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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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Mastering suspicion?

March 25th, 2017

I’m going through Peter Rollins “Atheism for Lent” course at the moment. This course brings up a set of challenges to Christianity, and the objective is to deconstruct familiar and sometimes unthought of positions; the possible outcome is a refreshed faith – or, if not, one could contemplate Paul’s adage of “test everything, hold to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21) and think that if these challenges succeed, what you had was not good…

We have reached week four, which is labelled “Masters of Suspicion”, and the first reading is from Ludwig Feuerbach. He is sometimes, but not always, included in the standard list of “Masters or Suspicion” which includes Freud, Marx and Nietzsche.

Feuerbach writes: “Man first unconsciously and involuntarily creates God in his own image, and after this God (Religion) consciously and voluntarily creates man in his own image”. Somewhat earlier, Voltaire rather more famously wrote “In the beginning God created man in His own image, and man has been trying to repay the favor ever since.” I’m fairly confident he had his tongue stuck in his cheek for the first part of the sentence…

In reality, of course, both are describing a feedback loop, and at a point when the loop has been running for a very long time, it seems foolish to state axiomatically that one or the other came first. Our concepts of God form us, and we form concepts of God and so ad infinitum (i) – but the same is true in our interactions with other people. The psychoanalytic approach which Pete so often takes says that God is fulfilling psychological needs for us, and that we are projecting onto God, just as we do onto a psychoanalyst.

Curiously, that does not seem to be used as an argument for the nonexistence of psychoanalysts…

Equally, we have a nasty habit of falling in love not with other people but with our concept of other people – and then falling out with them when we realise they do not correspond to the concept we have of them (other people do not always try hard to conform to the image we have of them… whether God does is an open question). That does not mean that those people do not exist, merely that we do not know them as well as we think, they do not exist as we think they are – and that is a large part of what the mystics are saying in contradicting God-concepts which have grown up. They may well have grown up in much the way Feuerbach suggests.

In conscience, I cannot argue too much with the idea that the supernaturalist concept of God has historically interacted with a large percentage of believers in just this way. As Pete points out, this is what Feuerbach was talking about; he regarded the God described (or who failed to be described) by the mystics as an irrelevant sideline, not what religion was really about – and he was clearly a case of the “religious but not spiritual”.

Is any of this a critique of the mystics? Well, I suppose that saying that mysticism is an irrelevant aspect of religion is a form of critique. However, personally I don’t think mysticism is irrelevant; I think all the major religions have harboured mystics since their earliest days and most of them display some evidence that either their founders or people very early in the chain of transmission of the belief were mystics (I’m confident Jesus could be so described, as could St. Paul and the writer of the Fourth Gospel, for instance), and while they may well have not been well understood by the majority and were quite frequently persecuted (consider both Eckhart and Porete, for instance, or the Sufis within Islam), they have provided a source of life to those religions, and there might not have been any of our major religions without mystics.

So my first reaction to the Masters of Suspicion is to say, as Rowan Williams said of Richard Dawkins (paraphrased) “I have no problem with him: the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. You can’t present a mystic with an argument showing why God cannot exist, when the mystic (from his or her point of view) experiences God on a daily basis.

There are, however, a couple of critiques which are perhaps implicit from Feuerbach’s writing (and Freud and Marx) which need to be brought out.

Firstly, the mystics have not been terribly successful in communicating their viewpoint to the masses or in persuading the masses that they should become mystics themselves. If they had been, we would not now see a major proportion of Christianity sold on the ideas that the gospel is equivalent to “Christ died as a payment for our sins and you need to accept that” or that religion is primarily about life after death. We would not see a predominant God-concept of a wrathful God whose primary raison d’être was to punish (or at least exclude) us for not being perfect. We might ask “what good is the mystic’s perspective if the predominant God-concept is so different from theirs?”

Of course, it isn’t an easily communicated viewpoint, given that mysticism and rational analysis are not particularly compatible with each other, and there is no widely acknowledged technique which can reliably make someone a mystic if they haven’t already had some mystical experience.(ii)

Secondly, to quote Feuerbach again, “God is the explanation for the unexplainable which explains nothing because it explains everything without distinction — he is the night of theory, nonetheless making everything clear to the mind by removing any measure of darkness and extinguishing the light of discriminating comprehension — the not-knowing which solves all doubts by repudiating them, which knows everything because it knows nothing in particular and because all things which impress reason are nothing to religion, lose their identity and are nil in God’s eye. The night is the mother of religion”

There is an ever-present problem with the basis of human comprehension, which operates primarily by contrasting or comparing two things, when a quality is said to be universal – if it is, it offers no way of contrast with any other quality, and it is not unreasonable to say that if everything is x, then nothing is x. Mysticism is, frankly, incompatible with reductive analysis; the easiest way to terminate an incipient mystical experience is to start analysing it.

But then, it is a feature of reductive analysis that it tends to destroy the thing analysed. Once I have fully dissected a goat, it is no longer a goat, but a heap of meat, bone, hair and sinew. There is, however, something to be said for just observing the goat – and in the process, perhaps finding that it is able to traverse the face of a dam

The unifying factor between the Masters of Suspicion seems to me to be that they think they have found the reason for religion. In other words, they have a metanarrative which they prefer to the traditional one. Feuerbach is, in essence, saying that the Mystical viewpoint is such a metanarrative.

But perhaps, just perhaps, it’s just saying “you can see things like this…”?

One other thing regarding the “everything is x so nothing is x” view; that would probably apply to pantheism, which equates God with the material universe. Most mystics are, however, panentheists, who hold that the material universe exists within God, but is not all that God is. I’m minded of the trick used in science and mathematics, where in order to examine something all-pervading, you adopt a viewpoint which is at least notionally outside the scope of the thing studied.

Are we panentheists rather than pantheists merely because we need some way of standing outside the universe? Perhaps. Does it matter?






  • (i) This may be a good and sufficient reason for declaring that God is Love, despite any misgivings we may have on the subject…
  • (ii) Although you can induce something at least very similar to mystical experience via the use of certain drugs or via electromagnetic stimulation, such experiences are transitory and I am not aware of any studies indicating that they can be built on in the way other mystical experience can be.

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Naturalism and its discontents

March 10th, 2017

There is a story I’ve heard used by preachers (source unknown) which goes like this:-

A very religious man was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and trusted God to rescue him. A neighbour came by in a canoe and said, “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A short time later the police came by in a boat. “The waters will soon be above your house. Hop in and we’ll take you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

A little time later a rescue services helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said. “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.”

“No thanks” replied the religious man. “I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me”

All this time the floodwaters continued to rise, until soon they reached above the roof and the religious man drowned. When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God. Ushered into God’s throne room he said, “Lord, why am I here in heaven? I prayed for you to save me, I trusted you to save me from that flood.”

“Yes you did my child” replied the Lord. “And I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. But you never got in.”

Most preachers go on to say that we should always look for the hand of God in things which seem to happen naturally. But I suspect a subtext. The overwhelming majority of the people sitting in the pews, whatever they say about belief in divine providence, will be methodological naturalists, i.e. they put their trust in natural, not supernatural, causes and effects and will assume that there’s a natural explanation for everything – and this story is also telling them that they’re not being stupid doing that. Indeed, it’s probably telling them that louder than it’s telling them to look for the hand of God in a guy with a canoe.

I am most definitely a methodological naturalist. How could I be anything else? I have a science degree and actually do a bit of research part time, I spent over 25 years as a practising lawyer, and in my teens I used to love stage magic, because I was forever trying to work out the mechanics of magic tricks (sometimes with success) and try some of them out on my friends (and I assumed that any report of the supernatural was someone doing a “magic trick”). By the age of about 9, I was an atheist – indeed, I was an evangelical atheist, thinking that people needed to be rid of their ridiculous attachment to supernatural explanations (which was something of a burden to my preacher father…).

That, for the philosophically minded, meant that I was also at that point an ontological naturalist, i.e. I thought that all that there was consisted of natural causes and effects. Another way of putting it was that I was a scientific rationalist materialist; material was all there was.

So, what am I doing hanging around most Sunday mornings and at some other times during the average week with a group who believe (at least ostensibly) in miracles, including resurrection, walking on water and creating food out of thin air? Surely the cognitive dissonance is too much?

Well, at 14 I had, out of the blue, a peak mystical experience. The naturalist, scientific rationalist explanation was, ultimately, that there was no reason for this and no meaning in it – it was just something my brain did. That was not enough for me – for a start, it was the best experience of my existence to date at that point (it still is, along with a few “repeat performances”), and I wanted more of that. However, the language used by almost all the people who reported something similar (who I found were called “mystics”) was “God language” (those who avoided “God language” didn’t give very good descriptions, and didn’t propose any ways of achieving repeats, so I rather discounted them…)

Then in the course of my physics studies I encountered wave-particle duality – matter was , when looked at one way, a wave (and that explained a lot of phenomena), but when looked at another, was particles (and that explained a lot more). There was no really sensible way in which it could be both, and in reality, it probably wasn’t actually either – but there was no way of knowing.

In other words, we could tell a story about it being a wave, and that was useful in some circumstances, we could tell a story about it being a particle, and that was useful in some others. It was a lot later that I encountered Terry Pratchett’s “Science of Discworld” books, but I think he expounds the idea very well in those – we tell stories about the world, about our experience, and some are useful, some aren’t. Pratchett calls us “homo narrans”, the story-telling hominid.

Telling the story that my peak mystical experience was an experience of God was useful. It gave me a narrative, it gave me access to a set of people who had had similar experiences and who also wanted more where that came from. It wasn’t the same story as was told about that by an atheist friend of mine – he said it was a “brain fart”. Maybe that was useful to him, but it definitely wasn’t useful to me!

What about ontology, I wonder? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion since that we actually can’t ever hope to say anything definitive about ontology, about the way things actually are in and of themselves, we can only talk about how they appear to us. We can only tell stories about them…

There is a story about a wise and charismatic teacher, preacher and (I believe) mystic who gathered a following and ultimately was faithful to his vision in the face of persecution and died at the hands of an occupying empire as a result, and whose followers then continued to experience him afterwards. I am captivated by that story, and I follow that teacher as best I can (which is not very well, to be honest – he set some incredibly high standards). Is it a true story? I don’t know. Is matter composed of waves or is it composed of particles or is it something we can’t conceive? I don’t know that either. It’s a story I want to identify with, a story I find useful.

And, returning to the story with which I started, I have no problem these days in saying “thank you, God” when a parking space suddenly opens up for me. I don’t expect that there’s been any suspension of natural law to enable that to happen, or even a subliminal command to the departing driver. That’s a different story, a different narrative, and one which is not at that point useful to me…

(First appeared on The Way Station blog at

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Moose antlers, taxes and the second iphone

February 28th, 2017

There’s an interview with Robert Frank on the “Evonomics” site which I thoroughly recommend. Actually, both the interview and the site generally, as it tends to publish articles very critical of neoliberal economics, and regular readers will be well aware of my attitude to that!

I want firstly to highlight a couple of results from research which he mentions. First is the finding that studying economics makes people more selfish and less communitarian, based on experiments using the prisoner’s dilemma. If you couple that with the critique of short-term thinking arising from the sole preoccupation being stock value (“maximisation of shareholder value” being the one and only objective in neoliberal economics), you can see that training people in neoliberal economics and then packing management with these MBAs is going to produce a system in which short term gain is everything and there is very little, if any, consideration of “the general good”.

The article then successfully critiques competitive behaviour, and it is easy to draw a parallel between the over-sized antlers of the moose and the $2,000 suit at interview, the $72,000 wedding and the over-specified Lexus. All of those are seriously wasteful compared with something which would be entirely adequate, and all of them involve a kind of “arms race” in which just the knowledge that other people are doing something leads to very many people feeling compelled to do the same.

I don’t myself react that way, and I don’t think anyone who studies the synoptic gospels and seeks to follow (albeit imperfectly) Jesus’ commands should react that way either. If I’m buying something, I want to buy something which is adequate for the task I intend. Anything beyond that, and I am thinking “I should be content with enough; any surplus should go to helping those less fortunate than me”. I also consider that Genesis gives us a clear direction to be good stewards of creation, and therefore anything which uses up natural resources to no good purpose (such as the wedding or, probably, the car) is failing in that stewardship. Again, when  interviewing (and I do some of that from time to time) I actually tend to downgrade anyone who is too well turned out (the $2000 dollar suit) because that tells me they’re likely to be wasteful, uncharitable and more concerned with appearance than actuality.

The trouble is, the thread running most of the way through the article is that perceptions matter, and we are educating and employing people to attitudes which are contrary to the spirit of aiding the least among us, the “preferential option for the poor”. I used to think that at least some of this communitarian spirit had worked its way into the general consciousness of my increasingly non-Christian country, but since 1980 that seems to me to have changed, and I see little chance that the dreams of some of my evangelical friends, that there will be a wholesale revival and people will flock in droves to following the social gospel will come about (following the Great Commission). Actually, it seems to me that we have an uphill task persuading a lot of self-identifying Christians that they should reasonably devote, if not all then, say, half of their effort and money to the poor (following the tax collector rather than the rich young man there, which I could argue demands a marginal tax rate of at least 50% for the wealthy!). Can we do any more than the two counter- normative attitudes I mentioned in the last paragraph, aside the Great Commission? Well, we can point out that in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the less selfish path produces the greatest good for all, and to stacks of research indicating that a strong communitarian sense benefits everyone in society.

The second piece of research is that from playing monopoly, and from observing the habits of drivers. It seems that being rich makes you, basically, more of an a*hole. OK, there are some extremely rich examples of massive philanthropy, notably the Gates family and Warren Buffett, but the vast amount of money they are giving away leaves them still among the top 0.1% (let alone 1%) of humanity, and this does not seem to be universal among billionaires by any manner of means. They are exceptional.

That also argues that, if we want to have a society with less a*holes, we should try hard to reduce the income and capital gap between the very rich and the rest of us. We might also note research that shows a direct correlation between health (of all, not just the poor) and equality of income in societies, and another Evonomics article indicating that large wealth gaps tend towards societal collapse. If we’re going to do this as a society, we either need a culture in which vast incomes are seen as shameful (which, again, I would argue flows from consideration of the tax collector and rich young man stories) or we need to tax the rich more heavily.

The article, in fact, suggests just that – but it suggests it as a graduated tax on consumption, rather than on income. I don’t think that would work. Firstly, part of the problem with inequality is “decreasing marginal propensity to spend”; the poor are going to spend pretty much everything they receive immediately, the rich can do without the fourth ice cream, and sometimes do. Even more so they can do without the second iphone… Inequality slows down the circulation of money, and that circulation is what powers the economy. Secondly, as another Evonomics article points out, saving doesn’t fuel investment (or at least it doesn’t do that well).

The fact is, if you put £10 in the pocket of a poor person, it will be in the pocket of a rich person again within 24 hours (because he will spend it); if you put £10 in the pocket of a rich person, it will probably just sit there, maybe finding its way into a bank sometime next week. The first yields you an improved economy, the second actually slows down the economy.

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One world, one tribe, one church?

February 20th, 2017

There is a strong Biblical theme involving the eventual vanishing of boundaries between tribes and nations, as this meditation on Joel indicates. It is one aspect of the current of seeking justice which pervades the scriptures, particularly the prophets; the foreigner is one category of the oppressed who are singled out for particular care and protection.

In the New Testament, Jesus then takes steps to invalidate tensions due to people’s occupations, consorting with tax collectors and a repentant courtesan, due to their nationality in the tale of the Syrophonecian woman and even if a member of an occupying enemy nation, in healing the servant of the Centurion, and finally due to their religion in the parable of the Good Samaritan (and in that case it is important to note that the Samaritans were completely beyond the pale, as they practiced what Jews regarded as a perversion of Judaism in an immediately neighbouring area with a long history of violence between the two communities). Paul just sets another seal on it in Gal. 3:28 by denying not only differences between Jew and Gentile, but between slave and free and even man and woman.

Indeed, Alain Badiou (who is at least nominally atheist) wrote a book called “St. Paul; the Foundation of Universalism” in which he explores universalism as an “event”, something which breaks apart the existing structures and leads to new possibilities. New possibilities like seeing every other human being as your neighbour, or your brother or sister. Although Christianity has not generally been very good as regarding all of humanity in this way, the long ascendance of Christianity in Europe eventually gave way to a secular liberalism, and frankly I don’t see that any committed Christian should object to the end result of that, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That isn’t an ostensibly Christian document, but it does, I think, encapsulate a large amount of how, as Christians, we should treat others.

Now, I can occasionally dream that in the future, following Jesus might become something truly universal, and that this might at least to some extent solve our problems of tribalism and the attendant violence and prejudice. Christianity is not, however, the only universal religion – all the Abrahamic faiths are at least potentially universal (though Judaism makes it rather more difficult than others to become part of their conception of the “people of God”), as are Buddhism, Taoism and the more philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta (and multiple others).

There are problems, however. The other major world religions have their own very faithful adherents, for a start, and a sizeable proportion of Christians have (as I mentioned in a previous post in this series) fixed on one of them, Islam, as “the enemy”. Yes, I know that most of us are careful to say that the enemy is radical Islam, and particularly radical Islam of the Salafist variety, but the way we actually act indicates that we regard every Muslim as a potential terrorist – witness all the restrictions on refugees from Muslim countries, who have a massive claim on our compassion even without considering that our Western governments have contibuted in greast measure to the fact that they cannot feel safe at home.

It may come as a shock to some, but I would actually have no major problem in saying the Shahada, just as I have no major problem saying “Jesus is Lord”. Some American Christians have, indeed, recently been suggesting that they could do likewise in a show of solidarity with Muslims terrified by President Trump’s noises about Muslims and the upswelling in persecution which goes along with it. I have read the Quran (OK, in translation), and while I could nitpick about some of the passages in there, there is nothing worse than, for instance, the Biblical attitude to Amalekites, and the general tenor of it is far more universalist than the general tenor of the Bible if you include the Hebrew Scriptures. Islam is capable of expressions which I consider more Christian than most of what I hear from Christians these days, as witness this address on the Quebec Mosque killings (which reminds me of, for instance, the Amish reaction to their own massacre some years ago). I rather treasure the comment of one Muslim in a thread some years ago, after I expounded a thoroughly Christian concept of submission to the will of God, that I was a “good Muslim”. How could I do otherwise, given the eleventh step “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out”? To call me a “Good Muslim”, however, requires a broadness of definition very few Muslims would agree with, but “al-Islam” is “the way of submission”…

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am not actually likely to jump ships in that direction, for two reasons – firstly, Islam takes a very dim view of what it considers “apostates”, and I tend to manage to be heretical in any system I participate in, and secondly, bacon…).

Is there any possibility of true universalism without the supremacy of one of the universalist religions (all of which are a part of one or more tribal identities)? My rationalist friends would say that any such endeavour should not. However, they would replace religion with another philosophy (as far as I can see, humanity cannot form a viable tribe without some unifying philosophy), and pretty much any such philosophy is likely to be anathema to some people subscribing to any religion. I would also problematise such an endeavour on the basis that it would give no place to the spiritual side of human nature, and it is (to my thinking) exactly that spiritual side which is likely to bring people to consider themselves part of a greater whole, namely humanity, or that it would try to elevate the philosophy in question to a level which it is unable to bear (such as the way Communism used to be viewed by many in the last century).

I have a lot of sympathy with Karen Armstrong, who has described herself as a “freelance monotheist”, having started out Catholic, gone through a period of atheism and then studied Judaism, Islam and Buddhism in depth. I am, however, very sceptical that her path is one which could be followed widely, let alone universally. Granted, I know people who regard themselves as Christians and Buddhists, Christians and followers of Vedanta and am even aware of one or two who claim both Christianity and Islam; this is not to dwell on “Messianic Judaism” which strives to combine Christianity with Judaism, but without any significant Jewish membership – it is unfortunately little more than a covert Christian evangelism project, and I am very much not in favour of trying to convert anyone who already has a well-functioning faith (or philosophy). They, however, are probably all going to remain outliers, and all of them would be rejected by significant proportions of their chosen faith traditions, even those who claim “Buddhism plus” or “Vedanta plus”, neither of which is religiously exclusive, at least in theory.

There is perhaps more traction to be gained from finding a non-religion-specific philosophy which, however, doesn’t tread too heavily on any religious toes, and leaving the various faiths to accept minority status in the wider community. That is, let’s face it, what the American experiment attempted to do in the First Amendment to the Constitution. OK, I will grant that I don’t actually think the Founding Fathers intended anything more than preventing the various sects of Christianity which were dominant in one or more of the signatory staates from becoming the religion of the whole country (as most of them had at that point a lamentable record of oppressing people from other denominations, which is probably what the Pilgrim Fathers were hoping to create), aside perhaps two or three who had a more wide-ranging objective. (Incidentally, any of my more conservative readers who are happy with my strict construction here should note that I do consider the constitution needed to develop to meet changing circumstances, and the procedure for amendments is inadequate for that because too difficult, so while I wince slightly at the way legal decisions have gone, I think it was necessary; they should also note that using the same principles I would interpret the second amendment as allowing the restriction of any ownership of firearms to members of the armed forces, police or National Guard – and I might argue about the inclusion of the police!)

I do not here mean to suggest that the rest of the Constitution is a viable model for the world in general, perhaps with the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence,by the way. There are good features and bad ones about it, and current events strongly indicate to me that it’s system of governing is broken. I would suggest that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rather closer to the ethos I would like to see as universal.

That would, of course, mean that all the religious tribes would have to accept being minorities, at least unless and until one of them managed to secure a worldwide majority. Looking back at history, Judaism has managed to do this for a very long time; Christianity had its greatest expansion as a persecuted minority and Buddhism has done very well as a minority religion too. I can’t see this status as being bad for them – and, indeed, the keenness of the Pilgrim Fathers for setting up their own theocracy and persecuting others does make one wonder whether it is in any event very good for anyone else (more recently, Burma/Myanmar is an unpleasant reminder of how even the very peaceful Buddhism can be unpleasant when in effective control of a state).

But I still dream of the day when we can add to Paul’s words in Galatians:-

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, nor is there Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh, Taoist, Animist or Confucian, Wiccan or Pagan, Discordian, Agnostic or Atheist, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Italics my addition).

It would be nice if we could start with having that viewpoint throughout the many Christian denominations… there are huge numbers of Christian tribes, many of which consider other Christian tribes as the great enemy (rather like Jews and Samaritans). Can we start there?

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Politics and faith

February 14th, 2017

Daniel Kirk has posted an excellent piece about the intersection of Christian faith and politics. In it, he asks four questions:-

  • What sort of rubric do you use for engaging politics as a person of faith?
  • Is there really any point in participating in the system we’ve been given?
  • Are you more actively engaging now than you did a year ago, if so what’s new?
  • What are the points at which Christians should be changing the conversation rather than simply taking up the flag for one side or the other in the political maelstrom?

I think my first answer has to be to the second question. There really is no alternative to participating in the system we’ve been given; the only alternative would be to seek to tear down that system and institute a different one, and I don’t think we’re called on as Christians to be wreckers (aside, perhaps, from a need to overturn the tables of the moneylenders regularly); we are supposed to build community, not to destabilise it. Granted, building a Jesus-driven community IS a destabilising action so far as the prevailing order is concerned.

Yes, the system we have is corrupt; I’m with Walter Wink in characterising it as one of the “powers and principalities” against which we should struggle, but also with him in recognising that our current system is, like us, fallen and capable of redemption. Our task should be to strive to redeem it. Granted, we may also hope that God will move mightily and change things, but our experience should indicate that where we have the power to do something, we should not expect God to do it for us – and, in a democracy, we have the power to do something.

That power is the power to vote, first and foremost, but also the power to agitate to sway representatives, to work to have representatives who share our vision elected and, in the final analysis, to stand for election ourselves if we find we are the only person willing to. This was a situation in which I found myself around 40 years ago, when I complained to a former Jesuit friend that I had no-one to vote for, and after establishing that I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either of the main parties and there was no presence of our rather marginal third party, he suggested that I stand for them – which entailed creating a party group on the ground locally. After a couple of trial runs, I then proceeded to get elected to local councils seven times…

I think his advice was sound – and he himself was a member and a representative for one of the main parties, not the one I stood for! (Incidentally, I’ve paid that one forward in giving other people advice which got them elected, and two of them stood for his party). There really is no alternative but to participate, given that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” (Edmund Burke).

That, I think, also gives my answer to the last question. If you don’t like either side in an apparently two party system, join or start another which you like better. Who knows, you may win…

My basic objective was always to promote social gospel issues, to ensure the good of the greatest number possible as a communitarian enterprise while avoiding major disadvantage to minorities. In the process it was necessary firstly never to lie, and secondly never to make a promise which I wasn’t confident I could deliver on. I grant you, these are not normally regarded as things politicians do, but I’m proof that, at least at a local level, it’s possible. If standing in a more serious capacity, I would probably want to add “don’t take any campaign contributions from people who expect you to do anything which conflicts with your basic objectives”.

I am, however, retired from practical politics, so no, I am not really more actively engaging – my health is, frankly, no longer up to the challenges of either pavement-pounding or vigorous public engagement. Though I do find I’m thinking and writing more about political subjects than I used to, and don’t rule out the possibility of doing more, albeit almost certainly not in standing for office again. Over 20 years worth of being an elected representative is entirely sufficient for anyone, in my view!

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Pick up the cross?

February 13th, 2017

I’ve just read an article by Rachel Held Evans with which I resonate. OK, I only agree with four of the points which she says make her uncomfortable in a mainstream, “liberal” church – and partly with a fifth, but I’m completely with her on the points which separate her from the more conservative church (and most of what is labelled “evangelical” falls squarely into this category).

Added to her points of difficulty with the conservatives, I can add that I’m very much “pro choice” as it tends to be put these days. This isn’t nearly so much of a demarcation line here in the UK as it is in the States, but it is a difficulty. I haven’t written at length on this topic, but I know I have some “pro-life” readers, and if there’s push-back on this point, I’ll write about it.

Where I part company with mainstream churches is primarily on the issue of actually getting out there and doing things in the community. I’m happy if there’s evangelical outreach as well, but very unhappy if that is linked to serving the poor and marginalised – under no circumstances do I want to exact payment from them in the form of listening to attempts to “convert” them which they don’t want to hear. Second on my list is Bible study – I want a church I attend to have active small groups which I can be part of – the church which basically presents a spectacle for an audience and stops there is not for me.

Like Rachel, I also want to take the Bible seriously (but, to the disappointment of my more conservative friends, not literally much of the time). I want to do that with ALL of the Bible, and not (as I find perhaps the majority of people in Bible studies do) ignore the difficult bits of either testament – but mostly those in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, I also don’t want to do what some conservatives do, and decide that Islam is the new Amalek and we should therefore exterminate Muslims (yes, I do know some people who actually think this should be the case). I am very much with Alfred North Whitehead’s suggestion (passed via John Cobb and Tripp Fuller) that God has to be at least as nice as Jesus – and the Jesus I think God has to be as nice as is definitively the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels excluding the apocalyptic passages, and not the “DJesus unchained” of Revelation.

To be completely honest, though, neither tendency of church, at least not those near to me, is nearly as radical as I want. As I’ve commented before, the more I read the synoptic gospels (and, to be fair to him some of Paul) the more politically radical my views become. Christianity, it seems to me, was as a whole doing a much better job of following Jesus in the first couple of centuries following his death than at any time after the Constantinian adoption of Christianity as the Roman State Religion. OK, there are some denominations which gave a good account of themselves in the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, combatting the slave trade, obtaining rights for workers and children and instituting the co-operative movement, but by and large Christianity has been imperialistic since certainly about 300 CE.

And during the period when it was doing the best job of following Jesus, it was being persecuted; it was rightly seen as being subversive of the imperial power of the day.

So, in conscience, what I want to see from my church is a group which gets up the nose of the powers that be to such an extent that they risk persecution – and that I see from neither mainstream nor evangelical churches at the moment (although I do notice a lot of American evangelicals seem to think they’re persecuted – but then, American evangelicals seem to have lost connection with both reality and the gospel recently).

I notice with interest that during that period when they were much closer to following Jesus than the churches in general now are, and were being persecuted, Christianity grew faster than at any other time in its history. Time, I think, to pick up our crosses and follow our leader…

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Save the Cheerleader?

February 9th, 2017

I have been wondering about going offline and avoiding all news, such is my current feeling that the world is “going to hell in a handcart” as my grandmother would have put it. Brexit here and Trump in the States makes me feel that everything is falling apart – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” as Eliot put it. In truth, though, I merely feel it’s doing that a lot faster than was previously the case; regular readers will know that I see neoliberal financialised capitalism as pervasive, becoming stronger (at least until it crashes on all of us) and as being “the System of Satan”. At least one facebook friend welcomes Brexit and Trump, possibly out of a Dada-esque liking of absurdity, possibly out of a feeling that only in the flames of the old can anything new be born. And I find it difficult to see anything I could do about it…

I think a significant factor in both the Brexit vote and the Trump win has been a large pool of people who have similarly been feeling that things have either been getting steadily worse or at least not getting better for them over the last decade or so. I can understand people thinking that Obama talked a good line, but that the average person didn’t see much (if any) improvement during his presidency, and similarly here a lot of people thought that Blair talked a good line, but things didn’t improve much for them (and the coalition and then the Conservative win just put the icing on that cake for them). With a young friend of mine, they then voted Brexit because “I want to see the world burn” – and I think the same may be true for a significant number of Trump voters. Enough desperation, and you’re ready to unleash destruction without having a clear plan to replace anything; to clutch at straws, or vote for men of straw.

I am frankly afraid of “tear it down, something will come up and it’s got to be better” attitudes – those have fuelled a lot of revolutions, and whether the end result has been positive or negative on balance, the common factor tends to be a lot of suffering. What to do in the meantime, though? How can I, not in a position of great power of influence and without the funds to buy even a very low ranking politican, have influence in a positive way?

For those with health, energy and youth on their side, I strongly suggest involvement in the political process – if you don’t like what politics is producing, do something to change that. It’s by no means too early to start campaigning for 2020; building up a strong organisation and widespread support can easily take three or four years.

In any event, though, I suggest doing the small right things. Richard Beck wrote about the “little way” a while ago, while I’ve meditated on the last few verses of Matthew 25 (you help the disadvantaged or marginalised, you help Jesus…). What springs to mind today, however, is that we people feel powerless to save the world, and it looks as if it might need saving. I remembered the repeated message in the first series of “Heroes”, which was “Save the cheerleader, save the world”.

Now, OK, in that case, saving the cheerleader did save the world, as the cheerleader saved the world. But there’s another very similar line in the Jewish Talmud: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world”. (Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9). This exemplifies a principle in Judaism which is more strongly expressed there than any other tradition, namely that any general thing has to have particular expression – a generalised compassion, for instance, is considered worthless unless you are compassionate in a practical way to a particular person. Perhaps this echoes the particularity of Judaism itself; Israel is God’s chosen people, which prompted William Norman Ewer to write “How odd / of God / to choose / the Jews”, exciting people to claim this was antisemitic and write rejoinders such as Ogden Nash’s “But not so odd / as those who choose / a Jewish God / but spurn the Jews”.

Actually, though, I think it was probably meant in a kindly spirit. Many Rabbis have, in the past, expressed some surprise that Israel was chosen, and some have just rested on that rather than tried to find hidden reasons. There had to be a particular expression in order for the general compassion and care of God to be demonstrated (just as I would say there had to be a particular incarnation of God in Jesus in order for the original incarnation in existence as a whole to be demonstrated, though that may go too far for the non-panentheist).

When the opportunity arises, save someone. If enough of us do that, the world will get saved.

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