Posts Tagged ‘Autobiography’

Timings at Lincoln – pushing boundaries

August 13th, 2016

I spent Thursday and Friday at the excellent Timings event in Lincoln. I just couldn’t resist the prospect of hearing (and hopefully meeting in the flesh) Rob Bell and Peter Rollins; there was a third speaker, Roger Bretherton, of whom I hadn’t heard – but how could he be bad when in that company?

And indeed, he wasn’t bad in the slightest, except perhaps in Michael Jackson language. He’s a psychologist who is also a reasonably well-known Christian . I probably actually learned more from him than from the two speakers I’d actually gone to see – but then, I’ve followed both of them online for ages, bought their books and had a pretty good idea of much of their material. With Roger, I had no idea.

His first talk went into character strengths (as opposed to character flaws, which he said psychologists were more typically interested in), and involved audience participation. We were asked to pick someone in the audience we didn’t already know and who was preferably somewhat “high risk” and talk to them, first about a success we’d had, then about a failure – and in each case, identify in the other’s story character strengths (or in the second case, excess of them…). I have to thank Graham for being my “threatening other” – he’s pretty unthreatening, but I was in a room of 100 or so people I didn’t know, and ALL of them were threatening. For readers who don’t know, I score very high on tests for introversion, and on top of that have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and groups of people are a particular problem. I was always going to have difficulties – but as Roger shared from his own experience of debating Richard Dawkins, it wasn’t that courage won out (he doesn’t think he’s particularly courageous, and I’m certain I’m not) but that intellectual curiosity was just stronger than the fear, at least initially.

I think experimental psychologists are frustrated torturers (think of the Stanford Prison experiment or the Milgram experiment) – just joking – but was the sudden loud music with a countdown and flashing images on screen towards the end of each segment of that interaction REALLY necessary? I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time, and felt colossally pressured.

It may be, however, that that experience engaged another feature of courage (which he later focused on, together with humility, the subject of the clip I linked to); if you’ve done something once, it’s easier doing it again. Thursday evening I went looking for people who were going to be meeting in an unspecified restaurant on Brayford waterside, and saw a couple of people I vaguely thought might be doing the same thing and walked up to them and asked – and they were, and so I got to meet James and Sarah, both of whom I expect to be talking with on the internet in the future now, and another four people who recognised one or the other of them. We never did link with the main speakers, who it turned out had arrived slightly later and holed up in another restaurant two doors along from the Prezzo we ate in, but it was really good listening to them and getting to know them a bit – more listening than talking, though, as a group of 7 is getting a bit large for my comfort!

Even so, I was feeling particularly fearful on waking up on Friday morning and realising I was going to need to do it all again, and got a pep talk from my wife on the phone to encourage me to jump in again. I’m very glad I did, because I got to talk to Rob Bell a little and Peter Rollins and Roger rather more.

So, Roger’s second talk delved into the dangers of too little or too much of the various character strengths he’d introduced, and in particular the fact that people perform at their best in a band which falls between too little and too much courage, where they are relatively comfortable – but they are, from research, at their absolute best when they’re just pushing at (and sometimes a little beyond) the point where they’re uncomfortable (and fearful). And it occurred to me that that’s exactly what I’d been doing for the whole event, pushing a little beyond the envelope where I was comfortable.

My psych people (who I haven’t now seen for some years) would be really pleased with me!

However, I also pushed the envelope of how much walking and uncomfortable sitting I could comfortably manage, and pushed it a lot further… my physiotherapist is going to be a lot less pleased when I see her on Tuesday.

Oh, and yes, I am now suffering from an introvert hangover – but I’d do it all again anyway in a flash!

Tags: ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Shattering the chandelier

February 1st, 2016

One of my guilty pleasures is the blind auditions of “The Voice”. I’m less struck on the rest of the show, but the unseen singer and the chairs turning (or not) is a magic formula.

Saturday night saw the first blind audition of this year which I’ve thought truly exceptional (OK, most of the other acts this year I’d have turned my chair for, none of the judges liked…). The singer was Kevin Simm, once of Liberty X (which seems to have escaped my notice). I was sufficiently struck by his performance to want to listen to it again, and then to do a little digging about the song, which also had escaped my notice, apparently in 2014, written and recorded by the Australian singer Sia.

It more or less immediately occurred to me that the subject of the song lent itself to the more emotional (and painful) rendering which Kevin gave it than the electropop of the original; that wasn’t, I found, original to Kevin, as Jordan Smith had also got a four-chair turn with the song on The Voice America. However, reflection and some research indicated that perhaps Sia had seen it as ironic, which was borne out by the fact that one critic is recorded as saying that the song made him want to “swing from the chandelier”. The rest of the critics mostly seem to have recognised it for the rather dark piece it is.

” Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything, when will I learn / I push it down, push it down / I’m the one “for a good time call” / Phone’s blowin’ up, ringin’ my doorbell / I feel the love, feel the love”, then the refrain

” 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / 1, 2, 3 1, 2, 3 drink / Throw ’em back, till I lose count /
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier / I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist…”

then “But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes / Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight”. Feeling dreadful and shameful in the morning, and then “1,2,3,1,2,3…” Rinse and repeat.

Aside from the fact that by the time I got myself into a cycle like that, there was no swinging from the chandelier, just an ability to function somewhat normally for a while (and the period kept decreasing), I recognise this all too well. It’s about a slide into alcoholism, with a strong note of desperation. There’s the wanting to stop negative feelings there, the having to put on a front for the world, the suppressed misery and above all the feeling of helplessness and inevitablility all distilled into what are really very few lyrics – it’s extremely well crafted. And in the song, it’s decorated by soaring voice on the word “chandelier”, particularly beautifully sung by Mr. Simm (who deserves to do very well in the rest of the series).

That was some years ago now, and although I keep the memory alive through 12 step meetings, it’s usually very muted – “we shall not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”. This song, which has stuck in my brain as what we refer to as an “ear-worm” removes the muting, and makes the experience of 10-12 years ago vivid again. Though, unlike the critic, it doesn’t make me want to swing from the chandelier, more to run and hide from anything remotely like that. For the twelve-steppers, more like “1,2,3, don’t drink”.

The memory is still painful, it seems. Perhaps that’s a good thing. But please can the song stop running through the back of my mind for a while?

Tags: ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Supernatural or not?

October 27th, 2015

I’ve had much the same kind of question asked of me a few times recently. In essence, it’s “Chris, you don’t believe in the supernatural, so how can you be a Christian?”

This tends to come up which someone puts to me that, in order to be a Christian, I have to believe that some supernatural event either took place or will take place (usually the first). It is, I’m sorry to say, completely beyond me to say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event actually happened. That said, I also can’t say honestly that I believe that any supernatural event didn’t or couldn’t happen. I am, strictly speaking, agnostic on the subject, though I have a powerful tendency against seeing supernatural causes for things.

This is because I am methodologically naturalistic. That’s a mouthful, but what it means is that where anything happens, I look for naturalistic explanations, explanations which rest on the operation of established scientific principles. Almost every Christian I know tends strongly to do the same; OK, I did hear a preacher recently who claimed to have tried to walk on water, buoyed up by God’s power (he failed, on his account), but very few people of my acquaintance would try this with even a remote expectation of success. Most think that the popular story of the man caught in a flood quite reasonably justifies methodological naturalism even if you believe that God just might intervene (and I agree).

Where I perhaps start parting company with some more conservative Christians is that where I cannot find a plausible naturalistic explanation for some event, I assume that there actually is some naturalistic explanation, it’s just that either I’m not clever enough to figure it out or there is some feature of reality which science hasn’t yet found an explanation for, but might in principle. The figures aren’t as much with me there as in the previous case, but I think probably a majority of the Christians I know take pretty much that view except when considering miracles in the Bible. They would, for instance, take exactly the same view as I do when considering an account drawn from Judaism other than in the Bible (say the story of the Oven of Akhnai), but still hold that Jesus actually multiplied the loaves and fishes.

Then  there’s the case of events for which there’s definitely a naturalistic explanation, but which seem to people to be coincidental beyond the bounds of expectation. There, a majority of the Christians I know tend to talk of God guiding events, and I reserve my position, because I know too much about human tendencies to detect patterns in the random (hyperactive agency detection) and other cognitive biases. I notice, for instance, that the same people who detect the hand of God where something good happens to them very often don’t detect the hand of God where something bad happens, though some I know tend to identify those as the work of Satan.

Actually, the concept that God is not an agent in the world is a lot more respectable than many of my questioners might think. Formal scholastic Catholic thinking, for instance, as well as being keen on Aquinas’ for proofs of (the existence of) God, also decided that “exist” was the wrong concept to use of God, as it argued that God was a part of creation rather than the creator. I happen to disagree with Aquinas’ five proofs and the Catholic insistence on God’s complete otherness, but they do represent theological orthodoxy on the point. How miracles could actually happen on this basis rather escapes me, however, as a completely separate God would seem to have no mechanism to effect miracles!

Going back to the question of naturalistic phenomena for which science does not as yet have a viable explanation, I’m open to possibilities. Indeed, back in my youth I spent a lot of time exploring such concepts as astrology, astral projection, telepathy and telekinesis – I was, after all, 15 in the year when the musical “Hair” proclaimed the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and the New Age movement was becoming popular, and having just had a peak mystical experience which scientific naturalism didn’t have any good description or explanation of. I was, however, looking for evidence that the phenomena occurred, and trying to develop naturalistic concepts of how they did (if they did).

The snag is, I ended up with the conclusion that none of these things actually works, at least not in any remotely reliable manner. Not, at any event, in any place other than the consciousness of the person who is trying to do things; there, some New Age concepts can definitely have profound effects. I say this with one caveat; there is, I think, a small possibility that some of these may operate if and only if all the people involved fervently believe that they will (this would mean that they would probably not operate if any sceptical observer were involved). I think this unlikely, given that an “all believer” audience will be prone to detect what they expect irrespective of whether it has in fact happened, but I cannot rule out the possibility.

That said, I have personally experienced what I interpret as God breaking down the resistance of a very sceptical individual with no belief in any such thing as the supernatural, let alone God, and providing a set of insights; this was what happened in my first peak mystical experience. I have also experienced (due to a large amount of experimentation in my younger days) the apparent fact that certain techniques can improve the likelihood of such peak experiences happening, including certain forms of prayer and meditation (which I recommend); so can things such as sleep deprivation and temporary anoxia, and certain drugs (which I do not recommend).

Was this a “supernatural” occurrence? I don’t know. I have gone over the circumstances of my first such experience in detail with doctors, psychologists and several ardent sceptics, and we cannot identify a cause from within any of those science has identified a mechanism for. I had done nothing to facilitate such an experience and didn’t desire one, having no conception that that was a possibility. No drugs were involved, I was neither sleep-deprived, anoxic or stressed and electromagnetic stimulation was easily ruled out. I was not epileptic or schizotypal (or any of the other potential neuropsychological candidates). That leaves us with either an as yet unidentified physical (or neurological) cause or supernatural intervention.

In passing, I can’t really do more experimentation, as all repetitions of the experience have followed a lot of work conditioning my mind and practising prayer and meditation, so might well result from that rather than from whatever the cause of the original experience was. I can say, however, that I have not found it possible to “force” a full-bodied repetition – those are few and far between and seem to be “out of the blue” as well. I think the evidence is that certain practices improve the likelihood, however, and therefore recommend prayer and meditation without any note of caution (and anything else with considerable caution).

Of course, if God is conceived of as fundamentally supernatural, it was clearly a supernatural experience. However, one feature of what was an extremely self-verifying experience was that God was radically immanent, i.e. all things were at the least permeated by God to the very smallest and very largest scales, and probably all things could be regarded as being part of God as all fixed boundaries appeared capable (at least) of dissolution; I was a part of this, and all other things were also parts of it. If that is a true insight, then God is in any event able in principle to act through everything that is, including (of course) the material, if one assumes that there is anything which is not material in and of itself.

I therefore, on balance, think that there was some mechanism the details of which are not clear to me (though one of my atheist friends said it must have been a “brain fart”). It is, of course, possible that this mechanism was God (whether supernatural or immanent) deciding to do this. Another facet of the experience was that God had at least some aspects of what I understand as being a person.

I think it reasonable to point out that most people who believe in a supernatural God also believe that God acts in rational ways, and develop theologies which, probably non-accidentally, have an objective of being able to predict what God will do in any particular circumstance. This, it seems to me, is almost imperceptibly different from me seeking to establish by what mechanism this occurred. We are all, in one sense, trying to psychoanalyse God. There are plenty of scriptures to indicate both that one shouldn’t do that and that it won’t work, including Isaiah 55:8, the whole of Ecclesiastes and the last portion of Job.

These, indeed, illustrate my problem; I do not know how anyone else can experience something akin to my peak experiences (and I would dearly like more people, and preferably all people, to be able to – these have been by far the best experiences of my life), and if this all does indicate a God who is acting as an agent and can break into the minds of humans at will, why does this not happen more often?

This does, however, leave me with the conclusion that God acts in the world, in all probability, only by influencing the minds of His creatures.

 

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Depression, the system of Satan and the Devil’s evangelism

October 21st, 2015

My Small Group has been doing the Jeff Lucas series “Elijah, Prophet at a Loss”, and I got to lead the last session recently.

First, a few words about the series. On the whole, it’s pretty reasonably constructed and at least intended to leave those leading sessions fairly little to do. It takes a standard evangelical approach to scripture, but there is material on which you can base excursions beyond that. There are four sessions, and each then has five days worth of short readings and bible passages, plus a prayer. Jeff writes rather good short prayers. I do worry that having five readings after the last actual session doesn’t allow a neat conclusion, though (especially given the tendency of groups to “do their homework” if at all, the day before the next session…).

However, the series only deals with Elijah’s earlier career, and ends with an episode where he becomes completely dis-spirited, so the last session material deals with depression, stress and burnout. In fact, I added some material at the end of the session to underline a more upbeat trajectory from Elijah’s later story and his reputation in Judaism and as referred to in Mark 8:27-8 (inter alia).

The “icebreaker” question for the session involves drawing a picture representing your worst fear. I elected to just ask people to share, suspecting rightly that the group would balk at drawing, but even that was, it proved, asking for more disclosure than many were happy with.

And, of course, I was completely targeted (I’m assured, and I believe, that knowledge of my history was not in anyone’s minds when allocating that session to me, which makes it one of those coincidences which either reality or a hyperactive pattern recognition tends to interpret as a guiding hand). I’m the only member of the group who has suffered a major clinical depression (or debilitating stress, or burnout), so I had a story to share, and I’m a twelve stepper, so I’m not unused to sharing my story.

Now, whether Elijah, in the story, was actually suffering a major clinical depression or merely a depressive episode is uncertain. It was, in the account, fairly short, but did involve a loss of hope and a wish to die (I spent six and a half years telling myself “Just for today, I will not kill myself” and hope, as a positive emotion, was entirely beyond my comprehension at the time). Jeff Lucas has clearly not suffered even as serious a depression as Elijah, and while he tried hard to understand, he could really have done to listen to testimony from someone who has actually been there, like this TED talk from Andrew Solomon. Even better, he could have given a section of the video over to someone who had first hand knowledge. At least he didn’t suggest that some trivial prayer would inevitably cure depression, which I have heard far too many times, but I didn’t feel he communicated the potential severity of the condition, and neither did the group. However, there was, I think, good discussion. I was very glad that I’d prepared a more upbeat ending, though!

My greatest fear, as I explained to the group for the icebreaker, was that my depression might return. It’s not something I dwell on, but in low moments I do wonder if that might be happening, as my slide downwards was not something I really noticed at the time. That, of course, highlights the difference between low mood and depression; I can still have distinctly down times and not be remotely in the same place as clinical depression. Incidentally, I have found that a touch of prayer and meditation is good medicine for low mood!

As came to me in the course of our discussion about fears, however, is the fact that pre-depression (and all the stuff which contributed to it), my greatest fear was of being broke and jobless; eventually the depression resulted in me being both, and that fear has now been more or less eliminated. There’s a good chance that that’s actually because “the worst happened and I survived it”. Circumstances combined to put me in a place I couldn’t see a way to achieving by myself, as I couldn’t then and still can’t bring myself to follow the example suggested to the rich young man by Jesus. I had to have that done for me. That is, of course, a positive I can take from the experience – and rather than accept several years of “ruined time”, I want to find as much positive as I can in it!

I can link this with Elijah’s story at the point we looked at (1 Kings 19); Elijah flees, afraid of death at the hands of Jezebel, but then ends up disspirited and praying for death. Perhaps this was his equivalent of giving up his fear?

From where I stand now, this fear of economic catastrophe led to me being overly concerned for years with making money, latterly trying to make enough to be able to retire and not have to worry about money again in the future. If you look at an operational definition of my position, I was behaving as if money was my main objective in life, rather than spiritual progress or practical care for others, and if you behave as if something is your ultimate objective, you are worshiping it in fact even if not in theory. As the love of money is the root of all evil, and you cannot serve God and Mammon, although I was still trying to give practical care to others as well, in accordance with the social gospel, I can point to that period and say that I was operationally “worshiping strange Gods”, i.e. Mammon, as money frequently came first. I have described free market capitalism as the system of Satan, and I was thoroughly caught up in it. Certainly my spiritual praxis declined almost to nothing over the years against the background of this need to make money; I was by and large not stopping to seek moments of prayer and meditation, to become closer to God.

I can now ask myself if this idolatry of money was, in fact, a major contributing feature of the depression in the first place. However, there’s more. Although at the time our national social security system was not yet broken to the extent that makes unemployment and lack of capital a real demon, I felt that I had to achieve this by my own efforts; I was fiercely self-reliant and did not want to ask for or receive help from anyone else. This in itself was a turning from God; we are repeatedly told to rely on God for our basic needs (and not ourselves), including in the sentence “Give us this day our daily bread”. I was praying that frequently, but I was not really thinking of its full implications, nor those of “give no thought to tomorrow”.

As a last point, the fact that I was always conscious of not yet having enough money, fearing the lack of enough money to buy the basics of existence (Maslow’s lowest two levels at least, and possibly the third as well), made me a slave to work, and a more or less willing slave at that. In my case it was based on a lie I told myself, that I needed not only to have enough for today, but enough for the rest of my life, and I didn’t feel that I needed a lot of new stuff all the time. However, I look at advertising, which is generally calculated to make you feel that you need stuff you in fact don’t, and consider that it is trying to make us all slaves to money. We are encouraged to have more and more, newer and newer. And we don’t need it – in fact, the perception of that need is bad for us. You might describe it as the Devil’s evangelism.

Finally my thoughts have to turn to those people who don’t even have enough to fulfill the bottom two levels of Maslow’s pyramid, these days in a climate of “austerity” which seems to hit the poorest the most an increasing number, frequently people who actually work very hard, just at jobs which don’t pay enough for even basic requirements of life. They are not free, they are slaves. They have no option but to take such jobs (and, if they can get them, second jobs which give them some small hope of getting as far as Maslow’s third and fourth levels, but never the highest level), no option but to work extremely hard for nothing but a bare minimum.

I can say from my own experience that when you are enslaved this way, it is incredibly difficult to turn your attention to the top two levels proposed by Maslow. It’s very arguable that faith and spirituality are actually in the top level. It’s difficult to turn your attention to the third level, love and belonging, and one would hope that those are available through a church community.

I dream of a society in which Maslow’s two bottom levels are met for every one of us by our community, working as a whole (and that implies that we use the mechanism we have for operating our community, namely the State and lower levels of government). We are not too poor as a country to provide for everyone air, water, food,  and shelter (level 1) and personal and financial security, health care and care in the event of accidents (level 2), and to provide it as of right, provided by those of us fortunate enough to be able to make surplus money, and provided by us as an absolute obligation of living in a community which has some aspiration to be considered civilised, let alone one which is moving towards being the Kingdom of God on earth.

Let us, therefore, demand that government give up the system of Satan, and stop listening to the Devil’s evangelists.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Eternal conscious bull****

September 28th, 2015

There is a nice piece at Unfundamentalist Christians about hell as “eternal conscious torment”. I agree with it, but I don’t think it goes far enough.

The idea of Hell (assuming that Hell is not a mere rhetorical device, or even, perhaps, a metaphor for what an eternity separated from God might feel like – which is something which I might, perhaps, contemplate to be a viable possibility if, firstly, our consciousness, once created, cannot under any circumstances ever be destroyed and, secondly, if God has renounced any coercion to force a change of mind on us, and allows us freely to elect not to turn to Him and, thirdly, if there is any possibility that, given eternity, any consciousness would not so turn) is one which has been orthodox in Christianity for most of its history.

Incidentally, I do not think that the first and third of the provisoes above are correct, although I am reasonably confident that the second is at least largely correct. I say “reasonably confident” and “largely correct” on the basis that my personal history indicates that God will occasionally give the consciousness of even the most recalcitrant (i.e. the 14 years old evangelical atheist Chris) a good kicking to persuade it differently, but does not appear to have got round to doing the same to (for example) Richard Dawkins.

Let’s leave reformed theology on one side for a moment – given its insistence that God determines absolutely who is going to be saved and who damned without any reference to character, circumstances or effort, and therefore just creates humans destined for Hell – and concentrate on the rest of Christianity.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned. This, at least, is frequently quoted; I cannot as yet find an accurate reference to it in the Summa, however. Thomas was, no doubt, thinking of the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which, taken literally and aside the real point of the parable (which is that some cannot be convinced by whatever evidence you  can conceive of), indicates that the saved in Heaven can see the damned in Hell. 

And that would make Heaven into eternal conscious torment for anyone who had lived their life trying to follow Jesus’ second Great Commandment, that you love your neighbour as yourself. He even went on to point out in the version recorded by Luke, using the parable of the Good Samaritan, that “neighbour” meant anyone, even your traditional enemy. Maybe not physical torment, but certainly mental.

I wonder how St. Thomas could have managed to ignore this absolutely basic tenet of his faith. Could he, I ask, have been basically a sociopath, setting out the rules by which things worked and pointing out that by following these, you would end up in a good place, irrespective of any human feeling (which sociopaths do not experience)? In the system described by him, indeed, success would go to the rational sociopaths – and that makes it look like a system of corporatist free market capitalism to me rather than the radically inclusionary kingdom of God preached by Jesus – and I have been known to describe corporatist free market capitalism as a Satanic system.

Could it have been that Thomas’ famed rationality had taken over to the point at which mere human feeling was far from him? If so, this is not the spirituality of Christianity, it is the spirituality of the Eastern traditions in which freedom from attachment is the highest aspiration, and freedom from attachment does, of course, mean an end to compassion. I will grant that the mystical ways of the East do have a tendency to produce this withdrawal from humanity in service of uninterrupted ecstatic contemplation of union with God. That has, in a way, been dangled before me as a possibility; I do not consider it one to be aspired to unless the rest of humanity can join me there, and that is a long way off, but perhaps Thomas was a mystic and was seduced by that promise himself. I don’t know. I prefer not to think of one of the greatest theologians of all time as a potential sociopath, or even someone prepared in the final instance to abandon his fellow men to agony, but that seems to be where the evidence leads.

Also, of course, the God whose fulness dwelt in Jesus, of whom Jesus was the most perfect expression, could not, would not, set up a system in which those favoured by him could be those who would look upon even the most evil of their fellows and relish their torment endlessly, without any hope of either annihilation or and eventual purgation and return to Him. If that is indeed the system which has been set up, the one responsible for it must be Satan rather than God, and I want nothing to do with him or his works.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

September 12th, 2015

The inimitable Robert Sapolsky, in his younger days, gave a lecture on the biological underpinnings of religiosity. It’s fascinating for many reasons, but watch it at your peril, as it may seem to explain away your own spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology. Thus I feel impelled to comment immediately that just because neurobiology finds that certain psychological conditions which are commonly understood as abnormal tend to produce experiences which have typically been understood as spiritual does not necessarily invalidate them. This kind of argument is, indeed, one of those which Richard Beck seeks to correct in his book “The Authenticity of Faith”, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has a problem with this, or indeed with the outlooks of any of the “Masters of Suspicion”, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. All three of them had explanations of religion, which reduced it to something which could be regarded as an aberration; Beck shows, I think, that although all three might have some measure of truth in their views, they do not offer an adequate explanation of faith. Sapolsky brings the Freudian critique up to date…

One of the fascinating aspects is Sapolsky’s presentation of the case study of a young monk called Luder, who exhibits all of the symptoms of a fairly crippling degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He then remarks that this monk is more commonly known as Martin Luther. He does not, however, go on to comment much about Luther’s contributions to theology; however, it becomes immediately clear to any student of post-Luther theology that his concepts of personal inability to avoid sinning and of the natural state of man as being “incurvatus in se” (obsessively self-analysing) are exactly symptoms of OCD. Inability to avoid sinning links directly to the typical OCD conviction that one can never manage to wash enough to be thoroughly clean; I saw this at close quarters in my late mother-in-law, whose OCD was not particularly severe, but who would feel obliged to wash her hands ten or fifteen times where most of us would wash once, and in the process actually scrubbed off skin from time to time.

Now, I do not suffer from OCD. I have also not tended to find any real difficulty in following sets of rules, particularly given the fact that I don’t suffer from an obsessive tendency to reinspect what I’ve been doing and find it not good enough; OK, yes, I have some measure of that, but trained myself many years ago not to obsess about it, as that way leads to never getting anything done (I’ve blogged before about the perils of taking “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” literally…). I also haven’t since childhood suffered from a compulsion to test the boundaries of rules and regard something forbidden as therefore irresistibly attractive; I acquired a really rather strong impulse control by the time I was in my early teens, as did probably the majority of my acquaintances.

So when Luther, and Calvin on the back of his thinking, suggest that we cannot ever by our own efforts live in a way acceptable to God, I fail to understand them. Sapolsky has here opened my eyes to the fact that this line of thinking may well be just the result of a personal psychological quirk of Luther’s, which these days would be labelled as a personality disorder. I might suspect, although I have no clear evidence of it, that Calvin was afflicted to some extent by the same problem.

However, what about Paul? Luther based his thinking on Paul’s tortured reflections that he could not do good, even where he wished to; he would still find himself doing something bad. Now, there’s no real evidence that Paul suffered from OCD either, although I have always wondered what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. There, Sapolsky’s lecture offers a couple of other possibilities – Paul’s account of his conversion experience could well have been an episode of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, or could have been a vision associated with a Schizotypal Personality Disorder. We can’t know for certain, but the mere fact that most adults I know don’t have significant problems in obeying sets of rules makes me think that Paul’s thinking was not what we’d now describe as normal (and no Orthodox Jews I know have problems following all of the 613 commandments which Judaism finds in the Torah, in contradistinction from Paul – indeed, they applaud the efforts of the Rabbis to make these even more restrictive).

I think it’s well worth bringing in another theological giant here, in the form of St. Augustine. Reading his “Confessions”, I could very readily find someone suffering from sex addiction (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), in addition to a distinct tendency to the Obsessive Compulsive. I ask myself if the whole history of the Church’s doctrine of original sin and it’s attitude to women has been based on one or more personality disorders suffered by it’s greatest theologian between Paul and Luther.

“Hold on a moment”, I might hear the reader ask, “haven’t you started with a caveat that just because an abnormal condition may have produced an experience doesn’t invalidate that experience, so why are you now saying that there’s a problem where abnormal conditions seem to have produced particular theologies?”. An understandable comment, so I need to distinguish between two different types of result we are seeing here. In the case of the “nobody can do good” and “everyone is obsessed with sex to the exclusion of any spiritual life” positions, these theologians are creating an anthropology out of their own experience; they are assuming that everyone is like they are, and that just isn’t the case.

In the case of visions which may be the product of TLE or Schizotypalism, there is no assumption that everyone else has the same visions, it is the content of the vision which the seer puts forward as containing a truth. That, incidentally, is seer as “the person who sees”, without any connotation of the content of the vision being validated, though typically visions in both cases have a strong component of self-validation to them.

As, indeed, do mystical experiences, and I would not be self-identifying as a panentheistic mystic Christian and writing this blog if I hadn’t had a set of self-validating mystical experiences. This leads to the obvious question “Were these the product of TLE or Schizotypalism?”. That is a question I asked myself shortly after the first such experience I had, which was an extremely rude shock for someone who was at the time a scientific-materialist evangelical atheist very much in the Dawkins mould (although this occurred before Dawkins had written anything much more than, perhaps, an undergraduate paper or two).

It was not TLE, as confirmed by my then doctor, to whom I expressed some worries (that visit also eliminated any environmental factors including drugs, exhaustion, pain and hypoxia as possible contributors – it was fairly thorough!). I was also not then suffering from any diagnosable Schizotypalism, nor have I since been diagnosed as such.

That said, I have scored fairly highly on Schizotypal in a self-test of “What personality disorder do you suffer from?” a little over 15 years ago, though in fairness it has proved in hindsight that I was at the time suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and possibly as a result of those (which the test didn’t disclose) I also tested fairly highly on every other personality disorder the test dealt with, with the exception of narcissism (on which I tested very low indeed). I do sort of fit Sapolsky’s criteria of loose associations (I love wordplay and odd associations) and social withdrawal (this may just be being an introvert) but I really don’t do metamagical thinking. I don’t tend to believe in strange things (in fact, some would argue that I don’t tend to believe in anything much at all, and I’d have some sympathy with that); out of Sapolsky’s selection of metamagical traits, OK, I like SF and fantasy, though I don’t take it immensely seriously, I don’t have much time for any New Age stuff and I don’t believe in UFOs, though I hold onto a gentle wish that telepathy worked (It would make some other theories I toy with much easier to deal with!) but finally, and most stridently, I really do not tend to concrete interpretations (i.e. fundamentalism) at all. So OK, I may be just a little bit of a shaman, but not really very much of one by Sapolsky’s set of signs.

Not, at least, if you look at the integral Chris. If I split myself down into the SR (scientific rationalist) and EC (emotional Chris) bits (see my “About” page), EC would be a lot more along the lines Sapolsky paints as schizotypal. EC does tend to black and white thinking, for instance, and has a lot more time for “strange things” than SR – my generally agnostic position on these represents a compromise between SR and EC. There is the distinct possibility that I have shoehorned into my brain a borderline schizotypal and a more or less passionless rationalist, who have worked out a modus vivendi. In passing, had I not had several years of extreme depression and anxiety, I would probably never have self-examined (or perhaps been able to self-examine) sufficiently to realise this – another instance of finding, in retrospect, some reason why those years were not entirely “ruined time”.

The question I eventually asked myself, both in the beginning and after that realisation, was “does it really matter?”. Karen Armstrong has written at some length about her own experiences in “Through the Narrow Gate” and “The Spiral Staircase”; she suffered from TLE, which gave her some extremely strong unitive mystical experiences similar in many ways to my own, but which she has continued to base her faith on. I do likewise. I can still entertain the possibility that my peak spiritual experiences may be the product of abnormal psychology (they certainly seem to be the products of unusual psychology, because relatively few people seem to have such powerful experiences of this kind), but they nonetheless  carried with them this colossal self-verification, somewhere within which is faith.

I entertain the possibility that the following analogy might hold good; I have a friend who, when he was younger and his eyesight better, could see the convergence of the Balmer series of the Hydrogen spectrum. This lies just outside the normal visible range, in the ultraviolet (those with normal vision can see the lines becoming progressively closer, but not the point where they merge and stop). His eyes were, clearly, abnormal – but this meant that he could see something real which was denied to the rest of us. On the other hand, a reader could well dismiss anything I report about spiritual experiences in the kind of terms an old atheist friend (a psychology professor) did after interrogating me to find what the trigger for the experience was, and finding nothing; he said it was a “brain fart”. Bless him!

Going back to the anthropological assumptions of Paul, Augustine and Luther, it is unfortunate that these have given us between them (with some assistance from a couple of mediaeval theologians) the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is very dominant in Protestant thinking and has significant traction in Catholic; a significant number of Christians I know would say that this IS the story of salvation, and that that IS the gospel. I reject both suggestions on a number of grounds, but the one I present here is that the whole theory assumes an incorrect picture of human anthropology. By and large, we are quite capable of following a set of rules; this is, I think, a considerable consolation to many conservative Christians, who seem to have reduced following Jesus back to following a set of rules.

What we are not capable of, of course, is loving our neighbour as ourselves (which, in the spirit of affirmative action, really means loving our neighbours rather more than ourselves); we are not capable of doing that after our conversion experiences any more than we were before them, though we may well come a lot closer – and some of us manage to come very close indeed, as witness the “Little Way” of Therese of Lisieux. Incidentally, a brief look at her biography strongly suggests that she also suffered from OCD in some measure.

Some of us, I reluctantly conceded, may also not be capable of having, say, an intense peak unitive mystical experience; it may be that that is reserved for those with TLE or Schizotypalism in some measure. Some may not be capable of the kind of conversion experience which seems, in evangelical circles, to be thought of as the one and only way to become a Christian. I have certainly known quite a few people who would have loved to have such a conversion experience, and who put themselves in a position to have one as nearly as they could time after time, only to be disappointed, and I rather suspect that those who have first had a peak unitive experience are among them. Does it invalidate their experiences if some of us cannot share those?

I would hope that we do not think so; I would hope that instead, we can listen to the testimony of those who have had experiences we cannot share ourselves, and can take from that as much as we are able to. That’ of course, includes those eminent theologians who have been suffering from OCD or some other psychological “disorder”.

I have, however, pointed out one thing in previous criticisms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that is that there are some people, commonly people who have had particularly awful life experience, for whom no other concept of salvation seems to have any traction. I cannot find any comfort, any salvation, any link to God in this theology – but there are those for whom it is the only theology which can bring those things.

For them, I say, this is a valid way for you. Do not ask that it be a valid way for me. For me, mystical unitive experience is the valid way; I do not demand that it be the only way for you.

 

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

A religion for the extrovert?

June 2nd, 2015

Last Sunday, I heard a sermon in which was the comment “We have a sign on our door saying ‘No admittance except on party business'”. Had I heard it out of context, my first impulse would have been to walk up to the preacher’s house humming the Internationale.

However, the context was in a sermon around the theme of festivity; the encouragement was always to be in a state of communal celebration.

I’d prefer to be always in a state of cerebration. Actually, I mostly am in that state. The thing is, that isn’t because of any lack of wish to be happy or joyous – I’d love to be able to do that when in company with lots of others. The trouble is, I’m just not constructed that way.

On a Meyer-Briggs personality test, while three out of the four categories are ones which I have historically fallen on either side of the dividing line (I’m currently borderline between INTJ and INFJ, though I’ve occasionally registered as marginally S or P), I always register as an introvert, and where the test delivers a percentage, 85% is usual. This makes me really very introverted, such that contact with groups of people saps my energy quite quickly, and I need time alone to recharge (it’s the other way round for extroverts). As a quite separate issue, I’ve always tended towards social anxiety from an early age (and this isn’t always a characteristic of introverts, though they often go together) and for the last 20 years or so I’ve suffered from Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The result of that is that in the presence of lots of people, particularly if it’s in an unstructured format, I feel ridiculously anxious and, truth be told, threatened. I can be in a group of old friends who pose no threat at all, and I still feel threatened.

This makes it extremely difficult for me to cope with communal celebration. In fact, it makes it impossible for me to enter fully into the spirit of the more free-form types of worship – the closer to charismatic things get, the less comfortable I become. That said, I currently attend an evangelical-charismatic Anglican church, which is a trial I put myself through every Sunday. I have reasons entirely unconnected with the style of worship for that, of course, but in addition I keep hoping that continual exposure will lessen the anxiety and allow me to be more festive, more celebratory in company.

In a previous post I mentioned that I seem immune to the forms of religious experience which are drawn from communal activity; while I suspect that having had a peak solitary mystical experience may have in effect burned into my psyche the pathways for that type of experience to the exclusion of others, a simpler explanation is that I’m very unlikely to have a significant religious experience when I’m very anxious (one of the things I find essential to the mystical contemplative path is the stilling of the mind and the emotions). Celebrations are loud and unpredictable and full of people, and all of those make me anxious.

The trouble is, I feel that this kind of exhortation from the pulpit is asking of me something I just can’t deliver, and making me feel that there’s something wrong with me – and this isn’t limited to church. Time and again I’ve found extroverts wondering why I shy away from large gatherings and encouraging me to be more outgoing, as if I were deliberately making a choice to be antisocial. I’ve become used to terms like “party-pooper”, “stick-in-the-mud” and “misery-guts”. It seems to me that the standard position of the extrovert is to think that everyone should be an extrovert, and if they aren’t either they’re deliberately being unpleasant or there’s something wrong with them. And it also seems to me that in order to be clergy in an evangelical setting, you have to be an extrovert.

And yet, as I understand it, around half the population are introverts rather than extroverts. Granted, I’m probably towards the maximum introversion consistent with actually functioning in society, but it seems to me that a church model which is going to make half the population uneasy and maybe ten to fifteen per cent acutely uncomfortable needs some thought, at the least.

So, why do I continue attending? Well, it seems that for the time being at least, this is where I can be most useful. Or, alternatively, this is where prayer has lead me, and it isn’t yet indicating going anywhere else. His ways are not our ways, it seems…

Tags: , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Faith -v- humility

May 26th, 2015

A couple of weeks ago, my church had a sermon and a small group session revolving round humility. I have a problem with humility (and no, that isn’t the set up for a joke like “When you’re this near perfect, it’s hard to be humble” or “Humility is my greatest virtue”). I have a particular problem being humble about things I have faith in.

It seems to me that the church generally has a lot of difficulty with this too. My link is to an article which criticises fundamentalists for too rigid an attitude and for being unwilling to consider even for a moment that they are wrong, but liberals and progressives are also guilty of this – the “Malleus Progressivorum” series on Unsettled Christianity starts with a complaint that progressives in that church aren’t prepared to consider other points of view, and much as I dislike the current move by eight “Biblical” churches in Fountain Hills to criticise the one church in town which is progressive, a close reading of the background does show that a conservative, literalist viewpoint is one which would probably feel excluded at the Fountains UMC.

And I write that despite wanting to say “And the UMC are absolutely right there, and the eight conservative churches should be excoriated”. Because liberal and progressive are so much closer to my own beliefs than is any form of biblical literalism. More “my tribe”.

My ultimate reason for wanting to criticise, though, is the thesis they are putting forward that progressive Christianity is wrong, something which you cannot espouse and still be a Christian (with “saved” and “not destined for the everlasting bonfire” close behind in the case of the conservatives). I try very hard to consider that there can be other ways of thinking about things – in fact, my last blog post considered a theological point of view which my experience tells me forcibly is wrong (namely that God might be depressed); it’s a thought experiment, suspending disbelief for a while in order to explore a set of concepts.

Note here that while I said “faith” to start off with, I’m now using the term “belief”. That’s important. To me, faith is largely an emotional commitment (involving, for example, love and trust) which has relatively little to do with logical argument; belief is something which I arrive at by considering things rationally and deciding what, on balance, I think is most likely to be the position. I try to hold my beliefs lightly (hence thought experiments involving another set of beliefs) and, as I’m a scientist by training, my root position is that any belief I have can be challenged by contrary evidence, and that what I believe for the time being should be whatever is, on my rational estimation, the most likely concept to coincide with what a situation really is. This is, of course, why I have difficulty with any belief system which starts out by saying that I need to believe in supernatural events.

That said, an insistence that I believe in the supernatural is merely an insult to my rationality, and does not affect my faith. I can, for the sake of argument, adopt the position that supernatural events may occasionally occur – and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest that someone else feels that, for them, it is essential that they do. I am interested in why they may feel that way, and open to thinking, at least for a while, as if that position were correct. I like to think that, were I to be provided with some very good reasons for doing so, I might change my mind about the absence of supernatural factors in the world. In addition, when treated as a way of talking about things rather than a statement of truth, I’m fairly happy to talk supernaturalist – let’s face it, I sometimes talk about my computer as if (in animistic fashion) it had consciousness of its own (a mischievous and malevolent one, on the whole). It may even be that some part of my subconscious actually believes that it has – but, it seems, that doesn’t apply to supernatural causes more generally.

I have not always been so epistemically humble. The 9 year old Chris who had worked out to his satisfaction that there were no supernatural entities and that scripture was on the same level as fables by Hans Christian Andersen (and somewhat less entertaining) was keen to share this indupitable truth with all and sundry, and to persuade them of the true state of affairs. Had he not, at 15, had a peak mystical experience which failed utterly to fit within a scientific-rationalist-materialist-reductionist framework, he might well have gone on to produce an adult in the mould of (say) Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.

That, however, was largely just intellectual arrogance; it went to belief but not really to faith. If there was faith there, it was unfounded faith in my own powers of reasoning.

Then came the “zap” which changed everything, and for those who have not had a peak mystical experience or some other religious experience of similar intensity, these come with a massive quantity of self-verification. Not only do you suddenly see the world in a radically different way, but you are automatically convinced of the rightness of that experience. Incidentally, I include “some other religious experience of similar intensity” not because I have ever experienced such, but because I now hold open the possibility that (for instance) the ecstatic group-based experience may have similar force and validity. I have in the past tried quite hard to find a way to various alternative expressions of peak religious experience, but have failed; I now suspect that this is a function in part of my own psychology (I am seriously introverted and have a tendency to social anxiety) and of the fact that the original experience has created or accentuated extremely well-defined mental pathways which are now my default.

As a result, for many years I was inclined to say, when pushed, that I didn’t need to “believe in” God or “have faith in” God, because I experienced God. I might have said (and probably did on occasion) that in the same way I didn’t need to believe in air, or have faith in it, because I breathed it and knew it to exist. This self-verification tends to extend to parts of my interpretation of the experience, and for many years I would have said that these were equally self-verified by the experience itself. For instance, once I found a description of this type of experience as being of a panentheistic God, it was immediately clear to me with massive force that that was the way God is. When I read passages by (for instance) Baba Kuhi of Shiraz or Meister Eckhart, or from the Oxyrhyncus papyrii (part of the Gospel of Thomas) it was immediately clear to me (with massive force) that they were talking of the same kind of root experience.

There is a potential problem there. Although in my memory the descriptions have referred themselves back to the experience, I can recall that my initial reaction was that while something massively significant and full of meaning had happened, I lacked language to express it. I have to enquire whether, had I found some other descriptive language, whether I would have seized on that instead.

I can therefore now entertain the possibility that some of what I feel  is certain due to these experiences is stretching beyond what was actually self-verified in them, although it certainly feels to me as if it was, and continues to feel that way despite a substantial amount of self-interrogation. You will not, for instance, now find me saying in response to “Why do you think that?” the blunt “Because that’s how God tells me it is”. Apart from anything else, I have found that that is a complete conversation-stopper (which, actually, was one of the attractions – I have in the past shut up more than one doorstep evangelist that way). I might like to hear the same reticence from some who feel that “this is what the Holy Spirit inspires me to say”, which I anticipate may have something of the same force for them. I recognise the look in their eyes, but wonder if they may have stretched beyond what is basic to the experience.

Let’s face it, this was an issue which confronted Paul at an early stage in his ministry. In 1 Thess. 5:19-21 he talks about prophecy, and warns “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” Thus, I will always try to find confirmation elsewhere, in scripture or in the writings of mystics or other thinkers, of anything which arrives with me with this self-verifying force, and in general if I’m trying to convince someone of the reasonableness of my position, it will be by quoting these sources.

But that isn’t necessarily how I reached the conclusion… and there’s the rub. I may be acting humbly but not feeling humble. However, as the only way I know to adjust my feelings is to use the “Act as If” principle, I think this is as good as I can get at the moment. Scientific Rationalist Chris can do humility these days (it was not always so), but Emotional Chris lags behind.

Tags: , , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Emergence, twelve-step and ecology

April 9th, 2015

There is a perennial problem for some people on entering a twelve-step programme, of which they get a glimpse at step 2 (“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”) and which becomes all too apparent at step 3 (“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”). That problem is when they don’t have a concept of God, usually because they’re an atheist. In fact, it’s so common in UK twelve step that I was plagued in my early days with well-meaning people sharing how they had come to think of, say, the AA group, or “Good Orderly Direction” or just “Good” as being their higher power for the purposes of the steps, assuming that I’d be an atheist too. I got a little tired of having to explain that I had a very well-formed concept of God already, thank you, and that my problem was more that I had lost confidence in ever experiencing God again, not to mention being helped by God (severe depression, it seems, can do that to even a practiced mystic, and I’ve written previously about “dark nights of the soul”).

This was a problem which faced Nancy Abrams on entering a twelve step programme aimed at over-eating. She found an interesting way round, much aided by her long acquaintance with her husband Joel Primack, a prominent astrophysicist and cosmologist, and has written a fascinating book about it: “A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet”. This caught my eye last week, and on an intuition I bought it.

Amazon thinks it’s directed at “agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious and scientifically minded” readers; I’d bet she’d want to include outright atheists. Actually, I think it’s worth reading by a whole gamut of people, with the proviso that anyone with conservative or even mainstream views is going to find it’s suggestions alarming, if not downright unacceptable. Liberal, progressive or radical believers shouldn’t have too much difficulty, though.

I’m particularly pleased to have bought it, as Nancy takes the phenomenon of emergence and posits that God may be an emergent property of human minds as a group, which is a thought I’ve entertained myself – I grant that it doesn’t represent the way it seems to me that God is, but I am willing to consider hypotheses which would require that my own experience has delivered a less-than-wholly-accurate picture. Indeed, I assume there’s a high probability that despite the hugely self-confirming nature of the mystical experience, there’s at least a degree of distortion as well as the notoriously fuzzy nature of the experience. She, however, picks up the idea and runs with it, describing various levels of emergence and dwelling for a while on the ant colony, which displays organisation and reasoning beyond the capacity of any individual ant.

She goes on to discuss emergent phenomena among humans, citing the example of “the market” (here meaning that amorphous entity which seems to rule us rather more than do our elected representatives) and “the media”, which seems to have a character beyond just a conglomeration of writers. Then she takes the next step… and I think it’s by no means an unreasonable one.

Then, however, she introduces parameters some of which sit uneasily with my current God-concept, notably the limitation on communication of the speed of light, rendering an emergent entity bigger than (perhaps) planetary scale one which could not “think” within a timescale which would render it capable of communication with humanity. Another is the fact that until the emergence of human consciousness, the matrix for the emergence of such a higher level entity would be missing – and it would certainly be missing in the earlier part of the history of our universe (which the writer’s husband is able to model using computers to an impressive degree of accuracy). That, of course, would mean both that a God-of-the-universe would be improbable-to-impossible and that any concept of a creator-God was completely out of the window, and both of those are at the moment features of my God-concept, and considerably protected by the self-verifying feature of mystical experience. Not necessarily ruled out, however…

She does give what I think is a good account of the implications of accepting such a God-concept, including an account of the efficacy of prayer. That last I will need to re-read, as I am a little uncertain that I agree her mechanisms, but it is at least on the face of it plausible.

I think, therefore, that this book could be very helpful to many sceptical people embarking on twelve-step programmes, or even a few who have been around them for years – at the very least, it provides an option which is rather more concrete than “good orderly direction” and rather less prone to human error than the twelve-step group.

But I have a serious misgiving, and that lies exactly with the examples of higher-order emergence among humans which she puts forward. Neither the media nor the market (still less the “global economy”) seem to me good examples of higher powers for twelve-step or, indeed, more or less anything else (pace those of my acquaintance who look very much as if they worship the market…). The market and the global economy, indeed, seem to me forces which are potentially, even if not actually, extremely inimical to the flourishing of humanity when considered as thinking, feeling, connected, social people rather than as units of economic production and consumption, and I’d certainly characterise them both as less-than-human, if only on grounds of ethics. Crowds, too, inasmuch as through deindividuation they operate as entities in their own right, are definitely subhuman. If there were another entity of the kind Ms. Abrams describes, I would worry that unless it were in fact the God whom I experience (and thus am confident is benevolent and loving), it would be yet another faceless and impersonal power which had the capacity to damage or even exterminate humanity.

To be fair, I also have friends whose conception of Gaia looks a lot like that. Of course, both they and Ms. Abrams consider that we should do much to reverse the extremely negative effect which humanity is currently having on our planet and particularly its biosphere, and I agree completely with them on that front. The thought that the planet as a whole might decide (have decided?) to eliminate humanity as a kind of cancerous growth, however, is still not a pleasant one to contemplate. Even if it is possibly overdue… which may be the best indication that actually it doesn’t exist as such a system.

The problem, to me, with my Gaian friends is that while they see the wholeness and unity of the earth, there is a tendency to see us as alientated from it, as not a part of the whole. This is something I emphatically don’t share, and neither does Ms. Abrams, who ends her book with an impassioned plea to treat the planet as if we, as a species, actually intend to stay here for a while. To this end, she has a number of promises, some very reminiscent of those I am familiar with. Here are a few:-

We will intuitively understand how the future of our descendants depends on the future of their descendants.

We will experience how being human fits smoothly and perfectly into the evolution of a meaningful yet scientifically supported universe.

And, last but not least:-

We will suddenly realise that the emerging God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Tags: , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

Giving it away

March 27th, 2015

Small groups at my church are looking at Acts 2:43-47 over the course of four weeks: 43 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home] and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This passage, it seems to me, holds out a picture of the early church in Jerusalem as the ideal of how we should live as Christians, and indeed the themes for these four weeks are along those lines.

However, it gives me a problem; I do not hold my property or income in common with others (well, apart from my wife and, before they left home, my children). I will grant that the way the passage is being presented, it is not arguing that we should actually be forming a communist group, but that is the way it reads if you take it reasonably literally, and I do not see any reason not to take it literally.

In particular, I note that shortly after this passage is the tale of Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11), in which Ananias sells a plot of land, but gives only part of the proceeds, with his wife’s knowledge, to the community; both of them are struck dead when confronted by Peter. Now, the immediate response when I raised this argument with a group member who is considerably more conservative and literalistic than I am myself was that the fault of Ananias and Saphira was lying to the community and representing that they had paid in the whole of the proceeds (which is certainly what Peter reproaches them with, but is not apparent from the account of what they actually did), and that we should not take either passage as advocating communistic living, but only considerable generosity.

I could make the same argument myself, and I have, over many years, but it doesn’t seem to me to be more than an excuse for not living fully into the Christian life. Granted, I have a great sympathy with Maya Angelou’s celebrated comment “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian. “I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it, which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” This is a place where I fall down, and am likely to keep falling down.

It seems to me entirely in line with Jesus’ teaching as we know it: the story of the rich young man which appears in all the synoptic gospels ends in him going away saddened because he is not going to sell all he possesses and give the proceeds to the poor.

That said, I don’t think my church, or any other church I know of, is actually going to be doing this (and not just the person who downplayed my argument). Indeed, aside from a few notable individuals such as St. Francis, it doesn’t seem to have been the norm except in the very early church – and I strongly suspect the reason is that it isn’t actually viable. After all, we find in Romans 15:25-28 that Paul is taking a subscription to the Jerusalem church, and I can’t help thinking this might be because they ran out of money…

I’ve no taste for being the only person around doing this, quite apart from the fact that as things are, it would land me too on the list of those asking for charity (or, at least, State support as due to my health I couldn’t now expect to be able to support myself by my own labour), nor for being one of a small number who do it, landing them communally in the same position. I do wonder, however, how much that is real pragmatism and how much a frantic wiggling to avoid the consequences of really following Jesus.

Could a communitarian ethos work in a wider sense, I wonder? Just to push the pragmatic view a bit more, however, I can’t find an example of a completely communitarian society of substantial size anywhere. The countries where communism has been tried are object examples of failure (though, to be fair, none of them has actually achieved a truly communitarian society – the vast majority of them look like something between dictatorships and oligarchies). Note that when I say “failure” there, I am not talking of measures of success such as gross national product, national or individual wealth or income; the failures have been in not providing a free society and in not producing a system in which everyone is provided for “according to their needs” and is reasonably content.

I do know of a reasonably substantial number of small groups which have seemed to operate the communitarian principle with some success (not, of course, material or monetary success, but those are not only not relevant to the objective but arguably completely contrary to it), but those seem to rely partly on being small and partly on operating within a larger society which works on a market economy basis, often by accepting social payments, or by having a backer who does not operate by these rules and supports the community from excess income. I do note that the model for the slightly later church seems to have been groups supported by such rich backers, and it seems to have persisted where communitarian living has in general not.

The nearest to examples of success I can find are social democratic countries, in particular the Scandinavian ones, but there seem to me problems there: some have taken steps back from egalitarianism recently and reduced welfare spending on the basis that their welfare states were proving unsupportable (and I suspect globalisation to be the main culprit; it is difficult to maintain a welfare state when in direct competition with capitalist states operating wage slavery systems, and they worked much better before globalisation really took off), and also the populations do not actually seem to be as content as one would hope – the suicide rates, for instance, seem rather high, as do incidences of depression.

There is, however, an aspect I have not yet considered, and this is very much a feature of the story of the rich young man. “Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” (Matt. 19:21-22). There is a great freedom in letting go of an attachment to worldly possessions and wealth, both of which can easily obsess the mind to the exclusion of any kind of spirituality, and even just enjoying life; I know this not because I’ve ever voluntarily given away all or even most of my possessions, but because circumstances took them away for a time, during which I had an estimated “net worth” which was substantially negative and no reasonable prospect of employment due to illness. Now that I again have a positive net worth, can actually work again to a limited extent and have a modest but adequate pension income, I am, I think, on the right side of a paradigm change with respect to money and possessions.

I grant that giving away everything you have is a draconian way of achieving that freedom, but it may, I think, be the only option for some of us, and I think the rich young man saw that, and knew himself unable to take that step.

Against all this pragmatism, however, is the bare fact that Jesus consistently spoke against money and possessions and in favour of leaving everything and following him. That at least makes it an objective to be aimed towards, even if it’s an unattainable ideal. There is within me an urge to just believe and do, and trust that the outcome will be good, but it remains balanced by a reluctance to take a step when every indication is that it would be a disaster.

With Maya Angelou, the best I can say is that I’m working at it.

Tags: , , , , ,
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments (1)