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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?

Meh.

 

 

 

 

  • (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 https://theworldwidewaystation.wordpress.com/2017/03/10/im-a-methodological-naturalist-get-me-out-of-here/)

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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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Beyond tribalism?

February 5th, 2017

In writing about nations (or ethnicities, tribes, cultures or, if pushed, races) one needs to consider how these might be organised (and I have in mind that they may organise themselves). I recently found an interesting article regarding the conflict between democracy and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.

Let’s face it, we are going to have ethnicities for a very long time, if indeed there is any chance they will eventually vanish as a feature of human organisation. One of the more stupid suggestions I’ve seen mooted recently was the idea that we should solve all the problems of the Middle East by eliminating tribalism. Granted, if there was no tribalism (ethnicism), there would probably be far, far fewer tensions in the area, but really? You might as well say we could solve all the same problems by eliminating violence. It is not remotely a practical suggestion.

Humanity is, I think, irredeemably given to creating identity groups. Where there aren’t enough nice clear identities for young people in urban sprawls in the West to adopt, they will create gangs, with their own visual and behavioural distinctives. Before you dismiss this as a feature of youth culture, or counterculture, consider the average parochial church council of body of elders – if there are more than four or five people, there will be factions, and sometimes the level of animus there is equal to that between rival gangs, although, thank the Lord, usually not expressed with guns or edged weapons…

There are a number of factors which contribute towards the identity of an ethnic group or tribe. Large among those is language; if you have a language “the others” don’t understand, this helps you preserve the identity. Dialects and heavy accents will do almost as well, and if you haven’t one already, don’t worry, your group will soon invent its own set of “in group” words. Similarity of appearance is a big one – if your group happens all to have the same skin colour or other clear features such as an epicanthic fold, that’s a good start, but you can get a long way by dress codes, body art and even just general demeanour.

Beliefs are also a very strong identity factor. If they can attain the status of a religion, all the better, but I look at some sports supporters and find it difficult to distinguish their Kierkegaardian “ultimate concern” with their chosen team from the basic substance of a religion, and I am wholly convinced that the neoliberal consensus in economics is religious in nature (and worse than many religions in that its basic tenets such as the infallibility of the market and “trickle down” economics have been shown time and again to be both false and damaging).

Most of all, though, the thing which cements any group together is having an enemy. “Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”  – James Alison. The great enemy du jour in the West (“Western” may not be a tribe, but that holds for many of the individual tribes which constitute “the West” or “the First World”) is nominally Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but the terrorists’ narrative is that this conceals the fact that Islam as a religion, as an ethnicity, as an identity is the enemy, and despite the best endeavours of spokesmen in most of the West (I except the new US administration, who seem incapable of being even slightly subtle) that is very much how things are playing out. While we may say that we are merely combatting terrorism, our actions frequently prejudice Muslims generally, and I can well understand my Muslim friends who no longer feel comfortably “at home” in my country, despite in many cases having been born and brought up here. Yesterday’s great enemy was communism, of course, but that is now almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy (wrongly, in my eyes, as what actually failed was command economies). Indeed, the unifying force of a great enemy seems to be the most significant factor in political divides.

We have to deal with the fact that if you put enough people together, they will form tribes; any attempt to create a larger body with a common identity is likely to founder on petty divisions. I have in mind that even in the early days of Christianity, Paul was complaining of this. It would be nice to think that we can get beyond the great unifying force of a common enemy in order to do this, but at the moment I cannot see a way to do this, apart from stressing at every possible opportunity that we are all human beings; we are children of God irrespective of our other differences.

My next post will talk a little more of the Biblical witness to this idea.

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Thanks for the trust…

January 18th, 2017

I’ve just listened to an interview with Walter Brueggemann on the topic of money, and as a result have his book on the subject on my wish list. I wrote a fair amount about property a little while ago (this is a link to the earlier post in that series), and it is very good to hear Brueggemann endorsing my view that possessions and money are not to be regarded, if you wish to follow the Biblical witness, as being “yours”; I like the concept of “holding on trust” which he talks of.

Of course, I anticipate the argument that we can’t actually run a society based on these Biblical principles. G.K. Chesterton wrote “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried”, and I am very tempted to agree. As I’ve written before, there seems evidence in Acts 2-5 that the very early church was trying to take a view of economics which was essentially communitarian (particularly Acts 4:32), but the experiment does not seem to have persisted all that long, and the injunction in Leviticus to hold a regular “year of Jubilee” when all debts were cancelled and all land returned to its original owners does not seem to have been followed for very long, if at all – certainly there is no trace of it in the historical record; I ask myself whether the Pauline efforts to support the Jerusalem Church were in fact famine relief, or whether trying to follow Jesus’ and the Hebrew Scriptures’ injunctions regarding property might have had significant negative effect, in which case there would be some justification in saying that Chesterton was wrong in saying the ideal had not been tried.

But I really like the concept of “held in trust”. That would mean that I don’t necessarily have to pauperise myself, but can hold assets and money as long as I acknowledge that the primary purpose of this is to benefit people in general, rather than just myself and my immediate family; I hold them subject to an obligation.

OK, there is a general principle of trust law that trustees should not benefit from the trust, but a well drawn trust deed will include provisions for the trustee to be reasonably remunerated for the work they do – and besides, I am one of the class of beneficiaries of this particular trust anyhow, as are my family!

I think I can extend the principle, as well. I have (whether by nature or nurture, but in any event largely not by my own doing) a reasonable intellect and a good memory, and regard those too as something I hold in trust for the benefit of people generally.

And, of course, to regard my money, possessions and abilities as a gift is in and of itself something which can contribute to my own happiness, given the finding that people tend rather strongly to be happy in proportion to the extent that they feel grateful!

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What tribe are you from?

January 18th, 2017

It’s curious how linked things seem to come together – one might almost think someone is trying to tell me something when I’ve been thinking about “privilege” for a week or two, someone posts in a private group about coping with the guilt of being white and male, and I also find a criticism of “colourblindness” on my main feed and an article about balancing religious conviction against ethnic identity.

I don’t really feel significant guilt about being white or male, both being things which I have not chosen. I do not accept concepts of inherited guilt, such as original sin; I am inclined to rely on Ezekiel 18, particularly vv. 1-9. OK, I am aware that it is possible to be transgender, thus perhaps stopping being male, but this is only feasible if you have a mismatch between your physical body and your internal mental image; I pass quickly over those who claim to self-identify as being of a race which they don’t appear to belong to; they tend to look foolish in the eyes of others of both races, though I will come back to that. I have enough guilt arising from my self-identification as Christian, given the long history of persecution of other religions and of slightly nonstandard theologies which Christianity as a body should rightly be ashamed of and guilty about, and from my participation in a neo-liberal financialised capitalist state, given that I consider that to be little short of supporting Satan… Those are things which I could, in theory, change, though in the first case I would have immense difficulty in not identifying as a follower (albeit a bad one) of Jesus, and in the second it would be substantially difficult to extricate myself from the system in which I live – I have spent a lot of time working politically against the slide towards neoliberalism, but that doesn’t necessarily excuse completely.

I could, I suppose, still change the fact that I was born British (subset English, though about half Scots, subset Yorkshireman). That comes with another potential load of manure stemming from the country’s colonial past and a lot of wars. Indeed, I’ve contemplated that – I feel very much at home in France, where I can cope fine in the language, and have also considered a number of other European countries where I’m less linguistically able. I’ve particularly contemplated it given the results of the last two elections, which have cemented the political slide into neoliberalism and given the Brexit vote, which I consider toxic – but it isn’t really a live option now given mine and my wife’s age and mental and physical disabilities. That said, I’m inclined to think that the negative effects of past colonialism have been balanced against a significant number of good things; I don’t know where the balance lies, but it isn’t actually unmitigated evil.

But, past colonialism has had an impact in meaning that I am privileged in at least one way; I live in a first world nation, and though not particularly rich by the standards of the society I live in, I’m very rich compared with the vast majority of humanity. That privilege isn’t built entirely on colonial exploitation, of course, it’s also built on the inventiveness of past Britons and on our exploitation of each other – one side of my family clawed their way up, over about 200 years, from being distinctly among the exploited in the mines of Yorkshire to being, arguably, among the exploiters. My grandfather was the first generation to be an employer, and my father and myself have also been employers, and while we have all had a distinct tendency towards regarding employees more as family than as opponents or material to be exploited, nonetheless we have benefited from the “surplus value” of other peoples’ labour.

Actually, having done one of those “check your privilege” questionnaires a while ago, I find that overall I’m not particularly privileged – I have enough negative privilege points to counterbalance the huge “privileges” of being born white, male, first world and middle class. The questionnaire didn’t advert to the fact that I was also endowed by genetics and upbringing with a fairly high intelligence and a very good memory, nor to the fact that I happened to be born, worked and retired during a period in which it has been possible to provide decently for my retirement, which is probably a privileged position compared with that of my children. I have, therefore, significant “privilege” in my own eyes.

But should I feel guilty about that? I tend to think not, as long as I haven’t got there by means which are unfair to others, and I’ve tried very hard to be fair to others since my mid teens. What I do feel, and I think it is right to feel, is an increased obligation to help those less privileged than me. I have, due to the privilege, some ability to do that, and I answer that call. Probably not to the extent which would be ideal, but I answer it nonetheless.

My felt obligation to be fair to others, however, does mean that I feel it right to be at least somewhat colour blind. Referring to the article I linked to earlier, it didn’t actually occur to me when watching “Thor” that Idries Elba is black and therefore could be regarded as a rather strange Norse God. To my mind, he makes a perfectly convincing Norse God; he is a very fine actor. The article, however, suggests that by not noticing his skin colour, I am denying him his heritage.

The thing is, for that role, Elba’s skin colour is not (and to my mind should not be) a factor. He is an actor, and he is portraying someone (granted a mythical someone) from a different milieu – which is what actors do all the time. In most of my interactions with other people, their ethnicity is just not a factor – unless it impacts on what the interaction is about. It was, for instance, irrelevant in considering who I might employ or with whom I did business. My own ethnicity was equally irrelevant. In point of fact, so was my gender and that of employees and employers. At least for the most part – there were times when I had to consider (for instance) if a client would be more comfortable with a black, or asian, or female advocate – but that was acknowledging that the client was not colour-blind. I will grant that I was occasionally considering whether the tribunal would react better to an advocate of a particular sex, which does concern me as it was potentially playing to the sexism of the court, but cannot recall having ever considered that a jury would think of a black advocate (for instance) as anything other than just a barrister. While there were times when I needed to consider the ethnicity (or, sometimes, just religion) of an advocate due to the fact that the case revolved in some part round that ethnicity or religion, that impacted on what the interaction was about, and so falls into my earlier exclusion.

Should someone, just based on their skin colour, be forced to adopt an ethnicity which the rest of us consider consistent with that ethnicity? As I mentioned earlier, adopting an ethnicity apparently at odds with the way you appear can invite ridicule from both camps – but that generally only applies where the individual in question is by appearance from a majority ethnicity but wishes to adopt a minority ethnicity. Personally, I’m entirely happy to accept any ethnicity someone wishes to adopt, irrespective of whether their skin colour or facial features seem to me to be a “good fit” for that ethnicity. There are other ways of displaying most ethnicities via appearance which can be changed – dress, for instance, or hairstyle, or patterns of speech (though that latter is problematic, as, for instance, those who have a different native language often cannot adopt a new one without perceptible accent). When playing a Norse God, Elba is not wanting us to consider his African heritage, he is wanting us to consider his assumed Norse ethnicity, which is amply displayed by the way he is costumed and the way he talks.

I will grant that I wouldn’t contemplate saying something like “I don’t see your colour, I just see you”. Of course I see someone’s colour, just as I notice if they have ginger hair or are seven feet tall (I did for a while have a client who would say that he was six feet fourteen tall; his height wasn’t something you could remotely ignore on first acquaintance, but where it didn’t impact on the work I was doing for him, the only result was that I tended to warn him about doorways where I wouldn’t have for a less vertically endowed individual). Is it relevant to my interaction with someone? Usually not. My seven foot two client  mostly didn’t want to talk about his height, and if he did, he could introduce the topic. However, when he injured himself walking into a road sign which would have cleared the head of anyone in a more normal range of height, and wished to sue the council, clearly it was a factor.

In the same way, if someone is clearly suffering because of some physical aspect they have, I have to consider that. Mostly, that’s been because someone else has made a comment or acted in a way which is prejudicial. Of course I’m going to notice that. The article does, however, make me worry slightly that because I don’t immediately assume that the most important thing about someone is their physical appearance, I might miss some systematic bias against them. That’s true, but the alternative would be to force on people an identity which they might not want to accept.

And that is because there’s what I regard as a flaw in the beginning of the article. It conflates “race” with “skin colour”, and then talks about the two interchangeably. A lot of the time, when it refers to “race”, it’s actually referring to ethnicity. I don’t think ethnicity should depend on skin colour, or that for a lot of people (in my country, at least), it does.

Ethnicity is another matter. It’s the overlapping set of ethnicity, culture, nation and (if you really dig deep) tribe which is significant; “race” is a corrupted term which tends to allocate ethnicity on the basis of colour, and it shouldn’t – as witness this clip from “Crocodile Dundee”.

What tribe are YOU from? I’ll be coming back to this…

 

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