, The Liturgists, and the fact that both Science Mike and Michael Gungor have used psychedelics to get to what seems to be pretty much the same place, plus a host of others such as the late Alan Watts and even Sam Harris). The more mechanical ones were all at least somewhat effective, though dangerous – I didn’t really want to go there if I could avoid it.

So, over the course of some years, I found that I could slip into at least what I call “an edge” of the full blown experience via a very attenuated contemplative technique – and that was, by and large, enough for me; full blown experiences have the disadvantage of taking significant time, being of uncertain duration (some seemed to last an age but were actually only minutes long, others seemed fleeting but took me out of action for hours) and, of course, meaning that I was functionally useless in the world out there – I joke that there’s a danger of bumping into lamp posts, but that has actually happened to me when I went slightly too deep when contemplating while walking. I can, however, state with some confidence that the best way of stopping an incipient mystical experience in its tracks is to start analysing what is happening.

There have been some repeats of the “full spectrum” experience – perhaps three or four – but from my perspective, such extremes are very unusual (perhaps because I’m a compulsive analyser…). That said, I’ve met a number of people who could reasonably be described as having a mystical approach who have only ever had one peak experience, which has sustained them for many years (in one case, over 50). I think having one such experience is very important, and possibly vital (I surmise that a peak experience creates pathways in the brain which can then be accessed more easily), but having many does not really add too much to the information content.

A lot of people I mix with online these days talk of “deconstruction”. Keith Giles has an useful piece on deconstruction, which some readers may relate to. I, however, have never needed to deconstruct most of these (or, if I did, it was in the years between ages 5 and 9, and I don’t remember the process). When I arrived at my spiritual practice, it was without most of the “pillars” Keith describes. The only one of those which Keith talks of which really exercised my mind was “suffering in the world” – and it still does. But I have been relatively comfortable with the concept that there are things which I don’t yet understand, but which are nevertheless the case since I accepted my initial peak experience for what it was, namely unitive mystical experience. I don’t have to understand something in order for it to work; the universe really does not need Chris’ consent in order to keep on existing!

There I stayed for quite a few years, while I started a career, got married and had children. My wife was Anglican, so inasmuch as I actually went to church, it was to an Anglican one locally – but I found huge difficulties with liturgy, sermons and hymns (there’s a lot of very bad theology in 18th and 19th century hymns, and I don’t think the 20th and 21st centuries have improved on that much, if at all!) Then (and this was the result of a series of events which are a story in and of themselves), I found myself arguing about God with a set of French-speaking atheists on the then Compuserve European forum. From there, I got asked to start posting in the Mensa forum, which was pretty atheist-heavy, and when the lady who invited me there left as a result of a dispute with the forum management, I started posting in the Compuserve Religion forum instead (having, of course, got the taste for such discussions).

I was somewhat surprised to be invited to moderate the Christianity section there after only a couple of weeks posting, and responded that I didn’t really regard myself as Christian – which, apparently, was not a problem, and perhaps even an advantage, given that this was specifically a religious discussion forum, and “proselytising” was forbidden. It was at the time a very active venue – the forum was putting on over a thousand messages a day in all; the next door section was Judaism, and I kept finding that conservative Christians would stray into that section and start trying to make converts, which precipitated tit-for-tat incursions of Jews into the Christianity section, trying to provoke conservative members into breaking the forum rule against spiritual judgment (and so getting barred); the same happened with members of the Free Thought section, which was the home for quite a few refugees from the former Atheism forum.

I spent a lot of time there trying to educate conservative Christian members into putting their points more politely (and improving their arguments, while challenging them gently) and trying to defend Christian members from the incursions of non-Christians, which were quite frequently backed up by a few liberal Christians who posted there. That necessitated a lot of background reading. And, considering the message count (which actually exceeded 4000 for the forum on one occasion), I found myself putting in the proverbial 10,000 hours.

After some months, two of the more liberal Christians there (both, as it happens, Anglican lay readers) messaged me quite independently (at least, I don’t think they were ganging up on me!) telling me that I was a Christian. I demurred, but they managed to persuade me that I was at least as Christian as they were (and significantly more so than John Shelby Spong, who was an Anglican bishop in the States…); one of them added the accusation that I regarded moderating on the forum as being a “pastoral mission”. Obviously I denied that flatly (and probably three times…) before taking stock and realising that yes, I did rather regard it as that.

It’s a sadness to me that, with the AoL takeover of Compuserve and the opening of all the former forums to the world at large rather than Compuserve subscribers, plus the general development of the internet, the Religion Forum essentially died as a location for serious (but relatively polite) religious discussion. It still exists, but is a pale shadow of its former self.

I then suffered some personal trials and tribulations, which left me with PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety; this took me to a positively suicidal state – and, among other things, the slide into full blown depression revealed to me that my contemplative techniques had stopped working for me, and I was no longer able to give myself a contemplative boost to deal with life’s problems (I had, clearly, been using contemplation more as a therapeutic technique and an “intuition pump” than as a purely spiritual practice for some time by then). I also made the huge mistake of self-medicating with alcohol – medicating depression and anxiety with a depressive drug which produces anxiety when you stop taking it is quite obviously totally insane, but there you are… In all, the descent into full blown depression and the climb out again took 17 years.

I’d like to be able to say that meditation and contemplation dug me out of that particular pit, but it was a lot of hard work with the support and structure of a twelve step fellowship, and the ability actually to have some feeling of connection from contemplation had to wait until a change of medication (my best guess as to the “why”) gave me the first moments of happiness for years – in point of fact, I was manic (although it was a well-contolled manic) for twelve days. My twelve-step friends argue that the lifting of the depression was the result of twelve step; my friends in an evangelical Anglican church at which I’d just been invited to help with Alpha courses said it was due to throwing myself into another form of church work. (My involvement there was the result of my attending some talks at the church and demonstrating that I could ask very awkward questions – to their credit, the church thought that having a contrary opinion present and indeed helping at Alpha would be good for the quality of discussion, and I of course had by then a lot of experience of such discussions!).

During that manic fortnight, I realised that the sense of connection which I’d been lacking for years was back – and I resolved that I wouldn’t take mystical experience for granted any more, and that I’d back that up by going to church again – which I could suddenly manage to do again; for years, churches were by far too crowded for me to be able to support staying there for a full service (an effect of anxiety).

In the meantime, when I managed to start returning to something like normality, the former sponsor of the Compuserve Religion Forum Christianity section asked me if I’d like to do a bit of proofreading to keep my brain working. So I did that – and found myself unable to resist pointing out things which might improve the manuscripts. Thus I became an associate editor, then editor and now “editor in chief” for Energion Publications, and, in the process, found myself writing and publishing a book… which stemmed from Henry at Energion encouraging me to blog and hosting the site which this blog is at.

What was the background reading? Well, I liked pretty much everything I read by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, and Ed Sanders and Daniel Boyarin gave me some extremely valuable insights into the development of Christianity from its Jewish roots (which were very helpful when dealing with Jewish incursions on the Religion Forum); Daniel Kirk’s “A Man Attested by God” was also helpful. Homebrewed Christianity was a hugely useful source of introductions (some of them relatively heavyweight) to a number of currents in recent theology along the way. Richard Beck’s Experimental Theology blog introduced me among others to John Caputo, who is somewhere in the radical end of current theology (and Richard’s book “Unclean” is a splendid exploration of the idea of purity in Christianity). Through him I found Douglas Campbell’s astonishing but exceptionally heavyweight “The Deliverance of God”, which cast Paul’s thinking on justification in an entirely new light for me, and Walter Wink’s “Powers” trilogy, which did much the same for talk in the New Testament of “powers and principalities”.

Some years ago I was asked, after writing a blogpost titled “The heresy of all doctrines…” if I was a follower of Peter Rollins. “Peter who?” I replied – and it seemed that my title was a little reminiscent of some of his (for instance, “The Fidelity of Betrayal” and “The Idolatry of God”. And so began a following of Pete’s work which has taken me to see him (and meet him) at Lincoln, and then to two Wake festivals – I’ve paid for next year’s as well. Pete is definitely in the radical theology tradition, which is almost all “death of God” theology.

I’ve been called a “radical theologian” a few times, but I don’t think the label really fits, given that the only way I can really accept “death of God” theology is in the sense that the childhood picture of an intervening God is dead for me, and the term “radical theology” seems reserved for those who go further with “death of God” (such as Rollins and Caputo) than I can do myself. What I think I am is a speculative theologian and a constructive theologian. I appreciate other speculative theologies like those of Rollins and Caputo without necessarily subscribing to them wholeheartedly. In the course of this, I’ve tried to come to a new appreciation of Christian doctrines from my own perspective, which is of course heavily influenced by my mysticism and by my basic scientific rationalism; my book on the Trinity is one part of that, and if you go through my other blog posts, you’ll find most of the main doctrines dealt with – and largely reinterpreted (the Fall, for instance). Some might say “radically reinterpreted”, which is no doubt where the tag comes from.

This is a work in progress, though. My next book will be an examination of the concept of the Logos – a whole book based on what, in English, is the sixth word of the Fourth Gospel (fifth in French, fourth in Latin…). After that, I’m thinking of expanding my “System of Satan” post into a whole book. Watch this space!

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Looking through Roman glass

September 7th, 2019
by Chris

Peter Rollins has just embarked on another course (“An Experiment in Criticism”, which is available to his Patreon supporters), this time resting on works by C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a native of Belfast, as is Pete, and this is part of the explanation why there’s a fascination with Lewis’ writings running through much of Pete’s work. There are many others, not least the fact that Lewis was, inter alia, a philosopher, and like calleth unto like there. On the other hand, there are many differences between them; for one thing, Lewis was an idealist, while Pete’s work is far more founded in materialism (which forms a substrate for much of postmodernism, which is largely where Pete’s philosophical inspiration comes from).

The first seminar in the series starts out with a look at Lewis’ conception of myth and his criticism of the “demythologisation” of Christianity which is linked especially with Rudolph Bultmann. Lewis thinks that, rather than remove myth, the main thrust of Christianity actually lies in myth, and there Pete agrees with him. So, in fact, do I, though I bristle at the suggestion from Pete that Jesus’ ethical (and, presumably, economic and political) thinking can be largely safely ignored in favour of the myths of incarnation and atonement, which Pete rightly identifies as being the creations of Paul, not Jesus. I think he’s missing a lot of the subversive nature of Jesus’ lifetime teachings by labelling them as (to paraphrase) not very innovative or suprising – anyone who has read this blog for a while will know that I find a lot of innovative and surprising things there, even while I accept that those were not a major discontinuity with the Judaism of Jesus’ time.

As an idealist, Lewis considered that the myth preexisted, and that one of Christianity’s triumphs was that it was given historical expression, so it was a confluence of fact and concept, of phenomenology and ontology. Pete remarks that a more materialist reading can find that there are multiple possible readings of a myth, with the implication that these flow from the facts rather than the facts flowing from the concepts (or “ideals”, i.e. myths), and there I agree completely with Pete (though not so much so in his distinction between “enjoyment” and “contemplation”, enjoyment being the actual experiencing of things, contemplation being reflecting on them – as a mystic, I prefer to keep contemplation as a technical term for something which is very much experience rather than thought, though Pete may have some truth in “enjoyment yearns for contemplation and contemplation for enjoyment”, and certainly doing either tends to be exclusive of the other).

As my favorite under-appreciated philosopher is Terry Pratchett (who shared with Lewis being better known for works of fantasy than of philosophy, but whose fiction I prefer to Lewis’ as Pratchett was consistently hilarious), I can’t help thinking of Pratchett’s description of humanity not as “homo sapiens” (the wise man) but as “pan narrans” (the story-telling ape); Pratchett plays in his writing with the concept that story can drive events, and that narrative tropes might take on real existence (which would probably be Lewis’ actual view; Pratchett is using the concept very much tongue in cheek…) We tell stories about our experience, our reality, and, from my point of view, a story can resonate with you or not, but the issue of whether things actually happened that way is irrelevant. We then tell stories about the stories, giving rise to the fact that good stories are commonly capable of multiple meanings – and Pete is a fine example of this, reinterpreting Christianity to produce new ideas. Or, in this case, reinterpreting Lewis’ interpretation of Christianity…

In this particular case, although Pete advances as “critiques” (hence the name of the course) three arguments which might counter Lewis, actually, as he says, they are more reinterpretations of Lewis, taking him in a different direction.

The three arguments are first the unpicking of Lewis’ idealism which I talked about earlier, second the observation that in telling a story about reality you are shaping what reality is (at least for you and anyone else who picks up the story you are telling), which goes on to talk of myths having multiple meanings and to the concept of a myth as “event”, the telling of which changes reality for multiple people, as did, for instance, the telling of the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. The third (unsurprisingly from Pete) suggests that Lewis, although seeing oppositions within myth, saw the resolution of these as bringing a message of “wholeness and completeness”, and that thinkers such as Hegel and Tillich saw (better than Lewis, arguendo) that Christianity can depict an incompleteness, a deadlock, a brokenness at the heart of reality.

This reinterpretation deals with “eloi, eloi, lama sabacthani” (my God, my God, why have you foresaken me) which, coupled with the idea of Jesus being the divine incarnation, is God experiencing the loss of God. From there Pete suggests that Christianity expresses, uniquely among religions, a fundamental rift at the heart of reality.

He goes on to an interpretation of Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know, even as also I am known.” He (rightly, in my eyes) rejects the “conservative interpretation” that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the glass is broken such that we now see fully. (One might think that this was an example of “the event” producing a radical shift in understanding). Liberals, he thinks, consider that we now see partially (which is used to suggest that all religions have portions of the truth) but will later achieve a synthesis.

Pete thinks both of these are fundamentally wrong, though he thinks conservatives are closer to the truth. As it happens, I agree that both are fundamentally wrong, though I think liberals are closer to the truth. But he goes on to say that there’s a point where we only partially know, and that’s mysticism. “There’s a secret which I don’t know; I lack the secret”. “I cannot grasp the truth of the divine, but the truth is out there”… He goes on to suggest that the conservatives are more right, in that once the event happens, we see clearly that there is nothing to clearly see – that there is a sort of fuzziness to reality. He links this to quantum mechanics and quantum indeterminacy – which I think is an example of picking up a scientific concept valid at one scale of reality and trying to apply it to a different scale, which is very commonly the same mistake as is made by New Agers talking of different levels of vibration in respect of human beings (a concept which works at the level of fundamental particles, but not at the level of human beings).

Unfortunately, I think he is woefully mischaracterising the mystical insight, and I think there of an article by David Steindl-Rast in which Br. Steindl-Rast says, talking of the mystical core of religions and the establishment of doctrines and practices responding to the insights of the mystics “Fortunately, I have not yet come across a religion where the system didn’t work at all. Unfortunately, however, deterioration begins on the day the system is installed. At first, doctrine is simply the interpretation of mystical reality; it flows from it and leads back to it. But then the intellect begins to interpret that interpretation. Commentaries on commentaries are piled on top of the original doctrine. With every new interpretation of the previous one, we move farther away from the experiential source. Live doctrine fossilizes into dogmatism.”

Some years ago, in a moment of frustration with some conservatively minded theologians, I wrote “The whole history of Christian theology is of the misinterpretation of the words of mystics by non-mystics”, and I think that is pretty much Br. Steindl-Rast’s observation – except he puts it far more politely than did I!

The mystic absolutely does not report that there’s a secret he or she doesn’t know but that it’s out there; the mystic reports that there is a truth to reality which he or she has experienced, and experienced with supreme clarity – but that human language and concept structures are inadequate to convey it with any precision.

So, going back to the “through a glass, darkly” quotation, I wonder how many readers have actually inspected a sample of Roman period glass. It tends to be more translucent than transparent, producing a rather misty view; it’s almost always significantly coloured, and it is never of uniform thickness, which produces distortion. Anyone looking through Roman glass is going to have seen a misty, distorted, coloured picture. That is, of course, a function of the glass, not of the thing observed (the inverse, really, of Pete’s analogy of Bigfoot possibly being by nature fuzzy, rather than the camera or cameraman being at fault for a fuzzy picture).

Mystics may well talk of “coincidenta oppositorum” (the coincidence of opposites), which may be interpreted as seeing a fundamental opposition or rift at the heart of reality. Radical theology has a tendency, which Pete joins in with, to take this as a statement of ontology – reality, for them, IS incomplete, flawed, contradictory or absurd. What I suggest, however, from my mystical perspective, is that the incompleteness, flaw, contradiction and absurdity is in the language and concept-structures which we are trying to use to describe the mystical experience. We are, in effect, looking through a distorting glass – and I would argue that an even better analogy would be a distorting glass with a crack in it. Of course we always see a flaw when we look at reality through the lens of human thought, but the flaw is in human thought. The mystic will report with complete confidence that there is no flaw in the reality experienced in mystical experiences; it is whole, it is One and it is complete.

It just can’t be described in significantly more detail than that without us inserting problems, rifts, oppositions where none was there originally – and no, I have no idea how this can be the case, I just know that it is.

Pete does have a point when he suggests that mystics are keenly aware of inadequacy, but it’s their inadequacy (and that of humanity generally) to describe reality as it really is. He is even getting at something in positing a basic rift – but it’s a rift between experience and concept (or, in Pete’s terminology, enjoyment and contemplation); concept can never quite adequately describe reality. We can never, in fact, know the “ding an sich”, the thing in itself.

He also has a point in talking of the event, the formulation of words (perhaps a story, perhaps a metaphor or analogy) which suddenly puts everything in a new light. That sudden understanding of things in a new light is, to me, analagous to the mystical experience (so can be hearing the unexpected punchline to a joke, viewing great art or natural beauty or even hitting a perfect shot at golf or cricket – though those analogies are weak, and none of them comes anywhere really near the intensity of the mystical experience). I can even hope that the philosophers or scientists, the rationalist jugglers with words, or the poets, the instinctual jugglers with words, may come up with something as yet unknown which will, at long last, actually have the ring of confidence for the mystic and render them able to say “Yes, that’s it exactly” without immediately adding “but…” So far, the poets are doing a lot better than the philosophers, but neither are particularly close to avoiding the “but…”


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Economics and Astrology

September 6th, 2019
by Chris

I read with interest a post on the Evonomics site, which criticises the ostensible scientific nature of economics. My response was this:-

Looking at economics from the point of view of someone trained in a hard science (Physics) and who still does some experimental work in a slightly softer one (Chemistry), I think calling economics a science is to denigrate science – unreasonably, in my eyes. I’m almost inclined to go as far as Dulce Martins (a commentator in the facebook thread following on the article) in comparing it with astrology (which, in the hands of “serious” practitioners involves a lot of mathematics and calculation).

However, I don’t. There is some merit in simplifying problems to ones we can actually solve, as long as we keep in mind that our simple model is only going to have predictive value if the environment in which it operates is constrained hugely – and that doesn’t happen in economics, as far as I can see.

Some scientific fields have also managed to grapple with problems which are extremely complex, and economics, if it were to operate as a science, would have to acknowledge that the field of economic interactions between humans is extremely complex, somewhat more complex than sociology, which is ideally somewhat more complex than psychology, which is itself a field too complex for much in the way of mathematical treatment, at least so far. I am, of course, suggesting that economics depends on sociology and so on through this progression, which might ignore the existence of emergent phenomena which actually *are* simpler in form than the underlying fields, but I see no good evidence that this applies in the case of economics, at least so far.

One might suggest that economics could be regarded as, to some extent, an experimental science, in that we have had experiments with Keynsianism (which, it seems to me, did quite well for a while until mechanisms it didn’t provide for came into play) and with Freidmanism (which experiment, it seems to me, failed pretty much from the start, then failed disastrously, but is still being doubled down on). I just note in that case that, if I am to be an experimental subject for an economic experiment, I require to have given informed consent… 😉

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Force-multipliers and inconsistency

August 7th, 2019
by Chris

The anniversary yesterday of the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima makes it very pertinent to think of our attitude to nuclear weapons. They are one of the three categories of weapon classified these days as “weapons of mass destruction”, the others being chemical and biological weapons. Hiroshima was the first use of nuclear weapons as a WMD, but is not the first use of WMDs – chemical weapons were used for the first time in a widespread attack by the Germans in World War I, but had already a long history; biological weapons have a possibly even longer history, the first major use in warfare being by the British in the French and Indian war shortly before the Declaration of Independence.

These days, it seems that all WMDs are regarded as particularly scary; chemical and biological weapons are prohibited under international humanitarian law, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons is one of the bugbears of foreign policy for the US and Europe, at the very least – the mere fact that North Korea and Iran may have, or develop, nuclear capability is enough to put them on a list of “most evil”. The second Iraq war was famously justified by the false claim that Iraq was developing WMDs.

Why is this demonisation of WMDs so acute? I could comment that the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II and the US bombing of South East Asia during the Vietnam war did significantly more damage than did Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, one nuclear weapon could unleash a lot of fallout (as well as the blast damage) and affect people into the future (as Hiroshima did and as Cernobyl, a nuclear accident, also did), but the really scary prospect during the cold war was not single nuclear devices, it was the mutually assured destruction policies of the Great Powers, which would have seen thousands follow even one.

I could also note that the German use of chlorine at Ypres was actually not all that effective (and neither was the earlier French deployment of tear gases which probably led to that use), and that by and large, biological warfare has only been drastically effective against native populations who lacked immunity. Despite the prominent motif of such weapons in film and television, there are significant difficulties in delivery of chemical and biological agents in such a way as to be effective (chemical largely because area effects are difficult to achieve, biological because any agent sufficiently communicable to have a drastic effect tends to pose nearly as much threat to those using it as to the enemy).

I fancy that the ultimate reason these are so alarming is that they represent a massive force multiplier. Hiroshima was levelled by one bomb, whereas Dresden and Leipzig (for instance) took hundreds of bombers in a very concentrated attack; similarly it is conceivable that a biological attack could be mounted by one individual (being patient zero in the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa, for instance). We seem to take the view that, in the case of nations, we should prevent them having these massive force multipliers.

I note, however, that at an individual rather than a national level, guns represent a very major force multiplier, particularly automatic weapons. One person with an automatic weapon can kill tens of people in a very short time, and do it from a distance (and it is well known that it is far easier to bring oneself to kill from a distance than face to face). In addition, it is extremely easy to use a gun; even children can do so with minimal tuition (though much more tuition is advisable to use it well and safely). Those considerations in fact historically led to a ban on the use of crossbows (which were considered the WMD of their day). The longbow and short bow both needed considerable training for the user to be deadly, whereas the “point and shoot” nature of the crossbow, together with its substantial penetrating power, which was greater by far than short bows, made it usable by barely trained people.

Why, I ask myself, is the US so adamant about stopping the spread of force-multipliers among nations, while shrugging it’s shoulders about the spread of force-multipliers among its citizens? It seems to me that much the same principles are at work; massive force multiplication, killing at a distance and even including the fact that WMDs can ultimately be unleashed by untrained people (namely politicians), just like guns. The principle difference, it seems to me, is that the US could probably do something about internal gun control, whereas it has relatively little control over nuclear proliferation (if it had, none of China, Israel, India or Pakistan would have had nuclear capacity).

OK, I know the parallel isn’t perfect. For one thing, mutually assured destruction has apparently worked, at least so far (even in the case of India and Pakistan, who have actually been at war since they both acquired nuclear weapons). The counterpart with guns, the “Mexican standoff” rarely appears to work – particularly the argument that the answer to a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun. Good men with guns kill quite a lot of people, as the list of shootings by police officers seems to show.

There is also no argument that nations should be able to use WMDs for their own amusement, though, liberal snowflake that I am, I don’t particularly endorse playing with lethal weapons as a sport. If you must, take up archery, for goodness sake! I also note that we are keen not to allow nations which haven’t already got nuclear weapons to develop nuclear power, which I consider a far more laudable enterprise than shooting for sport. Yes, I grant you, if you have nuclear power it’s a lot easier to develop nuclear weapons, but it is (particularly in the light of climate change) a reasonably beneficial use in and of itself.

I do hope that, at some point, America will end its love affair with guns, or, at the very least, go back to being content with things with a lower force multiplication effect – bolt action rifles, revolvers and double barrelled shotguns, for instance. I grant you, those can be extremely lethal in the wrong hands (which includes anyone who is not well trained and who keeps up the training, and anyone who does not practice rigorous gun safety), but they don’t kill so many people so quickly. Equally, I hope the world will end its love affair with WMDs and consign the use of nuclear power to power, not destruction.

Unfortunately, in the second case, we currently seem to be moving in the wrong direction. I fear the US is moving in the wrong direction in the first case as well…

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Taxation is a gift to those being taxed…

July 21st, 2019
by Chris

A recent Evonomics article makes clear that income inequality is bad for society generally, which is borne out by studies indicating that health outcomes are worse even for the rich in countries with greater wealth inequality.

There are also studies indicating that being rich makes you less altruistic and more self-centered.

Jesus, of course, told the rich young man that he should sell all he had and give the money to the poor: Mark 10 has the story.

17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

So, my libertarian friend, you tell me that for the state to tax you is theft? I suggest that it is doing you a favour – it will bring you at least slightly closer to heaven, according to Jesus (and I have no doubt that, like the rich young man, you wouldn’t feel able to do this for yourself), it will make you a nicer person and improve your health.

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Improvising on a theme of atemporality

July 13th, 2019
by Chris

Tom Oord has put up a blog post “Providence as improv, jazz or family” which I really like from a theological standpoint. I’m pretty sold on the “Uncontrolling Love” concept which he introduces in the book of the same name and explores further in “God Can’t”, his recent, less heavy expansion of his ideas. I’ve written extensively about Tom’s ideas previously, including being part of a book group which he ran with Tripp Fuller (my first such post is here). One of the extremely attractive features of Tom’s thinking is that it would seem to solve the problem of evil (God can’t be all of omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent, given the amount of actual evil in the world).

My only concern is this – I’m a mystic, and take my basis from mystical experience (if I didn’t, I’d be in the agnostic or atheist camp), and one of the prevalent characteristics of the mystical experience is a feeling (and it comes with the subjective force of being absolutely true) that there is an atemporal aspect to this experience of God. You see it described as “timeless moment” or “eternal now” for instance.

While I can just about consider that this part of the mystical experience might be mistaken, despite the hugely self-verifying nature of it (I’m there entertaining it as an intellectual exercise, but have no belief that it’s actually the case) I’d far prefer to have a solution in which God was at least in some respect atemporal – and I say “in some respect” with the thought that we might be talking of a transcendent aspect to go with the immanent, time-involved aspect.

Happily, I utterly reject the theological stance that God has to be “simple” – I tend more to the view that God is the most complex entity in existence – so a combination of time-dependence and atemporality isn’t ruled out on the basis of any philosophical theology for me. I will grant that another of the overwhelming insights of the mystical experience is that God is one – the Jewish Shema ( Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad ; hear, O Israel, the Lord, the Lord is one).

That does tend towards the “simple” pole; obviously immanence and transcendence are completely different things, as are atemporality and temporality. I hold to immanence and transcendence (as a panentheist rather than a pantheist – a pantheist would probably deny the transcendent dimension), though, so I already have a kind of dichotomy there, and it definitely seems to me that temporality goes with immanence, and atemporality perhaps goes similarly with transcendence. We could, perhaps, just be considering two dimensions of the One God there?

I’m not sure how that would cash out in terms of Tom’s Uncontrolling Love concept, though. Tom holds to a concept of “original kenosis”, which preserves divine power while conceiving of it as being withdrawn from acting in the world, in order to allow for free will; I hold to a concept of “original incarnation”, in which divine power is not poured out of the universe in order to leave room for us, but poured into the universe in order to create us (and thus transferred irrevocably to us – and the rest of the universe). Atemporality of any kind would seem to guarantee that God would know the whole of time, including future time (and the mystical experience, so far as it goes, would tend to support that view).

The trouble then is that everything which happens would have had to have been foreknown by God at the point of the original kenosis or original incarnation, and that lands the blame for everything squarely on God again, despite both Tom and myself considering that God is necessarily post-creation unable to act in the world in any unilateral way (and certainly not as the miracle-working breaker of natural laws which conventional Judaism and Christianity have tended to see).

I need to find some way of squaring the mystical revelation of atemporality with an inability to see the future (perhaps because the future does not yet exist to be seen), and at the point of writing, I don’t have that. But it seems to me that there has to be some way of doing it…

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Big Government, Welfare States and freedom

July 9th, 2019
by Chris

An “Evonomics” article asks if Big Government actually reduces personal freedom, as is often argued by conservatives – and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t, and not only doesn’t do that, but doesn’t reduce freedom for ordinary individuals (though it clearly does for the 1%), doesn’t undermine ther family or societal organisations, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to have children, doesn’t reduce people’s willingness to work, and generally has no discernible effect on any of these things valued by conservatives.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to any regular reader of this blog that I find all these conclusions pretty obvious. From my point of view, my freedom is actually massively enhanced if someone else is doing a large number of things I don’t want to be bothered doing myself. I don’t, for instance, want to go back to the mediaeval manorial system in which the peasants (and I’d probably be a peasant in that system, which had no middle class to speak of) had to do some regular work for the lord of the manor maintaining the roads and bridges on the manor. A road or bridge which I had a hand in mending would probably not be one you wanted to drive on – road mending is not among my areas of competence (and the shared drive to my house bears witness not only to the fact that none of the five housholds which use it have any particular skill in road repair but also that getting as few as five people to agree to do the job is significantly difficult).

There are parts of Central America where government basically funds no roads at all, and motorists are used to people along the roadside asking them for money to mend potholes – and the roads are utterly appalling. Possibly, by reports I hear, even worse than our driveway…

Of course, those who cavil at paying taxes to support initiatives which benefit the community as a whole probably share my view that a lot of these things are not ones which the actual individuals using them can usefully work at providing. They don’t, after all, do all those things themselves – they pay other people to do it for them. Those with a really high income also pay people to engage and pay the people who actually do the work, and to make many of the decisions about what is actually done – an acquaintance of mine, for instance, employs a butler, a chef and an estate manager (no, I don’t usually move in those kinds of circles – we just happened to be involved with the same charity a few years ago).

Roads are, perhaps, an extreme case; not even my most conservative, libertarian friends seem to think that road building and maintenance should not be performed communally (although some of them think they should be contracted out to the lowest bidder like much of local government’s responsibilities have been forced to, an arrangement which seems to involve all the costs of democratic control and in addition all those of the requirement to make a profit, without any improvement in actual performance – actually, with a sneaking reduction in that, no doubt from “cost savings”). Consider, however, my acquaintance who employs a chef – and how many of us are too tired after work to cook properly, and use a labour-saving device ( a microwave) to heat up a meal cooked for us by professionals using all the advantages of the mass production system (OK, and with all its drawbacks, too), or send for a take-out. We are, in principle, employing chefs ourselves…

Are we really “free” if all the money we can earn (and the earning of which makes us too tired to cook, so all our productive time as well) goes on the necessities of life, with precious little left over? OK, a lucky few of us actually enjoy our jobs, and would do them even if we were paid nothing for them, (which is the position I now find myself in), but for most, what occupies almost all our usable time is something which we suffer having to do in order to live (and, for younger generations than mine, service the considerable debts accrued in trying to get enough education to land a job in the first place). In very many cases, the jobs have no capacity to be satisfying in any event – statistics indicate that a surprising number of us consider some or all of what we do at work to be pointless, i.e. that we have “bullshit jobs”.

Freedom, it seems to me, rests in being able to do what you actually want to do, rather than what you must, or what you’re not really very good at and which could be done far better and quicker by someone who is actually skilled at doing it (or, of course, increasingly by a labour-saving device – which may very soon even involve driving ones-self around from place to place…). Most of us, however, don’t individually have the money to pay people to do all these things for us.

However, as a society, we do have the money to pay for a lot of things to be done communally. Roads, yes, but also rail, bus and possibly also freight transport (and some local councils have managed to provide free bus transport for residents in the past); in my country, obviously medicine (the National Health Service) which, despite the fact that it is permanently short of money and staff, is something which the vast majority of Britons would prefer not to be taken away. Education was for a while mainly a state responsibility here – I am of a generation which expected to be educated (if capable enough) to first degree level at state expense, and I deeply regret the fact that governments from the 80s onwards have removed this form of communal investment in our country’s future.

It doesn’t escape me that Libertarians and Existentialists are likely to accuse me of not stepping up to the responsibility of making choices, and decry the idea that anyone else should make those choices for me. Sartre had the concept of “bad faith” for those who accept the decisions of others, particularly if those are internalised. Does not putting the responsibility for some of these decisions onto the community (which may be the State) represent this kind of “bad faith”? More seriously, does it not actually restrict my ability to choose, as the Libertarian would claim?

The Libertarian does have a point, though a rather weak one. Were I shuffling off that responsibility to a king or feudal lord, I might well agree. But I live in a representative democracy, where I have the ability to vote for someone to make those decisions for me. Indeed, for many years, I not only voted but stood as a candidate and got elected (at a local level), being willing to make such decisions on behalf of those I represented. Now, some 40 years after I first took up elected office, I don’t want to continue making those decisions. I’m tired, for one thing, and also now have an anxiety disorder, which means that I really want to keep decision making down to those things I really consider important. Sartre did suggest that anxiety was the inevitable result of having the widest possible freedom to choose, and my response to any allegation of bad faith would be to ask why he considers we are obliged to self-harm when it is unnecessary.

As I’ve indicated above, though, you don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to want to have someone else make decisions which you don’t want to bother making yourself. None of the rich people I know make all those decisions themselves, after all…

Another aspect of shifting some functions onto the community rather than the individual is the issue of fear. For this, let me use an example in which my own country, the UK, contrasts hugely with the USA. That is healthcare. I am fortunate enough to live in a country with broadly socialised healthcare in the form of the NHS (and I might add, the NHS is supported by a massive majority of the population). The USA doesn’t really have socialised healthcare, and every week I read of someone whose financial security has been devastated by a sudden, unexpected healthcare bill. The late Rachel Held Evans’ family were hit not only by her untimely death, but also with a stratospheric hospital bill; Mike McHargue, of the Liturgists podcast, had his own heart scare recently, and his family finances were also demolished. In both cases, an internet-based campaign quickly raised the money to fix these problems – but they were massively well-known and well-loved public figures, and the less well-known go bankrupt on an appalling scale. The popular TV series “Breaking Bad” was based on a similar situation, in which the main character turned to making crystal meth in order to meet medical expenses…

In the UK, none of us need fear that kind of disaster – and it can strike almost anyone. Even some in the States who thought of themselves as well-insured have found that deductibles and quibbling insurance companies have wiped them out.

Another Evonomics article notes “the possibility that the welfare state is an efficiency-enhancing institution that helps maintain popular support for relatively free markets by ensuring they more or less benefit everyone.” I’d actually suggest that the welfare state enhances efficiency by reducing the level of fear (as with the NHS), by freeing up mental capacity to make decisions which people are actually good at making, because they are interested in them, and by, to some extent, forcing businesses to negotiate wages on a slightly more level playing field. The fear issue comes in again there – if the alternative to taking a bullshit job at minimum wage is to starve and/or to be put on the street, while an employer has a ready supply of other terrified people to take the bullshit job, there isn’t anything remotely like a free market.

As might be apparent from my last paragraph, I am not against free markets as such. I don’t like command economies as a general rule, as they tend to be inefficient, though I note that anywhere where a monopoly or cartel exists and the market is dominated by very large companies, there might as well be a command economy – many large companies have budgets larger than (for instance) the near-command economy of Cuba and put more money into preserving their monopoly or cartel status, or their handouts from governments, than they do to improving their efficiency. The NHS is to some extent a command economy in respect of healthcare in the UK, but healthcare costs are massively lower in the UK than the US without a corresponding reduction in quality of care (indeed, by many standards the NHS provides better healthcare than does the USA). Granted, there is also private medicine in the UK, but it doesn’t compete in many fields – it is superior (if you can afford it) for regular medical checkups and for elective procedures, but not, in general, for much of the rest of medicine.

I think the balance in the UK has tipped too far away from the Welfare State, and that should be redressed. In the States – well, I look at some of the statements of Democratic contenders for president, and wonder whether we may see a shift towards a social-democratic mixed economy there. I hope so, for the sake of – well – about 99% of Americans.

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Omnipotence, superheroes and Stormzy

July 2nd, 2019
by Chris

Stephen Morris writes, in a message on the “Exploring the Universal Christ” facebook group “I see now why so many American evangelicals almost exclusively worship a God of immense might and power, a God who resembles Zeus, hurling lightning bolts and dispensing judgment against infidels. A God who is always in control of everything and everybody. We become like the God we worship, so an omnipotent Being is the very thing our egos aspire to be like. We want to be omnipotent, we want to be judge, jury and executioner, we want to be in control of everything and everybody.”

Indeed, perhaps this also explains the popularity of superhero narratives (which aren’t restricted to the products of Marvel and D.C. Comics – almost any action movie you watch involves a hero who is superhuman in at least a modest sense). I’ve written about “God as superhero” before – the linked post lost me a few acquaintances (which facebook calls “friends”) because – well – anything you call “God” has to be “more than” everything, doesn’t it? Anselm’s “ontological argument” rests entirely on that premise, after all.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Amusingly, this phrase is commonly attributed to another superhero, Spiderman (in the comic and film, it was actually said to Spiderman rather than by him), though its first recorded use seems to be in a document of the French Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety in 1793. I think this has to be a truism, though if so, it is a little surprising that there isn’t a much earlier use quoted. There is a lot of play with this concept in recent superhero literature and films.

If that be the case, with all-powerfulness comes all-responsibility. Perhaps our egos do aspire to be omnipotent, as Stephen writes, but they rarely aspire to be responsible for everything. If God is omnipotent, we are logically incapable of doing anything by ourselves, and need saving – and that is both where the other potential ego-identification in superhero movies comes from and the basis for the common Christian thinking (emanating, I think, from the Reformed and particularly the Calvinist stream of thought) that we are entirely worthless and only God can save us. Or, of course, your superhero of choice. We are maybe slightly better represented by Fay Wray than by Christopher Reeve, and we need saving (rather than to save) more often than Stephen’s American evangelical would like – at least, any time he or she was not in church. In church, humanity is entirely powerless and helpless.

This seems to me to lie behind Stormzy’s song “Blinded by your Grace”, which he performed recently at Glastonbury to rapturous applause. It’s a decent song, and perhaps goes some way to filling the void of Christian rap (“Christian music” has colonised folk music fairly extensively, some pop music and a bit of rock; I await the dawn of “Christian techno” and “Christian Death Metal” with a feeling of dread…). The same tendency similarly lies behind what I’ve heard referred to as the “prayers of abject self-abasement” in the Anglican communion service, which my vicar tends to prune down to one from the more normal three (two before, one after communion) – as he says, once is really enough…

The trouble here is that the line of Christian reasoning apparent in Luther and Calvin (and, of course, in most of Evangelicalism) is hopelessly schizoid. On the one hand, God has to be omnipotent (and omniscient, and omnipresent, and omni-everything else) – because, as I’ve heard from many conservative Christians, “otherwise He isn’t worthy of worship”, and as such only God can save us; we do need another hero.

But on the other hand, in this conception, God is not omniresponsible. It’s we mortals who are responsible for all the bad in the world (original sin), and we are incapable of doing anything good in and of ourselves, but somehow capable of (and doing) all the bad things. “Total Depravity” in the Calvinist schema.

I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t work. If God has all the power, God also has all the responsibility. We (and by that I mean the Reformed tradition in Christianity together with much of the rest of Western expressions of the faith) seem to want to combine divine power not with divine responsibility but with divine irresponsibility – and my mind turns to Hancock again. The corollary is that we want to combine human powerlessness with human total responsibility.

It’s just black and white, all or nothing thinking – and if I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that there’s always a middle (which, in this thinking, is an excluded middle) – and that not infrequently, the middle is the only area which describes reality, as both extreme poles are just fictions. I think the God of the omnis is just such a fiction, just as I think the totally depraved human being is a fiction. Yes, this means that I don’t believe that God is omnipotent (or, indeed, omniscient), and it also means that I consider that we do have some power to do good or evil. This makes me, I suppose at least somewhat Pelagian (and so heretical), and also closer to Judaism (which recognises both a yetzer-ha-tov and a yetzer-ha-ra, capacities for or inclinations toward both good and evil).

My conservative friend would no doubt repeat their comment – “so how is God worthy of worship, if he isn’t omni-anything?” (actually, I think God is omnipresent, but that’s the only “omni” I accept). One answer is to point out that our “object of ultimate concern”, as Paul Tillich described God, doesn’t remotely have to be all of everything – a very large amount of something laudable (such as love, or compassion) will do quite nicely. I might also be tempted to comment that there is no way I could love the Calvinists’ God-concept, and that I wouldn’t feel that worthy of worship – because I don’t respect tyrrany or irresponsibility, and power without acceptance of responsibility is both of those. This God-concept is a monster – I could fear it, and that’s about that.

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