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Fear no evil?

August 11th, 2017

I spent the early part of last week doing a Mental Health First Aid course. This was a stretching exercise, largely because we had to delve into areas which I find uncomfortable (such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, all of which I’ve been diagnosed as suffering from) – and to some extent because some of the class exercises demanded that one of our group tell a sad or distressing story, which led to me twice dredging up incidents from my past which were painful at the time, and, it seems, are still distressing now. One of the class members couldn’t cope with the second day and vanished, hotly pursued by one of the instructors, who made sure that she was safe enough to be allowed to make her way home. However, it was also rewarding and informative, and bolstered my confidence in being able to give appropriate support to people suffering from various mental health crises. I probably need to except psychotic breaks from that – I still really feel those are well above my pay grade and need a professional!

I can strongly recommend going on such a course to anyone who has a lot of contact with people. My first draft of this said “people with mental health problems”, but frankly such a high proportion of the population suffers at some point in their lives from a disagnosable mental health condition (at least 25%) that I’m confident that anyone dealing with people regularly will find occasions where mental health first aid training would be useful.

We had a diverse and interesting group, including a bunch of police officers (one or whom specialises in talking people down from bridges or out of hostage situations and who had a wonderful line in rather black humour, which I suspect goes with the territory), some service users, some carers and a few people actually in the mental health establishment, and that contributed a lot to the benefit of the course – we had people who had actually experienced most of the conditions “from the inside” as well as having between us experience of trying to care for people with all of them.

It was therefore slightly surprising to find that it needed to be me who contributed one piece of advice, this being for anyone dealing with someone experiencing a panic attack. That advice is “don’t get between them and the door”. The rationale is this – when suffering a panic attack, it is overwhelmingly likely that the conscious mind will be overwhelmed by the subconscious “3F” reaction, which many psychologists call the “reptile brain”. The three “f’s” are fight, flight and freeze.

Freeze is distinctly the easiest to deal with from a first aid point of view – the person panicking is probably going nowhere, and you can talk to them in a calm and measured way if they aren’t in danger, or guide them gently out of danger if (for instance) they’ve frozen in the middle of crossing a road. If someone is running away, you can follow them. However, the subconscious flips between these rather easily, and particularly if there’s a strong impulse to flee, clearly getting in the way of that can very easily trip the subconscious into the “fight” reaction instead. That may also be the case if the person panicking appears frozen to you – they may be on the edge of flight, and closing off the available exit can be enough to flip them into fight.

The thing is, this is not a “press the f*-it button” reaction much of the time. Sometimes that is the case – the tide of “must do this” is resistable, at least for a time. But other times, the tide overwhelms the conscious mind, and willpower (or, more accurately, won’t-power) is just not a factor any more.

When this happens, the panicking person is, to my mind, not responsible for their actions – and those can potentially be very violent. As Frank Herbert wrote in “Dune”, “fear is the mind-killer”. In the case of someone panicking, I’d be inclined to think that the person who got in the way was primarily responsible for getting injured, at least if they had any understanding of panic.

But how about a whole society which panics? I’m inclined to argue that this does happen; it happened in most of the West, but particularly America, when communism was seen as an existential threat (and there was a particular fear-factor in the nearness of mutually assured destruction through nuclear war, not entirely unreasonably, given that 99 red balloons could conceivably have started war – a flight of seagulls came close on at least one occasion). Western governments did things to combat that perceived threat which were, frankly, unconscionable, such as propping up right wing dictators and formenting rebellion against left wing governments.

Much of the Western world (and again, in particular the States) now lives in constant fear of serious crime, such as home invasions – which, statistically, seem about as likely as lightening strikes. However, the reaction is, both sides of the Atlantic, to hand down swingeing sentences for violent crime, and in the States to cling to guns as if they would solve the problem (there is very little evidence that gun owners successfully foil violent crime, and every evidence that gun owners and their families are in more danger from their guns than they ever would be from criminals). This is not a sane response. Fear is the mind-killer.

We also have on both sides of the Atlantic populations which are increasingly insecure in relation to employment. Gone are the days when most people could be assured a “job for life” – several changes of actual job, and multiple changes of employer are now standard, and although technically employment has increased significantly in the last 30 years, most of the jobs “created” are not good jobs, i.e. jobs which can keep a family in reasonable comfort. The threat of unemployment leading, potentially, to homelessness and destitution, is far far higher now than it was when I first looked for a job in the 1970s. People generally are scared, and perhaps rightly so, as statistics show that most of us are at most three pay checks away from destitution.

And, of course, scared people do stupid things (fear is the mind-killer). They fix on immigrants as the cause of their job-insecurity, for instance, despite evidence that immigration actually contributes to the economy (after all, the immigrants are going to spend significant amounts of their money in our economy, not the one they’ve left). They decide that government regulations are holding us all back, rather than protecting us (mostly, the second is the case); those two factor were big in both our Brexit decision and America’s Trump decision. Those in government are not immune – instead of protecting people against destitution, they fix on austerity as being the solution to all our problems, and thus deepen insecurity for everyone who is not in the top 10% – and they so capably sell the same message to the rest of us that we actually vote them back into office.

We are a scared and anxious people, and the news media seem calculated to keep us that way – or, perhaps, it’s just our own fascination with death and disaster, as good news doesn’t seem to sell papers…

With this background, I am less than ecstatic to find Trump posturing against North Korea – or, at least, I hope it’s just posturing. The trouble is, making excessive threats is the action of a scared person. The USA has at least 7,000 nuclear weapons, and the idea that an unfriendly power might acquire one or two should really not be all that worrying, unless they are totally insane. Or, of course, very scared; fear is the mind-killer, and either Trump or Kim Jong Un might, conceivably, be very scared, and therefore very stupid. If either were to use nukes against the other, there would assuredly be retalliation, and there is really no way of knowing what other players would then do…

In the lowest days of my depression and anxiety, I sometimes found myself repeating over and over again the 23rd Psalm, and in particular the words Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”. Readers who are keener on SF and fantasy than on religion might just go with Frank Herbert; “I shall not fear, fear is the mind-killer”.

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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 4

August 4th, 2017

I’ve now talked about secondary and marginal Jewish and Christian scriptures, about the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretations (also regarded as scripture by Judaism) and about the interpretative tradition in Christianity. There is one area left within “sacred texts” which I haven’t covered – religions other than Judaism and Christianity.

Many people I know would be very uneasy about a suggestion that Christians might read the sacred texts of other religions. We are, after all, Christians – and so we consider that Christianity is the way to understand and show devotion to God – don’t we? We have all heard John 14:6 being quoted time after time, after all…

Firstly, I’ll look at what came before, just as did the Hebrew Scriptures. I’d suggest that, if we are to understand the creation narrative of Genesis 1-3, we should look at what the creation narratives of nations which preceded Israel and from whose area the Israelites are said to have come say about creation, and which bordered the area where the Israelites eventually settled. There are two major narratives from Mesapotamia (Babylon), the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elis which treat of creation, and the parallels (and differences) between those and the Biblical text are fascinating. Biblical scholars have made much of this in understanding how Genesis came to be in the form it is.

The big question, however, is whether we should look to scripture which are entirely outside the traditions of the Bible (such as the Vedas and Upanishads, the Buddhist Sutras and the Dao de Ching), or those which follow on after Judaism and Christianity, such as the Koran, the writings of the Sufis, Bah’ai writings and, I suppose, the Book of Mormon (I apologise for any offence given to LDS readers, if there are any; I personally find the Book of Mormon very difficult to regard as anything but a pastiche of King James language, and I have yet to find in it anything I might wish to take to heart which is not already in the Bible).

Dealing with the second category first, I think it necessary to point out that by many standards (and certainly in the eyes of most non-Christians) the Latter Day Saints and the Seventh Day Adventists are Christians, but the first definitely have additional scriptures in the form of the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, the second arguably treat the writings of Ellen White as scripture. The Koran acknowledges Jesus as a prophet, but considers Mohammed to have given a better and less corrupted revelation; the Bah’ai  faith accepts the Bible and the Koran but considers the writings of its founders to correct (or at least update) both. Needless to say, in the chain of successor religions, each tends to regard the next one in the chain with particular disfavour (Judaism to Christianity, Christianity to Islam, LDS and to a lesser extent SDA, and Islam to Bah’ai and, from time to time, the Sufis). The same mechanism probably explains the particular venom of the early church towards the Gnostics, which I mentioned in part 1.

Are these scriptures worth studying? I know people who would claim that they are without exception Satanic attempts to mislead the faithful, and that we should therefore avoid them like the plague. I think this woefully underestimates both the Bible and God, assuming that (as those of that persuasion would argue) that the Bible is “The Word of God”. Beyond that, I would argue that there is huge value in knowing how others think, and part of that is (for believers) going to rest on their scriptures. If, perchance, we mistrust or fear the actions of those of a particular religious persuasion, there is no more convincing argument than to quote their own scripture to them.

Also (and this is going to apply to the unconnected scriptures as well) there is no more positive exercise for deepening one’s own faith than to allow it to be critiqued by others – and that is particularly the case when those others are from “successor religions”. Those in The Way Station (for whom this post is initially written) will maybe have encountered this idea in Peter Rollins writings and practices – it is “The Evangelism Project”, in which you talk with those of other faiths (or none) and allow them to evangelise you, rather than arguing with them.

Those scriptures which do not share any philosophical or theological presuppositions with Christianity are perhaps even more challenging in one sense, that they require a complete change in thinking, though less challenging in the sense that they are less likely to have an insidious evangelising effect. One could argue that they challenge also in that they may not be wholly accessible to us without a knowledge of the languages and cultures from which they developed, though the number of Christians comfortable with Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin is fairly limited!

Do they give us something which we cannot get from the Bible? Well, J. Robert Oppenheimer would have been hard pressed to find anything as apposite as the Baghavad Gita’s “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” to comment on the development of the Atomic Bomb. While I value the writings of Christian mystics highly, none of them has quite equalled Baba Kuhi of Shiraz writing “In the market, in the cloister, only God I saw”, and that link is to a site mostly devoted to Rumi, whose writings I know have inspired countless Christians. Is there, I ask myself, anything Biblical which conveys the message of “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao”, or of a host of Zen koans?

When  we come to praxis (or practice), very many Christians do yoga or other meditative practices with their origins in Eastern religion – where would they be without Patanjali’s yoga sutras, or the nikayas? They find there nothing contrary to their Christian belief.

So yes, I think we definitely should dare to look beyond the Bible. There is a massive amount there which could inform or enhance our Christian faith. And, in conscience, if as a result we end up not being Christian any more, perhaps we can recall “in my Father’s house are many mansions”.

As a postscript, I will say that the two scriptures which scare me the most (and probably should scare anyone else who is part of the Western developed world) are “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” and “Sell all you have and give it to the poor”. And they are both not only part of the New Testament, but ascribed to Jesus himself.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 3

August 3rd, 2017

In parts 1 & 2 I talked firstly about scripture which was in one way or another secondary, either because it was not fully accepted by some churches, or because it wasn’t accepted by any of them any more, and about the Hebrew Scriptures (which scare many Christians) and their interpretations in Judaism.

In Christianity, we do not share the Jewish concept of interpretation as being added to scripture and as part of it, as I talked of in part 2. There is interpretation in the New Testament – most of the content of the Epistles is actually theological interpretation, and Paul can reasonably be regarded as the first Christian theologian. Once the first generation of Christian interpreters were no longer with us, it became much more unlikely that writers of interpretation would be accepted as scripture (though I argue in Part 1 that it is still worth finding out what they were saying!) and after the mid-second century, the canon of scripture was effectively closed. However, we actually are very reliant on the work of various interpreters for what we include in such documents as the Creeds and as Statements of Faith.

Let me take one example, that of the concept of atonement. Much of Protestant Christianity at the moment considers that the basic Christian message is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement; mankind fell into sin with Adam, the penalty for that is death (and perhaps damnation), and God advanced Jesus (his son) as a perfect, sinless sacrifice to bear the penalty for that sin on behalf of all (or at least potentially all). Indeed, one helper at an Alpha course said to me, when I said I had problems with PSA, “But that IS the gospel”. Well, no.

We would not have had the concept of original sin on which that rests without Augustine’s “City of God” in the Fourth Century. Judaism had (and still has) no concept of original sin in the way it is understood in Christianity. Augustine was a Western theologian, and original sin is not thought of quite the same way in the Eastern churches.

And, indeed, neither is atonement. Augustine laid some of the groundwork for the concept of a “ransom”  – a death paid to ransom us from sin, or Satan, or both – which was dominant for a millennium in the Western Church; the Eastern churches tended to hold that and something like the concept of “Christus Victor” in tension.

In the eleventh century, however, Anselm of Canterbury wrote his “Cur Deus Homo” and introduced the concept of “satisfaction” – in his eyes, taking the concept of honour from the feudal society then dominant, sin was an offence to God’s honour, and all offences to the supremely high honour of God could only be expiated by death (at least!) – which, again, Jesus took upon himself.

Some 400 years later, Martin Luther and John Calvin changed the concept to a judicial one; God’s law demanded death, and that penalty (from which the word “penal”) was taken on himself by Christ; God’s justice (it is argued) demanded a sacrifice, that sacrifice had to be of blood, and only a life of supreme value (because it was both human and divine) would suffice.

Can you get there from a simple reading of scripture? Well, there are passages which talk of debt, there are passages which talk about ransom, there are passages which talk about victory… there is even a passage which comments on the Levitical regime of sacrifice that almost no atonement was possible without blood (not, may I point out, no atonement at all without blood, as is so often misquoted…)

However, as I mentioned in part 1, there is also the simple example of the Maccabean Martyrs, whose deaths were described as an atoning sacrifice for all of Israel – and they weren’t of the blameless or of an individual in whom God and man were uniquely joined.

It took a set of four of the most influential theologians to have lived in the West and over 1400 years of discussion to arrive at PSA. Most of those who espouse this idea (which, I may point out, is not in any of the creeds) have no idea how it developed.

Similarly, unless you read the early Eastern church fathers, you are likely not to understand the concept of the Trinity (which is reflected in the Creeds), and how concepts from Greek philosophy interacted with what we see in scripture to produce the formulas which many of us obediently mouth on a regular basis. Though, in conscience, even if we do read (say) Gregory of Nazianzus, Trinity might still turn out to be “a holy mystery beyond the grasp of human intellect”…

My suggestion for this part is that, despite the fact that they are often difficult to read (scary!), and always extremely dated in their viewpoints, we really ought to read the more prominent theologians if we want to understand our current beliefs better. And, of course, my hope is that if we understand how we got to PSA better, we will abandon it as a concept of atonement…

It might be thought that in three parts and over three thousand words, I might have exhausted the subject. Not so; on to part 4…

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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…) Part 2

August 1st, 2017

In part 1, I looked at some examples of what one might call “secondary scripture”, including the apocrypha (or deuterocanonical, which is a translation of “secondary scripture”) and a set of completely extra-canonical works which probably were “scripture” for some churches at some time, but now are not.

However, the biggest source of being “afraid of sacred texts” I come across on a day to day basis is the Hebrew Scriptures (or “Old Testament”). I lose track of the numbers of people I encounter in church, notably in small groups, who have actually read a little beyond the carefully selected texts which tend to be preached on, and are troubled by (for instance) the end of Psalm 137 “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones Against the rock.”  This tends to be avoided like the plague by preachers who are, however, content to use the beginning of the same psalm “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion”, conjuring up memories of Boney M. They didn’t get to the end either…

The early triumphalist history of Israel is littered with examples of apparently divinely approved violence, from injunctions to kill every last Amalekite (including livestock). Saul’s very minor reinterpretation of this is grounds for divine displeasure (and it is uncertain whether the fault is just in leaving Agag alive, but captured, or in keeping the livestock alive…). It was not just the Amalekites who needed to worry – Israelites themselves could be a target, and the Israelites were not exactly good neighbours to Canaan, Philistia, Moab or Edom. In fact, I could probably have stopped at “not exactly good neighbours”…

It is hardly surprising that my small group fellows agonise about whether the God presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is actually the same God as evidenced in the words of Jesus, and prefer to avoid most of the historical parts. Similarly, stoning children for cheeking their parents is one of a set of commandments which we now have extreme difficulty in accepting as “divine commandments”, perhaps even more so than avoiding bacon or lobster…

They are not, of course, by any means the first Christians to have this concern. In the second century, Marcion of Sinope had similar worries, and decided that the Hebrew Scriptures were “not needed on voyage” – and also reduced the New Testament to an abbreviated version of Luke-Acts and the Pauline letters in an attempt to avoid cognitive dissonance. He was, of course, condemned as a heretic, one of the first clearly named heretics, but his ideas by no means died with the suppression of Marcionite tendencies, and Marcion’s identification of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Demiurge, a kind of “imposter God”, was to be a mainstay of those Gnostic interpretations of Christianity of which the Gnostic Gospels were accused (see part 1).

By far the most important reason I would advance for studying the Hebrew Scriptures is, however, not because to avoid them might be slightly heretical, but the fact that they formed much of the matrix of thought in which Jesus operated and in which the New Testament writers formulated their accounts. You cannot really understand the New Testament without understanding the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament is either appropriating texts from there to approve or giving a counter-testimony against them (“You have heard it said… but I say…”).

And, in conscience, that is the key to the Hebrew Scriptures; they do not just give a single viewpoint, there is a constant ebb and flow of testimony and counter-testimony, which at the simplest can be thought of as a main narrative with prophets giving a counter-narrative on a regular basis, and some of the writings (notably Ecclesiastes and Job) subverting both.

This is brought out excellently in two recent books, firstly John Dominic Crossan’s “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”, secondly Peter Enns “The Bible Tells Me So”. (They are by no means alone; divine violence is a hot topic in the Christian publishing world at the moment).

The church fathers’ wisdom in keeping four gospels against Marcion’s wish for there to be only one and avoid ambiguity was foreshadowed by the wisdom of the Jewish forerunners of the Rabbis in keeping completely contradictory accounts and regarding both at the same time as inspired scripture. Equally, there is testimony and countertestimony between the seven definitely Pauline letters and the probably not Pauline letters, and between the Pauline viewpoint and that of the Epistle of James.

Christians could, I think, learn much from Judaism in their approach to scripture. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that when venturing beyond the safety of the texts we’re used to hearing, we could do worse than to look at Jewish interpretations of their own scripture. Judaism does, after all, have a significant head start over Christianity in trying to interpret these scriptures!

The earlier of those were collected into the Talmud, which ranks as scripture (at least of a kind) for Judaism; it’s thought of as containing the “Oral Torah” (in balance with the five earliest books of the Bible, which are the Torah) and as being possibly as authoritative – and, if you’re a conservative or Orthodox Jew, as having originally been communicated to Moses on Sinai but not written down… Indeed, in the eyes of Jewish conservatives, if a young rabbinic scholar comes up with a new and interesting interpretation of Torah tomorrow, it will still have been communicated to Moses on Sinai… (This is the mindset which, as I mentioned in part 1 of this essay, decided that the rock followed Moses. It is maybe not easy for a Christian to understand, but it has a logic of its own).

Maybe reading the Talmud is a step too far, but something like the Jewish Annotated New Testament can be very valuable in Bible study in giving at least some of the Jewish tradition, as can a Jewish Study Bible for the Hebrew Scriptures.

At this point, I’ve gone beyond what is even regarded as “scripture” in either Judaism or Christianity with the study Bibles. In part 3, I intend to go even further…

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Scared of sacred texts? (Daring to look beyond the Bible…)

July 30th, 2017

(This post was created for and first appeared on The Way Station blog)

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, are the familiar words of 2 Timothy 3:16, written, probably, by a sincere follower of Paul borrowing his name sometime during the first century. You may know it as “all scripture is inspired”, and you probably learned that the words were written down by Paul himself – and so they referred to themselves immediately, as this is part of what we now understand as “scripture”.

Passing swiftly over the issue of whether we should take this proof text for inerrancy seriously, given that on this understanding it is saying that it’s “theopneustos” itself, and most people would not take a claim of inerrancy seriously from someone who just declared that they were inerrant – even the Pope – the question has to arise as to what Paul (or pseudo-Paul) actually meant by both “theopneustos” and by “graphe”, the word we see translated as “Scripture”.

The thing is, in the context of the time, “graphe” didn’t have all the baggage attached to it which we attach to “scripture”, and which is what potentially scares us. Everyone using the word prior to 2 Timothy meant by “graphe” just “writings”. Paul definitely did have a concept of what was to be regarded as authoritative; he writes, for instance, in 1 Corinthians 10:4 “And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (my italics), which refers to Moses striking the rock to produce water in Exodus 17:1-7 at Meribah – but later on, in Numbers 20:7-12, he again strikes a rock to produce water, and the text says “These were the waters of Meribah”. And Hebrew commentators determined that the rock must have followed the Israelites through their journey through Sinai.

The proof-text for that interpretation is “Now He led His people out into the wilderness; for forty years He rained down for them bread from Heaven, and brought quail to them from the sea and brought a well of water to follow them. And it [the water] followed them in the wilderness forty years and went up to the mountains with them, and went down into the plains” which is to be found in Pseudo-Philo, Book of Biblical Antiquities 10:7, 11:15 (and pseudo-Philo is quoting earlier Jewish tradition, probably the Tosefta, there). So Paul, the putative writer of 2 Timothy, was there treating as authoritative a text which does not appear in either the Jewish nor the Christian collections of sacred writing which we now regard as “scripture”.

Likewise, the writer of Jude references The Book of the Secrets of Enoch, better known as 2 Enoch – and no, you will not find that even in your Apocrypha, should you ever delve into those books which formed part of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures) but were not accepted as part of the Jewish Canon when that was finalised (somewhat later than was the Christian one) and which therefore were rejected by Luther and his followers and thus don’t appear in most Protestant Bibles.

There are also a host of documents, including gospels, letters, apocalypses and others, produced in the early years of Christianity which did not get incorporated into the Bible most of us know. Some of the “oriental” churches have one or more additional books, the most extensive being the Ethiopic church, but the Catholic and Protestant churches and most of the Orthodox have the same New Testament canon.  Most of them were excluded for good reason (generally, in the first case, because they were not popular enough among the mainline churches of the day), but all of them cast interesting light on what the Christians of their day actually believed, and echoes of some still persist in more modern times. Interestingly, if you are familiar with any of the cycles of mediaeval Mystery Plays, some of those do incorporate scenes which are more reminiscent of (for instance) the Infancy Gospels than the actual Biblical text (I was fortunate enough to play Annas in the Butchers Play in the 1998 production of the York Cycle).

A substantial number of those tend to be condemned as “Gnostic Gospels”, and as Gnosticism was condemned as a heresy at a fairly early stage, Christians tend to avoid them. Actually, they tend to live in fear of anything which might be considered “Gnostic” in a way which doesn’t seem to affect most other traditional heresies… Gnosticism is, it seems, big and scary!

Gnosticism is characterised by two main features; firstly it conveys a “secret meaning” which only initiates are taught, and secondly it regards the Old Testament God as not being the One True God, but an imposter – and I’ll come back to the second of those!). It also tends to an “emanationist” concept of creation, which is otherwise typical of Jewish arcane and mystical traditions, in which God’s creation comes down to us in stages via a set of realms until, eventually, it is the material world, which is seriously debased; the Old Testament God is one such subordinate emanation.

However, of course, the canonical Gospel of Mark regularly talks of keeping things secret (such as almost every miracle recorded there and much of the teachings), John has private discourses with the apostles and Paul talks of at least two levels of understanding in faith, so the mere concept of a “secret meaning” is not exactly foreign to mainstream Christianity either.

Among the “Gnostic Gospels” as usually put forward is the Gospel of Thomas, which is unique as being a “sayings gospel”, just recording sayings of Jesus. Frankly, it is not significantly more “Gnostic” than many of (say) Paul’s letters, but it was found initially among many other documents which did display Gnostic leanings. However, significant numbers of liberal Christian scholars regard it as potentially being a very early document indeed, and possibly pre-dating the four canonical gospels, at least in its original form. As perhaps a preponderance of scholarship tends to think that the canonical gospels rest on the foundation of a now lost “sayings gospel” (as well as an equally lost account of events, often referred to as “Q”), even if Thomas is not as early as some claim, it is a fascinating glimpse into what the origins of our current New Testament might have been.

It is also, for what it’s worth, the source of a couple of sayings which were responsible for me deciding that Christianity was worth investigating as a language of expression of relationship to God.

Many scholars have also decided that there are traditions in some of the less theologically mainstream non-canonical materials which actually date back far further; a recent vogue is for elements in the Gospel of Peter, and Robert Eisenman makes much of the epistles of Clement and of the Dead Sea Scrolls (notably the War Scroll) in his “James, the brother of Jesus” (I grant you very controversially).

Finally, I’d suggest that no-one contemplate forming a view of the many New Testament references to Atonement without reading 2 Maccabees (apocrypha) and 4 Maccabees (extra-canonical), which talk of the Maccabean martyrs as “atoning”.

You can therefore understand a great deal more about the New Testament and about the times it was set in by not being afraid of the documents some of which are accepted as scripture by the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church but not by the Protestant churches (apocrypha), some of which are only accepted as such by more exotic Eastern churches and some of which plainly were accepted at one time or another by churches but which now aren’t.

But those are not the only scriptures which we seem to be afraid of, and part 2 will look at that…

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Taking arms against a sea of existentialists

July 26th, 2017

Having just completed editing a short introduction to Christian Existentialism (look out for “To Be Or Not To Be” from David Moffett-Moore in the near future), I was grateful to Partially Examined Life’s blog for links to two talks on Kierkegaard. (The good news is they’re around 15 minutes each, the bad news is they’re very condensed.) Dr. Moffett-Moore uses the words of one fictional gloomy Dane as an introduction to those of another real one, which is a touch I much appreciate.

I am also at the moment reading through Paul Hessert’s “Christ and the End of Meaning” with Peter Rollins’ patreon group. (By the way, I strongly recommend that no-one buys the book at the price I’m seeing it at today on Amazon – the price always skyrockets when the book is being used for a course or is copiously referred to online, and then generally relaxes to something more reasonable, as it’s out of print and there tend to be relatively few copies available, but also normally relatively few people who want a copy.)

Meaning, as far as Hessert is concerned in chapter 1, is equivalent to purpose, telos or, as the scholastics would have it, “final cause” (a description which jars with me, as my scientific background makes me restrict “cause” to efficient cause). This is very much the operating area for Kierkegaard and the existentialists who followed him. It is not, of course, the first meaning I would understand from the word “meaning” (I’ve just demonstrated that first meaning in action!), that being the relationship between a sign or symbol and the thing signified by the sign or symbol. That kind of meaning is the one which Derrida (perhaps playfully) said his objective was to destroy, and happily Hessert apparently does not think that Christ was a type of Derrida (or vice versa)…

I am only at present at chapter 3 of Hessert, but his major thesis is already clear in chapter 2 – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”. It offends both systems of seeking meaning, as a supernatural intervention for the Jews or as a revelation of divine order for the Greeks. For Judaism, the Messiah (Christos) was to bring in an era of peace in which Israel is the nation to whom other nations defer – and he would reign as King over Israel on behalf of God, having a long life and many children. Not, absolutely not, an early, childless, death on the cross closely followed by the destruction of the Temple and a new exile for the Jews. The death of the Christos undoes the expected telos, of a Jewish renaissance and permanent preeminence among nations (at the very least). No wonder Paul calls his preaching a “skandalon”, the root of our words “scandal” and “scandalous”.

For the Greek (and by this time Roman) mode of thinking, we need to think more along the lines of complete failure being revealed as the ultimate meaning of existence. The insight into the underlying order of things which was expected from divine revelation was the death of the person identified with the ruling principles of the universe – more, indeed, than Derrida’s “destruction of meaning”; something best exemplified, in this day in which we are used to the idea of Christ crucified, by Niezsche’s “God is dead” as picked up by Thomas J.J. Altizer, which caused huge outrage, not least when my local vicar preached on the topic in a televised service in the early 70s!

A foolishness, said Paul; more a total absurdity. Though, of course, existentialism did eventually lead to movements such as Dada… Jesus was identified as the Logos, and one of the meanings ascribed to Logos in Greek thinking was “intelligible principle of existence” – a little like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, which he now doubts can be discovered, even assuming such a thing exists. For a physicist, the lack of any possibility of a foundational theory might be similarly disorienting – but then, for the most famous Physicist of recent times, Albert Einstein, it was inconceivable that everything rested on chance; he famously said “God does not roll dice”. And yet, most of Quantum Mechanics rests on the assumption that yes, things are, at root, probability densities.

One thing which strikes me forcibly, bringing these things together, is that Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins all seem to me to be practising a variant on the evnagelical formula for conversion. In that formula, firstly one has to persuade people that they are sinners and they are damned unless they accept Christ, a task which is increasingly difficult to achieve in the more and more secular and irreligious society I live in. “Good news; you’re all damned to eternal conscious torment” tends not to preach well in the climate of today. In much the same way, Kierkegaard, Hessert and Rollins want to persuade us that there is a fundamental absurdity about existence. Kierkegaard in particular suggests that we need to become anxious about our rootlessness, and condemns those who adhere to conventional systems of meaning without radical questioning which pulls the metaphorical carpet out from under our concepts of reality as being “inauthentic”.

It also strikes me that Hessert is proof texting, choosing a small passage from 1 Corinthians and loading it with theological significance (though he does allude to some passages from Galatians and Romans as well). I love speculative theology, but this does feel as if the selected passage is inadequate to bear the load he wants to impose, even when bolstered from elsewhere in Paul. Paul did, clearly, want to destroy the conventional Jewish and Greek concepts of how the world works, but he promptly spent most of the remainder of his seven authentic epistles loading up his concept of “Christos” with meaning (read Romans if you are not immediately convinced!). This was meaning both in the sense of telos and in the sense of signification; Paul thought the messianic age was already upon us, albeit it did not look like the conventional Jewish picture, and that Christ genuinely represented an insight into a new concept of reality, and not one which was fundamentally absurd, at least not to someone who had experienced the paradigm shift which Paul encouraged.

Granted, if Paul had been accurate when he dictated “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified”, things might have been different, but that was clearly rhetorical exaggeration. If he seemed to be resting for a moment in Holy Saturday (the only time I think Hessert’s approach might work), it was, for Paul, only clearing the ground in order to erect a new structure of meaning. Indeed, I think Hessert’s book would make a fine basis for any service on Holy Saturday, the day between the tragedy of crucifixion and the exhilaration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, the day when “God is dead” makes the most sense in terms of the story of the gospels.

However, let’s just let Hessert have his way for the moment. What if there in fact IS no overarching purpose for existence; what if there IS no “theory of everything”? Is Christianity (or, at least, Paulianity) really the theological Dada or Punk, as Peter Rollins suggests? It’s tempting to suggest that existentialist concerns are totally anachronistic to Jesus’ teachings or Paul’s writings, but the first person to write “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it’s absurd) was Augustine, in the fourth century…

We will go ahead and invent some meanings. As the much underrated philosopher Terry Prachett says, we are not so much homo sapiens (the knowing man) as pan narrans (the story-telling ape). We have developed with a propensity to see patterns in things, even when there are no patterns there (cloud castles, pictures in the emberse of a fire, fortunes from tea-leaves…). As the Norse epic Havamal puts it, “Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself too soon must die, but one thing never, I ween, will die, — fair fame of one who has earned [it].” The creator of the gloomy Dane and of “to be or not to be” is read and performed wordwide 400 years after his death, and his fictional creations such as Macbeth and Prospero are world-famous – and his pictures of various English kings skew our appreciation of history to this day. We are going to tell stories about the world around us, come what may, whether they be grand narratives or scientific explanations of everyday phenomena. OK, there is value in not treating those stories as more than what they are – some of them may, perhaps, correspond exactly to the world as it actually is, but that is not demonstrable, and the history of Science indicates that there is always likely to be a better story (or theory) which can predict what happens a bit more accurately than the ones we have now.

Which stories should we adopt? Well, Terry Pratchett also wrote, in “Lords and Ladies” “The Monks of Cool, whose tiny and exclusive monastery is hidden in a really cool and laid-back valley in the lower Ramtops, have a passing-out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.” In terms of style, that works perfectly well – but in terms of practicality, it might be better to select the mackintosh rather than the Hawaiian shirt if rain is forecast. If you’re not worried about getting wet and cold in order to preserve your cool, however? Maybe the Hawaiian shirt is better (granted, that’s a choice I would never make myself…)

I can always wear something different, or listen to a different story tomorrow…

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The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas

July 22nd, 2017

I’ve been reminded today of Ursula LeGuin’s brilliant short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (from “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”). While I strongly recommend that you read the actual story, it tells of a land where everyone is happy and well provided for – except one poor, retarded child, kept in appalling conditions and never to be spoken to kindly (if at all), a child who, moreover, once knew happiness and a loving family. The thesis is that the happiness and prosperity of the rest of the citizens is entirely dependent on the misery of that child; it is absolutely necessary for it to continue that the child be kept miserable. Adolescents are, at a certain age, shown the child, and the reason for keeping it so. Some of them, at that point, start walking, and walk all the way out of Omelas – presumably to another land which is far less attractive than is Omelas; others reach adulthood and, eventually, reach the same point and start walking.

There is a conservative interpretation of “the poor will always be with us”, which argues that it is inevitable in our society that some will be poor. This is, indeed, the inevitable end-point of neoliberal economics – there are going to be winners and losers, and a certain viewpoint argues that the losers need to be destitute in order to provide the appropriate incentive for people to strive to be winners. Indeed, that viewpoint is inclined to imitate the imperative in Omelas never to speak a kind word to the child, and label the unsuccessful as “shirkers”, “freeloaders”, “layabouts”, “parasites” or “deadbeats”. No doubt you can add several other pejorative expressions, particularly if you read some of the tabloid press.

Added to that, there is such paranoia at the idea that someone might just possibly get something they are “not entitled to” that those claiming benefits are made to feel like garbage (and probably criminal garbage) just for claiming, and people are removed from benefits for trivial reasons – or no good reason at all. Not a few of them are then so desperate that they take their own lives. Others end up living on the street…

If that is indeed the society in which I live, I want to walk away from it. Even if, which I do not believe, the poor did “deserve” their fate, I cannot be like Thomas Aquinas, who wrote Wherefore in order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned.

It is antithetical to the spirit of Christianity, in which grace (entirely undeserved benefits) is key, and God provides whether or not we toil or spin. We are, as Teresa de Avila remarked, the hands of Christ in the world. How can we not, communally, look after the least in our society?

The bad news, perhaps, is that there is nowhere to walk to. Globalism is ensuring that neoliberalism is everywhere.

The good news, the gospel, if you like, is that unlike Omelas, our society doesn’t have to be like this. We can be Christ’s hands, and feet, and body, and together makes something better.

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Taxation, theft and violence

July 15th, 2017

There is a very commonly used argument among conservative (with a small “c”) commentators that, when you transfer the implementation of social gospel principles to government, this is government taking from individuals what is theirs under the threat of force; many such commentators go on to describe this as “theft” or even “armed robbery”. I made an argument against this view on a number of grounds recently. It is, however, a powerful point, as I think there is little argument against the concept that Christians should be non-violent – aside practicality, which I would argue shouldn’t sway us from the general principle, just remind us that we still have to live in a “fallen” world.

Thinking further, however, the very idea that money “belongs to” us rests on the threat of force by government (if not by us – absent government, all we would have is force or persuasion, and persuasion rarely works against robbers) – if someone takes from me the notes and coins in my pocket, my recourse is to the criminal law, which considers that theft – and the criminal law is backed by force. If my bank refuses to pay when I issue a cheque or use my debit card, I need to rely on the civil courts to force them to abide by their contract – and again, that is ultimately backed by force (as at least one possible end-result of suing the bank would be for bailiffs acting on my behalf forcibly to appropriate some of the bank’s property).  Of course, the “value” of money is very arguably a fiction in the first place – when I “spend money” I am exchanging for actual goods or services something which has no intrinsic value of its own, any “value” of which rests on other people’s belief that it is exchangeable for other goods or services. One might say that this was a religion, being a belief-based system…

Those who propose this “taxation is theft” concept are pretty much universally free marketeers; they consider that bargains made between individuals (assuming a “level playing field” are a guarantee of prices being fair and reasonable. But such bargains are again contracts, and contracts can be broken (I hand over my goods and you refuse to pay…) with the ultimate sanction being force.

There’s an interesting (if over-long and over-provided with debating points rather than substantive argument) discussion online between Peter Joseph and Stefan Molyneux, the fundamental issue of which is what Joseph calls “structural violence”. If you take something more like Joseph’s view, which I agree with, it is a part of the structure of a competitive economy which functions in a culture of scarcity that violence will be the result. (Incidentally, the link I give is from Joseph’s You Tube and describes it as a victory for Joseph; I have little doubt that if there’s a link from Molyneux, that would describe it as a victory for Molyneux. I doubt partisans of either would be convinced to change their views…)

Each of them has a favorite illustration, which I think is significant. Joseph’s is of the failure of a company he used to be employed by, and of the misery caused to employees who could not recover their wages; homelessness was one result. Molyneux’s answer to that was, firstly, to concentrate on the employee who was forced by his visa requirements (characterised as a government interference with the free market) to continue working although not being paid, and secondly to point to the existence of a corporation and bankruptcy laws (characterised as a government interference with the free market) as protecting the employer (in the last resort) from having to pay the wages. Other employees were, of course, constrained in the same way by the absence of jobs to go to (and the fear of resulting homelessness and starvation) and, absent government, would have been reduced to threats to the individual or individuals who owned the company to recover anything. I might add that, absent government restrictions on immigration, even people in Molyneaux and Joseph’s privileged position of being versatile, able and intelligent people able to obtain alternative jobs easily might not be enough – there are doubtless very many people in (for instance) India who would be very glad to do the same work for far less remuneration…

His third answer was to suggest that the company was clearly one which deserved to fail, and that Joseph was thereby liberated to pursue something which he did better. I pretty much equate this argument to that of Conservatives in this country who consider that cutting benefits to the unemployed “helps them to find work” by incentivising them – and that I equate to an suggestion that if you have excess food and your neighbour is starving, you are helping him magic food from nothing by refusing to share your own food.

Mostly, there are not jobs to go to in either of our countries unless you are very versatile, able and intelligent – and even then there may be nothing suitable, and the vast majority of people, as I learn from survey results, are only two or three pay checks from starvation and homelessness.

Molyneux’ preferred illustration was of his daughter selling lemonade at the side of the road; if, he suggested, she was not providing something which passers by wanted, or was not making a purchase as attractive as possible, she would not sell lemonade and would then be free to pursue some other avenue. This, of course, is an absolutely idealised example of a free market transaction, one in which daughter does not actually need to sell lemonade if she is to eat or be housed that day, and in which the passer-by almost certainly has absolutely no need of a drink of lemonade. Sadly, Joseph did not capitalise on the fact that this transaction was nothing like most transactions which occur.

But, of course, Molyneux would probably say that almost every transaction which we undertake is in some way distorted by the presence of government – and he would be right in saying that. His assumption is, however, that the influence of government is always negative rather than positive, and that is something which I absolutely do not agree with. Indeed, his absolutely free market system depends itself on government enforcing contracts…

Back to practicality, which I wish we could dispense with. There is going to be a need for the threat of force whatever system we adopt. Even the Acts church which we look to as a possible ideal had its own threat of force in the story of Ananias and Saphira, granted that was supernatural force. More recently, there have been denominations which have been very largely non-violent – the Quakers or the more modern Anabaptist traditions, for instance. They, however, have generally practiced shunning – an effective expulsion from their ranks of those who do not conform to expected standards – and that could colourably be regarded as a kind of passive violence, besides which it goes against the massively inclusive message of Jesus; tax collectors and sinners are your neighbours and you should love them, not shun them.

With some reservation, therefore, I reject the libertarian objection that taxation involves violence in favour of the absolute injunction to love your neighbour as yourself – and, as a community, taxation is the primary way in which we provide necessary care for our neighbours.

Taxation in order to pay for foreign wars, however, is another story!



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Tribes (interlude)…

July 3rd, 2017

Interesting cartoon on how tribalism makes communication more difficult.

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Death penalties and justice denied

June 17th, 2017

There is a piece on the Red Letter Christian blog which explains how a pastor changed his mind from approving the death penalty to opposing it.

I endorse the thinking there, but it didn’t escape my notice that, in the real life situation which John Grisham wrote about in “The Innocent Man”, the innocent man wasn’t actually executed, but his life was completely ruined by 11 years in prison.

I therefore ask myself whether, in truth, not having the death penalty is really the issue there. The real issue is the conviction of innocent people.

20 years ago, I had the opportunity of talking at length with a range of prisoners in a UK prison (the opportunity of talking at length to a lawyer without having to pay fees was irresistible!) This yielded two conclusions.

The first was that an alarming number of them (I estimated maybe 25%) had been wrongly convicted. I will grant that in the vast majority of those cases, they had merely been convicted of what was technically the wrong offence, or they had been convicted for an offence which they hadn’t actually committed on the occasion they were charged with, or they shouldn’t have been convicted on the evidence there was but were actually guilty, but there was still a residue of maybe 5%. That’s 1 in 20 prisoners who shouldn’t have been convicted at all.

OK, of those, maybe half had been so associated with people committing offences that it was difficult to have full sympathy with them. But that leaves 1 in 40.

The second conclusion was drawn from talking with some people who had been rightly convicted of serious offences such as murder or manslaughter, and who were nearing the end of their period of imprisonment. They had been in prison for years upon years – ten, twelve, even twenty five (in the case of the ex-IRA enforcer). And many of them were terrified about the prospect of being released. They couldn’t see how they could function in society any more (the ex-IRA guy commented that everyone he had known well was now dead). Three of them expressed a wish that there had been a death penalty and that they had been spared all those years of incarceration. One remarked that his life had effectively ended when he was imprisoned, and the rest was just torturous waiting…

They were maybe not as mentally damaged as the subject of Grisham’s book, but were in any event very damaged.

My point is that yes, the argument that you can’t later turn round and put right a wrongful conviction where the innocent has been executed is valid, but you also can’t put right a long period of imprisonment, at least not in the UK prison system (and, from everything I read and see, even less so in the US one). In some, but not all, cases, the government pays compensation to those wrongly convicted, but money is not an adequate restitution for what is probably irreparable psychological damage.

Is this an argument for the death penalty? Well, probably not. It’s more an argument for treating prisoners more like human beings and not subjecting them to horrific conditions.

But it is an argument that the US system, which operates to imprison people for very long periods and then execute them, is doubly barbaric. Yes, I know the delay is caused by a labyrinthine legal system which tries very hard to correct errors which occur. But justice deferred is justice denied.

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