Are we going backwards?

January 2nd, 2018
by Chris

There’s an account of an interview with James Kugel here; James has written a book called “The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times”, which has among its theses that not only did people in Biblical times think of themselves less as individuals and more as members of a body (a tribe or people), but that also their consciousness was (and this is my words not his) more permeable to having experiences of God, or angels, or other supernatural entities.

These two might well be aspects of the same difference in psychology; as I’ve written before, in the mystical experience, one hallmark is the breakdown of the barrier between “me” and “other” – the sense of self becomes amorphous, and in peak experiences virtually disappears (the consciousness of unity with all things). If he’s correct (and I have a sneaking suspicion he is), this argues that, on average, the consciousness of human beings has contracted over the last couple of thousand years, from something which could identify with at least a sizeable group of people as being in some sense “me”, and possibly something much wider than that (God, for instance) to something locked up in individual skulls.

I’ve written about the “fall” as the advent of self-consciousness (and thus self-centredness, which I regard as the “original sin”); I’ve written about God encouraging dependency rather than individualism and my writing is massively informed by the mystical dissolution of the boundary between self and other. I am also writing a sporadic series about tribes, which are not necessarily a good thing, given that they promote “us-v-them” thinking.

What I fear, here, is that whereas Kugel describes a society in which the larger group, in particular the Israelites, is the primary identifier for someone, before they are an individual, and one in which a consciousness of something beyond even that is common, we are now looking at a society in which the individual is the basic identifier (promoted by neoliberal economics, I may say, which is one reason why I criticise that so much), and if horizons expand beyond that, it is to the tribe (or political group, or religion, or nation, or – well, whatever other identity group or intersection of groups you choose) rather than to anything wider.

I fear, in other words, that we are progressing inexorably in the wrong direction, despite people talking about new dawns of spirituality and the expansion of consciousness. This may be the case in a relatively small group, but the vast bulk of people? In my nation, at least, we are far less communitarian than we were when I was growing up, and the mechanism to encourage any broader consciousness is not clear to me. I can write, I suppose, but I have only a small audience…

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Contemplating endings

January 1st, 2018
by Chris

On the Wednesday before Christmas, I spent an hour or so visiting an old friend – well, maybe not that old, as he isn’t a pensioner yet, but we did go to the same schools from age 5 until I changed schools at 13, and after that we were members of the same organisation dealing in what might be called esoteric philosophy for some time, and also of several groups interested in the more arcane aspects of religion and spirituality. I’ve been making a point of calling round on him, or inviting him over, recently, as he was diagnosed with brain cancer last December, and had part of his brain removed on Christmas Eve 2016; he immediately had his driving licence recalled, and so has been feeling a bit trapped and isolated at home. After the surgery he started chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which finished fairly recently. He’s one of those friends who lives quite close to me, but before the cancer, we didn’t actually meet all that often. However, when we did it was as if we’d never had fairly long periods during which there was no contact. I was determined not to let him go without conversation, assuming he wanted it – and, apart from during the chemo weeks, it turned out he did. I’ve had too many friends and family members taken away by the big C in the last few years, and in at least a couple of cases we were going to get together for ages – and then it was too late.

I did mention to him, the first time I went round this year, Jason Michaeli’s book “Cancer is Funny” – I am firmly of the opinion that some things are so serious that it’s necessary to make jokes about them (much in the style of the M*A*S*H film and TV series, set in a field hospital in the Korean War), and commented that I thought I was aiming at collecting a “full set” – I’ve had friends die of lung, kidney, pancreas, bowel and lymphatic cancers, so adding brain cancer maybe made “Happy Families”… However, he regards my Christianity with some amusement – he moved from where we pretty much both were back in the 1970s to become a Practical Kabbalist with a sizeable dash of Buddhist practice, and his wife is a Buddhist/Wiccan, while I gently slid into Christianity. Jason’s subtitle is “Keeping Faith in Stage Serious Chemo”, and in conscience he wouldn’t resonate with the faith in question (I still think there might be commonalities, but he’d have to read through the strong Christian framework to find it. Actually, I was one of a group of three both at home in Selby and up in Durham who were involved with “the esoteric” during my late school and early university days; this friend ended up a Kabbalist, the other from home ended up Wiccan and the two others from Durham endede up Zen Buddhist and agnostic respectively, so I can understand his amusement!

In a spirit of radical honesty, I should say that my visit on Wednesday had an ulterior motive (or, at least, the timing of it did); we were just in the last week of having some work done to the house (so there were workmen with attendant random hammering and sawing in the house), and my wife had had the bright idea of getting in some cleaners to “bottom” the main part of the house, so that was full of cleaners (and random vaccuuming and talking). Or, at least, it seemed full to me. I have an anxiety disorder, and having people I don’t know really well in the house is one of the triggers for that; my wife had also just got out of hospital on Sunday after an operation the Friday before, and I was anxious about that (and, in particular, about what being knocked out after the operation would do to her mental stability – she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, otherwise known as Unstable Mood Disorder). That, of course, makes the timing of the cleaners visit typical – the idea was excellent (the results are splendid, and the house looks great for Christmas), but the timing was a bit “off” – particularly as, having cleaners coming, we had both felt the need to scurry around tidying the day before; she in particular was supposed to be taking it completely easy after the operation, and tying her to a chair seemed out of the question!

The result was that, on Wednesday, I craved getting away from home for a bit of time to get away from anxiety triggers.

Anyhow, our conversation was wide-ranging, but some of it revolved round commonalities between us – my depression, for instance, seems to have deleted some of my memories, or at least made them inaccessible (at its peak, I couldn’t understand any more what “happy” was; I’d forgotten – and when people suggested I recall times when I’d been happy, I couldn’t, possibly because the memory included the happiness and that wasn’t something my brain was doing any more). He has some memory holes arising out of the brain surgery – and in both our cases, in recovery, bits and pieces of memory are returning.

We also talked again about what for many people he meets is the “elephant in the room”. He is, deo gratias, beating the odds he was originally given both for recovery from the operation and for his survival, though the cancer is not completely gone, and the expectation is still that he has months rather than years. Brain cancer is different from all the others which friends have suffered from; there are no pain receptors in the brain, so he is in absolutely no pain (though, of course, chemo and radiation tended to make him feel sick, and he compains of much reduced energy levels, something which also afflicts me.

We’ve talked about the process of dying before, but this time I was thinking about the subject anyhow; I’ve recently seen my GP, having contracted a bad cold and that having interacted with my Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease to make me really quite ill (colds or flu, for me, tend to become pneumonia and be life-threatening). He strongly suggested (as all my doctors have) that I give up smoking – I’m an asthmatic to start with, so smoking was a bad idea from day one, but now the almost inevitable consequence of COPD has arrived, it’s an even worse idea. He said that these days most men (in the UK, at least) live until 84, which would be another 20 years; unless I give up smoking, I’m unlikely to. Then again, it’s the time of the year when we tend to think of endings and beginnings in any event, as well as being the prime time for funerals at the church (my parents died in November and December, going for the popular option for perhaps the first times in their lives).

As it turns out, though as far as I’m aware he isn’t technically a mystic (though he’s well versed in meditation, and I will probably quiz him about his experiences in that direction the next time we get together), he shares my more or less complete lack of worry about the fact that I am going to die sometime. My initial peak experience (confirmed by several since) makes me entirely confident that, upon death, I will again be “one with God”, and that is something to be anticipated rather than feared. I’ve written about this before – I fail to understand those who (like Freud) think that fear of death is one of the huge motivators of human psychology – and if it’s a matter of the “control freak” fear of not being in control, I sleep every night – well, most nights, at least, and while asleep am most definitely not in control – and, indeed, being asleep is, as far as I can see, pretty much equivalent to being dead (aside Shakespeare’s worry in Hamlet “but in that sleep of death, what dreams may come – aye, there’s the rub” – I remember relatively few of my dreams anyhow, and as I still have lingering PTSD, that is an altogether good thing from my point of view).

There’s also the fact that I shouldn’t have been alive at any time after 3rd December 2006 to consider, that being the date when I mustered enough anger at my chronic depression to make my most serious attempt to put a permanent end to it. Although I researched the dose of pills which would be needed beforehand, it didn’t actually kill me. As a friend in the recovery community says, I’ve been “playing with house money” ever since then (I might suspect he has a gambling issue as well as one with several substances); I prefer to think of it as “extra time” or, maybe, “borrowed time”. There’s a particular quality to the experience of deciding entirely seriously to end your life, and then finding out that it is continuing anyhow which is unlike any other (much as the mystical experience is unlike any other, though that’s about the only thing the two share); if I hadn’t lost any fear of death I once had due to peak mystical experience, I think it would have vanished at that point. It gives a peculiar sensation of freedom, if only in that, having gone there once, you know the way and are not likely to be worried by the scenery.

My friend shares the rest of those points of view; as we agreed, we don’t fear death at all – though, on the whole (with Woody Allen) we don’t want to be there when it happens. Our mutual fear, it turns out, is living on with severely reduced mental capacities. His cancer is itself eating bits of his brain, albeit slowly, and if he has another surgery (which is definitely being suggested), that will take more instantly. I have already seen what a complex set of psychological disorders can do to my thinking, and I wouldn’t wish severe clinical depression on my worst enemy; also, as I very much “live in my head”, the idea of failing cognition really scares me. Perhaps it shouldn’t, as one might conclude that if the cognition has faded, you won’t realise the state you have degenerated into – but I have memories of my late father-in-law in the latter stages of multiple infarct dementia. Most of the time the Geoffrey we used to know just wasn’t there, but just occasionally he would have a lucid interval – and then, being a retired senior Naval surgeon, he knew completely what was happening, and watching that happen was soul destroying. It made him very angry, as well (not surprisingly), and that anger often carried forward to when the cognition had gone. In addition, the fact that his body was still present even though (for the most part) the personality aand memories had gone was agonising to those who knew and loved him; having now lost all four of our respective parents, Geoffrey’s passing was by far the most painful – the other three managed to avoid long periods of illness before they died, and in my mother’s case, she died halfway through eating her bowl of fruit at the end of a meal – one suspects that she didn’t know what hit her!

I don’t want to end up like Geoffrey. Neither does my friend. Far better to emulate my mother.

But not just yet…


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Luther, Augustine, Paul and Peter (no, not that one…)

December 16th, 2017
by Chris

In Robert Sapolsky’s lecture on the biological underpinnings of religion (which I strongly recommend), one of the cases he talks of is that of a young monk called Luder, who from his correspondence clearly suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Luder is, of course, better known by us as Martin Luther, and Sapolsky goes on to suggest that Luther’s theology at least in part stems from his psychological condition.

It is reasonably easy to see that Luther’s insistence on “sola gratia” (grace alone) and his dismissal of any form of “works righteousness” could stem from OCD, which is characterised by never managing to do enough to meet the standards one has set for oneself. Luther was so against works righteousness, indeed, that he wanted at one point to remove the letter of James from the Bible (calling it a “gospel of straw”); James, of course, contains the statement “faith without works is dead”.

I open with Luther largely because we are remembering the 500th anniversary of him flyposting a church door. I would say “celebrating”, but that would imply that I thought highly of Luther; while I appreciate “priesthood of all believers” and opposition to the hierarchy of the Church and its failings, such as indulgences, there is far too much more about him which I shudder at, and what I think is his attempt to impose his OCD on the whole of Christianity ranks fairly high among them.

Luther followed in the footsteps of Augustine, who, some centuries earlier, had developed one of the concepts which Luther, as an obsessive-compulsive, would find so attractive, that of “original sin”. Luther appropriated the concept wholesale.

Augustine, of course, wrote at length in his “Confessions” about his problems with sex, notably his apparent inability to do without it, at least until his conversion. The first (and perhaps foundational) peccadillo he records is, however, stealing some fruit. “There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night—having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was—a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree.  We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.”(from Confessions, quoted by Hugh Kerr in “Readings in Christian Thought”).  From this, he formulated the idea that we were all driven by an irresistible urge to “sin”, which could only be negated by conversion.

Now personally, I do remember my early teens, and the occasional impulse to do things just because they were forbidden – but then I grew up, and that urge disappeared. I fancy most of us are rebellious as teenagers, and have similar urges, but then again I fancy most of us do not regard a “do not walk on the grass” sign as demanding that we do just that once we have reached, say, 20 or so. Well, maybe 30 or 40 for some people I know… Similarly, teenagers frequently seem to be endowed with overactive sex drives; I hesitate to suggest that Augustine might have gone beyond that into an actual addiction, but similarly most people I know grow out of that.

Has Augustine, I wonder, formulated his “original sin” theology (and the Western Church’s fixation on sexual sin) out of his own psychology, rather than (for instance) out of a more general anthropology than that of the sex-mad teenager? I suppose he was encouraged in his direction of thought by St. Paul, and most particularly by Romans 7.

Paul there talks of an inability to do what he wants to do (namely follow the Law assiduously), and generalises from that, just as Augustine does later, to a concept of “sin living within him” (which elsewhere he suggests can be dispelled completely by faith in Christ or, on another reading, by the faith of Christ). Again, however, I ask whether this is a general problem. While Paul does elsewhere boast of being blameless in respect of the Law, he goes on in Romans to paint the Law as something which no-one can adhere to completely and therefore as something which actually, in one sense, produces sin.

This is however problematic; not only does Paul suggest in Philippians that he in fact is entirely Torah-observant, but I have discussed this at length with many Orthodox Jewish friends who say there is no real difficulty in adhering to the Law scrupulously. Indeed, they point out to me the principle of a “fence around the Torah”, so they add to the number of restrictions in order not even to come close to breaking one of the 613 commandments which the Rabbis have extracted from the text, and the ultra-Orthodox go even further, trying to be super-observant in every particular. As they comment, this is a way of expressing their gratitude to God for his covenant with the Jewish people. Peter Enns discusses Paul and Augustine (and Adam) in this recent podcast.

Judaism, of course, has no concept of “original sin”, but considers that everyone has within them a good and an evil impulse or inclination, the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. This is a far cry from a fundamental inability to do good (or be law-abiding). One is tempted to speculate that the “thorn in his flesh” which Paul complains of elsewhere might have been OCD, though there have been many other speculations. OCD would certainly be, within Paul’s way of thinking which personified powers working against us as demonic, a good candidate, while physical ailments would not be.

That represents three giants of western theology who, I think, there are good grounds for suspecting of creating a general theology out of their own specific psychological quirks (to avoid using the term “abnormal psychology” with its pejorative connotations). Now, if (as Freud, one of the “masters of suspicion”, suggested) Christianity stems from a kind of pre-scientific attempt at therapeutic psychological intervention, these might represent valid but partial theologies; theologies tailored to particular psychologies. I have mentioned elsewhere, for instance, that while Penal Substitutionary Atonement is a theological device which I find deeply abhorrent, it is the only atonement theory which seems to resonate with a particular set of people, largely among the recovery communities, who have done things which they regard as fundamentally unforgiveable; I do not think it should ever be advanced to the more average believer as “the gospel”. However, we are not commonly offered the option of original sin and total depravity as being “special cases”; they are supposed to be universal theologies applicable to everyone. And they fail in this, as not everyone is a sex-obsessed adolescent, an addict or a sufferer from OCD.

There is, however, a strain of theology now popular in various flavours which (inter alia) often uses the psychological insights of Jacques Lacan, a controversial French Psychoanalyst of the last century. Peter Rollins is the exponent of such a theology (“Pyrotheology”) with whom I am most familiar, but Tad DeLay and Marcus Pound are two other well known examples. These insights, one might think, would be of general application. Psychoanalysis is, after all, supposed to analyse the psyche of all of us, not just those with particular psychological quirks…

Unfortunately, in much the same way as Freud decided that humanity was collectively obsessed with the penis (“A thing’s a phallic symbol if it’s longer than it’s wide, and the id goes marching on…”), Lacan considers that everyone is afflicted by the perceived loss of an original oceanic onness with one’s mother, which is not a loss at all, in reality, but a side-effect of the advent of the sense of self. This is always “self as distinct from the other”, because that’s how we think. To that extent, I think he’s right, though I also think that it is a real loss; the sense of self as radically connected to and without a fixed and immutable boundary with the rest of existence is something which is, to me at least, extremely desirable (though probably not to the exclusion of the sense of self altogether), but that is one of the gifts of peak mystical experience.

Where this line of thinking goes astray, I think, is to suggest that for everyone, everywhere, we strive to fill this perceived lack with other things, the something which will “make us whole again”. Rollins is particularly fond of this analysis, especially since going to live in Los Angeles, where everyone seems to him to be touting this or that meditative or contemplative practice, diet or exercise regime as filling the void, assuming for a moment that they realise that the pursuit of more money isn’t going to do that. Indeed, he criticises mainstream religion as proffering something to fill that lack – and much of Christianity would seem to agree with him, talking of the “God-shaped hole”. David Moffett-Moore says, in “Christian Existentialism” (Energion Publications, 2017) “It could be said that the psychology of Sigmund Freud is most relevant for us as young adults, when we are most strongly influenced by our hormones. Our sexuality is a strong part of our sense of self. The writings of Alfred Adler on the quest for power may be most appropriate for our middle years, when we are striving to pursue our careers and establish our families. Carl Jung says that every issue past midlife is essentially a spiritual issue, a question of meaning. So we can benefit by applying Freud to our younger years, Adler to our middle years, and Jung to our later years.” Psychologies are being applied there to those who fit the psychological profiles they are based on; I wonder whether a theology should similarly be based on individual quirks.

With Pyrotheology, I’m on less solid ground than in suggesting that theology for the OCD, for teenage rebels or the sexually obsessed is not capable of being a theology for all, because I suspect that a very great deal of human activity is exactly that, searching for something to fill a perceived lack in one’s own self. Again, that doesn’t well describe me; I wasn’t particularly looking for any magic solution to the problem of life, the universe, and everything (aside, of course, 42) up to my early teens, and when my initial peak unitive experience happened, that was exactly what I was looking to repeat – and unlike the Lacan/Rollins model, where the “lost thing” was never really lost, I knew full well that that particular gap could be filled, because it had been. However, I have not found very many people who testify to such peak experience (though many who testify to something rather less complete), and I concede that on that point, Rollins is probably talking of at least a majority experience (at least on the basis of the population of Los Angeles) and so may reasonably be advancing a theology of general application, even if it is not one which mystics can endorse.

That, however, is not the only major feature of Rollins’ Pyrotheology project. That carries the “lack” motif rather further, and proposes a theology of accepting a state of permanent unease, permanent dissatisfaction. He repeats with approval the Augustinian desire-as-created-by-prohibition (which I think Paul also preached in his theologising about Law and Faith), and carries that further in approving the rebel (who when asked “What are you against?” replies “What have you got?”) as against the revolutionary, who sees a fault in current systems and seeks to replace them with something better.

Now, I am much more a revolutionary than a rebel. I don’t believe in tearing things down unless I can propose something better to erect in their place, as a general rule, and I like to use the SMART system for tasks – they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited. Some of my readers will be astonished at me advancing such apparently conservative (with a small “c”) concepts, but I have always identified as a centrist – it’s just that the world appears to have shifted around me while I stay sceptical and critical, but against destruction for destruction’s sake.

Most people, I find, can relate to this viewpoint. The more conservative among us like the reluctance to endorse change for the sake of change (and, to my mind, the world is already changing at a rate which is too rapid for human wellbeing), the not-completely-radical appreciate the scepticism and critical approach but can get behind my wish for concrete solutions and, to be honest, moving by small increments rather than vast leaps into the unknown. I’m not against paradigm shift in principle, but such changes should happen no more than once a generation, and my generation has, frankly, already had its fill.

So, on balance, I think Rollins’ Pyrotheology is also a project which has application only to a relatively small percentage of the population, namely those who have preserved the adolescent tendency to rebellion. That may be a good thing, may be a bad thing; I have a sneaking suspicion that with the pace of change in the world as it is, it may be more good than bad. It cannot, however, be an universally applicable theology.

But then, I would argue, neither can the theologies of Luther, Augustine or even Paul.

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Burned by Pyrotheology

December 3rd, 2017
by Chris

(This post was actually written in around November 2016, but for some reason, probably because I wanted to polish it, not published at the time.)

I’ve engaged with Peter Rollins characterisation of what he describes as the “oceanic” experience which is a fundamental feature of mystical experience as a feature of psychosis before, but have just listened to him talk about this again, in which (describing his “Pyrotheology”) he describes the ontological and ontic lack as “original sin”, and have some further thoughts.

The first of these is that he is maybe not a million miles from my own characterisation of original sin, which I wrote about in “The Fall and Rise of Original Sin”, and “Falling Further”. We are both, it seems to me, talking about “original sin” as something formative of the self (or, in his words, the subject). Where we differ is that I see specifically self-consciousness as being the issue, whereas he sees lack as being the issue. I am actually unconvinced by Lacan’s identification of the dawn of self-awareness as equivalent to losing the “oceanic” sense of oneness with the “other”; I think, for instance, that most higher animals are well aware of their individuality without possessing (in at least the majority of cases) a real sense of themselves as a subject of scrutiny; there is no real feedback loop going on there, whereas there is in the case of humans, and it is that sense of self-as-subject which I identify as the source of “original sin” – the discrepancy between the actual self and the self-image we have of ourselves.

However, we both view this as something positive rather than something negative.

I do see him as being unduly dismissive of the mystical/oceanic experience of ultimate oneness as being merely transitory and, perhaps, nice while it lasts but ultimately of no real importance beside what he sees as the vital task of coping with the awful fact that we are separate from the world around us. Being a mystic (and impacted by the self-verifying character of mystical experience) I have little option but to see the experience of oneness with all, the dissolution of the boundaries which constitute us as a “self” or “subject” as being in some way “more true” than the experience of us as separate; at the very least, as equally true. Becauser I am at root a mystic, I value religious traditions first and foremost for their mystical traditions and their technologies of promoting mystical experience; Pete’s conception of radical theology is that it ignores this and concentrates on the complete absence of such experience, which he clearly regards as “more true”, and indeed seems to me to denigrate any attempt by religion to offer mystical oneness as something to be desired.

I think that is a mistake, and abandons a very large amount of what makes religion worthwhile. In particular, there is nothing in his version of radical theology which specifically promotes compassion, “loving your neighbour as yourself”. To use the terminology of AA (of which Pete is fond, in general terms) and the other 12 step programmes, while Pyrotheology is big on Step 1 (“we admitted that we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable”) it is not particularly conducive to Step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could relieve our insanity”) or Step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”); in terms of the Serenity Prayer, it maybe covers “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change” without addressing “And the power to change the things we can”.

It is very difficult not to love your neighbour as yourself when the boundary of what is your neighbour and what is yourself is nonexistent (in the fullblown mystical experience) or, to say the least, fuzzy (in the case of the partial consciousness of oneness which can be cultivated as a day-to-day and near constant experience by mystical practice). Some mystics, I confess, do seem to achieve this lack of concern for neighbour – I was a little horrified to hear, some years ago in a TV programme, a Hindu sage refuse to teach a westerner because it might damage their own consciousness of oneness with God (in that case, the unity of Atman and Brahman). It is not uncommon, as well, to find mystics separating themselves from humanity (as, for instance, monks or hermits) in order more fully to pursue mystical experience, I suspect partly because the overwhelming sense of compassion produced when in contact with other human beings, coupled with a limited or nonexistent ability to do anything much about it, is too distracting or too painful. Most modern mystics, however, seem to find a balance in which they can and do express love of neighbour, sometimes profusely – and if there is any message which stresses love of neighbour to the eventual exclusion of self-preservation, it is that of Jesus (“greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends”).

Of course the complete removal of any sense of division between the self and the rest of existence is not something which can be pursued except for very limited periods – it is completely impossible to function normally in the world with no such sense; as I tend to say, this results in you walking into lamp posts. It is, as Pete says, both wonderful and extremely scary (the end point has to be the complete extinguishing of the self). You have to return to the normal existence of distinguishing yourself from, for instance, the lamp post which you are, in the throes of a peak mystical experience, about to walk in to, or at least you do if you want to continue functioning as an individual in the world at large.

This brings to mind the fact that, to me, perhaps the most fundamental aspect of human thinking is the distinguishing of one thing from another. Thinking back to my school days, titles starting “compare and contrast” were perhaps the most common essays ever asked for. We define our political leanings, I find, more by what we are not than by what we are (in the recent US election, I could not under any circumstances have voted for Trump, therefore I would probably have had to vote for Hilary, despite her espousal of neoliberalism and closeness to banks and big business). A key saying in the development of Rabbinic Judaism was the phrase “not as the gentiles” when considering what being Jewish was about; Christianity in its turn moved rapidly away from Judaism having decided that Judaism was one thing which it “was not” (alongside paganism, inter alia).

The trouble with distinguishing the one from the other is that it inevitably sets up a binary opposition – both “contrast” and “compare” involve, unless we are very careful, value judgments as to which is preferable. Even if we are very careful, we run the risk of being accused of moral equivalence. We lose sight of the fact that (as the Taoist logo of two interlocked tadpole shapes, one black and one white, but each with an “eye” of the other colour) drives home, that each of a pair of “opposites” depends on and to some extent includes its opposite, and we fail to appreciate “excluded middle” fallacies. We also, in going binary (i.e. digital), lose the ability to “think analog”, i.e. appreciate that a massive amount of what we perceive is more spectral than divided; one thing shades into another without any clear division between the two.

Some strains of radical theology and the continental philosophy from which much of it stems do this to excess – not a million miles from Pete’s train of thought are thinkers who say that there is a fundamental rift in the structure of existence. This, to me, is the language of conflict, of opposition, and not of love and inclusion.

Opposition to such binaries is something which was picked up in a talk I recently heard by Richard Rohr (this link is to an interview with similar content). He sees the Trinity as an opportunity to break this binary thinking via the concept of perichoresis, which is something like “mutual indwelling” (analagous to the Taoist symbol); he sees Trinity as indicating that relationship is fundamental, rather than distinction. Rohr is, of course, a mystic, and I generally find it difficult to argue much with mystics. On this occasion, however, while I think that if you already have a concept of Trinity as fundamental to your understanding of God, Rohr’s meditation is a very good one, I do not think that a trinitarian concept is necessary to get away from the binaries and the “either/or” mentality. I also think that it leads to all sorts of conceptual problems, not to mention about half the heresies ever identified by the Church!

But I do think that mystical practice gets away from binary opposition. The essence of much mystical writing is “both/and”; the distinction of self and other is real, but so is the identity of self and other – and while it may be impossible to conceive both at the same time rationally (digitally), the mystic is forced to feel that both are simultaneously correct.

But it isn’t psychosis. Sorry, Pete!


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Sheep and goats

December 1st, 2017
by Chris

Adam Eriksen has written an interesting post about the Matthew 25 sorting into the sheep and the goats, in which he advances the thesis that salvation is there understood in the traditional way in which it was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures, namely as a collective salvation, something which happens to a nation rather than to the individual.

This is a deeply uncomfortable reading. I can largely control what I do myself, but my ability to influence what my nation does is extremely limited; my ability to influence what my town did was very limited even when I was a member of the town council, and I am much further from any means of influence in terms of national government than I was as a town council member. OK, I did have a year as mayor, during which I did have much more power to influence, as people listened to the mayor, but even then it was a power to influence rather than the power to implement.

However, if my nation is judged and condemned in the way Eriksen suggests may be happening (or about to happen) in the USA, one thing of which I can be certain is that the individuals making up the nation will suffer.

I don’t know about you, but personally I have a rooted objection to suffering as a result of what someone else does, when it’s something I would never have done myself and have argued strongly against (or voted against). There is, however, a powerful example of this in my own country at the moment. We voted (by a rather narrow margin) for Brexit. I can’t help feeling that the most major factor behind this was a wish NOT to welcome the stranger, i.e. to limit immigration, which is one of the categories which the Hebrew prophets (and the Law) was most adamant should be cared for. Admittedly, by a fairly considerable margin we also voted, a little earlier and then again a little later, for a set of representatives (members of parliament) who did not personally support Brexit, but our government is taking the view that “the people have spoken” and we have to leave the EU, and has invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which more or less guarantees that this will happen. And we will be judged, and will suffer. Notably, we will have to pay a large amount (the current figure stands at around £50 billion) as a “divorce settlement”, money which could have reversed the cuts to benefits and have funded the NHS and social provision adequately for several years, whereas the NHS is currently horribly stretched and social provision is being cut left right and centre, plus, under Mrs. May’s current proposals, paying for another two years worth of membership in something which we will have no further say in. In addition, economists are, on balance, predicting that Brexit will produce a drop in our GNP of 2-5% (some argue that it will be larger), and several large employers are leaving the country, and no doubt more will follow. The government’s response to this (which will severely affect their income from taxes) will assuredly be more austerity, more cuts to benefits, NHS and social care, and a country heading for more of exactly the failure to provide for the poor, the sick and the marginalised.

“Not my government, not my prime minister” sounds hollow – and it buys no tins to put in the food bank (prior to the narrow win of the Conservatives in 2010, there was no food bank locally, and probably little need for it – and I still have some animosity toward the party which I supported and stood as a candidate for for some 40 years, the Liberal Democrats, for supporting them in 2010-15).

The trouble is, it isn’t just Brexit which could precipitate a judgment on us. We are also very strongly linked with the USA economically and in foreign policy – it has been said of our economics that if America catches a cold, Britain has pneumonia – and we will also suffer if the USA suffers as a result of any of the matters which Eriksen raises. Most notably, we are militarily linked with a nation currently headed by as malignant narcissist who seems to have the emotional maturity of a 5 year old, and who could easily precipitate us into global conflict (insofar as we are not already in a global conflict with radical Islam). A malignant narcissist, what is more, who republishes material from our home-grown extreme right hate group, Britain First (who exemplify rather a lot of the traits for which nations can be judged), but claims to be “the leader of the free world”. While Mrs. May has criticised his use of Britain First’s material, she has not cancelled a state visit, and she has not taken steps to draw back from our uncritical support of American actions in world politics (and particularly the Middle East), which have generally been called a “special relationship”.

Not my President, not my leader of the free world, and not someone I think my country should have any dealings with. Let me put it in a way Adam Eriksen would probably balk at. If you lie down with pigs, you will end up covered in shit.

Or, of course, judged in an apocalypse…

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Cock-up rather than conspiracy

November 30th, 2017
by Chris

My facebook feed seems, at times, full of conspiracy theories these days. A recent essay lists some of the most prominent, and starts to suggest a psychology which gives rise to such ideas. A lot of the items in my feed are the result of one extremely intelligent facebook friend having, to my mind, dropped out of criticising the trends of modernity into something resembling outright paranoia.

I have some experience with government, albeit at a very local level; I also have some experience with uncovering wrongdoing in the police (systematic racism, in fact), and in investigating the cover-up of that – and then, as a result of some success there, being asked to investigate several other cases of alleged conspiracy and cover-up. This has led me to be extremely sceptical of any conspiracy theory which requires widespread participation by large number of people. By and large, I do not think such conspiracies can avoid the well-known tendency of secrets to slip out as soon as they are shared with more than one other person – and even one is dangerous. I am, however, always ready to entertain cock-up theories – organisations will always have people in them making mistakes (which is another reason to be sceptical of vast conspiracy theories – someone among the hosts of conspirators WILL make a mistake, and the more people who are involved, the faster the first mistake will occur, and the more mistakes will happen…)

Once a mistake has happened, however, there will very frequently be an attempt to cover it up. Perhaps this will be fairly innocent – the person who has made the mistake will try to put it right, and then pretend it never happened. More serious, but still not a conspiracy, the erring individual will try to blame someone else. However, most seriously, and particularly in organisations which attract a lot of loyalty from their members (and the police and the armed services are particularly strong in that characteristic, as, often, are political parties), other people will join in the cover-up because admitting it would make the organisation look bad. This is a particularly strong tendency, I have found, with people who are guilty of sexual offences – people in organisations have regularly turned a blind eye to these or just failed to take action, rather than produce negative publicity – it’s largely in that way that, in the UK, people like Jimmy Saville and Cyril Smith managed to get away with abusing children for many years. These are rarely conspiracies – people have generally not got together to agree to say nothing, they have just decided individually that it isn’t something they want to make a noise about.

That mechanism also operates to protect people who have deliberately acted in a reprehensible manner, for instance discrimination or petty harrassment fuelled by discrimination. If it is going to make the organisation, or the part of the organisation involved, look bad, other people will often feel that the harm to the reputation of the organisation outweighs the demands of justice and honesty and the harm to the individual and will try to minimise the action, to deny that it happened, or to cast blame somewhere else.

“Blame someone else” at that point often extends to the blackening of the character of the victim, as indeed it did in the first case I dealt with involving police corruption. If the person complaining can be shown to be “a bad person”, then their complaint can be ignored. That happened; the individual concerned was prosecuted and, in fact, jailed as a result of a train of fabricated statements, missing evidence and general bias. The trouble was, it wasn’t possible to prove conspiracy. All the people involved (with perhaps two exceptions) were motivated primarily by protecting the police rather than being induced by threat or reward to join in something which they knew was illegal; they didn’t get together and say “We need to fix this guy”, they just went along with what was happening. The problem was more systemic than it was a specific conspiracy.

It took over ten years of effort (by myself and many other people, among whom were a team from another police force) before a number of police officers were prosecuted or disciplined, and before the victim was fully vindicated and compensated. Even then, only about half the people who should have suffered sanctions actually did, and the amount of compensation was less than one might have wished. That makes me doubly suspicious of people who claim, without access to internal records, to have uncovered wide-ranging conspiracies within governments, and to have done that within hours of an event.

What does strike me, however, is that many of the allegations floating around the internet look a lot like blackening someone’s character in much the same way as was done with the victim in the case I started with. I have in mind particularly the venom which seems to be directed at Hilary Clinton. The current president is a self-admitted sexual abuser, but since his election there are suddenly claims that Hilary Clinton has been involved in even more serious sexual abuse, and people seem to be getting excited about that rather than about the fact that the person actually in power is someone who admits to abusing power. The pressing issue has to be the person currently in power, because they are in a position to continue abuse (and, in the case I’ve been referring to, it was to an extent sufficient that several policemen resigned, thus ensuring they wouldn’t repeat their own misuse of power, rather than being formally disciplined or prosecuted).

If there has, indeed, been historic abuse, obviously that should be investigated and, if proved, acted upon (though I have some sympathy with people who suggest that we should not be doing that many years after the event, and with various men in their 70s and 80s who find themselves in jail for things done 30 or 40 years ago; jail, especially for sexual offences, is an appalling place for the elderly). The thing is, in that particular case, given the fact that apparently approximately 50% of the population cordially detest Mrs. Clinton, it is inconceivable to me that a conspiracy could have covered up that kind of systemic misdoing, particularly given my comments about cock-ups. It’s extremely unlikely – and it diverts attention from the monstrosity of Trump.

I fear that my facebook friend, whose sympathies have most definitely historically lain on the left (and further left than I would ever be likely to go) is actually assisting the alt-right in sharing that particular conspiracy theory.


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God is not dead

November 17th, 2017
by Chris

Recently I was watching something (clearly forgettable, as I’ve forgotten what it was) on TV, and had a thought on hearing a father reading to his child, ending “and they lived happily ever after”.  The thought started with a memory of a BBC science fiction series of the late 70’s called “Blake’s Seven”. It was the 70’s, it was the BBC, and the budget massively failed to live up to the space opera setting, and the acting was a little lacking from time to time, but I really liked it – perhaps heretically, I actually liked it rather more than “Dr. Who”.

Anyhow, the last series ended with virtually the entire cast being killed, in a tableau vaguely reminiscent of the end of “Hamlet” (at least to anyone whose tastes run to both extremes of theatre, high and low), resulting in many of the series fans expressing outrage and/or anguish in letters to the editor in various places. The authors had very clearly made it impossible for there to be a fifth series (or so thought the fan base, although the Wikipedia entry suggests an avenue was still open, albeit without the title character, Blake). The story had, it seemed, conclusively ended – and fans were disappointed.

What struck me, though, was that the words “and they lived happily ever after” also finish a story conclusively. There is no more to be told. The story is, if you like, dead, even if the characters (unlike the appearance of the end of Blake’s Seven) live on.

Being a theology nerd, this made me think of the common concept of God put forward by philosophical theologians in the West fairly consistently between Augustine and sometime in the 18th century (at the earliest), and which agreed pretty closely with the concept of God reached by Greek philosophy. God, it was argued, is perfect, and therefore possesses the quality of aseity (being entirely complete in and of itself), is unchanging (as any change from perfection is argued to be impossible while remaining perfect) and is therefore impassible, i.e. incapable of being emotionally moved by any outside influence.

I’ve long thought that this may look like good philosophy, but doesn’t resemble the God of love, who has mercy, sometimes changes his mind (e.g. in the book of Jonah) and can be swayed by argument (e.g. when Abraham argues for the sparing of Sodom) who is described in the Bible, nor a God to whom there is any point in praying. Here, however, was another angle.

If indeed God were perfect, unchanging, impassible, then God’s story would be at an end. God would, in effect, be dead – not in the sense of Niezsche’s madman running through the streets saying “God is dead, and we have killed him”, but in the sense of being inert, non-living and rather less relational than a brick.

To a mystic (and thus a panentheist) or anyone who espouses process or open and relational theology, this is not God – God has to be capable of the statement “God is love” having the deepest possible reason; instead of the “unmoved mover” of classical Western theology, God is the most moved mover – God is radically immanent, radically present to all events, and if not moved by them, is not God.

So, I assert that “God is not dead”.

Not in the sense of the film of that name (which is worth a trip to avoid seeing), but in the sense that God is in relation to and is moved by everything and everyone in creation.


(This post first appeared, mutatis mutandis, on the Way Station blog)

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In non-essentials, liberty…

October 19th, 2017
by Chris

Peter Stanley blogs at “Outside the Goldfish Bowl of Christian Religion”, and as someone still critically examining faith at 82, gives me hope for the future! He has recently republished a piece by Andy Vivian which took my attention.

Vivian sets out to identify four strands of “Progressive Christianity”, which are “Evolutionary Spirituality” (referencing John Spong), “Emerging Church” (referencing Brian McLaren, with a mention of Marcus Borg, although I question whether putting Marcus in this category is at all helpful), “Radical Theology” (referencing Peter Rollins) and “Atheistic Christianity” (referencing Greta Vosper). He does clarify that he is referring to PCN conference speakers here, and states “For the sake of simplicity, I’ve divided them into four strands or paradigms, but the boundaries between them are diffuse so please don’t take the titles too seriously.” No doubt he expects by that to deflect the criticism that dividing Christians into groups is at least potentially a counterproductive thing, but nevertheless he is doing it.

Dividing Christians into groups is clearly a tendency which was established very early, as Paul talks about it (and argues against it). Indeed, although in the West we tend to think for a large slice of our history of “One Church”, this being the Catholic Church, there were plenty of early divisions, and although at least the fiction of a single Christian church was maintained until Catholic and Orthodox separated finally in the eleventh century, ostensibly over a point of trinitarian doctrine which most these days find absurdly trivial but in truth more over the issue of whether there should be one Pope or multiple patriarchs of whom the Bishop of Rome was only one, in fact there were several other strands of Christianity, usually referred to as “oriental”, such as the Coptic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which were not part of this. Nonetheless, until the Reformation (the anniversary of which we celebrate this year, though “celebrate” has too upbeat a ring for my taste), there were only two major “denominations”, and they were not massively dissimilar – indeed, had the filioque and the status of the Pope been finessed, there might well only have been one Church of major extent. Then, of course, Luther came along with the concept of “sola scriptura” and the “priesthood of all believers”, and the result was  a splintering of the church, to the effect that there are now over 41,000 Christian denominations.

I actually think that there are more strands than Vivian identifies, and would particularly mention Open Theism and Process Theology, which the AAR lump together as “Open and Relational”, though those do find room for serious discussion, as a Homebrewed Theology live podcast recently demonstrated. Nonetheless, as Rachel Held Evans commented at the end of that podcast, they may have differences, but they are happy to acknowledge each other’s points of view as valid – and to get tipsy together.

This, I think, well illustrates the saying of Marco Antonio Dominis quoted in this Biologos piece, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The question is, what are to be regarded as “essentials”. I wonder whether some help can be found in a new book by Philip Clayton, which is a follow-up to his book “The Predicament of Belief”, which I strongly recommend (I haven’t yet bought the new one, but it’s on my wish list!). He talks about it in this podcast, and makes, I think, a good case for us all to go away and ascribe a set of numbers to the strength of our beliefs.

As for myself, I definitely fall within the category of “Liberal Christian”, at least when it is opposed to terms like “Conservative Christian”, but I also find quite a bit of identification with people who are comfortable with the “Progressive Christian” label. The thing is, I wouldn’t really say that I was in the camp of any of Spong, McLaren, Rollins or Vosper. Yes, I think spirituality is evolving, yes, I think something which has the potential to be a “new thing” is “emerging” from Christianity, yes, I am sometimes extremely radical in my thinking about scripture and God (although not in quite the same way that “Radical Theology” is normally couched, given that it stems from the “Death of God” concept emanating from Nietzsche and made famous by Thomas Altizer) and yes, I can reasonably be described as atheistic, if that is the appropriate term for someone who does not believe that God wears his knickers outside his tights, as I tend to put it – the picture of God as an intervening super-superhero (hence the knickers and the tights…) who constantly intervenes in a way contrary to established natural processes. I have time for all those thinkers, however – and others, such as Tom Oord in the “Open Theism” camp and, of course, Philip Clayton (see above), who is a Process Theologian.

The thing is, using Philip Clayton’s 1-6 rating of beliefs, most of what I believe in terms of theology is down in the 4-6 region. I have certainty that God exists (for some value of “God”), so that is, perhaps, my only relevant belief rated “1” (I wouldn’t even rate as a “1” the proposition that “I exist” – that’s at best a 2 or a 3…). I can entertain viewpoints which seem to conflict (hey, I’m a Theoretical Physicist if you take my University degree as defining, so I grew up with wave-particle duality…), and I tend to find that most people in the “Progressive” camp are at least tending in that direction. I shudder at the viewpoint I saw in an article a little while ago, which suggested that the first and most fundamental thing we should fix is a “doctrine of God” – I may be certain that God exists, but I at least strongly suspect (maybe a 3 or a 2) that human brains are fundamentally incapable of a full understanding of God, so any “doctrine of God” is going to be wrong. That is the last thing which we should be claiming is an essential and demanding unity on!

So, less essentials, please. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Christian who can be called “Progressive” is a willingness to consider more stuff to be non-essential. Vivian illustrates what he regards as “Progressive” by saying “The concept of an all-powerful, heavenly Divine, who intervenes in our fate is no longer credible. The time-honoured Christian narrative of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is at best a poetic myth.” I would respond that he is being far too prescriptive there. Yes, I agree with his first sentence – I cannot bring myself to believe in an interventionary God in the supernatural Theist mould. But “at best a poetic myth”? As Philip Clayton would put it, the idea of a God who sends his Son into the world to save it, is not less than a poetic myth (a 6 on Clayton’s scale). But it might be more than that, and in conscience, a poetic myth is already an incredibly powerful thing…

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Board games and economies

October 13th, 2017
by Chris

Among my interests which have so far not come up on this blog is board games. I’ve liked board games since I was in primary school. I’ve had flirtations with other games – I’ve spent quite a bit of time playing bridge, for instance; I went through a phase in my teens and early 20’s of liking table top wargames a lot; I did a lot of fantasy RPG play back when the concept was very novel and I’ve played a lot of computer games in my time, but I keep coming back to board games, and in that category tend to like the ones which have at least a nodding acquaintance with some aspect of reality (so chess and go are not high up my list) as well as preferring those without massive amounts of chance (so generally not games involving a lot of dice throwing). Wednesday night is games night here, and most Wednesdays a small group of friends gather with me to play the board game of the moment.

This post is going to involve a lot of talk about games, but it is also going to touch on economic, politics and even maybe a little religion – so non game players may not actually want to stop reading just yet!

For some time now, that has been a game called 1817. This is a fairly recent development in a family of games which revolve around building railways (and making money in the process) which started with 1829, a game set in England (with a later extension covering Scotland), the name being taken from date of the first passenger-carrying railway. I’ve had a copy for a long time! The same game designer, Francis Tresham (who also designed one of my other favorite boardgames, Civilisation, which deals with the rise of civilisations in Mesapotamia and points West of there) then cooperated with others to produce 1830 (the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio RR), which was set in the Eastern United States, and had rules which were far more slanted towards financial manipulations than were those of 1829.

Tresham is one of those game designers whom hobbyists love; he was entirely open to having enthusiasts produce other games using the same basic mechanics, and there are now an absolute host of 18xx games produced by other people, usually with the last two numbers being the date of foundation of the first passenger railway in the country the game is set in – the main Italian game, for instance, is 1841.

1817 is also set in the Eastern USA, but the date comes not from an early railway, but from the date of foundation of the New York Stock Exchange. As you might guess from that fact, it’s possibly the most financially complex of the set so far, having advanced concepts like short-selling shares. It’s also more random than any of the big titles in the 18xx series previously, with players starting their railways in any available station (not one already taken by another player save one double station and one location, New York, with two startpoint station places), whereas the norm is to have fixed, historical locations. It’s taken the 18xx gaming world by storm – at some recent conventions, more than half the games played were 1817.

I’m also a compulsive tinkerer with games, as are a couple of the other Wednesday players. Tresham’s “Civilisation”, for instance, involved a map of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa cut off to the North at around Switzerland, to the West at around the boundary between Italy and France and to the East in Western Iran, and after a little while it acquired an authorised extension map which took the Western boundary to approximately Gibraltar. Those boundaries seemed far too arbitrary to me – after all, Roman civilisation extended throughout Spain and into Britain, and Greek civilisation at one point extended all the way to the Indus valley in what is now Pakistan. So there is in existence a set of extensions designed by me which do include much of the British Isles, all of Spain and the rest of Iran – and no, they aren’t available commercially. There were good game-play reasons why the board was truncated where it was, as I found out in trying to keep the gameplay sensible, and although my extension does allow and additional two civilisations to be played above even those in the extended game, very few people want to try to assemble even the seven players needed for a full game of the original.

By the time I bought a copy of 1817, my Wednesday group had been playing 1830 for a while, but a significantly altered 1830. Many years ago, when Avalon Hill was still producing 1830, they also produced a DOS computer game of the same name, and one of the features of that was that you could have a random map, which I fancied seeing for the board game. I had played around for some years with mechanisms for producing an at least somewhat random map for the game (as had another of our group), and about three years ago I came up with a scheme involving triangles of 6 hexagons which could be shuffled and dealt into a larger hexagon with a set of border pieces and a single centre hex, plus the ability to start railways anywhere on the map (which is now a feature of 1817) and a wrinkle on the ideas of private companies in the base game which added to the randomness. It was a real hit with our Wednesday group, and we’d been playing it (with some slight adjustments to the map pieces to improve balance and playability along the way) more or less exclusively when 1817 came along.

1817 took over. However, after we’d played it for a couple of months, one of our regulars said “Chris, why don’t you do a random map for 1817?” So I did that, and that’s what we’ve been playing on since then. Then someone else suggested we try simluating the westward expansion of US railways in a second phase of building, so we now have a double-hex map with a second set of private companies…

All this tinkering with games and their mechanics has taught me a number of things. Firstly, where a game includes maps, the maps have been very carefully designed to avoid obvious winning positions based on the topography – games are no fun if the only factor is who gets to start! I spent months tinkering with the Civilisation map to ensure that all the start locations had a decent fighting chance of doing well, and even more designing the random map sections for 1830 and then 1817. A game is only fair if you don’t have huge advantages from the start (or alternatively if huge start advantages can be easily circumvented – there are some games where this is the case). Secondly, if you’re trying to design a game which has a long playing time (and both Civilisation and the 18xx games typically take 5-10 hours), you have to be very careful to design mechanics which prevent someone getting an early advantage which is impossible for other players to overcome – and you have to do that through carefully crafted sets of rules, not (for instance) by just saying that everyone in a multi-player game has the same chances of making bargains with others as does any other player. Although there isn’t all that much luck in the 18xx games, there is definitely some – mostly based on where you are in the turn order compared with other players. I’ve mentioned avoiding the first player being able to take a prime position which can’t be matched by others, but in addition the player whose turn is immediately after someone who makes a mistake in game play is typically the one who can capitalise on that mistake.

In chess or go, of course, there are only two players, so it matters a lot less that a single mistake can cost a game – in multiplayer games a single mistake can still cost a player the game, but it can also win the game for another who has done nothing to deserve it other than being in the right place at the right time. Or it can lead to a player being eliminated very early, and having nothing to do but watch the other players for the next few hours, which is also something which game designers are going to want to avoid. Typically, therefore, in multiplayer games you want to have mechanisms in the rules to let players recover from mistakes, and to ensure that someone who is a beneficiary of such a mistake doesn’t run away with the game as a result of that.

In other words, you need a lot of carefully crafted rules in order to have a fair game which carries on for a long time. If you want a game which allows someone to come into it after it’s been running for a while (which we haven’t done in the 18xx games, but which I have considered for other games), you need to have additional rules in order to give the new player a sensible chance of not getting knocked out pretty much immediately – giving them the resources someone had at the start of the game absolutely doesn’t work, because other players will have built up far greater resources than that. Without such rules, even if a new or existing player has a wonderful idea which can improve their position massively, the inertia of others who have massively more resources is impossible to overcome.

With that in mind, I look at the naive suggestion by neoliberals that the “free market” should be shorn of any rules, and see in that a recipe for a “game” which eliminates “players” fairly quickly, leaves them little or no chance of “getting back into the game” and equally prejudices anyone who comes late to the “game”. It doesn’t even have the benefit of an end-point at which you can say “George has won”, after which you pack up the game and, perhaps, start another where everyone has an equal chance at the beginning. It condemns an increasing number of the players to sitting on the sidelines watching others and having no real stake in what is going on. In a financial game like 1817, money makes more money, eventually more or less irrespective of how well a player is playing – unless there are rules to stop that happening, to deliver some penalty for “bad play” – and that is equally what happens in “free market economies” unless they are well-regulated. As the author of this article comments, “Right now, the economic game is enormously fun for far too few players, and an increasingly miserable experience for many others.”

Our Wednesday group is a fairly friendly group, and in fact the better players frequently deliberately don’t make use of opportunities which having vastly greater resources gives them, particularly if that would result in bankrupting another player and thus removing them from the game (a smaller group does occasionally get together for a more cutthroat game in which bankruptcies are very common – but even then tends to declare the game won after any particularly sensational coup which produces an obviously winning situation, so as to relieve the loser from the burden of being a spectator only for some hours). This is, of course, conduct which in the real world, practising neoliberal economics with the dictum that the only responsibility of directors is to maximise shareholder value, would be horribly penalised. The share price of a company run like that would fall hugely, and the directors would be sacked… But it reflects a compassion which neoliberal economics regards as a fault (and, of course, Christianity regards as a virtue), as well as the self-interested motive of retaining the other players’ interest so that you have people to play with next week.

And having people to play with next week is something which neoliberal economics doesn’t take into account, even via the mechanism that, if you grind down all the other players enough, you will have a monopoly (all the money in the game), but you will have no-one able to buy your product any more. Indeed, the end of each game has a player in what is either a monopoly position or which, if continued long enough, one which will become a monopoly position – and a monoply (or, in the real world, more often a cartel) is the inevitable end point of these economic games – and where there is a monopoly or cartel, the “free market” no longer exists. Unlike a board game, you don’t pack up the economy and start from scratch next week.

Against my neoliberal friends, therefore, I can say with complete confidence that in order for there to be a free market, you need rules (i.e. government regulation) and in order for it to stay a free market you need more rules, as a free market is inherently an unstable thing.


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The mechanics of mysticism?

October 1st, 2017
by Chris

Thanks to James McGrath for pointing me at this article, which sets out at least a partial neurological mechanism for mystical experience.

The question has to be, of course, does this in any way negate such experience? I think the answer has to be “no”; it is trivially obvious that mystical experience occurs in the brain of the person experiencing it, and so there are going to be neurological processes involved – and these researchers have, perhaps, pinpointed one of those. Indeed, though they don’t yet have an answer for why such experiences are ecstatic (“better than sex, drugs and rock & roll” as I tend to put it), sooner of later I expect an answer to that as well.

The mechanics of neurology are, however, never going to determine the content of such experience, any more than dissecting an eye tells you about what you see in front of you. Admittedly, the content which is capable of being communicated after the event is fairly small (and trying to communicate the content during the event is one of the surest ways I know of stopping it in it’s tracks), but I have to believe the powerful sense that there is a LOT more content than that, were my brain capable of reducing it to intelligible language.

OK, maybe that is a side-effect of the fact that the experience is hugely self-verifying, at least in it’s fullest expression. But what mechanism self-verifies experience? I am not, frankly, used to experiences which do that, being a confirmed sceptic…

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