Crying in the wilderness

December 30th, 2016
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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
by Chris

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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On the other side of the “end times”…

November 30th, 2016
by Chris

Richard Beck has a great series of blog posts on preterism (the belief that the apocalyptic statements of Jesus refer to the events of 70 CE, when the Temple was destroyed and, to a great extent, Palestinian Judaism with it – the second had to wait for the Bar Kochba revolt of 135 to be fully the case, but if you take the “end times” as being 70-137, that would be full preterism). Here’s the first, and the most recent is here.

After a lot of thinking, I’ve arrived at a full preterist understanding of the gospels myself, in that I do not think any “end times” described there have yet to come. This means that while I tend to read Jesus mostly as Marcus Borg’s “spirit man” (a mystic, in other words), I also read him as an apocalyptic prophet, prophesying the appalling actions of the Romans in 65-70 and 135-137. And I read him as a social and religious reformer (albeit not proposing reform imposed from the outside, but resulting from a metanoia, repentance, a turning to God and away from the courses of action being taken in those days).

However, just because I think we are nearly 2000 years after the “end times” of the gospels doesn’t mean that some of my more conservative fellow Christians are completely incorrect, and that we are not, perhaps, looking at a new “end times” – certainly, all of the factors mentioned by George Monbiot in a recent Guardian article are cause for concern.

But, of course, this merely means that when Richard stresses that the Kingdom of God is already here, among us, that is still the case. There is hope – but there may also need to repent of a lot of things which we are currently doing.

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Presidents, kings, revolutions and anarchy.

November 23rd, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been thinking about this concept: “There is also a metaphor that A Country Is a Person and a metonymy of the President Standing For the Country” since the election of Donald Trump. The quotation is taken from an article by George Lakoff, where he seeks to understand the psychology behind the victory. And I’ve been congratulating my own country on having a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic – had we had a republic, looking at the rise of UKIP in the 2015 elections and the Brexit referendum result, we could by now be rejoicing in being represented by President Farage. Nigel Farage is absolutely not qualified to represent me or the majority of my friends; he displays boorishness and bigotry, appeals to racism and thinly disguises his massive condescension behind a facade of “laddishness” (and “laddishness”, to me, is tantamount to grown up football hooligananism…) Had we elected him as President of Great Britain, I would expect us as a nation to be a laughing stock in governments around the world, and me personally to have to explain to every one of my non-UK friends why they really should not think less of me because my fellow countrymen elected a complete a***hole to represent them (and, unfortunately, me). Heck, I have enough difficulty having to explain Brexit (“so, Chris, you live in a country largely populated by morons?…”).

So I have collossal sympathy for the vast bulk of my American friends who did not vote for Trump and find him about as repugnant as I do. America has a tendency to do things larger, louder and with less finesse, and Trump is rather like a larger, louder, even more boorish Farage, as far as I can see. However, I also have a touch of feeling that he may be seen to represent me too – due to the conception of the USA as the forefront of Western Democracy and the often used term “leader of the free world”, if not to the fact that he’s an English speaker from the largest first-language English speaking country in the world (if you take into account second language or look at English being an official language of the country, the largest is actually India, where English shares the “official” status with Hindi), or the fact that the USA was originally a British creation. Granted, it went its own way earlier than any of the other colonies by quite some margin, but it’s still to an extent “our responsibility”, even if we haven’t had much ability to influence it for over 250 years.

Incidentally, don’t get me wrong here – if Trump does half what he said he’d do (and judging by the makeup of his “transition team”, there’s a serious danger he will) he’ll be an economic disaster, will set back the fight against climate change possibly irretrievably and will facilitate or encourage persecution of women and minorities. These are all very bad things – and that’s without commenting that someone who appears extremely thin-skinned and likes showing off his power is shortly to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military the world has ever seen. This is not just an American problem – climate change affects all of us, US military interventions affect all of us, and the US economy is inextricably linked with many others (notably the UK economy). If he goes in the directions I fear, everyone will suffer; it’s not just a matter of perceptions, or even primarily that. But what I want to concentrate on here is the theory and practice of heads of state.

Monarchies are a terrible idea from the point of view of theoretical politics, but in practice the constitutional variety (which we’ve had longer than anyone else, at a minimum since the Restoration of 1660 – and for any reader who wants to date it to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, I regard that as merely confirming the Restoration settlement against an attempt to reverse it) seem to work pretty well. In these, the monarch has practically no actual power, but is a symbol (or as Lakoff puts it, metonymy) of the nation. The major plus point there is that people ascending to the throne have been brought up knowing that that will be their “job” in the future, and for the most part have it dinned into them from birth that they are going to be a symbol, and must therefore behave in an appropriate manner. This is, if necessary, reinforced by the consciousness that we’ve had a revolution twice to remove a monarch who was overstepping their constitutional position, and could do so again.

It does amuse me that much the same reasoning is used by Edmund Burke in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (here discussed by PEL – the second part is here) to justify inherited wealth and the power of the then nobility. Burke is well known as an arch conservative, which is also amusing considering my status as (in general) an arrant Liberal. I actually wouldn’t extend this argument to nobles as a class; there is a major difference between performance of a symbolic function (the monarchy) for which training is very valuable and managing the wealth of the country, for which training might be valuable, but which aristocratic systems seldom if ever provide well in practice.

Burke, however, did support the American revolution, despite his general principles. He did so on the basis that the rule of George III was tyrannical – and, in fact, he was wrong. George may have wanted to be a tyrant, but lived at least 100 years too late for that to be practical in England; the actions which the proto-Americans complained of were centrally those of his government, of the parliament of the day – which, of course, was not representative of the people of the American colonies, who elected no MPs and were ruled by appointed governors.

Against that background, I find a lot of irony in the fact that many US citizens now appear to be suffering from Canada-envy. Let’s face it, Canada is the bit of the mainland American colonies which didn’t join in the Revolution, which stayed loyal to King George – or rather (as he was a symbol, a metonymy) to the United Kingdom which he represented. Yes, my American friends – you could all be Canadian now – if you hadn’t had a revolution. (I need to admit here that the history of Canada would no doubt have been very different in that case, and the nature of the society might not have been quite so admirable as many Americans now find it…)

So, was there a tyrrany, albeit of an elected parliament which nonetheless did not represent the American colonists rather than  of the monarch? The answer probably has to be yes – in default of any participation in government, tyrrany is really the only applicable word. Burke’s criticism of the British position was very much on the basis of “no taxation without representation”. There is another irony here; even with all the measures which the colonists complained of, the actual burden which the UK parliament was attempting to impose was negligible compared with the burden of maintaining the apparatus of the modern United States. As tyrranies go, it wasn’t very tyrranical.

Of course, the really important part was “no taxation”; had there not been an attempt to tax (which was largely due to the UK government having recently incurred a lot of expense in removing the ever-present threat of French Canada from the American scene), I doubt that “no representation” would have found much traction. I tend to find that people aren’t all that interested in the political process as long as government isn’t doing things they object to too much – I know that would hold for me. In my case, though, I’m happy to accept a significant level of tax; in the States the aversion to any form of taxation seems to be alive and well. So does the idea that people are not really represented by their government, despite the electoral process which now exists (and I have sympathy there – my vote rarely counts, partly because I persistently vote for third party candidates). Both antipathy to taxation and frustration with lack of political power are suggested as contributing to Trump’s success, with the further irony that in the case of the Revolution, taxes were almost entirely in the interests of defence, which is not an area where Trump supporters would be likely to reduce expenditure…

There were, however, some other more obvious causes than the mere lack of a vote for the colonists to want to be free of the UK parliament. One such was the trade monopoly in tea which they attempted to give to the East India Company (the protest was not about taxes on tea, it was about the fact that government appointed merchants were given a monopoly on reduced tax tea so that the Company could undercut the price of smuggled Dutch tea, thus annoying the smugglers). This was symptomatic of a basic British doctrine that the colonies were there to provide raw materials and both manufacture and the carriage of goods should be a monopoly of “home grown” industry and companies. I note that crony capitalism is another irritation which commentators think explains the popularity of Trump, and definitely in part explained that of Sanders.

Then again, there was the declaration by the government that the interior should be an Indian reservation (Indians had been very instrumental in defeating the French) – this went against the desire of the colonists to expand to the West, and also played into fears that Indians might be regarded as citizens. Perhaps Mexicans are the current equivalent? Then again, some commentators see Somerset’s case of 1772 as exciting fears (which were entirely justified, but not until 1833) that slavery would be abolished in the British Empire; much of the economy of the more southerly colonies rested at the time on slave labour. Indeed, during the Revolutionary war, the British did encourage slave revolts. Again, I could see some resonances in current events of a white fear of being put in a minority and losing their privileged status.

So, is Trump’s election a kind of revolution, analagous to either the American or the French revolution, or even the Glorious Revolution (which I linked to earlier)? It might at first sight look more like the Glorious Revolution, in that power is going to be handed over without significant strife. However, going back to my first point, Trump is now representing America, and what he represents is against many elements of the established order – crony capitalism (especially the banks), globalism, social care, tolerance of minorities and multiculturalism having all been his targets – as well as what he supremely represents, which is the complete absence of any form of politeness (a more general and less loaded term than political correctness) or restraint. Certainly some voices from the left, such as Slavoj Zizek, have supported Trump very much on the basis that the established order needs to be pulled down and Trump is the best agent to achieve this.

Indeed he may be, but I have in mind also watching a BBC programme on Maximilien Robespierre, in which Zizek supported the need for the terror unleashed under Robespierre, and which to my mind made Burke a visionary in his “Reflections”, which Burke wrote before the terror. Robespierre and his fellows were, of course, elected at least somewhat democratically, and once in power steadily moved towards a regime which I would not wish on anyone, happily fairly short-lived.

Now, Trump is not Robespierre (who was sometimes referred to as “the sea-green incorruptible”). He is clearly not an idealogue, which Robespierre definitely was – one of my greatest criticisms of Robespierre is that he elevated theory over everything, and most definitely thought that the ends justified the means, however draconian the means were (though I have an uncomfortable memory of Trump endorsing torture…). However, a lot of those now being appointed to advise him are ideologues, and they are moving into positions of power in a government massively more equipped to maintain a security state. His taking of power ought to look like the Glorious Revolution, in which there was almost no violence (though there were some rebellions in later years – we were more content with Dutch than with German monarchs, besides which the Jacobite claimants had far more charisma), but I wonder if it actually will be.

What Zizek and others on the left see Trump as representing is an anarchic agent of change, one who will produce (at least for a time) anarchy on the way to a better and brighter future. With Burke, I do not like anarchy, I do not like terror; I favour gradual change rather than revolutionary change; I want to have a clear picture of the objective and a believable path from where we are to it, rather than an unpredictable upheaval. But (and this may be a factor in the overwhelming Evangelical support for Trump) I am not sure that the way of Jesus is gradualism rather than revolution. It seems to me that Jesus hoped for and expected a major upheaval, though I’m dubious that he wanted to bring that about, rather expecting that God or historical momentum would do this; Marxists commonly expect historical momentum to do this, while the Evangelicals no doubt expect God to bring it about.

But do they wait for God to do this, or do they aim at anarchy through their own devices, giving God a helping hand along the way? Certainly one commentator thinks that they are espousing a “means justifies the end” strategy in supporting Trump. Personally, I suspect that shooting yourself in the foot in order to give an opportunity for miraculous healing is foolish, but…


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Nevertheless, God…

November 8th, 2016
by Chris

Some while ago I wrote a post with the provocative title “God – WTF?”. Having reread it, my thinking has not changed all that much. However, another slight spin on the topic came to mind earlier this week, when I was engaged in my other part time occupation of research assistant in a chemical process lab.

We were looking at a process which we had gleaned from a scientific paper, and (inter alia) speculating about how this particular reaction actually worked. If we can work out how it functions, we have a hope, at least, of making it work better – and the commonly used process for this chemical is only about 27% efficient; we want something as close to 100% as we can get.

Now, you can’t see a reaction happening, as such. Sure, you can detect that the stuff in the flask has changed colour, or become more or less viscous, or has started (or stopped) giving off bubbles. You can (as we did) take samples out at regular intervals and look at them with various instruments (in our case, chiefly a UV-Visible spectrum spectrometer, though we have also resorted to high pressure laser chromatography and, by sending samples away, mass spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy). These techniques let us at least guess at what the actual chemicals present in the reaction at that point are (the pinpoint identifications common in forensics based TV programmes are rather beyond what can actually be achieved in many labs, and rely on someone having identified a chemical previously so you have a characteristic trace for it).

None of this, however, is actually seeing the reaction, particularly as current theory holds that temporary intermediate chemicals are formed and quickly reformed in the type of reaction we are looking at, and will not be seen if you take out a sample and look at it at leisure – it will by then have reacted on or gone back to it’s original constituents. We are inferring what is actually happening from what we see, which is definitely second-order (and, of course, as with the equipment I have listed we are not looking directly at a chemical, we are looking at a trace on a screen produced by some physical process plus a set of fairly complex electronics, usually dissolved in something which itself affects the result).

One of the things we have decided during the last week is that the intermediate chemical in this process is not what the original scientific paper said it was. We have a number of possibilities, but it is pretty definitely not what the original authors (who were writing quite a while ago and probably didn’t have instant UV-Vis and HPLC results available to them) said it was.

This all reminded me of the position I was talking of in that post. I’m a mystic – I have experienced (and hope to experience again) something which I find past mystics have labelled “God”. I do not know (at least not with confidence, given a rather sceptical and enquiring nature) what that something is. It may be something which could reasonably be talked of as a person; certainly most theology in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots talks of God that way. It may be something more akin to a process – as John Caputo puts it “what is going on in the name of God”. It may be an emergent property, possibly an emergent property of mind, as I’ve speculated previously. It might even be just a meme (and even Richard Dawkins would agree that it is at least one meme…).

What I see from atheists, however, appears to me to be along the lines of “well, it isn’t A, and it isn’t B, and it isn’t C, so it doesn’t exist”. This, to me, is like saying that if in the experiment I mention we have ruled out the possibility of the reaction involving compound A, compound B or coumpound C, then the reaction isn’t happening. I can see it happening in the reaction vessel, even if I don’t know exactly how it is happening. Likewise, I can experience God (to a greater or lesser degree) without needing to know what it is that I am experiencing with any clarity – and, for me, that is a difficult thing to write, because I want to know with clarity how everything works!

It isn’t just atheists who are culpable here. A facebook friend involved in a webinar recently talked of people in his past (at a seminary) who held that if you had the wrong “doctrine of God”, you were damned. That, to my mind, is saying that the compound absolutely has to be compound A, whatever anyone else says – and, in a sense, that if it isn’t, for you, most likely to be compound A then, again, the reaction won’t happen.

Galileo is reputed to have said, in response to Church statements that the earth could not move (in order to orbit the sun) “eppur si muove” (nevertheless, it moves). God exists (or insists) and does what God does irrespective of your doctrine of God and irrespective of those who say that if we don’t understand it, it can’t happen.

For some value of “exists”…

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Antipolitics, Brexit and Trump

November 7th, 2016
by Chris

David Brooks writes of “antipolitics” in relation to the current possibility of Donald Trump getting elected. I think he is absolutely on the nail with this analysis. (I’m writing this the day before the election – if it doesn’t get posted until the result is known, it doesn’t really matter).

I have behind me a substantial amount of time in politics; I joined the then Liberal Party in my teens, and from my early 20s to my 50s was involved in trying to get Liberal and then Liberal Democrat candidates elected to local and national levels. In the process, I managed to clock up over 20 years as a local councillor, so I know from the inside that politics has to involve compromise. In fact, my first elected position was on a council which was, apart from myself, split 50/50 between Labour and Conservative councillors (Labour had one more councillor, as there were 12 in total). I found that I was thrust into the position of intermediary between the two sides, assisted considerably by the facts that on any issue where voting split along strict party lines, at the worst I could, by voting with the Conservatives, force the use of a mayoral casting vote (which was seen as politically negative) or at the best, by voting with Labour where the mayor was conservative (or, for a short while, myself) ensure that a resolution passed, and that the Liberal Democrats were seen as “the centre party”, probably in those days rightly. I hasten to say that I didn’t use that position of unreasonable power, given that I was a minority party councillor, very much, though it did mean that both sides were keen to talk to me!

It wasn’t usually the case that voting split that way, though; many issues were not really party political footballs, and in those debates and votes I felt the system was at its best; we had a set of disparate views, expressed them and argued them, sometimes even winning over one or two of our fellows, and then voted. We had differing points of view, but accepted that and were, on the whole, content that the majority carried the day. Most of the time, however, we were able to adjust what we resolved so as to produce a large majority in favour of anything we resolved, and not uncommonly unanimity, just by taking into account the positions of those who initially dissented.

One of the many reasons I had joined this “centre party” was precisely because I did not like the adversarial nature of the two party system. I had seen policies repeatedly decried by the party in opposition and then, a few years later, adopted by that party to a considerable extent when they came into power. Alternatively, many things which were done by one government would be undone by the next, irrespective of whether there was some merit in the measure, even if it could have benefited by a little tweaking. It was very nice to be instrumental in stopping this happening so much, albeit at a very local level, for a number of years. (OK, I admit that I was not successful in getting the council not to declare itself a nuclear-free zone, which I regarded as an exercise in futility as the council had absolutely no power to do anything about it, and which would merely make the council look stupid. There were a few other such anomalies, but nothing which actually mattered very much.)

Another was that I had decided even in my teens that there were usually not just two sides to any issue. There was almost always at least a third, and often a fourth, fifth or many more ways to look at questions, and forcing everything into a black and white, either/or decision was not going to give decision making the subtlety it really needed. I set out to try to provide additional options wherever possible, as well as trying to force compromise.

It is therefore hugely saddening to see the United States divided into two almost exactly equal camps for whom the other can do no right (whatever the faults of their own side), with elected respresentatives vowing to stop the process of decision making happening altogether – unless, of course, they can get their own way entirely. The UK has managed to get itself into the same position over Brexit. We are in general a little more polite than the general level of political debate in the States, I think, but both Brexiters and Remainers are very adamant in their views, and at the moment the Brexiters are crowing over their very marginal victory and telling those of us who voted “Remain” to shut up and help them leave the EU – no matter what the consequences might be. A very sustantial number of them sound to me a lot like some Trump followers (or, earlier in the US process, some Bernie followers) in that they have little or no idea what the end result may be, but they are so dissatisfied with the current situation that anything is worthwhile to end it. One friend, prior to our Brexit vote, expressed this very well (and she was the only person I heard express what I considered an entirely valid reason, others wanting things which were either contradictory or just downright unachievable); she said “I’m voting Brexit because I want to see the world burn”.

This is entirely rational, if you want to see chaos. I can even sympathise – we are, it seems, stuck with a succession of neoliberal governments (Blair and those allied with him being just as neoliberal as was Thatcher), the gap between rich and poor is increasing, the poor and disadvantaged in our society are becoming poorer and more disadvantaged and neither of the main parties has looked as if it might do anything about that (Labour under Corbyn just might do that, however…). Equally, our membership of the EU makes it more difficult to avoid such neoliberal policies, as witness the treatment of Greece by the EU and the banks. So do trade deals like TTIP, however – and we would probably end up entering deals like that if negotiating without the EU even easier than when in it.

However, I’ve never supported the idea that if you tear down what is existing, even if it is really bad, you are guaranteed of something better. By all means take it to pieces as, when and if you have a clear, workable objective and a reasonable plan for achieving it – a SMART task (specific, measurable, assignable – i.e. who will do what, realistic and time limited). The problem with both Trump followers and Brexiteers is that they have none of these. OK, certain members of each group may think they have them, but on examination those will prove incompatible with the objectives of other members of the group, and frankly I could drive a coach and horses through the gaps in any formulation of such objectives I’ve heard from any Brexiteer or Trump supporter.

I also completely reject the kind of “antipolitics” which seems to be at the root of both movements, or at least a sizeable proportion of each. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t like the governments of the day and I didn’t like the local government actions of the day, and it was suggested to me by someone older and wiser than me that if that was the case, and I had no candidate I could bring myself to vote for, I should stand myself. I had to create a local branch of the party of my choice from scratch in order to do that – but that is what I did. Those who hate the way politics is going now have exactly the same outlet for their frustrations – work for a third or fourth party candidate you can believe in, or if there isn’t one, stand yourself.

Don’t try to wreck the democracy we have in the vain hope that something better will come about. As Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst system of government – apart from all the others that have been tried…


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October 26th, 2016
by Chris

Peter Enns mentions, in a post which is mostly about incarnation, the fact that some scholars don’t take inspiration and revelation seriously.

Probably, the more “liberal” your theology (or “progressive” if you like) the less you’re likely to regard these as important terms. However, by almost any standards other than out and out atheist, I’m pretty much firmly in the liberal/progressive camp, theologically speaking – but I do take both of these concepts very seriously indeed.

That’s because I’m at root a mystic. I wouldn’t be writing this kind of post or reading a stack of theology, biblical study and spirituality material if it weren’t for that fact; the me aged between about 8 and about 15 was a complete atheist, and was frankly happy with that state – and there’s probably no room in an atheist, materialist worldview for inspiration or revelation. A mystical experience, however, whatever framework of interpretation you apply to it, comes with a large dose of self-verification – in other words, it tells you that it’s true, and more true than anything experienced through more mundane channels.

That said, it’s also incredibly difficult to communicate (at least to anyone who isn’t themselves a mystic) – mere words just don’t quite seem to hack it. They might for a poet, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d ever qualify as a poet (an occasional versifier at best…). I don’t think my “muse” is poetic.

I keep that very centrally in mind when talking either of my own experience or of the words of others which have been widely identified as “inspired”; the experience in and of itself may well be completely true, but by the time it’s filtered through the concept structures and language I have available, in my case at least it’s only somewhat true – and I expect that to be the case with any other person’s inspired statements. That means that I need to do some digging within the words used to try to discern what the original inspiration may have been – and that is particularly true where the original writer was using a set of concept structures and language which are foreign to me. On the most simple level, I need it translated into English. However, I also need it translated from, variously, a first-century Hebrew set of concepts or a first century Greek set of concepts when dealing with scripture, and translating into a modern-to-post-modern set of concepts.

The “post-modern” bit of that is a bit of a saving grace. The viewpoints Dr. Enns is talking of are, by and large, modern – and a modern view of inspiration is that it needs to be entirely rationally sustainable and reducible to material elements; this is what produces an insistence on an historical Adam and Eve, an historical recent creation and an historical flood. Those events have to have actually happened exactly as the literal words describe, otherwise they’re of no use whatsoever – a view agreed on by atheists and fundamentalists alike.

I can try to look behind the literal meaning and seek the inspiration which gave rise to to that kind of expression, given (in those cases) a several-thousand-year old Hebrew viewpoint on the way things were. A lot of what I post here involves that kind of process; I am working through scripture, reinterpreting it along the way as I am forced to do by not having an Iron Age Hebrew worldview and concept structures, and I am working through doctrines with the same compulsion caused by not having a first century Greek worldview and concept structures (particularly their philosophical ideas).

I haven’t got round to all scripture yet. There are some passages of scripture in which I find it so far impossible to discern an inspiration which I can regard as “true” – particularly those passages in which God is seen, ostensibly, as counselling genocide (the Amalekites in the Hebrew Scriptures, for instance) or as effecting it himself (the flood, or some interpretations of Revelation, for instance). Maybe those will never make sense to me as being inspired by or a revelation from God. Maybe they weren’t, and were inserted in what is definitely in part an inspired set of works by some thoroughly uninspired individual. I prefer, however, for the moment, to assume that at some point in the future I may work out how it is that they are divinely inspired, and in the meantime just not act on any of them which does not seem to me to display injunctions to love, not hate, and to peace, not strife.

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