Supernatural or not?

I’ve had much the same kind of question asked of me a few times recently. In essence, it’s “Chris, you don’t believe in the supernatural, so how can you be a Christian?”

This tends to come up which someone puts to me that, in order to be a Christian, I have to believe that some supernatural event either took place or will take place (usually the first). It is, I’m sorry to say, completely beyond me to say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event actually happened. That said, I also can’t say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event didn’t or couldn’t happen. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic on the subject, though I have a powerful tendency against seeing supernatural causes for things.

This is because I am methodologically naturalistic. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that where anything happens, I look for naturalistic explanations, explanations which rest on the operation of established scientific principles. Almost every Christian I know tends strongly to do the same; OK, I did hear a preacher recently who claimed to have tried to walk on water, buoyed up by God’s power (he failed, on his account), but very few people of my acquaintance would try this with even a remote expectation of success. Most think that the popular story of the man caught in a flood quite reasonably justifies methodological naturalism even if you believe that God just might intervene (and I agree).

Where I perhaps start parting company with some more conservative Christians is that where I cannot find a plausible naturalistic explanation for some event, I assume that there actually is some naturalistic explanation, it’s just that either I’m not clever enough to figure it out or there is some feature of reality which science hasn’t yet found an explanation for, but might in principle. The figures aren’t as much with me there as in the previous case, but I think probably a majority of the Christians I know take pretty much that view except when considering miracles in the Bible. They would, for instance, take exactly the same view as I do when considering an account drawn from Judaism other than in the Bible (say the story of the Oven of Akhnai), but still hold that Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Then  there’s the case of events for which there’s definitely a naturalistic explanation, but which seem to people to be coincidental beyond the bounds of expectation. There, a majority of the Christians I know tend to talk of God guiding events, and I reserve my position, because I know too much about human tendencies to detect patterns in the random (hyperactive agency detection) and other cognitive biases. I notice, for instance, that the same people who detect the hand of God where something good happens to them very often don’t detect the hand of God where something bad happens, though some I know tend to identify those as the work of Satan.

Actually, the concept that God is not an agent in the world is a lot more respectable than many of my questioners might think. Formal scholastic Catholic thinking, for instance, as well as being keen on Aquinas’ for proofs of (the existence of) God, also decided that “exist” was the wrong concept to use of God, as it argued that God was a part of creation rather than the creator. I happen to disagree with Aquinas’ five proofs and the Catholic insistence on God’s complete otherness, but they do represent theological orthodoxy on the point. How miracles could actually happen on this basis rather escapes me, however, as a completely separate God would seem to have no mechanism to effect miracles!

Going back to the question of naturalistic phenomena for which science does not as yet have a viable explanation, I’m open to possibilities. Indeed, back in my youth I spent a lot of time exploring such concepts as astrology, astral projection, telepathy and telekinesis – I was, after all, 15 in the year when the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the New Age movement was becoming popular, and having just had a peak mystical experience which scientific naturalism didn’t have any good description or explanation of. I was, however, looking for evidence that the phenomena occurred, and trying to develop naturalistic concepts of how they did (if they did).

The snag is, I ended up with the conclusion that none of these things actually works, at least not in any remotely reliable manner. Not, at any event, in any place other than the consciousness of the person who is trying to do things; there, some New Age concepts can definitely have profound effects. I say this with one caveat; there is, I think, a small possibility that some of these may operate if and only if all the people involved fervently believe that they will (this would mean that they would probably not operate if any sceptical observer were involved). I think this unlikely, given that an “all believer” audience will be prone to detect what they expect irrespective of whether it has in fact happened, but I cannot rule out the possibility.

That said, I have personally experienced what I interpret as God breaking down the resistance of a very sceptical individual with no belief in any such thing as the supernatural, let alone God, and providing a set of insights; this was what happened in my first peak mystical experience. I have also experienced (due to a large amount of experimentation in my younger days) the apparent fact that certain techniques can improve the likelihood of such peak experiences happening, including certain forms of prayer and meditation (which I recommend); so can things such as sleep deprivation and temporary anoxia, and certain drugs (which I do not recommend).

Was this a “supernatural” occurrence? I don’t know. I have gone over the circumstances of my first such experience in detail with doctors, psychologists and several ardent sceptics, and we cannot identify a cause from within any of those science has identified a mechanism for. I had done nothing to facilitate such an experience and didn’t desire one, having no conception that that was a possibility. No drugs were involved, I was neither sleep-deprived, anoxic or stressed and electromagnetic stimulation was easily ruled out. I was not epileptic or schizotypal (or any of the other potential neuropsychological candidates). That leaves us with either an as yet unidentified physical (or neurological) cause or supernatural intervention.

In passing, I can’t really do more experimentation, as all repetitions of the experience have followed a lot of work conditioning my mind and practising prayer and meditation, so might well result from that rather than from whatever the cause of the original experience was. I can say, however, that I have not found it possible to “force” a full-bodied repetition – those are few and far between and seem to be “out of the blue” as well. I think the evidence is that certain practices improve the likelihood, however, and therefore recommend prayer and meditation without any note of caution (and anything else with considerable caution).

Of course, if God is conceived of as fundamentally supernatural, it was clearly a supernatural experience. However, one feature of what was an extremely self-verifying experience was that God was radically immanent, i.e. all things were at the least permeated by God to the very smallest and very largest scales, and probably all things could be regarded as being part of God as all fixed boundaries appeared capable (at least) of dissolution; I was a part of this, and all other things were also parts of it. If that is a true insight, then God is in any event able in principle to act through everything that is, including (of course) the material, if one assumes that there is anything which is not material in and of itself.

I therefore, on balance, think that there was some mechanism the details of which are not clear to me (though one of my atheist friends said it must have been a “brain fart”). It is, of course, possible that this mechanism was God (whether supernatural or immanent) deciding to do this. Another facet of the experience was that God had at least some aspects of what I understand as being a person.

I think it reasonable to point out that most people who believe in a supernatural God also believe that God acts in rational ways, and develop theologies which, probably non-accidentally, have an objective of being able to predict what God will do in any particular circumstance. This, it seems to me, is almost imperceptibly different from me seeking to establish by what mechanism this occurred. We are all, in one sense, trying to psychoanalyse God. There are plenty of scriptures to indicate both that one shouldn’t do that and that it won’t work, including Isaiah 55:8, the whole of Ecclesiastes and the last portion of Job.

These, indeed, illustrate my problem; I do not know how anyone else can experience something akin to my peak experiences (and I would dearly like more people, and preferably all people, to be able to – these have been by far the best experiences of my life), and if this all does indicate a God who is acting as an agent and can break into the minds of humans at will, why does this not happen more often?

This does, however, leave me with the conclusion that God acts in the world, in all probability, only by influencing the minds of His creatures.


Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life. It wasn’t that I felt that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time, what I wanted was not just to have enough today, but enough forever. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

Messiahs and their aftermaths

I’ve just read an interesting article on what you might call “other Jewish Messiahs”. I wouldn’t argue with the conclusion that Bar Kochba probably did the most damage to Judaism of all of the 50 or so candidates.

However, I think the article misses the point of why modern Judaism considers Jesus to have been the most damaging. That’s because the result was a major rift in Judaism which produced a new religion which was considered non-Jewish, or at least it was following a rather painful process of separation which is dealt with in a very compelling way by Daniel Boyarin in “Border Lines” and in “A Radical Jew”. There are strong hints of the early stages of that process in Paul’s letters and in the book of Acts, but the process probably didn’t become complete until well after that, probably around the middle of the second century, much aided by Justin Martyr seeking to clarify an identity for Christianity as against Judaism.

How many ethnic Jews actually ended up following the new religion of Christianity is a hotly disputed subject; the standard Orthodox Jewish response would be that vanishingly small numbers of Jews, if any, would have accepted the Pauline disintegration of ethnic distinctives, those things which actually made Jews a people. There is probably now no way of establishing what the truth of the situation actually is; the New Testament witness would argue that significant numbers joined the new movement (I don’t say “converted”, because at the time I don’t think most would think there was a need to “convert”, seeing Christianity as a natural development within Judaism), but is clearly susceptible to allegations of bias. Rome too, it seems, had difficulty distinguishing the two, considering the very early reports of the Jews agitating at the instance of someone called “Chrestus” (Suetonius, writing probably around 100CE).

However, if one can assume that there were indeed significant numbers who joined the new movement (and, of course, all the very early members were Jewish), the fact that a new religion (and one with massive staying power) was thereby started would, I think, rank Jesus as the greatest threat. One has to recall that, for many Orthodox Jews, conversion to any religion other than Christianity is a failing, but becoming a Christian makes someone dead to Judaism (and funeral rites are not infrequently performed in absentia); conversion is thus seen as a form of genocide. Boyarin thinks, and I agree, that this attitude is a part of the increasingly acrimonious split which on the Christian side became antisemitism; I cannot now think that had it been Judaism which had achieved ascendancy there would not have been a major possibility of similar treatment of Christians, given the recent history of a resurgent nationalist Israel.

This thinking, however, leads me to posit a different ranking, based on which messiah figures came closest to instituting a new religion. Sabbatai Zvi has third place after Jesus there; there were at one point a very large number of followers and commentators at the time were concerned about the possibility of that becoming a majority in Judaism. However, the Sabbatarians proved not to have staying power, particularly after the forced conversion of their leader to Islam.

Second place, however, has to go to Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who is perhaps politically skated over by the article (though, to be fair, he cannot be blamed for many, if any deaths). He was the last Lubavitch Rebbe (and earlier Lubavitch Rebbes had also been hailed as messiah to a lesser extent). His followers are extant as Chabad Lubavitch, who have a very prominent presence in conservative Judaism to this day (running many Jewish educational establishments inter alia), and having a substantial proportion of people who still hold that the late Rebbe was Moschiach, and that any prophecies not actually fulfilled by him in his lifetime will be fulfilled in a second coming (some followers say “right idea, wrong guy” to Christians). Of course, they are not officially a separate religion – but not a few Rabbis think that they should be, as they follow someone who, from the strict point of view, is another failed messiah, as he did not fulfill ALL of the prophecies deemed messianic by Judaism. (A note for my Christian readers – these are not necessarily the same prophecies as Christians consider fulfilled or to be fulfilled by Jesus).

To my mind, Chabad escaped being declared a separate religion by the skin of their teeth in the late 20th century. If you were to ask me “Why?”, I might guess that by the time the problem was realised, Chabad actually had too large an influence in Judaism (Christianity might have had were it not for the elimination of most of the Jerusalem Church in 65-70 CE) and also by the fact that there was no-one in Chabad with the interests of Justin Martyr in distancing them from the rest of Judaism.

If nothing else, I think a study of Menachem Schneerson and Chabad casts an interesting light on how Christianity might have developed.

Uncaused causes…

I found a piece on my FB feed today on the origin of the universe, written by a Physicist. “What was the cause of the Big Bang?” it asks.

I find it slightly surprising to find that from a Physicist, to be honest. The author will know well that if there was indeed a “Big Bang” (and it seems overwhelmingly likely that there was, despite the criticism that it has to have been a “one off” event which can’t be replicated so as to produce additional experimental data), the mathematics of the situation demand that there be a singularity at the origin, a point beyond which there is no space and no time.

I’ve become used to the question from laymen “So what caused the Big Bang?”. Everything we experience in normal existence, after all, seems to have a cause, and this is a cataclysmic event which we detect at the earliest point in time.

The thing is, the whole notion of cause demands that there be event a which causes event b, and event a has to be before event b, i.e. earlier in time. When it comes to the Big Bang, however, there is no “earlier” to look at. The idea of “earlier” is impossible, and so the idea of a cause for it is equally impossible.

That can require some getting the head around for most of us. However, in the case of a Physicist, ideas of the random (in which you cannot say something was “caused” because the same supposed cause could have produced a variety of results including the one observed) are prominent. So is the concept of the “Dirac soup”, an universe of elementary particles in which particles pop into existence and out of existence on a purely statistical, random basis; that too seems to be experimentally verifiable.

More even than that, however, is a set of observations in particle physics which seem to give the lie to the whole concept of causation; particles can influence each other at a distance simultaneously, being “quantum paired” and a change in circumstances can actually have an effect earlier than the cause (in the case of this experiment by altering the situation after a particle has passed a double slit).

In the circumstance, it surprised me a little to find a Physicist writing about the “cause of the Big Bang”. Clearly there was and could be no “cause”, because time as well as space just “happened”.

Theologians will probably want to say that as God is atemporal, a cause remains possible. The thing is, “cause” is still an incoherent idea unless one postulates another time-like dimension experienced only by God, and at that one to which God is subject, i.e. experiences as a constraining factor. I suspect most theologians who go down this route are not going to want to concede that God can be constrained by any dimension… If, with God, there is no “before” and no “after”, then with God there is also no “cause”.

And yes, I know this all throws a huge spanner in the concept of God as creator, at least if you interpret it as “creatio ex nihilo”, creation out of nothing. The concept of creation, too, is a time dependent one. I can see little option but to think in terms of creation as a process in which God may well be involved (and I am confident that whatever it is that is God is fundamental to that process), but which it is impossible to say that God originated.

Guns, climate, lawyers and arguments

Guns continue to occupy a lot of my facebook feed. There are a lot of very impassioned arguments being made, particularly in the comments sections – as is the case with this article.

I don’t resonate all that well with the author, to be honest, despite agreeing with him completely about climate change and recognising that I’d feel the same kind of lack of safety if I were in the States. If you’re teaching, you teach the facts as nearly as they can be known, and where there’s a substantial scientific consensus, there’s no need to teach minority viewpoints. I can’t see either passionate advocacy or diversions into another topic as being justified, in other words.

Where I do find common ground is in identifying the tendency of all such issues to be dealt with like a set of lawyers in a courtroom, and in particular an US courtroom with a jury (there is, for my US readers, far less use of juries in the UK, including almost all civil cases,, the major exception being defamation). I’ve spent some 25 years as a practising lawyer, and I recognise the tricks – and I’ve also spent 20 years in local politics, so I also recognise the political use of the same tricks.

I used to joke that when a client came to me and said “What does this mean?”, I’d negotiate a fee and then ask “What do you want it to mean?”. This was a cynical attitude which came to me eventually after going into law thinking that a court would decide reasonably correctly on the facts most of the time, and that all the lawyers had to do was to present the best interpretation of the facts from their client’s point of view and leave it to judge and jury (more often just judge or magistrates in the UK). As time went by, I became increasingly convinced that in fact, the victory tended to go to the best lawyer (for which read “best arguer”) more or less irrespective of the facts.

By and large, the best lawyer was also the most expensive lawyer, and the client with a disproportionately large amount to spend was therefore going to win in a lot of cases where they shouldn’t. Even if the small guy managed to get a lawyer who was a really good arguer, the big guy’s lawyers could spend more time and have more people working on the case (as inevitably time costs money), and frequently that would carry the day.

Incidentally, just in case anyone is asking themselves, I had an 85% success rate for not guilty pleas over the course of my career. This may sound really good, but was bolstered by the fact that I wouldn’t plead not guilty for anyone I was confident was in fact guilty. As time went by, I steadily stopped doing trial work, as the feeling that it was not, in fact, producing justice increased and I felt more and more that the system was intrinsically flawed. In addition, the three cases I lost which I was certain were wrongful convictions and the two I won which I became certain by the end of the trial should have been guilty verdicts weighed on me.

That, I point out, is in a situation where I was arguing in front of judges and magistrates, not juries; one could therefore expect that they would be less swayed by false logic and appeals to emotion.

Now, let’s look at the two standards of proof in legal cases. The first, which applies in civil cases, is the test of balance of probabilities. Which of these two situations do you think is more likely to be the case? This is, I think, the standard which we should apply to both climate change and gun control arguments. In both cases, the human cost of getting it wrong is substantial; in the case of climate change it could well be colossal.

The other test is that of proof beyond reasonable doubt, which is the standard which should apply in criminal cases. Actually, my experience in the UK is that most of the time you need to do a lot more than establishing a reasonable doubt, except in front of a jury; judges and magistrates become fairly hard-bitten and I was never confident in an argument before them unless I felt I could manage something close to balance of probabilities.

The problem is with climate change and gun control that there are a lot of people who do not want to restrict their lives in a way which would enable us on the one hand to reduce our CO2 emissions to a reasonable level and on the other, in the States, to give up playing with guns. There are also huge and wealthy corporate interests which would be damaged were we to take the necessary steps to alleviate these problems, and they have a lot of money, and the ability to produce a lot of arguments and a lot of statistics.

That alone would be sufficient, in my mind, to question very closely any claims made against CO2 reduction or gun control. They have the money, and they can buy the media and the research.

It is not, of course, a reason to question particularly closely claims for these unpopular positions; they do not have the money and find it far more difficult to pay for powerful arguments or slanted statistics. Indeed, the other side, having the money, has already done this!

Against this background, I find it striking that a majority of scientists with expertise in climatology or meteorology agree that there is human-caused global warming and that it presents a major threat. It is unfortunate that some proponents of climate change arguments are doing the lawyerly thing and skewing the statistics; it is not 85%, but it is substantially better than 50%. There is, of course, a range of opinions; the vast majority will agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and promotes global warming, but a lesser majority consider that this effect is large in comparison to cyclic changes in climate; there are even a few who argue that there is an underlying trend in the opposite direction in the statistics. That’s unfortunately true; however it is also a truism that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics”, and it is regrettably easy to skew these.

The thing is, it has really not been in the interests of scientists to find human-caused global warming, just because doing something about it would be unpopular (so few votes) and because all the big money would like to find that there isn’t. Remember – “What do you want it to mean?”. There were, of  course, bound to be a few dissenters – after all, you make a name for yourself in science if you can destroy someone else’s hypothesis.

It also hasn’t been in the interest of politicians – see my comment on votes above, even if you don’t think politicians are swayed by campaign contributions at least as much as by votes. I therefore find it extremely convincing that the consensus of the G8 and of all the national leaders in the EU is that global warming is happening and is significantly human-produced and that reducing CO2 emissions will help. They were not quick to come to this conclusion – some scientists were saying this was likely back in the 1970’s, after all.

The thing is that these are both what a lawyer would identify as “admissions against interest”. Even in the case of a generally very unreliable witness, lawyers pay huge attention to these as they go against the trend of testimony to be self-serving.

Sadly, I can’t identify many admissions against interest in the case of guns in the States. In Australia, yes – their parliaments instituted fairly strong gun control after the Port Arthur massacre, which followed a number of mass shootings. This was in a country with a strong tradition of hunting, sport shooting and militia activity, so one which is not so dissimilar from the US, and involved every one of their state legislatures. They have not had a mass shooting of note since then.

There is, however, apparently a scientific consensus.

Perhaps the difficulty is that, where you have a personal interest in something, you’re inclined to take a “beyond reasonable doubt” approach. It is certainly possible, both with climate change and gun control, to say that there is “reasonable doubt”, even if it’s (as one of the statistics in the above article states) 73% to 8%.

So, how about this. This link is to an individual who actually supports concealed carry as a self-defence measure. He has one video in particular which I think illustrates my point (although the fact that the main site proposes a 20 hour course plus a huge amount of regular training before you contemplate carrying a gun as a means of self-defence and crime prevention). Insofar as it may put anyone off the idea of carrying (or even possessing) a gun, it’s an admission against interest. Of course, as the presenter is trying to sell training, there is an element of self-interest – but I note that his awful example is a police officer, who will have had plenty of training, albeit possibly not good training.

So, were I to suggest that no-one who has not followed every piece of advice in that video should be permitted to carry a gun (or have one at home for “self-defence”), how could that be unreasonable? Are you, for instance, happy that your neighbour, who has not done this kind of training, has a handgun?

PS. Needless to say, this last set of links doesn’t apply in the UK or in most of the rest of the first world, only in the States. Most of us aren’t allowed to own handguns for self-defence and/or have such strict laws on what constitutes self defence that it would be a very bad idea to chance using one.

America and guns: go to rehab.

Dear America,

I find I am again horrified at an episode of mass violence using firearms in the USA, and my prayers go out to those who have been injured or who are mourning family or friends.

The trouble is that word “again”. It seems to be happening every week or so. Surely, by now, the mood must be “enough is enough; we have to do something about this”? Look, we are not all that different from people in the States over here, and I can recall three instances of mass shootings, in 1987 (Hungerford), 1996 (Dunblane) and 2010 (Cumbria). Two of those also involved schools, which I think gives the lie to the idea that the phenomenon in the States targets schools because they tend to be gun free zones. The Hungerford and Dunblane shooters could have chosen almost anywhere with confidence that it would be gun-free, but chose schools anyhow.

Yes, I know we have a significantly smaller population, about a sixth of that in the States. This might mean that we might have expected instead of three shootings in 28 years, about 18 if we had had an equal population.

Not one a week, as it seems is the case with you at present.

“But”, I hear, “We’re a very different country”. I’m not all that convinced by this argument. Certainly there’s a far larger population of people not of British origin which you’ve accumulated over the last 250 years, but we share a language and, frankly, a large amount of our culture (as US domination of English speaking media is huge), and, of course, the bases of our legal systems.

Now, there’s the rub, potentially. We don’t have a written constitution, at least not one which can supersede legislation and see it struck down (we do have a constitution of sorts, but it’s partly in legislation no more protected than any other legislation and partly in longstanding custom – and most of that longstanding custom we exported along with the early settlers).

This article highlights the problem, the Second Amendment. For anyone reading this who does not have it burned into their consciousness already, it reads “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The article I link to quite reasonably asks what contribution is being made to the establishment or maintenance of a “well regulated militia” by the current state of US law, which allows more or less any individual to own a gun, and often to carry it around in public, sometimes even concealed. As far as I can see, there are no militias (except a few self-described groups on the extreme lunatic fringe, many of whom also deny being citizens), let alone well regulated ones.

I could readily have seen, on the basis of the strict wording of the amendment, the limitation of possession of all firearms to people who were members in good standing of a formally constituted militia, with (inter alia) rules as to the abilities of those allowed to bear arms, their character and stability, and their conduct while in that position. This would be a situation rather analagous to that in Switzerland, in which all men (at least for the moment, just men) are called up, do national service and are then members of the reserve – and they hold weapons, which can be denied them for good cause (see the previous sentence). The authors of that article don’t go quite that far. Unfortunately, they probably also underestimate the power of the Supreme Court decision in DC -v- Heller.

Now, I know that a future Supreme Court could in theory overturn this. However, Supreme Courts have been historically reluctant to go entirely against stated previous decisions of the same court, usually looking to distinguish the situation in front of them so that the previous decision can at least arguably still be regarded as correct. That decision includes the words “The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.” This could well be fatal to any future argument that only the possession of arms in furtherance of membership of a militia (and a well-regulated one at that) should be protected.

The court decision also includes the words “The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.”  This, of course, completely negates any suggestion that the class of people (as long as they are male and physically capable) cannot be restricted – even, it would seem, by the requirement that the militia be “well regulated”, something which the court seems to have conveniently forgotten. They also stated  “But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home. ” This was to justify their decision that in particular handguns, possession of which had previously been prohibited in certain circumstances, were legitimate weapons of self defence, giving it a plausible link back to the first (militia) clause of the amendment.

There were a few positive elements – the court was at pains to state that the decision did not permit machine guns, and I think that can colourably be made to include all automatic and semi-automatic weapons (being new weapons not available at the time the amendment was drafted). As did the UK government after Hungerford, I think an immediate blanket ban on the private possession of these is probably not within the Heller decision.

However, it is also interesting to note the Court’s interpretation of “militia” as being all able bodied men. Actually, this was not the way a militia was constituted in the 18th century, either in the fledgling USA (except very briefly immediately prior to the introduction of the amendment) or in the British law previously in force. Militias were volunteer organisations raised by and led by prominent local men; they were entirely capable of (and did) exclude men they did not think of as of good character, and they were organised and had rules – which is what I am confident those drafting the amendment had in mind by using the words “well regulated”. While yes, they did welcome people bringing their own weapons where they had weapons which would be of use in a military action, these were in general not handguns, which were not particularly useful in the kind of military engagement of the day.

The preservation of (as the court saw it) a right of self defence. Much consideration seems to have been given to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was seen as restoring the right of Protestants to bear arms inter alia for their own defence which had been taken away by James II, crucially while allowing Catholics to remain armed. Throughout the history of interpretation of this in England, it has stressed  the wording in the Bill of Rights “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” Note the words “as allowed by law”, which were consistently considered to allow government to restrict the possession and use of arms by individuals and groups which it considered inimical to good order, and also the words “suitable to their conditions”, which was code for “It’s fine for the aristocracy and landed gentry, but you’re in trouble if you’re a peasant”.

Of course, in the UK, Parliament is never bound by any previous Act of Parliament, and the “right” to bear arms has been reduced by stages, particularly following Hungerford and Dunblane, to a very restricted one; non-automatic rifles and shotguns for sporting use only, kept under secure lock and key and owned only by those who get a licence, which is not all that readily come by for anyone not owning significant land; handguns only in licensed gun clubs. That is where a right to bear arms “as allowed by law” has ended up in the UK…

So, while a new Supreme Court might not want to overturn the previous court’s statement of law, it seems to me that they might determine that the court in DC -v- Heller misdirected itself on the facts. Militias were not what they thought they were, and neither was the pre-existing right to bear arms independent of restriction by law. The lack of any mention of “well regulated” is also something which could lead to a finding of self-misdirection, it seems to me.

I do not really see good reason why the USA should not aim at moving towards a similar level of restriction to ours, but a first step would, I think, be an immediate ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Australia has, after all, managed a similar transition, and they too are a recovering frontier nation… This might be possible with a more liberal minded Supreme Court, it might require another amendment to the Constitution – but amendments have been passed before this with rather less concrete evidence of continuing harm to the population. Amendments have been passed removing earlier bad amendments. Don’t tell me this could never happen with the Second Amendment; it hasn’t been tried yet.

An immediate response to this tends to be “this would remove the guns from all the law abiding citizens and leave the criminals free to use them at will”. This is, of course, true, but it is the situation in England (and many other countries), and by and large English criminals do not use guns. The reason is that the penalties for possession and use of a gun are far greater than those for crimes committed without these, and on the whole, our criminals are not completely stupid. That may, of course, not work in the States, given that the penalties for relatively trivial offences (particularly connected with drugs) are draconian – but a revision of US sentencing policy would be no bad thing for a number of other reasons, not least to provide a perceptible difference in tariff. I can also see the thinking running “I’m going to get locked up for life for possession of this kilo of drugs anyhow, so I may as well be armed and shoot a few people to try to avoid capture, because it won’t make any difference”.

I also see very little evidence that an armed citizenry provides any sensible deterrent to criminals. Indeed this article outlines some recent research which demonstrates that more guns means more crime, not less, among other things. This one undermines the unscientific survey which is commonly used as an argument that guns prevent large amounts of crime. It also focuses a little on the number of accidents which occur, often fatally, due to guns in homes.

Just in passing, please don’t way “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Weapons of mass destruction don’t kill people, people using weapons of mass destruction kill people, but we can still get very upset at the concept of mere possession of such weapons. Unless it’s by us, of course. The thing is, the term “mass destruction” highlights the problem – they let you kill a whole load of people more easily.

So do guns.

They also let you kill people at a distance, removing some of the visceral revulsion which most of us feel about killing hand to hand.

So do guns.

Similarly, don’t tell me this is just a mental health problem, unless you’re going to explain to me why people in the States are so much crazier than those anywhere else. Yes, substantial good can be done by a mental health system which identifies threats and acts to manage at risk people, but as that article comments, the mentally ill aren’t a significantly greater threat than the notionally normal (and around one in four will at some point suffer some form of mental illness from depression upward); as it also highlights, if you have someone with this kind of mindset, guns let them do a lot more damage.

Well, there may be an answer or two. Firstly, the version of US culture peddled by TV and movies is a very violent one, in which by and large problems are solved by violence. You can watch whole series of an UK police procedural and never see anyone getting shot; the same cannot be said for the US equivalent, one of which (Chicago PD) is advertised here with the phrase “They have the right to remain violent”. There would seem to be an addiction to what Rene Girard called “the myth of redemptive violence”. This is an “eye for an eye” world at the very least (often glorifying more than just equivalent violence). Girard suggested that a prominent understanding of the crucifixion should be the rejection by God of all such concepts; Jesus is “the last scapegoat”, and no more should be contemplated. Addictions can be treated; I might suggest a communal twelve step programme starting “we are powerless over violence and our lives have become unmanageable”.

Secondly, and connected to that, the States is the one place I know of where the term “gun nut” is of widespread application. Let’s face it, that’s where the term comes from. An Australian comedian has recently commented, rightly I think, that the true reason why gun control is resisted boils down to “F*** off, I like guns”. Why is this? It seems somehow bound up in ideas of masculinity and power; almost all the mass shootings seem to be by men who feel disempowered, and it would seem that guns make them feel powerful again.

I am no more sympathetic to people who want to wave their penis substitutes around in public than I am to those who want to do the same with the real thing.

Both categories should, in my view, be locked up and given intensive therapy until cured. Let’s face it, that’s the attitude we take to someone who says “F*** off, I like crystal meth”.

Consider the path to gun control as the path to rehabilitation, preferably starting with an extended detox. Until that happens, yes, you’re communally addicts, and that is indeed a form of mental illness.

Loyalty to a different Kingdom

Bo Sanders has provocatively titled a post “There is no Kingdom of God”. A man after my own heart – I like provocative titles. Watch the video – it’s only 8 minutes, and he makes a lot of really good points, not all of which I repeat here.

The problem he sees is that the term doesn’t translate “basilea tou Theou” well for a modern audience (and I might suggest particularly one in the States, which is a Republic).

The thing is, the use of the term, which literally means something more like “Empire of God” or “Imperial rule of God” was a direct subversion of the term “basilea tou Romes”, i.e. the Empire of Rome. The basilea tou Theou was completely unlike the Roman Empire, of course, and the identical formulation there was designed to accentuate the difference.

At the time of the earliest English translations, “Kingdom of God” was, I think, actually a fairly good translation, because at the time England was a Kingdom with a King who had some imperial pretensions and was very nearly an absolute monarch, as the Roman Emperors were; the counterpoint still worked and had some subversive power. It doesn’t work in England nearly as well these days, as the monarchy has become a nearly powerless constitutional monarchy and the fount of power is Parliament, and it works even less well in the United States, where citizens don’t even live under a nominal monarchy or empire.

Granted, it could well be argued that the USA is a functional Empire, with places ruled but without a say in government and a number of “client states” which are nominally independent but in effect operate as instructed by America.The trouble is, most of the population probably don’t believe that to be the case.

I have seen and heard people using other terms, and “commonwealth” is not uncommon – the trouble is, most of these fail to give the subversive element as they themselves have unhelpful baggage (in the case of “commonwealth” it is specifically the historic use of the term for democracies, and a democracy, I would argue, is significantly closer to a system of organising ourselves which Jesus might not want to subvert). Of those which Bo mentions, “Government” is possibly my favorite, particularly as “Government” already has a fair amount of negative baggage associated, as “basilea” did in the first century.

What about the hyphenated terms? Sadly, I don’t like “kin-dom” as it sounds rather twee, although it is clever; “un-kingdom” and “anti-empire” seem to me too direct, lacking the subversive element which was present in the original use of the common term for the Roman oppression, the sense of direct opposition “An Empire but totally unlike the existing Empire”. However, any of these might do – certainly if an unfamiliar term is used, it will alert us to the fact that “Kingdom” needs a bit more understanding.

I might, for instance, suggest once in a while slipping in “the Anarchy of God” for the shock effect – it lacks the sense of subversion, but certainly wakes one up to the fact that Jesus’ basilea is not a top down autocracy. I think he might have quite liked Peter Kropotkin’s ideas about how (not to) organise a state!

On the whole, though, I rather favour trying out “Nation of God”. There’s an awful lot to subvert in our concepts of nation these days;for the nation to which we belong to include axiomatically all people (“no Jew nor Greek…”, the hated Samaritan and the traditional enemy Syrophonecian) is, I think, jarring enough to gain some really good traction, at least until we become over-used to it. It certainly puts a new light on our reluctance to welcome refugees… It also echoes the situation of the Israelites as the People of God, so bursting out of all previously traditional markers for who is in and who is out, as was necessary to include the Gentiles, is doubly accentuated.

Also, and I think particularly in the States, it’s the principal thing to which loyalty is regularly claimed over and above loyalty to God. We regularly discuss whether we can trust a politician whose principal loyalty is to his or her concept of God, possibly to the exclusion of loyalty to our hugely restricted view of nation. Early Christians regularly suffered martyrdom for exactly this reason – they refused to worship Caesar, which was seen as being traitorous.

What price do we pay for our oaths of allegiance, our oaths on taking office?