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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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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