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Neighbourliness and it’s limits

May 24th, 2017

20 dead in Manchester suicide bombing, I read. It feels too close to home; I drove round Manchester on Saturday, I’ve been to the location, and there are people I know who knew people who were there (although not any of the casualties, it seems).

That is, I suppose, two or three degrees of separation for me. It’s said that in six degrees of separation, I’m connected with the whole world. On 3rd May, three died and 28 were injured in a suicide bombing in Kabul, so I’m presumably connected with the victims (and the perpetrator) by six degrees or less – and yet, I didn’t really register that news, assuming that I ever read it.

I am not supposed to take into account degrees of separation in working out if someone is my neighbour, and therefore deserves my love and care – the parable of the Good Samaritan establishes that with force, as Samaritans in the first century were the hereditary enemies of the Jews and would be assumed to be more likely to be the bandits who beat the traveller and dumped his body beside the road than to help him in any way, far less the abundant way portrayed. So, in thinking of Manchester, I have to think also of Kabul and of countless locations across the Middle East – and not restricted to the Middle East – where similar or worse atrocities have been happening. I need to weep for all the victims of violence towards random innocents worldwide – and that includes the random innocents regularly killed or maimed by my own country in Syria at the moment.

I cannot practice selective compassion, in other words. But it’s difficult, because two degrees of separation is a lot closer than six, and by US or particularly Canadian standards Manchester is practically next door – I could be on the outskirts of Manchester within about an hour, given reasonably clear roads, and my Canadian aunt used to think it reasonable to drive much further than that to visit a decent restaurant. It’s difficult because the victims in other countries are not as much like me as are the victims in Manchester. OK, granted the Manchester victims are mostly teen or subteen girls with a liking for Ariana Grande, which makes them nearly as foreign to me as does another language and another religion, and they are presumably mostly from Lancashire (and I’m from Yorkshire, and traditionally Yorkshiremen may have needed to hear the parable of the Good Lancastrian, as the events of the 15th century still have traction), but even so… my daughter might just about have been one of them fifteen or more years ago, and none of my family have ever been to Kabul as far as I’m aware. That, however, is to try hard to find difference, and to equate differences which I can’t feel are anything like equivalent. Afghans, Iraquis or Syrians are “more foreign” by quite a long way.

But they are my neighbours, and I weep for them as I weep for the dead and injured of Manchester.

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Give to those who ask

May 13th, 2017

I’ve just read a piece on dealing with panhandlers (for an UK audience, street beggars) which I thoroughly approve of. I want to focus on one of the “rules”, the second “If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do.

I regularly hear people saying “don’t give them money, they’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol”, and in a neighbouring city the churches often have cards in the pews advising not to give money to beggars, and giving details of charities for the homeless which people can give to instead. I know people who will gladly buy beggars a coffee or a sandwich, but will not give money.

I don’t normally do that. I try to follow Jesus’ instruction “give to anyone who asks of you”. After all, I am attempting to follow him, to love him – and if I love him, I will follow his commandments, no? He didn’t leave wiggle room for “only if I think it’ll be spent on something I approve of”, after all.

OK, if I judge that someone will absolutely definitely be spending anything I give them on drugs or alcohol, I will buy a coffee or a sandwich instead, and I will judge that on the basis that they are already high or drunk, and assuming that their need for drugs or alcohol has already been taken care of, but the nature of addiction is such that there is no such thing as “enough”.

Otherwise, though? I’ll give them money, and look them in the eye and talk to them, and if I have time spend a few minutes chatting.

Yes, they may go and spend the money on drugs or alcohol, but it is a gift, and is theirs to do with as they want. God can exercise undeserved grace towards us, so we might try to mirror that. I know only too well that, for an addict, if they have not taken their drug of choice (which might be alcohol) recently, that is going to be so pressing a need that it will eclipse any other, more prudent use of money.

But if I answer their immediate need, they will not need (for instance) to steal to feed their addiction, nor to prostitute themselves, at least for a short time – and that is a good. With luck, as that need is filled, they may use the next money they get from begging to get food or non-alcoholic drink or towards getting lodging for the night. I don’t know that that will happen, but I hope it will.

And, in any case, I will have shown them that someone cares about them, someone recognises them and that they are still a part of society, that they are not the rubbish amidst which so many of them live.

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Imaginary friends…

May 12th, 2017

There’s a new attempt to claim that the existence of God is rationally probable kicking around at the moment, divided into five “reasons”.

Therer’s a general problem about all of these, in that while they may point to there being something which we don’t yet fully understand underlying existence, the directions the author is going in would lead to a “God of the philosophers”, which (as I’ve complained regularly) looks nothing like the God of the Bible. In fact, it looks a lot more like Stephen Hawking’s “Theory of Everything”, and while I would be absolutely fascinated to see Hawking or some other brilliant mind come up with such a theory, and I would no doubt regard it as wonderful, awesome and similar words, I can’t see myself worshiping, loving or having allegiance to a theory.

I may come back to the other four reasons, but at this point I want to talk about the first, which has been called by others “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”. The link I use there refers to a number of objections by Richard Hamming, but the list of names who have regarded this as a puzzle which requires answering includes some very great thinkers, and I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. As Max Tegmark suggests, perhaps at a fundamental level everything IS mathematical. It is definitely the case that mathematics comes up with concepts, and those concepts later find use when some theoretical scientist realises that that piece of maths describes (at least reasonably well) the mechanism which they are studying. The use of the Riemann mathematics in General Relativity, rather a lot of years later, is indeed a fine example.

I am not going to set out to dismiss the idea, but I do see a number of problems (apart from the fact that equating God with mathematics would negate virtually every religious or spiritual writing in history). Hamming mentions one, which I think has a lot of force – mathematics continues to produce a load of concepts, and not all of them by any manner of means manage to find a natural mechanism to describe. Some of them don’t describe the mechanism particularly well – I would argue, for instance, that string theory (which is an admirably complex piece of mathematical thinking) doesn’t actually describe the fundamental state of matter particularly well, given that to date it has failed to make any prediction which could be tested and that it keeps on being modified by legions of theoretical physicists in the hopes that one day it might.

He then develops that (it’s listed as a separate objection, but I think it flows from the above) to argue that we use the conceptual tools we have (which are, in science, largely provided by mathematics) to try to explain things. If we lack a mathematical concept for something, science doesn’t explain it, at least not yet.

What concerns me more, however, is the fact that mathematics throws up concepts which have no physical correspondent. Infinity is one such; we cannot observe an infinity; if we could, it would not be an infinity. It (together with a class of mathematical concepts which are quasi-infinities, called “transfinites”) is incapable of being experimentally verified; they just result from a contemplation of what would happen if an operation which you can perform a lot of times were continued indefinitely. I’ve written elsewhere of the problems faced by referring to attributes of God such as omnipotence and omniscience as infinite; I am deeply uncertain of the wisdom of this habit of saying “well, it looks as if it’s going there” without actually doing the experiment, as concepts have a habit of breaking down in limit conditions.

However, there’s another mathematical concept which cannot exist in the real world at all (it isn’t just not verifiable by experiment, it cannot exist) and that is the square root of -1, called “i”. The definition is i2 + 1 = 0. It is actually called an “imaginary number” for just that reason – it can have no real world equivalent. Mathematics therefore (arguably) axiomatically overspecifies what actually exists (axiomatically as opposed to the as-yet-unused mathematical concepts which may find an application some day).

I grant you, a very common use of imaginary numbers is in complex numbers of the form a + bi, where a is the “real” and bi the “imaginary” part; the imaginary part is then thought of as somewhere on an axis at right angles to the real axis. Any point on a two dimensional graph can therefore be represented as a single complex number.

The thing is, imaginary numbers are all over the place in some fields of mathematics, notably in areas like Rieman spaces (mentioned above) and anything to do with waves, including quantum physics. The mathematics for things which do exist therefore relies on concepts which don’t and can’t exist, despite the comments of the mathematicians talking with Melvyn Bragg in this BBC programme.

There are, I suppose, two ways of looking at this. The first is to say that mathematics clearly includes nonexistent things, and therefore cannot demonstrate the existence of God, because, well, God exists and they don’t.

The other is to say that if, just perhaps, there is something in the author’s argument that mathematics can tell us something about God, it is that “God exists” is at best a deceptive statement – because God includes some aspect which is, strictly speaking, imaginary…

So, my atheist friends, forgive me if I laugh at your comments about God as my “imaginary friend”. You’re reading this courtesy of techology which relies on imaginary numbers to exist.

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I’d call this “election blues” but really – anything but blue…

May 8th, 2017

In a little over four weeks, we are going to have a general election. This should not be happening. And I’m angry. No, more than that, I’m enraged.

So, this is going to be a bit of a rant.

First of all, the excuse given for calling the election by Mrs. May was that the country had “come together behind” Brexit, but MPs by and large hadn’t. That was a bare-faced lie – after all, despite the fact that around two thirds of the spineless excuses for human beings in parliament opposed Brexit in the first place, they have rolled over and enabled the Fuhrer to start the process and invoke article 50. On the other hand, polls have consistently indicated that if the Brexit vote were rerun, it would now lose – is that “coming together behind Brexit”? I think not.

It is possible that Mrs. May has paid attention to polls such as that quoted today in the Economist, possibly with the same message their writer gives: “Pollsters find little sign that they have changed their mind, nor much demand for a second referendum. A survey by BritainThinks, a Labour-leaning think-tank, finds 67% of Britons actively favour or reluctantly accept Brexit.” Hold on there – that is not “67% support Brexit”, that is “67% either support Brexit or have come to the (correct) conclusion that they have been right royally shafted and there is probably nothing they can do about it”. The other 33%, clearly, don’t accept it at all, and are presumably dusting off the Armalites under their beds prior to going postal and shooting anyone who wears blue, or purple, or quite possibly red or orange as well (see later) or talks to them in a condescending way about “taking back sovereignty”. Heck, I count as one of that 67%, and if I could see any way of stopping Brexit short of the illegal, I’d do it. Note that “short of the illegal” – no, I don’t have an Armalite.

It should also not be happening because one of the few major measures which the Liberal Democrats managed to force on the Conservatives during the coalition was the Fixed Term Parliaments Act. There should have been no election until 2020 unless either they pass a motion of “no confidence” or a 67% supermajority of the House of Commons votes for an early election. The whole point of this was to remove the power of the Prime Minister to call a snap election at a time beneficial to the ruling party. Mrs. May has a slender majority, but would be very unlikely to have a vote of “no confidence” passed against her (despite the fact that I suspect around 67% of MPs actually have no confidence in her… there’s that 67% figure again!). What do the brainless idiots in (in particular) the Labour Party go and do? They vote for a snap election anyhow, at a time when all the polls indicate that Mrs. May will do very well in an election and get a stonking majority at their expense. Exactly what the Act was designed to STOP happening.

Actually, I would suggest that given the wafer-thin majority in favour of Brexit, the best representation we could have in parliament is a wafer-thin majority in favour of the Tories. But far be it from the other party leaders to point that out and resolutely vote against an election!

I might almost suspect that the die-hard Blairites who populate most of the Labour seats hate Corbyn so much that they want to force an election in which he will do badly even if they lose their seats in the process and even if it is the worst possible thing for the country to have a large Tory majority at the moment (and it pretty much is…) I grant you, Corbyn supported the move, but did he fall or was he pushed?

So, we are to vote for May because she is a “strong leader” and is best to represent us in the Brexit negotiations, should we? Well, given that a majority of us don’t actually want Brexit, can I suggest that what we actually want is a weak, incompetent leader who will make such a mess of the negotiations that parliament will come to it’s collective senses and decide “no, that wasn’t a good idea after all”? Someone who makes Jim Hacker look like Winston Churchill?

The alternative is, of course, Corbyn, or (in an ideal world) a coalition involving Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon and (preferably) Tim Farrand. You want a strong leader to represent us? OK, maybe that isn’t Corbyn, but how about Nicola Sturgeon, who could (I think) give any European leader cause to tremble. Corbyn himself? Well, I look at the chorus of hate which has been being directed at him (not least from his own party) and cannot help thinking of the chorus of hate directed at Hilary Clinton, which (see the Guardian article I linked above) is probably in both cases largely down to Cambridge Analytics and their world-beating brand of disinformation peddling. I actually think Corbyn is more like Bernie Sanders than anything else, in that he’s honest, and he’s a social democrat, and he cares more about the good of the people than he does about his own career and self-importance (in which he’s a complete contrast to Mrs. May, who was against Brexit until she spotted the opportunity to be given a mandate to handbag Europe).

However, as the Economist article actually gets right, mostly the election is going to be about how much power the Conservatives should be given. They were fairly nasty when in coalition with the Liberal Democrats (for which, unfortunately, the Liberal Democrats have not yet been forgiven, despite it being clear that they moderated the awfulness of the Tories quite well) and have proved significantly more nasty without the restriction of coalition, but with a rather thin majority. I shudder to think what things will be like if they manage a majority of over 100, because that generally signals that the government can also largely ignore its back benchers.

The one good thing about there being an election is that it gives us an opportunity to correct both our recent mistakes – the Tory majority, and the Brexit vote.

But it pains and angers me to concede that this is probably a vain hope. Unless the polls are horribly wrong (and I pray that they are) we will see a massive Conservative majority after June. A couple of years hence, we will experience a hard Brexit (Europe can’t afford a soft one), and our complaints about some prices going up a bit because of the weakness of the pound will look trivial, as we see an even weaker pound, tariffs flying around in every direction and, probably, a 10-15% reduction in our economy. By then, the NHS and the Welfare State will be jokes, and our reduced wages will not go far against American-style health bills.

The trouble is, all the main parties (apart from the Scottish Nationalists) have now agreed to go along with a Brexit of some kind, even the Liberal Democrats, though their pledge to put the issue to another referendum can rightly be regarded as code for “You’re not going to like the terms, and will reject them”. However, given the other policy issues facing us, what we need to do is swallow any concerns about leadership (see above) and vote for policies.

And the overriding policy should be ABC – “Anything but Conservative”. It’s easy if you’re in Scotland – just vote SNP (you were going to do that anyhow!). Otherwise, vote for whichever of Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green or Plaid Cymru stands the best chance of beating the Conservative candidate.

And hope that the polls are wrong…

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Can we become Scandinavian? Please?

May 7th, 2017

I have occasionally lamented the fact that under Thatcher (and, frankly, Blair) the communitarian heart of England seems to have been lost in favour of an unquestioning acceptance of neoliberal economics, and hoped that we could find some way back there. It’s probably foolish to want to turn any clocks back, but in this case I see neoliberal economics heading for a precipice (i.e. a collapse of world economic systems), and I think it’s probably still worth banging on about the idea.

I’d like to present to any of my readers who is still thinking “there is no alternative to financialised free market capitalism” this article, which points out that a quite different unquestioning acceptance holds in Scandinavia, which the author describes as “green social liberalism”. That is, I dimly recall, where I thought, back in the 70’s, the UK was going to go – and it was well on the way there at the time. I thought that the abiding social gospel orientation which was so widespread at the time would survive the galloping secularisation which was clearly happening (in my youth, it was a sensible question to ask “which church do you go to?”; in my teens and twenties it was clear that my generation was by and large stopping going to church, but seemed to maintain much of the attitude I associated with being a “red letter” Christian; now the question “do you go to church?” is considered bizarre by most people – of course they don’t! The only bit of the country which has held to that track through thick and thin since then is Scotland, where the SNP look fairly green social liberal to me.

Against this, somehow Scandinavia seems to have managed to become, if anything, even more secular than the UK – but has still navigated a route to a thoroughly social-gospel compatible outlook being normative.

I wish I knew how to get there from here. Maybe, just maybe, we could remember that in my part of the country we were once part of the “Danelaw”, settled by Anglians from Denmark for the most part, and thus scattering placenames like “Fangfoss” and “Wetwang” around the countryside – my nearest city is York, which is derived from the Norse “Yorvik”. We could probably make common cause with those bits which were historically Celtic (obviously Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also Cornwall). They seem to retain a little more of the green social liberal attitude as well.

Up with the Northmen, and down with those Saxons?

I can dream…

 

 

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We cannot merely pray…

April 28th, 2017

In the course of editing a book by Bob LaRochelle (thanks, Bob!), I came across the quotation of a prayer by Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”, and need to share it:-

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
For we know that You have made the world in a way
So that all of us must find our own path to peace,
Within ourselves and with our neighbors.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end hunger;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world,
If we would only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out our prejudice;
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all people,
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to you, O God, to end despair;
For You have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope,
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease;
For You have already given us great minds
With which to search out cures and healing,
If we could only use them constructively.

Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and courage,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish

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The (very) long view of history.

April 24th, 2017

Many moons ago, my son was presented with an essay title for his History GCSE, which was on the causes of the First World War. He decided to talk to me about it.

The immediate cause was, of course, the network of alliances which had grown up between European powers which was intended to create a sort of detente, a situation where no-one could afford to be aggressive because of the likely invocation of alliances bringing in the then “big players”. History records, of course, that an agression by one of the more minor players, Serbia, via a terrorist act, resulted in the whole structure being mobilised – as were troops all over Europe. This is beautifully lampooned in a joke comparing the whole thing to a bar fight. Current commentators worry, not without reason, about minor players like the Baltics and Ukraine drawing Nato into a world conflict in the same way.

Looking to expand his appreciation of the broad sweep of history, I encouraged him to think about why there were competing ethnicities and religions in the area, and we traced that back by stages. His eventual essay (which got him an A*) stopped at Trajan’s Dacian wars – he was probably sensible in not going all the way to where our discussion ended, something like four hours after we started.

However, we didn’t stop there in conversation. The Dacian wars were at least in part caused by population pressure from the east. It was thus one of a series of waves of pressure on Europe from that direction, as tribes moved west over the whole area from Mongolia to the borders of Europe, each pressed by those to the east of them. Sometimes, the more eastern tribes actually managed to conquer and form alliances well enough for their members to arrive in Europe itself; the Huns were the first, followed by the Mongols; the Turks were another. In Trajan’s time, however, the Dacian movement was a knock-on effect. The Dacians were pressed by those east of them, such as the Scythians.

Why, we asked, did this set of waves of migration actually occur, and why hadn’t they happened earlier in the history of the Roman Empire? My best guess at this rested on climate change. Where there was a relatively wet, cool period, the homelands of the more eastern tribes and their natural raiding areas (largely China) became more fertile, producing an increasing ability to support population. The period in question was marked by a set of cycles of cool wet weather followed by warm dry weather, though, and when it turned warmer and dryer, the population in the east couldn’t be supported there any more. At the same time, warmer, dryer weather dried out the immense areas of marshland along the Dnepr river (including the well known Pripyat marshes) and lesser ones along the Don and Vistula rivers. What was, in wet weather, a hostile landscape for horse-warriors became plains which were ideal for large mounted operations, and effectively created a highway all the way through to the Balkans in the south and Germany in the north. It wasn’t just Europe which suffered this way; the Middle East had its own waves, for example that under Timur Leng which ended the golden age of Islam, that under Ghengis and Kublai Khan which replaced the native Chinese empire with a Mongol one for centuries, and that under Babur which founded the Mughal Empire in North India.

The ultimate cause was, therefore, changes in climate, which interacted with the predominantly horse-oriented nomadic culture of the eastern part of north Asia to produce very massive population movements.

I’ve been reminded of this by reading a New York Times article on how climate change produces migration. We focus a great deal when talking about Syria or Yemen on political issues, but the map at the beginning of that article makes clear the unacknowledged fact that from Syria down into the Arabian Peninsula, climate change is affecting the ability of the land to support population, and that is going to produce increased competition for the increasingly scare resources, wars and both economic migrants and those fleeing war and civil disorder. The same goes for a swathe of land through Sudan to the horn of Africa, and for areas in central West Africa as well, those being the source of much of the migration trying to cross the Mediterranean from the more Western points such as Libya. Americans should notice the intensity of red dots in the north of South America and in Central America.

Rome, of course, eventually collapsed in the fact of these waves of migrants, unable to stem the tide; the Goths, Vandals and Franks were pushed (largely by the Huns) westward, and took down the civilisation in the Western Empire; in the Eastern Empire it was the Turks in a later wave who dealt the coup de grace, though there had been an earlier Arab expansion (which I can’t connect to climate change, but which may well be another instance) which had done immeasurable damage first.

We’re a lot stronger than Rome was in Europe and America, of course. But we should perhaps wonder whether we can actually get away with merely building a wall along the Mexican border and fences along the long European border to the east. The Chinese had a frontier-long wall as well…

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Go in pieces…

April 15th, 2017

Back in the 1960’s, the then vicar of Selby caused a lot of controversy by preaching on the theme “God is Dead” at Easter, in a service which the BBC recorded. What he was engaging with was the then very young area of Radical Theology; in particular he referred to Nietzsche’s parable of the madman running through the streets shouting “God is dead – and we have killed him”.

I’m writing this on “Holy Saturday”, which is one day of the year when that would be the most appropriate sermon title – except very few churches do a service on Holy Saturday. Yesterday was Good Friday, when we would supposedly meditate on the death of Jesus (the death of God?) if we ever managed to forget that we knew the outcome of the story, tomorrow we will celebrate his resurrection, but today, perhaps, God is dead.

I’ve been doing Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course this year. The course seeks to challenge all of our preconceptions about God, to deconstruct our constructions and expose those beliefs we weren’t aware we had. Perhaps the ideal outcome would be to leave us with a child-like wonder, able to accept the pure experience of God without it being tied down by dogma and philosophy – but then, I’m a mystic, and I would say that!

Atheism for Lent is really situated between Good Friday and Holy Saturday, between the potentially violent destruction of ideas about God and the place arrived at once that has been achieved. Some of those taking the course (over 1000 this year, I believe) have found it too violent and have retreated, perhaps to have another go next year. That is much my situation with one of the daily “readings” for the course, which was to watch the 2016 film “Silence”. I still have nearly two hours of that film to watch. Some have stuck doggedly to our existing conceptions and improved our ability to defend them against all comers. Some have arrived at a place of anxiety, where nothing is certain any more, and some have arrived at the same lack of certainty and found peace there.

I am not completely certain whether I’ve merely improved my ability to defend preconceptions or have found peace in the storm. I feel fairly peaceful, to be sure, but there are those pesky subconscious instincts which may not be completely exorcised – I know, for instance, that there’s a bit of my subconscious which is apparently a five-point Calvinist (despite the fact that I’ve never consciously espoused Calvinism or, since I first actually thought about it, the salvation mechanism which leads to it). Happily, it doesn’t make itself known very often, but it’s still there…

I’ve been aware of the course for a few years now, but haven’t actually done it previously. I’d thought that as I was already well aware of the criticisms of the “Masters of Suspicion” (Freud, Niezsche and Marx), and  had read widely in the mystics and dipped into some of the Radical Theologians such as Rollins and Caputo, the course would not offer me much I hadn’t already looked at. In addition, I “am not now and have never been” a fundamentalist or “Evangelical” Christian – unlike, as it seems to me, the vast majority of people taking the course, I started (after some years of Sunday School which at least apparently “didn’t take”) as an atheist, a confirmed rationalist materialist, and have moderated my position the minimum possible consistent with having a language of expression which would accommodate and express my mystical experience. Somehow the statement “it was a brain fart” which an atheist friend came up with after we’d knocked down all the more usual reasons for the kind of symptoms I described, such as drugs, physical or mental distress or psychiatric or neurological disorders, didn’t “do it for me”.

I also come via having sampled a lot of other spiritual traditions. Peak mystical experiences are very good indeed, and I started out wanting more of them, so tried the methods of any tradition which produced accounts of similar experience for some years. Those often required you to adopt a mental posture involving some theoretical concepts, so I became fairly good at holding those lightly, in much the way as you’d “suspend disbelief” while reading, say, a work of fantasy, or think in terms of a wave or a particle when considering the behaviour of an electron. However, my culture is Christian (or at least post-Christian) and my basic language of expression was Christian (some of that Sunday School stuff apparently did rub off…) and other traditions required learning new concepts and new languages, and I’m lazy – so where I’ve ended up is with a largely Christian practice and vocabulary. That doesn’t preclude me asserting that “Atman is Brahman” or that “the Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” or that we should practice the “Willow way” (which is not a long way removed from “al-Islam”…).

I was, however, surprised to find that this level of engagement with the texts, among a lot of other people giving their reactions, was particularly powerful. I re-engaged with issues such as the abominable history of persecution by Christianity and it’s encouragement of undesirable psychological traits and found that those still had the power to disturb me (though perhaps the most disturbing thought I had was “what if the five-point Calvinists are right?”).

However, perhaps the most worrying thing for me was watching the reactions of some others. I’ve been discussing spirituality and faith with others for nearly 50 years now, and on a few occasions have had someone complain that I’ve shaken their faith to the point that they lost it – and as one of those people was my mother (and she never really regained it, nor did she arrive at being entirely comfortable with its loss), I tend to be reluctant to press too hard in deconstructing concepts where I can’t provide a new framework which someone can be content with. Myself, I can flit between frameworks to suit the occasion, but not everyone can, and equally not everyone is able to be comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty. I’m probably not comfortable with an overwhelming lack of certainty myself, to be honest; I tend far more to the mindset of the revolutionary, who wants to take apart the existing order in order to construct a new one, who has something of a new one already in mind, rather than the rebel who just wants to take things apart. I may accept that there’s always going to be something not quite accurate, not quite complete about current concepts, but I want the next concept to be a better fit to reality, rather than abandoning any hope of a better fit – which is what I see the rebel as embodying.

Equally, I used to say “I don’t need to believe in God, I experience God”.  I may not be able to describe that experience adequately; as the week we spent looking at mystics indicates, it is perhaps impossible to do that, but nonetheless the experience is real. I experience God for some value of God unspecified, therefore. I’ve never found a way to make others experience God, however – I can’t have a mystical experience for you, you have it happen for you and in you. What I have found is that analysing what is going on is the best way to stop such an experience happening, however, so our concepts can only really get in the way. Should we therefore deconstruct those concepts in the hope that we will then  be able to have a peak experience? What of those who are left with nothing to cling to, with no consciousness of the presence of God? The closing benediction from Pádraig Ó Tuama ends with “And so, friends, the task has ended. Go in pieces to see and feel your world”.  Have some people been left “in pieces” but still unable to see and feel their world – or God, inasmuch as God is not already implicit in “their world”?

I hope and pray that they haven’t. “Pray?” you say – “what to?” I don’t know, to some value of God, I suppose. I doubt it can have any real effect, as the values of God which I can conceive and which might make that possible seem improbable to me. But I hope I’m wrong… and tomorrow morning, at silly o’clock, I will be affirming “Christ is risen”. For some value of “Christ” For some value of “risen”. May that be true for those now feeling cut adrift as well.

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The maddening thing about Mysticism

April 9th, 2017

… is, firstly, that it is possible that it might literally drive you mad. Karen Armstrong records in her autobiography the discovery that her own powerful mystical experiences emanated from her suffering from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Peter Rollins identifies the collapsing of the boundary between self and other as being characteristic of psychosis and Robert Sapolsky talks in his Stanford lecture on the neurobiology of religion about shamans clearly suffering from schizotypal personality disorder.

Granted, those instances serve to show that people with certain conditions commonly considered as “mental illness” also sometimes have what appear to be mystical experiences, not that having mystical experiences can lead to mental disorders. My own peak mystical experiences did not stem from any of the “usual suspects” among mental illnesses, and I don’t seem to have developed any of those conditions in the nearly 50 years since my first such experience.  In fairness, however,  I have since developed diagnosed depression and anxiety, neither of which is linked with mysticism as such, though the “dark night of the soul” talked of by some mystics looks a bit like depression. So, perhaps, you can chalk up “might lead to profound depression” as a “maddening thing”.

But that is to take the title far too literally, and in religion, a literal leaning is a dangerous thing (to quote Dennis Norden, who was not talking about religion…).

The thing which tends to madden other people about mysticism is the apparent inability of mystics to talk in nice, simple to understand, concrete terms about their experiences. As Peter Rollins also says, mystics tend to be “slippery”; there’s a tendency to say something and then say “but it wasn’t like that”. Eastern traditions perhaps do it better, with “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao” and “What is the Buddha nature? The sound of one hand clapping”.  I can cheerfully talk about experiencing being nothing and everything at the same time (and no synthesis seems available) and say that that was being “one with God”, so God is all and nothing simultaneously as well (side note – most mystics could cheerfully say “I and my father are one” were it not for an anticipation of straightjackets these days or impromptu bonfires in times past, without claiming to be a person of the trinity…).

Believe me, mystics find it maddening as well, or at least this one does, and not a few others have written about the difficulty of putting into words what is an ineffable experience.

I should clarify here that I am really talking of the full blown, falling off your horse version of the experience. Lesser versions, which I tend to refer to as having “an edge” of the full experience can be described much more easily; Peter Rollins refers to mystical experience as “oceanic”, which would be a good description of the edge – but not of the full spectrum experience. I do not remotely decry the “edge” experience – it is very good in and of itself, and has served well to assuage my feeling of needing the full version for long periods of time.

The full experience has only come to me on a very limited number of occasions, and while I’ve written of it that it is “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, that is pretty faint praise of something which, when it originally happened to me, changed me utterly and dictated a course of living which I’ve adhered to ever since, as best I could. It’s sufficiently good that many people have given over their lives to its pursuit, sometimes walling themselves up in small cells, sometimes taking themselves off into the desert, sometimes squatting on pillars. The edge is something which you can actually experience while, for instance, walking down the road or doing the dishes, while the full spectrum would result in you walking into lamp posts or needing a new set of crockery.

So another problem, which could madden at least an outsider, is that mysticism pursued vigorously can leave you pretty useless to humanity generally.

The full spectrum version can also be intensely scary – another “maddening thing”. If the overpowering impression of having your “self” extinguished, ground into nothingness in relation to the immensity of all that is were not sufficient, it also not infrequently includes a taking stock of what has gone before – a little like the suggestion that when you die, your whole life flashes past your eyes. My best imagery for it from Christian sources would be that you are judged on the spot, with as much of the attendant hellfire and brimstone as your subconscious has internalised (to me, the Last Judgment is today, yesterday and every other day in history, though most of us aren’t summoned on a regular basis). Relatively few people of my acquaintance are anxious to sit before the Judgment Seat of the Lord today (rather than at some point in the future) – though I can also attest that it comes with a side-order of complete acceptance and forgiveness, at least in my case. Even then, however,  there is an imperative to restore anything damaged by your actions – and I am not fond of making grovelling apologies or striving to repair things which may actually be irreparable. Having your faults and wrongs “burned out of you by fire” is not comfortable.

So there’s also a concealed price. It’s a little as if the best experience I could wish for someone was ringed with electrified barbed wire – you can, perhaps, reach in and grasp it, but you’re likely to end up shocked and torn up a fair amount as well.

Lastly, despite my best endeavours over many years, I can’t turn to you and say “do this and you will definitely have a peak mystical experience”; I can point to many contemplative traditions and say “these give you a very fair chance of having an oceanic experience (a lesser mystical experience) if you stick with them long enough”, but the full spectrum experience? No, that seems obstinately to be an “out of the blue” occurrence with little or no rhyme or reason about why it happens when it does.

And that maddens me, and has maddened quite a few people to whom I’ve waxed lyrical about mysticism as well.

Believe me, if I knew how it happened, I’d be encouraging everyone to give it a try, even with caveats about electrified barbed wire!

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Grow up!

March 28th, 2017

“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.” (Ps. 82:6).

I read this morning Dietrich Bonhoefer writing, in Letters and Papers from Prison, “We cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.”

Now, we are given to speaking of God as “father” – Jesus addresses him as “Abba” in Mark 14:36, and prescribes that we pray commencing “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9). Mostly when people develop this metaphor, they are given to treating us as young children, who require constant attention, protection and support from their parents – indeed, the Lord’s Prayer is very much constructed along these lines.

But as a parent of an older child, and a child myself of parents who lived long and productive lives but are now dead, I look on this period of childhood as a rather brief and transitory stage of life. Parents want their children to grow up and to stand on their own feet, albeit with a certain amount of wistful wishing that they were still dependent and were not asserting their independence and leaving home to make their own lives. Would God want less for his children?

In “God, a Biography”, Jack Miles treats the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) as a piece of literature, ordering it in the Jewish rather than the Christian way (i.e. the first five books, then the prophets, then the other writings), and charts the development of the character of God through the texts, treating them as a single piece of writing. He ends up painting a picture of a God who starts out very active and controlling, and who gradually withdraws from involvement until, in the last books, he is barely a presence at all. This, perhaps, starts sounding like the parent I’ve conceived here, supporting and chastising in early life and then gradually withdrawing to let the children fend for themselves. Indeed, Judaism has a story which is perhaps on point, the Oven of Akhnai. In it, there is a dispute as to the Law between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of other eminent rabbis, in which Eliezer’s approach is supported by a number of miracles, including a divine voice heard by all – but the majority stick to their guns and argue that they are correct in their interpretation of the scriptures and, in essence, God has given them those and should no longer interfere – and God’s response is “my children have defeated me”.

Athanasius of Alexandria wrote “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God”, and was in agreement with very many church fathers (and the Catholic Catechism); perhaps we should now accept the fullness of that concept and determine that we really should now be doing things for ourselves – after all, Teresa de Avila wrote “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks out his compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”

Can we accept that we must grow up? I know I had difficulty accepting, in her last decade, that from being the carer and provided for me, I had become the carer and provider for my mother; but I came to terms with it and was glad to be able to give back some of what I’d received (the remainder needs to be “paid forward” via my own children). Thus, perhaps, “Before God and with God we live without God” needs us to accept that perhaps, just perhaps, God may need our help rather than us needing his…

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