The patterns of AI in the stuff of the future.

There’s a fascinating interview of Max Tegmark, a prominent physicist now focussing on artificial intelligence research, by Sam Harris (the well known atheist neuroscientist), broadly on the future of AI, in particular once it reaches the point of producing a generalised intelligence at least equal to that of humans.

There are too many points of interest for me to extract those and save you from the recommendation that you listen to the podcast, but a few points stood out to me.

Firstly, Max has apparently pretty much the same view as I have about ontology (i.e. the study of what is actually there at the most fundamental level); he even uses the same language as I’ve been doing. I suppose that as we are both physicists at root, this is not as surprising as it might seem (I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read what I write, and I’ve not read anything he’s written!) There is “stuff”, and there is pattern, and pattern is not heavily dependent on the stuff which bears the pattern – as he puts it, pattern is substrate-independent. He points out that wave equations later adapted to describe fundamental particles were originally developed in fluid mechanics; the mathematics describes this class of patterns (which happen to be dynamic patterns) irrespective of whether they are in water or in, say, the electromagnetic spectrum.

He moves rapidly from there to discussing how AIs of the future are likely not to be using electrons in solid state systems, they could be in something entirely different – but the patterns will be transferrable, and in the process mentions that in IT there is one basic element, the NAND gate, which he likens to synapses in the human brain. However, of course, you can construct a NAND gate out of all sorts of “stuff”…

The bulk of the interview is about how we might control intelligences we create which could be far greater than our own intelligence, but there are many directions in which they could have gone but didn’t. Can we hope, sometime, to upload the pattern which is “us” to a computer, and thereby defeat death, or at least the limited lifespan of our biological substrate? Mention was made of the fact that the best chess player is now not a computer, after the famous defeat of Gary Kasparov, but a human-computer team, which Max calls an “android” – probably correctly, as it is a human-machine combination. Might we augment ourselves and become amalgams of human and machine? (As I get older, I would very much appreciate some memory augmentation, perhaps a few terabytes…)

What, morally, is our position regarding a machine with a generalised intelligence greater than ours? Is it morally acceptable for it to be effectively a slave? (There is some discussion of this, but by no means exhaustively). If not, will we see a situation, as Sam and Max discuss, of the superhuman intelligence being, in effect, in the position of an adult surrounded by young children, unable to make decisions as good as the adult?

If I have one overwhelming worry about this prospect (and it is closer than we might think – the self-driving car is already with us, the military are playing with machines which may, Bond-like, have a “licence to kill”, and the cheapest calculators can perform calculations many times faster than even the fastest human, giving a glimpse of what the situation might be were their “intelligence” generalised rather than restricted to arithmetic), it is that we are biological systems, and as such have emotions – and emotions are what founds most of our moral behaviour (as well as some of our most immoral). Without emotion, can an artificial intelligence ever be trusted to make good moral decisions? I worry about that; my long period of depression, which ended in 2013 (deo gratias!) ended up in a state of anhedonia, in which, broadly, I did not feel emotions. I could assess what would happen if I did something fairly well – my computing power wasn’t seriously damaged – but I couldn’t make a decision as to whether actually to do it or not because there was no emotional charge giving me this instead of that course of action. Even the prospect that the action would damage me, perhaps kill me (or others), had no emotional charge – it was a matter of indifference whether I were injured, or in pain, or dead in the future.

I got through that period by following a set of rules, largely “act as if” rules. Others did not get damaged, other than perhaps emotionally, and I got damaged relatively little and am still here to write about it. But it could so easily have been different.

Would a super-AI have the same problem? If so, we would want there to be VERY strong “rules” imbedded at an early stage to avoid disaster.

But then, I took much the same view when raising children…

Beyond tribalism?

In writing about nations (or ethnicities, tribes, cultures or, if pushed, races) one needs to consider how these might be organised (and I have in mind that they may organise themselves). I recently found an interesting article regarding the conflict between democracy and liberalism (both as defined in that article), and another about whether the concept of the nation state may be outdated.

Let’s face it, we are going to have ethnicities for a very long time, if indeed there is any chance they will eventually vanish as a feature of human organisation. One of the more stupid suggestions I’ve seen mooted recently was the idea that we should solve all the problems of the Middle East by eliminating tribalism. Granted, if there was no tribalism (ethnicism), there would probably be far, far fewer tensions in the area, but really? You might as well say we could solve all the same problems by eliminating violence. It is not remotely a practical suggestion.

Humanity is, I think, irredeemably given to creating identity groups. Where there aren’t enough nice clear identities for young people in urban sprawls in the West to adopt, they will create gangs, with their own visual and behavioural distinctives. Before you dismiss this as a feature of youth culture, or counterculture, consider the average parochial church council or body of elders – if there are more than four or five people, there will be factions, and sometimes the level of animus there is equal to that between rival gangs, although, thank the Lord, usually not expressed with guns or edged weapons…

There are a number of factors which contribute towards the identity of an ethnic group or tribe. Large among those is language; if you have a language “the others” don’t understand, this helps you preserve the identity. Dialects and heavy accents will do almost as well, and if you haven’t one already, don’t worry, your group will soon invent its own set of “in group” words. Similarity of appearance is a big one – if your group happens all to have the same skin colour or other clear features such as an epicanthic fold, that’s a good start, but you can get a long way by dress codes, body art and even just general demeanour.

Beliefs are also a very strong identity factor. If they can attain the status of a religion, all the better, but I look at some sports supporters and find it difficult to distinguish their Kierkegaardian “ultimate concern” with their chosen team from the basic substance of a religion, and I am wholly convinced that the neoliberal consensus in economics is religious in nature (and worse than many religions in that its basic tenets such as the infallibility of the market and “trickle down” economics have been shown time and again to be both false and damaging).

Most of all, though, the thing which cements any group together is having an enemy. “Give people a common enemy, and you will give them a common identity. 
Deprive them of an enemy and you will deprive them of the crutch by which they know who they are.”  – James Alison. The great enemy du jour in the West (“Western” may not be a tribe, but that holds for many of the individual tribes which constitute “the West” or “the First World”) is nominally Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, but the terrorists’ narrative is that this conceals the fact that Islam as a religion, as an ethnicity, as an identity, is the enemy, and despite the best endeavours of spokesmen in most of the West (I except the new US administration, who seem incapable of being even slightly subtle) that is very much how things are playing out. While we may say that we are merely combatting terrorism, our actions frequently prejudice Muslims generally, and I can well understand my Muslim friends who no longer feel comfortably “at home” in my country, despite in many cases having been born and brought up here. Yesterday’s great enemy was communism, of course, but that is now almost universally regarded as a failed philosophy (wrongly, in my eyes, as what actually failed was command economies). Indeed, the unifying force of a great enemy seems to be the most significant factor in political divides.

We have to deal with the fact that if you put enough people together, they will form tribes; any attempt to create a larger body with a common identity is likely to founder on petty divisions. I have in mind that even in the early days of Christianity, Paul was complaining of this. It would be nice to think that we can get beyond the great unifying force of a common enemy in order to do this, but at the moment I cannot see a way to do this, apart from stressing at every possible opportunity that we are all human beings; we are children of God irrespective of our other differences.

My next post will talk a little more of the Biblical witness to this idea.

One man and his God?

I’ve been struck over the last couple of days by two articles. The first, an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science, contains these words:-

“I call it conscious realism: Objective reality is just conscious agents, just points of view. Interestingly, I can take two conscious agents and have them interact, and the mathematical structure of that interaction also satisfies the definition of a conscious agent. This mathematics is telling me something. I can take two minds, and they can generate a new, unified single mind. Here’s a concrete example. We have two hemispheres in our brain. But when you do a split-brain operation, a complete transection of the corpus callosum, you get clear evidence of two separate consciousnesses. Before that slicing happened, it seemed there was a single unified consciousness. So it’s not implausible that there is a single conscious agent. And yet it’s also the case that there are two conscious agents there, and you can see that when they’re split. I didn’t expect that, the mathematics forced me to recognize this. It suggests that I can take separate observers, put them together and create new observers, and keep doing this ad infinitum. It’s conscious agents all the way down.”

The second is a piece by Keith Frankish, a philosophy lecturer in a similar area of research, who says, among other things, “As well as being embodied, mental processes can also be extended to incorporate external artefacts. Clark and fellow philosopher of mind David Chalmers propose what’s since been called the Parity Principle, which says that if an external artefact performs a function that we would regard as mental if it occurred within the head, then the artefact is (for the time being) genuinely part of the user’s mind. To illustrate this, Clark and Chalmers describe two people each trying to work out where various shapes fit in a puzzle. One does it in his head, forming and rotating mental images of the shapes, the other by pressing a button to rotate shapes on a screen. Since the first process counts as mental, the second should too, Clark and Chalmers argue. What matters is what the object does, not where it is located. (Compare how a portable dialysis machine can be part of a person’s excretory system.) The rationale is the same as that for identifying the mind with the brain rather than the soul; the mind is whatever performs mental functions. “

These seem to me to give a real basis for some of the intuitions carried by the mystical experience; firstly (per Frankish) that the boundary of the self is extremely “fuzzy” and can be much smaller than the extent of the “mind” or extend much further than the extent of the physical body, and secondly (per Hoffman) the feeling of being part of and connected with something far larger than the self, which something has at least some characteristics of a consciousness (or, if you like, “person”).

I was searching for an analogy to use for this, and thought of my wife (who is currently starting training our one year old german shepherd for working trials) and recalled the BBC television series “One man and his dog”. Watching a well-handled sheepdog herd sheep, the dog becomes very much an extension of the handler, which is two consciousnesses acting as one, despite the fact that the dog (the subservient partner) has a consciousness all of its own. That’s something my wife is currently battling with, as Lutz has a very well developed willfullness all of his own, and she isn’t yet completely attuned to the subtle signals Lutz gives off about his intentions.

Now, I’m sceptical about the validity of Hoffman’s more general claim that, in essence, it’s “consciousness all the way down” and that we should think of the whole of existence as a collection of consciousnesses, or at least proto-consciousnesses. That said, Frankish makes me think about Heidegger’s picture of the man wielding the hammer, in which the hammer becomes in a sense a part of the person wielding it. I would myself be inclined to think that for something to be a consciousness, it would need some sense of self, some feedback loop giving it a concept of what it is in itself. We certainly have that, and frankly I think Lutz does as well, although in his case it isn’t nearly as well developed (if I were asked to guess why, I’d say that it’s because he doesn’t have the same memory retention characteristics as humans do). But in the case of “One man and his dog”, I think we have a clear case of a single consciousness temporarily formed out of two – and it might be possible to stretch and say that the ensemble of man, dog and flock of sheep became a single consciousness for at least short periods.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched that I could write of feeling at one with a consciousness greater than myself of which I am integrally part…

Timings – questioning the panel

After day 1, I was mulling over some of the things said by the speakers, and put together things which Pete Rollins and Rob Bell had said to form a question – which, as it was solidly in Roger Bretherton’s area of expertise, seemed to me like a good question for the last session to put to the whole panel of speakers. As it ended up multi-part and a little long, I took a few moments in breaks to write it down and gave it to Pete on the morning of day 2, thinking that it was only fair not to ambush everyone with it.

As it turned out, Pete talked about it with his fellow speakers (he said it was a pretty decent question), but suspected the organiser wouldn’t want to use it, and he was indeed right. I gather the organiser’s reason given was that he thought he’d mess it up reading it out, but actually the questions he put were just right to wrap up the event, and my question would have opened up new avenues which wouldn’t necessarily have been helpful.

As nearly as I can reconstruct it, but with a little more detail, here’s the question:-

Peter talked about the existential lack at the root of being, which (as a gift) gave us our individuality, and in the process said that people who didn’t feel this separation from “the other” were commonly labelled psychotic.

Rob, on the other hand, talked with conviction about God being present in all places. Now, I’m not sure whether he did this as a result of having a mystical experience of oneness with everything, but it is the kind of thing someone who has had such an experience is guaranteed to say.

Now, I’m a panentheist mystic; I wouldn’t have followed the spiritual path leading to me being at Timings had it not been for an out of the blue peak unitive mystical experience which hit me when I was 14. One powerful feature of unitive mystical experiences, no matter which religious tradition they occur in, is that the boundary between the self and the other weakens or vanishes. (At the time, I was intellectually an evangelical atheist, so it was extremely unexpected and very life-changing.) It was a sufficiently good experience to set me on a path of trying to repeat it. (I’ve tended to say it was “better than sex, drugs and rock & roll”, though that was in hindsight as I hadn’t experienced any of those aged 14).

However, if I take Pete at his word, this means that my initial experience may have been psychotic.

I have in mind here Robert Sapolsky’s Stanford lecture on the evolutionary neurophysiology behind religion. Sapolsky identifies, for instance, Luther as having created his theology out of an obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, several other religious giants as probably having temporal lobe epilepsy and shamans (he thinks shamanism is at the root of many other religious leaders) as having schizotypal personality disorder.

Part 1 of the question, therefore, particularly directed at Pete, is “Are we to believe that all powerful religious experiences are the result of mental disorder?”.

Part 2 is “Does it matter?”

Part 3 is particularly addressed to Rob, and is “I’ve been preaching for years that an unitive mystical experience is something everyone might wish to aspire to – have I been suggesting to them that they should become psychotic or otherwise mentally ill?”

and Part 4 is “Does that matter?”

As it turned out, I was able to have a chat with Roger Bretherton after the last session and ask him his thoughts. He suggested that this kind of “surge” or “flow” experience didn’t completely fit the definition of psychosis. He also mentioned to me an incident where the hypnotist and illusionist Derren Brown had induced an experience in an atheist who afterwards didn’t want to accept that it was not a “true” experience, which I found interesting (I think I’ve found a video of that incident on You Tube, but it’s blocked by Channel 4 in the UK; most of his “atheist conversions” seem to have reverted to atheism later). I’d have liked to do the same with Rob Bell, but I had stretched my elastic to breaking point by that point, and for that reason and because Pete looked as if he was in the same condition (and admitted to me he was) I left discussion with Pete to a promised email exchange later.

My thoughts? Well, as I mentioned, when my first peak experience arrived, I was an evangelical atheist, and it was a severe shock to my system. My first thought was, in fact, that there was something wrong with my brain, and I went to my GP. Apparently at the time there wasn’t (though in a spirit of complete openness, there is now – I have diagnosed PTSD, chronic depression and chronic anxiety, though only the anxiety is really a significant ongoing problem and I manage that fairly reasonably). It didn’t involve any of the other factors which might provoke similar experience, such as drugs, sleeplessness, starvation, oxygen deprivation or electromagnetic stimulation of the brain either. I do not know why it happened when it did.

As I mentioned before, it was a VERY good experience. Clearly dopamine, seratonin or both were involved, because those are how the brain gets to feel really good. I therefore put aside worries about why it happened, and went looking for a repetition by any means which I could find written about as tending to produce mystical experience. If anyone’s faith tradition talked about mystical experience, I tried any techniques they said produced it.

For what it’s worth, the conclusion I eventually came to was that none of these would (at least in me) guarantee a repeat, but some of them looked as if they increased the likelihood of a peak experience and definitely were conducive to lower level experience (which I’ve tended to describe as an “edge” of full mystical experience) but which was sufficient for maintenance purposes. Sometimes there would be something a lot stronger, and that was good, but you couldn’t go round in a peak experience all the time, as you’d be non-functional for almost any other purpose. Being a fundamentally lazy individual, I hit on a set of low level practices which did this job without taking up too much time or energy, and didn’t involve anything illegal or dangerous.

Courtesy of The Religion Forum, I’ve been able to go through the various physiological symptoms and the circumstances with a friend, George Ashley (another psychology professor, now sadly deceased) in detail; George was an out and out atheist and was pretty certain there must be some mental abnormality there, but he couldn’t put his finger on it – he finally put it down to “a brain fart”, bless him. Another friend from there, Mel Bain, remarked to me that it sounded as if it was addictive – it sounded, he wrote, as if I was “Jonesing” for another “fix” of it – and I took that on board; it is definitely that.

Does it matter what caused it, then? I don’t think so. I have in mind Karen Armstrong, who found that her own peak experiences were the result of temporal lobe epilepsy and went through a period of atheism as a result; she however eventually seems to have concluded that the origin of the experience didn’t matter, and is now what she describes as a “freelance monotheist”; she has a fairly serious mystical streak to some of her writing. I have in mind several people with bipolar disorder, some of them famous (like Stephen Fry and Robin Williams), some of them people I’ve come to know well (which category doesn’t include famous people). Many of them value their manic phases so highly (despite knowing they’re part of a mental illness) that they won’t take drugs which would prevent them, and in some of those cases (Fry and Williams) the world would be a poorer place without their manic genius. But, of course, it eventually killed Robin Williams… I had my own taste of mania for 12 days three years ago when my depression lifted, and I can understand their attitude – it was an incredibly creative and productive time for me. But I wouldn’t have wanted it to go on much longer, I’d have burned out. I think of Van Gogh, as well, who probably painted his amazing works out of schizophrenia. Clearly, some mental conditions labelled as illnesses can produce remarkable things – and, indeed, as Sapolsky says, the people of a village he mentions are very glad that they have one schizotypal shaman – though they wouldn’t want a second one.

The second “does it matter?” is maybe more of a worry. I’ve rhapsodised about peak mystical experience for nearly 50 years now, and the thought that this may only be available through what is viewed as mental abnormality does concern me. Certainly all the experimentation and discussion with other mystics I’ve done over the years inclines me to think that at least the most intense forms of unitive experience are only felt by relatively few people, though many more describe experiences which I think might be taken as a base, worked on through various practices and perhaps might become more intense as a result.

But do I want to encourage others to go down that road? Initially I most definitely did – it was a supremely good experience, and I wanted others to have that. It had a lot of pluses from my point of view. It made me, for instance, a much nicer human being (it’s hard not to think of others when the border between what is you and what is them is blurred or nonexistent, and massively increased empathy is a typical result). It makes it pretty near impossible to feel an existential lack of “the other”; it strongly tends to stop one being at all worried by the thought of death. It also gave me a peculiar certainty- not intellectual certainty (I am still baffled by that-which-is-God) but emotional/spiritual certainty. I used to write sometimes that I didn’t need to believe in God, I experienced God.

A concern was that it might be that not everyone could have such a peak experience, even with a lot of work, and I started early on warning that nothing seemed to guarantee a peak experience – certainly, I never found a way of guaranteeing one in myself, merely guaranteeing an “edge” experience. Some of the well attested routes are illegal where I live (many drugs, for instance); some are physically dangerous.

Mel Bain’s comment also concerned me – yes, I found these experiences addictive, and that led me to warn against that aspect as well.

However, there is another potential downside which has concerned me more since my long period of depressive illness (which happily seems at the least to be in remission, albeit medicated, since 2013), and that is that this is something which messes with your psychology, and any amateur messing with psychology is potentially dangerous. I’ve interpreted that depressive illness as at least partly my “dark night of the soul”, which several mystics have identified as a normal part of a mystic’s journey. However, it was also most definitely mental illness, and it nearly killed me, several times; I also spent some years (10 or so) frankly despairing of it ever being over, and I’m not sure there was ever any guarantee it would be.

That is not an experience I feel I can in conscience encourage others to go through. It also leads me to warn that going seriously down the contemplative mystical path can lead to mental illness and possibly death. Pete’s warning about psychosis only feeds a little into that – depression is quite bad enough!

It might have been easier to deal with, less dangerous and more certain of coming to an end had I identified it as a “dark night” and had I had a spiritual director (rather than or in addition to psychiatrists and psychologists) at the time; that is perhaps the only saving aspect – but from my own experience it is only a possibility.

So I have to say that the mystical path comes with a pretty severe health warning.

However, so does any other technique which tends to produce radical psychological changes in people, including (unfortunately) the standard Evangelical “pray the sinners’ prayer and give your heart to Jesus” model, particularly if you also experience the “slain in the spirit” phenomenon. There are a lot of cases of people scarred by past experience of the Evangelical mould of conversion and its follow-on (which I tend to criticise all the more because, to my mind, it seriously fails to deal adequately with spiritual growth after the initial conversion). There are some theologies, as well, which are particularly conducive to producing or worsening anxiety disorders or which at the least exacerbate obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Radical psychological change, it seems, comes with radical dangers.


I would mention that one result of the “beneficial” aspects of the unitive experience is that I find it difficult to engage with some of Pete’s work other than on a purely intellectual level, because he regards the existential lack as fundamental, and the fear of death as not much less so – and I don’t really feel those.


Timings at Lincoln – pushing boundaries

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!

Roman Catholic (and other) terrorists?

George Takei (always good value to follow) has posted a photo of a letter to the editor from an Australian newspaper. It’s a really good letter, calling attention as it does to the fact that when the Provisional IRA were waging a terror campaign against the United Kingdom, no-one in Australia (or the world generally) referred to them as “Roman Catholic terrorists” and no-one suggested that Roman Catholics should be denied entry to Australia, despite the fact that the Provisional IRA were acting, in their eyes, for the Roman Catholic population of Northern Ireland and were mostly Catholics.

It’s probably worth mentioning that this applied equally in the remainder of the UK – we didn’t call them Catholic Terrorists, we didn’t ban Catholics from entering the country. The situation was, however, a little different in Northern Ireland itself, where notable members of the Unionist parties typically saw the IRA as the minions of the Pope, who was (as they were largely fairly fundamentalist Protestants) the Antichrist. The Unionist side had their own paramilitary organisations (such as the UVF and the UDA) which equally used terrorist tactics – and the rest of the UK and the world in general didn’t call them Protestant Terrorists either.

This might be considered surprising, as the Unionist attitude was very much what had been the English (and therefore largely the British) attitude generally after Henry VIII decided to nationalise the English possessions of the Catholic Church and the Pope excommunicated him, and he and several subsequent Popes adhered to the line that the duty of all good Catholics was to work to bring about the downfall of England as a nation. In 1605, this extended to the earliest political bomb plot I can think of, in which the catholic convert Guy Fawkes and others attempted unsuccessfully to blow up parliament and with it King James I, not in response to a specific papal order, but definitely in response to repeated papal pronouncements. It took a long time before Catholics were regarded as anything other than probable agents of a foreign power and probable terrorists in England, not just by the state but also by the population at large, involving a lot of barbaric persecution in the early period and causing riots as late as 1780. Some of that popular feeling was actually still present when I was growing up; Catholics were regarded as slightly suspect. However, there wasn’t a widespread identification of the “Troubles” as being the fault of Catholics generally, and certainly Catholics in general were not blamed for any of the actions of the IRA, though for some years we were wary of people with Irish accents. Except by the Northern Ireland Unionists…

Many UK commentators are at pains to paint the Troubles as not a religious conflict but a struggle for national self-determination, but I think they go too far downplaying the religious aspect, not least because religion was fundamental in creating the divided population in the first place. Certainly there were by the 1960s two communities in Northern Ireland, one which saw its identity as part of an united Ireland and the other seeing its identity as part of an unified Great Britain, but that was only one aspect of the respective identities, and another (and very strong) aspect was religion. If you were Catholic, you were almost certainly in favour of an united Ireland, if you were Protestant you were almost certainly in favour of an united UK including Northern Ireland. The touchstone for that identity was religion, and an English rabbi tells of going to Northern Ireland and being asked almost immediately whether he was Catholic or Protestant. He replied that he was Jewish; there was a pause, then came the question “But are you a Catholic Jew or a Protestant Jew?” The same story has been told to me by more than one atheist, which might lead one to conclude that it’s just a pointed joke which changes its non-christian teller depending on circumstance, but even if it is a fiction, it’s a very true fiction. To anyone who lived through that period (and, indeed, probably the current-day visitor to Northern Ireland) it rings true; that is exactly what the first question of anyone usually was.

In other words, while the conflict might well have been primarily a national and/or ethnic one, religion was so fundamentally part of both national and ethnic identities that it was also a religious conflict. In the secularised West, we are inclined to overlook the fact that for the vast bulk of history and for the vast bulk of humanity now, religion is a fundamental part of their ethnic or national identity – and as the version of the story told by the atheist indicates, this is irrespective of whether you actually believe in the tenets of the faith in question. To anyone with this outlook, the question “are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” doesn’t sound in the slightest bizarre. There is just no third category in Northern Ireland, and there is no third category for most of humanity outside the Western secular democracies today.

Indeed, I can clearly identify, say, Richard Dawkins as a Christian atheist, in that his atheistic thinking is in direct reaction to Christian concepts, not to mention the fact that his upbringing was in a country steeped in Christianity for approaching 2000 years, and while having a surface tone not inimical to atheists, having extremely strong undercurrents of thought which are just – well – Christian. This article is at least partly on point.

I’m inclined to think that it’s pointless asking whether religion co-opted into the service of nationalism or nationalism co-opted into the service of religion is at the root of phenomena like terrorism (and its counterparts state tyranny and national xenophobia). The two are generally such close bedfellows that separating them is impossible. What I do take from this is that states, peoples and religions which feel existentially threatened (as was the case with England, both Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout England and Ireland and in Northern Ireland much more recently than that, and is currently the case with some Islamic peoples, nations and groups on the one hand and several Western nations including the UK and US on the other) will react with extreme violence to protect themselves.

Talking with the demons

A version of this post has appeared on the Energion Discussion Network.

A post from Patheos recently talked about exorcism in the New Testament from the point of view that these days we consider those who would have once been called “possessed” to be suffering from mental illness. Meanwhile, I notice that the inimitable Richard Beck will soon be releasing his next book “Reviving Old Scratch” (by which I assume he means Satan).

These illustrate two attitudes I tend to see among Christians styling themselves “progressive” or “liberal”; the first is that references to demons or to Satan have to represent purely psychological matters. There’s certainly some merit in that; a psychologist friend of mine talks about going on retreat as “going to sit down and talk to her demons”. However, the second reflects something with a wider application (as ultimately only I can sit down and talk to my personal psychological demons), and which I increasingly see in progressive or liberal writers, namely a willingness to take “principalities, powers and rulers” seriously.

In doing so, most are drawing on the work of Walter Wink in the remarkable “Powers” trilogy (or in his precis “The Powers that Be”). As Wink states “Every business corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team — indeed, social reality in all its forms — is a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual.”  He most definitely includes in this all ideologies, political and economic, and of course, via “denomination”, religious ideologies. They can be named, unmasked and engaged (to use the titles of the three volumes of the trilogy). All, in Wink’s view, can be viewed as “fallen” entities, thus at the same time being demonic and angelic, and being capable of salvation.

But they are definitely something which can, in a sense “possess” us, in that we uncritically devote ourselves to them, whether they be country, political party, economic viewpoint or merely our family (and if you don’t see how that can be a demonic or at least fallen power, watch the Godfather trilogy sometime).

Just as we all (I suspect) have our personal demons, we all (or at least a substantial majority of us) fall often into “possession” by one or more of these ideologies, or spirits; we can therefore, with caution, attempt to engage the spirits of those around us, individual or group, though in doing this it might be best if we have first engaged those possessing ourselves.

I am, for instance, currently seeing a fair proportion of my facebook feed currently possessed by spirits called “Republican” or “Democrat” or “Europe” or “Brexit” (British Exit). I’m on more solid ground with the first two, as they’re distinctively American spirits (though attacks on Sanders seem to engage a bit of that “knee jerk” reaction which I find is a good indication of a possessing spirit; in his case, I think, “anticapitalism” is the spirit in question); I’m on less solid ground with the UK ones, as I find I’m terrified of the possible consequences of leaving the EU, and that’s another telltale – if there are two opposing camps and you’re terrified of one, you may be too much in thrall to the other.

I say “attempt to engage with caution”, because we have just celebrated Easter, and Good Friday occurred first and foremost because Jesus engaged some of the Powers of his day, notably the imperial Roman Empire and the Temple insiders who allowed their own Power to ally itself to Rome. We may well find that in engaging some of the Powers of today, that we have, with Christ, picked up our cross.

America and guns: go to rehab.

Dear America,

I find I am again horrified at an episode of mass violence using firearms in the USA, and my prayers go out to those who have been injured or who are mourning family or friends.

The trouble is that word “again”. It seems to be happening every week or so. Surely, by now, the mood must be “enough is enough; we have to do something about this”? Look, we are not all that different from people in the States over here, and I can recall three instances of mass shootings, in 1987 (Hungerford), 1996 (Dunblane) and 2010 (Cumbria). Two of those also involved schools, which I think gives the lie to the idea that the phenomenon in the States targets schools because they tend to be gun free zones. The Hungerford and Dunblane shooters could have chosen almost anywhere with confidence that it would be gun-free, but chose schools anyhow.

Yes, I know we have a significantly smaller population, about a sixth of that in the States. This might mean that we might have expected instead of three shootings in 28 years, about 18 if we had had an equal population.

Not one a week, as it seems is the case with you at present.

“But”, I hear, “We’re a very different country”. I’m not all that convinced by this argument. Certainly there’s a far larger population of people not of British origin which you’ve accumulated over the last 250 years, but we share a language and, frankly, a large amount of our culture (as US domination of English speaking media is huge), and, of course, the bases of our legal systems.

Now, there’s the rub, potentially. We don’t have a written constitution, at least not one which can supersede legislation and see it struck down (we do have a constitution of sorts, but it’s partly in legislation no more protected than any other legislation and partly in longstanding custom – and most of that longstanding custom we exported along with the early settlers).

This article highlights the problem, the Second Amendment. For anyone reading this who does not have it burned into their consciousness already, it reads “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

The article I link to quite reasonably asks what contribution is being made to the establishment or maintenance of a “well regulated militia” by the current state of US law, which allows more or less any individual to own a gun, and often to carry it around in public, sometimes even concealed. As far as I can see, there are no militias (except a few self-described groups on the extreme lunatic fringe, many of whom also deny being citizens), let alone well regulated ones.

I could readily have seen, on the basis of the strict wording of the amendment, the limitation of possession of all firearms to people who were members in good standing of a formally constituted militia, with (inter alia) rules as to the abilities of those allowed to bear arms, their character and stability, and their conduct while in that position. This would be a situation rather analagous to that in Switzerland, in which all men (at least for the moment, just men) are called up, do national service and are then members of the reserve – and they hold weapons, which can be denied them for good cause (see the previous sentence). The authors of that article don’t go quite that far. Unfortunately, they probably also underestimate the power of the Supreme Court decision in DC -v- Heller.

Now, I know that a future Supreme Court could in theory overturn this. However, Supreme Courts have been historically reluctant to go entirely against stated previous decisions of the same court, usually looking to distinguish the situation in front of them so that the previous decision can at least arguably still be regarded as correct. That decision includes the words “The Amendment’s prefatory clause announces a purpose, but does not limit or expand the scope of the second part, the operative clause. The operative clause’s text and history demonstrate that it connotes an individual right to keep and bear arms.” This could well be fatal to any future argument that only the possession of arms in furtherance of membership of a militia (and a well-regulated one at that) should be protected.

The court decision also includes the words “The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense.”  This, of course, completely negates any suggestion that the class of people (as long as they are male and physically capable) cannot be restricted – even, it would seem, by the requirement that the militia be “well regulated”, something which the court seems to have conveniently forgotten. They also stated  “But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home. ” This was to justify their decision that in particular handguns, possession of which had previously been prohibited in certain circumstances, were legitimate weapons of self defence, giving it a plausible link back to the first (militia) clause of the amendment.

There were a few positive elements – the court was at pains to state that the decision did not permit machine guns, and I think that can colourably be made to include all automatic and semi-automatic weapons (being new weapons not available at the time the amendment was drafted). As did the UK government after Hungerford, I think an immediate blanket ban on the private possession of these is probably not within the Heller decision.

However, it is also interesting to note the Court’s interpretation of “militia” as being all able bodied men. Actually, this was not the way a militia was constituted in the 18th century, either in the fledgling USA (except very briefly immediately prior to the introduction of the amendment) or in the British law previously in force. Militias were volunteer organisations raised by and led by prominent local men; they were entirely capable of (and did) exclude men they did not think of as of good character, and they were organised and had rules – which is what I am confident those drafting the amendment had in mind by using the words “well regulated”. While yes, they did welcome people bringing their own weapons where they had weapons which would be of use in a military action, these were in general not handguns, which were not particularly useful in the kind of military engagement of the day.

The preservation of (as the court saw it) a right of self defence. Much consideration seems to have been given to the English Bill of Rights of 1689, which was seen as restoring the right of Protestants to bear arms inter alia for their own defence which had been taken away by James II, crucially while allowing Catholics to remain armed. Throughout the history of interpretation of this in England, it has stressed  the wording in the Bill of Rights “That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law.” Note the words “as allowed by law”, which were consistently considered to allow government to restrict the possession and use of arms by individuals and groups which it considered inimical to good order, and also the words “suitable to their conditions”, which was code for “It’s fine for the aristocracy and landed gentry, but you’re in trouble if you’re a peasant”.

Of course, in the UK, Parliament is never bound by any previous Act of Parliament, and the “right” to bear arms has been reduced by stages, particularly following Hungerford and Dunblane, to a very restricted one; non-automatic rifles and shotguns for sporting use only, kept under secure lock and key and owned only by those who get a licence, which is not all that readily come by for anyone not owning significant land; handguns only in licensed gun clubs. That is where a right to bear arms “as allowed by law” has ended up in the UK…

So, while a new Supreme Court might not want to overturn the previous court’s statement of law, it seems to me that they might determine that the court in DC -v- Heller misdirected itself on the facts. Militias were not what they thought they were, and neither was the pre-existing right to bear arms independent of restriction by law. The lack of any mention of “well regulated” is also something which could lead to a finding of self-misdirection, it seems to me.

I do not really see good reason why the USA should not aim at moving towards a similar level of restriction to ours, but a first step would, I think, be an immediate ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Australia has, after all, managed a similar transition, and they too are a recovering frontier nation… This might be possible with a more liberal minded Supreme Court, it might require another amendment to the Constitution – but amendments have been passed before this with rather less concrete evidence of continuing harm to the population. Amendments have been passed removing earlier bad amendments. Don’t tell me this could never happen with the Second Amendment; it hasn’t been tried yet.

An immediate response to this tends to be “this would remove the guns from all the law abiding citizens and leave the criminals free to use them at will”. This is, of course, true, but it is the situation in England (and many other countries), and by and large English criminals do not use guns. The reason is that the penalties for possession and use of a gun are far greater than those for crimes committed without these, and on the whole, our criminals are not completely stupid. That may, of course, not work in the States, given that the penalties for relatively trivial offences (particularly connected with drugs) are draconian – but a revision of US sentencing policy would be no bad thing for a number of other reasons, not least to provide a perceptible difference in tariff. I can also see the thinking running “I’m going to get locked up for life for possession of this kilo of drugs anyhow, so I may as well be armed and shoot a few people to try to avoid capture, because it won’t make any difference”.

I also see very little evidence that an armed citizenry provides any sensible deterrent to criminals. Indeed this article outlines some recent research which demonstrates that more guns means more crime, not less, among other things. This one undermines the unscientific survey which is commonly used as an argument that guns prevent large amounts of crime. It also focuses a little on the number of accidents which occur, often fatally, due to guns in homes.

Just in passing, please don’t way “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Weapons of mass destruction don’t kill people, people using weapons of mass destruction kill people, but we can still get very upset at the concept of mere possession of such weapons. Unless it’s by us, of course. The thing is, the term “mass destruction” highlights the problem – they let you kill a whole load of people more easily.

So do guns.

They also let you kill people at a distance, removing some of the visceral revulsion which most of us feel about killing hand to hand.

So do guns.

Similarly, don’t tell me this is just a mental health problem, unless you’re going to explain to me why people in the States are so much crazier than those anywhere else. Yes, substantial good can be done by a mental health system which identifies threats and acts to manage at risk people, but as that article comments, the mentally ill aren’t a significantly greater threat than the notionally normal (and around one in four will at some point suffer some form of mental illness from depression upward); as it also highlights, if you have someone with this kind of mindset, guns let them do a lot more damage.

Well, there may be an answer or two. Firstly, the version of US culture peddled by TV and movies is a very violent one, in which by and large problems are solved by violence. You can watch whole series of an UK police procedural and never see anyone getting shot; the same cannot be said for the US equivalent, one of which (Chicago PD) is advertised here with the phrase “They have the right to remain violent”. There would seem to be an addiction to what Rene Girard called “the myth of redemptive violence”. This is an “eye for an eye” world at the very least (often glorifying more than just equivalent violence). Girard suggested that a prominent understanding of the crucifixion should be the rejection by God of all such concepts; Jesus is “the last scapegoat”, and no more should be contemplated. Addictions can be treated; I might suggest a communal twelve step programme starting “we are powerless over violence and our lives have become unmanageable”.

Secondly, and connected to that, the States is the one place I know of where the term “gun nut” is of widespread application. Let’s face it, that’s where the term comes from. An Australian comedian has recently commented, rightly I think, that the true reason why gun control is resisted boils down to “F*** off, I like guns”. Why is this? It seems somehow bound up in ideas of masculinity and power; almost all the mass shootings seem to be by men who feel disempowered, and it would seem that guns make them feel powerful again.

I am no more sympathetic to people who want to wave their penis substitutes around in public than I am to those who want to do the same with the real thing.

Both categories should, in my view, be locked up and given intensive therapy until cured. Let’s face it, that’s the attitude we take to someone who says “F*** off, I like crystal meth”.

Consider the path to gun control as the path to rehabilitation, preferably starting with an extended detox. Until that happens, yes, you’re communally addicts, and that is indeed a form of mental illness.

OCD, TLE and Schizo theologians…

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.


A religion for the extrovert?

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…