Archive for December, 2016

Crying in the wilderness

December 30th, 2016

I fairly recently encountered, in a comment thread, an assertion that the author was suprised that the writer of the original post (a Christian) could have supported Hilary Clinton as no real Christian could support the Democrats, because they were Socialists, i.e. Communists, and everything about Socialism/Communism was contrary to the gospel. I paraphrase there.

There is just so much wrong with that assertion, from my point of view, that it beggars belief. The easy bits are that the Democrats in the US are nothing like even remotely Socialist and Socialism is not equivalent to Communism (for any readers who are unaware of the fact, neither Socialism nor Communism demands a command economy, which is what most people to the right of centre – and that’s “centre” as understood in Europe, not as understood in the States – understand by both “Communist” and “Socialist”).

The more difficult bit is one which I have spent a fair amount of time writing about, for instance in “The System of Satan“, “Freedom with or without property” and “Towards a Christian economics“. I should stress that this is not a perspective which I consider at all radical, liberal or in any way contrary to the general tenor of the churches in the area where I grew up.

I was originally raised a Methodist, and in the UK the Methodists have long been associated with the Labour and Cooperative movements (the bedrock of the UK Labour Party, who were in those days, at least, unashamedly Socialist); our most prominent local Anglican vicar and a couple of our more prominent Catholics served terms as Labour (i.e. Socialist) local Councillors, and in the period during which I was centrally involved in the local Liberal Democrats (an amalgamation of the former Liberal and Social Democratic parties, thus at least somewhat Socialist) three local clergymen all donated to our campaigns and others indicated support, while a prominent URC elder was a fellow LibDem councillor with me. OK, I knew that some Anglicans tended to hold to the old saying that the Anglicans were “the Conservative Party at prayer”, but the clergy at least seemed to me to be significantly more in favour of centre-to-left political positions. The Archbishop of Canterbury has criticised Tory austerity as failing to care for the less privileged members of society, while the current Pope has condemned neoliberal economics. The Catholic Church in South America is well endowed with Liberation Theologians, and some of those are not only avowedly Catholic but also avowedly Communist. Until I started interacting significantly with American Christians about 20 years ago online, I would have said that Socialist-to-Communist was the natural political and economic stance for a committed Christian to adopt – maybe, at a pinch, what used to be called “One Nation” Conservatism, if people had too many qualms about the idea that following Jesus’s commands was actually rather too foolish (despite Paul’s statement about the gospel as he saw it – a foolishness to the Greeks -which you should nonetheless preach and live into, according to him).

Since then I have found that in the States, Christianity tends to be more associated with the Right than with the Left, and the American Right is a long way right of what we call “right wing” in the UK (although some here would very much like to catch up, since Margaret Thatcher managed to turn us from communitarianism to individualism…) It would also seem from Keith Watkins’ account of research done by James Wellman that US evangelicals believe “it is hard to be a political liberal and a Christian” (end of page 3), as well as a number of other beliefs which I would find grave difficulty in connecting with scripture. I’ve spent quite a bit of time arguing about this, most notably with Elgin Hushbeck (an Energion author, who used to co-present a weekly podcast called “Global Christian Perspectives” with me). This is not an universal characterisation – this author says “Christians who used their relationship with Jesus as a justifier to cast a vote for Trump (or engage in other acts contrary to the life model Jesus lived for us while on Earth) misrepresent our Lord and simultaneously complicate an already difficult mission of spreading the Gospel all over the world.” A secular author agrees… In my own case, I would have described myself 40 years ago as a centrist (in UK terms), but since then I’ve done a lot of reading of the gospels, and frankly the more I read them, the more “left wing” I think I should be, if I am actually aiming at following Jesus.

I’ve found that there are, in fact, arguments you can draw from scripture to support some standpoints I’d regard as “right wing”, particularly the more libertarian strand of the right. For instance, if you cast government in the role of either the 1st century Temple hierarchy or the 1st century Roman occupiers of Judaea, respectively the religio-political-social and military-political rulers, the New Testament is antipathetic towards both – scribes and sadducees, along with pharisees, get short shrift and, although there’s little direct criticism of Rome, there’s a lot of implicit resistance going on (for example, “render unto Caesar”, which actually says that Caesar owns nothing apart from his coinage, and “walk the extra mile” referring to the embarrassing of those demanding forced labour). It’s also hard to glean from it a suggestion that the Christian obligations to aid the sick, the imprisoned, the marginalised and (perhaps especially) the poor should be enforced by the ultimate threat of violence, which one must admit is the ultimate sanction of the modern state for failure to pay taxes (even if the violence is limited to that sufficient to imprison someone or to take assets from them). These charitable injunctions, I’m told, are followed more by right-wing Christians than by left-wing ones (though I question elsewhere whether that is actually the case…).

Now, as it happens, I disagree with these interpretations, and particularly with the basis claiming that governments in the West are analagous to the Roman Empire or the Second Temple hierarchy (which was by the first century at least significantly corrupt – the Essenes were just one of a number of groups formed as a reaction to that corruption, and early Christianity may well be viewed as another). Western governments are representative democracies, and therefore they are the community governing itself, at least in theory (in practice, there are many factors which distort the ideal of a representative democracy, and most if not all Western democracies could do with an overhaul – but the principle is still sound). While I would be hard put to find an argument for democratic government in the scriptures, quite a few protestant churches have determined that this is a valid way, in a “priesthood of all believers”, for the community to select its leaders, and I would definitely agree – with the caveat that, in my experience, democracies in churches function even less well than our political democracies  and could also do with some serious checks and balances. I can, however, see the point of them; Jesus nowhere actually condones the use of force to compel charity – though the tale of Ananias and Saphira indicates that the community did and should look extremely unfavourably on anyone who shirked this responsibility, and Jesus definitely thought that failures in this area would imperil people’s standings before him and before God, and the story of Ananias and Saphira indicates at the least that the early Christians wanted to place a huge measure of responsibility and societal opprobrium on those who did not contribute sufficiently (i.e. to the full extent of their abilities) to the common good.

Shunning and exclusion (which I suspect is at the root of that story) is not, as such, a threat of physical violence, but it is its own form of violence – emotional at the least. The equivalents of those, looked at from the perspective of a nation-state community rather than a Christian community among other communities in a wider society would probably look like outlawry (in which the non-compliant is denied any of the normal protections of the law), stripping of citizenship (with similar effect unless the Jewish and Christian injunctions to treat the alien as one of ourselves is followed) or banishment. I am not convinced that the threat of forcible imprisonment is actually a lesser sanction than those.

So, my conservative friends, I think you’re dead wrong in your interpretation of scripture here. Frankly, voting for anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders was voting for the less-Christian option, and the further towards the hardline Republicans you got, the further you got from Jesus.

But I fancy I’m a voice of one calling in the wilderness“… without, of course, wanting to suggest that I’m in any way comparable with the Baptist…


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Grace and cheque books

December 24th, 2016

An interesting article in The Altantic talks of unemployment and underemployment as a “Spiritual Crisis”. The article is directed particularly at the United States, but the same general problems are very apparent in the UK as well. Evonomics has recently had an article talking of this from an economic perspective. I’ve also talked a bit about one of the drivers for this malaise in a previous post.

The Atlantic prescribes grace as a foundation for looking at people in a new way, and indeed that might be a good start. Economics values people as producers (and tries its best to reduce the amount spent on them, as this is an overhead, and overheads are to be avoided in the pursuit of profit), as providers of capital (those being the really valuable members of society, according to modern economics) and as consumers (though consumers aren’t really valued for themselves, merely as means to make greater sales). It doesn’t value them as people. Christianity, on the other hand, values every living human being in and for themselves, irrespective of what they produce, what they have or what they might buy. Indeed, it tends to downvalue what people have, as the story of the rich young man and the extolling of flowers and birds display. The sooner we can change hearts and minds to see economics as a tool for benefiting people rather than people as economic units, the better.

But preaching this is not going to be enough. Again as the Atlantic article touches on, people have been indoctrinated into seeing their worth as being in what they produce, which all too often translates to how much money they make (a false equivalence dictated by economics, which reduces everything to money and tends to declare that if something cannot be reduced to money, then it is worthless). I have been struggling with this deep-seated belief in myself for some years; in 2005 I had to give up work due to ill health, and having started to be capable of some useful activity (other than trying to get well) a little over three years ago, find that merely occupying myself isn’t sufficient – I have a couple of occupations which, when I feel under pressure to tell someone what I do, suffice – I am, part of the time, a theological editor and proofreader, and part of the time a research assistant doing chemical process development. OK, I am also a carer for my wife, an aspiring theological writer and a volunteer with mental health and recovery organisations, but those don’t really qualify as “job” – only the second might conceivably produce some money, and in no way would I expect it to be significant.

The snag is, neither the editing nor the research yields an amount which could be lived on, even cumulatively. I have a permanent voice at the back of my head asking whether what I do is useful, as that obviously determines whether I am useful. I can just about manage it with the editing – at least, there, the books I edit are published, and people read them, and even if the work pays peanuts, there is still use there. Less so with the research – even when we develop a process which produces a particular chemical for the use of less raw materials, less labour, less energy and/or less waste, we do not make any actual money unless someone buys that chemical. More to the point, unless someone buys it, no-one is going to use it, and the knowledge is going to sit in a file until it is wanted, which is possibly never. We don’t have the luxury of having a research grant, shifting the decision as to whether the chemical is useful to a funder, nor do we have the avenue of publishing a paper, as this just tells everyone who can read how to do the process and removes any hope of getting money for it.

My upbringing landed me with this kind of mindset, but all the pressure of society is in the same direction these days – you are what you do, and even more you are worth what your bank account says you are. I’m not American, nor do I come from a “working poor” background, but this article sums up the attitude I struggle against well: We applaud the rich and powerful for their industry, shrewdness, and cunning. The poor have nobody to blame but themselves. There are winners and losers. The market sorts them out according to their achievements. Since this all seems to run in families, it’s probably in the genes. Winners beget winners. Losers beget losers.

Preaching may, just, be sufficient to work against the wisdom of society as it currently is for a small group of people, but there is an urgent need to change the attitude of society as a whole, and I live in a society which is no longer predominantly Christian, so the “small group” is never likely to be able to influence societal views much (and, despite the predictions of some evangelicals that revival is just around the corner, I can’t see that happening). The situation is not going to get better within the neoliberal economic model we have – in fact, it can only get worse, as pressures such as globalisation and automation remove jobs which ordinary people can do, leaving only jobs requiring such a long process of learning, a large level of native ability and well-developed skill set as benefit only the few who are equipped by nature to do them and (as publically funded education is eroded) have the wealth to pay to be trained for them. I rather suspect that the widespread contempt for experts evidenced here during the Brexit campaign may have something to do with this trend – many are really sick of being told what to do by people who were born capable and rich and therefore have had the luxury of becoming experts.

So yes, we should practice grace as Christians – but we should also look for a new politics and a new economics, founded on a new understanding of humanity – as something more than a cheque book…

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I want to see the world burn…

December 17th, 2016

About the only entirely logical, fact based and thought-through reason I was given by any friend for voting for Brexit earlier this year was that phrase “I want to see the world burn”. I was not living in a liberal-left bubble, at least not entirely so, so I did have quite a few friends and acquaintances who voted for Brexit, some with considerable enthusiasm (about which I spent a lot of time biting my tongue…). Almost everyone else who explained to me their reasons for voting that way was either relying on what I considered groundless faith that the UK economy could “go it’s own way” more successfully than with privileged access to the largest economic single market in the world (at least until China overtakes it), the belief that immigration was damaging job prospects (which I think is contrary to the facts, though it could have an effect on stifling wage growth) and would be reduced (which I strongly doubt is going to be practicable) or the nebulous idea that we were “restoring sovereignty” by ridding ourselves of a raft of EU rules (which we will have to adhere to anyhow if we want to sell to Europe in the future and will need to replace in order to have any reasonable level of consumer and environmental protection) – there, the facts are probably that we will by “going it alone” be more subject to outside forces, particularly those associated with globalisation, and less able to make our own economic and social policy. OK, there were a few who wanted us to get rid of human rights legislation, which ranks as another logical, fact-based and thought-through reason, but is one which I earnestly hope very few Britons adhere to.

Some had visions of us returning to a past seen through rose-tinted spectacles when we had thriving manufacturing industry, jobs for everyone and (therefore) rising wages and standard of living. Those days are irretrievably gone. Some were justifiably angry at the way the banks had been bailed out, and thought we would become less dependent on them – in fact, we would be more dependent, as finance of some form is, regrettably, our biggest export earner, and we would be less able to consider capping the exorbitant salaries taken by financial middlemen who, in the ultimate analysis, produce nothing, as we would so much more need their ability to cook the books between us and our competitors by the construction of complex and risky financial transactions.

It has seemed to me that the same factors, more or less, were at work in the election of Donald Trump, and I read with interest an article in “The Nation” comparing the Trump campaign with the 1960s Hells Angels. I think this is probably spot on. Underlying all of the complaints of my Brexit friends is, I think, the feeling that things were better in the past for the vast majority of the middle and working classes – and they were. I grew up in a country in which education to a bachelor’s degree level was effectively free (assuming you could get accepted onto a degree course), and where the primary reason for deciding not to get a degree was that employment was extremely readily available at good wages, often better than you’d be likely to see after spending three years getting an university degree. A sizeable number of people from historically working class backgrounds were being educated and getting very good jobs. Contrast how things are now, where any education beyond 18 costs you, and lands round your neck a substantial millstone of debt which produces effective debt peonage. Those getting “good” degrees from leading universities are increasingly those whose parents could pay for their education, and so those entering higher-paid jobs are equally more children of privilege than the “best and brightest”. Where, when I grew up, it was normal for children to leave home at 18 or 21 and buy their own home immediately, now there are increasing numbers of 30 and 40 year olds still living with their parents as they can’t afford to buy or, frequently, even rent. There may be a lot of jobs (in point of fact, there are more jobs now in the country than at any time in the past – unemployment has recently fallen somewhat, despite a continuing vigorous increase in population due to migration), but they are not jobs paying the kind of amounts on which you can base setting up home and raising a family, hence the cartoon featuring the server at a burger bar asking whether the customer wants his burger flipped by a PhD in English, History or Philosophy (OK, there is a dig at the humanities there as well…).

There is no longer the level of opportunity to “get on in the world” for the vast bulk of people which we used to have, and vast numbers of people have given up thinking that any of the old political solutions will work (I could blame the fact that, both sides of the Atlantic, there is no political game in town other than neoliberal economics, save perhaps Sanders and Corbyn, but that remains the perception). In those circumstances, we are looking at populations who are in despair, and despair makes for desperate solutions. “Let’s wreck the whole thing and see what happens (because it can hardly be worse)” starts looking very attractive. As the Nation article says, it’s an emotional rather than a rational motivator, and thus immune to reason, and experts, and even common sense.

But at least, so far, it’s only democratically taken decisions. My worry is that soon it will be decisions which ignore democracy. Perhaps the “end times” are really upon us (which could explain some of the evangelical enthusiasm for Trump). But if, as I might fervently hope, there is a messiah coming, I do hope that it looks more like Jesus than like Trump.

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Criticis se quis reprehendat?

December 4th, 2016

In an article by David Sessions, I find the following critique of criticism, or more accurately what tends to be called “Critical Theory”:-

“The five characteristics of critique, Felski continues, are negativity (“characterized by its ‘againstness’”); secondaryness (“does its thinking by responding to the thinking of others”); intellectualism (“interested in big pictures, cultural frameworks, underlying schema,” vs. everyday practices and common sense); marginality (“it rails against authority”); and intolerance (“it insists that those who do not embrace its tenets must be denying or disavowing them”).”

I’m thinking in particular here of Radical Theology particularly as evidenced by the work of John Caputo and Peter Rollins (there are many other voices, but these are the ones I know the most about). All of those voices seem to share an origin in “Continental Philosophy”, which means the tradition of European philosophy which runs from Kant through Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger to a variety of 20th century French philosophers of whom Jacques Derrida is the best known (and most notorious). It also prays in aid Marx on the political front and Freud (and then Lacan) on the psychoanalytic front. That tradition is now most commonly seen in “Critical Theory”, which I understand is endemic in Literature departments in academia.

Caputo has often commented that Radical Theology is parasitic on mainstream confessional theology, thus confirming “secondaryness“. One might assume from Derrida’s comment that “he regarded his function as the destruction of meaning”, that negativity is also fundamental to this school of thinking. That would certainly be the naive reading of Derrida’s invention, “deconstruction”. It is, I think, also implicit in the general description of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud as “The Masters of Suspicion”.

It seems to me also pretty clear that, as I’ve invoked the names of several notoriously obscure philosophers, the endeavour is characterised by intellectualism. In defence of Caputo and Rollins on that front, both are very good in spoken contexts at making their field approachable by normal human beings (as opposed to philosophy graduates), and Rollins also writes in a very approachable way (Caputo is very readable, but peppers his work with a lot of references, many of them humorous, which I think most general readers would not pick up on – and, indeed, I include myself; I find, reading Caputo, that I have a permanent sense that I’m missing a significant number of his references…).

Is it also characterised by marginality? One might reasonably think so, as (particularly in the work of Peter Rollins) it bids us rid ourselves of the spectre of the “Great Other” (railing against authority), even if one does not consider the strands of Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Womanist Theology or Queer Theology as being integral parts of Radical Theology. Personally, I think those are more characteristic of Liberal theologies, and perhaps Radical Theology should therefore stand alongside the likes of Liberation Theology (etc) rather than be seen to subsume them. However, I might point out that Christian theology generally probably should (even if it commonly does not) follow the example of Jesus, and privilege the marginalised – women, foreigners, those of opposing religions, the poor and children all have special consideration in stories about Jesus in the gospels, and the mainstream (scribes, pharisees and the Roman occupiers aside a couple of specific examples) tends to get short shrift from him.

As an aside, I think the preferential option for the marginalised is even more important after seeing this attempt to lampoon it… I was in two minds whether to share it, as I tend to feel it goes beyond lampoon to something really quite spiteful and vicious, but it does make a point about some of the problems of this marginal-favouring approach. That leads me neatly into the final category, that of intolerance, which I could recast as being a totalising approach; in it, everything has to be criticised and dissected, and any opposition to that displays an adherence to one or more of the hidden subtexts which deconstruction allegedly reveals (I say “allegedly” because I strongly suspect that the process tends to read into texts things which were absolutely not there in the mind of the author, even as subconscious influences, as well as the hidden meanings which one would want to know of). If marginality is totalising, unless you are a member of a minority, you are effectively marginalised yourself (something which has been suggested as a reason for Trump’s success over Clinton; her narrative was heavily based in identity politics, mentioning African-Americans, Hispanics, women and LGBT to the exclusion of, in particular, while males, who then proceeded to vote in masses for Trump). You also, to my mind, cannot possibly be “secondary” if you are proposing something totalising.

There is thus a potential self-defeating rift at the heart of the deconstructive, critical approach – which has led some Radical Theologians to propose that that rift is fundamental to existence. Rollins perhaps falls into that category, although not to the same extent as (for instance) Alain Badiou in “St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism”, Zizek in “The Puppet and the Dwarf” or Thomas J.J. Altizer in everything of his I have so far read. I am not personally convinced that reality has such a rift; it seems to me more likely that when you look at something through cracked glasses, it looks cracked. It is, perhaps, high time that deconstruction were deconstructed – which is what the article I linked to first is, perhaps, attempting to touch on in positing the “post-critical”.

In particular, I cannot see Peter Rollins work as being able to achieve this totalising effect, for perhaps just that reason – or, perhaps, because while it is all very good to understand that the “big other” is something which we construct, as are grand narratives (and, indeed, narratives of any kind); that ultimately none of these things exists, we are nonetheless hard-wired to posit the other and to try to make sense of our experience, to weave it into a story which makes sense. Most of us cannot live long in the absurd, the deracinated, the formless void (although I could argue that modern living seems to be moving inexorably toward the need for that). As Terry Pratchett (in my opinion much underrated as a philosopher) said, we are not so much homo sapiens (the wise or understanding man) as homo narrans, the man who tells stories.

Caputo, on the other hand, may have the possibility of doing more than merely clear the ground for a never-to-come rebuilding; his “weak but insistent call” and his “perhaps…” will be enough to weave ourselves a new story.


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One man and his God?

December 3rd, 2016

I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by two articles. The first, an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, contains these words:-

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

The second is a piece by Keith Frankish, a philosophy lecturer in a similar area of research, who says, among other things, “As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions. “

These seem to me to give a real basis for some of the intuitions carried by the mystical experience; firstly (per Frankish) that the boundary of the self is extremely “fuzzy” and can be much smaller than the extent of the “mind” or extend much further than the extent of the physical body, and secondly (per Hoffman) the feeling of being part of and connected with something far larger than the self, which something has at least some characteristics of a consciousness (or, if you like, “person”).

I was searching for an analogy to use for this, and thought of my wife (who is currently starting training our one year old german shepherd for working trials) and recalled the BBC television series “One man and his dog”. Watching a well-handled sheepdog herd sheep, the dog becomes very much an extension of the handler, which is two consciousnesses acting as one, despite the fact that the dog (the subservient partner) has a consciousness all of its own. That’s something my wife is currently battling with, as Lutz has a very well developed willfullness all of his own, and she isn’t yet completely attuned to the subtle signals Lutz gives off about his intentions.

Now, I’m sceptical about the validity of Hoffman’s more general claim that, in essence, it’s “consciousness all the way down” and that we should think of the whole of existence as a collection of consciousnesses, or at least proto-consciousnesses. That said, Frankish makes me think about Heidegger’s picture of the man wielding the hammer, in which the hammer becomes in a sense a part of the person wielding it. I would myself be inclined to think that for something to be a consciousness, it would need some sense of self, some feedback loop giving it a concept of what it is in itself. We certainly have that, and frankly I think Lutz does as well, although in his case it isn’t nearly as well developed (if I were asked to guess why, I’d say that it’s because he doesn’t have the same memory retention characteristics as humans do). But in the case of “One man and his dog”, I think we have a clear case of a single consciousness temporarily formed out of two – and it might be possible to stretch and say that the ensemble of man, dog and flock of sheep became a single consciousness for at least short periods.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched that I could write of feeling at one with a consciousness greater than myself of which I am integrally part…

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