The failings of democracies, and an off-the-wall possibility…

October 21st, 2016
by Chris

I’ve been watching developments in the Labour Party in the UK with interest, and some horror. Following the Brexit vote, the Conservatives were clearly horribly divided and in some disarray, and that should have been a wonderful opportunity for Labour. What do they do? The sitting MPs immediately try to unseat their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. This led to a vote of the membership which re-elected Mr. Corbyn with an increased majority.

This article from Jacobin discusses some of the background to this. Now, Jacobin is generally a pretty left-wing source, so I tend to treat what it says with at least a pinch of salt. However, I think it nails the issues rather well.

I have historically supported our third party, originally the Liberals, now the Liberal Democrats following merger in the 70s with the Social Democrats, who were a breakaway from the Labour of the time. I’ve stood as a candidate for them many times and served as a LibDem councillor for, in aggregate, well over 20 years. During that time, to my considerable consternation, the Labour Party (under Tony Blair) moved so far to the right that I found myself for a while in the most left-wing of the three parties, at least so far as practical policies were concerned (though I knew that Blair miserably failed to satisfy a lot of the traditional Labour base, who were still to my left – and who had so much invested in the party that they felt there was nowhere else to go – obviously I would have preferred them to join the LibDems!).

The Conservatives had already, under Margaret Thatcher, moved hugely to the right of where they’d been in my youth, under the pernicious influence of economists like Hayek. Actually, while Thatcher claimed to follow Hayek, she and her successors have not followed this suggestion of Hayek “There is no reason why in a free society government should not assure to all, protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need descend. To enter into such an insurance against extreme misfortune may well be in the interest of all; or it may be felt to be a clear moral duty of all to assist, within the organised community, those who cannot help themselves. So long as such a uniform minimum income is provided outside the market to all those who, for any reason, are unable to earn in the market an adequate maintenance, this need not lead to a restriction of freedom, or conflict with the Rule of Law.” The trouble was, Thatcher went further – she famously stated “there is no such thing as society” and latched on to Hayek’s antipathy towards social justice (which, of course, means there is also no room for adoption as a national community of the Social Gospel). Blair took the Labour Party to much the same place, albeit dolled up with more talk of social concern, which unfortunately we “couldn’t afford to implement” (to reduce a lot of his statements to their ultimate basis). 

As a result, in 2010, the only viable majority government was a LibDem – Conservative coalition, which the LibDem’s duly entered into. I saw this as moving the LibDems also to the right, and while they did, I think, manage to make the 2010-2015 government much less nasty than it would otherwise have been, I think a lot of other LibDem supporters agreed with me. In any event, the party got more or less wiped out in last year’s election, down to the kind of numbers of MPs it had when I first joined in the 1960s. I thought at the time the coalition was made that it was a disastrous mistake for the party, and would compromise its principles, and unfortunately seem to have been proved right. The trouble is, it may well have been the right thing for the country… but that now left us without a reasonably credible and electable left-of-centre party. Except in Scotland, that is, where the electorate has almost universally elected Scottish Nationalists, who are definitely in the Social Democrat range which first Labour and then the Liberal Democrats abandoned.

I have watched the press talking about support for Corbyn, and the oft-repeated poisonous claim that the vast influx of new members is “far left”. However, I talk to a lot of people who fall within this new membership, and they are in no way “far left” – they’re actually pretty much like me, in what would, 40 years ago, have been firmly the centre Social Democratic position. OK, I will confess that my views may have drifted leftward a bit – I think that is an occupational hazard of studying the Synoptic Gospels a lot – but I’m definitely not “far left” or “hard left”. Indeed, I’ve toyed with the idea of joining Labour – I let my LibDem membership lapse following the coalition – but I too have too much time and emotion invested in the party to find leaving it completely an easy prospect.

The media plainly feels (as a substantial majority view, at least) that there is no viable policy other than neoliberalism, and anything more socially concerned than that is not only “left wing” but also unelectable. The trouble is, they are fighting the last war, i.e. the one in which Blair moved Labour to occupy the same ground as the Conservatives and thus secured three terms in power, based on the fact that the country as a whole had swallowed Thatcher’s neoliberalism. The thing is, I am fairly convinced that we’re collectively now sick of it, and particularly sick of the effects on not just the most vulnerable in society (who are told that cutting their benefits is to “help them” by giving them a greater incentive to go and find work – work which the system miserably fails to provide) but also the bulk of the population. They see stagnating wages eroded by inflation and the vanishing of any opportunity to do better. Labour should have won the 2015 election, but headed by Blairites, the electorate saw a party which would pursue the same neoliberal agenda as the Conservatives, but not do it as efficiently and lie about it into the bargain.

I think the vastly increased Labour membership reflects this, and not the resurgence of hardline Marxists and Trotskyists which the press wants us to believe. There just aren’t very many hardline class warriors remaining; most of the left has now acknowledged that communism in the forms in which it’s been tried so far just doesn’t work (however nice an idea it might be). I set on one side the rather good argument that command economies are not what communism aims at, they are really “state capitalism” – suffice it to say that there are no state-wide examples of successful communism to date.

In terms of shaping party policy, I think it’s entirely right that Labour should do this via direct democracy, the wishes of the whole membership. I have many reservations about direct democracy in national politics; the result of the Brexit vote indicates that it is possible that way to make some incredibly stupid decisions when the electorate is not well enough informed (or when they can be persuaded to vote emotionally rather than rationally), and am glad that as a nation we have representative democracy instead. (Some of my readers who voted for Brexit will disagree, but many of them feel that Remain voters were not well enough informed and, if they had been, would have voted “Leave”, so my point still stands). But Jacobin are right in saying that representative democracy tends to get us governed by a political class which is out of touch with the people as a whole. We should have an alternative drawn from a wider spectrum of experience and background – and then we can vote for them or not in each constituency.

I think that at the moment an unified Labour led by Corbyn or by someone else whose politics are very close to his would win an election at present. I confess that I’d prefer it to be someone else; Corbyn is not a natural leader and has made a lot of mistakes as a result. But there is no way Labour should go back to singing from the neoliberal, Tory song sheet.

Granted, we probably won’t have an election until the current term runs out in 2020. I have no idea what politics will be like in four years, apart from fearing that unless Brexit is somehow stopped in its tracks (or a complete free trade agreement reached with the EU which will have none of the benefits of Brexit but all of its burdens), the economy will be so bad that the only way to kick start it will be via a complete abandonment of the country to corporations, with little or no regulation or tax, of the government to neoliberalism and of the populace to declining wages, declining social care and permanent anxiety. Even that might not be enough. At that point, getting back to a civilised society might not be possible without revolution…

What does all this say about democracy itself? We have in the two events of the Labour leadership elections and the Brexit vote a contrast between representative democracy and direct democracy. In theory, direct democracy is the ideal – every member of society has an equal voice, and the majority should rule (though most people would argue that there should be restrictions on the exploitation of minorities by the majority – after all, everyone is part of some minority…) This was the model of the ancient Greek city-state, and it can work quite well – for very small societies. Typically, the number of people actually able to vote in those states was fairly low (they almost all practiced slavery, and those who didn’t relied on non-citizen “foreign” labour, women had no part in the process and many others were not able to give the time necessary to participate). It was also the case that they limited the franchise to a set of the most educated in their societies, who at least could be assumed competent to make informed decisions.

In a larger society with an universal (or near-universal) franchise, the mechanics of direct democracy have been impossible to implement until very recently, save for a very few specific issues (such as Brexit, or the “propositions” which are regularly voted on in California). I say “until  very recently” because we are (at least in this country) close to having 100% ability to connect online, and that would give us the ability to vote as a direct democracy on everything government does.

The Brexit vote, however, exhibits some of the problems of this approach. Firstly, there wasn’t actually a clear and thought out policy there to be voted for or against – none of the details of how Brexit might be achieved was on the ballot paper, and there wasn’t even clarity that the government would have to follow the result, partly as a result of this. Nor (taking the issue most talked about) was there a clear statement that this would mean more or less immigration – although the bulk of those I talk to who voted Brexit want less immigration, a very significant number actually want more – but from outside the EU rather than restricted to within it, having accepted the argument that past statistics show that immigration actually improves the economy and is a boost to it rather than a burden. Certainly those business leaders who were Brexiteers thought that way… At the least, there should have been clarity of what was actually being voted for on this absolutely fundamental part of the issue.

Secondly, most people are just not well enough informed to take a sensible view on complex policy matters (this is one point on which both sides of the argument would probably agree, although they would think that anyone well informed enough would vote with them…). I like to think that I am significantly better informed than the average, and frankly I didn’t think that I was entirely competent to make such a far reaching decision.

This could possibly be remedied if we were all to spend large amounts of time researching the proposed policies, but that throws up another problem. Do we really want to spend perhaps four to six hours a day (at a minimum) researching and voting on government actions?

I, for one, do not – and I have a history of actually standing for office and getting elected, albeit at a local level. What I would have preferred at the time is for the councillors who actually did the job to do it efficiently and at least more or less in line with my thinking – but they were not doing that, and so the only option was to involve myself. The vast majority of people are not prepared to do that, or even to get involved in trying to get someone they feel will represent them well elected – the only effort they are prepared to put in is in voting on the day. Well, apart from complaining about the result, that is!

I arrive at the conclusion that some form of representative democracy, in which we choose from a pool of people who are willing to put in the hours and have the capacity to decide, is as good as we can hope to get – and I have centrally in  mind Churchill’s famous statement “Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried”.

But, I might hear you say, what about the Labour leadership election? Shouldn’t that have been left to the existing already elected representatives, namely the sitting Labour MPs? There is, after all, a strong argument that if you want someone to lead a group, they need the backing of a majority of that group, and Corbyn has never had the support of anything remotely like a majority of Labour MPs.

That would, after all, be another form of democracy, a “second-level democracy” if you like. It is, of course, at least in theory, the way in which our elected representatives make decisions in parliament (or congress, or the senate). However, this is not the way the Labour Party has decided to structure its electoral system. That is now “one member, one vote” (which I thoroughly approve of; it is the system my erstwhile party has had for a long time). The previous system (as can be seen from the link) gave each of the membership, the MPs and the Trades Unions one third of the votes (the Labour Party was initially the political voice of the Trade Union and Cooperative movements in the UK). That tended to lead to the party being controlled very largely by the Trades Unions (particularly as many Labour MPs are financed by Trade Unions), and those in turn were led by leaders who were not always perfectly representative of their electorate – they were, again, representatives in another species of representative democracy.

This, in turn, throws up another problem with representative democracy. You are inevitably going to end up with a party structure, and in a “first past the post” system like the UK and the USA, this is going to be subject to strong pressures in the direction of there being only two parties of significance. Once you get that, it is largely going to be the party which determines how our representatives will vote (under threat of being expelled from the party and therefore landing in the wasteland of minor party candidates with little hope of election). In the process we largely lose the ability to choose someone whose qualities as an individual we think make them particularly suited to represent us as individuals.

However, it also gives us a situation where if a party controls (say) 52% of the representatives, whatever they wish gets enacted – but what they wish is decided between that 52%. If that turns out to be on a simple majority basis, 27% of the actual representatives get to make all the decisions – and that is no longer properly democratic. This was at the root of a lot of the problems with the Trade Union vote within Labour – it led to a single union representative voting on behalf of the entire membership of the union, sometimes millions of votes – and that was commonly not quite what even a majority of members would have wished for, as many union members did not actually vote for their leadership anyhow (many were members for entirely non-political reasons, many could not be bothered, and that second category was made significantly greater by unions which only allowed voting at meetings which had to be attended). Some unions even chose leaders and policies by a show of hands at open meetings, leading to a strong suspicion on many occasions of people being coerced into voting one way, if only via perceived peer pressure.

How might this problem be reduced? Well, an interesting possibility is one I read at least hints about recently in one of the “Fox Meridian” science fiction books by Niall Teasdale. It also rather rests for decent functioning on an internet-connected society. The concept is that you can delegate your vote to any other individual (and one might suspect that they could then delegate theirs to another), with the interesting possibility that that could be limited to voting on a particular area of interest – so, for instance, you could delegate your economy vote to one person and your foreign policy vote to another. You can then withdraw that delegation at any time…

I haven’t yet thought this one through in complete detail, but I’d be very interested to receive comments and even more so to see it attempted in practice – perhaps not on the scale of a nation state initially!

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The impassible and impossible God, Eris and Dada.

September 28th, 2016
by Chris

Brian Neice says something in a recent blogpost which has been part of my thinking for ages, namely that the idea of a perfect God is a theological blind alley. As he points out, a perfect God cannot act and cannot change his mind – both things which our scriptures claim God does, in the first place frequently, in the second occasionally.

There is another spin-off of the “perfect, unchanging God” concept (which is the God-concept of Greek philosophy, not that of the Bible, except insofar as some Greek concepts have penetrated the New Testament, which was written in Greek). That is the idea of Divine Impassibility (no, not “impossibility”, though I might argue that the perfect, unchanging, impassible God is also impossible – as, indeed, Mr. Neice may be saying). This argues that as God is perfect, God cannot be moved to emotion by anything which happens in the world. We cannot, says this view, do anything which can change God – even emotionally, as either before the change or after the change God would not be perfect.

Again, this is not the God of scripture, who is frequently called “loving” and sometimes “wrathful”; both of these are emotions. You just cannot love if you can not be stirred by emotion, changed by what happens with another person. Theologians have been wont to use weasel words to get round this – God does not love, but IS love, they may say, for instance. Alternatively “God’s love is of a different kind to human love” (to which my response is “So different a kind as not to be love at all”).

I therefore agree with the writer – God is nothing if He is not relational, and to be relational involves change.

That said, there is a fundamental dichotomy at the root of existence, that between order and chaos. In the Bible, God is represented in Genesis 1 as bringing order out of chaos, and is frequently seen after that as the embodiment of order – set against chaos. However, in the New Testament we see Jesus (who, according to deutero-Paul, is the image of the invisible God) saying “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”.

You can have order which is bad, as well as chaos which is bad (few of us want very much chaos to enter our lives), and in that case, chaos needs to be brought to bear. This is, I suggest, always the case in order that there be – well – anything (as indicated in the video I linked to a few days ago in my post “The experience and consciousness of a neutrino”).

Cameron Freeman writes recently (and I can’t link to it, as it is in the “Friendly Fire” closed group studying the work of Peter Rollins): “In the beginning, there is an irresolvable paradox of antagonistic tensions forever trembling in the sacred depths of the universe. This perpetual wrestling between contradictory forces is not, however, a curse but a blessing. For as the immanent driving force of all temporal becoming, this primordial antagonism at the heart of reality itself is what keeps the future open by making the transformation of the world as we know it possible.”

He goes on to say “As the cataclysmic non-ground that is radically otherwise to any temporally constituted unity – and therefore destabilizing to the rational grounding of any presumed totality and every world-system, the anarchic abyss of this primordial dissonance (i.e. the Crucifixion) precedes and sets the stage for all new birth, and thereby constitutes the “condition of possibility” for the emergence of new forms of serendipitous creativity – from out of the disruptive darkness and into the light of new life…”

Indeed, order and chaos appear to be diametrically opposed principles, so attempting to suggest that either one of them is fundamental (and the other secondary) is going to cause problems. Taoism has, perhaps, some element of this in its well known “yin-yang” symbol, interlocking comma shapes of black and white, each with an “eye” of the other colour. However, suggesting that they are both fundamental is, as Cameron points out, paradoxical.

Then again, absolute chaos involves the dissolution of everything into irreducibly small particles (if, indeed, such things exist…) and thus death, while absolute order involves everything being completely static and unchanging, which is another kind of death. Only between the two can we find life.

The theological attitude which Mr. Neice and myself criticise is one which demands absolute order, and thus the death of God, i.e. atheism. However, the inverse of that is possibly Discordianism – and I would strongly argue that Discordianism is a religion of the absurd, and a reaction against too much love of order in established religions. I can certainly sympathise with that – Hail Eris! (at least in moderation).

Is it however true that if there is a fundamental contradiction or paradox at the root of reality, that that-which-is, or God, is both order AND chaos, is this also absurd? Or is it merely a function of the fact that our comprehension and our reason are inadequate to understand any further than that?

Certainly my mystical experience gives me the overwhelming conviction that all is one, and that one is God – so is there therefore a fundamental paradox in God? In those moments of unitive ecstasy, there is no discord, but there is also no sterile immovability.

Perhaps ultimately I need to recall that Jesus told us to address God as “Abba”. This is often suggested as being potentially baby language, and preachers suggest “Daddy” – which is a fine counterpoint to our tendency to think of God as unapproachable (the God of impassibility and perfection). Should I suggest that a better word would be “Dada”?

Dada is, of course, also the name of an absurdist movement in art last century… and Origen wrote “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd)…

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The consciousness and experience of a neutrino

September 23rd, 2016
by Chris

I was interested by an article I read on panspychism (broadly, the suggestion that consciousness is the most fundamental thing and that matter and energy are epiphenomena or emergent properties of consciousness). Frankly, I’m inclined to agree with it’s stance, though another article which a commentator on the first links to, by Galen Strawson, entirely rightly refers to Bertrand Russell’s observation that “We know nothing about the intrinsic quality of physical events, except when these are mental events that we directly experience.” In that sense, at least, consciousness has to be primary, because that’s all we have to work with. Everything which we think we know about the world around us except for consciousness is ultimately a construction of our consciousnesses.

That, of course, includes such absolutely fundamental building blocks of science (and materialism) as matter and energy (ultimately, in Physics, the same thing).

The thing the author of the first article seizes on, however, is that while concepts such as matter and energy lead to a supremely useful edifice of scientific theory and hypothesis, the concept that everything rests ultimately on tiny units of consciousness does not lead to this, and in fact it’s very difficult to see that it leads to anything. It’s worth mentioning that this is one reason why I have difficulty with Process Philosophy and with its offshoot Process Theology – I find with Process that, once you get beyond the assertion that everything ultimately is reducible to moments of experience (and that all matter and energy is finally composed of moments of experience),  I tend to agree with the theologians who espouse it a lot. (There may be a viable distinction between micro-elements of consciousness and micro-elements of experience, but I don’t think it’s one which differentiates the two views significantly).

The trouble is, I can’t see that the explanation adds anything (and in the case of Process Theology, I can’t see that this basis is actually necessary for the rest of the theologians’ conclusions).

However, it is distinctly possible to see the same tendencies as are described in panpsychism as “consciousness” and in process as “experience” as self-organisation. As this video from Neil Theise MD, (principally a cellular biologist) indicates, if you put together self-organisation (which occurs at extremely fine scales, i.e. subatomic) with a random element (likewise) and some negative feedback, you will get larger scale stable things (communities or organisms, for instance). I interject that this is particularly the case where there is some means of storing information about the past. Incidentally, even if you don’t commonly click on my links, click on this one – it’s fascinating.

As you will see from the video, Dr. Theise found himself, to his surprise, put on a panpsychism panel when presenting some of his ideas, and has since convinced himself that he is, at least in some way, a panpsychist. However, he also indicates that he is reluctant to draw hard and fast lines where a continuum is involved, and while I can sympathise with that, I think it has led to him using the term “consciousness” for something which most of the rest of us would not call “consciousness”. He may not be prepared to draw that line, but our use of language has done so, even if it is a very fuzzy line (as is so often the case with language).

In particular, I think that in order to call something “consciousness”, we need the means of storing information, and that is not evident at the very lowest levels of organisation. This is a major reason why it is difficult for me to consider “experience” as basic, because to me, “experience” also demands a level of information storage which is just not present at the atomic level. Of course, being in origin a Physicist, my tendency is to see atoms or subatomic particles as fundamental, whereas Dr. Theise is used to seeing cells as fundamental. I just can’t say that a neutrino has consciousness or experience – it doesn’t fit.

However, he has drawn for me a pathway through something which may be called “epiphenomenology”, or may be called “emergence” all the way from the quantum soup to higher level beings such as ourselves.

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Sharing the ecstasy…

September 20th, 2016
by Chris

This post contains a very interesting list of experiences which the author, at least, interprets as experiences of God. He doesn’t think it’s an exhaustive list. I agree. It excludes, for instance, the wonder experienced in scientific discovery, or merely in contemplating the beauty of scientific or mathematical forms. It excludes the “aha!” moment, when something previously concealed or unknown is revealed – and sometimes this is available via humour.

However, it takes me back to an early part of my forays into the internet, back in the 1990s when I joined several forums on Compuserve, and in one of them (the European Forum) I found myself talking about the concept of God with a number of French atheists. It was an extremely long-running thread, as these things go, lasting around a year and with, eventually, thousands of messages. I found, if I stripped out the title “God” (actually “Dieu”, as the thread was so titled and the discussion was in French), I could actually talk about experiences which many believers (such as the author of the article I link to) would interpret as experiences of God, and find that pretty much all of the atheists had such experiences. I’ve written before about how I had to use a symbol – [   ] – to indicate what we were talking about; as soon as I tried to put any label on this box, I ran into the problem that all sensible labels for it carried so much freight of religious dogma for my interlocutors that they immediately started backtracking.

My theory was this. I had had a particularly intense initial experience of [   ], and had (after some agonising) interpreted it as a God-experience – but only because most mystics who wrote about their experience used God-language. That had pointed me at various practices and concept structures which various spiritual traditions seemed to use to promote mystical experience, and after some years of experimentation I had settled down to be able without too much effort to recall what I described as “an edge” of the full spectrum experience. This suited me really well – a full blown mystical experience renders it impossible to do anything else at the same time (or, commonly, for some time after it has passed) and also, while it is ecstatic (in the true meaning of the word) it is also very scary – there is a distinct element of the extinguishing of the self, and that feels to at least some levels of my mind too much like death, or at least too much like loss of control. While the “edge” isn’t ecstatic, it is very pleasant and tends to come with some insights into problems which may have been mulling around at the edge of consciousness.

I had also found that the practices and concept-structures seemed not to work for everyone, and, indeed, from what I could see only really worked for people who described an initial peak experience which they had usually not been working towards; once there had been one, it seemed that most if not all could achieve a repeat – and the more times it was repeated, the easier it became. Practice, it seemed, did make perfect – but only if there was something on which to build in the first place.

However, I was interested in whether the kind of “edge” experience which my French atheists described (or the article above describes) could be built on as a start point, and not just the full-blooded “fall off your horse on the road to Damascus” variety. Those seem to come only “out of the blue” and to a very limited number of people. Obviously, the objective was to find a way in which others could have the same kind and quality of experience as mine; I was certainly better for having had (and worked on) my own, and I wanted to share that.

It proved impossible to persuade any of my atheist friends that this was worth the effort, despite my best purple prose about how mind-blowingly good the experience could be (and, curiously, I found I did purple prose in French far easier and better than I do it in English). However, that did persuade me, as the article indicates, that pretty much everyone has some experiences which might serve as a basis.

This was not really a surprise to me. Way back in my early 20s, I had briefly gathered around me a small group who were intensely interested in my accounts of my experience and who actually wanted to have similar experiences themselves. However, almost without exception, it proved that they thought either that I could do it for them (a situation rather like that of the priest or monk who “does religion” so the rest of us don’t really have to) or that I could magically confer on them the ability to do it, perhaps just by osmosis by being around me a lot. Now, maybe on occasion a Zen master might find just the right wording to induce an “aha!” moment in a student which is sufficient to start the process, but I still have no idea how the Zen master does it, and Zen was not the way I eventually decided to go. I resolutely refused to accept the mantle of guru – I knew I didn’t have the answers they were looking for, and while I would have been happy to study, learn and practice alongside them, that isn’t what they wanted.

But, for anyone who is interested, I do have some tips. Firstly, if you scan down the list in the article, there are situations and places which particular people find very conducive to the “edge” experience for them (and it isn’t necessarily the same for everyone). Pick one, and spend a lot of time with it. Possibly, if they will combine sensibly, pick more than one…

Secondly, getting scared during the start of such an experience is fatal, so get comfortable, still the mind and calm the emotions. Avoid if possible circumstances where you’ll get interrupted, as well.

Thirdly, analysing what is happening while it is happening is fatal, so stop analysing. Mindfulness meditation is very good practice for this (and for the previous one).

Fourthly (and one of the group from my 20s has never forgiven me for this) try not to try. It needs to be natural and easy.

And lastly (and this helps a lot with no. 4) practice, practice and more practice.

I make no guarantees.

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Prax, dox, path, pist and agap.

September 17th, 2016
by Chris

Roger Wolsey, in his book “Kissing Fish”, identifies several hallmarks of Progressive Christianity, one of which is orthopraxy (right actions) rather than orthodoxy (right belief). I’ve been rather inclined toward this view – after all, it is a truism that in order to know what someone believes, one should not look at what they say but at what they do. James writes “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead”, and Jesus perhaps goes further: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand” and ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Evangelicals, however, have a tendency to look at this emphasis and worry that it is preaching “works righteousness”; Paul writes ” For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (and elsewhere gives a hostage to fortune to those who say that good deeds absent faith are sins) and Catholics may worry about Pelagianism. Some might recall Isaiah 64:6, where good deeds are called “dirty rags”.

On the other hand, orthodoxy as normally interpreted means merely mental assent. You are agreeing to a set of faith statements, such as the Apostles or Nicene creeds, the Westminster Confession or the contents of the Catholic Catechism. My own church, the Anglican, uses the first two interchangeably, but actually also has as standard doctrine (thus “orthodoxy”) the Athanasian creed.

The relevant section of Catechism reads:- “That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;  Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.  For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.  The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.  The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.  The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.  As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.  So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.  And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.  So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.  And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.  So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.  For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.  The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.  The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.  So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.  And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.  But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.  He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.”

I think this illustrates one of my problems with orthodoxy as a standard. That IS orthodoxy for my denomination, Catholics and quite a few other denominations (and is the root definition of trinity for all trinitarian denominations, which is the vast bulk of them). And virtually no-one among the laity really understands it, and, in my experience, precious few clergy – and that is assuming for a moment that it is, in fact, rationally understandable, given the statement by the Cappadocian Fathers that it is not supposed to be understood by human reason but is a holy mystery to be accepted by faith.

The thing is, when Paul talks of saving faith, I really don’t think he is talking of intellectual acceptance of some forms of wording which are at the least difficult (and at the most impossible) to understand – and yes, I know that Origen wrote “I believe because it is absurd” (in “Contra Celsum”). Assuming for a moment that the popular recent readings of Paul as properly referring not to “faith in” Christ but to “the faith (or faithfulness) of Christ” are not our preferred interpretation, the fact that “faithfulness” is seen as a viable alternative to “faith” may give a clue. “Faithfulness” is more a disposition than an intellectual exercise, and it really betokens love for and trust in someone (which perforce produces action). This is, of course, a viable meaning of “faith in” as well. I can have faith in my wife, without remotely needing to understand her, far less to accept a number of propositions about her (which is possibly why I am still happily married after 37 years).

Out of similar concerns, people have started talking about “orthopathy”, meaning right passions, emotions and empathies. The link I give is to an evangelical commentator, who is still keen to preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy as well, feeling however that orthopathy has been neglected. I use it in part because it gives an excellent exposition of the term and in part because I don’t think it goes far enough – to my mind, while orthopathy is demanded by Paul and others, orthodoxy, in the form of rigidly correct intellectual assent, isn’t. However, orthopathy will automatically produce orthopraxy. I struggle to see evidence that orthodoxy does anything of the sort – if anything, the more orthodox someone is, the less they seem to me to embody the “fruits of the spirit”, or at least peace, forbearance, kindness and gentleness, which constitute for me (and, I think, for most Progressive Christians) a sizeable slice of the orthopraxy we are looking for.

Unfortunately, there is an earlier meaning for “orthopathy”, which usually denotes fringe medicine. If we were to use the original Greek “pistis” of Paul’s statements about faith as our root (instead of doxia or praxia), we would get something like “orthopisty”, which does not have a good ring in English. Perhaps “orthoagapy”, from “agape”, meaning love, used by Paul in 1 Cor. 13? I think that would convey right passion, emotion and empathy.

And what would the God who is equated to love by many theologians wish of us but love?

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Dogmatics, centering and the Synoptics.

September 13th, 2016
by Chris

I found a link in my fb feed to an article arguing the need for dogmatics in the church. Dogmatics is “the systematic critique of the message of the church… to avoid deviation, weakness and heresy”. In the Reformed tradition, the masterwork on the subject is Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics”, which runs to 14 volumes…

My immediate reaction was to dismiss this argument as clear rubbish (as you might expect from someone who wrote a blogpost titled “The Heresy of all Doctrines” some while ago. And yet, I started thinking – about (for instance) Arnaud Amalric, bishop of Citeaux and papal legate saying (probably in at least some accordance with the doctrine of the time) “kill all, God will know his own”. I think of Joel Osteen’s prosperity gospel (and he is not by any means the only culprit). I think of the identification of Christianity with empire, which the Romans, Germans, Austrians, Russians, Spanish, Portuguese and British have done, and the Americans are now doing. And I shudder. These are all positions which I would dearly like to label false, deviant and yes, heretical.

Then again, I think of Barth’s 14 volumes (which I haven’t read, and don’t intend to – I’m not trying to be part of the Reformed tradition anyhow, although elements of it are definitely present in Anglicanism) and wonder whether with that level of specification anyone can avoid heresy on at least some point. Actually, though, I strongly suspect that the vast bulk of people in the pews are technically heretics on some point even in respect of a much more relaxed dogmatic structure than Barth’s – Jason Michaeli’s recent series on heresies should be enough to convince most of us. What good is doctrine which no-one actually follows in its totality? Is the only function to convince us that we are all sinners – simul justus et peccator?

No, as I suggested in the “Heresy of all Doctrines” post, I think the problem is not in having some principles, some basics, it’s in having too many of them and trying to specify them incredibly closely. However, bearing in mind that every basic principle or assertion is going to exclude someone if we are thinking in terms of a requirement for belonging to a group, I am very attracted to the concept of the centered set (as contrasted with the bounded set, which is defined by what characteristics you have to have to be within it, and by implication the lack of any or which sets you definitively outside it).

Using the language of centered set, you would be located within the normal spectrum of atheist-to-theist not as an “in or out” affair but on the basis of how close you were to centering your life on God (where “God” could possibly be interpreted as widely as you wished, at least initially – it certainly is in one group I belong to, and this seems to work just fine for them). Similarly “Christian” could indicate degrees – of adherence to the principle of following Jesus, but without demanding a particular conception of Jesus. Also, distance from the centre of the set would be less important, in this conception, than the direction of ones attention.

There could well be an objection that my insistence that we should not attempt to specify what-it-is-that-is-God or who exactly Jesus was means that the location of the centre is unknown, so we could not adequately orient ourselves. In the case of God, I would counter that God is essentially beyond adequate human comprehension in the first place and that humanity is unlikely ever to be so close to the centre that some slight difference in orientation matters; so long as God is (as Paul Tillich puts it) our ultimate concern, we are correctly oriented.

In the case of Jesus, I have previously argued that he has to be regarded primarily as showing us the (or at least a) correct direction to God rather than as a hurdle or obstacle in the way of communion with the divine, or (for those who consider direct communion with the divine impossible) a necessary intermediary beyond whom we cannot go. This is treating him as the paradigmatic example of a man living oriented on God and held out by God as such, which is very much the picture obtained from the Synoptic Gospels and illuminated in depth by Daniel Kirk’s new book “A Man Attested by God”; although further argument would be needed to demonstrate that this is also in reasonable accordance with Paul and with John (although possibly not with all of the deutero-Pauline or the Catholic epistles). This is, of course, not Kirk’s thesis; he has a personal high Christology and is merely speaking to the content of the Synoptics.


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David Jenkins

September 5th, 2016
by Chris

I was sorry to hear of the death of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins. He has for years been one of the two Anglican bishops I cite as evidence for the fact that I might be able to call myself an Anglican (the other being John Shelby Spong), and was certainly an influence on me deciding that, of the available churches (which locally to me is a very restricted set) I should situate myself in Anglicanism.

My reasoning was that if these two distinguished and extremely controversial theologians could be Anglican bishops, the denomination should be able to accommodate someone with my theological ideas. As per my immediate previous post, Anglicanism is where I’m located at the moment, though I’m now in a fairly conventional congregation in which I don’t have the opportunity to talk radical or progressive theology significantly – in my previous much larger evangelical congregation, there was for a while scope for that (although almost entirely within the framework of Alpha discussions).

The radical and the progressive has to happen online – which is fine, but it lacks something which physical proximity brings, even with the aid of Google hangouts or Skype.

I should also mention another, rather lower ranking Anglican clergyman who was an influence, the late Canon John Kent, who was vicar at Selby in my teens. He notoriously preached on “God is Dead”, referencing Niezsche and Altizer, not just in a normal sermon but in one which was transmitted by the BBC nationwide. As usual with such things, it was the title rather than the content which attracted all the scandalised protests – his actual conclusion was that God was, in at least some sense, very much alive and living with us – but the whole thing was a huge encouragement to the teenage Chris – who was probably even more sceptical than I am now!

In passing, I’ve found another excellent article which focuses on the original cause of the Jenkins controversy. I’m pleased to see someone significantly more conservative than I am myself arguing that a “conjuring trick with bones” is not what we should read from the resurrection. OK, the author seems to think that there was something actually physical in at least some of the resurrection viewings (and I don’t) but the point remains the same.

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Growing churches and flying buttresses

September 5th, 2016
by Chris

It would seem that the church in England has stopped declining, from this article. Others question whether this is a pause before Church of England attendance (at the least) falls off a cliff – there are a lot of regular attenders in most congregations who are over 70, often over 80, and they will not be there in 20 years, whereas most Anglican congregations have far fewer people under 30.

However, the growth talked about in the article is generally in the sub-30 year old group, and is most commonly the result of congregations either planted by Holy Trinity Church Brompton or which fit pretty well into the HTB mould. The primary vehicle of evangelism for them is the Alpha course, about which I’ve written quite a few posts (it isn’t used solely by Anglicans, several other denominations use it as well).

What we are seeing, in other words, is the replacement of the Anglican Church as it has been with a set of clones of HTB, and the main evangelical technology being the Alpha course (although most HTB style churches also do street evangelism and the non-talking type of evangelism which I favour, caring for the poor, sick, homeless and marginalised).

A little under five years ago I was persuaded by a friend to go along to a set of talks and discussions about aspects of faith and various features of the modern world (such as science) being held at St. Michael le Belfrey, York. This was an early foray into trying to connect with people again after several years of being “incurvatus in se” as a result of chronic, serious depression and chronic anxiety. I asked some pointed questions, and the organiser took me on one side after the last of that series of talks and asked if I’d like to attend an Alpha course.

Somewhat taken aback, I said I didn’t know – I had already attended one and a half Alpha courses some years earlier (I was invited to stop going to the second, ostensibly because I might become an “Alpha addict”, but more probably because I displayed no sign of stopping asking awkward questions, which was actually a mistake on their part because I was there as company for someone else who hadn’t done the course and who promptly stopped going…) and I said I would perhaps be a disruptive influence. The organiser said that was fine, Alpha welcomed discussion and my presence would allay his fears that no-one would ask any of the difficult questions. So I accepted – and then found that I was listed as a “helper”.

A week before the Alpha “Spirit weekend”, my depression lifted overnight – was this Godly intervention? My friends from the course certainly thought so. Was it because I’d been a member of a recovery community for six years? My friends there certainly thought so. Was it because my antidepressants had just changed? Possible, I suppose, but the effects shouldn’t have been seen for at least a week or two, and the effect was instant, at least within 8 hours. This enabled me to do what I’d been thinking about for some weeks, and actually attend a service at the church – and I carried on doing that until earlier this year, when a combination of circumstances made me wish for something closer to home.

St. Mikes fitted a lot of my wishes for a church. It was welcoming of everyone (even people like me with seriously nonstandard theologies), it did quite a bit of social gospel work and it had a cell group structure into which I slotted myself. I do massively better in groups of 5 to 10 than I do in larger gatherings, and I really like studying scripture and sharing interpretations of it and reactions to it.

Over the next three years I helped with another 7 Alpha courses, assuming that by “helped” you include not only the grunt work but casting some doubt in discussion on most of the apologetics used. However, the people running the Alphas changed, and with them went a positive wish to engage alternative perspectives. The previous Alpha coordinators went off to seminary (which may be a good sign for the future of the clergy!) and my home group disintegrated, with several members going off to other churches. It seemed that the season when it was right for me to be there had passed…

What I learn from the article I link to is that increasingly, Anglican churches are going to fit the mould of St. Mikes and its like. This is something about which I am a little ambivalent.

The plus side is that they are very welcoming to the “seeker” and the new member, at least initially, and in at least some cases are prepared to accept people with divergent theologies as long term members of their communities. They stand some chance, through Alpha, of markedly increasing the number of self-identifying Christians, and could at least conceivably provide congregations with the size and diversity to cope with a variety of styles of worship and, just possibly, even a variety of styles of theology – it would not need much tweaking of their structures to achieve the last of these, but might need a lot of tweaking of their attitude to theology. They also have enough young people to make social gospel endeavours practical (which by and large they are not for ageing congregations in expensive-to-maintain structures), and they definitely have the will to do that.

However, they have not at least so far, so far as I can see, implemented the changes which would be needed to accommodate variant theologies, and they are producing significant numbers of people who think that “The Gospel” is basically just Penal Substitutionary Atonement. I can recall the confusion caused in one young and enthusiastic  church worker when I said I didn’t much like PSA, and he said “but that’s the Gospel…”, so I outlined another six or seven atonement theories to him and pointed out that none of them was actually part of any of the Anglican statements of faith.

The sponsorship by churches in the HTB mould of new seminaries such as St. Melitus (mentioned in the article) and St. Barnabas (my more local version) seems to me likely to produce generations of “ones size fits all” theologies in clergy, and it has definitely seemed to me that St. Mikes was moving in that direction.

And I have difficulty feeling at ease in such a congregation, as do a lot of people who would now describe themselves as “post evangelical”, “liberal” or “radical”. Unless they are open to the idea that people may have very differing theologies from the standard evangelical rubric, they will continue to make uneasy, alienate or exclude all of these strands of Christian thought, and by and large, however apparently welcoming of variant viewpoints they may be in Alpha discussions, at root they are not open to this; the way is extremely narrow which leads to salvation for them (Matt. 7:14) rather than the father’s house having many mansions (John 14:2) or Jesus having other flocks (John 10:16).

Looking to the future, then, what is going to become of those whose thoughts either start to move beyond the evangelical model or which cannot bring themselves anywhere close to it in the first place? Are there going to be no churches, or even no communities, where they can find a home, at least not within Anglicanism – and the same may well apply to Christianity more generally?

I suppose that to some extent, this post is a lament. For many years I used to say that in respect of the church, I was like a flying buttress – I supported it, but from outside. For a while with St. Mikes, I felt more inside than outside – and now I feel outside again.

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The incoherence of the philosophers?

September 2nd, 2016
by Chris

I came across an “In Our Time” in which Melvyn Bragg discusses Averroes, the 12th century Muslim philosopher from Cordoba, with, inter alia, Peter Adamson of the History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. I recommend both.

One point I particularly take away is this. Islam had, in the twelfth century, discovered the works of the ancient Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle, and had started translating these into Arabic (a practice which, mostly via the incredibly tolerant culture of al-Andaluz (Andalucia) in which for a brief period Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together and sparked off each others’ works, introduced the Christian West to Aristotle, who had been largely forgotten about).

This concerned a theologian called al-Ghazali, writing in Baghdad. Al-Ghazali wrote a work against Aristotle (who he thought was dangerous to Islamic faith) called “The Incoherence of the Philosophers”, thus making himself a philosopher as well as a theologian – you can’t attack philosophy as a discipline without, ironically, being a philosopher yourself.

Averroes was engaged in writing commentaries on Aristotle, which were so influential that some centuries later Thomas Aquinas referred to Averroes as “The Commentator” and quoted him extensively. Not surprisingly, Averroes didn’t always agree with al-Ghazali, and wrote a rebuttal called “The Incoherence of the Incoherence”. However, on some things he did agree with al-Ghazali, but attributed that to faults in the interpretation of Aristotle by Avicenna, a Muslim philosophical giant of the previous century…

Don’t you just love philosophers?

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Arguing with God

August 30th, 2016
by Chris

Here’s another address from the excellent Rabbi Brad Artson, which I strongly recommend.

In a recent discussion, someone said that they really liked the way Judaism grapples with its texts – and I completely share that feeling. R. Artson talks at one point about what he is saying not being dismissible as a modern liberal interpretation – because it’s an ancient liberal interpretation… would that Christianity preserved its arguments and counter-arguments between scholars in their entirety, rather than having to have one become “orthodox”.

Also, it’s reinforced for me by R. Artson’s words that Rabbinic students need to learn their scriptures really thoroughly – and then apply them in the spirit of the rabbinic tradition, which always argues and always develops. Sadly, although some Christians do know their scripture this well, those who do seem always to be incredibly conservative in their outlook, and are therefore pretty much immune to any process of argument, counter-argument and owning the scriptures (through their interpretations) as a co-production with the original authors and with God.

I think I need to go away and study a bit more…

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